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Chapter I: Awakening

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
The primeval Lords have fallen.

The new Gods are powerless to stave off the Empire's collapse.

Amidst a wave of devastating portal storms, and with barbarian invaders threatening to turn its ancient lands into ash, a Charmeleon with no recollection of his past is hurled into a scheme far greater than he could ever imagine.

rebirth_commission_final_by_mokkaquill_d8wdb0u-pre.jpg

Rating: M

Warnings: Rated M for swearing, violence, blood, light gore, on-screen death, suggestive language, and dark tones.



Chapter I: Awakening


"The slumber of reason generates monsters."

-Francisco Goya


"It's useless. We lost them."

Two blurry figures made their way through the vast expanse of white that was the Spearhead Mountain Range. The snow crunched under their feet as they walked. A brief gust of frigid wind accompanied his words of truth, but they went unnoticed by his companion.

"Alice, you know just as well as I do that they've reached the Wasteland by now. It's not worth the risk."

His companion kept striding forward, her eyes briefly meeting the ground in thought.

"But ... we can't give up. They have to be around here somewhere."

The Grovyle looked around them. Towering, snow-covered mountains surrounded them, keeping the world under a perennial veil of white. The chances of her statement being true were slim at best. Why did she insist when the danger was so painfully obvious?

"Why won't you understand? I told you already, it's no use! The portal storm covered their escape. We have to go back!" he growled, his voice carrying a considerable amount of urgency this time. Her childish denial would eventually get them killed if he didn't start doing something about it.

For the first time during their entire trip, the Dragonair stopped in her tracks. She turned her head around, looking him directly in the eye.

"Gaius, do you honestly think they'll take the news lightly? If we go back like this, we're done for."

He stopped for a second. She was right. Their failure would not go unnoticed.

"Look, I'll think of something, ok? If we don't turn around now, the—"

He was unable to finish his sentence, as the whole world seemed to shake under them. A deafening roar, accompanied by the rumble of distant avalanches, encompassed the entire valley, bouncing off the mountains and at the two pokémon like a gnarling hound. The storm was coming. They could feel it in their guts.

"W-what? Again? It can't be..." Alice stammered, looking at the sky above as if a meteorite was hurling towards them.

"You...!" he hissed, his claws curling into fists, "I knew this would happen! We have to move, there's bound to be shelter somewhere around here!"


...

What...

...

What is...

...

No...

...

Cold...



He felt cold.

Above the widespread numbness that ruled over his body, above the excruciating pain throbbing from his head, above all other sensations flowing in and around his body like a chaotic river, he felt cold. That was the only certainty he could hold on to.

With a strenuous gasp, he awoke abruptly. Thawing from their state of disuse, his nerves began reactivating. Slowly but surely, one by one, sending proper impulses through his body and to his skull, restoring life to his withering consciousness. Suddenly, he could feel himself, his arms sprawled out haphazardly, his tail crushed beneath his weight, the tiny ice shards stabbing at his windpipe's fleshy walls at every breath he drew.

"G-G—... N-n ... no—!" he wheezed, his vocal cords cutting out suddenly.

The Charmeleon instinctively tried to bring a paw to his burning throat, but a sudden pain jolting through his arm kept it locked in place. His breathing was ragged and heavy as his mind scrambled to maintain a steady rhythm, trying to think of something, anything to stand against the nausea choking his throat.

Something was wrong. He shouldn't have been feeling this cold. Why was he so cold?

His efforts were soon rendered futile when he broke into a violent coughing fit. Muscles spasmed and twinged as he arched his back against whatever surface was beneath him. Ignoring the pain, his paw immediately clasped around his own neck. Although the external pressure on his trachea didn't really help him while on the verge of spilling his stomach's contents—if anything it accentuated the problem—it was a good enough placebo for his stomach to slowly quell its turmoil.

Only when the entire process stopped, did his foggy mind find enough grip on reality to realise that he had no idea what was going on. He could vaguely feel his back pressed against an icy surface, riding up and down the storm that was brewing inside his head.

"N-no ... asce— ... nsion..." he croaked in between pants. He threw his limp arm up, claws spasming ever so slightly as if trying to grasp an imaginary hand that would hoist him up, hug him dearly and reassure him that everything would be ok, that he wouldn't be cold any longer. He could hear his voice echo both around him and inside his head, sensation gradually returning to his broken body. That last word came out of his mouth without him even realising it. Where had he heard it before?

His eyes shot open, but immediately shut again when the freezing air that hung around threatened to freeze their weakened tissues solid. When he dared to open them again, all he could see was stone. Dull, featureless stone. He was in some sort of cavern. His muffled ears could just make out some dripping originating from somewhere around him, but other than that, nothing.

"Ugh... W-w-what...? Where...?" he coughed out roughly, questions invading his mind all at once like a ravenous flood. Cold sweat iced his back, and his heart was hammering. Where was he? What was happening to him? Was he dying?

The possibility of that alone called to arms a sense of urgency in his body, that desperate need to assess the situation at hand and figure out exactly what on earth was going on.

Slowly, he tried lifting himself up with his stiff arms, hissing at the immane strength it took him to carry out such a trivial task. Though his efforts were ultimately futile, as mere seconds later he fell back down with a grunt, his resolve to get up on his feet fading away along with the last remnants of energy in his muscles. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek.

How—? What is—?, he struggled to even think, N-no. Calm down. Let's take one thing at a time. First, how did I get here?

He desperately tried to grasp for any memories of how he could have ended up in this hostile place. Much to his horror, he could only come at a blank. Blinking, he tried again, closing his eyes and trying to recall any recent event that had happened to him—he must have not tried hard enough, he thought. Once again, nothing. His entire body felt strange, almost hollow, but as the same time just as real as the sense of panic rising in his chest.

Determined to look further into what was causing him to feel so rot—and perhaps to try and find a speck of a logical explanation amongst the madness, he flipped himself on his back and raised his head to look down at himself. Even through his blurry eyes, it didn't take very long for him to notice that something was very wrong with his tail. Although he didn't have a visual memory of how it supposed to be, it was a fact deeply embedded in his primal instincts—there should have been a flame sparkling there.

My fire ... What's wrong with me? How did this happen?

No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts were swirling around too ferociously; he failed to grasp anything. His memories seemed to escape him the more he went looking for them. Where he was, how he got there, nothing. He could have been born in the world right then and there, and he never would have known. His head was utterly empty.

"No... Oh god, no..." he whispered hoarsely, pressing his head against the hard floor, perhaps hoping in the back of his mind that it would somehow help him understand what was happening.

No! It—it can't be! This isn't possible ... Why can't I remember...? He grumbled mentally as his claws clutched the sides of his skull tightly, trying to squeeze the memories out of him. It was impossible. He refused to believe that he knew nothing. There had to be something he could remember.

Focus! Need ... to... A small whine escaped his throat, his instincts screaming in fear at the prospect of being ignorant. Something wasn't right. His head felt empty. It wasn't supposed to feel that way.

No! Let's start with the little things. My name is ... my name... his heart ceased beating for a second. It was as if time itself froze around him. He didn't know. He couldn't even remember his own name. For all he knew, he had no name. He was just the result of some sick joke. He was no one.

"N-no ... No. NO!" he shouted, squeezing his eyelids tighter, "I c-can't ... can't ... Why?"

This—this is all just a bad dream ... maybe I'll wake up soon, and everything will be alright, However, just as he was about to give in to that strange craving to just lay down, arms around his knees, and give himself up to the protective blanket of unconsciousness, something came up. "I'm sorry."

He almost jumped in delight at finding those two oh-so sweet words buried somewhere beneath the mess that was his mind. Somehow finding the strength to will himself in a sitting position, hope was starting to creep its way back into the realm of existance. He once again looked around himself, almost as a confirmation that there was no evil presence playing tricks on him, his eyes still blurry from sheer fatigue.

He leaned his back forward and shuffled his lower body to try and make himself as comfortable as possible against the cold rock.

Okay. Everything's going to be okay. I just need to think, he repeated himself with a deep breath. When his turbulent mind eventually settled down for a moment, just enough for him to make sense of its own contents, he shut his eyes in concentration before resting his chin lightly on his paw and diving back into the unknown abyss.

Memories. They came up, just as slowly as the rate at which he managed to stumble across them. For a moment, his focus wavered, his arms trembled from the freezing temperature around him, but he quickly regained his mental footing and delved deeper. He wanted to remember. He needed to remember.

There were fragments, scattered all over the deepest recesses of his consciousness, mostly a jumbled mess of information, but they were there. Slowly but surely, they began making a little more sense as he attempted to restore a chronological order. Pleads of mercy, a deafening roar, frightened screams, someone saying "I'm sorry", the feeling of air rushing past his scales; and there was also the cold eating him alive, that withering, merciless hand which slowly turned him into a part of the ice itself—

He broke out of his trance as soon as he realised his newly-formed fantasies were outnumbering the actual contents of his mind, only to find his body quivering madly, a numbing sensation attacking his nerve endings on all fronts. Even his breaths were trembling as he attempted to hug himself tightly, squeezing every ounce of warmth he could gather onto his needy body. It made no difference at all.

The calm that he had managed to instill into his body quickly evaporated into nothingness. He had convinced himself that he'd find the answer to his dilemma buried somewhere beneath the folds of his psyche, but those insignificant fragments were everything he could come up with. They didn't even provide him with any useful information to hint at what chain of events could have ended him up in such a horrible situation, if anything only spawned more questions. And to make matters worse, he was grimly aware of the fact that no matter how hard he tried to remember, that was as far as he'd ever be able to go, at least in the state he was currently in.

He knew nothing, and it scared him.

Suddenly, he was on his feet. He blinked to get the layer of frost out of his eyes, then blinked again to make sure.

With his arms still glued to his body protectively, he hesitantly put one foot forward. He stopped for a second. He wasn't sure why he was doing this, whether it was to seek refuge from the cold or it had something to do with his current mental situation. Maybe he was acting on the basis of some distant, irrational hope that just by wandering in the dark aimlessly his memories would suddenly come back to him, out of nowhere, offered on a silver platter – he was much more likely to knock his head against a wall. That would be sure to wake him up from this fever dream of his. But then again, he couldn't be sure of anything right now.

The Charmeleon, his mind still coping with the lack of a name to call his own, began doing just that: wandering aimlessly. His legs struggled to drag themselves across the cavern's icy pavement as he limped his way further into the dark corridor he was in. He kept his head hung low, didn't look forward, there was no need to.

"Okay ... going ... to be okay..." he mumbled to himself as he rubbed his arms together in his self-embrace for comfort. The waves of pain that shot through his legs every time his feet touched the ground were becoming unbearable. He wouldn't make it very far if he continued like this.

Eventually, he stopped in his tracks, leaning against the cavern wall to pant the exhaustion out of his system.

A couple of seconds later his legs gave out from under him and left him tumbling to the ground, barely able to catch himself with his arms. Another wave of nausea washed over him, his eyes squeezing shut in response and his features grimacing. No ... have to ... get out of the cold...

Raising his head to take another sweeping look at his surroundings, he saw nothing but stone, dimly lit stone passageways that branched out in seemingly random directions. However just as he was about to dismiss it, one corridor in particular caught his attention. He squinted his eyes to see past the blurriness that blinded his vision.

Right there, at the far end of the passageway, he could see a faint light dancing upon the walls. A type of light which he somehow knew at heart, as if he'd lived with its glare his entire life.

Fire!

His eyes lit up with joy. All the aches and pains deeply embedded in his legs suddenly vanished as he bolted to his feet and broke into a mad dash in a fraction of a second. The grim thoughts of freezing to death were suddenly replaced with a yearning to stand close to that fire, to embrace its heat, to feel alive again. To remember.

However, just as he was about to enter the room which housed his saving grace, two figures stood in his way, looking straight at him with wide eyes.

"What the— Who—?"

His sprint was interrupted so abruptly that he fell flat on his behind, earning more complaints from his crushed tail. Shooting upright, he dug his claws into the ground behind him and jerked his head back, attempting to react to the possible threat that befell him. His eyes, blinded by the sudden change in lighting intensity, could just make out the two figures, one made of different shades of green and one a deep blue hue, standing close to the fire.

"Stop right there! Identify yourself!" the green figure shouted, dropping into a menacing stance.

But his commands only resulted in his heartbeat fluttering wildly, as he frantically tried to claw his way backwards.

The green creature stepped forward. "I said don't move an inch!"

His back soon met the cavern's wall, and he could only stare as the green figure advanced towards him.

"N-no! Get ... away—!" his shaky voice suddenly cut. Right then, a strange feeling of heat came from his stomach, begging him to expell it if he wanted to escape with his life.

"No, Gaius, you don't have to—" the blue figure tried to argue as the green one raised its arm up high.

The Charmeleon tried to comply with the strange instinctual feeling brewing in his stomach, but only succeded in getting it caught up in his throat. Wide-eyed, his claws scrambled to his neck to try and stop the literal fire that was trapped there, to which his body reacted via a brutal coughing fit. Though the jets of fire that he involuntarily spat that way must have been considered an act of aggression, as the green figure suddenly sprung forward.

The last thing he felt was a blow to the side of his head, before his body was slammed against the cold stone floor and his consciousness descended back into the abyss.


He wasn't sure when he woke up, or whether he was in some sort of trance-like state, but one thing was certain: he felt warm.

The joyful crackling of a live fire welcomed him back into the real world. Sensations of much-needed warmth spread all over his body, thawing his nerves out of their state of perennial numbness and easing the tension out of his muscles.

He allowed a smile to form on his face, perfectly content with simply basking in his newfound comfort. However, there was one anomaly in this realm of apparent calm: a sharp object being pressed against his neck.

"Wake up," A voice above him spoke, its cold, commanding tone leaving no doubt in his mind. That wasn't an invite. It was an order.

When his eyes flickered open, they were met with the unfriendly face of some sort of green lizard glaring down at him, the leaf-like blade that protruded out of its arm ready to slice his head clean off his body.

"What's your name?" the Grovyle asked, unmovable in its hateful glare.

Jumbled, incoherent noises were all he managed to spew out, as his muscles suddenly locked in place in an attempt not to inadvertedly press his throat against the treacherous leaf-like dagger.

"Where are you from?"

"Huh? ... W-w-wha?" Apparently his answer wasn't good enough, as the blade pressed tighter against his neck. He gulped when he felt warm drops of blood running down his neck to his chest, which only resulted in his entire body shuddering in fright.

"You heard me. Answer."

His arms and legs began flailing erratically without his consent, as if trying to wriggle free of their trap. Just as he was about to give in to blind panic and scream to the heavens for help, a scorning, elegant feminine voice came from behind the Grovyle.

"Gaius, what are you doing? You're not going to get anything out of him like that. Don't you see he's just scared?"

After a long, drawn-out sigh, the Grovyle removed his leaf blade from the Charmeleon's throat and turned to face the dissenter.

"What now, you've started pitying them all of a sudden?" Gaius sneered, " I'm pretty sure that was you who almost got us killed because of them not too long ago."

The fire lizard leaned his head to the side to sneak a curious glance at the new arrival. His eyes were greeted to the sight of a long, serpentine creature with sky blue scales and a white underside coiled up on the other side of the pyre. Her head was adorned by two white, angel-like wings, while round, deep blue orbs were located under her snout and near the tip of her tail respectively.

"I can tell if someone's Scum from their face, and he's not one of them. Leave him alone," the Dragonair said, her eyes narrowed at the Grovyle.

"Fine," Gaius waved her off, "Whatever. Do with him as you please, I don't even care anymore. I'll go check on the outside."

The Grovyle proceeded to solemnly walk off into a pitch-black passageway that branched from the room they were in, only stopping briefly to add: "And try not to end up dead by the time I'm back, will you?"

The Dragonair mumbled something along the lines of 'idiot ...', before turning her head around to look at the newcomer.

"At least that's over with," she said, offering him a friendly smile, "How are you feeling?"

His hammering heart had settled down partially by the time the green reptile had left the room, but some uncertainty still lingered in his mind. Pushing himself with his arms, he carefully sat up, eyes locked with the Dragonair. It didn't take long for his brain to notice how his entire body felt different. There was no rotten black feeling churning at his stomach anymore. There was no lightheadedness, no numbness. He felt ... normal.

"Um ... f-fine. Thanks," he stammered, paws automatically rubbing his neck in the spot where his scales had been pierced. It genuinely marvelled him as to how kind she seemed towards him, especially when compared to how her less-than-friendly companion went fairly close to beheading him just a minute prior.

"I'm glad to hear that," she said calmly, slowly lowering her head onto her coils. They just sat there, quietly enjoying the fire's regenerative warmth.

He took the time to better examine the cavern room they were in. The room was quite small in his eyes—not enough to make him feel claustrophobic, but also just barely large enough to move around comfortably. The campfire they were sitting around was located in the very center, fueled by a small bundle of wooden sticks. As they burned, the flames didn't emit any smoke, a detail which struck him as odd at first, but he eventually gave up on trying to figure out. The only other detail that stood out was a seemingly half-full loot sack, which sat carelessly on the ground a short ways from its owner.

After a minute or so of relative quiet, the Charmeleon was half debating with himself whether he should strike up a conversation, when the corner of her eyes peered at him once again.

"You know, you're lucky you ran into us when you did," she stated, eyes studying his body up and down for a second, "You were in a really bad shape. With your tail fire out, I'm surprised hypothermia didn't get you earlier. Thank goodness you're alright now."

"Wait, you... helped me?" he croaked in disbelief. He had to have heard something wrong. There was no way the two of them would care enough to look after a complete stranger, one who just so happened to stumble in their way and pass out.

The Dragonair nodded, before quickly adding "It's no big deal, really. We were simply carrying out our duty. In fact, we didn't even do all that much. Just kept you warm and gave you some Aspear berries to stop that nasty frostbite from spreading. Your tail eventually lit itself back."

Glancing behind him, he grabbed his tail and jerked it in front of him to inspect it. A small, sparkling flame licked away happily at its very tip, dancing in almost perfect syncrony with its bigger brethren. He realized: that was the reason why he felt so normal, so alive!

But with that last thought, an even bigger realization hit him.

An involuntary sigh escaped his mouth as he let his tail slide out of his grasp and return to its idle swaying motion behind his back.

I guess it wasn't a nightmare after all. This is actually happening. I really can't remember anything... he thought grimly, a frown spreading across his face. Hugging his knees, he buried his head in the empty space between them and retreated back in his own thoughts. Though he may have been feeling better physically, his mind was still an utter mess and even the most basic questions about his identity still went unanswered. At the very least, the fire was keeping him warm.

"How ... long have I been out?" he asked quitely after a long pause, his gaze stuck to the glimmering campfire.

"Oh, about an hour or so. Nothing too crazy, I assure you."

Not getting any sort of response from the fire lizard, she finally seemed to have caught onto the hint of uneasiness in his tone.

"Hey..." she frowned, "I'm sorry for Gaius' ... um ... 'behaviour'. I assure you he didn't mean anything by it, that's just how he is. You get used to it eventually."

She slithered her way around the campfire and stopped only when she was seated in the space next to him. Hearing her movements, his head remerged from its position and turned to her just as she spoke.

"Listen, Charmeleon," she explained, "I need to ask you a few things. It won't take long, I promise."

Instinctively, his paw moved to cover his neck, which was still scarred by his previous 'interrogation'. His sign of distrust didn't go unnoticed.

"Don't worry, we're Civil Protection. You can trust us," she reassured, an unspoken nudge for him to continue. He didn't know exactly what this 'Civil Protection' was, but a small voice in his mind suggested him to be wary, especially when looking back at his previous episode with Gaius.

"Uh ... I-I don't..." the Charmeleon stammered, before finally giving up his efforts to find an excuse with a grunt, "Fine. I'm not sure I'll be able to answer everything, though."

"Oh, that's fine, don't worry."

The Dragonair had opened her mouth to speak, when it looked like a new thought had crossed her mind. "You know, I forgot to introduce myself. My name's Alice, and yours is …?" she inquired.

He tensed at the question. Not that he wasn't expecting it, after all it was a perfectly reasonable request to make of him. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to hear it.

Claws began fiddling nervously against each other as his brain scrambled for an answer. What was he supposed to tell her? That he had no name, that he'd just magically appeared in that world for no reason at all? Would they think that he was some sort of wacko? After all, who in their right mind wouldn't know even the most basic information about themselves?

So many questions, but the answers are so few... he thought grimly, forcing the rising frustration back inside. Snapping back into reality, he couldn't help but notice that Alice was still staring at him blankly, waiting for an answer. In all likelihood, she was forcing herself to look patient, while internally puzzled as to why he was taking so long to answer such a trivial question.

He began thinking of something he could say to maneuver around the awkward explanation, but every lie he could come up with turned out to be so easy to see through, he might as well have told her that nothing was wrong and he'd just been taking a stroll. No, he couldn't afford to lie. For whatever reason, the Dragonair seemed to trust him enough not to beat the answers out of him, and at the very least he owed it to her to be truthful.

With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. "I don't have one."

Alice looked visibly surprised at his answer. "Wait, you—you don't have one? How can you not... What do you mean?"

"I-I don't know!" he cried out, "I can't remember! I can't remember anything ... not even ... my own name..." he trailed off at the end, almost disbelieving his own words.

"Hey," she shushed him, "Ease up. Try to breathe deeply. There. Now, think. Can you remember anything at all? Did you happen to see anyone around here?"

The Charmeleon racked his thoughts for an answer as he cradled his head in his palms, trying his hardest not to lose his cool as he poured his mind out. "I ... No, I can't remember anything at all. All I know is that I woke up here, in this cave I've never seen before in my life, and ... it was cold ... then I stumbled across you two ... and ... ascension..."

Alice tilted her head at him. "Ascension?"

"I don't know," he grunted, "That damn word's been stuck in my head ever since I woke up. I'm not sure if it means anything or not."

"So," she pressed, "You didn't see anyone?"

"No!" he shouted, causing Alice to recoil backwards, "I did not! Ugh, just—just shut up!"

He regretted his words before he had even shut his mouth. The almost hateful glare he'd cast the Dragonair disappeared quickly, replaced instead by a forceful deadpan expression. He felt himself shrink in front of her pensive face, mentally kicking himself for his idiocy. What was he thinking, saying those things to the pokémon who had probably saved his life by keeping him warm in a time where he was defenseless, the one who'd been nice to him—a complete stranger—and even gave him the chance to explain himself? Alone as he was right now, he desperately needed someone to trust, not to turn them away when they spontaneously offered their help!

"N-no! I didn't mean to—sorry!" he blurted out.

But instead of rightfully lashing out at him for his ungratefulness, her response was quite different.

"... So they got you too, huh?" Alice said with a slightly distant tone, her eyes staring forward into nothingness for a few seconds.

"Wait, who are you talking about?" he blinked in confusion. The implications of her message were picked up almost immediately: did she have a lead on what had happened to him?

The Dragonair shook her head to regain focus, eyeing him with newfound alarm. "I apologise. It's just ... if Scum have started making incursions inside the border..." she trailed off at the end.

Much to further his confusion, Alice's expression quickly reverted back to her friendly smile, although some traces of nervousness were still visible in her eyes. "You know what? It's nothing you have to worry about. If what you say is true, then you already have enough problems at hand."

That only left him more puzzled than before. Who were these 'Scum'? Did they have any connection to his amnesia? Why was she hesitant to give the information away? She knew, he was sure of it. His arms were almost shaking with anticipation. He needed to know!

"Well, first and foremost we need something to call you by." Alice carried onward, as if ignoring his body language, "We could simply call you 'Charmeleon', but that isn't very polite nowadays, is it?"

She's right. I need a name. I need to have an identity, at least until I can remember my old one, he mused, tapping a claw on his chin in contemplation. By now, all thoughts of pressing Alice to tell him about what she knew had been pushed to the back of his mind—which, unknowingly to him, was just as the Dragonair had hoped.

"I have a few ideas," said Alice, "How does 'Flame' sound to you?"

"... Flame..." he whispered half to himself, testing the name out with his own jaws. It wasn't anything too exciting, sure, nor was it very original, but he was in no position to be picky at the moment.

Flame. Flame. My name is Flame. He repeated mentally, his claws squeezing his tail for reassurance. The more he repeated that name, the more adamant he became in claiming it as his own. Something about it simply felt ... right. There was no other word for it.

"So?" Alice inquired, "Do you like it? I can think of a couple of others if you'd like."

A strange feeling of triumph invaded his body, as he repeated his soon-to-be name one last time in his own head. A giddy smile began to form on his face, and grew ever wider until it could grow no more.

"... I love it. Thank you." he whispered with an air of finality, straightening his back in a newfound rush of confidence. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off his back. Now, he had something to call himself. He was finally someone.

"I'm happy to have helped," Alice smiled sadly, "I can only imagine how horrible you must feel, unable to remember anything at all..."

Flame—he couldn't have chosen a more fitting name!, he thought—looked at her, that smile still plastered on his face. He struggled to resist the sudden impulse to tackle her to the ground in a hug—it would have spelled the end for him, acting so intimate with a person he'd technically just met— even though he knew that deep down she didn't believe half of what he had said, she was only playing along with his fever conviction for information. Despite that, he couldn't ignore the fact that there was something about the way she worded that which didn't sound right. Hang on a minute...

"No, wait! You know about—" Flame cried out, before he was interrupted abruptly when he heard footsteps drawing closer to the room. Both pokémon turned their heads just in time to witness a certain Grovyle walking into the room from the same passage he had previously used to leave.

"You're still alive, I see," Gaius scoffed while crossing his arms, "Maybe your suicidal tactics aren't working after all."

"Cut your blabbering," Alice said, holding her head up high with her eyes narrowed slightly, "Just tell me what the situation is outside."

"The storm has subsided," Gaius announced, copying the Dragonair's body language, "Let's pack up and leave this rathole before yet another one starts."

Noticing Flame's sudden silence, the Grovyle glanced at him while walking closer to the fire, an act which only sent shivers down the Charmeleon's spine.

Without words, both pokémon started dismantling their impromptu indoors encampment, with Gaius stomping the ghostly fire to mere embers—amazingly without showing the slightest sign of pain—and Alice picking up some small items scattered about the room. During the whole process, Flame just sat there awkwardly, his eyes darting between the two.

Now, the only source of light remaining was his tail, which flared slightly to make up for the absence of an outside source of warmth.

"W-where are you going?" he asked, unsure of what to do. Were they leaving him there?

"You?" Gaius chuckled as he slung his rucksack over his shoulder, "Oh, don't fret. We're not letting you off just yet. You're coming with us."

Much like the Charmeleon in question, Alice seemed to know something was up. "We're only going to escort him to town, I hope?" she asked, sounding like she herself knew that 'Yes' wouldn't be the answer.

"In part, yes, but there's more to it than that," Gaius leaned in near Alice and whispered something to her ear, all while keeping his distrustful gaze trained on Flame.

Alice seemed almost offended by what he had said, immediately recoiling backwards. "What?! But he isn't one of them, I already told you! You know he isn't!"

"Remember when I said I'd think of something to fix our little problem? This is it."

Alice looked ready to protest, when something that Gaius added silenced her for good. "Unless, you want us both to end up in the streets again. Go ahead, the choice is yours."

"But..." she hesitated, "I'm sure there's something else we can do instead. We don't have to be so drastic about this."

"It's the best option we have," Gaius crossed his arms again, "And there are only bad options."

The Dragonair's eyes darted nervously between Flame and Gaius for a full minute, before finally conceding with a sigh.

"Curse you..." she spat, turning away to avert her teammate's smug face.

What are they talking about? Are they going to do something to me? Damn it, this can't be good... Flame bit his lip, unsettled by the conversation.

"You, Charmeleon," Gaius pointed an accusing claw at Flame, "Get up. We're moving out."

Begrudgingly, he complied, earning more than one complaint from his aching muscles. Alice was looking at him, her eyes telling him that everything would be ok, that he didn't have to worry. But he was worried, he couldn't help it!

"Stay in between the two of us," Gaius ordered him, "And don't even think about trying anything sketchy." as he said that, Gaius drew his leaf blade menacingly to further reinforce his words, leaving no further doubt in the Charmeleon's mind as to whether he should leg it whenever he got the chance.

"Let's go. The surface is just a short ways from here."


Before he knew it, Flame was trekking down a gloomy, rocky passageway, his tail's flame lighting up the path ahead. As he walked, his mind attempted to let his current situation sink in: he was being led outside of that forsaken cave by the two pokémon who had helped him, and that was good.

But besides that, pretty much nothing was clear. Apparently, the two were part of this 'Civil Protection' organization, and while the title sounded like something official and trustworthy, for all he knew it was a violent criminal organization, or maybe a separatist rebel group who kidnapped unaware travellers to help support their fight against the state.

He stopped his monotonous march, eyes wide as the unwelcome question sprung to mind: what state was he even in? Was there even a state at all, or was he currently in some lawless land?

No, I can't stop and think about this too hard. I'll lose my mind if I do, Flame shook the plaguing dilemmas out of his head. Panting, he leaned his shoulder against the cavern's wall for support, taking advantage of the momentary pause to regain his breath.

"Hey!" Gaius barked as he turned around suddenly, "What are you doing? You'll have plenty of time to rest where we're going. Stop lazing around."

"I'm sorry." Flame said, "It's just... I'm not feeling too good."

"What," Gaius huffed, "You think I'm in top form after running four kilometres and almost getting caught up in a portal storm? I'm tired too, and that's why I'd like to get home before nightfall."

"... Where are you even taking me?" Flame blurted out, something that came out as more of a wimper.

"Flame," Alice spoke from behind him, "I promise that we're bringing you somewhere safe. We just need your cooperation for something. You trust us, right?"

If it wasn't for the fact that he could feel a painful lump form in his throat whenever the Grovyle spoke, Flame would have said that it was her kind words that kept him from running off right then and there.

I don't think I can even trust myself right now... he wanted to say. They'd helped him, sure, but her partner had threatened to kill him before, and she herself was skirting around all his questions.

"Honestly, no, not at all. I just want to get out of here."

"Then there's nothing to worry about," she emphasized. On the other hand, her eyes were telling a completely different story.

I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I? Flame thought as he gulped down his fears, I hope you two know what you're doing...

The next couple of minutes zoomed by Flame's eyes, time his brain barely even bothered to register as it only consisted in more dull, uninteresting walking through that cave system while trying at the same time not to trip on the occasional large pebble scattered about—something he failed to do miserably. He was sure he'd heard some stifled chuckles from behind him in more than one occasion.

"You should pay more attention to what's in front of you. Aren't you the one with the light?" Alice asked, trying hard to conceal an amused smile.

"Shut up..." Flame retorted, rubbing his pained snout as he pulled himself to his feet for what must have been the third time in a short space of time.

But, fortunately for him, his suffering didn't last very long.

Is that...? He squinted his eyes to see better. At last, at the end of the long, narrow tunnel they had entered at some point, was the exit. The gaping hole looked more like a burning star, the drastic difference in lighting giving the impression of a pure-white veil that concealed the world beyond from prying eyes.

As they drew closer, Flame raised his arm instinctively to shield himself from the painfully strong glare. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd last seen the sun, but, seeing as his scales were tingling with ever-increasing excitement, he figured it'd been far too long.

Holding his breath, he took his first few steps into the outside world.


Spearhead Valley

Flame couldn't help but gasp. Even with the iron curtains of amnesia currently hazing his mind, he was certain that he'd never seen such a sight before in his life. He slowly turned his head to look around himself, attempting to take in the scale of it all.

Rugged, craggy mountains towered all around them, their steep slopes coated by a thick layer of snow. The depth of the clouded sky entranced him, installing a small feeling of dread as the irrational part of his mind half worried that gravity would suddenly turn upside-down and drag him into the blue expanse. Hundreds of metres below, a stream of solid ice sheets followed along the valley's bottom. A quick glance to his right confirmed the presence of a small path leading down from the rocky ledge he was now standing on to the riverside.

Shutting his eyes for a second, he breathed in deeply through his nostrils, savouring the fresh mountain air mixed with traces of aroma coming from the few plants that had managed to survive the unfriendly temperatures.

"Keep moving," Gaius hissed as he pushed Flame roughly onto the narrow path, "My partner and I have a schedule to maintain, and we're already late as it is."

"... Oh, yeah. Right," he mumbled absentmindedly, before falling back in line between the two pokémon.

As the group started the journey downhill, Flame was still observing his surroundings wide-eyed, like a child witnessing the world outside his crib for the very first time. More than once he noticed Gaius looking back at him as he dragged his claws across the rocky wall to their side, stared intensely at the sky, or inspected the local plant life closely—even coming close to setting fire to what looked like some sort of half-frozen berry tree.

This all feels so ... new, Flame mused as the group reached the riverside, My body is telling me I've never seen this place before. But then, how did I end up in that cave?

"What, are you a southerner or something?"

Gaius' unwelcome question broke Flame out of the state of semi-calm he was beginning to enjoy.

The Grovyle was looking at him as if he'd suddenly sat down and started playing giddily in the snow. "You act like you've never seen snow or a mountain before. You're not from around here, are you?"

"Um..." Flame hesitated while he looked around him, somewhat hoping that the great colossi would provide him an answer. Southerner? South of what exactly? What am I even supposed to say? I can't tell him that I don't know, he wouldn't believe me...

"Y-Yeah. I'm from the South. I think," he said, smiling nervously and forcing his voice to sound as casual as possible. However, this answer only seemed to catch the Grovyle's attention more.

"From where, exactly?" Gaius pressed. It was clear he knew that wasn't the truth, though his voice strangely lacked aggression now.

You had to go ahead and ask that, didn't you? Flame cringed, kicking himself mentally yet again for uttering such a short-sighted lie. If there was any chance of him being seen as dangerous by whoever these two pokémon were working for, he was certainly not making life easier for himself right now.

"He's right," Alice interjected suddenly, "You do look like you're from the South. Things are surely much more peaceful over there. I mean, you don't see pokémon travelling up North anymore, since those guys have it so much easier than we do. Meeting you certainly is a welcome change," she smiled broadly.

"Well?" Gaius asked impatiently, cutting Alice off, "I'm still waiting for my answer. Don't expect me to believe every word that comes out of your mouth. If you are a southerner, then where exactly are you from?"

Flame bit his lip; he didn't answer, but the two still managed to get the message: he couldn't remember.

"Gaius!" Alice spoke to her partner in a whisper, though Flame heard anyways, "Cut him some slack, the poor guy can't even remember his own name!"

"You know what?" Gaius said after growing impatient of his uneasy silence, "Don't bother. Soon, you're not going to be my problem anymore. I've already got enough of those..." he muttered the last part mostly to himself.

A dead silence ensued as Flame's brain came to a verdict: it was best for his reputation—and quite possibly for his safety—to shut his mouth and keep walking.


Route 165

Hours later, Flame could barely keep himself upright. His abused legs had carried him through what felt like miles, and now they were ready to give up on him. The landscape around him had slowly mutated from tall, rugged mountains and frozen bodies of water to a lush, flourishing meadow, interrupted only by the dirt path they'd been following for quite a while now.

However, Flame had long since stopped caring about his surroundings. Instead, other thoughts floated around his mind.

So ... hungry... He grumbled mentally as another cramp shot through his rioting stomach. He laid a paw on it, trying his best to think about something else, although without much success.

It feels like I haven't eaten anything in months ... Just how far away is this place, anyways?

He glanced behind him to look at his escorts. The two had been lagging behind for quite some time—they must have wanted to make sure that he wouldn't run away all of a sudden—murmuring amongst themselves so that he couldn't be able to hear.

Flame's eyes couldn't help but churn at the rucksack slung over Gaius' shoulder. Fantasies played freely through his mind, picturing just how much sweet, juicy food could be in that bag. Granted, he wasn't quite sure what type of food these pokémon usually ate, but anything that could quell his roaring stomach would suffice.

Should I ask them? he pondered, looking at them both before quickly shaking the idea out of his head, What am I thinking?! I'm in no position to make requests of them, I might just make matters worse for myself. Besides, maybe they'll give me something to eat once we get to this town they were talking about.

He nearly cringed at his own naiveness. Yeah, keep telling yourself that...

As he swam in his own thoughts, he failed to notice that his march was getting slower and slower, and before he knew it he was within earshot of his two escorts.

"I don't see why we shouldn't tell Ariel," Alice said, "This is a matter of ours and everyone's safety, for Arceus' sake!"

Flame briefly wondered whether to continue listening or to hasten his pace in order to avoid being caught red-handed. If they were sharing some sort of secret information, he thought, he could risk getting himself into bigger trouble, or maybe they would simply kill him on the spot. But, eventually, curiosity got the best of him.

"And get her even more pissed off than she already is?" Gaius grunted, "No thank you. This is probably just an isolated incident, the kind that blows away after a couple of weeks. There's no need to get our commander worked up over nothing."

"What if it isn't an isolated incident, Gaius?" Alice pressed him, "What then? Before we know it, we'll have thousands of them at our doorstep! Who do you think is going to come save us at that point?"

"Bah," Gaius sighed forcefully, "Why do you believe that guy, anyway? He could be making everything up. I wouldn't be surprised if he's just some poor bastard trying to snatch some food off of us. I mean, just take a look yourself! Everything about him screams misery to me."

Well he's not entirely wrong... Flame thought, unsure whether to chuckle or to hang his head in shame.

"His situation isn't very different from ours, then." Alice pointed out, "And besides, think about it: who in their right mind goes to Spearhead Valley these days?"

"Well, we did," Gaius grinned.

"That's beside the point," Alice groaned in frustration, "We were acting under orders. Nobody goes to that place anymore, not since the storms have grown in number. Did you see how beat up he was? It's obvious that he'd been in there for a long time. The way I see it, Scum are advancing through there. There's no other explanation."

Flame was all ears by now, his interest peaking. Who were these 'Scum' they kept referring to? Could they have something to do with his past? If he kept listening, he thought, maybe he'd get the answer to those questions.

"Ugh..." Gaius buried his head into his paw, "Look, can't we talk about this some other time? I'm tired, and I'm sure you are too. Let's just call this off until tomorrow."

So much for answers... Flame rolled his eyes, a heave of frustration escaping him.

"Fine," Alice conceded, "Just don't get the idea that I might suddenly forget about this."

Sensing an end to the conversation, Flame quickly straightened his pose and hastened his pace, in hopes that the two wouldn't suspect him of anything.

As he refocused his sight on the path in front of him, two things happened in quick succession: the first being that his eyes were met with a wooden surface that spanned his entire vision. The second being that the rest of his face followed suit.

Next thing he knew, he was laying on his back, clutching his aching snout with one paw as he pushed himself up with his other one. A timid glance at his escorts confirmed that they were staring right at him.

A nervous half-smile crossed his face, quickly fading into aether. "Hehe... hehe... sorry..."

Flame glared at the culprit, a set of large double doors embedded into a stone wall where the path seemed to end abruptly. Unconvinced at the thought of such a structure popping up out of nowhere, he looked around. His eyes widened when he realized that the fortification actually stretched for miles on both sides, likely continuing where his eyes could no longer see. Maybe it had spawned into existence after all.

What the...? How? I can't be that bad at paying attention, can I? Flame thought as he scratched his head lightly.

Letting the embarassing situation slide, Gaius knocked vigorously on the wooden doors. A previously unnoticeable slits in the door opened, this one a little above the Grovyle's eye level. A set of irises creeped into view, scanning the three of them thoroughly.

"Officers," a deep voice spoke from the other side, eyeing the badges pinned on two of the pokémon, "Welcome to Aesernia. Please clarify your identity and motives."

"We're Team Phalanx," Gaius said calmly, "Task Force Aegis. Tell Ariel that our mission has been accomplished."

The pair of eyes disappeared from view, the slit in the door flapping closed with a clang. For the next few minutes, Flame just stood there idly, waiting for something to happen as he fought off the unrest in his stomach. Just as he was about to fall asleep on the spot, the slit-like flap reopened.

"Only this one?" the voice asked, likely relaying the question.

Gaius seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing at Flame for a moment before speaking. "Yes, just this one."

Flame felt a sudden spike of discomfort when he realized that they were talking about him. Wait, they said their mission is complete? Was I part of their mission? But ... I thought—!

"Fine. You may enter," The heavy doors creaked open, revealing some sort of bipedal creature that seemed to be made almost entirely out of metal, its red armor and multiple blades—that protruded even from its elbows—making up most of its body.

Alice and Gaius entered through the door, the former looking back at him and motioning with her head to follow.

"You should watch out if you're going to report to Ariel," the Bisharp warned, "She seems to be in a particularly nasty mood today."

"Isn't she always?" Gaius rolled his eyes.

"Kinda," the armored guard said, "Should I take care of this now?" he motioned to Flame.

A lump formed in the Charmeleon's throat.

"Sure thing," Gaius turned back, "Have fun with him. He's not my problem anymore."

Alarmed, Flame's eyes darted to Alice. He saw that look of remorse in her eyes, that reflexive cringe, and that was all he needed to see.

"Fuckin' Scum," muttered the Bisharp.

Even before he felt the blunt side of an elbow-blade take his consciousness away, he knew.

Things were not looking well for him.


End of Chapter I
 
Last edited:

NebulaDreams

Ace Trainer
Partners
  1. luxray
  2. hypno
Hi, so I thought I'd give this PMD story a gander. I don't really have much to say about the actual story yet except that it follows good plot beats. It's intriguing enough with Flame's amnesia, how he even got there to begin with, and all the unrest that's going on with the 'Scum' in this world and how the trio will end up combating it. It'll be exciting to see more of how the three bounce off of each other and how Flame will get himself out of the pickle he's in.

While I like where it's going so far and am interested to read more, my main complaint is how this chapter is paced and how long it is compared to what actually happens in it. Even though it's well-written, the prose can be wordy in places, which contributes to the feeling of the chapter being longer than it ought to be. The part where Flame wakes up sticks out in this regard since it takes about 40 paragraphs (2k words) for Flame to get his freezing behind to Alice and Gaius' fire, and it spends a really long time getting into his internal monologue to the point that it starts to feel like overkill. I like that his amnesia leaves him terrified rather than simply surprised like a lot of other PMD protagonists with amnesia tend to be, but after a certain point, the thoughts end up looping back to the same topics and it lingers on too long on the minutiae of his body language and his actions.

Going into the wordy prose more, it also has the effect of over-explaining what the protagonist is going through, which can make it seem like it's telling the reader how to feel rather than letting that feeling be inferred through the actions of the characters or their dialogue. This example leapt out to me since it calls back to something previously covered not too long ago in the same chapter and stretches out more of that internal monologue for such a simple interaction.

'The Dragonair had opened her mouth to speak, when it looked like a new thought had crossed her mind. “You know, I forgot to introduce myself. My name's Alice, and yours is …?” she inquired.

He tensed at the question. Not that he wasn't expecting it, after all it was a perfectly reasonable request to make of him. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to hear it.

Claws began fiddling nervously against each other as his brain scrambled for an answer. What was he supposed to tell her? That he had no name, that he'd just magically appeared in that world for no reason at all? Would they think that he was some sort of wacko? After all, who in their right mind wouldn't know even the most basic information about themselves?

So many questions, but the answers are so few... he thought grimly, forcing the rising frustration back inside. Snapping back into reality, he couldn't help but notice that Alice was still staring at him blankly, waiting for an answer. In all likelihood, she was forcing herself to look patient, while internally puzzled as to why he was taking so long to answer such a trivial question.

He began thinking of something he could say to maneuver around the awkward explanation, but every lie he could come up with turned out to be so easy to see through, he might as well have told her that nothing was wrong and he'd just been taking a stroll. No, he couldn't afford to lie. For whatever reason, the Dragonair seemed to trust him enough not to beat the answers out of him, and at the very least he owed it to her to be truthful.

With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. “I don't have one.”'

This also ties into what I said earlier about the character's thoughts feeling a bit redundant. It's in character for him to be nervous and quake at such a question, but I also feel like this whole section could've been shortened and it would've achieved the same effect. The stuff about him appearing in the world and not knowing his name was established earlier, so I think that could've been condensed a bit. This is only a suggestion and I don't want to tell you how to write your story, but I would've gone with something like this:

'He tensed at the question, fiddling with his claws as he tried to find something to say. There was no easy answer for that, especially after that episode he had before he came here. How would anyone believe that he didn't know something so basic about himself? Alice was staring blankly at him, waiting for a response. Oh no, she had that look in her eyes, like she was forcing herself to be patient. Could he have lied? No, Alice would've trusted him to tell the truth. At least, he hoped so.

'With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. "I don't have one."'

Okay, I think I rambled on about it for quite a while, so I'll stop. I don't think it breaks the story and in places, it does reinforce the oppressive tone of the world so far. You're probably already aware of this from previous reviews on FFN and I don't think it's something you need to go back to revise. But anyway, I liked this chapter and I'll be looking forward to reading more.
 
Chapter II: Astray

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter II: Astray

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Semper Aequus (Always just)"

-Official motto of Task Force Aegis.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


The sun had just reached midway through the horizon as the members of Team Phalanx wandered the unusually empty streets of Aesernia.

"More budget cuts? With everything that's happening?"

Gaius raised his head from the news flier in his hands to look at Alice. His companion didn't answer however. Instead, she kept staring at the road ahead, the distant look on her face suggesting that she barely even registered his voice.

"Oh, come on Alice," Gaius rolled his eyes, "This is our day off. Can't you just relax for one moment?"

In reality, she wanted to answer, to have some small talk with him. But it wasn't the fact that that kind of news wasn't something uncommon at all, nor did she feel particularily angry towards her teammate. However, there was something nagging at her conscience, a moral issue implanted in her mind the day before and now begging to be answered.

"I still don't know why we did it."

"Did what?" Gaius asked as he threw the flyer aside carelessly.

"Arrest him like that," Alice said, "He shouldn't have to pay for the mess we created ourselves."

"Well," Gaius shrugged his shoulders, "It worked, didn't it? Ariel doesn't suspect a thing, and we're back on our feet for now."

"That's not the point!" Alice turned to glare at him, "Whether it worked or not, that doesn't make it right. Isn't it supposed to be our job, protecting others?"

"If you care so much for this guy," Gaius said in a mocking tone, "Then why don't you try paying the guards into releasing him? Oh, that's right. We don't have that kind of money. We never did."

You're avoiding the question ... Just like you always do, Alice thought, sending her companion a venomous look.

She half wanted to say that aloud, but decided to remain quiet. Although he did forward some valid points, she still didn't want to have anything to do with his personal philosophy. She'd find a way to get that poor Charmeleon out of the situation they'd forced him into. She owed him that much.

After a while, they reached the large bulletin board that sat right outside Camp Tempest. Not a soul was in sight, except of course for the occasional sentry patrolling the perimeter.

"Where is everyone?" Alice wondered aloud, looking around them.

With this being the only Civil Protection base in the entire province, the whole building would usually be bustling with activity. Even in the rare event that their commander decided to grant them a day of rest, it was mostly symbolical. In fact, most teams spent that free time just like they would any other day: completing missions and trying to gather up enough cash to make it to the end of the month—not that she could blame them. But there were always at least a fair number of pokémon at the bulletin board picking jobs for the day. Something wasn't right.

"Good question," Gaius admitted, "Now that you point that out, I'm not too sure why we've been given the day off in the first place. There aren't any patrols scheduled for today, are there?"

"I don't think so..." Alice mumbled uncertainly.

"Hey, you! Dewott!" Gaius shouted to a nearby sentry, who stopped its monotonous scouting to spare them a second.

"Mmmh?" the Dewott hummed, "Oh, Team Phalanx. What is it?"

Wait, Alice delivered the sentry a sideways look, How does he know our team name? I'm fairly sure we've never seen this guy before, and barely anyone around here knows about us...

"What's the deal with the roads? Where is everyone?" Gaius asked as he somehow failed to pick up the obvious anomaly in the otter's words.

"What, you haven't heard?" the Dewott commented, "Someone forgot to tell Ariel that the fifth legion would be stationed at her Villa for tonight. Now she's throwing some kind of hissy fit over there. It's a mess..."

Oh, that's right!, Alice suddenly remembered, the legionaries were being stationed in town from today onward! It would make sense then that the streets around Tempest were so empty: everybody was off at the main square to acclaim the arriving soldiers. It was, after all, a move to reassure the population that the central government had the situation under control, that they were still the ones in charge.

Alice sighed internally. No matter how many soldiers Urbe tried to send, they did not have the situation under control.

"Huh," Gaius scratched his chin, "You'd think the Imperial Army was actually competent or something."

The Dewott chuckled. "I wouldn't go that far."

Then, Alice heard the very words that she single-handedly most dreaded to hear.

"By the way, I heard she was looking for you two. Better be quick, you might just get to her office before her. You know how much she hates slowpokes."

Alice didn't need to glance at her partner's face to sense the utter horror stamped on it; without uttering their goodbyes, they rushed into Camp Tempest, praying to Arceus for the best.

Time lazed the haste of its flow as Team Phalanx awaited their destiny in their commander's personal office. Even the dust particles floating around seemed to remain suspended in mid-air, as if afraid to break the dead silence that had ensued ever since the two pokémon had entered.

The office wasn't quite as luxurious as everyone in the base usually fantasized it to be. There were no solid gold chairs, no servants standing beside the desk, no secret passageway leading to a hidden treasure—well, Alice couldn't be sure of that, but it was probably best if she didn't find out.

It was, however, much more impressive than any simpleton like them was used to. Seeing that wooden desk, carved out of only the finest of materials, decorated like that, almost made her crave to simply lie down on it and sleep soundly. A large painting hung on a wall, lit by the will o' wisp lamps dangling above them, its moody oil paint forming a portrait of an ancient battle.

Overall, she wasn't quite sure whether to feel flattered or scared to be in that room. Ariel rarely ever summoned someone to her office, and even then the look on the faces of those who came out didn't help her already meager hopes by much.

But maybe that wouldn't be the case this time, she attempted to reason, maybe their commander wanted to apologize to them for the past few months, or perhaps she wanted to congratulate them personally for—

And then the door opened, and a furious Haxorus walked in, and her reason flew out behind her.

"Well, well," Ariel smirked ominously, "If it isn't Team Phalanx. I thought you'd never get the message. Maybe those sentries aren't as deaf as I thought they were."

"M-ma'am," both pokémon said in unison, freezing into a salute.

"I'm guessing you already know why you're here?" Ariel asked impatiently as she started walking in circles around her subordinates.

"N-no, ma'am," they answered—truthfully for a change.

"No?" Ariel tilted her head in mock innocence, using a tone that one would normally use with an infant, "Well, a little Fletchling happened to tell me that the two of you took a mission yesterday. You were supposed to capture that fugitive group of Scum who'd been causing some problems with our food caravans. Instead, you came back with a single Charmeleon," the Haxorus' tusks snapped together, "Care to explain?"

Much explaining and shouting later, Team Phalanx exited their commander's office, shutting the door behind them. A blank look was stuck on their face as they stood there wordlessly, trying to process everything that had been said in the last few minutes.

Alice decided to break the silence. "I ... I can't believe it. She actually did it."

In that moment, she cursed her weakness for listening to her partner's senseless plan. She ought to have listened to that little voice in her mind, in that cave, she ought to have helped the Charmeleon and brought him back as a refugee instead of trying to pass him off as their objective! Now, it was all for naught.

"Well..." Gaius started uncomfortably, "Now what?"

Alice breathed in soothingly and arced her head at the will-o-wisp lamps above them, contemplating. Suddenly, something clicked. She knew what had to be done. "We take him in."

Gaius looked at her quizzically. "Huh? Who?"

"Flame. The Charmeleon, "Alice answered with a trace of rising confidence in her tone, "We add him to our team. It's the only way."

"What?!" Gaius growled, "Are you crazy? You can't—we—… no!"

Alice smiled, her resolve increasing exponentially by the second. "If we don't do this, Gaius, soon we won't even make enough money to feed the two of us. Besides, we owe him as much."

Gaius blinked, standing still for a second, as though she'd just gone on a psychopathic tangent. "We owe him? Has the cold gotten to your head? Why are you so fixated with that guy?"

"W-well, I…" Alice began, finding her stare moving downwards as she mulled over her exact words, "Did you see the condition he was in? I felt horrible all night long for what we did. Poor guy couldn't even remember his name; then, we throw him in prison unjustly?"

"For the love of—" Gaius mumbled, likely holding back a stream of curses, "The fact that he's amnesiac makes him a less attractive option! Listen, if you're so convinced that we need a new member, let's just ask 'mons off the street. There are bound to be plenty of decent candidates lying around."

Alice saw fit to cement her glare. "We've already tried. Don't tell me we haven't. Nobody cares about us—even then, a quick look at our record and we get laughed at."

But why would Flame react any differently? a voice in her head beckoned. In truth, she didn't know. The Charmeleon had every right to spit in her face, for she'd accepted Gaius' plan passively. Yet, to do nothing and sit idly would only eat away at her conscience.

"No," Gaius crossed his arms, "I don't want another member on my team. You're not the leader here. I am."

"I'm sorry, but it's our best option," a smirk creeped on her face as she remembered her teammate's exact words, "And there are only bad options."

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Flame lay slumped as his eyes stirred open.

The first thing he was greeted to was the loud, uninterrupted growling of his stomach, the vibrations from which reverberated throughout his entire body. The second one was a simple, yet important question.

Where am I?

Grudgingly sitting up, he slowly took in his surroundings as he waited for the drowsiness to wear out. He was in a stone walled chamber, the only source of light besides his tail being the small, window-like gap in the metal door—the only eye-catching feature in the entirety of the room. But ... why were there bars in the window?

As he shifted his body to get a better look at the strange sight, a sudden stinging sensation intruded his thigh.

Ouch! What the hell? Flame shot up on his feet, jerking his body away from his bed as if he'd just realized that a monster was hiding under it.

Only to find out that his 'bed' wasn't exactly what he thought it would be at all; rather, it looked like little more than a stiff wooden plank laying on the naked floor, covered only by a piece of cloth and a small stack of damp hay that was attempting to disguise itself as a pillow. The covers were currently dragged over to one side, exposing the brittle material underneath.

Is this supposed to be a bed? Who thought it would be a good idea to make a matress out of stupid splinters? Flame grumbled to himself as he removed the wooden blighter inserted in his thigh and threw it away into a corner. If he hadn't been dripping exhaustion out of every pore when he laid there the previous day, he probably would not have managed to get a single second of shut eye, he thought.

With that last thought, he froze. Eyes widening slightly, the memories of how he'd gotten there suddenly rushed back to him. He remembered being knocked to the verge of uncosciousness by the guard at the city gates, being dragged roughly through the streets and then thrown into that room, the door locked behind him with a cold clang. Looking around himself, his brain slowly added two to two; the bare, isolated room, the bars in the door, the bed so uncomfortable it might have well violated basic rights...

His heart skipped a beat as he finally understood: I'm in a prison.

But... why was he being held there in the first place?

It must have been a mistake, Flame told himself as he collapsed back onto the pitiful excuse for a bed, uncaring of any potential splinters he may accidentally find in his they were just checking something about him, making sure that he wasn't a callous bandit craving to go on a new killing spree; if then, he needed not fear—he'd be out of this cell in the blink of an eye. After all, he was fairly certain he'd never set foot in this city before. Yeah, that must have been it. He couldn't have possibly done anything wrong, right?

Alice had told him that he'd be alright, after all. There was absolutely no way he was in prison for some sort of crime he'd committed. As far back as he could remember—only about a day prior; he cursed his amnesia—he'd taken extra care to follow the instructions given to him by his escorts, complied with their every request.

However, all these reassuring thoughts did little to hold back the grimmer ones from rearing their ugly heads, like an angry swarm of Beedrills stalking his conscience. All materialising in the form of one question: What about before?

Flame gasped as his fallacy of innocence fell apart before his very eyes. How could he be sure that he'd never hurt a fly when he couldn't even remember what his true name was? What if he'd done something horrible at some point in time, and he simply couldn't remember it?

"Did I really…?" he whispered no one in particular, staring up at the ceiling in thought. Everything made so much more sense now! And truthfully, he wished it didn't.

The previous day's events played back in his mind. Every tiny, insignificant detail that his mind could rack up as a half-hearted excuse to deny the inevitable truth, only ended up turning against him treacherously: the guard's almost disgusted look as he locked the door to his holding cell, Gaius' nonchalance towards his well-being, or the pained look in Alice's eyes—oh, how she must have pitied him, he imagined, destined to receive his rightful punishment for some heinous crime he couldn't even recall committing!

For all he knew, the entire events of the previous days could have been an intricate, meticulously planned ruse to bring him to justice. Maybe he deserved to be here in this cell. Who knows how many lives he could have taken, families he could have shattered?

And I still didn't get to eat anything… he cursed mentally as rubbed his empty stomach.

The door groaned open. Flame jumped slightly as his head snapped in its direction, only to find some sort of winged green insect with blades for arms standing at the door's threshold, looking straight at him.

"Charmeleon," the guard said, "The results have just come in. You've been cleared of all charges. You may go now."

In response, Flame just stared back blankly, attempting to digest what he'd just heard. Wait, I'm free? Is this guy trying to play some sort of trick on me? It—it doesn't make any sense…

"Oh, great…" the Scyther grunted to himself, "Another psycho. They don't pay me enough for this…"

That statement helped Flame realize that he'd been staring at the guard for almost a full minute now, and that he was probably making him quite uncomfortable. Muttering a quick apology, he slowly got up and walked out of the door, the guard stepping aside to let him pass.

"So…" Flame looked back at the guard once he was in the corridor, "I'm free to go? I can just walk out of here?" he asked, as if seeking confirmation that his ears hadn't imagined anything.

"Yes," the Scyther said, pointing to the end of the corridor with his arm-blade, "I've just told you that. The exit is over there."

With that, the bug shut the cell's heavy door and walked off in the same direction he'd pointed to, leaving a very confused Charmeleon behind. Uh. Maybe they were only trying to test me for something after all, Flame thought as he rubbed the back of his neck, Maybe … maybe I just overreacted. Whichever the case, I'm free now, He smiled, starting his trek down the hallway.

With that, he made a mental note of trying not to be so melodramatic in the future.

The walls around him were made out of the same type of stone found inside his cell, but here it was notably better maintained—not to mention the fact that they didn't smell like a shipment of rotten fish had been stored there for months. From the corner of his eye he saw various guards eye him strangely as he passed by countless scores of holding cells. Admittedly, he was midly curious of who or what was inside, though not nearly enough to actually go ahead and check for himself.

Before long, Flame arrived at where the guard had pointed him to, a set of double doors at the far end of the long corridor. He pushed the left one half-way and peeked his head inside the lobby. The room was much brighter than the rest of the prison, largely thanks to the arced doorway leading outside. It looked semi-deserted, the only pokémon in sight being the same guard from before standing behind the information booth and a couple of other pokémon (whose species he couldn't name for the life of him) who had seemingly fallen asleep while waiting on their stone-carved seats. Other than a few potted plants and a single poster nailed on the wall, the room was pretty bare.

He then noticed that it wasn't just the visitors who were asleep; even the guard at the booth was heavy-eyed, resting his chin on the blunt side of his blades as he fought to stay awake. Flame briefly wondered where everyone was, but figured he'd probably find out on his own very soon. For now, all he wanted was to get something inside his belly.

Taking great care not to wake the room's occupants, his legs slowly crept their way across the tiled floor, cringing slightly at any abnormally loud step he took. But the pokémon kept snoring soundly, and he eventually reached the doorway, triumphant.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, one of these pokémon wouldn't be so lucky, as the shadowy plague of doubt once again decided to cast its influence on a certain Charmeleon's mind.

"Uhm... Excuse me?" Flame quietly asked the guard, his paws resting on the wooden desk.

The Scyther jumped slightly and blinked himself awake, before his eyes flew to the Charmeleon in front of him "Ah! Welcome to the— … Oh, it's you. What do you want now?" He did not sound very thrilled to see him again.

"I…" he hesitated, "I wasn't brought here because of any crimes I committed, was I?"

The guard looked at him as if he'd just heard the most idiotic question in his entire life, and already Flame wished he hadn't opened his mouth in the first place.

"Listen, Charmeleon," the Scyther groaned as he attempted to keep a professional attitude, "I'm not sure what you're trying to tell me right now. Are you confessing to a crime? If so, then I'd be glad to lock you back in for good. I'm just a few arrests away from that promotion, anyways."

"N-no!" Flame gulped, "That's not what I meant at all!"

"Then what did you mean?" the Scyther asked.

"I-I meant to ask … If I'm…" he stammered, his paws fidgeting behind his back, "If I'm not a criminal, why was I brought here?"

The Scyther shrugged. "I think I heard something about a mix-up. Don't expect me to know."

"O-oh. Thank you anyways, sir."

"You're welcome," the guard grumbled healf-heartedly, with an undertone that read 'just leave me be'.

Flame was about to turn to exit the building, when a sudden thought crossed his mind. "By the way, do you happen to have some leftover food you could spare me? I'm really hun—"

"Food?!" the Scyther exploded, causing all the other pokémon in the room to wake with a start, "What do you think we are, a charity? Get lost!"

Feeling himself shrink under the stares of all the newly-awakened visitors, Flame quickly left the room, emerging into the sunny day outside.

Why did I even ask him those things? Flame scorned himself as he walked down the set of steps leading out of the prison building.

It didn't matter all that much, he consoled himself. Hopefully he wouldn't have to set foot in that place ever again. He stopped mid-way to process his surroundings. The long stairs led to a large square, surrounded by many colourful stone and brick buildings. Each was at least a double storey, and decorated by reliefs that sometimes stretched around the entirety of the structure. He couldn't see over their tiled roofs, but the vastness of the urban settlement wasn't what immediately caught his attention: it was the crowd.

All around the square, crammed in every inch of space available, were hundreds upon hundreds of different creatures, of all size, shape and colour, like a sea of bustling life. They seemed chaotic in their movements, every individual going on with their daily life, with no common direction in mind. Some flew high above his head, some walked, some crawled or slithered around; none of those species could he attribute a proper name to.

There, another painful reminder of his amnesia. How could he possibly not remember a single one of those species? He had to have seen a handful of them at least once in his life, right? He looked down at himself. His species was named 'Charmeleon'. That was as far as his knowledge went.

Ugh … Where am I even supposed to go? Absent-mindedly, he walked down the remaining steps and into the thinner part of the crowd, slowly drawing circles with his head in a futile attempt to study every single detail around him.

The fountain in the centre of the square, depicting some sort of scaly sea serpent that spewed a jet of water to the basin below. The street vendors shouting at him, waving their arms in hopes of catching his attention (why him, he thought, with all the pokémon around?). Distracted as he was, it didn't take long for him to bump into someone, a four-legged, black fox-like creature with yellow rings drawn all over her body, who turned to glare at him.

"Oh! Sorry, miss..." he said meekly as he backed away, only to have his tail brush against someone else.

"Hey! Watch where you swing that thing!" someone cried out from behind him. He turned to find an angry kangaroo-like pokémon with a mushroom on its head, what he could only assume where its children cowering behind it in exaggerated fear at the sight of his tail's fire.

There's too much activity here, Flame thought as he scooped his tail up in his paws and headed for a random direction, I need to find some place quiet, so I can try and make sense of all this…

A particularily thick group of pokémon was congesting one of the many roads leading out of the square, forming a living barricade of sorts. They all seemed intent in watching something on the other side. With no other immediate priority barring his curiosity from getting the best of him, Flame trudged on over to see what all the commotion was about.

"Stand back! Imperial Army business," a voice warned from the other side of the crowd.

Balancing himself on the tip of his clawed feet, he tried to elevate himself enough to get a glimpse of what lay beyond, but the pokémon in front of him were too tall for that to work. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, he managed to squeeze his head in a small viewing space in between two smaller creatures. There, standing guard in front of the crowd was...

Gaius? Flame gasped.

He looked better. No, it wasn't Gaius. While that pokémon looked similar, it wasn't the same. It had a much bushier tail than the Grovyle, and its body was taller as well as a lighter shade of green. Behind the reptilian, there was a procession of sorts going on as he watched.

Dozens after dozens of pokémon marched in tight formation in front of his very eyes, their stance firm and warrior-like. At some point, a blue quadruped creature made entirely out of rock stomped into view. It was much, much bigger than any of the petty pokémon among the crowd—its head almost surpassed the roofs of the buildings around them—and various spiny, crystal-like features jutted out of its body. He could have sworn that the ground shook slightly at its every step.

What on earth is going on here? Flame wondered eventually as he backed away from the commotion and tried his luck with another path, More importantly, where do I go now?

Various options and scenarious ran through his mind, but none of them seemed feasible enough. What would happen to him now, stuck in a city he had no memory of ever being in? Would he have to beg on the side of the street to get by? Would he die of hunger under some bridge, forgotten by all who passed—

He stopped suddenly as the idea finally struck him. Alice and Gaius. I need to find them. They can help me figure out what to do with myself.

There was a small part of his brain that felt the need to object: after all, weren't they the very reason he had landed in prison in the first place? Without delay, he clenched his fists reflexively at the recent memories. Right after saving his life, they'd brought him here, to this town he knew nothing of, throwing him into prison for some unfathomable reason.

They used me, and I fell right into it like a sheep, he reprimanded his past self, Who's to say they won't do it again? Maybe they don't even feel one bit sorry.

Flame shook the dissenting thoughts out of his head. But they're the only pokémon I know here. They could point me to some place I can stay in the meantime. I have no other choice.

Then, he heard it.

"Flame!"

His eyes lit up as he turned around and saw a familiar Dragonair in the crowd making her way towards him.

"There you are," Alice said breathlessly, "I've been looking all over for you!"

"You … have?" he raised an eyebrow, fighting back against mounting resentment to keep his expression neutral.

"Yes, I've been meaning to ask you if—" she suddenly stopped, a frown slowly spreading across her face.

"Oh..." Alice cast a downwards gaze, "I … should probably apologize first for what happened yesterday."

"Damn right you should," he muttered without thought, arms crossed.

The Dragonair seemed to reel back at the bitterness soaking his voice.

"Y-you see, it's..." she hesitated, trailing off as she thought of every word carefully.

Flame wanted to interject, but decided to remain quiet. As much as he felt inclined to explode in a flurry of insults and venom, he needed to know.

"Let's just say that me and Gaius are in a … very difficult financial situation. If we were to fail another mission, we probably would have lost our job. And…"

She sighed. "I guess there's really no excuse, is there? Gaius got the idea of using you as a cover to save our month's pay. We were hoping it would hide the fact that we failed again. As you can see by being here, it didn't work very well," her eyes darted away from his.

"So you expect me to forgive you? Just like that?"

"What I'm trying to say is: you didn't need to get dragged into this. He won't admit it, but I know Gaius feels the same way. And for that, I hope you'll accept our sincerest apologies." Alice finished, biting her lip and looking straight him straight in the eye, awaiting an answer.

Flame raised his chin up high, attempting to collect his own thoughts. Sure, she sounded quite sincere in what she said, and judging by what he had seen the previous day he had very little reason to believe she was lying. He didn't hold nearly as much of a grudge against her as he did her teammate. In fact, he distinctly remembered how kind she'd been to him, if not in stark dissent with Gaius. So that begged the question, was he ready to forgive them? To be completely honest with himself, he did feel a little irritated at having been used as leverage for the two's own interests. More than a little. It did not feel right to just absolve them on a whim. Even then, however, he would have to play along at least this once.

"You threw me in prison," he directed an unmitigated glare in her direction, "You saved my life, then tried to screw me over. Now you expect me to forget everything? What exactly do you want from me?"

"I—I wasn't the one who came up with the idea," Alice spewed quickly, "… But in a way, I suppose it's also my fault for not objecting."

The rising alarm in her tone surprised even him, as though she had felt his forgiveness slip away. Any sembiance of formality briefly vanished. No, her sincerity could no longer be in doubt. Besides, he did not have the energy to hold such a heavy grudge.

Sighing, he rolled his eyes. "Fine, then. I forgive you."

Even after uttering that, he found himself mulling over whether those words had been wholly sincere.

Alice heaved in relief. "Thank you, Flame. You have no idea how good that is to hear."

"Yeah, yeah. What did you mean to ask me?"

"Flame," Alice started, looking at him hopefully, "Would you like to work at Civil Protection with us?"

"Wha?" He blinked. "Sorry? I'm not sure I got that right…"

"Me and Gaius can't keep going on our own," Alice explained, "We need a new team member to support us on our missions. I know we didn't start on the best of terms but … would you like to be that someone? We'll help you through it all, I promise. I'm sure it could help you find out about your past, too!"

Woah, Flame thought, This is all a little too sudden for me. Heck, I don't even know what accepting this job would entail! Is it dangerous? Can I even trust these two? She's right though, it could help me figure out just what happened to me. And I do need somewhere to stay in the meantime…I don't have much of a choice, do I?

It would be a gamble; a leap into the unknown. Joining their organisation—he did not even trust these two! Yet to do so would provide him with food and a bed to sleep in, and this chance could not afford to be dismissed.

"Fine, then," Flame half-grumbled. "I accept."

"Wonderful!" Alice beamed, "It might be a difficult profession at times, but I promise you won't regret it. Come on, let's go! Gaius must be waiting for us."

I sure hope I won't... Flame mused, before he noticed that Alice had already taken off into the crowd.

"Hey, wait up!" he called out as he ran after her, "I don't know my way around here!"

Flame stared in wonder at his surroundings as he followed Alice further away from the square he had found himself in. All the town's inhabitants, buildings, decorations... it was almost too much to take in at once.

"You know, I should probably show you around a bit when we find the time," Alice remarked him when he asked just how big the place was.

The road narrowed and the number of pokémon around them all but plummeted as it begun its uphill stretch towards their destination. Flame did his best to ignore the nigh irritating amount of dirt and grime that covered the paved road in layers, leading him to seriously question whether the town bothered employing cleaners in the first place.

The houses all around them slowly disappeared from view, and, eventually, a big wooden sign pitched on the side of the road announced their arrival.

Welcome to Camp Tempest

Imperial Civil Protection Corps

Home of Task Force Aegis

"Here we are," Alice said as she briefly stopped to grant Flame a good view, "Camp Tempest."

Sure enough, what stood in front of them looked like some sort of military encampment, spanning the entirety of the barren hilltop. As the camp stretched wider, the large stone buildings in the middle gradually shifted to smaller, patched up tents that, to Flame's eyes, looked in serious danger of being carried away at the first gust of wind.

"Woah … is this where you guys live?" Flame wondered.

"Well, sort of. We don't live right here at the main district, but there are barracks nearby. The camp really isn't as big as it may seem. Come on, follow me," Alice said, speeding ahead of the new recruit.

Flame hastened his step as to not fall behind the nimble Dragonair. "Wait, where are we going?"

"Gaius said he'd meet us at the bulletin board," Alice explained, "He kept insisting that he wanted to check you personally."

"Check me?" Flame repeated, "What do you mean?"

"In all likelihood, he just wants to make sure that you're fit for the job. If I had to guess, he's going to ask you some questions about your combat experience and the like, and possibly give you a boring lecture about the rules you must follow."

Flame's eyes widened. "C-combat experience? But I've never…"

"Oh, hush," Alice dismissed him with a flick of her tail, "You'll be fine. There is plenty of time for you to learn everything."

Flame wasn't quite convinced with that last phrase, but took her word that it would turn out true.

Not much time had passed when they finally reached the bulletin board, which was essentially a large wooden panel attached to the side of a building. Its surface was littered with paper sheets, all of them featuring a description and a picture of various pokémon. Such was the number of posters that some had been stacked right on top of older ones, while others were glued to the nearby wall.

Sure enough, Gaius was there waiting for them, his back leaned against the stacks of paper behind him. Flame took notice of the fact that the Grovyle eyed him the entire time, an unreadable expression on his face. But other than that, he only showed signs of acknowledging his presence when they stood face-to-face.

"So…" Gaius started, his eyes scanning him head to toe, "You're Flame. The pokémon from yesterday, I presume. There aren't very many Charmeleons around here, after all."

"Yes, that's me. Sir," Flame answered quietly, quickly adding that word to the end. He wasn't sure whether the formality was needed at all, and forcing himself to show such respect to this Grovyle—the one who had locked him away, all for selfish interests!— revolted his stomach in disgust. But he figured it would be better to play it safe with his soon-to-be leader.

Gaius perked an eyebrow at the appellative, but continued nonetheless. "I don't even know why Alice bothered giving you a name, but I guess that makes it easier for me," he remarked as he drew a circle around the Charmeleon, mumbling something to himself

Flame was already starting to feel overly scrutinized when Gaius spoke.

"So, you want to join our team?"

"Yes," he answered simply, trying his luck by omitting the form of respect at the end. The Grovyle didn't seem to flip out at him, so he figured he was in the clear.

Good. At least I won't have to give up my dignity for this arsehole.

Gaius hummed in thought, shooting a disapproving glance at his chest. "You're really skinny. Your ribs are almost showing."

Flame cringed a bit as he looked down at himself, discovering that statement to be true. He hadn't paid much attention to it until now, but the effects of his malnutrition were starting to become evident. "I know…"

"How long has it been since you've last eaten?" Gaius asked.

Flame sighed; instinctively, he laid an ashamed paw on his chest to cover it. "Before you found me back there. Probably. I think."

Gaius's face grimaced slightly as he spat half to himself. "Of course, just what we needed ... another mouth to feed."

"That's not a problem, Gaius," Alice interjected, "I can take care of that."

"Are you sure?" Gaius asked, raising an eyebrow. Alice simply nodded back.

Gaius shrugged in indifference. "Bah, suit yourself…"

He turned back to Flame. "Tell me, Charmeleon, how well can you fight?"

That's the question Flame was worried about the most. Even with his amnesia blurring the lines of what he could have been good at in the past, there was an unwelcome feeling in his gut telling him that he did not use to be a very capable fighter. He began weighing the odds: would it be best to tell a lie, in the hopes that it would go unnoticed? No, he quickly convinced himself, the fact that he'd been asked that in the first place was a big red warning sign that this new job of his would require a great deal of fighting—his inexperience was destined to surface one way or another.

"Well … not really all that great … I mean, I'm not quite sure actually—"

Alice interrupted him unexpectedly. "Charmeleons are great fighters. I'm sure he can hold his own."

"Well, thank you for your kind help, Alice." Gaius sneered as he delivered her a glare, "But I sure as hell don't need your word on the matter."

"Actually, you do need my word on the matter. If you tried listening to me once in a while, then we wouldn't be in this whole mess."

"Oh, really?" Gaius said, his jaw tensing, "Well, I did listen to you for once. Just look at him!" He jerked a claw at Flame. "He's hungry, he's amnesiac, and barely even looks like he could last two minutes in a real fight. What good is taking him in going to bring us? He'd just be a hog on our resources."

Alice took a deep breath, before looking at her teammate with a dead serious expression. "Gaius. We already talked about this. It's what has to be done. The two of us can't do everything alone. Not after what Ariel said."

Gaius looked like he was ready to counter, but no words came out of his mouth. Instead, he stood still, his eyes shut in bitter thought.

Flame wasn't quite sure what to think. Would he really be a detriment to their team? Whatever the case, the fact that one of the two members didn't want him left a sour taste in his mouth. What if Alice was just acting out of pity, and in actuality he was just being a bother? An unwanted, unneeded addition that was trying to force itself down their throats?

The stream of questions in Flame's head was interrupted when he noticed Gaius stepping towards him; a claw jabbed at his chest. Immediately, he tensed.

Gaius closed the distance between their faces, his voice close to becoming a hiss. "Listen, Charmeleon, and listen well; I'm giving you a chance. You're on my team now. That means," He poked at him again. "You will follow my orders and do what I tell you to do. Until you prove yourself to be worth any more of my time and effort, you are nothing to me. Is that clear?"

Gulping, Flame nodded his head slowly, briefly holding his breath as if the action would enrage the Grovyle further.

"Good. Now Alice, since you were the one who came up with this brilliant idea, why don't you enlighten him on how our job works?" Gaius asked, extending his arm to point at the sea of posters behind him. With that, he went back to resting his back against it, uncaring of the material he may have been ruining.

"Fair enough." Alice commented, "Flame, do you see this bulletin board right here?" She pointed her head at the object in question. "Well, you're going to see it a lot here at Tempest. That's what most of our duties revolve around. To put it simply, every morning the board gets updated with a fresh list of tasks or errands for teams to carry out. Most of those you see right here, they're usually commissioned by worried citizens who seek help for their loved ones. Missing pokémon and the likes."

"Oh!" Flame hummed in realisation, "So you're like a rescue team?"

"Well … yes and no. While we do carry out tasks one would usually associate with a rescue team, that's only one half of the story. There are also … other kinds of jobs teams can choose that aren't pinned here. They're set up by Intelligence, and more often than not are a lot more dangerous than the standard ones. I've never done one personally, but I've heard some stories. Expeditions to the Wasteland, fighting off the strongest the Scum have to offer... That's where most of our casualties come from. But then again, those missions also pay very well."

Noticing Flame's look of alarm, she chuckled. "Don't worry. We don't intend on doing any of those things. Even if we wanted to, it's just not possible for us now."

"Really? Why?" Flame inquired.

Alice's face drooped at the question; Gaius grew noticeably more nervous too. The Dragonair was the one to answer. "After everything that happened yesterday, our team got … how shall I say this … deranked. Those kind of missions—the well paying ones—are now off-limits to us."

Flame decided to stop asking questions. Though Alice's friendly behaviour suggested otherwise, he knew all too well that his chances at landing a useful job were hanging on a very fragile thread, and the slew of curiosities going through his head would put him at risk. Everything would clear up in due time.

"Okay. I think I get it now." He nodded simply.

"Good." Gaius said, detaching his back from the wooden surface, "Now that that's out of the way, we should hurry to the registration office. It's getting late, I don't want it closing right when we need it."

Gaius began to walk off, and Alice was about to follow suit, when she noticed Flame wasn't moving. "Flame? What is it? It's time to go now."

"Alice…" he started after a few seconds of silence, "Do you think he's angry because of me?"

"Who? Gaius? Don't worry, I don't think he's mad at you personally. It's probably just everything that's been happening recently. It can get to you, sometimes."

Flame was relieved to hear that, but the vow he made to himself forbode him from pressing into further details.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Before long, they reached the registration office. The modest room wasn't unlike the lobby of the prison he'd been in earlier: barren, dusty and unwelcoming. The first hints of moonlight shone timidly through the high glazed window cut into the thick, stone wall, making sharp shadows of the torch brackets and sparse furniture.

"Here we are," Gaius said, "This is where all the magic happens. And by magic, I mean bureaucracy."

Behind a desk sat the only pokémon in the entire room, a goofy-looking frog creature with a slimy red sac under his chin—Flame couldn't help but feel a strange craving to poke it with his claws until it popped—and a red stinger on the back of each hand. It was handling stacks of paper by impaling them with his stingers, attempting to make some order.

"Hey Myco," Gaius said, "Got a few moments to spare us?"

"Hmm?" the Toxicroak raised his head from the stacks of paper, before giving them a large grin, "Oh, hello officers! Aren't you supposed to be down at the square with the legion?"

"Well, we … something came up." Gaius explained quickly, "Ariel's orders. Anywho, I need you to register a new member for my team. Name's Phalanx."

The Toxicroak nodded, before crouching under his desk to reach for something. Moments after, he re-emerged, a long sheet of paper in his hand. "Here's the form. Who's the lucky one?"

Flame raised his paw, and Myco handed him the contract. "Here you go," the Toxicroak said, "Just sign in the blank space at the bottom and you'll be golden. Unless you really, really want to read it. But no one does that anymore, right?"

Well, I do, Flame huffed mentally. Holding the form firmly with his claws, he started reading.

By signing this contract, the undersigned hereby takes charge of all responsabilities associated with his/her position as a public official…

His eyes gazed over the document, most of it proving to be little more than uninteresting legal blabber. However, one section towards the end managed to catch his attention.

agrees that the Imperial Civil Protection Corps cannot be held accountable for any health complications the undersigned may suffer on duty, including (but not limited to): malnourishment, acute back pain, migrane, insomnia, dismemberment, death. Furthermore, …

Flame winced. It must have been written with a worst-case scenario in mind, he thought—and dared not imagine otherwise; after all, risk was likely a trait closely tied to the profession (the contract in his claws stated that very clearly), a necessary evil that came with saving innocents' lives, part of a rescue team's moral obligation. It was only natural, then, he accepted, that they would warn a new rookie like him of what he should be expecting.

But, after rereading the same lines for the fourth time, he felt some chills run up his spine as he slowly considered the implications of what those words truly meant. For a moment, he doubted the sagacity of his choice. He could only really remember a day's worth of his entire life; was he already willing to put it at risk like that?

With a shake of his head, he forced those fears away. Yes, it was the right choice, and the only viable one at that. If he was to sign, he'd have friends to talk to, an entire organization to bring him back to his feet as he attempted to make sense of his life now. He'd be a fool to refuse.

Forcing his eyes off that paragraph, he passed on to the last few lines. At the foot of the document, just below a big blank space where he assumed his signature was supposed to go, were four big stylized letters:

S P Q U

Huh. Probably means something important, but I have no idea what. He made a mental note to look into that.

However, just as he was done reading the paper, his brain finally took notice that there was one small issue that needed to be addressed.

"Uh..." Flame turned to Alice, whispering, "Alice? How do I sign this?"

"What do you mean? Ink your claw, how else?" she suggested, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Flame looked at the ink container and his claw, and then back at the ink. Did he really have to do this? Let's just get this over with...

He turned his head to the side as he submerged a good half of his claws into the ink, hating every moment of it. He let the excess liquid drip back into its container and stared at his paw in near disgust, almost as if it had been tainted by the gooey substance. Then, in a quick motion, he hovered his paw over the document, before pressing it on the paper to imprint his 'signature'.

"There," Flame mumbled with gritted teeth, "Is that good enough?"

Unfortunately, the ink gashes were grossly off-target, covering a good part of the few final paragraphs. Myco stared at the ruined paper for a few seconds, probably wondering if it was still valid in the condition it was in.

"Erhm..." the Toxicroak delivered him an incredulous look and placed the paper somewhere under his desk, "Y-yeah, that looks about right. We'll have your badge ready for tomorrow. Don't forget to come by and pick it up!"

The moon had gained almost complete reign over the sky as Flame walked around rows upon rows of analogous tents, led by his newfound teammates. More and more pokémon were returning to their respective quarters, the tired look on their faces the result of a day's work load.

Eventually, Team Phalanx stopped in front of one particular tent. The front was pentagonal in shape, a wooden pole cutting through the middle to support it. The cloth itself was tattered beyond whatever beauty it might have boasted, barely held together by patches of different colours. Gaius slid the fabric to the side, motioning for him to enter.

He bit his lip silently and glanced down at his tail. One wrong move, and he was certain to set fire to the entire structure as soon as he stepped in.

"Uhm ... I don't want to accidentally burn the whole thing down." Flame pointed out, not entirely sure what he was going to accomplish by saying that. Would they leave him to sleep outside?

"Don't fret," Alice reassured him, "Your species' etheral fire is much less dangerous than ordinary one. Though do try not to brush your tail around too much, okay?"

Flame was only partially reassured, but it was just enough to convince him. Holding his tail tip up to his stomach, carefully shielded by his paw, he set foot inside, noting that he was still stepping on fresh soil.

"It's late," Gaius said, "Now you're going to eat something, and then you go to sleep. Got it? We start our work early in the morning, so I don't want to hear any complaints."

Flame sat himself on a stack of damp hay, which—one thing he learned today—he knew was going to be his bed.

He scanned every inch of space around him, lit by his tail flame, taking in the earthly smell that hung around in the air. The fact that he'd have to get used to calling this place home almost seemed alien to his mind; in fact, deep down he still felt like a complete stranger, both to the camp and... honestly, everywhere.

Why am I here? The question buzzed vainly in his head, but brought him nothing more than bitterness. He didn't have an answer.

Even as Gaius handed him out a shiny red apple—he remembered to utter his thanks—his mind was elsewhere, barely able to focus on the food. He churned through it in a matter of seconds, and the light aftertaste brought a small smile to his face.

"Did you like it?" Alice asked with a smile.

Flame looked to the side at his new teammates. The Dragonair was coiled up in her bed, while Gaius had just finished the last bite of his meal.

"Yeah. I really needed that. Thanks," He smiled back, not even trying to hide the gratitude in his tone.

However, she wasn't done quite yet, having caught something other than gratitude in his voice. "What's the matter, Flame? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing," he replied without a second thought, "I'm fine."

"You don't sound like it. You know you can talk to me, if you want." Alice offered, raising her head in a friendly nudging motion.

"It's … I was thinking. About home," he eyed the interior of the tent as he spoke, "About the fact that I can't even remember what it looks like."

"Oh, that's right," she muttered quietly, "Your amnesia. I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have brought that up."

"It's fine," Flame shut his eyes for a moment, breathing deeply, "I don't blame you. None of this is your fault."

A few seconds of quiet ensued, before he turned to Alice suddenly. "Do... do you know what it looks like down there? Down South?" Those words almost struggled to come out of his mouth. It was the logical thing to do, to keep some form consistency with the lie he'd told them yesterday, that he originated from the South; that way, they wouldn't doubt the veracity of his words.

Despite that, deep inside, he still felt rotten as he stared into the Dragonair's eyes. Those pokémon he wanted to befriend; so why was he lying to them so shamelessly?

"Oh, I remember the South…" Alice grinned distantly, her gaze gradually travelling upwards.

Flame raised a curious eyebrow. "Really?"

"Yes. I used to live there, as a matter of fact. Last time I've been there was … what, two years ago? Three? I'm not sure. Still feels like yesterday…"

"The South is just a place full of fat pricks who think they're so much better than everybody else because of their wealth," Gaius grunted as he searched through the racksuck on his bedside, "That's about everything you need to know."

Alice was left wordless from the bluntness of his comment. "Well … That's not entirely accurate. Sure, the pokémon there aren't the kindest around, but it's still a beautiful place. The blistering deserts, lush fields full of flowers, the stillness of the seaside … Maybe one day we'll be able to go there. I'm sure you'd remember everything in the blink of an eye. The things you see there, the air you breathe, you just can't forget."

"Maybe … maybe," Flame thought aloud, smiling lightly at the mental image she'd implanted in his head.

Gaius rolled his eyes and laid down on his hay stack, sleepily uttering something about shutting their mouths and going to sleep, before he rolled his body facing away from them. As soon as Flame saw that Alice was about to follow suit, he interrupted her before it was too late.

"Alice."

She lifted her head to look staight at him.

"I … I just wanted to ask you something. Yesterday, in that cave, you sounded like you knew what happened to me. If that's true, can you tell me? I need to know. Please."

"Flame…" Alice drew back, pity blossoming on her face, "Look, I can't be sure exactly what caused you to lose your memories. That was just an hypothesis I thought of on the spot."

"It's good enough," Flame's insistance mounted, "Anything would be good enough. I just want some sort of clue, something to help me understand."

Alice hesitated for a few seconds. "I just thought that, since I constantly hear all these stories about Scum starting to employ Psychics to attack our scout teams … Who knows, maybe the same thing happened to you. Maybe you were ambushed, and had your memories wiped away. Again, I wasn't there to see it happen." she caught Flame's frown of disappointment. "I'm really sorry, I wish there was something more I could tell you."

"Oh..." Flame sat in silence. Alice's answer rang of truth, sure, but if that was so, if he really had been attacked by these 'Scum', then why did everything feel so new to him? It was as if he'd never been in this world before, never seen its inhabitants or witnessed its geography. His psyche didn't have any evidence to prove it—of course; why would he? - but all this felt … wrong. Horribly, unnaturally wrong.

"You should go to bed now," Alice suggested caringly as she rested her head on her coils, "Tomorrow is going to be a long day."

"Yes … good night." he said distantly, arms wrapped around his knees as silence soon enveloped the tent.

Truth be told, he wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, to feel at peace with himself even if for a short time. But he couldn't. There were still many questions haunting his mind. He had succeded in keeping them at bay during daytime, when his attention was being occupied by more immediate problems, but now they'd forced their way to the forefront of his thoughts, demanding an answer.

Who am I?

He was Flame.



No, that wasn't it. That was just a name, and not even his true one at that. The question meant something much deeper: who was he? What was his identity? His profession? Where did he come from? Was his family worried about his disappearance? Did he even have a family somewhere out there?

Flame threw his head back, sighing in frustration, his shaky paws dashing cover his face as if someone was in danger of spotting the tears that welled in his eyes. Every so often his limbs would twitch as he fought to hold them back.

Who was I?

No answer came. He managed to calm himself, but without it, he felt purposeless.

And so, he surrendered himself to his meager bed, letting the high tide of sleep sweep him away to a better place.

This world... isn't...
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


End of Chapter II
 

Rainfall

minVP ADC atomic step action potential
Location
blue-green spinning rock
Pronouns
he/they
Partners
  1. minior
________________________________________

Hi Shadow of Antioch!

Here for Catnip at last! Sorry it's a very short and rather incomplete response for now, but it's Review Blitz, and I intend to return one way or another!

I really enjoyed the beginning of PMD: Rebirth!
Hope you're doing well, and look forward to seeing more if you're up for it!
__________

"The slumber of reason generates monsters."

-Francisco Goya

Ohh. Setting the tone and the work with the introductory quote line. Looking forward to how this theme plays out in the story, both directly and in potential over/undertones.
__________

You know, I really enjoy this start. I know it's been done before, in media res with someone speaking a line can really work.
"A brief gust of frigid wind accompanied his words of truth" is a lovely juxtaposition.

Sounds like Alice and Gaius are on a mission and on last legs with the Civil Protection unit, caught between a rock and a hard place. Survival comes first.
__________

I really quite enjoy certain types of neurological storytelling! [Flame] is really have a miserably lightless time, knowing nothing and freezing to death. It was good he stumbled upon Alice and Gaius... or was it?
__________

Gaius is certainly the bad cop, and Alice is certainly the caring one... though it appears even she is torn on whether to continue being so at the expense of her pair team's survival.

Civil Protection does sound good on the surface, but Flame is smart to be wary of names alone.

Portal storms sound ominous.

Flame doesn't remember anything, so the above-ground is amazing.
__________

Your scenery description is wonderful. Spearhead Valley is fine and shows prowess. Dauntingly so.

The CP pair aren't the only ones caught between rock and a hard place. Flame is certainly in a rough rescuee/prisoner-like situation.
__________

They've been traveling for a while. I do appreciate that there appear to be many more numbered routes in this world.

I still don't know what Scum are, but I'm dying to find out more info.

And poor Flame. Treated as a tool by the very end. Even if Alice is feeling guilty, there's things at stake.
__________

Great first chapter! Again, I really appreciate the imagery also the stakes set at the outset in this world.
________________________________________
 
Chapter III: Diagnosis

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter III: Diagnosis


"Founded on the ashes of the old Republic, the Empire stands alone in the eternal fight against the most wicked enemy of all: ignorance. The world's only sturdy bastion of civilization and wisdom shall not be expunged by the likes of barbaric fleas. They come to our carefully sown lands, spreading terror and destruction, endangering our citizens with their witchcraft; for it is all their inferior minds can grasp. As we have done in the past, we must rise against this newfound threat. The pax will go on indefinitely, and we will not stop until the tenets of our knowledge have spread to every last inhabitant of this world.

Long live his highness Augustus Adrian. Long live the Empire." SPQU




He lay battered as the bombs fell. Though powerless to act, he could hear everything as if it were happening in front of him. Through the darkness, the rumble of falling debris, voices, crackling flames, then a small explosion. Bones cracked and the bodies of the fallen hit the ground as the world shook. He heard alarms and gunshots and felt the dust against his face.

Suddenly, a door opened. Footsteps. A pair of arms wrapped around him protectively.

A voice. "We'll get you out of here."

Those words blurred into the darkness.


Gasping for air, Flame jerked awake. His heart was pounding his chest. Clearing the grogginess out of his eyes, he looked around him. He was in a tent, sprawled on a stack of hay and with two other beds strewn by his side.

Quickly, he remembered. He lived here now. This was his new home.

Rays of warm sunlight filtering through the cloth caressed his scales gently, helping him regain his bearings after the confusing experience he'd just lived through. Though he did feel slightly hot, he figured that was the usual weather around here, something he'd have to become accustomed to as the days went by.

… But he wasn't quite sure he'd ever get accustomed to what he saw that night.

What was that? He asked himself, baffled beyond words. It was a dream, that much he knew, all the available evidence pointed to it; he could distinctly recall going to bed the night before, and he'd just woken up a few minutes ago. So it must have happened somewhere in between. Only a number of disjointed segments came to mind; noises, smells, a phrase uttered by a faint masculine voice.

Who was talking to me? Do I know him? Curious as he might have been to find out, those questions were immediately discarded in favour of another one: Did all that have something to do with my past?

Was that a flashback of sorts, portraying what had happened to him before he lost his memories? While the question was high on hopes, the answers fell flat on their face. No, he quickly concluded, it was much more reasonable that it had been simply the work of his scarred psyche, a fever dream hastily glued together to try to fill the gaping void left behind from his amnesia.

Claws ran absentmindedly through the single straws of hay as Flame frowned. He wished that the dream would have contained some sort of revelation about his past, he really did; but try as he might, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there was some kind of link and still keep a straight face.

"Flame?" Alice's voice reached his ears, drawing his attention away. The Dragonair's head was peeking curiously through the entrance of the tent. "You're up already? I was going to give you a little extra time to sleep for today, but it seems like you've already adapted to our schedule. That was much faster than I expected."

As Flame stood up lazily, she slid the rest of her body into the tent. The first thing he noticed was the loot sack slung half-way around her serpentine neck, the straps fastened in a way so it wouldn't fall back down.

"By the way," Alice started, "Gaius passed by the registration office earlier. He told me to give you this."

Then, looking down at her rucksack, she proceeded to reach its flap opening with her tail – a process simultaneously clumsy and slow.

It took her several minutes of teeth-gritting and meddling with the tip of her tail before she managed to lift the flap and actually keep it still. By then, her face was already tinted a noticeable shade of red, the uneasy expression suggesting that she felt everything but comfortable right now.

"It's in there somewhere. Take it," she said meekly, motioning to the bag with a jerk of her head.

Flame complied unquestioningly, leaning forward and putting a paw inside the bag to search its contents. He found the object of interest almost right away, buried underneath an apple and some sort of shiny blue orb. Grabbing it with his other paw, he held the badge in between his thumb and index claw to marvel at its details.

A stylized helmet complete with a decorative crest was drawn in the centre, with letters circling the drawing which read: ICPC – Task Force Aegis.

"What does Aegis mean?" Flame wondered aloud, twisting the badge on its back.

Alice, most of the embarrassment on her face now shaken off, was quick to fill his curiosity. "Good question. To put it simply, Civil Protection is not an organization that abides to a central leadership like many others. 'Tis a conglomerate of various regional task forces, each of which has its own sphere of influence where it operates. Task Force Aegis, as you might have already guessed, is tasked with defending the northern provinces of the empire."

'Defend' it? Defend from what? Flame thought as Alice carried out with her explanation. He felt tempted to ask her, but figured that they probably didn't have much time left to chat—the thought somehow left him disappointed—and his many questions would end up dragging the conversation on for too long.

"… As for the word itself, Aegis is an Oldspeak term that roughly translates to 'shield'," Alice finished.

Oldspeak? As in, an ancient tongue?

"Before you ask, Oldspeak used to be the spoken a long time ago, and many of its terms are still in use today," Alice added quickly, "Interesting how even though it's found in almost every aspect of our lives, barely anyone studies it anymore."

"And you did?" Flame questioned, unable to ignore that evident detail in her way of speaking.

It may have only been his brain playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn Alice's cordial smile quivered for a moment. "Yes. That was a long time ago, though," She paused a few seconds, before clearing her throat, "Anyways, we should probably get a move on. Our team usually aims to be outside town by eight. You have a couple more minutes to get ready."

Flame spent those few precious minutes sitting on his bed, working out the last knots out of his neck and attempting to set his brain straight for the day ahead.

"Wait, aren't we going to… you know, eat something first?" Flame asked as Alice led him out of the barrack complex, "We're just going to leave? Right away?"

"Exactly," Alice answered plainly, "Even if we did have the luxury of being able to pay for breakfast, the bulletin boards are updated at the break of dawn, so every other team in the entire base is going to try and snatch the most advantageous jobs from right under our noses. The sooner we settle for a job, the better."

"Oh … makes sense, I guess." Flame frowned as they entered the main area of the camp, more and more pokémon rushing past them the farther they walked. Maybe eating breakfast just wasn't a ritual upheld by everyone in this town.

"As soon as we're outside, we'll see if we can find something to fill our stomachs with. Does that sound good?" Alice compromised, an unspoken invitation not to feel bad for himself.

Flame didn't answer immediately. For some odd reason, he felt many gazes stuck on him, watching his every movement, and it was becoming hard to focus on conversing with that one bothersome thought in mind. Looking around, he noticed a small group of pokémon staring curiously, before all unanimously averted their eyes as soon as they noticed they'd been spotted, going back to murmuring something amongst themselves.

Flame was puzzled to say the least, but decided to let that slide, assuming they had simply noticed that his face was a new one. "Y-yeah. Sounds good."

"Oh, and please," Alice implored, "Try not to mention that topic around Gaius. He gets all iffy at the thought of it."

"Alright. Sorry for bringing that up…" he said sadly, bowing his head, She had already done so much to help him; who did he think he was, making such demands of them?

"It's fine," she reassured him, "I know how hard it is to adapt, especially considering what comforts you must have been used to before losing your memories. It sure was for me. Anyway, let's take one thing at a time."

That answer did more than its intended purpose: it sparked an internal debate within the Charmeleon. Was it plausible that he was actually from this South, as Alice kept bringing up? It would make sense if his habits matched with the geographic area he had falsly claimed to have been born in. What if, from uttering a lie, he had actually told the truth inadvertedly?

Of course, he had zero evidence available that could prove the arguments of either side or the other, no way of being absolutely certain that it was anything more than a far-fetched theory of his, but it was definitely something to consider.

It wasn't long before the two finally reached the bulletin board. The problem was, though, that Flame almost failed to recognize it, so thick was the pandemonium of pokémon clustered around it. He couldn't help but feel claustrophobic, with so many colours and smells filling his senses, almost as if they were applying an ever increasing amount of pressure on his body the more joined in the fray. Almost everyone was shouting something at their teammates, and discarded posters littered the ground in what seemed like an absolute mess.

Gee, she wasn't kidding when she said 'every team in the entire base'. Flame noted sourly, sweat beginning to form on his scales. Somehow, Alice was able to carve a path in the crowd and lead him through it—he did his best to ignore all the pokémon rushing and cutting off his step, almost causing him to trip backwards. Sure enough, somewhere at the front of the crowd was Gaius. The Grovyle's eyes looked all but cut off from reality as he scanned every poster individually, mumbling something in resentment.

"Gaius?" Alice bumped his shoulder with her nose, hoping to bring their presence to his attention.

"Uh?" Gaius blinked multiple times and turned around, his eyes darting quickly between his two teammates.

Flame's brain barely registered his slight flinch, possibly because of an acquired fear that Gaius would automatically be mad at him for whatever reason; but his team leader was too preoccupied with other matters to pay him much attention.

"There you are. What took you two so long?" Gaius raised his voice, more to be heard over the chatter all around them than from anger.

"I was just talking him through the process," Alice answered as rapidly as she could, "How about you? Any luck?"

"Nothing…" Gaius groaned in frustration, "Today's another one of those days. Everything I've looked through is either off-limits because of our rank or it pays so little that I wonder what those guys who commissioned it were expecting."

"You know there's not many who can offer large sums of money anymore," Alice pointed out with pity, "We can't blame them for trying to get by."

"Yeah, and how are we supposed to get by? Working for basically nothing?"

It was then, as the two discussed, that Flame noticed something tickling the underside of his foot. Curious, he lifted it off the ground, only to find an old, ragged poster laying there, partially covered by dirt that he must have kicked accidentally. Who knows, he thought, maybe it could help resolve his team's current issue.

He reached down and grabbed it with his claws, trying to shake the grainy material off the paper. The poster was all crumbled up, as if it'd been discarded without a thought, and the corners were full of rips and tears, but the text was still quite legible. Holding it in front of his face and squinting his eyes, he began to read.

Yesterday, a group of independent researchers (headed by Dr. Ignatius Breloom) has been reported missing after failing to return from an expedition at Treehound Cove. They are believed to be trapped within the local spacial anomaly. A reward of 12000 Poké will be handed out to any team who successfully investigates the site.

Twelve thousand? Flame thought with increasing excitement, That sounds amazing!

"Hey, guys," Flame waved his paw in between his teammates to catch their attention, "I think you should take a look at this!"

Gaius snatched the poster from his grasp, with Alice leaning to her side to judge its significance.

"Twelve thousand?" Gaius said uncertainly, "That's barely enough to last us a week…"

Flame drooped. How could that be possible? Such a big number, how could it amount to so little value? To avoid plaguing himself with yet another unanswered question, he quickly settled for asking Alice about it later.

"Gaius, don't be such a downer!" Alice remarked, "This is perfect! It's simple enough that we can teach Flame comfortably, and the pay is pretty decent, too. Certainly better than anything you usually see, isn't it?"

After a few seconds of silence, realising the futility of opposition, Gaius heaved in defeat. "Ah, sod it. I guess it's settled. We're going to Treehound Cove," he snuck a look at Flame. "Good job on…" Gaius suddenly hesitated, his face quickly reverting back to its serious state.

Flame was left disappointed. The praise of his team leader was something that would have brought up his confidence—especially with the snobbed treatment he'd become accustomed to. Instead, nothing.

Gaius crumbled the poster and tossed it inside his rucksack. "Alright, now that we got that out of the way, all we need to do is claim this over at the registry and we'll be on our way."

With that, they walked off to the very same path they'd taken yesterday. Flame was about to follow along, when he noticed something wasn't right. The exact words to describe what he was feeling were as though suddenly condensating into vapour, right along with the ability to move his legs. Weary of something not being completely right, his eyes darted around his entire cone of vision in alarm. For a second or so, he could have sworn he saw someone spying him from a distance, some sort of one-eyed ghost… However, it was gone as quickly as he spotted it.

What the—? he rubbed his eyes to make sure that it wasn't just residual sleep playing tricks on him, and once again saw nothing. His legs were still mobile as well.

I must be seeing things… he scratched his head. Maybe I'm just paranoid about everything that's been going on. But right now, I need to catch up to Alice and Gaius before I lose them.


Route 167

Before he knew it, Flame was outside. After catching up with his teammates, the process of validating their job had been ridiculosly quick; the Toxicroak at the desk, Myco, carried evident signs of the dozens of pokémon that went there ahead of them, and signed the warrant in a flash—without even reading it, Flame mused.

From there, it was only a short walk through town until they reached the city walls, and got through the south-western entrance. The guard manning it was the same Bisharp whom he'd met the first day, and although he let them pass without complaint, this was not without its fair share of suspicious looks.

And now, there he was, strolling under the refreshing sunlight along a path leading in the opposite direction from the one he'd used to first enter town—warmth which didn't last very long, Alice warned him, so he ought to enjoy it while he could. Overgrown plants spilled over the pathway's confines, spreading like parasitic wildfire from the untamed prairie nearby.

As they marched on to what would effectively be his first concrete experience of his job's true nature, his fleeting thoughts could all but shy away from what would be expected of him on the field. Already he assumed he would likely have to engage in some form of combat or another, but how would he or his reputation manage to go through that unscathed? He would be crushed, annhilated! A quivering thing he imagined himself, unable to strike a single blow against the enemy! Sure, Alice did reassure him that her and Gaius would teach him through the process, but what meaningful use would they find in having to drag an inexperienced recruit like him around with them, needing so much precious time and resources and giving back none? They'd sooner abandon him on the side of the road and try their luck alone.

It would have helped to know an extra thing or two about what to expect, particularly this 'spacial anomaly' the poster referred to, but when he voiced his curiosity all she said was: "It's… complicated. Too complicated to explain like this. Wait until we get there."

With the awkward silence between the three broken, Gaius caught his chance to lecture him a fair bit. "… and make sure to keep note of everything you will see today, cause there's going to be a lot of things to take in at once." he stopped suddenly, eyeing something on the side of the road. "Wait here. There's something I need to check."

Under Flame's perplexed look, Gaius proceeded to walk off the path and towards one particular plant—a tall and stubby shrub with bright blue berries hanging from its stalks, as well as some splattered by gravity at its base. The gecko climbed the plant with ease, being naturally fit for that kind of activity. Hooking himself with one set of claws and causing the shrub to ondulate under his weight, he used his free paw to inspect the berries within his reach. Some Gaius approved of and held in his palm, others he dropped to join in on the sticky mess that was the terrain below. Before long, the entire shrub was stripped of its precious spoils.

After jumping down, Gaius returned to his team, keeping his paw open to show the meager amount of berries collected. There were only five or six at most. "This bunch was all I could find. Most of the others had been spoiled for a long time," he held out his arm. "Now, take one each and I'll store the rest for later; we're going to need them."

Flame looked down bewildered at the small berry in his palm, not much bigger than one of his teeth.

It was as though something mind-blowing had shattered his perception of the world around him. Yes, Alice did mention that they weren't able to afford a proper meal, but—this! This could barely even be considered a snack, and they all were supposed to accept it as a full-on meal!

Perhaps he didn't really take his teammates' words seriously when they kept bringing up just how much economic strain they were under, hadn't understood the full extent of the situation yet.

Only now, staring at the berry in his paw, did he realise just how bad it must have been.

Is … is this what they do every day? Try their luck with the wilderness? He thought shocked and looked at his companions, which had by now consumed their 'breakfast'. Nothing in their features hinted that this event was anything out of the ordinary, nor did they consider it as such.

That must be why they want my help so badly, why she managed to convince Gaius to take me in! Flame processed, feeling beyond stupid for not having understood this before.

Nonetheless, he gulped the berry down without a word. It was surprisingly tasty for such a small fruit, a sort of bitter-sweet flavour that leaked a strange feeling of vitality throught his body. It eventually faded away though, and the three soon returned to the path.

He almost felt ashamed at the thought of how, before now, his only real aim to set his life straight, to receive decent enough food and shelter to keep himself afloat as he tried to search for clues about his past. How selfish he was being! No, he couldn't reason with that frame of mind anymore. It was his rightful duty, he felt, as a member of Team Phalanx to repay those that had allowed him to even become such.

Flame breathed in deeply. He puffed his chest and clenched his fists, setting aside all worries and insecurities about his identity and past. Those would have to wait. Right now, his teammates needed help to turn their lives around, and he was not about to let them down.

He couldn't afford to.

"…Oh, come on!" Flame nudged Alice for the second time in a row, sincerely hoping that he wasn't beginning to bother her, "It can't be that hard. There must be something you can tell me about these 'mysterious dungeons' or whatever they're called."

"Alright," Alice sighed in defeat, "I would have preferred to let you see everything for yourself, but if you insist. Mystery dungeons are a place where the laws of reality are … distorted."

Flame tilted his head at that last sentence, giving her a strange look.

"See, this is why I wanted you to witness it with your own eyes!" Alice groaned in frustration.

"Oh, nononono! It's fine, really!" Flame shook his head furiously, "What I wanted to say is… it doesn't make any sense. How can reality be changed?"

"Dungeons don't make any sense, Flame," Alice pointed out duly, "You're just going to have to take my word for it. Do you still want me to continue? We're not very far from our destination; I can see the forest from here."

"Please do," Flame nodded softly, unsure why he was insisting in spite of the latter point. Maybe he was just enjoying talking to her.

"Alright. Basically, dungeons are like their own little universe. Once you're in, you can't just turn around and go out the same way. Even if you try running in a direction for a long time, you will still be trapped. The only way to escape is to find the exit. If you don't, if you can't find your way out, you will simply remain there. Forever. Some say you become a part of the dungeon itself."

"Oh," Flame blinked, a queasiness suddenly intruding upon his stomach, "Wow … o-okay. Is there … anything else I should know about?"

"Yeah," Alice remembered suddenly, "Most of these places are bustling with feral activity, so we must keep an eye out for that."

"Uhm…" he gulped, "Don't mean to be such a downer, but this sounds like a place I would not want to be in. Why are we going there, again?"

Gaius thought it would be a good time to interject. "Because the two of us have already gone through dozens of these, and as such have some idea of what we're doing. Just follow our lead, and you'll be f—"

Then, out of nowhere, a gelid wind threatened to knock Flame off his feet, chilling him to the bone for the time it licked at his scales. His vision faltered, and everything went dark for a few seconds. But, faster than his brain could process, all light came back and the wind cut abruptly. Now he was confused and dizzy.

"There!" whispered Alice hurriedly, "Did you feel that?"

"The wind? Yeah, I did…" Flame answered slowly, "Why, does that mean something?"

He couldn't quite get his head around it, but he felt this ominous sensation that something around him had changed. Did it become dark all of a sudden?

Drawing a circle with his head, he immediately noticed that the trees weren't the same anymore. They rose much higher now, their sharp branches interlocking to create what was effectively a frail ceiling of leaves hanging above their heads. Some sunlight managed to seep in through small gaps, but the rest was suffocated outside, leaving the creatures below in a state of partial darkness.

Wary, he quickly came to the conclusion that this was not the same place he was in before the wind hit.

Gaius could only confirm his theory. "Yes. It means we've just entered the mystery dungeon. There's no way back now. Stay sharp."


Treehound Cove B1F

Not ten seconds into the dungeon, Flame already wished he was outside.

The stench of decomposing plants loitered in the air, summoning forth an unpleasant feeling of nausea in the back of his throat. Even walking managed to feel like a chore, with the ground sporting large patches of this almost gooey substance that latched onto his feet.

This place gives me the creeps, He was tempted to say openly, trying his best to pinch his nostrils shut.

Gaius had spontaneously decided to lead the group ahead—he was the team leader, after all—and Flame didn't utter a word of complaint; his navigation skills must have certainly been superior to his.

"Alright, listen up," Gaius turned to Flame specifically, "We are currently trying to find a path to the next section of the dungeon. There is no way of knowing where that is, so we'll have to rely on blind luck to get there. Until then, stay behind me and keep your eyes and ears open. And for the love of Arceus, do not stray off the main path."

And so, Flame heeded the advice. Just like he'd been told, he took the time to inspect every minute detail of these novel surroundings.

Distant chirps and buzzes echoed throught the forest, accompanied by the occasional crack of dried leaves, and crisp-like roots sprung out of the ground. A branch tore off from the trunk of a nearby tree just as he peered up, narrowly missing his face and forwarding more than a couple of questions about the forest's health status.

"I get the feeling a tree could fall on top of me at any moment…" Flame remarked openly, keeping a small amount of attention upwards as to safeguard against any further incoming objects.

"It won't," Alice said, "Trust me, I've traversed lots of dungeons, some in even more deplorable condition than here, and nothing major ever happened. Well, there was that one time though … Actually, never mind. I'm sure that doesn't count."

Just as she said that, they turned onto a small clearing—one that actually allowed sunlight in for a change. But the feature that immediately caught the eye, sitting right in the middle, was a set of pure-white marble stairs that jugged out of the layer of dried mud and leaves, and extended all the way to a thick aggregatation of the local flora, whereupon it blurred out of sight.

Not very far from it was a quadruped, purple pokémon covered with spikes with its back turned to them, seemingly too preoccupied with feasting lavishly upon the bloody carcass at its feet to notice the intruders.

Flame turned his head away from the sickly display, and Gaius slowly led them to the stairway, a claw held before his nose to call for silence.

As she started ascending, Alice turned when she noticed that Flame was still on the ground, not entirely convinced at what they were about to do.

"What are you doing?" Alice lowered her voice to a whisper, "We mustn't get separated. Hurry up here!"

"But … why are there stairs in the middle of a forest?" Flame asked doubtfully, "Where do they even—"

At this point, the Nidorino lapsed out of its savage lust just enough to discern that it was not quite alone anymore. It turned sharply, flashing its blood-dripping teeth and emitting a soft growl.

Seeing little point in objecting, Flame rushed up the steps.


Treehound Cove B2F

His brain didn't really have the time to process what exactly had happened, but next thing he knew, he was in another clearing, finding it difficult to sustain himself with both legs, and the stairway had puffed out of existance.

"What?! H-how did we…" Flame stammered and racked up his thoughts, trying to make actual sense of what he just saw, "I'm honestly confused. We went up the stairs, and yet … this is still the same level? We went up … and at the same time we didn't…"

"Don't know," Alice answered with a shrug of her tail, "Nobody knows. It's like I told you: mystery dungeons don't make any sense. You just have to deal with whatever they throw at you."

He scratched his chin lightly; to be honest, the whole deal with the stairs was a little too ridiculous to digest, though her words echoed of truth after what he'd witnessed just now.

Gaius coughed forcibly to catch their attention. A sly grin was burned on his face, giving him an air of smugness. "Hey Flame, since I'm curious as to how well you'd fare with navigation, why don't you lead us through the floor?"

Flame's pupils dilated in surprise, taken aback by the offer. This was it, he realised, this was the way he was going to be judged!

"Wait, I don't think I should—"

"Come on, I'm sure you can handle that! Hell, I'll even let you choose the way. Left or right?" Gaius asked, alluding to the two only paths leading out of the muddy clearing.

I can't opt out. Otherwise he's going to think I'm a coward. Flame's head snapped alternatingly between the two exits. Considering he didn't have the slightest idea of which way the stairs were, he figured following his gut instinct was the best option he had.

"Uhhh … Left?"

"Left it is, then! Onwards!" Gaius echoed, uncharacteristically cheerful.

It might have been his imagination, it might not have been true, but Flame sensed a tone of ridicule in the way he said that. Not letting that thought torment him for too long, he took the path back into the forest, with his teammates now in tow. It was with pleasure that he noted how the terrain was generally dried and less muddy on this floor, and that rendered walking a more bearable activity. Despite that however, the smell of ongoing decay still tortured his nostrils, and the general sense of nervousness brought by the dungeon still persisted relentlessly.

How on earth am I supposed to lead them through here? He groaned mentally, All I know about this place is that it's dangerous and it makes no sense. Making me guide them around almost feels like a way for him to make a fool of me. That's exactly what this is all about, isn't it? He knows I won't be able to do it, and he's trying to find a reason to justify kicking me out. So my permanence on this team depends on this, too!

Still, it could have been worse, he supposed. For a starter, he was simultaneously puzzled and relieved that they hadn't encountered a single wild pokémon yet. Was it a stroke of luck, or was it conceivable that in truth they were being followed, and the enemy was patiently lingering for the right time to strike?

If he had to guess, it was probably the latter.

Eventually, they found themselves at a crossroads, two smaller paths branching off the main one. Flame looked down each passage, but could not find any distinguishing features that suggested going one way instead of the other. He was about to take a step towards the one to his right, when Alice stopped him.

"Hang on. See those vines?" Alice said, using her snout to point at a plant he hadn't really assigned any importance to. It was a mash of green and orange tendrils jutting out of the ground, almost like an out-of-water algae. With its relevance in his brain scaled up, he began to notice that there were many others as the path advanced.

"Carnivine. They pass themselves off as plants, and as soon as you get close you'll be swallowed whole. There are too many to sneak around. I suggest we go the other way."

Flame nodded in understanding. "All right. Thanks for the heads up."

Alice shook her head as if to say 'Why thank me? It's a pleasure to help you out."

Although she didn't say that aloud, Flame was at a loss for words. Instead, he merely smiled back and proceeded onwards.

Now more than ever he felt the nagging worry that something would go wrong; he could already picture the scenario: he would do something idiotic, an action or lack thereof that defied all reasonable logic. What if his teammates were to be put in danger by his ineptitude, or even worse, the entire mission would end up a big, epic fiasco?

That fear would soon be put to the test; not long after they headed deeper into the forest, a high-pitched battle cry sounded from behind them.

"Get down!" Flame shouted and ducked instinctively, just in time to feel something something feathered whizzing past his head. Alert, he rose back immediately and looked around to try and get a visual on the attacker, with the help of Gaius' directions.

"Pidgeotto! Twelve o' clock!"

By the time he spotted it, the bird was already turning back around, its wing coated by a sharp whiteish glow. It took Flame a second to realise something: it was diving right at him!

Suddenly finding himself deep in terror, his first instinctual response was to run, but he found his legs sluggish and unresponsive. Then, as the distance between them shrunk, the strategic portion of his brain imploded spontaneously. His heartbeat was already fluttering wildly when he reacted in the only way he could think of—raising his arms weakly to shield his face somewhat.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Alice draw her head and summon a small sphere of electricity between her jaws, but he ignored that and squeezed his eyes shut; the feral would strike his body any second now!

An audible buzz of static filled the air, followed by a loud squawking. No pain came.

Flame uncovered his eyes to see the Pidgeotto flapping its wings like a madman, veering to the side ungracefully—it almost crashed to the ground—and just barely avoiding the second net of electricity coming its way. Staying aloft solely on its forward momentum, the bird retreated into the narrow space between the thick vegetation, disappearing from sight.

"Stupid feral," Alice spat to no one in particular, "How did it shake my thunder wave off like that?"

"Is-is it gone?" Flame asked breathlessly, feeling his body tremble.

"No," Gaius claimed with an air of knowing, "Ferals don't just give up so easily. Watch your back, it might try and attack us from a better spot."

"O-okay…" Flame muttered uncertainly, suddenly becoming aware of the kind of message his body language must have been sending. He straightened his posture and hardened the expression on his face, but it was far too late.

"And don't think I didn't see that," Gaius hissed in barely contained anger, "You weren't even trying to strike back! Listen, I think it's coming back around; one flamethrower and you can bring this fight to an end … Gosh, do I need to be the one to tell you?"

Swallowing his pride, Flame drove his feet further into the ground to try and gain a better footing. His eyes wandered to every opening between the trees large enough for something to pass through. The Pidgeotto would storm back into battle at any moment, and he knew it.

Okay, Flame attempted to soothe his spirit, I can do this. I remember breathing fire back in the cave, so there's no reason for me not to do it again … Yeah, blast that thing right out of the sky!

Summoning all his mental strength, he closed his eyes and pictured a small tongue of fire crackling happily in his stomach, swaying left and right erratically. He imagined the flame growing bigger and bigger, his eagerness to impress his companions serving as imaginary fuel. The fire had grown enough to fill his belly, and then—!

"Khwaaahhhh!"

His eyes snapped open. For a second, fear corroded his concentration, but he barred it from taking control. Facing the direction of the battle cry, he saw the feral launching itself at him with all its stength, its beak enveloped in white light. This was it! His snout parted, he drew his breath deeply, imagined the fire growing and raging out of control, until…!

… Nothing happened.

If possible, Flame was even more frozen with fear than before. My fire breath! W-where?! Why can't I…? Oh, fu—

A heavy weight slammed into his chest, and just like that all the air was forcibly sucked out of his lungs. His body was pushed back a couple of feet and was well on its way to performing a backflip when he slammed his back painfully onto the ground.

Dazed, he lay there for ten seconds or so, before sitting up as soon as he regained his mental bearings—what was he doing, only lazing about while his teammates were still fighting!

However, they didn't seem to necessitate his help. Even though a second Pidgeotto seemed to have joined the fray, his companions managed to dispose of them with only marginal difficulty; the first flew straight into Alice's short but concentrated burst of cobalt flames and consequently spiralled out of control, before plummeting into a nearby bush. Its shrieks of pain from being set alight didn't stop even after it hit the ground. Shortly afterwards Gaius managed to leap up and deliver the second bird a sharp cut with his leaf blade, slicing through wing tissue and bones and causing it to crash-land a short distance away. It scurried away in a trail of blood, nursing its disabled wing.

Team Phalanx was only granted peace when the first Pidgeotto's screeching met an abrupt halt; then, silence befell.

Sluggishly, Flame alternated looks between his teammates, and then looked back at himself. The wild pokémon's attack hadn't actually hurt him that much; the damage was confined to a shallow cut running along his upper chest, where his protected layers of scales seemed to have held strong for the most part. The gravest blow, however, had been dealt to something else.

"You useless piece of…" Gaius stopped short of insulting him, clenched fists seething with resentment, "What the hell is wrong with you? Why stand there like an idiot instead of using your fire breath?"

Flame felt himself shrink before his grievousness. "I-I tried … I swear I did, but the fire w-wouldn't come!"

"Why, I must have forgotten that you South dwellers are kept so sheltered that your parents don't even bother teaching you the most basic moves!"

"Gaius, cut him some slack," Alice said in an annoyed tone, "It's probably his first time in combat, so stop making such a fuss about everything. We haven't even cleared the second floor yet!"

Gaius' jaw tensed so earnestly that Flame thought he was forcefully denying exit to the stream of colourful insults stacked in his mind.

"Fine, you win. Let's just go."

Much to Flame's thankfulness, the stairs leading to the next section of the dungeon only required ten or so minutes of walking, rousing the hope that Gaius would transfer focus back to the mission and away from his actions during the battle. Yet, he felt the Grovyle's burning gaze char the back of his skull at alternating intervals, and couldn't help but wonder whether his judgment was already set in stone.


Treehound Cove B4F

The next two floors went by relatively smoothly, a fact that seemed to surprise even his teammates. Only a handful of wild pokémon stumbled across Team Phalanx's path, and all of them were dispatched of in an orderly fashion by either Alice's ranged attacks or Gaius' leaf blade slashes. Flame would have readily been eager to throw himself into battle, even in the line of fire should such a risky tactic have been deemed necessary, anything to clear himself of his now-blackened slate.

Except he couldn't. Shortly after they gained entry to the third floor, Alice had addressed him personally. Regrettably, she advised him to try and keep a distance from any sort of fighting for now, and to instead remain safe in the sidelines while he slowly assimilated tactics and behaviours to mimic from watching the two of them—combat experience, she had called it.

He preferred 'nuisance control'.

It was clear that she meant all the good in the world, that her intentions were unquestionably benign. Yet he still couldn't help but feel like a purposeless fixture whenever a wild pokémon showed up, doing nothing but sit there collecting dust.

"So…" Flame started, munching half-heartedly on the half-rotting apple he'd picked as they climbed up a steep hillside, "How much longer do we have to go? Just how big is this place?"

"I'm not sure, actually," Alice confessed, "Dungeons are always shifting, so the number of floors never stays consistent. It shouldn't be much longer before we get to where those researchers disappeared. If we're lucky, the next floor might just be the last."

Flame grimaced in revulsion and let the barely edible apple fall out of his hold. He'd chewed on the parts that were still somewhat safe to eat, but the rest of the fruit was just too abhorring to even touch—the flies certainly didn't help with that feeling.

Why have I become so hungry ever since entering this place? Flame cursed the mystery dungeon and all its oddities, It would help if all the food around here wasn't already in a state of decay…

"Hey!" Alice exclaimed suddenly, "Look over there! Is that a Sitrus Berry?"

Sure enough, dangling from a poking tree branch, were about a dozen yellow, pear-shaped berries. Most of them were rotten beyond edibility, as testified by the colony of insects swarming around them and the mold that was beginning to form, but Alice had her eyes settled on a ripe one that sat on the ground.

"Holy Arceus…" Gaius said excitedly and picked the fruit up, "I thought these things went extinct! I could make a good buck from selling this. Or maybe save somebody from near death," he chuckled, as if not taking that last part seriously himself.

Flame stood quiet and didn't make any attempt to talk, and soon they were back on their course, with one extra fruit in their sacks.


Treehound Cove B5F

"Uhhh… Alice? Gaius?"

Something was wrong. Just a moment ago he'd been climbing up the newest set of stairs right behind his teammates. Now, he saw that he was standing in yet another clearing, alone.

"Guys? Are you there?" he raised his voice, looking around in growing uneasiness. The only lifeforms acknowledging his yell were a pair of Pidgey that fluttered away rapidly fom their tree branch.

Oh, great, now I'm lost. How did this happen? They must be around here somewhere. They must be…

An audible stirring rattled a nearby bush, and the unfriendly face of a Nidorino peeked out, locking eyes with him.

Not intending to stick around to find out what it wanted from him, Flame turned around and took the nearest path, kickstarting his plans to rendezvous with his teammates. Just to play it safe, he made sure his pace was moderated to a sort of hasty walking, in the likely event that the Nidorino would interpret running away as an open invite to give chase and maim him.

Everything seems to be okay, Flame reasoned as he kept striding on the dark, muddy path, Alice and Gaius can't be very far. I just have to keep looking.

For a split second, he thought he'd heard a subtle rustling from somewhere behind him, but a jerk of his head revealed absolutely nothing. He shut his eyes briefly and forced himself to march ahead, repeating reassuring phrases in his mind and ignoring the lurking shadow that his brain was already creating of its own accord.

There's nothing there. It's not following me. It's not following m—

"Grrrrrr…"

It is following me, isn't it?

Not looking back, he sprinted ahead into the shrubbery that flanked the path, completely discarding Gaius' warning from the first floor. Crashing through all types of plants, Flame never slowed down for a good five minutes or so.

By the time he stopped, his scales were dotted with scratches and livids. Panting, he briefly cut off his breathing to listen for any possible sign that he was still being stalked. He drew a sigh of relief after a full thirty seconds passed without a Nidorino lunging at his throat. Wow … I ran really far. Somehow didn't start a forest fire, too. Now, where was I?

Paws on hips, he quickly noted that the intricate vegetation cocooned him entirely now. He couldn't have spotted a pathway even if he wanted to. Just how far had he ran? Alice's distressing words suddenly came back to him; would he end up lost forever, eventually becoming one of the primitive ferals that roamed the dungeon in the thousands?

Fortunately though, some of aimless wandering revealed that the land under his feet bulged gradually upwards, and it kept doing so the more he advanced. An idea crossed his mind: if there was a hill somewhere up ahead, maybe he could climb to the top and scout the landscape for his companions!

Flame harboured sincere doubts that the dungeon would lend him such an easy way out of his problem, but there wasn't much else he could do as of right now.

With a deep breath, he carefully peered into the rough path ahead. Crouching under yet another spiny branch, he noticed that there was a roughly circular hole cut out on the sloping hillside, almost resembling a small cavern. The ceiling could barely accomodate the horn on the back of his head.

What is this doing here? Looks like it's been dug out by someone. Flame thought as he stopped at the tunnel's threshold, holding his tail ahead of him to provide illumination, I guess there's no harm in giving a quick peek…

When he got half-way through the tunnel, a sharp gasp escaped his jaws. There, under the wavering light of his tail flame, was a Breloom. Or at least, what used to be a Breloom.

Its whole body—carcass, rather—was tainted by a greyish hue from head to toe, and patches of some kind of fungal growth were starting to form in various places. The eyes, almost too dry to be called so, lacked a distinguishable pupil. Strewn beside the Breloom was a rucksack not unlike the one his teammates wore, and a booklet laying cover-up with its pages open.

Dear goodness… Flame flinched his head away from the crude sight, Poor guy. I wonder if this was one of the researchers we're looking for…

Unwilling to fact-check that theory personally, he instead squatted down and grabbed the strap of the bag, before slinging it over his shoulder. If his current situation could truly be classified as being lost, he figured having a bag with possibly helpful supplies would grant him better odds than having none.

A quick inspection concluded that the bag contained some strange orbs and some kind of map, but the lid was sealed once again. He'd investigate the exact nature of its contents later, right now they didn't matter much.

Next, he reached down for the booklet. Actually, it was more of a diary—at least judging by the title imprinted on its cover: Foundation Record Log, Dr Elmore.

Twisting the journal around with one paw and bringing the tip of his tail closer with the other, Flame began reading. The most recent entry was written in a confused, shaky writing, as if the author had been seized by a brief state of hysteria. Though mostly smeared, the untidy scrawl that could still be read wasn't any more encouraging.

theyll kill me I cant run theyll latch onto my head ascension I cant run they always latch onto the head ascension theyll––

After that, the entry was unreadable. Right away, a choking knot formed in Flame's throat. He needed to get out of there this very instant. All the psycho babble scrabbled down by the diary's former owner pointed overwhelmingly to there being something that threatened his (or her—Flame couldn't really tell) life, and a quick glance at the decomposing corpse equated to a compelling scream for him to throw everything away and leg it; he might be in critical danger right now!

Just as he was about to turn around and rush out of the tunnel, the light deriving from his tail briefly illuminated something of interest standing hidden deeper in the tunnel. It was an orange, insectoid creature, just barely within reach of his feeble light source to distinguish from the dirt walls. The foremost of its six legs were larger in size, almost scythe-like, and lumps of fungal growths seemed to have taken residence all over its carapace, especially near the two mushrooms that grew out of it. The creature didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that its cover had been blown; it just stood there, watching.

Flame stood still in uncertainty. The Paras, unsettling as it was just spying on him with its little eyes, didn't look like much of a threat, nor was it making any active attempts to assault him. However, despite that, the foremost thought in his mind was to get out of this forest alive and successful in his task, and he was not willing to offer his life up for grab, most certainly not to a disgusting arthropod.

Flame half-threw the journal away in his new bag and turned on his heel, hurriedly walking away in the same fashion that worked oh-so-well not fifteen minutes prior. Sure enough, the clicking of bug-like legs reached his ears from behind soon after, and already cold sweat started leaking from his scales. He almost felt pathetic for being scared of a bug so much smaller than him. But with his fire breath essentially a non-option, how was he supposed to defend himself?

Flame flung his body around. "S-stand back! Don't get any closer!"

That warning was little more than a vestigial action, of course. His words must have been little more than strangely articulated sounds to the Paras, of whom the chances of having any sort of meaningful intelligence were abysmal. Still, he hoped that showing some sort of dominance over the situation would scare it enough to let him get away.

Just as Flame held his tail up to grant him better sight, he saw that the Paras had leapt towards him and was already in mid-air, shrilling in a primal show of intimidation. Before he could figure out what was happening, the Paras had already slammed its weight on top of his cranium and covered his eyes, ears and just about the entirety of his head.

Flame cried out in fright and stumbled backwards as the Paras' foreclaws tried to dig into his shoulders for better grip, and some hidden appendage on its belly pressed against his cranium in an attempt to drill a hole in it.

Having lost basically all perception of balance to fear, Flame tripped on his own legs and fell to the ground, never stopping with his attempts to scratch or dislodge the Paras from his head. He began thrashing violently and rolling on the floor left and right,the pain from his cranium only increasing every second that passed.

At last, in a feat of desperation, the primal portion of his psyche had the good sense to slam his head against the wall. He heard the carapace crack open and its insides splatter crudely against the wall, squeezing one last screech from the drying bug. It subsequently lost grip on his body and fell to the ground, oozing a greenish liquid.

Flame rubbed off as much of that substance as he could from his head, but the strong scent remained nonetheless. He already knew, as he'd mused before entering this tunnel, that the dungeon would leave him naught time to recuperate; plenty of shrills answered the call to arms from the tunnel's depths, and an army of little legs tickling noisily edged ever closer. The entire tunnel must have been a nest to the blighters!

Wasting no time, he strapped his bag tighter and rushed out of the cave and into the forest, never looking back. Even in the thick shrubbery, the Paras were appearing in ever increasing numbers. They came out of every hollow tree trunk, every little hole in the ground. There might have hundreds, thousands! For all he knew, the whole floor was a Paras nest!

After what must have been ten minutes, but felt like hours, Flame entered a clearing, and a sweet sight embraced his eyes: his friends were there!

"Flame!" Alice noticed him first, her face alleviating in a smile, "Thank gosh you're safe! What happened? Are you okay?"

Not even the Paras back there could have ripped the smile off his face at the sight of them. "I-I'm okay. I think…"

"What's with that bag?" Gaius asked him, denying the monologue of how thankful he was that wished to stream out of his mouth on its own accord.

"Oh. This? I found it on somebody's corpse. I think it may have been one of the reaserchers we were sent to look for. The guy's journal said something about a doctor…"

Alice's eyes lit up. "A diary? That's perfect! Finally, we can get out of this place!"

"Yes, but did you have to wake every Paras under the goddamn sun in the process?" Gaius scowled, "And what did I tell you about veering off the main paths?"

Flame's answer was cut off by the sight of multiple Paras peering their heads out of the shrubbery, clicking their little teeth together in quasi-mocking.

"Hang on—you led them straight to us!" Gaius realised angrily.

"Oh, shut it! There's no time to bicker; the exit is nearby!" Alice hushed both of them, "Move!"

Flame couldn't have thought of a better plan. He didn't need to turn his head, as they ran, to figure out that there were at least a couple dozen Paras swarming the clearing and converging to their location. But the impending doom did nothing to erode their pace; safety was within an arm's length!

They dashed into a new, bigger clearing. The entire wall of shrubbery on one appeared to be distorted, shaky, almost like a waterfall with no discernible source above. It must have been the exit! Flame sent more energy to his legs to double his speed. Only a little longer, and he'd be—!

Green tendrils wrapped around his leg.

The sudden halt caused him to tumble backwards from the loss of momentum, but the brief second his eyes connected with the creature was more than enough for him to realise what had him immobilised.

A Carnivine.

The predatory plant 's head emerged from the earth suddenly while he tried his best to scuttle away, completely erasing from his mind the hordes of Paras behind that would rejoice at the chance to take a bite out of him.

Flame let out a cutting shriek when he felt the Carnivine dig into his leg, sharp teeth tearing through his scales as though they were paper and lacerating muscle tissue.

That was when he lost all control of his own body. Without even thinking, his throat muscles clamped much in the same fashion as when one is about to vomit, and a bright, scorching jet of fire streamed out of his mouth and toward the Carnivine's ample head.

For thirty seconds straight it kept up, until his breathing reflex forced him to stop due to the lack of oxygen in his system. Finally, he collapsed on the spot panting; the insides of his mouth burnt horribly and his head felt as if it were spinning wildly on its axis.

"Flame! Flame! Are you alright!?" Alice's voice appeared to be far away, yet she was standing right above him, trying to stop the warm blood that streamed from the tear in his leg.

Through his hazy vision, he could see that the Carnivine had been utterly pulverised from his relentless attack, and the Paras mob was nowhere to be seen, presumably—at least to what extent his limited mental capacity allowed him to guess—frightened away by the boiling rise in temperature and the scorching flames.

Alice soon abandoned her attempts to stop the bleeding, and quickly slung his arm over her neck to act as a support to hold him upright.

"Don't worry, Flame. You're going to be alright. Gaius, help me out over here! Before they come back!"

Flame felt an arm gripping his other side, and could do nothing further than press his head against the Dragonair's body for relief while they limped him through the last few metres to safety. He barely even felt the wave of gelid cold gripping his body as his consciousness slowly faltered.


End of Chapter III
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Ace Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him/His
Partners
  1. nidoran-f
  2. druddigon
  3. swellow
Heya, I had mentioned in passing elsewhere that I intended to throw some reviews your way in the event you started bumping the TR version of your story again, and while I may have kept you waiting, I’m not the type to say things that I don’t intend to make good on, so here I am. This is actually my second pass through this story, and while I left a good deal of feedback elsewhere in the ether of the internet, I decided to give a second go to fill in the gaps on some parts I missed, record some funny cutaway gags for posterity, and take a second look at some parts since some bits of your story have evolved since my first reading.

While you’ll see some familiar content, I’ll largely be omitting commentary that you responded to in detail (unless if I just find it funny, then all bets are off) and am hoping to throw in enough new stuff to still make this round 2 worth your while. There will be a few more structure and prose critiques this time, which you’re free to action on at your leisure… or not, since from past experience, sometimes it’s better to just accept past mistakes and move on instead of getting lost in the weeds of revisionitis. The review format here will be a bit different from my norm thus far, and cover the relevant chapter plus the teaser of the next one if any because I’m a lazy hack and that’s the format I used with my initial round of feedback the first time around gotta keep you motivated to bump this thing on a regular-ish basis. :V

To kick things off with, I’d personally suggest updating your first two chapters with copies of your FFN version like you did while publishing your third, since it both keeps things looking more visually consistent and the FFN-style formatting looks a bit nicer anyways. You’d probably also find it handy to add threadmarks to all of your chapters. It helps with meta things like tracking wordcount, and much more importantly, it allows your readers to jump around from chapter to chapter easily (not so much an issue now, but moreso if and when you get closer to the full length of your story here).

Alright, enough boilerplate preamble, let’s get onto the real reason why I’m here:

Chapter I


"The slumber of reason generates monsters."

-Francisco Goya

One of the shortest teasers in this entire story, well, minus the ones that flatly don’t exist, but it’s punchy and vibes pretty well with the story as a whole, even if there’s a few other sources of monsters lying about in this world.

"It's useless. We lost them."

Two blurry figures made their way through the vast expanse of white that was the Spearhead Mountain Range. The snow melded under their feet as they walked. A brief gust of frigid wind accompanied his words of truth, but they went unnoticed by his companion.

"Alice, you know just as well as I do that they've reached the Wasteland by now. It's not worth the risk."

I’m unsure if you meant that the snow ‘melted’ under their feet, or that it got compressed down as snow tends to do when you step on it given that melding something means to combine it with another. If the latter was the intent, I’d probably opt for something to the effect of “crunched” or “flattened”.

Gaius: “Also, this weather is gods-awful and if we don’t have a point in being out in it, we might as well pack it in already.” >_>;


The Grovyle looked around them. Towering, snow-covered mountains surrounded them, keeping the world under a perennial veil of white. The chances of her statement being true were slim at best. Why did she insist when the danger was so painfully obvious?

"Why won't you understand? I told you already, it's no use! The portal storm covered their escape. We have to go back!" he growled, his voice carrying a considerable amount of urgency this time. Her childish denial would eventually get them killed if he didn't start doing something about it.

For the first time during their entire trip, the Dragonair stopped in her tracks. She turned her head around, looking him directly in the eye.

"Gaius, do you honestly think they'll take the news lightly? If we go back like this, we're done for."

Gaius: “Okay, seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Alice: “We get cudgeled to death. Literally. Never heard of
fustuarium before?”
- Gaius pauses blankly in the snow for a moment before shaking his head and scowling -
Gaius: “... Okay, what’s the second worst thing that could happen?”


He was unable to finish his sentence, as the whole world seemed to shake under them. A deafening roar, accompanied by the rumble of distant avalanches, encompassed the entire valley, bouncing off the mountains and at the two pokémon like a gnarling hound. The storm was coming. They could feel it in their guts.

"W-what? Again? It can't be..." Alice stammered, looking at the sky above as if a meteorite was hurling towards them.

"You...!" he hissed, his claws curling into fists, "I knew this would happen! We have to move, there's bound to be shelter somewhere around here!"

Gaius: “Just saying, I wanted to pack it in and get toasty, but no...” >_>;
Alice: “Gaius, we’re in the middle of the mountains! It wouldn’t have made that much of a difference!”

For the second scene as a whole, part of me wonders if it’d have the same effect even a couple of those ellipses trimmed for visual neatness.


...

What...



What is...

...

No…



Cold…

For this particular stab, I removed just two ellipses, which already makes things a bit visually neater. I’m personally of the school that everything between ‘What…’ and ‘What is…’ could potentially be collapsed down into ‘What… What is…’ All of the above just my personal take on things, and I can understand if you opt to stick to your guns for stylistic reasons.

With a strenuous gasp, he awoke abruptly. Thawing from their state of disuse, his nerves began reactivating. Slowly but surely, one by one, sending proper impulses through his body and to his cranium, restoring life to his withering consciousness. Suddenly, he could feel himself, his arms sprawled out haphazardly, his tail crushed beneath his weight, the tiny ice shards stabbing at his windpipe's fleshy walls at every breath he drew.

I know that this is a bit of a recurring thing in earlier chapters, so I’ll spare the broken record about it and get the obligatory recommendation out of the way here in the first chapter. You might want to do a quick and dirty find-and-replace-all to turn usages of ‘cranium’ into something like ‘skull’. Since you could literally drop that word in there and it’d change next-to-nothing about the meaning of the rest of the paragraph (since a cranium is just a skull minus the jawbone) while making it sound a bit more natural in prose.

Something was wrong. He shouldn't have been feeling this cold. Why was he so cold?

His efforts were soon rendered futile when he broke into a violent coughing fit. Muscles spasmed and twinged as he arched his back against whatever surface was beneath him. Ignoring the pain, his paw immediately clasped around his own neck. Although the external pressure on his trachea didn't really help him while on the verge of spilling his stomach's contents—if anything it accentuated the problem—it was a good enough placebo for his stomach to slowly quell its turmoil.

Only when the entire process stopped, did his foggy mind find enough grip on reality to realise that he had no idea what was going on. He could vaguely feel his back pressed against an icy surface, riding up and down the storm that was brewing inside his head.

"N-no ... asce— ... nsion..." he croaked in between pants. He threw his limp arm up, claws spasming ever so slightly as if trying to grasp an imaginary hand that would hoist him up, hug him dearly and reassure him that everything would be ok, that he wouldn't be cold any longer. He could hear his voice echo both around him and inside his head, sensation gradually returning to his broken body. That last word came out of his mouth without him even realising it. Where had he heard it before?

I actually didn’t notice the last paragraph in my first readthrough. Going through things a second time around, this part is significantly sadder in tone since I know who Flame’s subconsciously trying to reach out for there.

Flame: “A-Argh… this has got to be from something other than just the weather. Did I lose blood or something?”


"Ugh... W-w-what...? Where...?" he coughed out roughly, questions invading his mind all at once like a ravenous flood. Cold sweat iced his back, and his heart was hammering. Where was he? What was happening to him? Was he dying?

Flame: “Wait, there’s sweat on my back? But I thought reptiles in general didn’t have sweat glands.”

How—? What is—?, he struggled to even think, N-no. Calm down. Let's take one thing at a time. First, how did I get here?

He desperately tried to grasp for any memories of how he could have ended up in this hostile place. Much to his horror, he could only come at a blank. Blinking, he tried again, closing his eyes and trying to recall any recent event that had happened to him—he must have not tried hard enough, he thought. Once again, nothing. His entire body felt strange, almost hollow, but as the same time just as real as the sense of panic rising in his chest.

Determined to look further into what was causing him to feel so rot[ten]—and perhaps to try and find a speck of a logical explanation amongst the madness, he flipped himself on his back and raised his head to look down at himself. Even through his blurry eyes, it didn't take very long for him to notice that something was very wrong with his tail. Although he didn't have a visual memory of how it supposed to be, it was a fact deeply embedded in his primal instincts—there should have been a flame sparkling there.

I think you had a minor typo there, but could be wrong if ‘so rot’ is a Britishism, since that’s the default spelling format used in this story.

Flame: “Uh… I guess that’d explain my chills and why I feel like total crap right now.” ._.

No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts were swirling around too ferociously; he failed to grasp anything. His memories seemed to escape him the more he went looking for them. Where he was, how he got there, nothing. He could have been born in the world right then and there, and he never would have known. His head was utterly empty.

"No... Oh god, no…" he whispered hoarsely, pressing his head against the hard floor, perhaps hoping in the back of his mind that it would somehow help him understand what was happening.

No! It—it can't be! This isn't possible ... Why can't I remember...? He grumbled mentally as his claws clutched the sides of his skull tightly, trying to squeeze the memories out of him. It was impossible. He refused to believe that he knew nothing. There had to be something he could remember.

Reminder that Flame’s minced oaths should logically match his background, and this particular one doesn’t line up with his current neck of the woods. It could potentially line up with the neck of the woods he comes from for story reasons that are a ways out, which is why I’m not flatly calling this an error. But you’d need to be very particular about the cultural/metaphysical assumptions of Pokémon from said neck of the woods since it should be shared with others that come from there.

Flame: “Also, not that my mind apparently being a total vacuum isn’t freaky as hell, but shouldn’t I be more worried about my tail fire right about now? Pretty sure it’s not supposed to be like this.”
701630550720512120.png


Memories. They came up, just as slowly as the rate at which he managed to stumble across them. For a moment, his focus wavered, his arms trembled from the freezing temperature around him, but he quickly regained his mental footing and delved deeper. He wanted to remember. He needed to remember.

There were fragments, scattered all over the deepest recesses of his consciousness, mostly a jumbled mess of information, but they were there. Slowly but surely, they began making a little more sense as he attempted to restore a chronological order. Pleads of mercy, a deafening roar, frightened screams, someone saying “I'm sorry”, the feeling of air rushing past his scales; and there was also the cold eating him alive, that withering, merciless hand which slowly turned him into a part of the ice itself—

He broke out of his trance as soon as he realised his newly-formed fantasies were outnumbering the actual contents of his mind, only to find his body quivering madly, a numbing sensation attacking his nerve endings on all fronts. Even his breaths were trembling as he attempted to hug himself tightly, squeezing every ounce of warmth he could gather onto his needy body. It made no difference at all.

Flame: “How- How much of all that actually happened? And how much of that is me tripping out from being near death?” ._.

With his arms still glued to his body protectively, he hesitantly put one foot forward. He stopped for a second. He wasn't sure why he was doing this, whether it was to seek refuge from the cold or it had something to do with his current mental situation. Maybe he was acting on the basis of some distant, irrational hope that just by wandering in the dark aimlessly his memories would suddenly come back to him, out of nowhere, offered on a silver platter – he was much more likely to knock his head against a wall. That would be sure to wake him up from this fever dream of his. But then again, he couldn't be sure of anything right now.

The Charmeleon, his mind still coping with the lack of a name to call his own, began doing just that: wandering aimlessly. His legs struggled to drag themselves across the cavern's icy pavement as he limped his way further into the dark corridor he was in. He kept his head hung low, didn't look forward, there was no need to.

Flame: “Wait, I do know I’m a Charmeleon at least, right? Maybe I could go with that as a placeholder name? Pokémon do that, right?”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “Yeah, that doesn’t sound satisfying to me either.”

Fire!

His eyes lit up with joy. All the aches and pains deeply embedded in his legs suddenly vanished as he bolted to his feet and broke into a mad dash in a fraction of a second. The grim thoughts of freezing to death were suddenly replaced with a yearning to stand close to that fire, to embrace its heat, to feel alive again. To remember.

However, just as he was about to enter the room which housed his saving grace, two figures stood in his way, looking straight at him with wide eyes.


“What the— Who—?”

The last line is ambiguous as to who of the three Pokémon present says it. e.x. If that’s supposed to be Flame’s line, you’d probably be best served with something like this:

“What the—” the Charmeleon stammered. “Who—?”


“No, Gaius, you don't have to—” the blue figure tried to argue as the green one raised its arm up high.

The Charmeleon tried to comply with the strange instinctual feeling brewing in his stomach, but only succeeded in getting it caught up in his throat. Wide-eyed, his claws scrambled to his neck to try and stop the literal fire that was trapped there, to which his body reacted via a brutal coughing fit. Though the jets of fire that he involuntarily spat that way must have been considered an act of aggression, as the green figure suddenly sprung forward.

The last thing he felt was a blow to the side of his head, before his body was slammed against the cold stone floor and his consciousness descended back into the abyss.

Flame: “... Ow.”

“Wake up,” A voice above him spoke, its cold, authoritarian tone leaving no doubt in his mind. That wasn't an invite. It was an order.

The bit in bold imo would work better as something a bit more simplistic but related in meaning like “harsh”, “commanding”, or “overbearing”. Since “authoritarian” carries some political connotations that I’m not sure would immediately come to mind for a half-dead fire lizard being held at figurative knifepoint.

“What's your name?” the Grovyle asked, unmovable in its hateful glare.

Jumbled, incoherent noises were all he managed to spew out, as his muscles suddenly locked in place in an attempt not to inadvertently press his throat against the treacherous leaf-like dagger.

“Where are you from?”

“Huh? ... W-w-wha?” Apparently his answer wasn't good enough, as the blade pressed tighter against his neck. He gulped when he felt warm drops of blood running down his neck to his chest, which only resulted in his entire body shuddering in fright.


“You heard me. Answer.”

Flame: “H-How much do you expect me to say when you’re literally making me bleed from my throat?!” O.O
Gaius: “You were able to spit out that much. Now spit out some answers already unless you feel like getting an amateur tracheotomy right about now.”


“Gaius, what are you doing? You won't get anything out of him like that. Don't you see he's just frightened?”

After a long, drawn-out sigh, the Grovyle removed his leaf blade from the Charmeleon's throat and turned to face the dissenter.

“What now, you've started pitying them all of a sudden?” Gaius sneered, “I'm pretty sure that was you who almost got us killed because of them not too long ago.“

Flame: “U-Uh… what are you two talking about right now?”
Gaius: “Shut up, Scum!
Flame: “Ack! Alright! Alright! No need to be rude about it!”


The fire lizard leaned his head to the side to sneak a curious glance at the new arrival. His eyes were greeted to the sight of a long, serpentine creature with sky blue scales and a white underside coiled up on the other side of the pyre. Her head was adorned by two white, angel-like wings, while round, deep blue orbs were located under her snout and near the tip of her tail respectively.

“I can tell if someone's Scum from their face, and he isn't one," the Dragonair said, her eyes narrowed at the Grovyle. "Leave him alone.”

I was going to question how Gaius and Alice didn’t instantly back off based off spoken language, but then I realized that Flame didn’t even manage to get a “Huh? What?” out successfully and that at least in English, the sounds that Flame did manage to get out are ambiguous enough to not be an instant giveaway as to if he’s apparently Scum or not.

Probably would’ve been different enough in a Romance language to be a giveaway if the two stopped and thought about it for a couple seconds, though given how paranoid Gaius is being here, I guess things probably would’ve turned out about the same.


Flame: “Wait, so you mean ‘Scum’ isn’t just an insult? Then what did he mean by that?”
- Alice side-eyes skeptically -
Alice: “... You’re not from here, are you?”


“At least that's over with,” she said, offering him a friendly smile, “How are you feeling?”

His hammering heart had settled down partially by the time the green reptile had left the room, but some uncertainty still lingered in his mind. Pushing himself with his arms, he carefully sat up, eyes locked with the Dragonair. It didn't take long for his brain to notice how his entire body felt different. There was no rotten black feeling churning at his stomach anymore. There was no light-headedness, no numbness. He felt ... normal.

“Um ... f-fine. Thanks,” he stammered, paws automatically rubbing his neck in the spot where his scales had been pierced. It genuinely marvelled him as to how kind she seemed towards him, especially when compared to how her less-than-friendly companion went fairly close to beheading him just a minute prior.


“I'm glad to hear that,” she said calmly, slowly lowering her head onto her coils. They just sat there, quietly enjoying the fire's regenerative warmth.

Okay, this part is one that actually would’ve worked to hint at the language difference and show a bit of a reaction from Alice’s end. Since any doubts about Flame from Alice’s end would’ve ebbed away significantly the moment that Flame answered her in speech that we find out in later chapters sounds natural to Pokémon from her general area of origin.

- Beat moment -
Flame: “Actually, wait a moment, am I still bleeding from my throat right now?”
Alice: “... I’m going to assume from the lack of mention from the text that that nick Gaius gave you coagulated by now, but you should probably clean those dribbles on your chest off.”


He took the time to better examine the cavern room they were in. The room was quite small in his eyes—not enough to make him feel claustrophobic, but also just barely large enough to move around comfortably. The campfire they were sitting around was located in the very centre, fuelled by a small bundle of wooden sticks. As they burned, the flames didn't emit any smoke, a detail which struck him as odd at first, but he eventually gave up on trying to figure out. The only other detail that stood out was a seemingly half-full loot sack, which sat carelessly on the ground a short ways from its owner.

Wait, what are they burning/how did they construct that fire to pull that off anyways? Since that seems like a handy technique to have for camping undetected.

After a minute or so of relative quiet, the Charmeleon was half debating with himself whether he should strike up a conversation, when the corner of her eyes peered at him once again.

“You know, you're lucky you ran into us when you did,” she stated, eyes studying his body up and down for a second, “You were in a really bad shape. With your tail fire out, I'm surprised hypothermia didn't get you earlier. Thank goodness you're alright now.”

“Wait, you... helped me?” he croaked in disbelief. He had to have heard something wrong. There was no way the two of them would care enough to look after a complete stranger, one who just so happened to stumble in their way and pass out.

I take it that Gaius and Alice didn’t settle on their brilliant plan to pass Flame off as a raider at this point in time. Since Alice is getting just a little chummy there with a ‘mon that that gambit would condemn to death or a fate worse than it considering the justice system of this world.

“How ... long have I been out?” he asked quietly after a long pause, his gaze stuck to the glimmering campfire.

“Oh, about an hour or so. Nothing too crazy, I assure you.”

Not getting any sort of response from the fire lizard, she finally seemed to have caught onto the hint of uneasiness in his tone.


“Hey...” she frowned, “I'm sorry for Gaius' ... um ... 'behaviour'. I assure you he didn't mean anything by it, that's just how he is. You get used to it eventually.”

Flame: “... You sure are nonchalant about a ‘mon whose initial reaction to a stranger is to get about five seconds away from cutting his throat open.”
Alice: “We’ve… kinda been under some work stress. Gaius doesn’t exactly handle it well.”
Flame: “Understatement of the century there.” >_>;


"Listen, Charmeleon," she explained, "I need to ask you a few things. It won't take long, I promise."

Instinctively, his paw moved to cover his neck, which was still scarred by his previous 'interrogation'. His sign of distrust didn't go unnoticed.

"Don't worry, we're Civil Protection. You can trust us," she reassured, an unspoken nudge for him to continue. He didn't know exactly what this 'Civil Protection' was, but a small voice in his mind suggested him to be wary, especially when looking back at his previous episode with Gaius.

I see Flame still has a few lingering memories of Half-Life 2 kicking in that brain of his, since I too would be wary of a law enforcement agency sharing a name with the guys of “Pick up that can” fame.

Oh, no—she had that look in her eyes, like she was forcing herself to be patient. Could he have lied? No, Alice would've trusted him to tell the truth. At least, he hoped so.

With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. "I don't have one."

Alice looked visibly surprised at his answer. “Wait, you—you don't have one? How can you not... What do you mean?”

Alice: “Look, I get that you’ve been through a lot lately, but even if your name is something embarrassing, you should really be frank here.” >_>;
Flame: “Look, my mind is a total blank, alright? It could be something like ‘Char’ or ‘Leo’ for all I know. I just don’t know.”
Alice: “... ‘Char’ or ‘Leo’? Since when would a ‘mon like you ever have a name like that?” -_-;


“Hey,” she shushed him, “Ease up. Try to breathe deeply. There. Now, think. Can you remember anything at all? Did you happen to see anyone around here?”

The Charmeleon racked his thoughts for an answer as he cradled his head in his palms, trying his hardest not to lose his cool as he poured his mind out. “I ... No, I can't remember anything at all. All I know is that I woke up here, in this cave I've never seen before in my life, and ... it was cold ... then I stumbled across you two ... and ... ascension...”

Alice tilted her head at him. “Ascension?”


“I don't know,” he grunted, “That damn word's been stuck in my head ever since I woke up. I'm not sure if it means anything or not.”

Alice: “That’s… a really specific random word that you’re remembering there, just saying.”
Flame: “... So then it’s important, right?”
Alice: “Maybe you were focused on climbing these mountains before you wiped out? That would certainly put ‘Ascension’ on your mind.”
Flame: “... (Somehow I don’t think it’d be that simple if it was that important, but I can’t put my claw on why…)”


No!” he shouted, causing Alice to recoil backwards, “I did not! Ugh, just—just shut up!”

He regretted his words before he had even shut his mouth. The almost hateful glare he'd cast the Dragonair disappeared quickly, replaced instead by a forceful deadpan expression. He felt himself shrink in front of her pensive face, mentally kicking himself for his idiocy. What was he thinking, saying those things to the pokémon who had probably saved his life by keeping him warm in a time where he was defenceless, the one who'd been nice to him—a complete stranger—and even gave him the chance to explain himself? Alone as he was right now, he desperately needed someone to trust, not to turn them away when they spontaneously offered their help!

“N-no! I didn't mean to—sorry!” he blurted out.

Flame sure has a way with girls, doesn’t he?
388785746544427018.png


“... So they got you too, huh?” Alice said with a slightly distant tone, her eyes staring forward into nothingness for a few seconds.

“Wait, who are you talking about?” he blinked in confusion. The implications of her message were picked up almost immediately: did she have a lead on what had happened to him?

The Dragonair shook her head to regain focus, eyeing him with newfound alarm. “I apologise. It's just ... if Scum have started making incursions inside the border...” she trailed off at the end.”

I’m not sure how far in advance you planned it, but that opening question from Alice takes on some new meanings given some stuff you revealed about Gaius’ backstory in more recent chapters.

Flame: “Uh… sorry about the earlier tone, but… if it’s not too much trouble, can you explain what these ‘Scum’ are to me now?

Much to further his confusion, Alice's expression quickly reverted back to her friendly smile, although some traces of nervousness were still visible in her eyes. “You know what? It's nothing you have to worry about. If what you say is true, then you already have enough problems at hand.”

That only left him more puzzled than before. Who were these 'Scum'? Did they have any connection to his amnesia? Why was she hesitant to give the information away? She knew, he was sure of it. His arms were almost shaking with anticipation. He needed to know!

Alice: “Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. Contract says we only get so many infodumps to work with per chapter and I think we’ve used up our quota.”
Flame: “... Drat.”
- Alice blinks -
Alice: “(Wait, he bought that?)”


“Well, first and foremost we need something to call you by.” Alice carried onward, as if ignoring his body language, “We could simply call you 'Charmeleon', but that isn't very polite nowadays, is it?”

Flame: “Wait, what’s wrong with ‘Charmeleon’ as a name again?”
Alice: “Well, lemme give a live demonstration.”
- Alice clears her throat and forces a sharp scowl over her face -
Alice: “Hey, Charmeleon! Pick up that can!”
Flame: “Aah! Okay! Okay!
- Flame stoops down before pausing and seeing Alice looking back with a puzzled look -
Flame: “... But there’s no can to pick up.”
Alice: “Yes, but that’s beside the point. See why ‘Charmeleon’ wouldn’t be all that polite of a name? It’s the sort of thing you blurt out to a stranger.”
Flame: “Er… point taken. (And why did that ‘Pick up that can’ bit sound so scarily natural coming from you?)” ._.


She's right. I need a name. I need to have an identity, at least until I can remember my old one, he mused, tapping a claw on his chin in contemplation. By now, all thoughts of pressing Alice to tell him about what she knew had been pushed to the back of his mind—which, unknowingly to him, was just as the Dragonair had hoped.

“I have a few ideas,” said Alice, “How does 'Flame' sound to you?”

“... Flame...” he whispered half to himself, testing the name out with his own jaws. It wasn't anything too exciting, sure, nor was it very original, but he was in no position to be picky at the moment.

Flame. Flame. My name is Flame. He repeated mentally, his claws squeezing his tail for reassurance. The more he repeated that name, the more adamant he became in claiming it as his own. Something about it simply felt ... right. There was no other word for it.


“So?” Alice inquired, “Do you like it? I can think of a couple of others if you'd like.”

Alice: “Oh, I’ve actually got one if you don’t. How do you feel about ‘Corneli-’?”
Flame: “I think that ‘Flame’ name isn’t half bad actually. Short, peppy, and it makes me feel warm just hearing it.” ^^
Alice: “Uh… well hey, if it works, it works.” ^^;


“I'm happy to have helped,” Alice smiled sadly, “I can only imagine how horrible you must feel, unable to remember anything at all...”

Flame—in that moment, he couldn't have cared less how banal it sounded—looked at her, that smile still plastered on his face. He struggled to resist the sudden impulse to tackle her to the ground in a hug—it would have spelled the end for him, acting so intimate with a person he'd technically just met— even though he knew that deep down she didn't believe half of what he had said, she was only playing along with his fever conviction for information. Despite that, he couldn't ignore the fact that there was something about the way she worded that which didn't sound right. Hang on a minute...

“No, wait! You know about—” Flame cried out, before he was interrupted abruptly when he heard footsteps drawing closer to the room. Both pokémon turned their heads just in time to witness a certain Grovyle walking into the room from the same passage he had previously used to leave.

“You're still alive, I see,” Gaius scoffed while crossing his arms, “Maybe your suicidal tactics aren't working after all.”

Flame: “Eep. Well there goes that train of thought.” ._.

You?” Gaius chuckled as he slung his rucksack over his shoulder, “Oh, don't fret. We're not letting you off just yet. You're coming with us.”

Much like the Charmeleon in question, Alice seemed to know something was up. “We're only going to escort him to town, I hope?” she asked, sounding like she herself knew that 'Yes' wouldn't be the answer.

“In part, yes, but there's more to it than that,” Gaius leaned in near Alice and whispered something to her ear, all while keeping his distrustful gaze trained on Flame.

Alice seemed almost offended by what he had said, immediately recoiling backwards. “What?! But he isn't one of them, I already told you! You know he isn't!”


“Remember when I said I'd think of something to fix our little problem? This is it.”

Oh, so this is where they got the idea to try and screw over Flame.

Flame: “Uh… what little problem is this again?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “Don’t worry about it. We’re just gonna take a little walk.”
Flame: “... I really don’t like where this is going.” ._.;


“But...” she hesitated, “I'm sure there's something else we can do instead. We don't have to be so drastic about this.”

“It's the best option we have,” Gaius crossed his arms again, “And there are only bad options.”

The Dragonair's eyes darted nervously between Flame and Gaius for a full minute, before finally conceding with a sigh.


“Curse you...” she spat, turning away to avert her teammate's smug face.

Gaius: “Look, Alice. It’s just a matter of substitution. Sure we don’t have any Scum to show for this mission, but we’ve got a bagauda to work with, don’t we? That’s gotta be worth something.”
Alice: “(Gaius, why are you saying this out loud right in front of him?)” >_>;
Flame: “Wait, you two have a what to work with now?” ._.;
Gaius: “... Nothing you need to worry about. Just come along. Quietly.”


“You, Charmeleon,” Gaius pointed an accusing claw at Flame, “Get up. We're moving out.”

Begrudgingly, he complied, earning more than one complaint from his aching muscles. Alice was looking at him, her eyes telling him that everything would be ok, that he didn't have to worry. But he was worried, he couldn't help it!

“Stay in between the two of us,” Gaius ordered him, “And don't even think about trying anything sketchy.”

[A]s he said that, Gaius drew his leaf blade menacingly to further reinforce his words, leaving no further doubt in the Charmeleon's mind as to whether he should leg it whenever he got the chance.

“Let's go. The surface is just a short ways from here.”

Would recommend splitting off the rest of the paragraph after Gaius’ dialogue there.

Flame: “Ulp. Alice was right, Charmeleon really isn’t a polite name.” ._.
Gaius: “Shut it, Charmeleon!”
Flame: “(Well at least I’ve graduated from ‘Scum’ for him. Even if I still don’t know what they are.)” >_>;


Before he knew it, Flame was trekking down a gloomy, rocky passageway, his tail's flame lighting up the path ahead. As he walked, his mind attempted to let his current situation sink in: he was being led outside of that forsaken cave by the two pokémon who had helped him, and that was good.

But besides that, pretty much nothing was clear. Apparently, the two were part of this 'Civil Protection' organization, and while the title sounded like something official and trustworthy, for all he knew it was a violent criminal organization, or maybe a separatist rebel group who kidnapped unaware travellers to help support their fight against the state.

Flame: “... Or power-tripping and petty-as-hell law enforcement given that ‘pick up that can’ bit earlier.” >_>;
Alice: “(Guess I ought to have considered a different example in order to leave a positive impression.)”
Gaius: “(Meh, won’t matter in a scene or two anyways. Plus what are the odds we see this guy again?)”

Hey!” Gaius barked as he turned around suddenly, “What are you doing? You'll have plenty of time to rest where we're going. Stop lazing around.”

“I'm sorry.” Flame said, “It's just... I'm not feeling too good.”

Flame: “Can’t we slow down at all? I… uh… I have-”
Gaius: “If the next words out of your mouth are ‘a stomachache’, I swear I’m going to stab you.” >:|
Flame: “A-A migraine! I have a migraine!” O.O;
Gaius: “You can still walk with a migraine, keep moving.”


“What,” Gaius huffed, “You think I'm in top form after running four miles and almost getting caught up in a portal storm? I'm tired too, and that's why I'd like to get home before nightfall.”

I was under the impression that this setting used metric units given later chapters. Or is this a colloquialism thing where archaic units of measurement remain semi-common in everyday parlance kinda like it is in the UK?

“Flame,” Alice spoke from behind him, “I promise that we're bringing you somewhere safe. We just need your cooperation for something. You trust us, right?”

592603469265764372.png


Let’s not get into how if Gaius and Alice’s gambit actually worked given what they falsely accused him of, Flame had really good odds of being drug off to a public execution.

“Then there's nothing to worry about,” she emphasized. On the other hand, her eyes were telling a completely different story.

I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I? Flame thought as he gulped down his fears, I hope you two know what you're doing...

Flame: “(... Why am I not making a run for the treeline when this is obviously suspicious as hell?)”
- Flame feels a sharp jab at his side and looks over at Gaius -
Flame: “(... Right, her partner would probably gut me like a fish.)” ._.

Flame couldn't help but gasp. Even with the iron curtains of amnesia currently hazing his mind, he was certain that he'd never seen such a sight before in his life. He slowly turned his head to look around himself, attempting to take in the scale of it all.

Rugged, craggy mountains towered all around them, their steep slopes coated by a thick layer of snow. The depth of the clouded sky entranced him, installing a small feeling of dread as the irrational part of his mind half worried that gravity would suddenly turn upside-down and drag him into the blue expanse. Hundreds of feet below, a stream of solid ice sheets followed along the valley's bottom. A quick glance to his right confirmed the presence of a small path leading down from the rocky ledge he was now standing on to the riverside.

Shutting his eyes for a second, he breathed in deeply through his nostrils, savouring the fresh mountain air mixed with traces of aroma coming from the few plants that had managed to survive the unfriendly temperatures.

Flame: “Wow! This place is-!”
Gaius: “Yeah, yeah, very pretty, we get it. More walk, less talk.”

As the group started the journey downhill, Flame was still observing his surroundings wide-eyed, like a child witnessing the world outside his crib for the very first time. More than once he noticed Gaius looking back at him as he dragged his claws across the rocky wall to their side, stared intensely at the sky, or inspected the local plant life closely—even coming close to setting fire to what looked like some sort of half-frozen berry tree.

This all feels so ... new, Flame mused as the group reached the riverside, My body is telling me I've never seen this place before. But then, how did I end up in that cave?

Flame: “... Considering how I couldn’t even remember my own proper name earlier, I guess this is all new to me. I wonder if I’m going to have this for every sort of place I run across.”
Alice: “Er… well it’s nice to have a sense of wonder about your surroundings. It’ll probably help you when we finally get you to-”
- Alice catches herself and flattens her ears out -
Alice: “Uhm… your… final destination.”


The Grovyle was looking at him as if he'd suddenly sat down and started playing giddily in the snow. “You act like you've never seen snow or a mountain before. You're not from around here, are you?”

“Um...” Flame hesitated while he looked around him, somewhat hoping that the great colossi would provide him an answer. Southerner? South of what exactly? What am I even supposed to say? I can't tell him that I don't know, he wouldn't believe me...

“Y-Yeah. I'm from the South. I think,” he said, smiling nervously and forcing his voice to sound as casual as possible. However, this answer only seemed to catch the Grovyle's attention more.


“From where, exactly?” Gaius pressed. It was clear he knew that wasn't the truth, though his voice strangely lacked aggression now.

Part of me wonders given some later story events if these two would’ve bought Flame’s attempt at playing along from his accent given that it’s established later that his sounds noticeably different from Gaius’. Might have been a neat little detail to have acknowledged here, though unsure if that bit of worldbuilding already existed all the way back in this chapter.

Alice: “‘His voice strangely lacked aggression now’? From finding out Flame’s a Southerner? That’s certainly a new one from you, Gaius.”
Gaius: “Shut up, the readers don’t know that yet. (Also, we’re better off using a Southerner for our gambit than someone actually from around here.)”
Alice: “... (Of course.)” -_-;


“He's right,” Alice interjected suddenly, “You do look like you're from the South. Things are surely much more peaceful over there. I mean, you don't see pokémon travelling up North anymore, since those guys have it so much easier than we do. Meeting you certainly is a welcome change,” she smiled broadly.

“Well?” Gaius asked impatiently, cutting Alice off, “I'm still waiting for my answer. Don't expect me to believe every word that comes out of your mouth. If you are a southerner, then where exactly are you from?”

Flame: “I… uh… I have amnesia and don’t remember?”
401074476474957834.png


“Gaius!” Alice spoke to her partner in a whisper, though Flame heard anyway, “Cut him some slack, the poor guy can't even remember his own name!”

“You know what?” Gaius said after growing impatient of his uneasy silence, “Don't bother. Soon, you're not going to be my problem anymore. I've already got enough of those...” he muttered the last part mostly to himself.

A dead silence ensued as Flame's brain came to a verdict: it was best for his reputation—and quite possibly for his safety—to shut his mouth and keep walking.

Flame: “... Should I be concerned about how quickly he accepted that explanation?”
- Beat moment -
Alice: “No. Not at all, just… keep walking forward, will ya?”
Flame: “O… kay? (And what are you two planning to do with me?)” ._.;

Hours later, Flame could barely keep himself upright. His abused legs had carried him through what felt like miles, and now they were ready to give up on him. The landscape around him had slowly mutated from tall, rugged mountains and frozen bodies of water to a lush, flourishing meadow, interrupted only by the dirt path they'd been following for quite a while now.

However, Flame had long since stopped caring about his surroundings. Instead, other thoughts floated around his mind.

So ... hungry... He grumbled mentally as another cramp shot through his rioting stomach. He laid a paw on it, trying his best to think about something else, although without much success.

It feels like I haven't eaten anything in months ... Just how far away is this place, anyway?

Hasn’t he canonically not eaten for close to two years at this point?
388785746544427018.png


Not that he knows that or that his body experienced a normal flow of time.

Flame's eyes couldn't help but churn at the rucksack slung over Gaius' shoulder. Fantasies played freely through his mind, picturing just how much sweet, juicy food could be in that bag. Granted, he wasn't quite sure what type of food these pokémon usually ate, but anything that could quell his roaring stomach would suffice.

Should I ask them? he pondered, looking at them both before quickly shaking the idea out of his head, What am I thinking?! I'm in no position to make requests of them, I might just make matters worse for myself. Besides, maybe they'll give me something to eat once we get to this town they were talking about.

He nearly cringed at his own naiveness. Yeah, keep telling yourself that...

Gaius: “I can see you eyeing my bag like a starved Mightyena. No we don’t have food for you, we barely have enough for ourselves in there!”
Flame: “... Well, I guess that answers that question. (Though he seemed strangely testy about that last part.)” >_>;


“I don't see why we shouldn't tell Ariel,” Alice said, “This is a matter of ours and everyone's safety, for Arceus' sake!”

Flame briefly wondered whether to continue listening or to hasten his pace in order to avoid being caught red-handed. If they were sharing some sort of secret information, he thought, he could risk getting himself into bigger trouble, or maybe they would simply kill him on the spot. But, eventually, curiosity got the best of him.

“And get her even more pissed off than she already is?” Gaius grunted, “No thank you. This is probably just an isolated incident, the kind that blows away after a couple of weeks. There's no need to get our commander worked up over nothing.

28 words spoken seconds from disaster. Well, closer to 2 weeks, but it’s still funny to see that much tempting of fate this far back.

“His situation isn't very different from ours, then.” Alice pointed out, “And besides, think about it: who in their right mind goes to Spearhead Valley these days?”

“Well, we did,” Gaius grinned.

“That's beside the point,” Alice groaned in frustration, “We were acting under orders. Nobody goes to that place anymore, not since the storms have grown in number. Did you see how beat up he was? It's obvious that he'd been in there for a long time. The way I see it, Scum are advancing. There's no other explanation.”

I think you’re missing a word or two there. I’m unsure, but that bit might sound better as “the Scum are advancing”, or “Scum are advancing through there”.

Flame: “No really, what are the Scum from the way you two keep talking about them? Some sort of zombies formed by dark impulses within a ‘mon or something?”
Alice: “... Pretty sure that’s from a different story.”

“Ugh...” Gaius buried his head into his paw, “Look, can't we talk about this some other time? I'm tired, and I'm sure you are too. Let's just call this off until tomorrow.”

So much for answers... Flame rolled his eyes, a heave of frustration escaping him.

“Fine,” Alice conceded, “Just don't get the idea that I might suddenly forget about this.”

Sensing an end to the conversation, Flame quickly straightened his pose and hastened his pace, in hopes that the two wouldn't suspect him of anything.

As he refocused his sight on the path in front of him, two things happened in quick succession: the first being that his eyes were met with a wooden surface that spanned his entire vision. The second being that the rest of his face followed suit.

Next thing he knew, he was laying on his back, clutching his aching snout with one paw as he pushed himself up with his other one. A timid glance at his escorts confirmed that they were staring right at him.

Alice: “... How did we not see that again?” ._.;
Gaius: “Because our living torch has been off in la-la land for most of the trek and didn’t say anything?” >_>;
Flame: “Agh… well if I knew I was going to run face-first into a door, I’d have paid closer attention!” >.<

Letting the embarrassing situation slide, Gaius knocked vigorously on the wooden doors. A previously unnoticeable slit in the door opened, roughly a couple of feet above the Grovyle's eye level. A set of irises crept into view, scanning the three of them thoroughly.

“Officers,” a deep voice spoke from the other side, eyeing the badges pinned on two of the pokémon, “Welcome to Aesernia. Please clarify your identity and motives.”

“We're Team Phalanx,” Gaius said calmly, “Task Force Aegis. Tell Ariel that our mission has been accomplished.”

Flame: “... Isn’t that a really specific height for an eye slat? Isn’t there a significant variation in how tall Pokémon get even when fully evolved?”
Gaius: “Look, most of us are clever enough to make things work, alright? It’s not that specific.” >_>;


Gaius seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing at Flame for a moment before speaking. “Yes, just this one.”

Flame felt a sudden spike of discomfort when he realized that they were talking about him. Wait, they said their mission is complete? Was I part of their mission? But ... I thought—!

Alice: “... (Gaius, that look of betrayal from him’s making me really uncomfortable right now.)” ._.;
Gaius: “(Look it was bound to happen sooner or later, princess. Let’s just hurry up and rip the bandage off.)


“Fine. You may enter,” The heavy doors creaked open, revealing some sort of bipedal creature that seemed to be made almost entirely out of metal, its red armour and multiple blades—that protruded even from its elbows—making up most of its body.

… I completely forgot that there were already Bisharp guards in this story from the first chapter.
388785746544427018.png


“Kinda,” the armoured guard said, “Should I take care of this now?” he motioned to Flame.

A lump formed in the Charmeleon's throat.

“Sure thing,” Gaius turned back, “Have fun with him. He's not my problem anymore.”

Alarmed, Flame's eyes darted to Alice. He saw that look of remorse in her eyes, that reflexive cringe, and that was all he needed to see; even before he felt the blunt side of an elbow-blade take his consciousness away, he knew.


Things were not looking well for him.

Well, I suppose things could’ve been worse. Flame could’ve gotten hit with the pointy end of said elbow-blade. o3o;

Though as something to keep you looking forward to next time, let’s take a gander at the next teaser:


"Semper Aequus (Always just)"

-Official motto of Task Force Aegis.

- Alice narrows eyes -
Alice: “’Semper Aequus’? Really?
Gaius: “Well hey, we’re getting our reward and getting Ariel off our back, aren’t we? I’d call that pretty just.”
Alice: “Gaius, we literally threw some random peasant we found half-dead in the mountains under the wagon for that!”
Gaius: “I mean, is it really that out of line with the sort of stuff Civil Protection gets up to?”
- Silence moment -
Alice: “I suppose that it isn’t…”
Gaius: “Then nothing to worry about. Story’s over and we move on with our-”
Alice: “Gaius, the text right above this says this belongs to a second chapter.” >_>;
- Gaius trails off, before letting out a low grumble -
Gaius: “... Blugh. Nothing in life’s ever easy.”

And that’s a wrap. Going through the story a second time admittedly is a bit of a different perspective than the first, but hope you found the feedback helpful. And hopefully this gives you an incentive to bring some more chapters over, since gotta give you something to look forward to to justify the grunt work. :^)

Til next time!
 
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Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Heya, I had mentioned in passing elsewhere that I intended to throw some reviews your way in the event you started bumping the TR version of your story again, and while I may have kept you waiting, I’m not the type to say things that I don’t intend to make good on, so here I am.
Yay! I really appreciate you going through all this effort to hash out reviews for a story you've already read. It's almost too kind of you :LOL:.

There will be a few more structure and prose critiques this time, which you’re free to action on at your leisure… or not, since from past experience, sometimes it’s better to just accept past mistakes and move on instead of getting lost in the weeds of revisionitis.
Uh-oh 😰

The early story in particular is a lot more rougher, as you've no doubt already seen. What I do with feedback depends on the amount of effort required to fix the issue; if it's a relatively simple issue, like the one you helped me fix later down the line, then I'll strongly consider it whenever I have some free time and assuming there's a healthy backlog of chapters. Otherwise, I might just jot them down and keep them in mind for after I finish the story. Some mistakes have to be accepted, as you said.

Since you could literally drop that word in there and it’d change next-to-nothing about the meaning of the rest of the paragraph (since a cranium is just a skull minus the jawbone) while making it sound a bit more natural in prose.
Hush, I was still influenced by Overthrown when I used to use those fancy terms.

Fair point. I replaced it with "skull".

I actually didn’t notice the last paragraph in my first readthrough. Going through things a second time around, this part is significantly sadder in tone since I know who Flame’s subconsciously trying to reach out for there.
Er... what if I told you that I originally hadn't planned that far ahead, but because of a huge coincidence it all worked out? This has happened a lot more than I'm willing to admit. But yes, it is referring to who you're thinking of. Even if retroactively.

Flame: “Wait, there’s sweat on my back? But I thought reptiles in general didn’t have sweat glands.”
Hush, Flame.

Reminder that Flame’s minced oaths should logically match his background, and this particular one doesn’t line up with his current neck of the woods. It could potentially line up with the neck of the woods he comes from for story reasons that are a ways out, which is why I’m not flatly calling this an error.
I'll just leave it at this: it's not a mistake 👀

The bit in bold imo would work better as something a bit more simplistic but related in meaning like “harsh”, “commanding”, or “overbearing”. Since “authoritarian” carries some political connotations that I’m not sure would immediately come to mind for a half-dead fire lizard being held at figurative knifepoint.
Fixed!

Okay, this part is one that actually would’ve worked to hint at the language difference and show a bit of a reaction from Alice’s end. Since any doubts about Flame from Alice’s end would’ve ebbed away significantly the moment that Flame answered her in speech that we find out in later chapters sounds natural to Pokémon from her general area of origin.
Ah, that's a fix that's quite easy to implement. Thanks!

Flame: “Look, my mind is a total blank, alright? It could be something like ‘Char’ or ‘Leo’ for all I know. I just don’t know.”
Alice: “... ‘Char’ or ‘Leo’? Since when would a ‘mon like you ever have a name like that?” -_-;
:LOL:

Flame sure has a way with girls, doesn’t he?
388785746544427018.png
H-he gets better, I promise!

Alice: “Oh, I’ve actually got one if you don’t. How do you feel about ‘Corneli-’?”
Flame: “I think that ‘Flame’ name isn’t half bad actually. Short, peppy, and it makes me feel warm just hearing it.” ^^
I just realised, that whole "Cornelius" joke later on might be a nice throwback if I make it a name she actually suggests here. As in, two or three suggestions before she says "Flame" instead of getting it right with her first shot. I'll think about it.

I was under the impression that this setting used metric units given later chapters. Or is this a colloquialism thing where archaic units of measurement remain semi-common in everyday parlance kinda like it is in the UK?
#oops! Fixed.

I think you’re missing a word or two there. I’m unsure, but that bit might sound better as “the Scum are advancing”, or “Scum are advancing through there”.
Ditto.

Might have been a neat little detail to have acknowledged here, though unsure if that bit of worldbuilding already existed all the way back in this chapter.
Eeeeeh, this whole plot thread was one I dropped off as quickly and quietly as I could after a couple of chapters. It just didn't sit right with me; although most people seemed to (thankfully) accept it at face value, it still felt flimsy to me that they'd believe him at all when they discover rather quickly that he's completely amnesiac. How would he even know what the South is?

But hey, if it doesn't take away from the experience, I'll leave it in. Maybe even take your advice and have Gaius remark "Yup. You sure sound like one [a Southerner]."

Flame: “No really, what are the Scum from the way you two keep talking about them? Some sort of zombies formed by dark impulses within a ‘mon or something?”
Squints (where is this reference from, by the way?)

Flame: “... Isn’t that a really specific height for an eye slat? Isn’t there a significant variation in how tall Pokémon get even when fully evolved?”
Seeing as the Aesernia garrison is made up by 90% of Bisharp, that's not a problem! Let's just hope no fire-/ground-/fighting-type Scum ever attacks 😰. (Seriously, though, I'll mention there being different slits for different heights. Thanks for the idea!)

Oh, and I forgot to reply to this:

I see Flame still has a few lingering memories of Half-Life 2 kicking in that brain of his, since I too would be wary of a law enforcement agency sharing a name with the guys of “Pick up that can” fame.
In Italy the Protezione Civile is our version of FEMA >.>

And that’s a wrap. Going through the story a second time admittedly is a bit of a different perspective than the first, but hope you found the feedback helpful. And hopefully this gives you an incentive to bring some more chapters over, since gotta give you something to look forward to to justify the grunt work. :^)

Til next time!
Thank you so much for your kindness! It's somehow still a blast reading through these, despite the backtracking. Again, it really wasn't necessary, but I won't complain about getting more great reviews from you and the activity related to it on the forum. I should probably participate in Catnip...
 
Chapter IV: Disclosure

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter IV: Disclosure


"… Thanks to our increasing understanding of the world, this great nation has made a giant leap forward in the last century alone; life expectancy has skyrocketed, food is abundant for all, and poverty has essentially vanished. Key to propelling our mighty Empire is the enlightenment, whose seeds They claim the merit of planting in our previously unsophisticated brains.

With this powerful alliance, our nation can accomplish many great things. Soon, even the last remnants of brute barbarians that dwell outside our borders shall be eradicated."


Excerpt from the book "Our Benefactors", written by Royal Scribe Antoninus Kadabra. Sources of all reported statistics remain undisclosed.


The sky was tinted a soft shade of orange, which invaded even the top of those distant clouds, as if highlighting a portion of heaven itself. The waning sunlight brought some relief to an exhausted Flame, who sat with his back rested against the rocky facade of the imposing cliff side on which he and his teammates were resting.

"Hold still. I'm trying to be quick."

A cloth band tightened its choke around Flame's injured thigh, eliciting light hisses of displeasure through his teeth. Thankfully, the pain was fairly light when compared to the one he felt prior when his leg was being eaten by a rabid Carnivine. It had been like that ever since the Sitrus Berry they'd found back in the dungeon had been basically stuffed down his throat.

Alice soon finished applying the bandage, and smiled reassuringly. "There. See? I told you there was nothing to worry about."

Flame tested his leg, careful not to bend it too much. "Much better. Thank y—"

A grunt escaped him and he clutched his bandaged leg, a throb briefly reigniting his healing wound.

"Ahh-ahh! T-thanks…" Flame croaked, gritting his teeth. "But … will I be able to walk again? What if I can't walk anymore?"

"Of course you will! That's why we gave you the berry. The wound isn't as deep as you think; just give it a night's rest and you will be alright."

Suddenly, Gaius, who was a short distance away digging out a burrow for the night, yelled something to catch their attention, and then motioned Alice over.

"Hang on," she said. "I'll go see what that blockhead over there is doing."

Flame took advantage of the time alone to relax, something he was in dire need of doing. His eyes were glued to the dying sunset. It was a sight that differed radically from the oppressive darkness choking the mystery dungeon, one which brought peace and tranquillity to his weary heart. He noticed that his entire body was one big knot of tension; he granted himself a liberatory breath.

Finally, he was outside. He'd officially made it through his first trip in a dungeon, he'd helped his—

His smile crumbled all at once. Even with the many lessons learnt from the experience, there was one thing he'd utterly failed to do: help his teammates out. After all, wasn't that the whole reason they were giving him a chance, to prove himself a valuable hand in mitigating the burden of their labour?

During the entirety of their endeavour—from the moment he set foot in the place—he'd proven to be nothing more than a useless weight, demanding to have his hand held through each step only to cower in terror at the first sign of danger. Already his reputation was scarred when he nearly got himself killed.

He glanced back at his companions. They were chatting away happily, obviously celebrating their mission's success—no thanks to him. With the initial relief of exiting the dungeon gone, there was little for him to celebrate. In fact, he felt a sense of shame looking at the two of them like that, as though he was failing them, all that blind trust put into him for nothing.

As he watched, Alice and Gaius broke their conversation and approached him purposely. The team leader gave Flame a strange, almost conflicted look, letting out no emotion.

"I've dug out the burrow," Gaius informed him. "If we go to sleep now, we may be able to get back to town early enough to claim the reward. Can you walk?"

Flame bit his lip and sighed deeply, uninterested in answering that specific question. To avoid the subject would only be dancing around the problem, and that would do him no good, just as a time bomb being delayed by a minute would explode regardless.

"Guys," Flame started, his eyes sliding downwards. "Look, about what happened before. I know you were expecting something … more than a good-for-nothing like me, and I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about?" Alice gave him an incredulous look. "You did wonderfully! In fact, I think we wouldn't have been able to complete the mission if you weren't there."

"Uh?" blurted Flame, caught off guard by the praise. "But … I barely did anything to help! I even managed to get myself hurt on my first day, somehow! How can you—"

"Oh, hush," Alice silenced him, though her voice carried no malice. "Accidents happen to everybody. No one is perfect their first time around, and we didn't expect you to be. Isn't that right, Gaius?"

Gaius remained silent for a few seconds, picking his words carefully. The tiniest of smiles escaped from its steel cage. "Our mission was a success. That's all that matters right now."

Flame was dumbfounded. "… Do you really mean it?"

"Of course! Think about it; the bag you brought back," she pointed to the object in question. "Wasn't it really far into the forest?"

He nodded in reply.

"Well, the fact is, all pokémon who want to explore a dungeon are taught to never venture off the main pathways, seeing how dangerous it can be. So in a way, if you hadn't broken that rule, we would be going home empty-handed right now. In that sense, yeah, I'd say you did good."

Flame was flattered by that comment, but at the same time found himself deeply dissatisfied with those mere words. The bag was found by complete accident. If it wasn't for his unfathomable spur of luck, he probably would have died back there, inept as he was in battle. How could that possibly count as good work?

Besides, he could sense that their encouragements were a sugarcoating of reality, a way not to make him feel too bad—the tone gave it away. He could almost hear them say: 'Don't worry, you still have another try!' (or was it all his imagination?).

"So, can you walk?" Gaius asked, tapping his foot on the ground impatiently.

"I … think so," Flame said, placing his arms behind him for support and slowly rising to his feet. His right leg still hurt tremendously whenever he shifted his weight on it, but he could somewhat complement that.

How did it become so late, anyway? Flame rambled mentally as he half-limped his way to the burrow. We entered the dungeon at around … what, midday? I can't possibly believe that we spent so long inside there…

Truth be told, it really didn't matter to him all that much. If he had to guess, having witnessed just how much dungeons strived to differentiate themselves from normality, they probably had their own quirky time zone and physics.

Resting a paw on either side of the wall for support, Flame entered the burrow, his teammates already inside. The thing that struck him was just how far down Gaius had dug; he'd expected it to be small and temporary, perhaps ten feet at best. Instead, he found at least twice that amount.

"Uhm … Gaius? I mean, I'm not going to complain about the extra breathing space, but why make the burrow so big? We're only going to stay here for tonight, aren't we?"

Gaius seemed to distance himself from the question. "I know what I'm doing, Flame. Trust me, it's for the best. Go to bed now."

With a defeated sigh, Flame plopped himself down in the roughly elliptically-shaped room, pressing his back against the wall and tucking his legs close together as to avoid hindering the personal space of his teammates.

Driven by the physical and mental exhaustion that dripped out of his body like a wrung sponge, he curled down on his side, cheek nuzzling the dry earth and eyelids threatening to defy his commands to stay wide.

That's because he wasn't bent on dozing off just yet. His claws travelled to the bag that was still strapped to his shoulder, intending to rummage through its contents, something he had found no time for with bloodthirsty Paras hounding his tail.

However, his intentions were cut short when Gaius reached out with his arm and rudely ripped the bag straight off his shoulder, just as he was about to take the journal out.

"I'll be taking this, thank you." Gaius imposed, hiding the bag behind his form.

"Hey! I just wanted to take a look!" Flame protested.

"No way," Gaius scoffed. "I don't want to have you fiddling with our evidence. It's the only thing we have to prove that we actually carried out the mission and found the guy, so I'd like it to be there when I wake up."

"Why? What do you think would happen if I give it a quick read?"

Gaius' scowl was driven even further. "Don't know, you might light it on fire with that tail. You never know with fire-types."

With that reminder, Gaius laid back down and rolled in the other direction, leaving a disappointed Charmeleon to twiddle with his thumbs. Flame grunted in frustration, his bitterness rising steadily. Why was he being treated like that? Was it a form of punishment for his screw-ups in the dungeon? And, yet, not one minute earlier Gaius claimed that all that counted was their mission's success!

Flame let his eyes slide shut briefly as the bitter truth finally presented himself to him, as obvious as it was disheartening: Gaius simply didn't trust him yet. To the Grovyle's eyes, he was still little more than an inconvenient stranger tagging along with them because he had nowhere else to go. He wished he could do something to change that fact, utter the right words to mend every wrinkle and tear in their relationship. Then again, there were so many things wrong with the situation he was in…

"Hey, Flame. Are you still there?" Alice's whisper cut through the silence that had ensued. Averting his gaze from the wall, he saw her look at him from the corner of her eye. "Don't listen to what he says. He just needs time to get used to having someone else around."

"I guess…" Flame muttered quietly, unconvinced whether that was truly the case. Maybe he was just being too negative. After all, she likely knew Gaius much better than he did, and as a consolation she did seem to trust him somewhat. Hopefully. "How long have you known him for?"

"Gaius?" she raised her eyes to the ceiling, rummaging through her memory. "We've been in Civil Protection for … I don't know, three years? But yeah, he eventually got used to being around me."

"Did you know him before that?"

Her voice was becoming heavier the more she talked, and she was starting to stumble on her words a bit. "Hmm? No, not really. The guy is still a bit of a mystery to me even now. I think he—" her speech was cut suddenly by a deep yawn, followed by her eyes blinking rapidly in quick succession. "Ugh … Flame, I'd love to keep chatting with you, but I'm really tired. Might just fall asleep on you if we keep going. Let's just go to bed, okay?"

Flame frowned slightly, but couldn't hold her fatigue against her. "You're right. I'm pretty tired too, actually. Goodnight."

"Oh, before I forget," Alice suddenly mumbled back. "Don't go outside."

Flame raised an eyebrow. "Huh? Why not? What do you mean?"

"Even if you can't sleep, or … if you happen to hear or see anything, don't go outside. Under any circumstance."

Flame rolled on his side slightly to get a view of the entrance to their small burrow. The veils of darkness had long descended to cover the land, and the silence was absolute, save for the occasional gust of wind. He could even see—hang on, he could see! They were completely exposed! The entrance was wide open!

"Alice," he said in a distraught tone, almost forgetting to suppress his voice to a whisper. "Are you saying that there's somebody out there that could come for us?"

It took the Dragonair a few seconds to reply. "…What? No, no, there aren't any ferals around here. Not anymore. All I'm trying to say is, if you go outside now, it's … dangerous. I think a portal storm is coming."

"What's that?"

"Just…" she interjected her sentence with a loud yawn. "Don't do it. Tomorrow. No time…"

Flame would have liked to ask for further clarification, but before long she had already joined Gaius in sweet slumber, leaving him wondering why and how much he should have been worried about this so-called 'portal storm'. Not that he was planning to occupy himself with any activity other than resting, of course; perhaps it wasn't anything to be concerned about so long as he stayed inside.

Regardless, he too closed his eyes and curled up in a more comfortable position, ready to mimic his teammates.


Domus Aerelia

Steam lethargically erupted from the boiling waters of the thermae, creating a persistent layer of moisture on the sturdy columns that supported the structure around it. Waning moonlight trickled in through the richly decorated window panes, and torches spread further light to every floor tile in the room, each one made of pure marble.

A single pokémon was partially submerged in the steaming bath. It barely even showed any signs of being alive, so entranced it was in its state of pure bliss. Appeased, she let out a sigh of content and threw her head back, careful not to scrape anything with the lengthy tusks that extended from either side of her mouth.

"Mistress Ariel?"

A voice chimed in abruptly through the Haxorus' bubble of tranquillity. The aura of bliss around her dissipated all at once, blending in with the steam, and she turned to glare bullets at the culprit.

The offender turned out to be a young Flygon, the purple band fitted round his neck identifying him as the head servant. Her glare softened slightly, but it was still sharp enough to elicit a nervous gulp from the Flygon.

"This had better be important," Ariel grunted, not bothering to move any part of her body other than the head.

"Mistress, we've just received a new assignment request for you to give out," the Flygon explained briefly. "It's coming straight from His Majesty himself."

Ariel's interest peaked. "An assignment? You mean it's for those two morons again?"

"Uhm … It's three now, mistress. They took a new guy in recently."

"As if two weren't already enough…" Ariel muttered with narrowed pupils. "I'll never be able to shake them off my back, will I? No matter how much I try to convince that bloody fool, he just won't give up."

With a relaxed heave, she lowered the rest of her upper body into the relieving water, leaving her head barely above the surface of the water. "Go tell Myco to prepare the paperwork. This is kind of sudden, so he'll probably need some help. After that, report back to me in the morning. I will inform those idiots… Ah, maybe tomorrow."

The Haxorus was about to drift back to bliss land, when she noticed that the head servant was still there, fiddling nervously with his claws as though she'd rip his head off at any second.

"M-mistress? Can't you p-please get someone else to do it?"

Ariel stood blank-faced, staring directly at the Flygon while attempting to process his request. She always had been a firm believer that a slave treated well would work better than one treated poorly, but—this!

"It's…" the young Flygon continued. "M-my mate's been sick recently… I haven't seen her in two weeks, so—"

"Watch. Your. Tongue." Ariel hissed, every syllable injected with venom. "Just because you have a few 'enhanced privileges' as the head servant doesn't mean that you get the right to disobey my orders. You still work for me, remember?"

"B-b-but … I still have to finish my cleaning duties, and at this rate—"

"Oh, what's that?" Ariel said in a child-like mocking tone- "You have work to do? Then get to it, dimwit! Don't go crying to me about your life problems! You're … ugh, lucky this bath feels too good to simply get out from, or I'd gladly show you your place. Now go, before I change my mind." She flicked her wrist toward the exit to add to her point.

However, the Flygon refused to move. Now she was starting to really become infuriated. "What? What is it? Why are you still here?"

"Mistress, that wasn't all I needed to inform you about. There's something else. Another portal storm is forming along the south-east border of the town. This one is huge, much bigger than anything we've ever seen before. And it's happening right now."


Flame couldn't sleep that night.

He figured it would only be a matter of time until he descended into slumber; after all, the journey in the dungeon had sapped a considerable amount of energy from his body, and almost getting his leg bitten off by a carnivorous plant certainly didn't help support any sort of eagerness to remain awake.

Yet, he was still there. Tired, wishing he could drop the last weight of awareness chained to his ankle and be able to get the rest he deserved, but never quite reaching the drowsiness he wanted. It was an interesting situation, he mused; stuck between sleep and wakefulness, hopelessly exhausted yet still unable to grant himself rest.

After minutes, hours of shifting position and rolling to the opposite side, he came to realise what exactly it was that was obstructing his sleep. There was an unnatural feeling inside him. A feeling that just about drove him mad the more he tried investigating its nature.

Was it the sensation of discomfort that went with sleeping on the cold soil, or maybe Gaius' loud snoring that kept bothering him so much? No, it was nothing of that sort. He wanted to go outside. The exact reason for that escaped him, but the unmistakable fact remained: whenever he looked at their shelter's entrance, he felt an almost magnetic attraction to suddenly get up and rush outside, to do something that defied all logic—not to mention Alice's recommendation.

Curse … err… Arceus! Flame thought in mounting frustration, using that name he'd heard his teammates mention various times, What is wrong with me? Why can't I fall asleep? I have work to do tomorrow, darn it!

Grudgingly, he lifted himself to a sitting position, adjusting his tail as to avoid crushing it against the wall—or burning one of his friends—and booted his mental processes to try to find a solution to this dilemma. Going outside was out of the question; it would be in gross disrespect of Alice's trust in him, and, if she decided to give him such specific advice, needless to say there was probably a good reason for it. On the other hand, the burrow was beginning to feel pretty cramped—his friends were within feet of colliding with his body, leaving him with very little breathing space.

I don't get why we had to stop here for the night. Flame grumbled mentally, We could have just gone back to camp and had a decent bed to lie on.

The reason, however, was quick to catch up to him. It's because of my leg, wasn't it? I was the reason they decided to stop here, and now I'm the one complaining that they shouldn't have. Great job, Flame. Way to be grateful…

In his idle wait, Flame's eyes eventually glazed over the bag he'd taken from the Breloom researcher. The rucksack lay partially hidden beneath Gaius' shielding body, the top just barely sticking out.

Seized by a revitalised spur of curiosity, he slowly began extending his paw, every inch of movement carefully thought out as to not awake any of his teammates.

At last, his claws clasped around the opening of the bag, and the length of his arm now hovered mere inches above Gaius' rising chest. Flame remained there for a few seconds, cutting his breath briefly as he stared down at the sleeping Grovyle. Nothing happened.

Letting his guard down for a second, he reached over with his other paw and shoved it in, feeling through whatever object of interest he could find. The leathery texture of a journal's cover greeted his claws.

Flame smirked.

Then, without warning, Gaius rolled to his side. Barely managing to suppress a yelp, Flame dropped the bag and stumbled backwards, nearly falling on top of his teammates when his back very quickly hit the other wall.

He crumbled back to the ground. Now, his team leader was essentially blockading any physical access to the rucksack, trapping it in between his body and the wall. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Ah, screw you then, Flame groaned mentally, gritting his teeth as he reassessed the situation. He still couldn't get any shut eye for some reason—wasn't he struggling to stay awake not long ago?—and now he couldn't even do that single thing to occupy his time.

Back to the starting point, essentially.

And it was because of that reason, he figured, that his attention mechanically shifted back to the entrance that connected their isolated chunk of safety to the outside world. The wind hissed tauntingly at him as it blew by, violently ripping branches and flowers from their rightful place in the landscape. A sound akin to muffled booms could be heard repeatedly in the distance, further stirring a mixture of curiosity and uneasiness in the Charmeleon.

Something is definitely going on out there. But what? A thunderstorm? No, it isn't raining, that can't be it. That doesn't exactly sound like thunder, either. Maybe I should…

Flame rapidly swatted the thought away, manning on even as the strange feeling subtly tightened its stranglehold around his subconscious. I can't go out there right now. Alice said it's too dangerous. The wind is growing stronger, too. I can't…

Every word he jumbled out to his mind only fuelled his desire to venture out even more. And it was then that the realisation hit him; whatever was happening outside, it had something to do with him. He couldn't quite understand why that thought entered his mind, nor could he gather substantial evidence to prove it was anything more than a product of some form of parasitic schizofrenia that had infected his brain. But it was there, and he would go mad if he didn't attempt to find out.

In a matter of seconds, the sickening temptation swept over Flame's body, overriding any trace of common sense left in its wake. Before he knew it, he was on his feet, taking hesitant steps toward the exit.

I … Why am I doing this? I can't … This is a bad idea. If his muscles had any sort of awareness of the resistance mounting up in his mind, they were surely ignoring it, for his legs carried him outside of the safety of their shelter.

The entire world seemed to shift to a more somber mood the second he stepped on the grassy plain. Bristling cold soaked his scales and a flurry of leaves collided with his body as the stormy winds whipped his body savagely. Shivers ramified from the tip of his tail, where the ember was crying out in distress, overwhelmed from the sudden onslaught of air threatening to extinguish it.

But the hostile weather didn't scathe his vague resolution in the slightest; for whatever reason, he still felt adamant to find out what was happening. Anything that had even the tiniest sliver of a chance of being related to his past was worth investigating, he figured.

The first things that met the eye were the titanic storm clouds brewing dangerously close, as though a haze of tar-black poison that suffocated all lights but the one coming off his tail. With that in mind, it was fairly difficult to make out any detail with clarity, yet the shadows failed to hide the obvious fact that something was very wrong.

A tingling sensation began spreading through his guts as he stared at the carpet of storm clouds, not unlike the kind of euphoria one would feel when meeting a loved one again after a long time apart.

What is this? What is my body trying to tell me?

As if boldly reaffirming his deficit of rational logic, he turned in the direction of the anomalous sounds, marched out of the small depression and on to higher ground, trying to get a better look at the scenery.

The moment Flame reached the top, he immediately regretted ever leaving the safety of his burrow.

The entire universe's fury clashed with his body head-on, and he was just on the verge of being picked up and swept away by the sudden gale.

Behind the tornado of leaves, tree trunks, and rocks being carried away by the weather's might, Flame could only make out darkness. But it wasn't the normal kind of darkness that ensues when there is little ambient light; rather, it was darkness in the shape of an enormous, spiralling blob hovering above the ravaged landscape.

Flame froze in a mix of shock and awe. On one hand he figured it would be best to turn around now and run like hell, but on the other hand he was tempted to get even closer to the strange phenomenon, perhaps—the thought crossed his mind briefly—touch it with his own claws.

Stuck between two conflicting ideas, his body unconsciously opted in favour of standing still. If possible, the wind was becoming even more ferocious each second that passed, and he could see the blob's 'shell' jerking outwards violently to expand, as if experiencing a painful seizure.

So … this is that 'portal storm' Alice said would take place. Why is it here? What's it— Oh, Arceus, this is a bad idea…

He began panting out of sheer panic, but even with the gales raging around his weak frame, not a single molecule of oxygen seemed particularly inclined to fill the growing void in his lungs.

I … I should really head back… This is crazy.

Something stirred in the darkness. It was an almost imperceptible movement, like trying to spot a fly in a pitch-black room. But it was there. A red eye. There was something in the portal.

As Flame stared, one word emerged in his mind spontaneously. And it wasn't he who uttered it.

"Ascension."

That was the straw that broke his mind out of its stupor; without a second thought, Flame turned around and, aided by the favourable gusts, stumbled back to the burrow. Thankfully, his teammates were still sleeping. The last thing he needed was for them to find out that he'd ignored their warning.

Quickly, as if the storm was chasing after him, Flame dropped down in what little space there was left, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping that he hadn't touched or kicked any of his teammates in the process. To quell the uneasiness in his nerves, he reached an agreement with himself: for all he knew, tonight never happened. He didn't see anything.

This time, sleep was quick to arrive.


The next morning, when sunrise bestrew the land with its healing light, the trio awoke almost in unison—Flame being the last one to drowsily rise to his feet and leave their temporary shelter behind. Once on the road, the team nibbled down a few berries that had survived their last exploration, making sure to leave a few to spare. There weren't very many words exchanged as they hiked ahead, only some small talk between Gaius and Alice about something Flame didn't quite catch, and a few questions directed at him about his leg's current condition.

That last one brought his spirits up a bit. He was still a little unsure about this whole rescue team thing—not that he had any choice in the matter—so hearing that they still cared, in spite of his lapses the previous day, definitely encouraged a smile on his face. That was despite part of him not fully trusting the sincerity of their words.

As for the wound itself, his thigh had healed almost completely during the night, leaving behind only a small strip of scar tissue roughly where the Carnivine's teeth latched.

Traces of discomfort persisted in his gait, but he managed to bottle them up and ignore their existence as best as he could.

Roughly half an hour of walking later, the three entered a portion of the land that deviated so dramatically from its surroundings that Flame would have thought this was another one of those dungeon places. Looking around, he found the most accurate comparison to describe the forest's state to be that of a war zone.

Debris was strewn all around, as though a divine being suddenly got bored and decided to make of that particular spot his playground: chunks of wood, rocks; mounds of dirt and mud. Only a few lucky trees were left standing, most stripped to a mere naked pole. One could make out the almost circular-shape of the affected area, where virtually everything was devastated.

Looks like this is where that storm took place last night. Must be the epicentre… he assumed, and drew circles with his head to witness the aftermath of the storm. So much for dismissing the previous night's events from his mind.

From the corner of his eye, Alice and Gaius were reacting much the same, a twinge of perturbation lingering in their faces.

Nonetheless, the team kept trudging ahead wordlessly.

Although the path they'd been following was smeared by the remains of its former ecosystem which littered its length, that turned out not to be much of a problem, seeing as they soon reached the gate leading into Aesernia.

Or, at least, what was left of it. Once the team drew closer, they realised that there was no south-eastern entrance anymore; the storm had butchered an entire section of the walls, leaving behind a heap of shattered stones lying on top of the dust from the smaller fragments.

"I think this is the closest one's ever gotten to the town…" Gaius muttered to Alice, exchanging a preoccupied glance with her.

"What on earth happened here?" asked Flame, even though perfectly aware of what the answer would be.

"There was a portal storm last night," Gaius said gravely, "You may or may not have heard it after I fell asleep."

"And that's what caused all this? Back in the forest, too?" He'd witnessed it with his own eyes! Why was he even asking!?

"Yes," Alice confirmed. "That's exactly the reason I told you to stay inside. Fortunately, I think we were just outside its range. Otherwise, we might have been gobbled up by it. Arceus knows what would happen to us then."

Flame bit his lip, unsettled at learning the dangers he'd run the previous night. That only spurred more questions though. Why did he feel so compelled to get so close to the storm, even start thinking that it might be connected to his past? Maybe it just was the paranoia messing with his head—the one that came with forgetting who you are and in what world you are in.

He made a mental note not to follow any strange gut feeling blindly.

Gaius resumed walking and motioned them to follow. "Well, let's see what shape the town is in. Hope it didn't get any farther than this."

"Oh, by the way," Alice turned to Flame as both walked behind the Grovyle. "Hope you didn't take any offense from that warning I gave you last night. I wasn't trying to imply that you're stupid enough to do it or untrustworthy or … something. I simply figured that you couldn't remember what portal storms looked like."

Oh, come on! Do you have to shove it in my face like that!? Flame clenched his eyelids and breathed deeply through his nostrils. His lie was starting to come back to him. Now he was at, what, two lies he'd told his companions in the space of a day since joining? First, his birthplace, now his encounter with the portal storm. One hell of a teammate he was being…

Quickly though, he calmed himself, and uttered an answer.

"What? I don't see how that was rude in any way. Don't worry about it." It was true, however. That warning sounded perfectly logical in his head considering what he knew now. He really did fail to pick up on any possibly offensive tone to it. What was she apologising for, again?

The trio entered the town through a breach that cut through the mountain of rubble. Fortunately, their fears settled down somewhat at the view of what awaited them on the other side. The town hadn't been obliterated to a sorry heap of rubble by the storm—at least, judging by what they could see. Whilst part of the district closest to the wall carried considerable structural scars, and a few of the weaker buildings were standing no more, it seemed that this amounted to everything as far as material damage went.

"Oh, Arceus…" Alice muttered as she beheld the scenery. "This is bad. These walls aren't going to be rebuilt in a day. What if we come under attack right now? Are we supposed to set up a welcoming banquet?"

"Hey…" Flame tried to hearten their spirits. "Relax. I'm sure … um … Ariel is going to do something about this."

Gaius seemed more amused by his encouragement than anything. "Ariel giving a damn about what happens in town? Good luck with that. If I had to guess, she's probably in her villa, enjoying a steaming bath."

"Hey! You three!"

Team Phalanx turned collectively towards the voice, a large, mole-like creature with blade-like appendages for hands and on its head. Behind it, a multitude of tough-looking pokémon were working assiduously to clear the debris from the collapsed stonework.

Flame also took notice of a group of bystanders that had gathered nearby, watching the officers at work. The look on their faces was one of distress; they weren't really doing anything to help, but merely stood there apprehensively.

"Could'ya give us a hand?" Its voice was so gruff that it garbled some syllables together. "Those damn legionaries are taking their sweet time as always."

The jumbled mess of sounds coming out of the creature's mouth barely made it to Flame's ears in the form of complete words, but even then it was easy to recognise what it was asking them.

Gaius held up his reply, eyes wandering around in thought. "Err … sorry, but … our buddy here was injured while traversing a dungeon." He pointed to the still-bloodied bandage wrapped round Flame's leg, "We're taking him to the field hospital. There's no time."

Strangely, Flame felt a twinge of delight at being called 'buddy'.

The Excadrill perked a skeptical eyebrow, as though unconvinced at the veracity of the Grovyle's claims. However, it gave up with a frustrated grunt, and shifted its attention back to the task at hand—trying to shatter a massive boulder to bits.

Visibly relieved for managing to avoid the mole's request, Gaius seized the chance to slip away from the disaster site, his teammates in tow.

Flame rushed by his side as they swerved into the main road. "Hospital? I thought you said the berry would take care of everything."

"It did," noted Gaius matter-of-factly. "I just can't be bothered to do all the monkey work."

Despite this being a very dishonourable way to win, Flame couldn't really find a reason to complain.

It was a short road back to Camp Tempest. After traversing the nigh deserted streets, Gaius decided to split off from the two of them to claim their reward. That left Alice and Flame the option to head back to their tent, which they gratefully accepted.

As soon as Flame entered their tent, he almost instantly collapsed onto his straw bed. After spending the night outside, it didn't seem so weird and uncomfortable anymore. His leg still felt unpleasantly sore, and the signs of his sleepless night were very evident in his posture.

"Whew…" Alice began, rolling on her back. "Tiring mission yesterday, wasn't it?"

"Yeah … I'd be happy to lie here all day, to be honest." A sudden thought crossed Flame's mind. "Wait, we aren't going to take another job right away, are we?"

"Hmm? No, we're not. The money from this one should last us a small while, so I think we can afford taking a day off."

A few moments passed in silence as the two recuperated their energies. Flame really wanted to say something else, but his mind was refusing to cooperate. Ask about his performance? No, no. Enough of worrying. Inquire something about herself or Gaius? That also seemed a little impolite…

Thankfully, Alice decided to continue the conversation herself. "So, how about the mission? What did you think of it?"

"It was … interesting, to say the least. Although to be honest, those dungeon places creep me out. Getting lost and almost having my leg chewed off didn't really help either."

"Flame, you must remain together within dungeons," Alice compelled him with a tone of urgency. "Fall behind even a little bit, and the stairway might send you off to a completely different place."

"Sorry… It's just that, I-I didn't realise…" Flame blurted out, his mouth curled into a frown.

"Hey, relax. I'm positive that with a bit of time and experience, you will glide through them like a breeze," she reassured him with a warm smile. "Do you see yourself getting used to all this?"

Flame smiled back a little, calmed by her words. "Actually, I think I could. Can't say I enjoyed the endless trek to get there, though."

Alice grinned playfully. "You think that one hour walk and back was exhausting? Try doing eight. Treehound Cove is the closest dungeon to Aesernia you can get."

Flame rolled his eyes for dramatic effect, retaining his smile. "My goodness, I can't wait…"

As the two lay in calm, the Charmeleon's thoughts began floating back to the previous day's events. He remembered his encounters with that Pidgeotto and that Paras, and just how defenceless he felt through it all…

The only reason I made it out is because my friends were there to cover my back. Flame reflected. But … they can't afford to babysit me all the time, not after everything they've already done for me! If I am to be worth something, I need to learn to defend myself.

Flame shifted a paw and laid it on his own chest, as though feeling for his heartbeat. Gaius, Alice, I will work harder. I promise.

It was then that a certain Grovyle barged into the tent, holding his slung bag close. Judging from the triumphant smirk on his face, something was definitely going on.

"Oh, hi Gaius." Flame said, and sat up. His greeting went unheard, however.

"Hey, Alice. Guess what?" the gecko asked with a sly grin stuck on his face, arms crossed together.

Yeah, thanks for noticing me… Flame grunted quietly.

The Dragonair raised her head, staring at Gaius hopefully. "Did we get it?"

Expecting the question, Gaius smirked even wider, and pulled out a handful of coins from the bag, displaying them proudly. "Damn right we did."

Alice's eyes lit up at the sight of the currency. Gently, a joyful smile spread across her features. "I can't believe it… We actually succeeded! We got our reward!"

She then turned to address the Charmeleon, her voice overloaded with candour. "Flame, do you realise just how important this is? It's been so long since we completed an assignment, I almost forgot how relieving it felt!"

Flame shifted his gaze between the two pokémon. He only possessed a rough idea of which state the team was in before his arrival, but the look on their faces suggested that a huge weight had just been moved off their back.

Before long, Flame found himself sharing their joy, smiling broadly. At least something's going right for me…

The Dragonair then continued. "And a good part of the merit goes to you. I knew that letting you on the team was the best option for everyone. Not regretting the decision in the slightest."

Visibly irritated, Gaius's lip twitched briefly, but decided not to speak out.

That detail did not evade Alice's eye. "Come on, Gaius, you can't possibly deny it. We would have failed again had it not been for him. Maybe even worse."

Gaius rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. The jury is still out there, though." His expression stabilised, caught in the feeling of accomplishment that hung around in the tent. "Anyway, Myco asked that we pass by his office later on. So keep that in mind. Right now, I gotta go."

"Uh? To where?" Flame asked him, getting up on his feet.

"Err … I have a few … errands to take care of. Meanwhile, the two of you can go do something productive. As long as you don't spend all of our money, of course."

"Productive? Like…?" Alice inquired, confused at the vague terminology.

"Don't give me that face, Alice." Gaius said. "I'm sure you can come up with something decent. That's what that big brain of yours is good at, isn't it?"

With those last words, the Grovyle parted the exit with his claws and walked away, leaving the two alone once again.

Alice heaved a sigh. "… You'll never change, will you?"

She then turned her head toward Flame, shrugging. "Oh, well. No idea where he's going, but it's just us two now. Perhaps it's better that way." she joked, earning a few chuckles from Flame.

"So," she continued. "I'm not really sure where I could take you right now. Got any ideas?"

Flame laid a claw on his chin, deep in thought. Although the thought of just remaining with her in the tent didn't bother him at all, this was too good an opportunity to pass. There was an entire city out there which he knew next to nothing about, and had only really seen a few snippets of it. If he was to remain here for a foreseeably long amount of time, then he needed to learn a thing or two about Aesernia. Besides, who knows, maybe he'd find some hints about his past along the way.

Suddenly, a look of realisation came upon Alice's face. "Hang on. I just thought of a place that'd be perfect for you."


The building that stood before them was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous temple-like structure, its lacteous concrete deteriorated by years of exposure to rain and vandals. The sturdy columns that kept the whole structure from collapsing on itself looked worn and smelt of a variety of unpleasant odours. It was as though the building was desperate to keep its eye-pleasing facade up, even in spite of the obvious neglect.

From where Flame stood it was easy to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the caption that ran above the entrance:

COGNITIO EST VIGOR.

KNOWLEDGE IS STRENGTH.


"Um … What is this place?" Flame asked bemusedly.

"This right here is Aesernia's very own Imperial Library." Alice explained with a pinch of pride in her voice. "As far as I've heard, it's one of the few scattered about the northern provinces. You're very lucky to have ended up in this town in particular, you know that?"

"Oh. Yeah, I guess so." Flame muttered. "Not meaning to sound rude, but what exactly are we here for? Something you need to look into?"

She looked at him as if he was missing the point entirely. "No, Flame. We're here for you." she jerked her tail in his direction for added effect.

"Wait, are you saying…"

"Exactly. See, the thought of your amnesia crossed my mind, and how horrible it must feel not knowing anything, so … you know, I figured this would be a good place to commence your recovery."

Of course! It was such an obvious solution! Instead of sitting around moping about his current state of mind, why not try to do something about it? And what better way to achieve that goal than via pre-existing written records?

Sadly, the chances of unearthing fragments of his past by doing such research were abysmal, he mused with a small sense of irritation. Yet, it would prove a great opportunity to learn about the world he was in, knowledge that he absolutely needed right now.

"Wow … You're right, I never thought of something like this! But…" A sense of unnerving discomfort took over him. Who was he to receive all this undeserved guidance? Perhaps it wasn't right to force Alice to pour so much time and energy into helping him—surely she had better things to do.

"Alice, you don't have to stay here if—"

"Come on, let's head inside." she shrugged his concerns effortlessly, finally convincing him to follow.

Inside, the library didn't look quite as run down as it did on the front; beyond the modest atrium, the only features present were the rows after rows of tall wooden bookshelves, most of which were only partially filled with books. Bright blue orbs were affixed to the ceiling to act as a lighting source. As Flame and Alice explored its many lanes, the wooden floor boards groaning under the strain of their weight, the occasional visitor could be seen wandering around, or sat at one of many tables.

Alice bore a concentrated look on her face. "Let's see, I think it was … there." she said after a small pause, pointing her snout at a particular bookshelf to their right.

Flame quietly walked over to it, and began scanning the titles impressed on each book's spine. The covers were discoloured and slightly torn, yet somehow managed to hold the yellowed paper together. What now? He asked himself. There must have been at least fifty books in that bookshelf alone!

Unsure of what to do, he peeked behind him for a moment, looking for Alice. However, the Dragonair was slithering off to another section of the library, delivering him a few last words before disappearing from sight.

"See if you can find anything that looks interesting, okay?" Alice suggested. "Just let me grab something, and I'll head right back to you."

Fine. Guess I'll just have to look through each one then… She must have chosen this shelf for a reason, after all. Flame supposed, extending his arm to buckle the dusty books out of place and judge their helpfulness. His eyes glazed over a few titles.

'Our Benefactors' sounded intriguing, but he didn't have the luxury to read for leisure, so he placed it back into its slot.

After a whole line of uninteresting titles, he caught another one. 'The Kingdom, the Republic, and the Empire: the history of our great nation.'

Flame's interest peaked: this actually looked informative! He attempted to extract the volume from its position, but then noticed with alarm that its pages were bloated so thick that it would have looked more proper at a construction site.

This is way too long, I can't possibly read it all. There must be something simpler… he thought with a sort of vague distaste, looking back at the twenty-something texts he'd already inspected. None of them looked remotely like what he was looking for.

Thankfully, fortune seemed to be on his side for once. After a bit of disoriented lingering, his digits came to rest on a particular book, its title inscribed on a slightly bleached cover.

'Encyclopedia of the species: a brief overview of every Pokémon.'

Curious, he slid it out of the bookshelf and held it in his paws to get a closer look at it. It certainly felt heavy, not a surprise considering its slight bulk. But his interest was too great to put it away; a compendium of all the world's species was something he fancied a lot right now.

Besides, he didn't have to read it all in one go. For right now, he could just take a look at the sections that mattered the most to his cause.

Taking a seat at the ruggedly carved table, he laid the heavy book down and opened its pages at a random point. What his eyes were greeted with was about three pages of text dedicated to a family of living rocks with arms and faces, and an image detailing each one of them.

Overlooking the sheer bizarreness of those creatures, he wondered what entry he should take a look at first. Maybe he could look at the Dragonair entry, or the Grovyle one, to find out what his teammates were capable of, or perhaps that creepy Paras bug…

… Or maybe he could use it to learn more about himself.

The idea emerged in Flame's head all of a sudden, one so glaringly obvious that he remained puzzled as to why it hadn't been the first one to cross his mind. He basically knew nothing about how his own anatomy worked. His body. The same one he'd supposedly been stuck with for the entire duration of his life. His ability to breathe fire, just about the only fact he knew about himself, only came to his attention entirely by accident.

Ever since I lost my memories, I don't know who I am, what I am, nor how my body functions. It's a miracle I remembered how to breathe… Flame huffed as he turned the pages toward the beginning of the book, hoping that the entries would be kept in an alphabetical order. Strangely, that was only partially the case. Much to complicate everything, pokémon were being ordered by both type and name.

After skimping past seemingly infinite pages in the fire type category, his mouth curled into an excited grin when he finally found the entry for Charmeleons. The account began with several images of individuals very much like him, hereupon depicted engaging in various activities and at different angles.

True to its title, the description for his species didn't quite go into molecular detail about everything. As such, Flame had an easier time taking in all its droning, eager to hold a certainty he could cling to.

Among other things, it stated how the fire on top of his tail was essentially his life force, and that he ought to be extremely careful not to extinguish it forcefully. Submerging it in water, for example, would lead to feelings of extreme pain, hypothermia, loss of consciousness, and eventually—a shiver ran up his spine—death.

Don't go swimming. Point taken.

He read and reread each word until he could be sure they'd been assimilated into his head—perhaps lingering a little too long in the 'Reproduction' segment—and just then, he heard Alice return behind him.

Flame turned around, a paw covering the pictures on the page he'd been reading. The Dragonair was holding a roll of paper in the corner of her mouth, but looked as though she'd already done it a thousand times.

"Hope I didn't take too long," she spoke fluently, passing next to the table, scrutinising the open book. "What are you reading?"

Flame elaborated an answer quickly and shut the encyclopedia. "Uh, nothing. I was just … reading about Charmeleons, and what they—well, I am able to do. Thought it would be useful to know."

"That's not a bad idea," Alice commented, shifting the roll of paper with her jaw to keep it in place. "Learning a bit about your own species should help you regain some sense of identity, not to mention battle prowess. Anything about fire attacks in there?"

"No, the book is kind of vague about that subject. It says here that my species is adept at breathing fire since birth, but that doesn't really help me much." He stared at her for a moment, reflecting. "Maybe I have a dysfunction of some kind… ?"

Alice laughed lightly, almost as to point out the absurdness of his fears. "Oh, don't be silly. The chances of that are minuscule. If I had to bet, you're just being too nervous for your own good. Now, check out what I got you here."

With that, Alice tilted her maw slightly and let the paper roll land on the table; then she unfurled it carefully with the tip of her tail.

Only for a second did Flame stare weirdly at her awkward movements, but it was more than enough for her eye to catch on.

"What?" she asked with a blend of irritation and annoyance in her voice, "I don't have paws, in case you didn't notice."

Realising his tactlessness, he nodded in apology and lowered his eyes to the table. Spread across its surface was a fair sized map, representing the outline of a rugged peninsula enclosed by the sea on all but one side. More or less small islands littered the southern coastline, while a tall mountain range, acting as a natural barrier of sorts, ran along the peninsula's only land border. The edges of the map were ripped and torn slightly from use.

"Alright, so," Alice drew a breath, foreboding a long speech. "Seeing as there is always a chance that our job may require us to travel far and wide, it would do you good to learn about the geography of the Empire. For a start, see if you can find Urbe on the map. Bet you can do it in under five seconds."

Indeed, it was not difficult to locate the settlement. Especially since it was the largest and most prominent on the map.

"This one?" Flame tapped a claw on the spot.

"Exactly. Urbe is the capital of the Empire, centre of knowledge and the fine arts. 'Tis the richest and most populated city in our lands—some say the world. Aesernia looks like a tiny hamlet in comparison; trust me, I lived there for most of my life."

"You lived in Urbe?" Flame asked, enchanted by her description of the city, "How was it? And why move over here?"

Alice sharply ignored those questions, acting as though she hadn't even heard him—though a strange glimmer in her eyes and a sudden rigidness in her stance suggested otherwise. Before he could start worrying about whether he said something wrong, her friendly expression came back within seconds.

"Anyway, memorise all the major cities and dungeons you see there. I want this map burnt into your brain by the end of the week." she added with a wry quirk of her lip, her tone feigning severity.

Flame decided to let those questions hang, and did just as advised, starting in the south of the peninsula and moving upward. The major settlements of Portus, Urbe and Agia Marina met the eye among many others, as well as a few mystery dungeons scattered along the coast or on one of the many isles. The number of cities dwindled as one travelled north, instead replaced by a much higher concentration of mystery dungeons. And up there, sitting on a lonely stretch of plains, was Aesernia.

"Uh, Alice…" Flame started, having just noticed something odd. "Why is the land up there so hazy?"

His claw pointed to the stretch of earth extending beyond the northern mountains, where the map's author had seemingly drawn clouds to obscure the area. Yet confusingly it was part of a greater landmass, seeing as there quite clearly wasn't any ocean there.

Alice checked behind her before addressing his question. "Flame, that place is what we refer to as 'the wasteland'. The reason it's obscured is quite simple: no one knows what it looks like, or what territories lie beyond our border. Obviously, we know that there is something out there, but the hordes of Scum roaming the area make any attempt at exploration suicidal."

Flame turned in his seat, facing Alice directly. "What's with these Scum? You keep mentioning them, but I haven't the slightest idea of who or what they are."

Seeing as the Dragonair was staring at him pensively, he nervously added: "If … if you wouldn't mind explaining, of course."

Alice shook her head. "It's fine. You deserve to know, especially with all that's been going on lately. It all started twenty years ago. One day, we lost contact with some of our northernmost settlements. Messages and caravans of silver from the nearby mines stopped flowing all of a sudden, so Civil Protection assembled a rescue team to scour the towns and figure out what was wrong."

"And? What happened there?" Flame asked, curious to find out what kind of individuals might have been behind his amnesia.

"They never saw it coming. Turns out, a massive army had razed the towns to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants, and proceeded to do the same with the rescue team. A few survivors managed to turn back, and news spread of the incident. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock at the time, and although a legion quickly beat them back from the towns, ever since then … they just keep coming. Attacks are a daily occurrence now…" She cleared her throat. "But I'm sure things will get better. Someday."

Flame blinked, a frown spreading across his face. He found it hard to visualise the events in his head, yet Alice's quiet tone compelled him to feel a small measure of worry. Even then, he still cracked a smile—chiefly in order to appreciate that he'd learnt something useful that day. For once, he felt as though he possessed some small amount of control over the overwhelming troubles plaguing him. It did naught to help him figure out his past, but it was something.

After a few moments of silence, Flame spoke up. "Hey, so, I was just thinking … thanks for bringing me here." he said softly, fiddling with his claws as he looked at Alice. "I feel like this is really helping me out. Could … could we come back some other time?"

"Most certainly. I'll try to bring you here whenever our mission schedule allows for it." A sudden grin crossed the Dragonair's face. "Oh, by the way, I think I remember seeing an image book about Urbe and the south in another section. Want to see what home looks like?"

Flame's expression faltered. Seconds passed in silence as the two exchanged blank stares.

"Uh? Did I say something wrong?" asked Alice, puzzled at his shift in behaviour. "Look, if you want to stay here some more, that's fine. I was just making a suggestion…"

"N-no! That's … that's not what…" Flame struggled to protest, leaving his paw hovering in mid air.

His eyes began looking everywhere but into hers, as though direct contact would betray the misgivings churning at his insides. With the mere mention of the word 'home', it suddenly occurred to him just how slickly the lie he'd fed his teammates was assimilated as truth. All because he'd been too scared of his leader that first day to answer honestly.

But now, regardless of how Flame felt about it, both she and Gaius seemed to genuinely believe that he was born in the south. For reasons he couldn't fathom, they trusted him enough to take his word for it. Dangerous connotations arose with that thought: could he mold an image to his favour simply by telling them lies? It would certainly make life much easier for him, especially now that he was learning bits and pieces about the world around him. That way, just maybe, he could avoid uttering the wrong thing at the wrong time, possibly infuriate his teammates, lose the only pokémon he could rely on…

Not one second after those thoughts wandered into his head, a tremendous guilt forced them back out. These were his friends! Why on earth were ideas of somehow manipulating his first and only friends even entering his brain? After everything the two had done to give him a chance at life, was this how he would pay them back?

It was madness, sure, but—the realisation suddenly sprouted in his mind—what else could he do? Walk up to them and confess that he'd actually lied about his birthplace? That would incinerate all of the precarious bridges that he was starting to form with his teammates, and he'd be back at square one.

My options are twofold. If I were to inform them of the truth almost exclusively, then I run the risk of doing something horribly wrong and lose them forever; but if I lie to keep them on my good side and they find out, then everything will fall apart just the same…

A few moments later, the Charmeleon regained just enough external awareness to notice that Alice was staring at him in alarm. Absorbed as he was in his morbid thoughts, this must have reflected on his expression of conflicted silence.

"… Flame? Are you … feeling alright?" she asked slowly, glancing around her. "Want me to call someone for help?"

"What? Oh, uh… No, no, I'm fine. It's just…" he stammered, before taking in a deep breath and forcing a calm smile upon his face. He was probably going to regret this. "I was thinking about something. Let's go see these pictures you were talking about."

Alice still seemed to hold some confusion over his momentary zone-out, but nodded regardless. "All right. I'll bring the book over here, if you want."

Flame nodded back, and Alice departed to one of the many bookshelves in the vicinity. A small while later, she came back, holding a book in her maw.

The Dragonair dropped it on the table, peering at Flame cautiously from the corner of her eye. She must have felt his uneasiness. After all, he hadn't done very much to hide it: one moment he'd felt joyful about learning new information, and the next his whole body emanated visible amounts of distress.

"Could you turn the pages?" she asked meekly, looking down at herself. "It's … you know, difficult for me."

Flame slowly parted the first few pages, revealing an artist's representation of what appeared to be a majestic square with a fountain erected in its centre, rows of elegant plants donning the image with an aura of solemnity.

Alice smiled slightly at the sight. "Ah, look! The communal gardens in Urbe! I remember all the afternoons spent playing there as a cub… "

"It sure looks beautiful…" commented Flame kind of distantly.

"Hey, who knows, maybe you too went there in your youth. I mean, I can't really recall ever seeing any Charmander running about, but then again my memories are quite fuzzy. Does any of this feel familiar to you?" she gave him an optimistic smile. "Maybe if we keep looking, we might just unearth some memory from your past."

Flame hesitated again, only feeling himself falling further into the spiral of deceit.

Alice sighed and brought her focus off the pages, turning to face her teammate. "Something is on your mind, isn't it? Regarding the book. It's easy to tell from your eyes."

Flame froze. Just how much information was he unwittingly showing?

"Flame, I hate seeing you like this. Can you please tell me what's wrong? You seemed to be pretty happy about being here until this book was brought up."

"I'm fine, I swear. Just feeling a little nervous is all." the Charmeleon unconsciously went on the defensive, shifting in his seat.

Alice continued patiently. "Listen, I wouldn't dream of intruding upon your private matters, but if there is anything that's troubling you…"

"Nothing is—!"

Just as soon as Flame realised that he was beginning to raise his voice, he also discovered that Gaius was there, leaning onto a nearby bookshelf with his arms crossed. Both Alice and Flame stopped to give him a long stare.

"Hm. For some reason, I had a feeling I'd find you here," Gaius said, shifting his eyes around disinterestedly. "Guess you could call this 'productive.'"

"What is it? Finally decided to spend some actual time with your team?" Alice asked, traces of scorn present in her voice.

Gaius delivered her a dismissive glare. "Sorry, but I'm not interested in your little history lesson here. Ariel just contacted me. She wants us in her office ten minutes from now."


End of Chapter IV
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Ace Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him/His
Partners
  1. nidoran-f
  2. druddigon
  3. swellow
Alright, a tad belated, but I did say I’d keep you motivated to keep bumping your version of your story here. This is another one of those chapters that’s more or less totally new feedback-wise, and taking a second gander has definitely made some things stand out that I missed the first time around. There’s some more nitpicking than in my first readthrough, but by and large the chapter still holds up quite admirably.

Though since it’s still relevant for this chapter, do remember to touch up that formatting for the first two chapters. After all, as you’ve discovered with your newer updates, there’s a pretty easy workaround to it. >:V

Alright, onto the real reason why I’m here:

Chapter II

In reality, she wanted to answer, to have some small talk with him. But it wasn't the fact that that kind of news wasn't something uncommon at all, nor did she feel [particularly] angry towards her teammate. However, there was something nagging at her conscience, a moral issue implanted in her mind the day before and now begging to be answered.

"I still don't know why we did it."

"Did what?" Gaius asked as he threw the flyer aside carelessly.

"Arrest him like that," Alice said, "He shouldn't have to pay for the mess we created ourselves."

Small typo there.

Gaius: “Need I remind you that you were the one worried about us getting cudgeled to death if we didn’t have something to show for that mission, and I was the one who came up with a working solution for it?”
Alice: “We could’ve come up with a different solution!” >_>;
Gaius: “... Such as…? I’m waiting.” :?
Alice: “Oh come on, it’s not fair to expect me to think of something on the fly when it’s moot now!” >.<

"That's not the point!" Alice turned to glare at him, "Whether it worked or not, that doesn't make it right. Isn't it supposed to be our job, protecting others?"

youre_serious_futurama.gif


Honey, you’re in Civil Protection, in a story that has almost as many HL2 nods in it as Overthrown does. Your job’s first and foremost to protect the regime that pays your highly inadequate and borderline insult-tier salaries.

"If you care so much for this guy," Gaius said in a mocking tone, "Then why don't you try paying the guards into releasing him? Oh, that's right. We don't have that kind of money. We never did."

You're avoiding the question ... Just like you always do, Alice thought, sending her companion a venomous look.

Hilariously enough, they probably do have the money to pull that off assuming they could find a gold buyer who wouldn’t rip them off. Considering everything they’ve canonically suffered through up to this point in spite of that, I doubt the team would go that route at this point in the story since Flame’s a random stranger to the two of them at this point.

Gaius: “Need I remind you that if you somehow did get the money together and bribe the guards afterwards, we’d be right back to square one with our little problem of ‘not having anything to show to Ariel’?”
Alice: “... Look, if I had gotten a chance to think of an alternative properly, I’m sure I’d have a good rebuttal to this!” >_>;

With this being the only Civil Protection base in the entire province, the whole building would usually be bustling with activity. Even in the rare event that their commander decided to grant them a day of rest, it was mostly symbolical. In fact, most teams spent that free time just like they would any other day: completing missions and trying to gather up enough cash to make it to the end of the month—not that she could blame them. But there were always at least a fair number of pokémon at the bulletin board picking jobs for the day. Something wasn't right.

Minor typo there. Though given how much the Empire takes after Rome and how precarious the finances of the average member of Task Force Aegis are given that description, surprised there’s not more members attempting to use their free time to let Fortuna smile on them and gamble their way to a little extra spending money.

"Mmmh?" the Dewott hummed, "Oh, Team Phalanx. What is it?"

Wait, Alice delivered the sentry a sideways look, How does he know our team name? I'm fairly sure we've never seen this guy before, and barely anyone around here knows about us…

I mean, considering how thin of ice you’re on with Ariel, the alternative is that they do know you in much the same capacity as “the uncool kids in school” are known, Alice.
388785746544427018.png


"What, you haven't heard?" the Dewott commented, "Someone forgot to tell Ariel that the fifth legion would be stationed at her Villa for tonight. Now she's throwing some kind of hissy fit over there. It's a mess..."

Oh, that's right!, Alice suddenly remembered, the legionaries were being stationed in town from today onward! It would make sense then that the streets around [Camp] Tempest were so empty: everybody was off at the main square to acclaim the arriving soldiers. It was, after all, a move to reassure the population that the central government had the situation under control, that they were still the ones in charge.

Alice sighed internally. No matter how many soldiers Urbe tried to send, they did not have the situation under control.

I would drop one of either the exclamation point or the comma from the start of the paragraph. Also, you’re missing a ‘Camp’ for your ‘Camp Tempest’ there. Part of me wonders if “the situation” also ought to be elaborated slightly, such as “the situation on the northern fringes”, since at least from the barest minimum of “don’t let Aesernia get burnt to the ground”, Urbe’s technically succeeding at the moment given that it doesn’t look like Nova Sperantia… yet. o<o;

Then, Alice heard the very words that she single-handedly most dreaded to hear.

"By the way, I heard she was looking for you two. Better be quick, you might just get to her office before her. You know how much she hates slowpokes."

IMO, the first pronoun there would work better either as ‘I heard Ariel was looking for you two’ or ‘I heard the Governor was looking for you two’. While it’s really obvious who ‘she’ is in subsequent paragraphs, the Dewott had a bit of a topic jump since the last mention of ‘Ariel’, so it might make more sense to put in an explicit namedrop to turn the proverbial topic back to her.

Alice didn't need to glance at her partner's face to sense the utter horror stamped on it; without uttering their goodbyes, they rushed into Camp Tempest, praying to Arceus for the best.

Time lazed the haste of its flow as Team Phalanx awaited their destiny in their commander's personal office. Even the dust particles floating around seemed to remain suspended in mid-air, as if afraid to break the dead silence that had ensued ever since the two pokémon had entered.

The first paragraph feels like it’d work best broken into two standalone sentences. Also, a throwaway mention of “oh, by the way, we made it to Ariel’s office” would lead naturally to the second paragraph since right now it’s a bit of a jump. Here’s a throwaway example of how that could potentially be pulled off:

[Alice didn't need to glance at her partner's face to sense the utter horror stamped on it. Without so much as uttering a goodbye to the Dewott, they rushed into Camp Tempest, praying to Arceus for the best as they made their uncomfortably familiar journey to Ariel’s office and found themselves standing inside of it in short order.]

The second paragraph, you can say the bit in bold a lot more straightforwardly as something along the lines of “Time seemed to slow to a crawl” or “The flow of time seemed to all but stop”.

It was, however, much more impressive than any simpleton like them was used to. Seeing that wooden desk, carved out of only the finest of materials, decorated like that, almost made her crave to simply lie down on it and sleep soundly. A large painting hung on a wall, lit by the will o' wisp lamps dangling above them, its moody oil paint forming a portrait of an ancient battle.

Gaius: “Isn’t that thing made of hardwood? Why on earth would you want to sleep on that, Alice?” o_ó
Alice: “Uh... It has a very comfortable texture and we’re already used to sleeping on hard surfaces?”
Gaius: “Tch, knock yourself out, princess. I’d want something with some actual cushioning for my daydream fantasies.”

Overall, she wasn't quite sure whether to feel flattered or scared to be in that room. Ariel rarely ever summoned someone to her office, and even then the look on the faces of those who came out didn't help her already meager hopes by much.

But maybe that wouldn't be the case this time, she attempted to reason, maybe their commander wanted to apologize to them for the past few months, or perhaps she wanted to congratulate them personally for—

And then the door opened, and a furious Haxorus walked in, and her reason flew out behind her.

"Well, well," Ariel smirked ominously, "If it isn't Team Phalanx. I thought you'd never get the message. Maybe those sentries aren't as deaf as I thought they were."

Alice: “(You don’t suppose she got wise to your bagauda gambit, do you?)”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “(If you ask me, I’m pretty sure that she just hates us in general and gets off on watching us squirm.)” ._.;

"N-no, ma'am," they answered—truthfully for a change.

"No?" Ariel tilted her head in mock innocence, using a tone that one would normally use with an infant, "Well, a little Fletchling happened to tell me that the two of you took a mission yesterday. You were supposed to capture that fugitive group of Scum who'd been causing some problems with our food caravans. Instead, you came back with a single Charmeleon," the Haxorus' tusks snapped together, "Care to explain?"

There are so many levels of irony to this entire exchange given what it comes out Flame actually is later on in the story.

Alice: “(So your gambit did blow up on us, Gaius.)” >_>;
Gaius: “(Shut up, we don’t know that yet! Though I didn’t know that her tusks could move like that. I always thought they were fixed to her skull.)”
Alice: “(I mean, you have three fingers when official art depicts Grovyle with two. Maybe it’s a regional variant thing? That’s all the rage in newer games, isn’t it?)”
Ariel: “I’m waiting for that explanation…” >:|
Gaius: “U-Uh, h-he was a bagauda? So it was still a net positive?”
701630550720512120.png

Ariel: “And I care why when your mission was explicitly to bring in Scum?” >:|
Gaius: “Er…”
401076862924750848.png

Alice: “You can admit your gambit blew up on us now, Gaius.” >.<

Much explaining and shouting later, Team Phalanx exited their commander's office, shutting the door behind them. A blank look was stuck on their face as they stood there wordlessly, trying to process everything that had been said in the last few minutes.

Alice decided to break the silence. "I ... I can't believe it. She actually did it."

In that moment, she cursed her weakness for listening to her partner's senseless plan. She ought to have listened to that little voice in her mind, in that cave, she ought to have helped the Charmeleon and brought him back as a refugee instead of trying to pass him off as their objective! Now, it was all for naught.

I’m a little surprised that the two just got bulldozed in that sequence there instead of one of Gaius or Alice trying to pretend, “Uh… well… we got one of them at least” given that Ariel’s dialogue leaves an opening to do so. At least until the topic of “none of the Scum you were tasked to hunt down were Charmeleon” or the even more damning “you brought in a Charmeleon that speaks our language came up.

"Well..." Gaius started uncomfortably, "Now what?"

Alice breathed in soothingly and arced her head at the will-o-wisp lamps above them, contemplating. Suddenly, something clicked. She knew what had to be done. "We take him in."

Gaius looked at her quizzically. "Huh? Who?"

"Flame. The Charmeleon, "Alice answered with a trace of rising confidence in her tone, "We add him to our team. It's the only way."

"What?!" Gaius growled, "Are you crazy? You can't—we—… no!"

Gaius: “Alice, aside from the fact that that ‘mon probably wants to see literally anyone other than the two of us right now, need I remind you that we’re already having issues with food security without a third mouth to feed?” >_>;
Alice: “And he’d have issues with food security wandering Aesernia as an amnesiac vagrant, so why not pool our efforts to try and work to fix that?
Gaius: “That’s not how any of this works!” >.<

Gaius blinked, standing still for a second, as though she'd just gone on a psychopathic tangent. "We owe him? Has the cold gotten to your head? Why are you so fixated with that guy?"

You probably want ‘psychotic’ there, since ‘psychopathic’ has connotations of antisocial behavior or doing things lacking a conscience that ‘psychotic’ doesn’t have.

Alice: “Gaius. Need I remind you that if this plan worked, Flame would’ve probably been publicly executed because of it? How is that not by definition something we owe him over?”
Gaius: “Look, he’s getting his freedom back and we’re getting screwed over because of it. That’s paying him back enough already! Why on earth would you feel a need to keep him around as our headache when-?”
- Pause and blink moment -
Gaius: “Oh gods, the mountain cold made you start crushing on him over something stupid like his body warmth, didn’t it?” >_>;
Alice: “It did not! Gaius, don’t be ridiculous! (Even if it admittedly did feel a bit more comfortable being near his tail flame while talking.)” >///<

"For the love of—" Gaius mumbled, likely holding back a stream of curses, "The fact that he's amnesiac makes him a less attractive option! Listen, if you're so convinced that we need a new member, let's just ask 'mons off the street. There are bound to be plenty of decent candidates lying around."

Alice saw fit to cement her glare. "We've already tried. Don't tell me we haven't. Nobody cares about us—even then, a quick look at our record and we get laughed at."

So in other words, they need a recruit who won’t think of looking into their record and find out that Team Phalanx are the failure knights of Task Force Aegis.
388785746544427018.png


Alice: “Th-That’s not the point I was trying to make at all!” >.<
Gaius: “That’s literally the one thing going for your plan right now.” >_>;

But why would Flame react any differently? a voice in her head beckoned. In truth, she didn't know. The Charmeleon had every right to spit in her face, for she'd accepted Gaius' plan passively. Yet, to do nothing and sit idly would only eat away at her conscience.

"No," Gaius crossed his arms, "I don't want another member on my team. You're not the leader here. I am."

"I'm sorry, but it's our best option," a smirk creeped on her face as she remembered her teammate's exact words, "And there are only bad options."

Alice: “Also, your leadership just blew up in our faces five minutes ago, so the least you can do is humor my suggestion here.”
Gaius: “... Nothing I say or do is going to stop you, is it?”
Alice: “Nope! And I’m pretty sure we need this for plot reasons anyways!”
Gaius: “Ugh… whatever, just don’t come crying to me when that newt spits fire in your face!” >.<

Flame lay slumped over as his eyes stirred open.

The first thing he was greeted by was the loud, uninterrupted growling of his stomach, the vibrations from which reverberated throughout his entire body. The second one was a simple, yet important question.

Would recommend that minor addition and tweak respectively for those two paragraphs to smooth them out a bit.

Grudgingly sitting up, he slowly took in his surroundings as he waited for the drowsiness to wear out. He was in a stone walled chamber, the only source of light besides his tail being the small, window-like gap in the metal door—the only eye-catching feature in the entirety of the room. But ... why were there bars in the window?

The part in bold sounds better either leading with “with the [...]” or else s / “being” / “was”

Is this supposed to be a bed? Who thought it would be a good idea to make a mat[t]ress out of stupid splinters? Flame grumbled to himself as he removed the wooden blighter inserted in his thigh and threw it away into a corner. If he hadn't been dripping exhaustion out of every pore when he laid there the previous day, he probably would not have managed to get a single second of shut eye, he thought.

Minor typo there.

Flame: “Pretty sure this is some sort of crime against humanity… or whatever the Pokémon equivalent is. Seriously, how on earth is this okay?” >_>;

His heart skipped a beat as he finally understood: I'm in a prison.

But... why was he being held there in the first place?

Flame: “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have let Gaius off with that explanation for whatever a ‘bagauda’ was given that it got me stuck here.” >.<

It must have been a mistake, Flame told himself as he collapsed back onto the pitiful excuse for a bed, uncaring of any potential splinters he may accidentally find in his they were just checking something about him, making sure that he wasn't a callous bandit craving to go on a new killing spree; if then, he needed not fear—he'd be out of this cell in the blink of an eye. After all, he was fairly certain he'd never set foot in this city before. Yeah, that must have been it. He couldn't have possibly done anything wrong, right?

Alice had told him that he'd be alright, after all. There was absolutely no way he was in prison for some sort of crime he'd committed. As far back as he could remember—only about a day prior; he cursed his amnesia—he'd taken extra care to follow the instructions given to him by his escorts, complied with their every request.

Ah yes, we get to see some of that famed Flame credulity in action here.
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However, all these reassuring thoughts did little to hold back the grimmer ones from rearing their ugly heads, like an angry swarm of Beedrills stalking his conscience. All materialising in the form of one question: What about before?

Flame gasped as his fallacy of innocence fell apart before his very eyes. How could he be sure that he'd never hurt a fly when he couldn't even remember what his true name was? What if he'd done something horrible at some point in time, and he simply couldn't remember it?

"Did I really…?" he whispered no one in particular, staring up at the ceiling in thought. Everything made so much more sense now! And truthfully, he wished it didn't.

The previous day's events played back in his mind. Every tiny, insignificant detail that his mind could rack up as a half-hearted excuse to deny the inevitable truth, only ended up turning against him treacherously: the guard's almost disgusted look as he locked the door to his holding cell, Gaius' nonchalance towards his well-being, or the pained look in Alice's eyes—oh, how she must have pitied him, he imagined, destined to receive his rightful punishment for some heinous crime he couldn't even recall committing!

Given how he reacts later on in the story where he gets betrayed and realizes it, it’s probably very fortunate for Alice that he didn’t put two and two together here.

Gaius: “Alice, it’s not too late to back out of that plan, you know. I can already tell a naïf like him’s gonna cause problems on the team.” >.<
Alice: “Gaius, we’re not even supposed to be here right now!” >_>;

In response, Flame just stared back blankly, attempting to digest what he'd just heard. Wait, I'm free? Is this guy trying to play some sort of trick on me? It—it doesn't make any sense…

Flame: “... Or I could’ve just gotten brought in on accident. That works too.”
Scyther: “Look, just hurry up and get out of here already.” >.<

With that, the bug shut the cell's heavy door and walked off in the same direction he'd pointed to, leaving a very confused Charmeleon behind. Uh. Maybe they were only trying to test me for something after all, Flame thought as he rubbed the back of his neck, Maybe … maybe I just overreacted. Whichever the case, I'm free now, He smiled, starting his trek down the hallway.

Gaius: “Alice, please tell me you’re not seriously taking this guy aboard.”
401076862924750848.png

Alice: “Look, at least he should adjust quickly given that he… uh… very enthusiastically assumes the best of others? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! (Or whatever the version of that saying here is.)”


Before long, Flame arrived at where the guard had pointed him to, a set of double doors at the far end of the long corridor. He pushed the left one half-way and peeked his head inside the lobby. The room was much brighter than the rest of the prison, largely thanks to the arced doorway leading outside. It looked semi-deserted, the only pokémon in sight being the same guard from before standing behind the information booth and a couple of other pokémon (whose species he couldn't name for the life of him) who had seemingly fallen asleep while waiting on their stone-carved seats. Other than a few potted plants and a single poster nailed on the wall, the room was pretty bare.

He then noticed that it wasn't just the visitors who were asleep; even the guard at the booth was heavy-eyed, resting his chin on the blunt side of his blades as he fought to stay awake. Flame briefly wondered where everyone was, but figured he'd probably find out on his own very soon. For now, all he wanted was to get something inside his belly.

Flame: “... How on earth does this prison not constantly get contraband smuggled in with guards like these?”

"I…" he hesitated, "I wasn't brought here because of any crimes I committed, was I?"

The guard looked at him as if he'd just heard the most idiotic question in his entire life, and already Flame wished he hadn't opened his mouth in the first place.

"Listen, Charmeleon," the Scyther groaned as he attempted to keep a professional attitude, "I'm not sure what you're trying to tell me right now. Are you confessing to a crime? If so, then I'd be glad to lock you back in for good. I'm just a few arrests away from that promotion, anyways."

Ah yes, Soviet standards for gauging the performance of law enforcement. Totally the sign of a well-balanced justice system there.

"I-I meant to ask … If I'm…" he stammered, his paws fidgeting behind his back, "If I'm not a criminal, why was I brought here?"

The Scyther shrugged. "I think I heard something about a mix-up. Don't expect me to know."

"O-oh. Thank you anyways, sir."

Flame: “Uh… do I get any compensation for being wrongfully arrested, or…?”
Scyther: “It’s called you get allowed to leave this place with your freedom and your head attached to your shoulders. Don’t get greedy, Charmeleon.” >:|
Flame: “Urk! Point taken!” O_O;

It didn't matter all that much, he consoled himself. Hopefully he wouldn't have to set foot in that place ever again. He stopped mid-way to process his surroundings. The long stairs led to a large square, surrounded by many colourful stone and brick buildings. Each was at least a double storey, and decorated by reliefs that sometimes stretched around the entirety of the structure. He couldn't see over their tiled roofs, but the vastness of the urban settlement wasn't what immediately caught his attention: it was the crowd.

All around the square, crammed in every inch of space available, were hundreds upon hundreds of different creatures, of all size, shape and colour, like a sea of bustling life. They seemed chaotic in their movements, every individual going on with their daily life, with no common direction in mind. Some flew high above his head, some walked, some crawled or slithered around; none of those species could he attribute a proper name to.

There, another painful reminder of his amnesia. How could he possibly not remember a single one of those species? He had to have seen a handful of them at least once in his life, right? He looked down at himself. His species was named 'Charmeleon'. That was as far as his knowledge went.

I mean, he remembered what Scyther were.
819365225114763274.png


Though I actually hadn’t picked up on Flame’s amnesia messing with his species recall the first time around. At first I thought the lack of species described in these scenes was just a gloss, but it actually makes sense here.

Also, this is one of those scenes that would be really, really neat to see a doodle of, since even with the details as glossed as they are, it manages to feel very lively.

Ugh … Where am I even supposed to go? Absent-mindedly, he walked down the remaining steps and into the thinner part of the crowd, slowly drawing circles with his head in a futile attempt to study every single detail around him.

The fountain in the centre of the square, depicting some sort of scaly sea serpent that spewed a jet of water to the basin below. The street vendors shouting at him, waving their arms in hopes of catching his attention (why him, he thought, with all the pokémon around?). Distracted as he was, it didn't take long for him to bump into someone, a four-legged, black fox-like creature with yellow rings drawn all over her body, who turned to glare at him.

Wait, am I tripping, and that’s Yvaine making an early bird cameo? Or is that just a random Umbreon there?

There's too much activity here, Flame thought as he scooped his tail up in his paws and headed for a random direction, I need to find someplace quiet, so I can try and make sense of all this

Minor nitpick, but “someplace” as in a synonym to “somewhere” lacks a space between “some” and “place”.

Balancing himself on the tip of his clawed feet, he tried to elevate himself enough to get a glimpse of what lay beyond, but the pokémon in front of him were too tall for that to work. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, he managed to squeeze his head in a small viewing space in between two smaller creatures. There, standing guard in front of the crowd was...

Gaius? Flame gasped.

He looked better. No, it wasn't Gaius. While that pokémon looked similar, it wasn't the same. It had a much bushier tail than the Grovyle, and its body was taller as well as a lighter shade of green. Behind the reptilian, there was a procession of sorts going on as he watched.

Not that Flame knows it, but considering how common ‘Gaius’ was as a name in Rome, for all we know, had Flame blurted that ‘Gaius?’ out loud, he’d have gotten a funny look and ‘Uh… yes? I’m sorry, but do I know you?’ back from that Sceptile legionnaire there.
803821849384583219.png


He stopped suddenly as the idea finally struck him. Alice and Gaius. I need to find them. They can help me figure out what to do with myself.

There was a small part of his brain that felt the need to object: after all, weren't they the very reason he had landed in prison in the first place? Without delay, he clenched his fists reflexively at the recent memories. Right after saving his life, they'd brought him here, to this town he knew nothing of, throwing him into prison for some unfathomable reason.

They used me, and I fell right into it like a sheep, he reprimanded his past self, Who's to say they won't do it again? Maybe they don't even feel one bit sorry.

Flame shook the dissenting thoughts out of his head. But they're the only pokémon I know here. They could point me to some place I can stay in the meantime. I have no other choice.

Flame: “... How did it not occur to me until I was out of prison that Gaius and Alice screwed me over? (Even if that ‘bagauda’ thing was more than a little sus.)”
- Blink moment and look about the surrounding sea of strangers -
Flame: “Er… right. I’m completely alone without them. I guess I was just hoping that I’d have someone to turn to.”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “Uh… Alice and Gaius would actually help me this time around and not try to screw me over again, right?”
701630550720512120.png


"Yes, I've been meaning to ask you if—" she suddenly stopped, a frown slowly spreading across her face.

"Oh..." Alice cast a downwards gaze, "I … should probably apologize first for what happened yesterday."

"Damn right you should," he muttered without thought, arms crossed.

The Dragonair seemed to reel back at the bitterness soaking his voice.

"Y-you see, it's..." she hesitated, trailing off as she thought of every word carefully.

Flame: “I mean, you only got me stuck on a splinter of a bed in a cell block that reeked of rotting fish… or at least I hope that was rotting fish. So excuse me if I’m a bit upset here.”
Alice: “Uh… that probably wasn’t rotting fish you smelled. (And probably a good thing you didn’t get informed of what sort of sentence you were staring down if the guards bought our story.)”
701630550720512120.png


"Let's just say that me and Gaius are in a … very difficult financial situation. If we were to fail another mission, we probably would have lost our job. And…"

She sighed. "I guess there's really no excuse, is there? Gaius got the idea of using you as a cover to save our month's pay. We were hoping it would hide the fact that we failed again. As you can see by being here, it didn't work very well," her eyes darted away from his.

"So you expect me to forgive you? Just like that?"

"What I'm trying to say is: you didn't need to get dragged into this. He won't admit it, but I know Gaius feels the same way. And for that, I hope you'll accept our sincerest apologies." Alice finished, biting her lip and looking straight him straight in the eye, awaiting an answer.

Flame: “You just admitted that you set me up for money. How on earth do you expect this to make me more likely to forgive you?”
- Cue Alice’s stomach growling and her starting to look embarrassed as Flame blinks -
Flame: “Uh... how short on money are you again?”
Alice: “More than I’d feel comfortable admitting to in public.” ._.

Flame raised his chin up high, attempting to collect his own thoughts. Sure, she sounded quite sincere in what she said, and judging by what he had seen the previous day he had very little reason to believe she was lying. He didn't hold nearly as much of a grudge against her as he did her teammate. In fact, he distinctly remembered how kind she'd been to him, if not in stark dissent with Gaius. So that begged the question, was he ready to forgive them? To be completely honest with himself, he did feel a little irritated at having been used as leverage for the two's own interests. More than a little. It did not feel right to just absolve them on a whim. Even then, however, he would have to play along at least this once.

I actually dunno how I missed it in the first go-around, but Flame’s forgiveness of Team Phalanx is significantly more pragmatically-motivated than I remembered. I do think that it’d probably make sense to explicitly reiterate in the part in bold why he feels the need to play along, which is basically “I need a support network and you two are the only ‘mons I know”.

"You threw me in prison," he directed an unmitigated glare in her direction, "You saved my life, then tried to screw me over. Now you expect me to forget everything? What exactly do you want from me?"

"I—I wasn't the one who came up with the idea," Alice spewed quickly, "… But in a way, I suppose it's also my fault for not objecting."

The rising alarm in her tone surprised even him, as though she had felt his forgiveness slip away. Any semb[l]ance of formality briefly vanished. No, her sincerity could no longer be in doubt. Besides, he did not have the energy to hold such a heavy grudge.

Sighing, he rolled his eyes. "Fine, then. I forgive you."

Even after uttering that, he found himself mulling over whether those words had been wholly sincere.

Minor typo there, though part of me wonders if given Flame’s lack of certainty over whether he really forgives Team Phalanx for the whole ‘by the way, here’s our raider’ gambit would be sold better either by playing to his sentiment or to his practical motivations.

For instance, in the former route, if he noticed after seeing how alarmed Alice looks that she seems strangely desperate to get his approval (seeing as she and Gaius are in a position where they’re struggling to afford basic sustenance, which is partly why Alice wants to bring Flame aboard) and get the idea "... maybe I should back off here". In the latter, it’s a simple reminder of “well, I can watch her squirm, deny her forgiveness, and walk away happy but hungry… or I can suck up my pride and get some bearings for this place I’m stuck in”

"Flame," Alice started, looking at him hopefully, "Would you like to work at Civil Protection with us?"

"Wha?" He blinked. "Sorry? I'm not sure I got that right…"

"Me and Gaius can't keep going on our own," Alice explained, "We need a new team member to support us on our missions. I know we didn't start on the best of terms but … would you like to be that someone? We'll help you through it all, I promise. I'm sure it could help you find out about your past, too!"

Woah, Flame thought, This is all a little too sudden for me. Heck, I don't even know what accepting this job would entail! Is it dangerous? Can I even trust these two? She's right though, it could help me figure out just what happened to me. And I do need somewhere to stay in the meantime…I don't have much of a choice, do I?

It would be a gamble; a leap into the unknown. Joining their organisation—he did not even trust these two! Yet to do so would provide him with food and a bed to sleep in, and this chance could not afford to be dismissed.

"Fine, then," Flame half-grumbled. "I accept."

- Alice blinks -
Alice: “Wait, that’s it? You’re not even going to ask what those missions entail, or-?”
Flame: “I’m kinda short on other options. So… yeah. Plus with what I’ve seen of this world so far, ignorance is probably bliss.”
Alice: “(Uh… yeah, shouldn’t be getting you second-guessing yourself before we even approach the recruiters’ table.)”
701630550720512120.png


"Wonderful!" Alice beamed, "It might be a difficult profession at times, but I promise you won't regret it. Come on, let's go! Gaius must be waiting for us."

Well that’s a bold-faced lie if I ever saw one especially considering the way both Alice and Gaius speak of their stint in Civil Protection in later chapters, not that Flame knows that right here and now. o<o;;

"You know, I should probably show you around a bit when we find the time," Alice remarked to him when he asked just how big the place was.

Missing a word there.

The houses all around them slowly disappeared from view, and, eventually, a big wooden sign pitched on the side of the road announced their arrival.

I think that at least one of the commas after ‘and’ needs to be dropped, but the one between it and ‘eventually’ strikes me as the strongest candidate to be cut.

Welcome to Camp Tempest

Imperial Civil Protection Corps

Home of Task Force Aegis

"Here we are," Alice said as she briefly stopped to grant Flame a good view, "Camp Tempest."

Flame: “... Wait a minute, am I reading that sign, or are you reading it for me? Or is this some sort of ‘narrator talking to the audience’ sort of thing?”
Alice: “You’re from the South, aren’t you? I mean, I get that literacy isn’t always strong among Pokémon here, but surely that’s you reading that, isn’t it?”
Flame: “Uh… sure, let’s go with that.”
701630550720512120.png


Sure enough, what stood in front of them looked like some sort of military encampment, spanning the entirety of the barren hilltop. As the camp stretched wider, the large stone buildings in the middle gradually shifted to smaller, patched up tents that, to Flame's eyes, looked in serious danger of being carried away at the first gust of wind.

"Woah … is this where you guys live?" Flame wondered.

"Well, sort of. We don't live right here at the main district, but there are barracks nearby. The camp really isn't as big as it may seem. Come on, follow me," Alice said, speeding ahead of the new recruit.

Flame: “... Wait, how on earth do I know what a military encampment looks like when I’ve forgotten enough from whatever happened to me to not be able to identify most Pokémon’s species?”
Alice: “Maybe you remember more than you give yourself credit for? You could always keep a journal or the like and see what comes to mind if you try to write stuff out.”
Flame: “(Might not be a bad idea actually. Maybe I can try and figure out why I kept thinking about ‘Ascension’ back in those mountains, since it sounded pretty important.)”

"In all likelihood, he just wants to make sure that you're fit for the job. If I had to guess, he's going to ask you some questions about your combat experience and the like, and possibly give you a boring lecture about the rules you must follow."

Flame's eyes widened. "C-combat experience? But I've never…"

"Oh, hush," Alice dismissed him with a flick of her tail, "You'll be fine. There is plenty of time for you to learn everything."

Flame: “Um… Alice? Just what do these missions I’d be getting into involve again?”
- Alice visibly shifts and squirms in response -
Alice: “Uh… just walking around and getting into a few scraps here and there. (Kinda, sorta.) Oh hey, look, there’s Gaius!”

"So…" Gaius started, his eyes scanning him head to toe, "You're Flame. The pokémon from yesterday, I presume. There aren't very many Charmeleons around here, after all."

"Yes, that's me. Sir," Flame answered quietly, quickly adding that word to the end. He wasn't sure whether the formality was needed at all, and forcing himself to show such respect to this Grovyle—the one who had locked him away, all for selfish interests!— revolted his stomach in disgust. But he figured it would be better to play it safe with his soon-to-be leader.

Gaius perked an eyebrow at the appellative, but continued nonetheless. "I don't even know why Alice bothered giving you a name, but I guess that makes it easier for me," he remarked as he drew a circle around the Charmeleon, mumbling something to himself[.]

I actually forgot how the story handles species pluralism, so not sure if “Charmeleons” is a typo or not, and you’re also missing a period at the end there. The “drew a circle” bit I think works better as something like “paced in a circle” or just a flat “circled”.

Flame: “Why do I feel as if you’re looking at me as if I’m livestock or something?”
Gaius: “Because I’m going to need to be stuck with you for gods-knows-how-long and I might as well see what I’m getting into?”
Alice: “Uh… I actually hadn’t thought about it, but considering this setting, that does kind of a parallel the way a ‘mon would size up a s-”
701630550720512120.png

Flame: “Size up a what now? Alice, should I be concerned here?”
401074476474957834.png

Alice: “Er… No! Not at all! (And no point getting you worried about things you’ll find out on your own soon enough.)”

Gaius hummed in thought, shooting a disapproving glance at his chest. "You're really skinny. Your ribs are almost showing."

Flame cringed a bit as he looked down at himself, discovering that statement to be true. He hadn't paid much attention to it until now, but the effects of his malnutrition were starting to become evident. "I know…"

"How long has it been since you've last eaten?" Gaius asked.

Flame sighed; instinctively, he laid an ashamed paw on his chest to cover it. "Before you found me back there. Probably. I think."

- Cue Flame’s stomach growling -
Flame: “However long it’s been, it feels like years.”
Alice: “(If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looks like you haven’t eaten in years either.)” .-.
Gaius: “(Need I remind you that you pitched this guy to me as helping with our food security problems, Alice?)” >_>;

He turned back to Flame. "Tell me, Charmeleon, how well can you fight?"

That's the question Flame was worried about the most. Even with his amnesia blurring the lines of what he could have been good at in the past, there was an unwelcome feeling in his gut telling him that he did not use to be a very capable fighter. He began weighing the odds: would it be best to tell a lie, in the hopes that it would go unnoticed? No, he quickly convinced himself, the fact that he'd been asked that in the first place was a big red warning sign that this new job of his would require a great deal of fighting—his inexperience was destined to surface one way or another.

"Well … not really all that great … I mean, I'm not quite sure actually—"

Alice interrupted him unexpectedly. "Charmeleons are great fighters. I'm sure he can hold his own."

"Well, thank you for your kind help, Alice." Gaius sneered as he delivered her a glare, "But I sure as hell don't need your word on the matter."

Gaius: “Since from his answer and what I can see of him, the answer’s really obviously ‘I can’t’.” >_>;
Flame: “W-Was it really that obvious?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “Yes.” >.<

The stream of questions in Flame's head was interrupted when he noticed Gaius stepping towards him; a claw jabbed at his chest. Immediately, he tensed.

Gaius closed the distance between their faces, his voice close to becoming a hiss. "Listen, Charmeleon, and listen well; I'm giving you a chance. You're on my team now. That means," He poked at him again. "You will follow my orders and do what I tell you to do. Until you prove yourself to be worth any more of my time and effort, you are nothing to me. Is that clear?"

Flame: “Uh… Is it too late to back out now? Because suddenly I’m getting the sense this is a terrible idea.” ._.

Gulping, Flame nodded his head slowly, briefly holding his breath as if the action would enrage the Grovyle further.

Flame: “... Dammit.”

"Good. Now Alice, since you were the one who came up with this brilliant idea, why don't you enlighten him on how our job works?" Gaius asked, extending his arm to point at the sea of posters behind him. With that, he went back to resting his back against it, uncaring of the material he may have been ruining.

"Fair enough." Alice commented, "Flame, do you see this bulletin board right here?" She pointed her head at the object in question. "Well, you're going to see it a lot here at Tempest. That's what most of our duties revolve around. To put it simply, every morning the board gets updated with a fresh list of tasks or errands for teams to carry out. Most of those you see right here, they're usually commissioned by worried citizens who seek help for their loved ones. Missing pokémon and the likes."

"Oh!" Flame hummed in realisation, "So you're like a rescue team?"

Gaius: “... Wait a minute. How do you know what a Rescue Team is when you’re an amnesiac?”
592603469265764372.png

Flame: “I… uh… heard it as background chatter in Aesernia? (God, I have no clue, but I hope he buys that explanation.)”
701630550720512120.png

Alice: “Huh. Surprised to hear that, I was expecting you to say that you picked it up from the canon games.”
Flame: “(They would’ve bought an explanation like that?!)” >.<

"Well … yes and no. While we do carry out tasks one would usually associate with a rescue team, that's only one half of the story. There are also … other kinds of jobs teams can choose that aren't pinned here. They're set up by Intelligence, and more often than not are a lot more dangerous than the standard ones. I've never done one personally, but I've heard some stories. Expeditions to the Wasteland, fighting off the strongest the Scum have to offer... That's where most of our casualties come from. But then again, those missions also pay very well."

Noticing Flame's look of alarm, she chuckled. "Don't worry. We don't intend on doing any of those things. Even if we wanted to, it's just not possible for us now."

"Really? Why?" Flame inquired.

Alice's face drooped at the question; Gaius grew noticeably more nervous too. The Dragonair was the one to answer. "After everything that happened yesterday, our team got … how shall I say this … deranked. Those kind of missions—the well paying ones—are now off-limits to us."

Flame: “I mean, all of those missions you just rattled off earlier sound like they would’ve gotten me horribly killed, so… silver linings here? Since those other missions ought to be safer, right?”
701630550720512120.png

- Gaius and Alice look at each other blankly before Gaius facepalms -
Gaius: “Gods, we are so screwed.” >.<

Gaius began to walk off, and Alice was about to follow suit, when she noticed Flame wasn't moving. "Flame? What is it? It's time to go now."

"Alice…" he started after a few seconds of silence, "Do you think he's angry because of me?"

"Who? Gaius? Don't worry, I don't think he's mad at you personally. It's probably just everything that's been happening recently. It can get to you, sometimes."

Alice: “Also, it’d probably be easier to keep a shortlist of things that Gaius isn’t bitter and angry at at any given time, but let’s not get into that.” >_>;
Flame: “Yeesh, what happened to him to make him like that?”
- Alice hems and haws a bit -
Alice: “I… really shouldn’t go into too much detail on that (since it’s a spoiler and all that). But I’m sure Gaius will let you know on his own timing. (Or whenever he gets drunk off his tail again.)” -_-;

Behind a desk sat the only pokémon in the entire room, a goofy-looking frog creature with a slimy red sac under his chin—Flame couldn't help but feel a strange craving to poke it with his claws until it popped—and a red stinger on the back of each hand. It was handling stacks of paper by impaling them with his stingers, attempting to make some order.

"Hey Myco," Gaius said, "Got a few moments to spare us?"

"Hmm?" the Toxicroak raised his head from the stacks of paper, before giving them a large grin, "Oh, hello officers! Aren't you supposed to be down at the square with the legion?"

I suppose the paper pusher’s named after ‘mycotoxin’? Or is his name from another source?

Flame: “... How on earth are those papers still readable afterwards if they’re being speared full of holes repeatedly?” .-.
Myco: “Meh, if whoever fills these things out can’t be bothered to leave some space for me to leave a little hole-punch, they deserve to get their form misread down the chain.”

Flame raised his paw, and Myco handed him the contract. "Here you go," the Toxicroak said, "Just sign in the blank space at the bottom and you'll be golden. Unless you really, really want to read it. But no one does that anymore, right?"

Well, I do, Flame huffed mentally. Holding the form firmly with his claws, he started reading.

By signing this contract, the undersigned hereby takes charge of all [responsibilities] associated with his/her position as a public official…

His eyes gazed over the document, most of it proving to be little more than uninteresting legal blabber. However, one section towards the end managed to catch his attention.

… agrees that the Imperial Civil Protection Corps cannot be held accountable for any health complications the undersigned may suffer on duty, including (but not limited to): malnourishment, acute back pain, [migraine], insomnia, dismemberment, death. Furthermore, …

Couple of minor typos there.

Flame: “Oh god, just what am I getting into here with a wall of disclaimers in the fine print like that?” o_o;
Gaius: “The underfunded tip of the spear for keeping all of Aesernia Province safe. Look, do you want to starve on your own? Or have a shot at eating properly with us?” >_>;
Flame: “Gaius, according to this contract, your employers literally aren’t taking responsibility for feeding you properly. Who on earth does that?!” >.<
Alice: “Well, Civil Protection does. Otherwise this wouldn’t be in the fine print of the recruitment contract.” -_-;

Flame winced. It must have been written with a worst-case scenario in mind, he thought—and dared not imagine otherwise; after all, risk was likely a trait closely tied to the profession (the contract in his claws stated that very clearly), a necessary evil that came with saving innocents' lives, part of a rescue team's moral obligation. It was only natural, then, he accepted, that they would warn a new rookie like him of what he should be expecting.

But, after rereading the same lines for the fourth time, he felt some chills run up his spine as he slowly considered the implications of what those words truly meant. For a moment, he doubted the sagacity of his choice. He could only really remember a day's worth of his entire life; was he already willing to put it at risk like that?

With a shake of his head, he forced those fears away. Yes, it was the right choice, and the only viable one at that. If he was to sign, he'd have friends to talk to, an entire organization to bring him back to his feet as he attempted to make sense of his life now. He'd be a fool to refuse.

>an entire organization to bring him back to his feet as he attempted to make sense of his life now.
>organization to bring him back to his feet

Oh hey, I get to use that one gif again:

youre_serious_futurama.gif


Even before getting into stuff that comes up later down the pipe, let’s just casually ignore the background mention of budget cuts and Team Phalanx being an unfavorite team on Task Force Aegis.

Forcing his eyes off that paragraph, he passed on to the last few lines. At the foot of the document, just below a big blank space where he assumed his signature was supposed to go, were four big stylized letters:

S P Q U

Huh. Probably means something important, but I have no idea what.
He made a mental note to look into that.

Alice: “That’d be Senatus Populusque Urbanus. Or ‘The Senate and People of Urbe’.”
Gaius: “Don’t you mean ‘The Senate and People of the City’ there?”
Alice: “Honestly, same difference given that Urbe means ‘the City’, Gaius.” >_>;
Flame: “I’m sorry, but how do you two know this again? All I heard was a lot of funny words before you explained it.”
Gaius: “Because it’s common knowledge in our setting? (And the story’s author confirmed that the acronym means that elsewhere.) Why even hatchlings know what ‘SPQU’ means-”
- Cue beat moment -
Gaius: “Right, you barely remember anything other than your name and the fact that you’re from the South.” >_>;
Flame: “Way to make me feel dumb here.” >.<

"Uh..." Flame turned to Alice, whispering, "Alice? How do I sign this?"

"What do you mean? Ink your claw, how else?" she suggested, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Flame looked at the ink container and his claw, and then back at the ink. Did he really have to do this? Let's just get this over with...

He turned his head to the side as he submerged a good half of his claws into the ink, hating every moment of it. He let the excess liquid drip back into its container and stared at his paw in near disgust, almost as if it had been tainted by the gooey substance. Then, in a quick motion, he hovered his paw over the document, before pressing it on the paper to imprint his 'signature'.

Not that this isn’t par for the course for canon PMD, but this is the sort of dilemma that a good old-fashioned system of personalized seals would handle quite tidily. It’s small, compact, keeps your claws neat, and is hard to duplicate short of forging a specific target’s seal.

The moon had gained almost complete reign over the sky as Flame walked around rows upon rows of analogous tents, led by his newfound teammates. More and more pokémon were returning to their respective quarters, the tired look on their faces the result of a day's work load.

Eventually, Team Phalanx stopped in front of one particular tent. The front was pentagonal in shape, a wooden pole cutting through the middle to support it. The cloth itself was tattered beyond whatever beauty it might have boasted, barely held together by patches of different colours. Gaius slid the fabric to the side, motioning for him to enter.

IMO the ‘analogous’ bit would work better as something like ‘similar’ or if playing up how similar they were, something like ‘almost alike’ or ‘almost identical’. As for the second bolded part, I think that there’s something missing about what would’ve once made the cloth beautiful given that it’s described as being tatty and riddled with patches. Is it something about the color it’s dyed in or the fabric that would give the impression that “once upon a time, this was something someone would’ve wanted”? If so, might want to slip in a blurb indicating what that something is.

Flame: “I thought you guys said that you slept in barracks.” ._.
Gaius: “Well, here’s your barracks. Now settle in and shut up.”

Even as Gaius handed him out a shiny red apple—he remembered to utter his thanks—his mind was elsewhere, barely able to focus on the food. He churned through it in a matter of seconds, and the light aftertaste brought a small smile to his face.

"Did you like it?" Alice asked with a smile.

Flame looked to the side at his new teammates. The Dragonair was coiled up in her bed, while Gaius had just finished the last bite of his meal.

Flame: “... Wait a minute, was our dinner just a single apple?” .-.
Gaius: “Yes? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re kinda going through budget problems right now.”
Flame: “Uh… are Apples surprisingly nutritious in this setting?”
- Cue stomachs growling -
Flame: “I’m… gonna take that as a ‘no’.” ._.
Gaius: “Look, if you’re done eating, can you shut up and go to sleep already?” >_>;

A few seconds of quiet ensued, before he turned to Alice suddenly. "Do... do you know what it looks like down there? Down South?" Those words almost struggled to come out of his mouth. It was the logical thing to do, to keep some form of consistency with the lie he'd told them yesterday, that he originated from the South; that way, they wouldn't doubt the veracity of his words.

Despite that, deep inside, he still felt rotten as he stared into the Dragonair's eyes. Those pokémon he wanted to befriend; so why was he lying to them so shamelessly?

Minor missing word there.

Flame: “(I mean, they only tried to get me wrongly imprisoned earlier. Is it really the end of the world if I play along with their assumptions when everything they’ve told me so far would indicate that they’re probably right about me being from the South anyways?)” >_>;
- Flame blinks as he sees his reflection in Alice’s eyes -
Flame: “(Uh… okay, it definitely feels awkward to fib to her. Maybe I should try looking over at Gaius a bit more.)”
- Cue Gaius idly inspecting his leaf blades -
Flame: “(... Yeah, awkward or not, I’ll stick to lying to the Dragonair, thanks.)”
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"Oh, I remember the South…" Alice grinned distantly, her gaze gradually travelling upwards.

Flame raised a curious eyebrow. "Really?"

"Yes. I used to live there, as a matter of fact. Last time I was there was … what, two years ago? Three? I'm not sure. Still feels like yesterday…"

"The South is just a place full of fat pricks who think they're so much better than everybody else because of their wealth," Gaius grunted as he searched through the [rucksack] on his bedside, "That's about everything you need to know."

Minor tense error and typo there.

- Flame blinks -
Flame: “I’m sorry, how did you get stuck on a team with this guy again when he’s casually smack talking your home like that?”
Alice: “I was short on options, okay?” -_-;


Alice was left wordless from the bluntness of his comment. "Well … That's not entirely accurate. Sure, the pokémon there aren't the kindest around, but it's still a beautiful place. The blistering deserts, lush fields full of flowers, the stillness of the seaside … Maybe one day we'll be able to go there. I'm sure you'd remember everything in the blink of an eye. The things you see there, the air you breathe, you just can't forget."

Alice: “Also, I admittedly don’t have the fondest memories of the Pokémon back home. Everything else was pretty great, though.”
Flame: “So in other words, if I had said I was from the North, Gaius would’ve magically been friendlier to me?” -_-;
Gaius: “More like I’d have called you a liar and given you a good jab for it. You’re not fooling anyone with that accent, Flame.”

"I … I just wanted to ask you something. Yesterday, in that cave, you sounded like you knew what happened to me. If that's true, can you tell me? I need to know. Please."

"Flame…" Alice drew back, pity blossoming on her face, "Look, I can't be sure exactly what caused you to lose your memories. That was just an hypothesis I thought of on the spot."

"It's good enough," Flame's [insistence] mounted, "Anything would be good enough. I just want some sort of clue, something to help me understand."

Another small typo there.

Flame: “Also, putting out things that could’ve possibly happened to me is kinda important for narrowing down what went down.”
Alice: “... Right, so anyways, about that hypothesis…”

Alice hesitated for a few seconds. "I just thought that, since I constantly hear all these stories about Scum starting to employ Psychics to attack our scout teams … Who knows, maybe the same thing happened to you. Maybe you were ambushed, and had your memories wiped away. Again, I wasn't there to see it happen." she caught Flame's frown of disappointment. "I'm really sorry, I wish there was something more I could tell you."

"Oh..." Flame sat in silence. Alice's answer rang of truth, sure, but if that was so, if he really had been attacked by these 'Scum', then why did everything feel so new to him? It was as if he'd never been in this world before, never seen its inhabitants or witnessed its geography. His psyche didn't have any evidence to prove it—of course; why would he? - but all this felt … wrong. Horribly, unnaturally wrong.

Flame: “That’s more than a little messed up there. But why on earth would they do that?”
Alice: “Presumably to cover their tracks. If you don’t remember running into Scum to begin with, you can’t exactly point out where they are.”
- Alice bristles uncomfortably -
Alice: “Though for the ‘mons who did turn up like that. They honestly should count themselves lucky. There are a lot of worse fates that could’ve befallen them.
Flame: “... Yeah, I’m not sure I want to know. Least of all right before I’m about to go to bed.” ._.

Who am I?

He was Flame.



No, that wasn't it. That was just a name, and not even his true one at that. The question meant something much deeper: who was he? What was his identity? His profession? Where did he come from? Was his family worried about his disappearance? Did he even have a family somewhere out there?

To be fair, considering Flame’s backstory, there’s a non-zero chance that his current name is the closest thing to a true name that he’s had so far. After all, there’s a decent stretch of his life where his ‘name’ would likely have been arbitrary letters and numbers as opposed to anything intimate. Not that he knows that here anyways.

And so, he surrendered himself to his meager bed, letting the high tide of sleep sweep him away to a better place.

This world... isn't...

👀

I hadn’t realized that you were hinting at Flame being stuck on a different planet with a lot more than he could manage this early on in the story. It’s certainly a fun thing that stood out on a re-read.

Also, a teaser for next time:

"Founded on the ashes of the old Republic, the Empire stands alone in the eternal fight against the most wicked enemy of all: ignorance. The world's only sturdy bastion of civilization and wisdom shall not be expunged by the likes of barbaric fleas. They come to our carefully sown lands, spreading terror and destruction, endangering our citizens with their witchcraft; for it is all their inferior minds can grasp. As we have done in the past, we must rise against this newfound threat. The pax will go on indefinitely, and we will not stop until the tenets of our knowledge have spread to every last inhabitant of this world.

Long live his highness Augustus Adrian. Long live the Empire." SPQU

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Oh the bitter irony of that part in bold. Though that won’t be apparent in the actual story for a good while down the pipe.

Gaius: “Did the ‘mon that wrote that thing even bother to set foot up here in the North? I don’t think we’re in much of a position to spread much of anything right about now.” >_>;
Flame: “Er… I’ll take your word for it, though is that passage supposed to come off that creepy and foreboding?” ._.
- Beat moment -
Flame: “... Also, what’s an ‘Augustus?’”
- Alice and Gaius stare blankly at Flame for a moment -
Alice: “Maybe you really did get mind-wiped by Scum. I’m not sure how you don’t remember that coming from the South.” ._.
Gaius: “Yeah, well I don’t feel like giving a civics lesson at this gods-forsaken hour. We’ll explain some other time.” >_>;

Whelp, it definitely took me a while to patch this one together, but I hope you found the second look enjoyable and helpful for your writing. I’ll be looking forward to keeping pace with your updates here, and I’m looking forward to seeing Team Phalanx’s Super Happy Fun Urbe-ventures get a chance to shine here. :veelove:
 
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Chapter V: Rearrangement

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter V: Rearrangement


"Your Majesty, as you are surely aware I have always been one of your most faithful servants, and would never dare to cast doubt upon your genius. However, your recent decision to personally employ particular members of Task Force Aegis has stirred a great amount of controversy within my ranks.

The discovery of barbarian encampments so deep into our territory is certainly a cause for worry, make no mistake. I assure you that a full investigation is under way, as well as toughened security measures.

But that begs the question: is it wise to send out a group whose track record consists almost entirely of failures? Considering the delicacy of this mission's outcome, it is my obligation to remind you that are many other teams in this Task Force who would be just as willing to take their place.

You made your choice and I have followed through with it; just don't expect a positive outcome."



Flame was about to meet Ariel. He hadn't much of a clue who or what she was, but the air of quiet apprehension emanating from his teammates spilt over to him with little resistance.

It was through their mouth that the name had come to his attention. First, on the path back to Aesernia that day he woke up amnesiac, and then on various occasions at Camp Tempest when Alice recruited him. Each time he heard her name it was always being phrased in a way that implied submissiveness, so he could only make a wild guess at her being some sort of chief, one who held a degree of power over their team.

That thought did nothing to make him feel any less uneasy. It only made her more of a menacing figure to stand before.

Just as Gaius laid a paw on the door leading to the registry, he turned his head to deliver the Charmeleon one last reminder. "Keep in mind that occasions like this could affect our future. Ariel holds absolute power over the whole of Task Force Aegis, as well as our team; one moronic comment and we're all going down the drain."

Flame felt himself gulp under his leader's cautioning glare.

"That means: don't do anything, don't ask anything—heck, don't even open your mouth unless she directly addresses you. Got it?"

Flame nodded acquiescently, his lips glued shut.

"Good." Gaius mumbled, pushing the door open. "Let's get this over with."

It took Flame a second to follow suit, but a nod of encouragement from Alice convinced him to enter. The room wasn't any different from the last time he stood on its floor boards. A few pokémon chatted away in the back, while Myco the Toxicroak was still behind his desk, eyeing them with his signature goofy smile. Was Ariel late?

But no, he soon discovered, she was not. Just then, a sizable lizard-like creature stomped out of a side corridor and silence befell the room. The Haxorus surveyed her surroundings for a second, as though only to further entice order amidst the bystanders. Not one even had to be told to squelch their voices.

When Ariel made her way to the trio, Flame's body refused to buckle from its position. She hadn't even spoken a word yet and already he felt intimidated: those plated yellow-green scales, that pair of tusks jutting out of her mouth like the blade of a sickle, all contributed directly to make him resent her bare presence.

And if that wasn't enough, her eyes did naught to alleviate that feeling, quietly scanning each one of each of them with an eerie look of disinterest.

"Team Phalanx, eh? I suppose fate has intertwined our paths once more. And as always, I'm the one that gets fucked over."

Not one soul made any attempts to speak.

Ariel was about to continue, when she suddenly locked gazes with Flame. For a moment, the Charmeleon felt his muscles tie up into a knot.

"Are you the new guy?" Ariel asked half-curiously, her eyes narrowed minutely.

"Y-yes, ma'am." Flame answered quietly, paws behind his back. A few of the onlookers started murmuring something amongst themselves, and one even jerked a claw towards him. Whatever it was they were saying, it did not make Flame feel any more comfortable—especially with him and his friends being the centre of attention.

The Haxorus grunted in some kind of acknowledgement and continued. "You know, it was quite a surprise this morning to find out that the three of you actually got through with your assignment. For a moment there I suspected having too many glasses to drink, but it seems like it is true after all. Any comment you'd like to leave?"

Now that he paid attention to it, Flame noticed that her body carried a heavy scent of wine, though her features did not suggest any major intoxication.

Just out of the corner of his eye, Flame caught an expression of pride take over Alice's face momentarily. "Just so you know, we made it through fair and square. No outside help. And we'll continue turning things around for ourselves."

"Well, congratulations,"Ariel said dryly, her tone imbued with sarcasm. "But that's not why I'm here squandering my time with you lot. As much as it pains me to tell you, your team has been drafted for a B-rank mission. Priority one. Departure is tomorrow."

Both Alice and Gaius looked as though they were nearly ready to pale at the mention of those words. The Grovyle, who just a moment prior seemed ready to defend their reputation with bared teeth, was now more bewildered than anything. "Woah, hang on! This isn't possible… You deranked us, didn't you? We aren't even allowed to take those kinds of missions!"

"Oh, shut up," Ariel gnarled, raising her head to show off her blade-like tusks. "By now you should be on your knees begging for forgiveness, after all the months of woeful performance on your part. Do you know how much money and tactical setbacks you've cost the Task Force? If it were up to me, you'd already be starving on the edges of the Wasteland for all I care!"

Flame took a few seconds to elaborate the meaning behind her exact wording. So … she doesn't get to decide whether to fire us or not? I think that's what she said…

The bladed dragoness continued, giving them a stare as though she saw filthy goo trickling off their bodies. "Believe me, you are among the last people I would ever willingly send on a mission like this—actually, you probably are the last ones. But I didn't get to make this decision: it's coming straight from the top," she spat on the floor.

"The top?" Alice inquired carefully, her interest spiking all of a sudden. "You mean…"

"Yes. His Majesty, the Senate. Don't ask me why they care." Ariel flicked her wrist at the Dragonair. "Now, there's other things that need to be dealt with. You have the rest of the day to prepare. We'll meet at the north-eastern gates tomorrow morning to discuss the details. Got it?"

The trio nodded unanimously, and a groan escaped Ariel's throat as she turned on her heel—almost smacking Flame in the cheek with a swoosh of her tail. "Finally, some time to relax. God I miss that wine…"

As soon as everybody could be certain that the Haxorus was out of sight and hearing, a few whispers and murmurs started to break through the initial envelope of incredulousness surrounding the onlookers. Now all eyes were upon Team Phalanx.

Flame leant over to his teammates. "Uh, guys? Can we … go somewhere else? I don't like the looks they're giving us."

"You're right," Alice conceded sort of distantly. "There's too many people here. Let's head someplace quiet."

It was certainly a relief for Flame to slip away from the dozens of eyes burning into his skull, but it became clear from the look on his team's faces that this topic would not simply be looked over. Team Phalanx exited the registry, taking a road that led deeper into the camp, stopping underneath the shade of a tree.

Gaius whirled his head round to uncover any snoop before addressing the two. "… They've got to be joking," he mumbled with gritted teeth. "B-rank job? What the hell is wrong with their brains? First our team gets squashed to essentially rookie level, then this!"

Alice looked no more content than the Grovyle was, but she barred any anger from taking charge. "Listen, I know this is all so sudden, but try to be reasonable: it's only a B-rank. Nothing we haven't done before."

Flame really wanted to halt the banter for a moment, clarify what that 'B' denomination meant and why they sounded so upset about it. But it seemed that as of lately the only thing he was good at was buzzing them with questions.

"Yeah, well, we've only ever attempted one," Gaius countered. "And there's a reason for that! What makes you think that we'll have a better chance now?"

Alice hardened her expression, half in indignation and half in a sort of hopeful pride. "Well, first of all, it's not just the two of us this time." She pointed the tip of her tail at Flame. "And secondly, how bad could it be? It's not like she can just send us off to the Wasteland on such a short notice."

"Bah," Gaius crossed his arms. "You seem to think he's the solution to all our problems. An extra teammate isn't going to be of much help when confronting a pack of filthy Scum. Much less when he can't even knock a feral out."

Those words struck deep in Flame's conscience. Although they were ultimately truthful, he still would have preferred not to hear them be uttered. A feeling of hurt resonated inside him, but it was almost immediately replaced by one of indignation. An impetus to show Gaius just how wrong he was.

A veil of quiet surrounded Team Phalanx for a few minutes as a moderate breeze started chirping in their ears. There seemed to be nothing more to add.

Alice looked between the two of them, and interrupted their thoughts. "Uh … guys, do you remember where she said the instructions came from?"

"If memory serves me well, she mentioned it was His Majesty who sent the order," Gaius answered nonchalantly, as though not seeing why that point would be of any significance.

"… and something about a senate," Flame added, his voice a near mumble.

Alice glanced at him for a moment, and then back at Gaius. "Exactly. Doesn't it seem … weird that the Emperor would ask us of all people to do this?"

Gaius raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Frankly, no. It's not like he thought of us specifically. Probably part of some stupid morale boosting programme. Why does it matter?"

That question was left in the air for a good few moments as the Dragonair concocted an answer. "Uh, nothing. Nothing. Just a thought."

"So…" Flame said, sensing that the conversation had all but ebbed away. "What now? Are we going to get ready for tomorrow?"

"Get ready?" Gaius questioned back. "How? We've barely racked up enough money to keep our mouths fed for a few days, so stocking up on orbs and seeds isn't really an option. Also, we still have those berries left over from our last mission."

"Oh, about that," Alice said, glancing up at the afternoon sun. "What's the plan for tonight's dinner? We have some cash in our pockets now, but I think we should try leaving it intact for now. Maybe we can look around as usual?"

Gaius smiled slyly. "That's what I was thinking. Leave the prole parts of town to me; you know how easy they are to mug. See you at sunset."

With that alarming message, and not even giving them the chance to talk back, the Grovyle turned around and walked out of Camp Tempest, leaving a perplexed Flame behind.

Mug… ?

"Huh. A tad eager to leave, I see." Alice commented. "Still had a few things to tell him. Oh well." she turned to Flame. "If I haven't made myself clear yet, we're going to be looking for food this afternoon, like any other day."

"Looking for food?" Flame tilted his head. "You mean, roam the shops to see where the cheapest stuff is?"

"No, not really. It's…" Alice hesitated, her eyes darting away from his for a moment. A sudden redness spread across her cheeks. "Oh god, I wish I didn't have to explain this … You see, we usually prefer foraging in the wilderness around town, but the guards won't let us out unless we're on a mission. So that means our only viable option is … leftovers."

Flame bore a deadpan expression as he processed her words carefully. His teammates were looking for food amidst garbage. Sure, the possibility of this being the case wasn't entirely foreign, but to hear it with his own ears was a completely different thing.

"Listen," Alice said. "I realise that we could in theory afford better food, and that this practice isn't exactly what you would call 'classy', but it has to be done. Besides, have you seen how much food prices have risen? With winter on the horizon things can only get worse, so it is imperative that we avoid spending money wherever possible. Especially if things start to get dire…"

Two reactions triggered in his brain simultaneously. The first was of absolute disgust and embarrassment at the methods his team employed simply to put something between their teeth. Yet, the other was a heightened sense of duty, a moral obligation to do more: this needed to change! It was preposterous that anyone be reduced to such level of desperation, much less his friends. They didn't deserve this. He needed to prove Gaius wrong, and he needed to prove Alice that all her trust in him was not in vain. It was the least he could do.

"Uh…" Flame said, growing more and more resolute. "… it's all right, I understand. Swear I'll do my best to help out. Where do we begin?"

The smile of gratitude Alice offered him nearly caused him to flush right then and there, his tail flaring a little bit too. "Thank you so much, Flame. For a moment there I was afraid you'd laugh in my face. Give me a moment to think."

She bit her outer lip in thought. "Mmmh. For a start, I think it'd be best if you sweep the centre area of town, in and around the main square. Yes, that does sound like the best option for you."

"Wait, you mean we're splitting up? How am I supposed to find the path home? I don't know my way around here!"

But it seemed as though Alice was already aware of that. "Relax. You can probably remember what the square looks like since we've passed through it several times already. It's also quite easy to spot from up here; so should anything happen, or maybe you get lost, just look towards the hill and you'll find Camp Tempest. Everything clear? Please, do not hesitate to voice any concerns."

Flame nodded, appreciating that she kept his amnesia into consideration. "Actually, I do have a question. I think Gaius mentioned something about mugging people. Is that … a thing you do frequently?"

Alice did not look particularly moved by the question. "On some occasions, yes, it does happen. I don't enjoy thieving in the slightest, but believe me when I say that sometimes, during famines for example, it becomes a necessity—lest we end the day on an empty stomach. Gaius however seems to like it for some odd reason, maybe a little too much."

Flame frowned in distaste. Wasn't their job all about helping others? But then again, if conditions were truly that dire, then he couldn't blame his friends for trying to survive.

"Of course," continued Alice. "You don't have to do it by any stretch of the imagination. The payout from our recent victory serves as a backup, so if worst comes to worst, we still have something. But still, if the occasion presents itself, think about it."

Flame was a little unsettled at first, but then regained his smile. In all likelihood, he wouldn't even come close to needing to resort to thievery. "Okay, I think I'm ready. Where are you headed?"

She shuffled her long neck to fasten the loose bag wrapped round it. "First we're getting you to the square so that you can get familiar with the path, and then I'll go looking around the wealthier neighbourhoods. You wouldn't believe what those folks throw away at times."

And so, the two teammates set off to the town square, the constant chatter between them seemingly endless.


Of all the things I expected to be doing in Civil Protection, this was not one of them…

Flame grimaced as he felt another object come up amidst the pile of rotting garbage. Pinching the no doubt unsanitary object with the tip of his claws, he pulled it out of the metal bin; an old cloth, dusty and smeared with traces of blood.

Nigh visualising the colonies of germs and microbes travelling up his paw, he released the cloth without a thought, letting it flap to the ground. He couldn't suppress a groan of frustration from leaking through his gritted teeth. Sixty interminable minutes had galumphed by since Alice brought him to the central area of town, all the while failing to recover anything remotely fit for consumption.

The stench of decomposing waste was becoming intolerable, and it was solely the vow made to Alice that kept him from giving up on the effort altogether.

Why won't anything come up …?

Faint shadows danced at the light of his swinging tail flame, which proved to be just enough to light up the dark alleyway he was searching. Heaps of rubbish littered the poorly tiled floor, resembling a filthy minefield of plastics and organic matter.

There must be something I can bring back!

Every few moments, Flame's pupils dashed towards the streets with persisting frequency. Hundreds of pokémon were walking down the nearby road each minute, so at some point one of them was bound to take a peek into the dark alley. Although admittedly he didn't really know anyone in town besides his own team, the mere thought of being found out caused an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment and shame to arise.

He stopped a moment. Why was he lowering himself to this?

Food. I'm trying to help my team survive. To prove myself useful.

Suddenly, a spherical object made its presence known to Flame's digging paws. Its surface felt rough yet surprisingly soft underneath. Gripping the object firmly, he yanked it out of the garbage bin. His eyes lit up. It was a rosy-coloured peach, looking almost as fresh as the ones from the nearby food market. Rolling it around in his paw, he felt a small sense of accomplishment tingling his guts. The peach looked largely edible, and even alluring in some ways. He briefly wondered whether Alice or Gaius would enjoy its taste.

After carving off any suspicious dark stains with a claw, Flame smiled in gratification at the literal fruit of his labour, and chucked the peach into his bag. Certainly not itching to dwell in such dubious hygienic conditions for much longer, he quickly slipped out of the alley and emerged into the busy streets. The Charmeleon had to draw a deep breath to rid himself of the fetid stench trapped in his nostrils.

All right, Flame exhaled forcefully as he scrutinised the dimming sky, The sun is setting, and I doubt I'll be able to find anything else. Might as well call it quits for today. Hope this is going to be enough…

Never quite letting the accomplished smile on his face ebb away, he mixed himself into the crowd, mirroring the flow of passersby all around. At the moment, all he needed to do was head to one of those public water taps Alice had mentioned to get himself and the peach cleaned up.

Flame continued to follow the mass of creatures relentlessly. For reasons he did not fully comprehend, the sheer density of the mob unnerved him; there might have been dozens, if not hundreds of pokémon crammed into that street; each one pushing just a little tighter onto his body, stealing a glance at him, judging.

He detested crowds. It was a new thing he'd found out about himself just the day prior, a facet that in hindsight was quite obvious seeing how his breath shortened whenever he found himself outside. Actually, scratch that, the phenomenon largely seemed to manifest at times when neither Alice nor Gaius could be present his side. His mind began recollecting all the evidence it could to support that theory: on the very first day he'd been too scared and confused to feel anything, but after that the pattern seemed clear. Sleeping at Camp Tempest for the first time, the subsequent morning chat, marching to his first dungeon experience, and today's afternoon spent fraternising with Alice. On all those occasions he'd felt an undeniable sense of safety, even when other strangers were around. Now he felt uncomfortably exposed.

But Flame soon arrived at the nearest public water tap, and shifted his mind away from such thoughts. After a relatively lengthy line, he took the peach out of his bag and placed it directly underneath the water stream as to simultaneously cleanse his paws too. He tried his best to block out the impatient glares from behind him.

Hastily getting the job done and stopping the water flow, he barely found the time to chuck the peach back into his bag before he stormed off in a random direction, hoping to find a quiet road to think as he headed home.

But there was no such thing. What Flame failed realise was that around this time entire families were coming home from work. Frightened as they might have been of the recent portal storm, life had to continue as normal.

Just as a passing Mawile shoved Flame aside with little care, he started reflecting once again—an act that would render him mad one day (or was he already?). The initial optimism was giving way to a fair bit of frustration. In the sixty-plus minutes he'd spent outside scavenging, in the scores of alleys and back shops that had been explored, a single, measly peach was all he would turn up to his friends with.

He really prayed that it would be enough to meet their expectations.

They're going to be disappointed. She entrusted me with finding food for all of us, and this was the result. Did I not promise myself to work harder for the team? They're everything I have…

And then, perhaps for a moment, something reached his ears. It was a peculiar, almost chirping tune. He stopped and quickly found the source of the distraction. A stone building, barely distinguishable from the rest were it not for the large glass pane on the front that read:

Walnut Tree Café

Instinctively he knew that the anomalous sound was music, but he couldn't bring himself to resume his walk; this was the first time he could remember hearing music, quite possibly the first time in his life. The cracking, braying, jeering note left him wrapped in a blanket of awe. To be perfectly honest, he was willing to come home a tad later just to savour a little more of that melody.

Spending a few minutes there won't hurt, and there don't seem to be many people inside anyway. I'll just wait for the rush time to blow off.

Pushing the door to the café open, he was greeted with an old, dusty yet strangely alive ambiance. No more than a dozen pokémon in total were scattered between the various tables, and what he could have sworn was a cockroach rattled away into a crack in the wall. On the stage was a red insectoid creature with antennae, its arms crossed and grinding against each other to emit sounds. Behind the dimly lit counter he could see the barman, all kinds of weirdly coloured bottles, and—

Flame almost couldn't believe his eyes. There Gaius sat, on one of the many wooden stools, a full glass firmly in his grip. But he didn't have the time to wonder what liquid was in it since what he saw next outclassed it. The Grovyle reached into his bag and pulled out a handful of coins, before laying them on the table and mumbling something to the barman.

It took a few seconds for Flame to process what his leader was doing.

"Hey!" Flame yelled out suddenly, causing the unaware Grovyle to jump. "What do you think you're doing! Are you crazy?!"

The initial surprise on Gaius' face relaxed into a more annoyed one. A hazy redness tinted his eyes, and his voice held a strange inflection. "Oh, it's you. Quit shouting, this is none of your damn business. Tell me, rather, what the hell are you doing here? Weren't you out looking for food?"

Flame's brow furrowed even wider as he just barely stopped short of yelling on top of his lungs—so strong was the indignation flaring through his veins. In a way, such affront surprised even him, especially when considering that this was his superior he was talking down to.

He pointed an accusatory claw at Gaius. "Don't try to sidetrack the conversation. I want you to tell me right now just what you were doing with that money!"

Gaius' raised his head up high, giving his newest teammate a scornful glare. "You'd do well to refrain from threatening me."

"To hell with you! Alice is out there breaking her back to scrape together a meal, while you're in this rat hole drinking booze!"

Suddenly, Gaius propelled his arm forward, and wrapped his claws tightly around Flame's snout as though attempting to crush it. The Charmeleon squealed a bit in distress, scratching and pushing those claws off his face. Some people in the bar were starting to take notice of their dispute.

"Flame, I swear, once more and I'll drop you where you stand!" Gaius barked with gritted teeth, the stench of alcohol now impossible to ignore. "You haven't seen what the world out there is like. You don't know how hard it is. The stress, the constant worry for survival. A 'mon needs some time to get away every now and then."

Said Charmeleon backed off a few feet, rubbing the pain away from his snout. From here on, it would probably be wiser to settle down and play it safe. He was still very much infuriated with his leader, yes, but any aggressive response would doubtlessly cost him dearly.

Drawing one last deep breath, Flame spoke. "But why use up our money like this? It's already quite a small amount—we need it for the winter! To survive!" he empathised gravely, recalling Alice's earlier words.

Gaius did not seem to be very moved by that notion. "And? I don't see a problem. These drinks cost only…" He hesitated for a second, rubbing the back of his neck. "… Errrr, I can't remember. A few thousand poké, I think? But it's not much. We still have more than enough to go around."

Calculations began scaling in Flame's mind about Gaius' claim. That phrase was simply untrue. Even if he were to be generous—only assume he drank two or three glasses—the money spent still amounted to a quarter of their current funds, a bill of already catastrophic proportions.

"Gaius," Flame proclaimed with bold rashness, staring at the Grovyle right in the eyes. "This isn't right. I promised Alice that I would help get our team back afloat, and for the love of Arceus that is exactly what will happen." He extended a paw to the bemused grass type. "Give me your bag. Now."

The Grovyle raised an eyebrow in surprise, then chuckled lightly. "What? Are you being serious? It's best if you go home now, Flame. You must be really tired."

"No. Not until I can rest assured that we have enough funds to live decently. Give me your bag."

Gaius slit his pupils, and took another sip from his glass. "Make me."

Flame felt his anger flare up. Not only did his leader not realise the extent of his disservice to the team—the very one he led—but he even dared behave so nonchalant about the matter!

And so, he decided to act. In one swift movement, he took a hold of the strap on Gaius' shoulder, yanked it down and let it free of its owner. Folly, perhaps, reasoned a small voice in his head; but the damage was already done. Besides, that voice was overshadowed by the many who wanted to see his and Alice's effort not go to waste.

Gaius was left with a blank face. He blinked once; looked at his shoulder, the bag dangling from the Charmeleon's paws, down at himself again, and then at the glass that he'd just finished.

Flame sensed what was going through his brain: such action could only be interpreted as a big middle claw to his leader's authority. He held still a few seconds, expecting some kind of reaction from the grass type. Maybe he'd be pounced upon, or perhaps he'd simply be reprimanded and kicked out of the team for such shocking misbehaviour. Yet Gaius did nothing. He just sat there, staring at the alcohol droplets in his glass with unusual intensity.

At first he felt tempted to ask what was wrong, but decided against it and stepped away from the Grovyle. Walking off towards the exit, he began to think: what now? Was he going to rehearse the whole afternoon to Alice and possibly cause a rift in the team (he already had to worry about that, not two days in!) or pretend nothing happened? Lie to her face like he'd been doing for—

A glass hurled past his shoulder. It shattered on the ground just in front of him in a mighty crash, sending dozens of shards flying everywhere. Tiny slivers now littered the floor and just about the entire bar had turned their heads at the mess, yet the only thing that mattered was the shout coming from behind him.

"Fuck you! Give that back to me right goddamn now!"

Flame didn't even have the time to run as the gecko lunged at his meagre frame, crashing unto his body and to the ground. Now with his belly flat on the floor, he couldn't get up from under Gaius' weight. He attempted to force the assailant off by rolling over, but claws wrapped forcefully around his horn and ground his muzzle roughly on the floor to keep him still.

"G-g-gaaah! What are you… Stop!" Flame struggled against the Grovyle's attempts at restraining him.

In return, Gaius ripped his own bag from Flame's shoulder. "Taking back what's mine," he growled into his ear, only granting him a brief second of eye contact.

Flame raised his claws blindly to scratch the Grovyle, but to no avail. "No, get off me! We need that money! I won't let you—"

Gaius pressed tighter onto Flame's back. "Who the fuck do you think you are? Come in one day, thinking you can boss me around? Well, fuck you!"

"I said let go!"

"You southerners are all the same. Money-sucking, pompous twats that ruined my life!"

"Fucking let go!" Flame yelled, feeling his anger swell exponentially.

Yet Gaius continued unhindered. "You're nobody, you hear me? A goddamn—"

Tongues of fire were boiling through Flame's veins by now. In one smooth motion, he raised his tail abruptly and brushed its fiery tip violently on the Grovyle's back. The effect was imminent: Gaius yelped in the middle of his intoxicated rant and flinched back in pain, granting Flame just enough breathing space to shove him away at once.

Whereas before he only wanted to get out of there and return home, Flame's thoughts were obfuscated by a mantle of unrestrained ire. He wasted no time in raising both his paws and slashing down on the temporarily disoriented Grovyle. The attack was executed clumsily, but connected nonetheless.

Gaius was soon to recover. Barely even scathed by those attacks beyond temporary discomfort, he was not in a mood for chitchatting any longer. As soon as Flame carelessly charged forward to try and slam him to the ground, Gaius brought him to a halt by delivering a quick punch to the gut, followed up by an upwards cut with his leaf blade. The Charmeleon doubled over in pain and stumbled backwards, clutching his shallow gash.

Most of the bar was now in a state of dead silence as they assisted the brawl that was unfolding. Many stood up from their chairs, yet hesitated to intervene beyond shouts encouraging to de-escalate the situation—all of which fell on deaf ears. A few outliers even started cheering openly for one side or the other.

But Flame heard none of the voices around him. Instead, he mounted his assault once more, striking with a swipe of his claws again and again, even though Gaius managed to either block his weak attempts or return the damage every single time.

After a few minutes of his anger outburst Flame stopped, chiefly to regain his breath, ignoring the sore cuts in his scales and reserving the Grovyle a look of enmity. The object of his rancour still looked perfectly healthy, and he could only count two or three scratches that had actually breached the protective layer of scales. Despite that, he was still mad. Very mad.

Gaius grinned slowly, before letting out a few amused chuckles. "Is this all you've got? Just do me a favour and get out of here, before anything serious happens to you. We can have a little talk about this later."

On one hand Flame felt his dignity scarred and was tempted to give in out of pure shame. However, on the other hand, there were still many things to settle between them.

Flame narrowed his eyes, paws clasping into fists. "I'll show you what I can do…"

Just as he said that an odd, tingly sensation arose in his stomach, just like the one he'd felt back in the forest, as well as in the cavern prior to that. Before he could properly identify what was happening, Flame involuntarily cocked his head backwards and a small tongue of fire escaped his jaws.

The Grovyle threw himself blindly to his side, nearly toppling an entire table to escape Flame's unexpected move. The fire set one of the nearby chairs alight—everything rigidly made out of wood, of course—but did not harm Gaius. What it did do was genuinely scare the Grovyle, and not only him.

To the rest of the bar, what was previously being treated as some form of gratuitous entertainment suddenly became a lot more serious the moment fire was brought into play. Immediately screams echoed among the spectators; two or three pokémon rushed forward to confront the troublemakers, while others cowered uncertainly, and some bolted for the door altogether.

But the problem was that Flame did not notice any of this. His full attention was still dedicated to Gaius, whose eyes were bulged as though he'd seen a ghost. Flame's heart raced, and, as he loomed over the fallen gecko, instinctively released another attack. A smirk slowly conquered his face. For the first time since he could remember, he actually felt in control. In control of his own destiny.

But before he could spew any more flamethrower attacks, many pairs of arms grabbed him from the back, pushing and pulling and effectively immoblising him. Over in front of him, Gaius was receiving the same treatment.

"Hey, hey, hey! Stop! Lay off each other!" someone shouted.

The crowd calmed down somewhat as soon as he stopped resisting, and a strange creature—a medium sized dragon with a fin on its back—stepped forward.

"Gee, I get that he hit you first, but there was no need to start using fire like that," the Gabite commented. "You're lucky the owner of the bar isn't here. Are you okay?"

Flame groaned in response, part in frustration, part for the remnants of his anger outburst. He was not hurt in any serious way. Now that he pondered on it actually, neither of the combatants were ever trying to seriously incapacitate the other; they were both merely conveying their internal stress onto somebody else.

The Gabite's eyes lit in understanding. "Wait, you're that civvie I saw this morning! The one getting a lecture from Ariel!" He chuckled heartily. "One hell of a bitch, isn't she?"

Flame tilted his head slightly as he readjusted his stance. "Uh… You mean you were there? At Camp Tempest?"

The Gabite nodded, smiling slyly. "Yeah, saw the whole thing." He turned his lower body and motioned Flame over with a claw. "C'mon, we can discuss it over at my table, without all these darn proles getting in the way."

Flame stood unsure for a few seconds, but then figured that having something to distract him from what just happened would be useful. Before complying, he spied behind him a brief moment. Gaius was no longer there, probably left as soon as the others intervened.

Oddly enough—as if talking to a complete stranger didn't already make him uncomfortable—there was someone else at the Gabite's table: a black, fox-like creature with golden rings drawn all over.

The Umbreon noticed him approach and furrowed its ears in interest. "Oh, greetings. You have finally stopped fighting. Was anybody hurt?" The voice sounded feminine, although it was hard to tell due to how unbelievably quiet it was.

Flame sat down kind of awkwardly where the Gabite instructed him to, and he suddenly regretted following a stranger so mindlessly. "Uh … no. Just a few scratches is all."

She looked as though she was about to add something, when the Gabite preceded her. "Yvaine, remember that whole scene at the CP encampment this morning? He was one of those 'mons getting hammered by Ariel!"

Yvaine stared at Flame for a good few seconds, both her expression and her eyes literally unreadable. "Huh. Interesting. So I presume that Grovyle from before is your teammate?"

Flame lingered with his mouth open for a bit, hastily assembling something with which to reply. "Y-yeah. He's my leader, actually."

"Your leader? If I may be allowed to ask, what was the reason for the two of you to brawl so viciously?"

Flame did not know what to say. Why were these strangers asking so many questions? Why did he willingly get involved with them? "Um, you see, I just got on the team recently, and we're still getting to know each other. You know, some things may not … work out immediately…" He started darting his eyes around rapidly and off the two sat at his table. "Let's just say we had a disagreement."

"A mere disagreement?" Yvaine inquired, although it was impossible to tell whether it was in a scornful fashion or out of innocent curiosity. "That does not sound like something that one would nearly torch the place down over. Nor endanger another's life. Perhaps you should consider seeking an anger counsellor."

After a few moments of consideration, Flame's brow furrowed indignantly. Who was she to make such choices in his stead? It was Gaius who had started the fight, damn it! If it weren't for him, he would have burnt the insinuating slug to a crisp.

But doesn't that make her right? he reflected, Geez, maybe I do need help…

An uneasy expression crept over his face. For many reasons. First off, he was talking about personal details to complete strangers—who as far as he knew had no ties to either Alice or Gaius. But then there was also the Umbreon in front of him who asked the question. Everything about her was a brick wall: her voice, her face, her eyes, her demeanour. She could have literally been plotting to assassinate him right this instant, and he wouldn't be able to tell.

"Listen," Flame sighed, his claws clasping together as to disguise the quivers running through them. "I would rather not talk about this, okay?"

The Gabite stepped in. "Yeah, let's get over this nonsense. We all do stupid things every now and then."

Yvaine merely sat there, silent. Watching.

"Oh, by the way," the Gabite chuckled eerily. "I forgot to introduce myself. Name's Virgo. Yours?"

He did not know whether it was even safe to give it away, but he'd gotten to this point now so might as well. "Errr … It's Flame. Not very original, I know, but it's not exactly mine either."

The two stared at him with a stupefied expression.

Flame bit his lip lightly. Damn him and his big mouth. "Um … It's … Y-you know what? Never mind. Long story…"

"So," Virgo started, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his claws. "New guy, eh? I heard you civvies are having trouble with your recruitment drive. That's probably the only reason why you haven't been beaten to a pulp yet, else any fresh meat would be dissuaded from joining. They can't allow that."

"Why do you keep calling me a 'civvie'?" Flame raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "If you're not from Civil Protection, then what are you?"

"See, we're part of His Majesty's Imperial Army," Virgo brought a paw to his chest and held his head up high in a somewhat deriding gesture. "Here to save your arses. Would have preferred a different kind of welcome than a portal storm, but oh well." he leant backwards, rambling on. "This isn't the first time we've been stationed in this town. To be honest, I kind of like it here. Especially when it rains and all the grime gets washed away…"

Yvaine chimed in suddenly, staring straight at Flame. "Hold still a second. Your dark aura. It is different from the rest. Abnormal… You are not from these lands, correct?"

The two stared at each other for a moment. What was he going to say? The truth? Repeat the same lie he kept stuffing into Alice's head? Or just remain quiet? He felt no more immediate impulse than to make up an excuse and leave.

"R-right. I'm not … Anyways," he veered off track to a new subject, hoping that they wouldn't insist. "Do you know about someplace interesting in Aesernia? Haven't really seen much of the city at all, except for when Ali—err, my teammate brought me to the library earlier today."

"Library?" Virgo interrupted him. "I mostly go there to look for adult mags. They're the only place that sells that kind of stuff around here."

Flame raised a perplexed eyebrow at the Gabite's nonchalant frankness. "Uh … okay? Fair enough. My friend brought me there to study some things I needed real badly. You know … rescue team related things."

"Ugh, hate that stuff," Virgo waved a dismissive claw. "Too boring. Surely you've looked at something more enticing, right? Care to tell me the title? I've been itching for something new to read for a while."

The only expression Flame could muster was a deadpan one. This conversation was getting far too weird. "… No? I mean, there were a few lying around, but Alice was there, so—"

"Oh, come on!" Virgo slapped him in the back in an overly friendly manner. "Don't tell me you're one of those southern prudish types! Maybe you just need some encouragement. Next time, I'll run along and point you to some of the good stuff. Chars, gabs, eons, you name it. Maybe you're into dudes? Just say the word, and I'll find the right material."

With that offer arose a very subtly temptation to accept, far in the back of his mind. Unfortunately it was far outweighed by the creepiness of Virgo's smile, stacked up with the fact that they'd only really met a couple minutes prior. And not just the offer; he knew deep down that he couldn't trust anybody on anything.

Regardless of what they said, they were neither Alice nor Gaius.

Flame got up from his chair abruptly. "Listen, I need to get going now. There's an important mission to take care of tomorrow, and I don't want to sleep in too long."

With that, he turned to leave, and heard their voices gradually fading out in the background.

"Damn it Virgo, you messed it up again. Can't you see why people feel uncomfortable around us?"

"What? I was just trying to help a brother out…"

That was… creepy, Flame thought as he hurried out of the bar and into the streets, Definitely won't talk to strangers again. Weirdos.

A rosy colour inundated the horizon. Sunset was nearing.

Then again, his idea wasn't all that bad…


End of Chapter V
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Ace Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him/His
Partners
  1. nidoran-f
  2. druddigon
  3. swellow
Whelp, it’s almost time to beg you for a new update since you’re now syndicating biweekly here. And you know what that means… another review of Team Phalanx’s Super Happy Fun Urbe-ventures! ^^

You might start seeing a few things you remember from the first round of feedback this time, though thanks to it being a good four and a half months, most of it will be new. While I expect that I’ll have some nitpicks to throw around ( like about whenever you’re planning on updating your formatting for Chapters I & II :V ), it’s been long enough that things here will be with a semi-fresh perspective, which I hope reflects in this review. ^^

Alright, onto the real meat of why I’m here:

Chapter III

He lay battered as the bombs fell. Though powerless to act, he could hear everything as if it were happening in front of him. Through the darkness, the rumble of falling debris, voices, crackling flames, then a small explosion. Bones cracked and the bodies of the fallen hit the ground as the world shook. He heard alarms and gunshots and felt the dust against his face.

Suddenly, a door opened. Footsteps. A pair of arms wrapped around him protectively.

A voice. "We'll get you out of here."

Those words blurred into the darkness.


Gasping for air, Flame jerked awake. His heart was pounding his chest. Clearing the grogginess out of his eyes, he looked around him. He was in a tent, sprawled on a stack of hay and with two other beds strewn by his side.

Quickly, he remembered. He lived here now. This was his new home.

Not that it happens in the story (or not yet anyways), but it would’ve been a real trip to see Flame reflexively bring up the things he saw in his dream there which very obviously don’t fit his current setting as far as the average normie knows, only to realize that he’s describing things that would might as well be magic to Alice and Gaius.

Though there’s certainly plenty of opportunities for that to occur in the future, I suppose. Especially with how the presence of technology well beyond Urbe’s Roman-inspired trapping has been leaving increasingly obvious imprints on the story in recent chapters.

What was that? He asked himself, baffled beyond words. It was a dream, that much he knew, all the available evidence pointed to it; he could distinctly recall going to bed the night before, and he'd just woken up a few minutes ago. So it must have happened somewhere in between. Only a number of disjointed segments came to mind; noises, smells, a phrase uttered by a faint masculine voice.

I think that some of those semicolons should be turned into sentence breaks or replaced with other things since it makes this paragraph read a bit choppy, along with a couple bits where the sentences feel a bit fragmented. Here’s a throwaway example for your consideration:

[ What was that? He asked himself, baffled beyond words. It was a dream, that much he knew, and all the available evidence pointed to it. After all, he could distinctly recall going to bed the night before, and he'd just woken up a few minutes ago, so the things he saw must have happened somewhere in between. Only a number of disjointed segments from the sequence came to mind: a few noises, some smells, and a phrase uttered by a faint masculine voice. ]

There’s more than one way to reflow that bit if that particular take doesn’t strike your fancy, but hopefully that gives you a few ideas there.

Who was talking to me? Do I know him? Curious as he might have been to find out, those questions were immediately discarded in favour of another one: Did all that have something to do with my past?

Minor nitpick, but “Curious as he have might have been [...]” probably works better formulated as “As curious as he have might have been [...]”

Was that a flashback of sorts, portraying what had happened to him before he lost his memories? While the question was high on hopes, the answers fell flat on their face. No, he quickly concluded, it was much more reasonable that it had been simply the work of his scarred psyche, a fever dream hastily glued together to try to fill the gaping void left behind from his amnesia.

Flame: “... Am I dismissing possibilities too soon? I mean, I knew what ‘bombs’ and ‘gunshots’ were in spite of not knowing my own name.”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “Nah, what are the odds of that? Like having trippy dreams that turn out to have been real is something that happens in stories, not real life.”

Claws ran absentmindedly through the single straws of hay as Flame frowned. He wished that the dream would have contained some sort of revelation about his past, he really did; but try as he might, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there was some kind of link and still keep a straight face.

The semicolon here is another instance where you could’ve just dropped in a period and turn the stuff afterward into its own sentence, since both parts around the semicolon are complete thoughts on their own.

"Flame?" Alice's voice reached his ears, drawing his attention away. The Dragonair's head was peeking curiously through the entrance of the tent. "You're up already? I was going to give you a little extra time to sleep for today, but it seems like you've already adapted to our schedule. That was much faster than I expected."

Something about this last sentence I think doesn’t quite work. Since “already adapted” from the prior sentence already sells the sense that Alice is surprised by how fast Flame has adjusted to Task Force life. The paragraph could work with the bit in bold cut, or alternatively you could frame it more in terms of something like “Most new recruits I’ve seen here take a good [insert_number_here] days to fully adjust.”

Flame: “I mean, if you were going to give extra time, does that mean that I can flop back down and get an extra-?” ^^
Alice: “No.” >:|

Then, looking down at her rucksack, she proceeded to reach its flap opening with her tail – a process simultaneously clumsy and slow.

Something about the end feels a bit off. The laziest but a still-effective touch-up would be to slip in “that was” between “process” and “simultaneously”. Alternatively, you could axe the hyphen via something like “[...] tail in a simultaneously clumsy and slow process.”

It took her several minutes of teeth-gritting and meddling with the tip of her tail before she managed to lift the flap and actually keep it still. By then, her face was already tinted a noticeable shade of red, the uneasy expression suggesting that she felt everything but comfortable right now.

"It's in there somewhere. Take it," she said meekly, motioning to the bag with a jerk of her head.

Surprised that she had the patience to do that for multiple minutes. Most people I know would just go full “do it yourself” within 30 seconds. 60 at most. :V

Flame: “Uh… Alice? Is it healthy for you to be this flushed right now? Should we go see a-” ._.;
Alice: “Look, just reach in the bag already, okay?” >///<

Flame complied unquestioningly, leaning forward and putting a paw inside the bag to search its contents. He found the object of interest almost right away, buried underneath an apple and some sort of shiny blue orb. Grabbing it with his other paw, he held the badge in between his thumb and index claw to marvel at its details.

A stylized helmet complete with a decorative crest was drawn in the centre, with letters circling the drawing which read: ICPC – Task Force Aegis.

Ah yes, a galea, very nice logo there. Though I actually wonder what the story behind its role in-setting is given that from my first readthrough, I didn’t recall anyone in Task Force Aegis or the military at large wearing supplemental armor.

"What does Aegis mean?" Flame wondered aloud, twisting the badge on its back.

Alice, most of the embarrassment on her face now shaken off, was quick to fill his curiosity. "Good question. To put it simply, Civil Protection is not an organization that abides to a central leadership like many others. 'Tis a conglomerate of various regional task forces, each of which has its own sphere of influence where it operates. Task Force Aegis, as you might have already guessed, is tasked with defending the northern provinces of the empire."

Flame: “Not that that wasn’t interesting to hear, but that didn’t exactly answer the question.” -_-;
Alice: “Look, not everything in life has a pithy answer, okay? I’m getting there!” >_>;

"… As for the word itself, Aegis is an Oldspeak term that roughly translates to 'shield'," Alice finished.

Probably want quotes around ‘Aegis’ like you do ‘shield’

Flame: “Wait, why only ‘roughly’?”
Alice: “Well, it’s named after a shield that’s specifically supposed to have been wielded by the gods and the word has undertones of divine protection. If the Task Force was named after any old shield, it’d probably be called something like ‘Task Force Scutum’.”
Flame:
yY3GiuE.gif

Alice: “... Wait, you know what a ‘scutum’ is but not ‘aegis’? I’d have assumed you’d-”
Flame: “That… wasn’t one of them. Anyhow, can we move on from the linguistics lecture here?” >_>;

Oldspeak? As in, an ancient tongue?

"Before you ask, Oldspeak used to be the spoken a long time ago, and many of its terms are still in use today," Alice added quickly, "Interesting how even though it's found in almost every aspect of our lives, barely anyone studies it anymore."

"And you did?" Flame questioned, unable to ignore that evident detail in her way of speaking.

Flame: “I mean, you obviously did if you could give that mini lecture on-the-spot there…” >_>;
Alice: “H-Hey! In my defense, none of that was actually canon to the story! And it’s informative!” >.<

It may have only been his brain playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn Alice's cordial smile quivered for a moment. "Yes. That was a long time ago, though," She paused a few seconds, before clearing her throat, "Anyways, we should probably get a move on. Our team usually aims to be outside town by eight. You have a couple more minutes to get ready."

Flame: “Is learning Oldspeak not common here or something?”
Alice: “No, otherwise it wouldn’t be known as Oldspeak.”
- Flame cocks a brow -
Flame: “But Gaius called me a ‘bagauda’ two reviews ago! I’ve never heard that term before, so doesn’t that mean he also knows-?”
Alice: “Again, not canon to the story, moving on!”

"Wait, aren't we going to… you know, eat something first?" Flame asked as Alice led him out of the barrack complex, "We're just going to leave? Right away?"

"Exactly," Alice answered plainly, "Even if we did have the luxury of being able to pay for breakfast, the bulletin boards are updated at the break of dawn, so every other team in the entire base is going to try and snatch the most advantageous jobs from right under our noses. The sooner we settle for a job, the better."

"Oh … makes sense, I guess." Flame frowned as they entered the main area of the camp, more and more pokémon rushing past them the farther they walked. Maybe eating breakfast just wasn't a ritual upheld by everyone in this town.

Flame: “What am I saying? No it doesn’t! That system literally just biases itself in favor of crepuscular ‘mons and nocturnal ‘mons who can literally just camp out in front of the bulletin board until right before it’s time to go to sleep!” >_>;
Alice: “Yeah, I don’t think there’s too many of those in this setting? And if there are, it’s all the more reason to hurry and snatch a mission while there’s still something good on the board.”

"It's fine," she reassured him, "I know how hard it is to adapt, especially considering what comforts you must have been used to before losing your memories. It sure was for me. Anyway, let's take one thing at a time."
I actually hadn’t realized that the story was foreshadowing Alice’s *ahem* background as early as this scene. Perhaps it’s just been the march of time since the first rodeo, but I didn’t notice these lines in the story that implied Alice was educated and came from a comfortable life originally.

- Flame looks down at his visibly malnourished body -
Flame: “Yeah, I’m a little doubtful about that ‘comforts’ bit.”
Alice: “I mean, I would assume the Scum did that to you before they wiped your memories.”
Flame: “Are ‘mons in the south really that rich, Alice? Since you’re making it sound like they live like royalty or something.”
- Beat moment -
Alice: “E-Er, some of them do. It’s just that the ones that are poor normally don’t have any way of getting up- Uh. W-We’re getting distracted! Let’s focus on picking out a mission for now!”
701630550720512120.png

Flame: “O… kay? (She sure got cagey fast there.)”

That answer did more than its intended purpose: it sparked an internal debate within the Charmeleon. Was it plausible that he was actually from this South, as Alice kept bringing up? It would make sense if his habits matched with the geographic area he had [falsely] claimed to have been born in. What if, from uttering a lie, he had actually told the truth [inadvertently]?

Got a couple typos there.

Of course, he had zero evidence available that could prove the arguments of either side or the other, no way of being absolutely certain that it was anything more than a far-fetched theory of his, but it was definitely something to consider.

The bit in bold should be one of just “either side” or “one side or the other”.

It wasn't long before the two finally reached the bulletin board. The problem was, though, that Flame almost failed to recognize it, so thick was the pandemonium of pokémon clustered around it. He couldn't help but feel claustrophobic, with so many colours and smells filling his senses, almost as if they were applying an ever increasing amount of pressure on his body the more joined in the fray. Almost everyone was shouting something at their teammates, and discarded posters littered the ground in what seemed like an absolute mess.

Gee, she wasn't kidding when she said 'every team in the entire base'. Flame noted sourly, sweat beginning to form on his scales. Somehow, Alice was able to carve a path in the crowd and lead him through it—he did his best to ignore all the pokémon rushing and cutting off his step, almost causing him to trip backwards. Sure enough, somewhere at the front of the crowd was Gaius. The Grovyle's eyes looked all but cut off from reality as he scanned every poster individually, mumbling something in resentment.

Flame: “Wait, Gaius? How are you able to just stick in one place like that with all these ‘mons jostling around?” .-.
Gaius: “I’m a gecko. Clinging to stuff’s my specialty.”
Flame: “Okay, better question, how has nobody gotten trampled to death in these sorts of conditions?” >_>;
Alice: “(I mean, knowing the overall tone of this story, someone probably has before, but let’s not dwell on that too much.)”
701630550720512120.png


Flame's brain barely registered his slight flinch, possibly because of an acquired fear that Gaius would automatically be mad at him for whatever reason; but his team leader was too preoccupied with other matters to pay him much attention.

I’d personally split the sentence at the semicolon and turn the stuff afterwards into something like “Fortunately, his team leader [...]”

It was then, as the two discussed, that Flame noticed something tickling the underside of his foot. Curious, he lifted it off the ground, only to find an old, ragged poster laying there, partially covered by dirt that he must have kicked accidentally. Who knows, he thought, maybe it could help resolve his team's current issue.

He reached down and grabbed it with his claws, trying to shake the grainy material off the paper. The poster was all crumbled up, as if it'd been discarded without a thought, and the corners were full of rips and tears, but the text was still quite legible. Holding it in front of his face and squinting his eyes, he began to read.

Yesterday, a group of independent researchers (headed by Dr. Ignatius Breloom) has been reported missing after failing to return from an expedition at Treehound Cove. They are believed to be trapped within the local spacial anomaly. A reward of 12000 Poké will be handed out to any team who successfully investigates the site.

Twelve thousand? Flame thought with increasing excitement, That sounds amazing!

Flame: “I mean, just look at all those zeroes! This mission’s got to be worth something!”

"Hey, guys," Flame waved his paw in between his teammates to catch their attention, "I think you should take a look at this!"

Gaius snatched the poster from his grasp, with Alice leaning to her side to judge its significance.

"Twelve thousand?" Gaius said uncertainly, "That's barely enough to last us a week…"

Flame drooped. How could that be possible? Such a big number, how could it amount to so little value? To avoid plaguing himself with yet another unanswered question, he quickly settled for asking Alice about it later.

Part in bold probably sounds more natural as something like “so how could it have so/such little value”? Though 12 Gs can be shockingly little even in some developed nations’ currencies. After all 12,000 South Korean Won is the equivalent of like 10 Euros. :V

Gaius: “And that’s assuming the cheap bastards who posted this thing don’t clip the coins beforehand.”
Flame: “‘Clip the coins’? What do you mean by that?”
Gaius: “It means to shave little bits around the edges off so that they can melt them down for counterfeiting or for the actual component metals, which makes ‘mons not want to honor their face value. Though I suppose if they paid us in small denominations that’d be one way of making sure we got paid properly. Not too many ‘mons out there desperate enough to clip those.”
Alice: “Given that the poster would have some problems of the terminal sort if they were caught clipping the coins we got paid in, I think we’ll be fine, Gaius.” >_>;

Flame was left disappointed. The praise of his team leader was something that would have brought up his confidence—especially with the snobbed treatment he'd become accustomed to. Instead, nothing.

I presume you meant something like “snubs” there for the bold, as in “Flame was getting used to being snubbed”. But I could be misreading that.

With that, they walked off to the very same path they'd taken yesterday. Flame was about to follow along, when he noticed something wasn't right. The exact words to describe what he was feeling were as though suddenly condensating into vapour, right along with the ability to move his legs. Weary of something not being completely right, his eyes darted around his entire cone of vision in alarm. For a second or so, he could have sworn he saw someone spying [on] him from a distance, some sort of one-eyed ghost… However, it was gone as quickly as he spotted it.

Okay, I definitely did not remember this in my first reading. Though Daedalus is a stealthy ‘mon for him to be sneaking out to right outside an ICPC Task Force base like this without being noticed at all. o3o;

Also, you’re missing a word there after ‘spying’.

Before he knew it, Flame was outside. After catching up with his teammates, the process of validating their job had been [ridiculously] quick; the Toxicroak at the desk, Myco, carried evident signs of the dozens of pokémon that went there ahead of them, and signed the warrant in a flash—without even reading it, Flame mused.

Small typo there.

From there, it was only a short walk through town until they reached the city walls, and got through the south-western entrance. The guard manning it was the same Bisharp whom he'd met the first day, and although he let them pass without complaint, this was not without its fair share of suspicious looks.

The part in bold feels a bit off here. Unless you're going to mention other guards in passing, IMO it’d likely sound better as something like “he did not do so without giving a suspicious look”, since it’s kinda hard for one guard to give multiple looks after someone. :V

As they marched on to what would effectively be his first concrete experience of his job's true nature, his fleeting thoughts could all but shy away from what would be expected of him on the field. Already he assumed he would likely have to engage in some form of combat or another, but how would he or his reputation manage to go through that unscathed? He would be crushed, [annihilated]! A quivering thing he imagined himself, unable to strike a single blow against the enemy! Sure, Alice did reassure him that her and Gaius would teach him through the process, but what meaningful use would they find in having to drag an inexperienced recruit like him around with them, needing so much precious time and resources and giving back none? They'd sooner abandon him on the side of the road and try their luck alone.

Got a typo there. Also, the construction for ‘all but shy away’ feels at odds with the description there. Since if you ‘all but’ do something, it means that you almost get to the point of doing it. Whereas Flame here is very obviously dwelling on just what he’s going to be facing on his first mission. You probably want something to the effect of “kept dwelling over and over again on” for that bit.

It would have helped to know an extra thing or two about what to expect, particularly this 'spacial anomaly' the poster referred to, but when he voiced his curiosity all she said was: "It's… complicated. Too complicated to explain like this. Wait until we get there."

Flame: “You’re really not reassuring me that this mission isn’t going to end horribly right now, Alice.”
401074476474957834.png

Gaius: “Oh trust me, she’s not the only one she’s failing at reassuring right now.” >_>;

Under Flame's perplexed look, Gaius proceeded to walk off the path and towards one particular plant—a tall and stubby shrub with bright blue berries hanging from its stalks, as well as some splattered by gravity at its base. The gecko climbed the plant with ease, being naturally fit for that kind of activity. Hooking himself with one set of claws and causing the shrub to [undulate] under his weight, he used his free paw to inspect the berries within his reach. Some Gaius approved of and held in his palm, others he dropped to join in on the sticky mess that was the terrain below. Before long, the entire shrub was stripped of its precious spoils.

Small typo there.

After jumping down, Gaius returned to his team, keeping his paw open to show the meager amount of berries collected. There were only five or six at most. "This bunch was all I could find. Most of the others had been spoiled for a long time," he held out his arm. "Now, take one each and I'll store the rest for later; we're going to need them."

I think that even if it’s technically a fragment, “we’re going to need them.” sounds better dialogue-wise as its own sentence instead of attached to the prior bit as a semicolon.

It was as though something mind-blowing had shattered his perception of the world around him. Yes, Alice did mention that they weren't able to afford a proper meal, but—this! This could barely even be considered a snack, and they all were supposed to accept it as a full-on meal!

Perhaps he didn't really take his teammates' words seriously when they kept bringing up just how much economic strain they were under, hadn't understood the full extent of the situation yet.

Only now, staring at the berry in his paw, did he realise just how bad it must have been.

Gaius: “You didn’t realize that from when we had a single Apple for dinner last night? And I brought up that we had budget problems?” >_>;
Alice: “In his defense, that commentary wasn’t exactly canon. And it was late, so it wouldn’t have done too good to eat too much right beforehand even if we could.”

Is … is this what they do every day? Try their luck with the wilderness? He thought shocked and looked at his companions, which had by now consumed their 'breakfast'. Nothing in their features hinted that this event was anything out of the ordinary, nor did they consider it as such.
Technically it’s not, but Flame doesn’t know that yet. Nor would he feel any better if he knew what Alice and Gaius normally do for food right here. :V

Flame: “(Okay, I’m starting to understand what Alice meant when she said she and Gaius were shorter on money than she’d feel comfortable admitting to in public.)”
401074476474957834.png


Nonetheless, he gulped the berry down without a word. It was surprisingly tasty for such a small fruit, a sort of bitter-sweet flavour that leaked a strange feeling of vitality throught his body. It eventually faded away though, and the three soon returned to the path.

You want one of ‘through’ or ‘throughout’ for the bit in bold.

He almost felt ashamed at the thought of how, before now, his only real aim [was] to set his life straight, to receive decent enough food and shelter to keep himself afloat as he tried to search for clues about his past. How selfish he was being! No, he couldn't reason with that frame of mind anymore. It was his rightful duty, he felt, as a member of Team Phalanx to repay those that had allowed him to even become such.

Flame breathed in deeply. He puffed his chest and clenched his fists, setting aside all worries and insecurities about his identity and past. Those would have to wait. Right now, his teammates needed help to turn their lives around, and he was not about to let them down.

>getting this attached this quickly to a duo who tried to pass you off as Scum for reward money just a couple days ago
I mean, I get that he’s feeling sorry for them. (Okay, let’s be real, he’s feeling sorry for Alice.) But you can’t expect other ‘mons like Gaius not to give you crap over this level of credulity, Flame. o<o

Also missing a word there.

"…Oh, come on!" Flame nudged Alice for the second time in a row, sincerely hoping that he wasn't beginning to bother her, "It can't be that hard. There must be something you can tell me about these 'mysterious dungeons' or whatever they're called."

"Alright," Alice sighed in defeat, "I would have preferred to let you see everything for yourself, but if you insist. Mystery dungeons are a place where the laws of reality are … distorted."

Flame: “Isn’t that more of a reason to tell me before we go in, Alice? Wh-What if I accidentally stepped on some sort of death trap or something?”
701630550720512120.png

Alice: “Flame, don’t get yourself so worried! There’s not any-”
Gaius: “Blast Traps. Especially with what Blast Seeds do to ‘mons in this setting.”
Alice: “Er… right. Forgot about those for a second. (Assuming they exist, anyways.)”
Flame: “(Oh my god, what did I get myself into?)”
401074476474957834.png


"Alright. Basically, dungeons are like their own little universe. Once you're in, you can't just turn around and go out the same way. Even if you try running in a direction for a long time, you will still be trapped. The only way to escape is to find the exit. If you don't, if you can't find your way out, you will simply remain there. Forever. Some say you become a part of the dungeon itself."

"Oh," Flame blinked, a queasiness suddenly intruding upon his stomach, "Wow … o-okay. Is there … anything else I should know about?"

"Yeah," Alice remembered suddenly, "Most of these places are bustling with feral activity, so we must keep an eye out for that."

"Uhm…" he gulped, "Don't mean to be such a downer, but this sounds like a place I would not want to be in. Why are we going there, again?"

Gaius: “Because we picked up a mission to find someone who got lost in there? Or what’s left of them anyways.” >_>;
Flame: “I-Is it too late to back out now-?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius + Alice: “Yes.
- Flame gulps -
Flame: “Yeah. I figured.” ._.;

Then, out of nowhere, a gelid wind threatened to knock Flame off his feet, chilling him to the bone for the time it licked at his scales. His vision faltered, and everything went dark for a few seconds. But, faster than his brain could process, all light came back and the wind cut abruptly. Now he was confused and dizzy.

"There!" whispered Alice hurriedly, "Did you feel that?"

"The wind? Yeah, I did…" Flame answered slowly, "Why, does that mean something?"

He couldn't quite get his head around it, but he felt this ominous sensation that something around him had changed. Did it become dark all of a sudden?

Drawing a circle with his head, he immediately noticed that the trees weren't the same anymore. They rose much higher now, their sharp branches interlocking to create what was effectively a frail ceiling of leaves hanging above their heads. Some sunlight managed to seep in through small gaps, but the rest was suffocated outside, leaving the creatures below in a state of partial darkness.

Wary, he quickly came to the conclusion that this was not the same place he was in before the wind hit.

Remind me, was the electrical crackle thing something that only some Mystery Dungeons had? Or was it meant to be a consistent feature? Since there are a few dungeons later on where if it is supposed to be a consistent feature Team Phalanx should’ve also seen it here while approaching Treehound Cove.

Drawing a circle with his head, he immediately noticed that the trees weren't the same anymore. They rose much higher now, their sharp branches interlocking to create what was effectively a frail ceiling of leaves hanging above their heads. Some sunlight managed to seep in through small gaps, but the rest was suffocated outside, leaving the creatures below in a state of partial darkness.

Wary, he quickly came to the conclusion that this was not the same place he was in before the wind hit.

Gaius could only confirm his theory. "Yes. It means we've just entered the mystery dungeon. There's no way back now. Stay sharp."

Gaius: “Oh, and try not to die here.” >_>;
Flame: “Gee, thanks for the support.” ._.

Not ten seconds into the dungeon, Flame already wished he was outside.

The stench of decomposing plants loitered in the air, summoning forth an unpleasant feeling of nausea in the back of his throat. Even walking managed to feel like a chore, with the ground sporting large patches of this almost gooey substance that latched onto his feet.

This place gives me the creeps, He was tempted to say openly, trying his best to pinch his nostrils shut.

Ah yes, totally a lovely place to make a day trip there.

Also, for the part in bold, it probably sounds more natural as something like “summoning an unpleasant, nauseous feeling”

"Alright, listen up," Gaius turned to Flame specifically, "We are currently trying to find a path to the next section of the dungeon. There is no way of knowing where that is, so we'll have to rely on blind luck to get there. Until then, stay behind me and keep your eyes and ears open. And for the love of Arceus, do not stray off the main path."

Flame: “... Wait, is it really ‘blind luck’ if we’re actively searching for it? Don’t you mean something like “so we’ll need to look around and find it first”-?”
Gaius: “Oi! If you’re clever enough to play smartass about my orders, you’re clever enough to follow them!” >:(

Just as she said that, they turned onto a small clearing—one that actually allowed sunlight in for a change. But the feature that immediately caught the eye, sitting right in the middle, was a set of pure-white marble stairs that jugged out of the layer of dried mud and leaves, and extended all the way to a thick [aggregation] of the local flora, whereupon it blurred out of sight.

Small typo there. Though I see that stairs in Rebirth’s Mystery Dungeons are significantly swankier than they are in the Cradle.

Not very far from it was a quadruped, purple pokémon covered with spikes with its back turned to them, seemingly too preoccupied with feasting lavishly upon the bloody carcass at its feet to notice the intruders.

Flame turned his head away from the sickly display, and Gaius slowly led them to the stairway, a claw held before his nose to call for silence.

Flame: “(Wait, are we able to communicate with the Pokémon here?)”
Gaius: “(No. And even if we could, would you want to communicate with that Nidorino there?)” >_>;
- Blink moment -
Flame: “(Uh… point taken, I’ll keep my distance.)” ._.;

At this point, the Nidorino lapsed out of its savage lust just enough to discern that it was not quite alone anymore. It turned sharply, flashing its blood-dripping teeth and emitting a soft growl.

Seeing little point in objecting, Flame rushed up the steps.

Flame: “Nope nope nope nope.”

His brain didn't really have the time to process what exactly had happened, but next thing he knew, he was in another clearing, finding it difficult to sustain himself with both legs, and the stairway had puffed out of [existence].

Another small typo there.

"What?! H-how did we…" Flame stammered and racked up his thoughts, trying to make actual sense of what he just saw, "I'm honestly confused. We went up the stairs, and yet … this is still the same level? We went up … and at the same time we didn't…"

"Don't know," Alice answered with a shrug of her tail, "Nobody knows. It's like I told you: mystery dungeons don't make any sense. You just have to deal with whatever they throw at you."

I feel as if this sequence would’ve worked a bit better to play up them suddenly getting yeeted to someplace completely different in the Distortion if you threw in some sort of reminder that “no, you didn’t just walk up normal steps and no you can’t walk back down them again” kinda like you did for entering the Mystery Dungeon.

Flame: “Okay better question, is that Nidorino still following us? Since we should really run right now if it is.”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “Tch, it’d have attacked us by now if it did. Besides, ferals aren’t exactly bright bunches. Running up or down a set of stairs is usually enough to throw them off your trail.”
Alice: “Just like in the games!”
Flame: “Wait, does all of this also happen in the games?” ._.;
Alice: “Uh… well, no. But every story has to pick and choose what bits of canon it’s going to set aside or not!”
Flame: “Considering what this story’s picked and chosen so far, we should probably start thinking of ways to weasel out of the plot before we get horribly mangled.” >_>;
- Beat moment -
Alice: “Er… I mean you kinda do have a point there…”
Gaius: “Well in case you two didn’t notice, but we can’t exactly do that while we’re in the middle of a Mystery Dungeon!” >.<

Gaius coughed forcibly to catch their attention. A sly grin was burned on his face, giving him an air of smugness. "Hey Flame, since I'm curious as to how well you'd fare with navigation, why don't you lead us through the floor?"

Flame's pupils dilated in surprise, taken aback by the offer. This was it, he realised, this was the way he was going to be judged!

"Wait, I don't think I should—"

"Come on, I'm sure you can handle that! Hell, I'll even let you choose the way. Left or right?" Gaius asked, alluding to the two only paths leading out of the muddy clearing.

Alice: “Um. Gaius, shouldn’t we not be putting the underfed rookie on-?” ._.
Gaius: “Look, we need to have some idea of who we just let on our team. So chop chop, Flame. Lead the way.”
Flame: “Uh… eep.” ._.

It might have been his imagination, it might not have been true, but Flame sensed a tone of ridicule in the way he said that. Not letting that thought torment him for too long, he took the path back into the forest, with his teammates now in tow. It was with pleasure that he noted how the terrain was generally dried and less muddy on this floor, and that rendered walking a more bearable activity. Despite that however, the smell of ongoing decay still tortured his nostrils, and the general sense of nervousness brought by the dungeon still persisted relentlessly.

How on earth am I supposed to lead them through here? He groaned mentally, All I know about this place is that it's dangerous and it makes no sense. Making me guide them around almost feels like a way for him to make a fool of me. That's exactly what this is all about, isn't it? He knows I won't be able to do it, and he's trying to find a reason to justify kicking me out. So my permanence on this team depends on this, too!

Bit in bold can be said more smoothly as “He noted with pleasure that/how [...]”

- Gaius side-eyes -
Gaius: “Hrmph, that obvious huh?”
Flame: “Yes? You’re not exactly trying to be subtle right now!” >_>;
Gaius: “Yeah, well go ahead and prove me wrong, Charmeleon. I’m waiting.”

"Hang on. See those vines?" Alice said, using her snout to point at a plant he hadn't really assigned any importance to. It was a mash of green and orange tendrils jutting out of the ground, almost like an out-of-water algae. With its relevance in his brain scaled up, he began to notice that there were many others as the path advanced.

"Carnivine. They pass themselves off as plants, and as soon as you get close you'll be swallowed whole. There are too many to sneak around. I suggest we go the other way."

Flame nodded in understanding. "All right. Thanks for the heads up."

Flame: “Remind me why we’re putting ourselves in this level of mortal danger for a week’s pay?” >.<
Gaius: “Because the alternative is starving to death?
- Alice shifts uneasily -
Alice: “Er… there’s technically some other alternatives, but let’s not talk about those. Starving to death doesn’t sound half-bad compared to some of them.” ._.;

Suddenly finding himself deep in terror, his first instinctual response was to run, but he found his legs sluggish and unresponsive. Then, as the distance between them shrunk, the strategic portion of his brain imploded spontaneously. His heartbeat was already fluttering wildly when he reacted in the only way he could think of—raising his arms weakly to shield his face somewhat.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Alice draw her head and summon a small sphere of electricity between her jaws, but he ignored that and squeezed his eyes shut; the feral would strike his body any second now!

I’m actually undecided whether or not the ‘feral’ bit would’ve worked better with a passing reminder in the Nidorino scene to establish familiarity with Flame with the term/in the sense of ‘oh yeah, that’s a feral’ or if it’s fine as-is. On the one hand, the term ‘feral’ has literally been mentioned all of once in the chapter before this. On the other, it’s relatively obvious that the Pokémon they’ve encountered thus far are ferals.

Swallowing his pride, Flame drove his feet further into the ground to try and gain a better footing. His eyes wandered to every opening between the trees large enough for something to pass through. The Pidgeotto would storm back into battle at any moment, and he knew it.

Okay, Flame attempted to soothe his spirit, I can do this. I remember breathing fire back in the cave, so there's no reason for me not to do it again … Yeah, blast that thing right out of the sky!

Summoning all his mental strength, he closed his eyes and pictured a small tongue of fire crackling happily in his stomach, swaying left and right erratically. He imagined the flame growing bigger and bigger, his eagerness to impress his companions serving as imaginary fuel. The fire had grown enough to fill his belly, and then—!

"Khwaaahhhh!"

Flame:
401074476474957834.png

Gaius: “Flame, stop kidding around already and roast that bird!” >.<
Flame: “I-I’m trying! It’s harder than it looks!” O.O;

His eyes snapped open. For a second, fear corroded his concentration, but he barred it from taking control. Facing the direction of the battle cry, he saw the feral launching itself at him with all its [strength], its beak enveloped in white light. This was it! His snout parted, he drew his breath deeply, imagined the fire growing and raging out of control, until…!

Another small typo there.

A heavy weight slammed into his chest, and just like that all the air was forcibly sucked out of his lungs. His body was pushed back a couple of feet and was well on its way to performing a backflip when he slammed his back painfully onto the ground.

Dazed, he lay there for ten seconds or so, before sitting up as soon as he regained his mental bearings—what was he doing, only lazing about while his teammates were still fighting!

However, they didn't seem to necessitate his help. Even though a second Pidgeotto seemed to have joined the fray, his companions managed to dispose of them with only marginal difficulty; the first flew straight into Alice's short but concentrated burst of cobalt flames and consequently spiralled out of control, before plummeting into a nearby bush. Its shrieks of pain from being set alight didn't stop even after it hit the ground. Shortly afterwards Gaius managed to leap up and deliver the second bird a sharp cut with his leaf blade, slicing through wing tissue and bones and causing it to crash-land a short distance away. It scurried away in a trail of blood, nursing its disabled wing.

Team Phalanx was only granted peace when the first Pidgeotto's screeching met an abrupt halt; then, silence befell.

498ed76be651cffb6bb9bac6a9bb75c3.png


The second paragraph has a few odds-and-end tweaks that would make it flow a bit smoother, including splitting it up. Offhand, you might want to consider implementing at least some of the following:

[ However, they didn't seem to need his help. Even though a second Pidgeotto had also joined the fray, his companions managed to dispose of them with only marginal difficulty.

T
he first flew straight into Alice's short but concentrated burst of cobalt flames and spiralled out of control. The Pidgeotto plummeted into a nearby bush, shrieking in pain from being set alight even after it hit the ground. Shortly afterwards Gaius managed to leap up and deliver a sharp cut with his leaf blade to the second bird, slicing through wing tissue and bones and causing it to crash-land a short distance away. The Flying-type lay stunned for a moment, before scurrying away nursing its disabled wing, leaving a trail of blood behind it. ]

The second section of that paragraph in particular probably has some more minimalistic ways of touch it up, but I’ll leave that up to you as an author. Though the last paragraph is another one where it can be reflowed without the semicolon with not a whole lot of effort. For example, like so:

[ Team Phalanx was only granted peace when the first Pidgeotto's screeching abruptly came to a halt, followed by a long silence that fell over the clearing. ]

Sluggishly, Flame alternated looks between his teammates, and then looked back at himself. The wild pokémon's attack hadn't actually hurt him that much; the damage was confined to a shallow cut running along his upper chest, where his protected layers of scales seemed to have held strong for the most part. The gravest blow, however, had been dealt to something else.

Gonna avoid the broken record about the semicolon, but yeah. You have two complete thoughts taped together right now that both could work as their own sentences. Also, you might want to just flatly s / “something else” / “his pride”, since Gaius immediately goes into a tirade about Flame’s performance afterwards.

"Gaius, cut him some slack," Alice said in an annoyed tone, "It's probably his first time in combat, so stop making such a fuss about everything. We haven't even cleared the second floor yet!"

Gaius: “Whatever happened to ‘Charmeleons are great fighters’, huh? How on earth did this guy survive coming from the South?” >_>;
Alice: “Uh… They have the potential to become them? I’m sure Flame has the potential to become a great one…”
Flame: “Just saying Alice, this isn’t really helping my case here.” >.<

Much to Flame's thankfulness, the stairs leading to the next section of the dungeon only required ten or so minutes of walking, rousing the hope that Gaius would transfer focus back to the mission and away from his actions during the battle. Yet, he felt the Grovyle's burning gaze char the back of his skull at alternating intervals, and couldn't help but wonder whether his judgment was already set in stone.

Part in bold probably works better as ‘relief’.

The next two floors went by relatively smoothly, a fact that seemed to surprise even his teammates. Only a handful of wild pokémon stumbled across Team Phalanx's path, and all of them were dispatched of in an orderly fashion by either Alice's ranged attacks or Gaius' leaf blade slashes. Flame would have readily been eager to throw himself into battle, even in the line of fire should such a risky tactic have been deemed necessary, anything to clear himself of his now-blackened slate.

Except he couldn't. Shortly after they gained entry to the third floor, Alice had addressed him personally. Regrettably, she advised him to try and keep a distance from any sort of fighting for now, and to instead remain safe in the sidelines while he slowly assimilated tactics and behaviours to mimic from watching the two of them—combat experience, she had called it.

He preferred 'nuisance control'.

It was clear that she meant all the good in the world, that her intentions were unquestionably benign. Yet he still couldn't help but feel like a purposeless fixture whenever a wild pokémon showed up, doing nothing but sit there collecting dust.

Gaius: “I’m sorry, you’re the one who’s too incompetent to spit up a little Ember properly right now. Why are you complaining about us keeping your sorry ass from getting mauled by ferals here?” >_>;
Flame: “Look, I’m sure I can do something else! This is a PMD setting! Aren’t there seeds or orbs that I can throw around-?”
Gaius: “Seeds and orbs that we got with what budget?” >:|
- Beat moment -
Flame: “Right. That’s a thing.”
Alice: “Actually, now that I think about it, how did we not notice anything like a Stick or a Geo Pebble while walking around?”
Gaius: “Because normally it’s pointless for us? You don’t have arms, I can outpace them damage-wise even in a bad matchup, and normally we don’t have a useless load stuck along to babysit?”
Flame: “... Way to pile things on there, Gaius.” >.<

Flame grimaced in revulsion and let the barely edible apple fall out of his hold. He'd chewed on the parts that were still somewhat safe to eat, but the rest of the fruit was just too abhorring to even touch—the flies certainly didn't help with that feeling.

424925435651031049.png


"Holy Arceus..." Gaius said excitedly and picked the fruit up, "I thought these things went extinct! I could make a good buck from selling this. Or maybe save somebody from near death," he chuckled, as if not taking that last part seriously himself.

Reminder to update Gaius’ money slang there since A: ‘Buck’ has a backstory that’s unlikely to have repeated in Urbe, B: Money in this setting has devalued to the point where Gaius’ slang would likely refer to a term that’s a relatively high number like 1000 Poké or a specific coin in circulation that’s perceived as having inherent value (e.x. a solidus if you’re going full period-appropriate Romaboo).

Alternatively, you could just sidestep the matter entirely from something like saying “good money” which is vague but still communicates the value involved.

"Guys? Are you there?" he raised his voice, looking around in growing uneasiness. The only lifeforms acknowledging his yell were a pair of Pidgey that fluttered away rapidly [from] their tree branch.

Small typo there.

An audible stirring rattled a nearby bush, and the unfriendly face of a Nidorino peeked out, locking eyes with him.

Not intending to stick around to find out what it wanted from him, Flame turned around and took the nearest path, kickstarting his plans to rendezvous with his teammates. Just to play it safe, he made sure his pace was moderated to a sort of hasty walking, in the likely event that the Nidorino would interpret running away as an open invite to give chase and maim him.

Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been a Nidorina, since I’ve heard that some of them are particularly good at picking apart dragons. :V

There's nothing there. It's not following me. It's not following m—

"Grrrrrr…"

It is following me, isn't it?

- Meanwhile, off elsewhere in the Mystery Dungeon, Gaius and Alice are looking about for any sign of Flame -
Gaius: “Oh for crying out loud, you had one job, Flame. How do you manage to mess this up?!”
Alice: “I mean, he wasn’t that far behind us when we got separated, so he’s probably fine-?”
Flame: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
- Gaius and Alice sweatdrop -
Alice: “Okay, never mind.” -_-;
Gaius: “Come on, let’s hurry up so there’s someone to still kick off the team after this is all over.” >_>;

By the time he stopped, his scales were dotted with scratches and livids. Panting, he briefly cut off his breathing to listen for any possible sign that he was still being stalked. He drew a sigh of relief after a full thirty seconds passed without a Nidorino lunging at his throat. Wow … I ran really far. Somehow didn't start a forest fire, too. Now, where was I?

Not sure what was supposed to be there where ‘livids’ is, but I know it’s not ‘livids’ since ‘livid’ is an adjective meaning ‘angry’. I think the intent was something like “liquids”/“blood droplets” but admittedly I can’t decipher it from context.

Also the bolded “too” probably sounds better as “either” in that context.

Paws on hips, he quickly noted that the intricate vegetation cocooned him entirely now. He couldn't have spotted a pathway even if he wanted to. Just how far had he ran? Alice's distressing words suddenly came back to him; would he end up lost forever, eventually becoming one of the primitive ferals that roamed the dungeon in the thousands?

I actually didn’t notice this bit in my first readthrough where it confirms Dungeon Madness is a thing in this setting. Though does that mean there were no ferals prior to Mystery Dungeons initially showing up in Urbeworld? Or were there other sources from which ferals came and MDs take otherwise normal Pokémon down to their level?


Fortunately though, some of aimless wandering revealed that the land under his feet bulged gradually upwards, and it kept doing so the more he advanced. An idea crossed his mind: if there was a hill somewhere up ahead, maybe he could climb to the top and scout the landscape for his companions!

Flame harboured sincere doubts that the dungeon would lend him such an easy way out of his problem, but there wasn't much else he could do as of right now.

Superfluous word there. Also Flame’s really lucky that Treehound Cove is relatively restrained in how eldrich it is as a Mystery Dungeon, since this idea would be a complete nonstarter in at least a few other settings.

With a deep breath, he carefully peered into the rough path ahead. Crouching under yet another spiny branch, he noticed that there was a roughly circular hole cut out on the sloping hillside, almost resembling a small cavern. The ceiling could barely [accommodate] the horn on the back of his head.

Need an extra ‘m’ in ‘accommodate’ there.

What is this doing here? Looks like it's been dug out by someone. Flame thought as he stopped at the tunnel's threshold, holding his tail ahead of him to provide illumination, I guess there's no harm in giving a quick peek…

Flame: “Why am I saying this when I just got chased off by a Nidorino five minutes ago?” >_>;
- Beat moment -
Flame: “Whatever. I’m already here. Might as well take a look.”


When he got half-way through the tunnel, a sharp gasp escaped his jaws. There, under the wavering light of his tail flame, was a Breloom. Or at least, what used to be a Breloom.

Its whole body—carcass, rather—was tainted by a greyish hue from head to toe, and patches of some kind of fungal growth were starting to form in various places. The eyes, almost too dry to be called so, lacked a distinguishable pupil. Strewn beside the Breloom was a rucksack not unlike the one his teammates wore, and a booklet laying cover-up with its pages open.

Dear goodness… Flame flinched his head away from the crude sight, Poor guy. I wonder if this was one of the researchers we're looking for…

Flame:
2f8.jpg


A quick inspection concluded that the bag contained some strange orbs and some kind of map, but the lid was sealed once again. He'd investigate the exact nature of its contents later, right now they didn't matter much.

Next, he reached down for the booklet. Actually, it was more of a diary—at least judging by the title imprinted on its cover: Foundation Record Log, Dr Elmore.

Twisting the journal around with one paw and bringing the tip of his tail closer with the other, Flame began reading. The most recent entry was written in a confused, shaky writing, as if the author had been seized by a brief state of hysteria. Though mostly smeared, the untidy scrawl that could still be read wasn't any more encouraging.

theyll kill me I cant run theyll latch onto my head ascension I cant run they always latch onto the head ascension theyll––

Well that’s one way to complete your mission, and there’s some major Keeper’s Diary vibes going on there in Elmore’s log.

Flame: “Okay I’m getting out of here now! Though why was this guy also going on about ‘Ascension’?” ._.

That warning was little more than a vestigial action, of course. His words must have been little more than strangely articulated sounds to the Paras, of whom the chances of having any sort of meaningful intelligence were abysmal. Still, he hoped that showing some sort of dominance over the situation would scare it enough to let him get away.

Just as Flame held his tail up to grant him better sight, he saw that the Paras had leapt towards him and was already in mid-air, shrilling in a primal show of intimidation. Before he could figure out what was happening, the Paras had already slammed its weight on top of his cranium and covered his eyes, ears and just about the entirety of his head.

Flame cried out in fright and stumbled backwards as the Paras' foreclaws tried to dig into his shoulders for better grip, and some hidden appendage on its belly pressed against his cranium in an attempt to drill a hole in it.

Oh, so Paras in this setting are basically headcrabs, lovely. Not sure how I overlooked this the first time around, though that actually makes me wonder if Flame should’ve noticed a borehole in Elmore’s head that would make him realize “okay, that’s what that pain is!”. On the other hand, if you can clip that appendage without killing the Paras, sounds like a handy way of having your own little fire-weak Lamarr skittering around.

Having lost basically all perception of balance to fear, Flame tripped on his own legs and fell to the ground, never stopping with his attempts to scratch or dislodge the Paras from his head. He began thrashing violently and rolling on the floor left and right,[ ]the pain from his cranium only increasing every second that passed.

Missing a space there. Also, obligatory reminder to carry over any depurpling of prose you do in Chapters 1 and 2 over to later chapters.

At last, in a feat of desperation, the primal portion of his psyche had the good sense to slam his head against the wall. He heard the carapace crack open and its insides splatter crudely against the wall, squeezing one last screech from the [dying] bug. It subsequently lost grip on his body and fell to the ground, oozing a greenish liquid.

Flame rubbed off as much of that substance as he could from his head, but the strong scent remained nonetheless. He already knew, as he'd mused before entering this tunnel, that the dungeon would leave him naught time to recuperate; plenty of shrills answered the call to arms from the tunnel's depths, and an army of little legs tickling noisily edged ever closer. The entire tunnel must have been a nest to the blighters!

Wasting no time, he strapped his bag tighter and rushed out of the cave and into the forest, never looking back. Even in the thick shrubbery, the Paras were appearing in ever increasing numbers. They came out of every hollow tree trunk, every little hole in the ground. There might have hundreds, thousands! For all he knew, the whole floor was a Paras nest!

Small typo there, not that drying out is likely to be a lot of fun for a Paras either.

- Meanwhile back in Schrodinger’s location in Treehound Cove -
Alice: “Do you think we’re getting closer or further away from Flame, Gaius?”
Flame: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
- Cue mutual sweatdrop -
Gaius: “Closer, definitely closer.”

After what must have been ten minutes, but felt like hours, Flame entered a clearing, and a sweet sight embraced his eyes: his friends were there!

Would dramatically shorten the amount of time involved here given that Flame’s being chased by a wave of headcrabs chittering bugs. Even a minute is going to feel agonizingly slow and harrowing with horrific death nipping at your heels for the entirety of it.

"Oh. This? I found it on somebody's corpse. I think it may have been one of the [researchers] we were sent to look for. The guy's journal said something about a doctor…"

Alice: “Wait, what about the others though?”
Flame: “Considering how this guy was their leader, I really doubt we’re going to find any of them in one piece.”
- Cue angry Paras noises in the background -
Gaius: “Er… yeah, I’m good just writing everyone else off as dead here and bailing.”
401076862924750848.png


Flame's answer was cut off by the sight of multiple Paras peering their heads out of the shrubbery, clicking their little teeth together in quasi-mocking.

"Hang on—you led them straight to us!" Gaius realised angrily.

Flame: “In my defense, I didn’t realize they were still following me when we had enough time to stop and talk with each other.”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “If we weren’t in mortal danger, I’d stab you right now.” >_>;

The sudden halt caused him to tumble backwards from the loss of momentum, but the brief second his eyes connected with the creature was more than enough for him to realise what had him immobilised.

A Carnivine.

The predatory plant 's head emerged from the earth suddenly while he tried his best to scuttle away, completely erasing from his mind the hordes of Paras behind that would rejoice at the chance to take a bite out of him.

Flame let out a cutting shriek when he felt the Carnivine dig into his leg, sharp teeth tearing through his scales as though they were paper and lacerating muscle tissue.

Flame: “AAAAAAAAAAAAA!
Gaius: “Yeesh, really not helping your impression there, Flame. I would’ve thought a Fire-type would’ve held up better than that against a Carniv-”
Flame: “Oh my god, I’m about to lose a leg and that’s what you’re worried about right now, Gaius?!” >.<

That was when he lost all control of his own body. Without even thinking, his throat muscles clamped much in the same fashion as when one is about to vomit, and a bright, scorching jet of fire streamed out of his mouth and toward the Carnivine's ample head.

For thirty seconds straight it kept up, until his breathing reflex forced him to stop due to the lack of oxygen in his system. Finally, he collapsed on the spot panting; the insides of his mouth burnt horribly and his head felt as if it were spinning wildly on its axis.

30 seconds is a long time for an action in battle as life and death as this. There’s two routes to take here, IMO. One would be to cut down the amount of time Flame spends roasting the Carnivine. The other would be to have him move his head around a bit more during those 30 seconds, since the Paras horde is depicted cutting and running when Flame snaps back to attention, which is a bit easier to buy if Flame spat some fire their way.

Alice soon abandoned her attempts to stop the bleeding, and quickly slung his arm over her neck to act as a support to hold him upright.

"Don't worry, Flame. You're going to be alright. Gaius, help me out over here! Before they come back!"

Flame felt an arm gripping his other side, and could do nothing further than press his head against the Dragonair's body for relief while they limped him through the last few metres to safety. He barely even felt the wave of gelid cold gripping his body as his consciousness slowly faltered.

Flame: “O-Ow. So this is really how my story ends, huh?”
Gaius: “Oi, quit being so dramatic. There’s a teaser for the next chapter, so you’re clearly not dead yet.” >_>;
Flame: “Wait, there is?”

Speaking of which, let's take a look at said teaser, hm?

"… Thanks to our increasing understanding of the world, this great nation has made a giant leap forward in the last century alone. Life expectancy has skyrocketed, food is abundant for all, and poverty has essentially vanished. Key to propelling our mighty Empire is the enlightenment, whose seeds They claim the merit of planting in our previously unsophisticated brains.

With this powerful alliance, our nation can accomplish many great things. Soon, even the last remnants of brute barbarians that dwell outside our borders shall be eradicated."


Excerpt from the book "Our Benefactors", written by Royal Scribe Antoninus Kadabra. Sources of all reported statistics remain undisclosed.

>that entire snippet
youre_serious_futurama.gif


I'd additionally suggest the tweak in bold to make things flow a bit better. Also, I could’ve sworn that the scribe that wrote Our Benefactors was credited as Eli Kadabra in later chapters. Is there a story behind the dual names? If not, make sure to keep them consistent.


Gaius: “Look, I know the Empire needs propaganda to play itself up, but holy crap, at least try to keep things believable!” >.<
Flame: “Why on earth would this Empire feel the need to say things that anyone can literally disprove by just casually walking around Aesernia?” ._.;
Alice: “I… uh… assume they’re trying to keep spirits up and keep the commoners from revolting? (Not that they don’t have some… advantages for doing that regardless of whether or not anyone buys the official line.)”
Gaius: “More like this is some sort of ritual humiliation where the guys in charge are flexing by getting you to agree with the equivalent of saying ‘the sun rises in the east and sets in the west’.” >_>;
- Alice bristles uncomfortably -
Alice: “Uh… that is believed to be a significant component of the psychology of some forms of propaganda, yes.”
Flame: “Just saying, you two are really making that ‘run away from the plot’ idea sound more and more appealing right now.”
701630550720512120.png


And that’s a wrap! Hope you had fun with the review, since it was surprising to see just how many details about the story I’d overlooked originally, and how the second readthrough feels noticeably different compared to my first.

Kudos, @Shadow of Antioch . I’ll be looking forward to throwing some more of these your way in the future. After all, you’ve got a lot of ground to catch up on sharing with your audience here, and from what I've seen so far in my revisit, I'm sure that process will be a wild ride in its own right. ^^
 
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Chapter VI: Dauntless

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter VI: Dauntless


"If, at the opening of another week of holy resistance, one were to take a general survey of the military activity of all combatants, one would search vainly for any traces of reviving vigour in the enemy. Everything, in fact, continues to support the view of those who regard the barbarian tribes as being close to collapse, and having little or nothing to match the determination and courage of His Majesty's Imperial Army. Reports from all along the front line speak of a depressed and scattered adversary; the mutiny of entire battalions is a near daily event. At this rate, victory seems not only within a measurable distance of its grasp—but a matter of weeks."

Segment extrapolated from the newspaper 'Cogito', dated fourteen days prior to the fall of the major urban centre of Edessa.


"Where are you taking me?"

The voice would not let him leave. He had yearned so long for freedom, and now it was being denied to him.

"Settle down; we're almost there."

"Please let me go. I want to go home."

Yet the creature did not listen. Did it understand his words at all?

The ruins dragged on around them, the sky pitch black with smoke. Distant tremors reverberated through his bones, fire tendrils in the skies; his breath choked on itself.

But the voice insisted—Just a little longer!



"… Wake up."

Flame's brow furrowed, and he shifted to his side. "Just a little longer…" he mumbled absently to himself, squeezing his eyelids together.

Something nudged his shoulder. "Flame, wake up."

The Charmeleon's brain, reactivating crankily, finally gained enough awareness of time and space to take notice that he was awake. He opened his heavy, rusty eyes, and stopped blinking to witness Alice's nuzzle prodding him once more to awaken fully.

"Huh…?"

"We have to go now," Alice half-whispered, her features not any less drained than his. "It's getting late, Ariel will be expecting us soon."

"Wha? Okay…"

Flame sat up grudgingly, crossing his legs for balance. His muscles were sore all over, and his head felt as though it was looping circles around in the air. A shiver ran down his spine suddenly. Did they have to get up at this hour? What time was it, anyways?

After a quick scan of the tent, he noticed that the light seeping through the tent's cloth was in fact very feeble; the sun must have risen not long before. He nearly missed Gaius' figure out of sheer lightheadedness, crouched over a bag next to his bed, rummaging the contents.

It just occurred to Flame that he'd experienced another dream, the second one in only a couple of days. He couldn't quite point to any specific details, but there was no doubt about the event actually taking place. Maybe he was purely a frequent dreamer; an empty mind desperate to fill the void with artificial thoughts and images extrapolated from his few days into life.

It still amazed him as to how it ultimately made no difference whether or not he did have a life beforehand.

"Ready?" asked Alice, blinking rapidly as to mask her own fatigue. "We'll try to eat something along the way, so we actually have the energy to make it to our destination."

That subject brought the events of the previous night back to the forefront of his mind. With a frown, he hastily climbed to his feet, forcing his brain to ignore any protest from his muscles.

"Oh … Yeah, t-that sounds good. Sorry…" The last word slipped out of his mouth only half-voluntarily.

Alice gave him a weird look. "What for?"

"Yesterday, at dinner," Flame explained kind of reluctantly. "I just feel that … I don't know, maybe I should have put more effort searching. There was hardly anything to eat."

Alice relaxed a bit, as though expecting something much worse. "What, that's it? Flame, I know it may not have looked like much, but last night's meal was probably better than anything we've had in ages!"

"Yeah, I know, but…" Flame halted a few seconds, inwardly realising that really there was nothing much to say. What point was he trying to make? What was he feeling sorry over? After all, it objectively could not be his fault if there didn't seem to be enough food in circulation to throw away. He'd helped his team to the furthest extent possible; even volunteered to crunch up that tasteless bread in their stead. And yet…

Smiling sympathetically, Alice lowered her head to her bag, letting it slide down her neck into position. "Flame, you need to stop worrying about stupid things like this. Let's focus on the mission at hand for now, okay?"

Slowly, but encouraged by the sincerity of her words, he allowed himself to drop his uncertainties and pick up the mantle of optimism. Alice was right; he really was acting stupid. Perhaps all he needed was to get those negative thoughts out of his head.

"Hey!" Gaius shouted suddenly, jolting their attention to him. He stood by the tent's entrance, examining one of his leaf blades and only briefly spared them a look. "Done talking, or want me to bring you a recliner? It's nearly six, for the love of Celebi!"

With unexpected spontaneity, Flame rolled his eyes in mock exasperation when Gaius wasn't looking, earning a few amused chuckles from Alice. He tightened the straps to his bag, and quickly rushed outside.

"Did you pack that Escape Orb in case things go sour?" he could hear Alice ask Gaius.

Parting the cloth to their tent, his mind could not help but wander. The prospect of having to enter combat once more was certainly an uncomfortable one, yes, but he had to have learnt something from their last outing. To breathe and stay calm? Trust his instincts and stop thinking so damn much?

That last one in particular seemed to work for fire-breathing: when that Carnivine almost ate his leg and Gaius was threatening him in the bar, on both occasions he'd managed to use a flamethrower with little trouble. There had been no need to actively think about defending himself; it just happened.

Maybe this wouldn't turn out a catastrophe after all.

He took a deep breath, hopefully one that would set his jumbled mind straight, and caught up to his teammates.

Aesernia was oddly quiescent that morning, although it was probably due to the ridiculously early hours they worked in. Not long after, Team Phalanx passed by the Walnut Tree Café, which turned out to be closer to Camp Tempest than he remembered. The sight must have brought a few lingering memories back to mind, seeing that, from then on, Flame felt Gaius' eyes burning into the back of his skull, as though imagining it an ideal target for practising his leaf blades.

Why does he need to keep giving me those looks? Flame groaned internally, his irritation spiking, Not my fault he's an irresponsible bully. Just when I was starting to feel better…

This trivial game persevered for the majority of the way, until at last Gaius' harsh voice intruded from behind. "That could have killed me, you know."

Flame tried his best to swat aside those words aside, but it proved incredibly difficult given the death glare homed in on his body. It wasn't true. Even if his fire truly did have the intensity terminate a life, he never would have had the guts to do it. No, if anything, it was the other way around.

Alice narrowed her eyes in thought, and looked between the two of them. "Are you two going to disclose what happened last night? You've been acting all weird around each other."

"It's nothing important…" Flame hesitated and glanced behind him, checking instinctively for Gaius' reaction. "The two of us discussed a few things, and we had a disagreement. There was—"

He stopped, and turned his intentions around before it was too late. Telling her that Gaius was draining their finite, precious money on alcohol would almost certainly cause an argument, drive the two of them apart—possibly fracture the team!

Flame shuddered aghast at that scenario. Right now, the thing that mattered the most was to get through their current mission alive and successful; the fallout associated with speaking the truth was simply too daunting to envision. (Why did such responsibility have to lie on his shoulders?)

"Really, it's nothing to worry about," Flame insisted as casually as possible. "We simply … aren't used to each other, that's all. I'll tell you later."

That was not easy to say without cringing internally. A vile, false being he felt, circumventing the question like that, lying to her face once more—this amounted to what, the fourth time since they met?

No, no, this wasn't a lie, Flame told himself, clenching his paw into a fist, I will tell her when we get back. I will…

"Fine then," Alice resigned herself with a sigh. "Please, just remember to set those differences aside while we're on duty. Things are already bad enough as it is, and without teamwork there's basically no point in even trying. Okay?"

Flame nodded understandingly—and Gaius did too, although he could not discern the actual reconciliatory intent behind the gesture.

Soon, just when the buildings around them became scarcer and scarcer, the city walls and the battlements came into view. A single, relatively small wooden gate (he'd have to ask Alice how many entrances there were) separated them from the countryside, doubtless sprawling both in breadth and in hazards. Even from this distance, one could spot Ariel's bulky, unmistakeable form sticking out among the dreary stone.

Suddenly, after advancing a little more, the three stopped.

"Hold on…" Alice hummed. "Do you see that? Who are those pokémon talking to Ariel?"

Now that she mentioned, there was something he did not notice at first. Or rather, someone. He looked better; engaged in conversation with Ariel were a black, fox-like creature and a finned dragon, both of which looked strangely familiar to his eyes.

Wait, aren't those… Flame associated the faces, and quickly came to a conclusion. Yes, that voice, it had to have been the two weirdos from yesterday!

Team Phalanx held still awkwardly, gazing at the elephant in the room, when the two legionaries caught sight of the group. Immediately Yvaine stood to attention, once again eyeing Flame as though he smelt funny. Was it his mere presence that upset her? Perhaps it had something to do with that 'dark aura' thing she mentioned back in the café.

"Hah, would you look at that!" Virgo grinned broadly, yet in a matter that creeped Flame. "I wasn't expecting you of all people to end up under our escort. Fate's a funny thing, isn't it?"

Yes, it's a very funny thing… Flame groaned silently, his thoughts spilling sarcasm all over. In his head, he wished he could just tell them—Alice and Gaius keep me excellent company, thank you very much; could you please leave me alone? (Then again, more firepower on their side may not have been such a bad thing…)

"Uh … Honestly, I wasn't expecting to see you either," Flame confessed, rubbing the back of his neck.

Alice shifted her view between the two of them. "Our escort? Who—Flame, do you know them?"

"Kind of…" Flame raised his eyebrows innocently. "We met yesterday, while I was out looking for food. But they didn't tell me about this!"

But now Ariel tapped her foot impatiently, seized their attention altogether. "Can we keep the introductions for later or what? I have a schedule to keep."

Immediately Flame stiffened his back and stood to attention—it was starting to become instict, almost. (See? You're getting the hang of this, Alice would say.)

With the onset of silence, Ariel began. "Right, the short story is this: some of our scouting teams have reported witnessing increased barbarian activity around Aesernia. Turns out, those fuckers set up an encampment just east of our position, along the Pelorithan Ridge. Your job is to boot them out of existence."

All three members of Team Phalanx unanimously turned their eyes to the elephant in the room, a sort of unspoken question in itself.

Ariel grunted in irritation, though oddly content. "As you can see, I procured myself these two—actual soldiers for a change—to ensure you don't mess it all up." A smirk even made its way onto her face. "Might want to learn something from them while you have the chance."

Gaius' face twitched slightly, his eyes not bothering to hide the underlying pique. How dare she utter such implicating words!

The Haxorus snickered. "What, you honestly think I was going to trust you so blindly? Bollocks. With the three of you running about on your own, there's a good chance you might never make it back."

Gaius looked fervent to come back with an insult perhaps worse than the one directed at them, but managed to maintain his posture. "And what are the rules of engagement, ma'am?"

Ariel didn't look scathed in the slightest. "Doesn't matter. Kill 'em, do whatever you want, as long as they're not causing problems to our townsfolk. They're just Scum." She signalled the guard manning the gates. "Actually, try to bring one back alive if you can. I know exactly what will show them."

Just as Flame tightened the bag round his shoulders, the heavy gate creaked open, an ill-defined dirt pathway extending into the surrounding fields.

"Hey, isn't this awesome?" Virgo elbowed Flame roughly, that creepy smile of his only widening. "I've been aching to kick some barbarian Scum's arse—it's certainly been a while."

Oh, just great… Flame sighed inwardly, and tried his best to sustain an optimistic mindset.

Virgo then got close to his ear, eyeing Alice strangely. "Psst, could you introduce me to that gorgeous friend of yours?"

"No."

"Oh, come on—"

"Screw. You."

Virgo rolled his eyes. "Geez, okay, okay. I get it. Grow a sense of humour one of these days."

Oh, I wish I could, he wanted to tell him, I really do.

This was going to be a long journey.


Route 164

Behind them, Flame slowly witnessed the town's thick walls disappear, and a run-down sign greeted them to Route 164. The path under his feet felt like a mixture of dirt and gravel, with a few stalks of grass or even the occasional flower sprouting from its midst. While the others might have disagreed, he sorely missed Aesernia's paved roads.

"So, Team Phalanx," Virgo spoke up after a few minutes of awkward silence. "Have you got any plans for which direction to take? We're just here to escort, after all."

Alice muttered a curse under her breath, stopping for a moment. "Right. There's a map in my bag. Gaius, could you…?"

Nodding, the Grovyle stuck a paw in her bag and pulled out a rolled sheet of paper, undoing it altogether.

Flame craned his head to the side to follow, along with the two legionaries.

"Let's see…" Gaius muttered, tracing the path with a claw. "Getting there shouldn't be that hard. We march east, circle round this mystery dungeon, and reach the Pelorithan ridge. From there, we can scout the place and hopefully find those bastards. But that's where the problems begin…"

Virgo lay a paw on Flame's shoulder and pushed him aside to see better. "The hell is wrong with this map? It's missing half the darn province! There's supposed to be a settlement halfway to the ridge, and you only have two imperial forts marked. And the bridges! Where did you find this thing, in the garbage?"

The three members of Team Phalanx glanced at each other sheepishly. Flame had a feeling that that rhethorical question inadvertently spoke the truth.

"Ah, whatever," Gaius conceived with a light growl. "Guess it's a bit outdated then. So what? Have you got anything better?"

"No," Yvaine answered matter-of-factly, the first word coming from her mouth in a day. "Our unit commander is the only one who is allowed to carry a strategic map. We were hoping to rely on your equipment and knowledge of the area for this task."

Virgo chuckled, holding a paw before his mouth. "I knew you civvies were having budget troubles, but an outdated map! What next, they don't feed you anymore?"

Flame looked away, bowing his head. That's … pretty much true…

"Says the one who doesn't have a map at all," Gaius huffed, eyes narrowed.

"Guys, can we get a move on already?" Alice intervened. "I have a feeling you two are going to keep this up the whole way if you don't stop now."

Flame could not agree more.

Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, he figured he should have felt much more alarmed: what would be of him by the end of the day? Sacked, ridiculed, disgraced for being the culprit of his team's utter failure? This single mission's outcome, like the one before it, carried a whole slew of implications that his mind could only partly comprehend.

But now Alice prodded his side; there was a berry for him too, she said.


The difference between the wilderness and Aesernia, as he saw it, was that the town, for all the dirt and grime and beggars, flourished with variety: everywhere he went there were entirely new creatures, a sound, a pungent smell, buildings that decried their olden glory. Something nearly always kept his mind occupied, beyond the reach of any troublesome thoughts.

In a way, it helped him cope with the madness.

But out here, he thought with a hint of disgust, in the middle of nowhere, the entire world seemed to turn grey and dull. There was absolutely naught variety, in any place he looked. Suppose the trees varied minutely in size, thickness, colour, or in number of leaves, or a different bird settled its nest there; to his eyes, they were all the same. Just more forest, and more gravel to step on. Same, same, same.

And this—he thought with an air of finality—this only drew the focus of his intellect closer to trickier subjects. Dangerous ones. Such as the fact that he possessed no memories of who he was, no identity to speak of. The possibility that, in just a few hours, one mistake would end him on the street, alone. That his only defining characteristics were a bunch of delirious visions and an even more laughable social demeanour (a rare form of neurosis, perhaps?).

In the background, he remotely acknowleged Yvaine whispering: "Are you seeing him?"

"I'm no dark type, I can't sense that weird stuff," replied Virgo.

Oh! Already he felt the pent-up tension rise up like in a volcano—his arms were starting to tremble.

No. Flame squeezed his eyes and turned his head to the side, No, no, no. I shouldn't be doing this. Something else… Think about something else!

In a blind attempt to force his mind back into the real world, he turned towards his companions, hoping that their conversation would prove to be distracting enough.

"… and so I slashed its arm straight off, just like that!" Virgo recounted fervently, simulating the act by clawing the air.

"Bah," Gaius crossed his arms. "A Machoke? No way in hell it went down without a fight. To be honest, I have a feeling you're making all this up."

"Oh?" Virgo huffed with a cocky grin. "And how would you know anything on the matter, Team 'Scaredy Cat'?"

Alice let out a groan, growing impatient. "Listen, I already explained this to you: it was getting dark, and we were vastly outnumbered: retreat was the only logical option. Don't try to use that single occasion against us."

"I'm just saying, it's obvious that you've never had to get up close and personal with a Scum. Would you rather have them running around scot-free, killing and raping?"

"What? Of course not, but that isn't our job! We usually deal with lesser things; not everybody has some legionary title to show off."

"Then why are you here, on your way to fighting the same kind of pokémon?" Yvaine pointed out. "Should you not be out doing 'lesser things'? I am afraid your job may be shifting parameters."

"That much is true," Alice mumbled, staring ahead for a moment. "That much is true…"

Soon enough, Flame found it harder and harder to pay proper attention to what was actually being said. Virgo seemed a walking and breathing chatterbox, drawing from his seemingly endless reservoir of jokes and topics.

Ten more minutes, he thought, and he'd deliver the Gabite a much deserved knock on the head.

Sperantia Nova—25 kilometres east of Aesernia

A village!

Beyond the hill they were descending, snippets of buildings leaked through the thin foliage.

Flame was overjoyed. After hours of unbearable marching, saying that this was a welcome change in scenery would be a severe understatement.

His companions looked just as glad as he did; unlike them, however, this amounted to the first glimpse he'd ever get of the world outside Aesernia. Regardless of any actual sight to behold, that was a milestone in and of itself.

"Look, guys! There's the settlement I was telling you about!" Virgo exclaimed, wiping a drop of sweat off his forehead. "See how that map of yours is outdated?"

"Yeah, yeah," Alice heaved forcefully. "Does this give you an idea of how close we are to the area of operations?"

Virgo hummed pensively as he rummaged through his brain. "If my memory serves me correct, this means our objective is nearby. I think another fifteen minutes or so from here."

Let's hope you're right … Flame thought, only now noticing just how worn out his legs were. The others didn't seem to be panting nearly as heavily as him. Was he that frail?

The expeditionary force turned a final bend in the path and beheld the first structures of Sperantia Nova. Overall, the settlement didn't look very impressive, Flame thought—one could likely walk from end to end in five or ten minutes. The buildings, built of wood, differed greatly from the sea of marble and stone that was Aesernia. Each was but a single storey, and mostly rudimentary.

Lack of aesthetics aside, it quickly became evident that the village was not exactly in top shape. Next to the closest building to him, ash lay on the thin grass stalks—the remnants of a recent fire. A house further ahead bore heavy chars, while another one just to the side displayed a broken window pane.

"… what on earth happened here?" Flame blinked confusedly, taking in every detail.

"Good question," Virgo lay a claw on his chin. "Maybe this is damage from yesterday's portal storm?"

I don't think storms can spark a fire… Flame thought grimly.

Nearby, a Quilava was trying to clear the mess in its garden—only to notice it was being watched, and scurry away in a heartbeat.

Then came the town centre. Had someone not pointed it out, he never would have distinguished it from some sort of park. It was unusually barren, and most alarmingly lacked any sort of paving, dots of tall grass sprouting like parasites.

"Come on, let's stop here for a bit," Virgo pointed to a nearby structure. "Something to drink would be lovely while we rest."

The building in question was just a tad bigger than the houses they had just passed. A sign swung in the breeze, but the writing was too faded to read.

"Uh … Why here?" Flame raised an eyebrow.

Gaius answered promptly. "It's a tavern. At least, I think so—looks like one to me."

Oh, of course you would know… Flame bit his lip, rolling his eyes.

"I suppose it wouldn't be a bad idea. Could definitely use the breather." Alice shrugged, and followed Virgo inside.

The interior was very much akin to the Walnut Tree's back in Aesernia, if not a little rustic. One could taste the scent of wine drifting out the back room, and from barrels visible behind the counter.

Only a sparse few citizens hung around—perhaps five or six in total—but each was far too drooped in their seat to notice.

The group chose a table far from the entrance, just as a wild Pidgey swooped in from a window, pecking it as though trying to pry inside.

"Where is everyone?" Flame wondered aloud. "I get the feeling that we've been visiting a ghost town up until now."

"All dead."

Everyone sitting at his table turned to face the voice. It came from a gruff-looking Marowak working behind the counter, busy wiping the bar with a rag. Its Its skull helmet wore cracks all over, and a horn had been chipped off.

Noticing the extra presence, Alice bowed her head in greeting almost mechanically. "Excuse me, sir, would you mind going into the specifics?"

The Marowak raised its gaze only for a moment. Its voice was coarse and deep. "They're all dead. Either that, or they fled as soon as the raid ended."

"Hey, barista!" Virgo waved his arm to draw attention. "Bring us five of your best beers!" The legionary turned to Team Phalanx. "You three drink beer, right?"

"You bet," Gaius smiled. "I'll have a blo—"

"Guys, we're talking about something serious here!" Alice hissed, giving the two of them a death glare.

She then turned to the Marowak again, smiling sheepishly. "I apologise for that. If it isn't a problem, could you tell us more about what happened?"

The Marowak glanced at them with suspicion, but grunted affirmatively. "Around a week ago. In the middle of the night, those marauding Scum caught everyone by surprise. They looted all the houses and then set 'em on fire. Lost a lot of good blokes that night." The ground type stopped a moment, but kept rubbing the bar clean. "When we realised help wasn't coming, the rest fled someplace else. Doubt they'll be coming back."

Alice frowned in understanding, yet didn't lose focus. "That sounds terrible. Could you point us to which direction the raiders came from?"

The barkeeper laid down his rag, eyes slitted through his skull mask. "Why all these questions?"

Alice fell silent.

Judging from the hostility laid in the ground type's voice, as well as his previous words, Flame held doubts that their arrival would be greeted with open arms.

Taking a deep breath, Alice tried her luck. "You see sir, we're with Civil Protection, and the reason for our deployment here is to eliminate the—"

"Hah!" the Marowak clamoured, striking his fists on the bar. "Civil Protection?! And you'll have me believe that after what we've been through, five guys on a leisure stroll is all the help that we get?"

Flame was taken aback by the anger hidden beneath that dry helmet. For a moment, he found himself holding onto the table.

Alice smiled sheepishly. "Well, sir, the empire apparently thinks that a few starving officers are somehow enough to beat the Scum."

"Just gimme a break…" the barkeeper groaned, turning away to fill a glass. "I knew I should have left with the others."

"All right, listen up you—sir," Gaius fumed. "If you wanna moan about help not arriving earlier, do it with someone else. The only reason we're here is to get those savages hanged, so it's in your interest to tell us everything. We're trying to help!"

"Yeah?!" a voice came from one of the few people besides them in the tavern. "And where were you when the Scum came?"

Other clients echoed their boos as well, throwing profanity after profanity in an air of fervour against the common enemy (them, the enemy of the people!).

"My sister died because of you arseholes!"

"We should hang you instead!"

Flame turned his head about, breath quickening. His paws searched for the table. They'd come here to help these citizens, and now those same pokémon were turning against them. Had everybody gone mad?

Some clients stood up from their seats. A Squirtle in the crowd pulled its head back and out came a jet of water, aimed towards Flame. But the Charmeleon ducked just in time, tail in his hands, and the attack splashed Virgo instead.

"Hey!" the legionary got up all of a sudden, near drenched. "Stop right there, or I'll have each and every one of you arrested! You hear me?"

In a few seconds, the tumult calmed down somewhat—though not without some slurs filtering in here and there. By no means, however, was the anger emanating from each one of the citizens' voices dissipating.

The three members of Team Phalanx looked at each other worriedly. Flame got up from his chair, and turned his head round. Good, there was still a clear exit route.

"Well? Is my beer coming or what?" Virgo turned to the counter, shaking off droplets of water.

The Marowak glared at them, then grunted audibly under his helmet."Wanna help us win some payback? Then get the hell out of my tavern and do your job," he pointed a claw towards the exit.

Flame needn't be told twice. Him and the rest of Team Phalanx were already on their way out by then.

"Fine," Virgo huffed, chin raised indignantly.

Just as the group was heading towards the exit, Virgo stopped at one of the occupied tables, ripping the drink out the client's hands, taking a long sip.

The Gabite made a disgusted face, and put the drink down. "Doesn't even taste that good."


Pelorithan Highlands

Flame sat quietly in an overgrown field, pinching and twisting the tail tip in his paws to pass the time. It had only been ten minutes or so since his team decided to leave Sperantia Nova; word spread very quickly among the survivors, and soon many started sending them ominous looks. Once they'd distanced themselves enough from the town, their legionary escort decided to stop here for the moment, whatever their reason.

Thinking back on what had happened in the tavern, Flame was still gripped in disbelief. To be frustrated at the sluggish arrival of relief, which the town badly needed, was only natural, justified even.

But to turn their anger on them, their saviours, flood them with such cruelties and violent accusations! How could it be their fault that nobody in the outside world heard about the raid? Those citizens were certainly ready to turn violent. He saw it in their eyes.

"Flame?"

The sudden interruption caused him to flinch. He turned his head round, but it was only Alice.

"Eh? Sorry, I was just … thinking." He rubbed his forearm and looked away briefly.

"Oh, I didn't mean to interrupt," Alice lay next to him, lowering her head to his level. "I just wanted to check everything was all right. You've been awfully quiet today."

"Was I…?" Flame blinked, checking back on his memories. Yes, now that he paid some heed to it, he had kept to himself ever since leaving Aesernia.

He frowned, dropping his gaze."I'm sorry. A lot has been on my mind today…"

She paused for a moment, looking into his eyes. "Nervous?"

Flame held off before answering. How much detail was it safe to give away?

But her eyes were staring into his, and it would have been impolite not to answer. Besides, they looked full of empathy. Surely she would understand?

"About the mission? Yes, very…"

Alice smiled sympathetically, lowering her head, her neck orb touching the stalks of grass. "It's fine. To be perfectly honest, I'm nervous too. The enemies we're going to be facing are no pushovers, if what I've heard is correct."

Flame sighed, letting his tail swing back and forth, brushing against the grass.

It helped him remain at peace, in a sense, to know that she felt the same way; a confirmation that his fears were not wholly irrational. Yet, one part of him could not help but feel afraid regardless.

As if reading his thoughts, Alice nudged his shoulder lightly. "Hey, look at me. I know this will be challenging. But whatever happens, don't you dare think for one second that me and Gaius aren't covering your back. We'll make it through, I promise."

Speechless, a warm smile formed on Flame's face. "… Thanks."

He almost felt compelled to wrap her in an embrace, show just how much he was thankful for everything. Folly, he figured—and dismissed the idea entirely.

Still, there was something else nagging his mind. "Alice, why is it that no one else heard of the raid before us? I mean, we're supposed to protect those citizens, and to see those dead bodies, the burnt down houses, it … it hurt."

The Dragonair bit her lip. "… I don't know, Flame. The papers always say that every town has its own garrison, ready to sound the alarm in case of attack. Maybe the empire doesn't deem this town valuable enough to protect." She sighed, eyes cast downwards. "I really have no idea what's going on, honestly, whether this may cause a rebellion in the future. All I know for certain is that this job keeps us fed. Most of the time."

As silence accumulated between them, both searched for the best subject to tackle that wasn't nearly as dreary.

"So…" Alice glanced to the side. "I just had a thought; this is your first time outside Aesernia, right? If you consider a pile of ashes a town, that is."

The phrase took him by surprise. He wouldn't have imagined that she cared nearly enough to remember that fact.

"Yeah. It's … strange, when you think about it. Discovering the world for a second time. And even though my home is somewhere out there, I can't remember any of it."

Frowning, she opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out.

At first, he thought it was just Alice being Alice—tactful and aware of others' emotions. After all, silence could display more solidarity than words. But soon her eyes widened too.

"Flame," Alice gasped. "Behind you!"

The stench of smoke reached his nostrils.

"Huh?" Perplexed, he glanced behind his back.

Only to find a small, crackling tongue of fire licking away at a small fern, sparks lighting nearby vegetation. It took him a second to process the situation, during which his tail had brushed against another shrub, igniting it too.

With a yelp, he leapt on his feet, heart racing frantically.

"Wah! Oh, no! No no no no!" he cried out while trying to claw and stomp the fire out, "No! Alice? How do I—"

Just as he said that, a wave of water crashed onto his scales, and a pervasive cold numbed his whole body for a few seconds. His knees gave way, and his chin dug into the ash-ridden soil, his whole body sprawled haphazardly.

Alice rushed over, mouth agape, panting slightly. "Oh my goodness—are you okay? Did I hit your tail? I'm so sorry, I tried to aim elsewhere but you were moving all over and…"

With a cough, Flame sat up again, legs crossed and holding a paw before her. The frigidness began dissipating slowly but surely; a second later, his tail flame lit spontaneously.

He and Alice exchanged blank stares for a few moments, and then burst into laughter.

"Wow … That was…" Alice struggled to speak cohesively in between laughs, "Seriously though, are you feeling all right?"

Flame felt a twinge of heat at her concern. Even though he hated himself for baring his idiocy in front of her, it was all too funny to resist.

"Y-yeah," he snickered back, water drops trickling off his body, "Just feeling a little cold, that's all. What was that?"

Alice breathed in relief, glancing at the few cinders that remained in the grass. "Water Pulse. Comes in handy at times like this, though I should probably keep an eye out. That way I don't, you know, accidentally ice you."

Flame gave her an awkward smile, hiding his tail in his paws. "There's no need. I—Sorry… I should pay more attention to this damn thing…"

"What you need is to stop apologising for every little thing." Alice smiled and shook her head.

Flame kept smiling sheepishly as he looked away, away from her. At the very least she didn't seem to think much of his accident.

Bent on turning the discussion around (not to mention how much he enjoyed talking to her), he drew the first thing that came to mind. "I still wonder why Ariel felt the need to have those two boss our team around. Does she trust us that little? Having to sit here idly is starting to get on my nerves."

Alice sighed in resignation. "I know how you feel. That guy especially—what's his name, Virgo?—I can't stand listening his voice. Ariel's right, however. Their time in the Imperial Army means that we have a much better fighting chance."

She's right… I didn't think of it that way. Flame mused, They're likely far more experienced warriors than us. Certainly more than me.

Just then, a thought popped in his head. He looked at Alice, and realised that this could be the chance he'd been waiting for; she could teach him how to breathe fire!

Is it even sane to ask her? he thought, I don't want her to think I'm a wimp…

Yet, the time was right. The two of them were alone, no intruder listening in, and these were the last moment before they'd enter the area of operations.

Knowing that, he threw caution to the winds.

"Alice?" he inquired tentatively. She seemed completely attentive.

"I know this may sound weird, but could you possibly show me—"

He didn't get to finish his sentence, however, as rustled footsteps intruded in his ears. He twisted his body round, only to find himself face-to-face with an annoyed Gaius.

"What is taking you two so long? Didn't you hear the call?"

"Call?" Flame stole a glance at Alice. "Which call?"

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry to interrupt your daydream," Gaius sneered, "but we're moving out." He motioned them to follow, and both sprang to their feet, sprinting with him across the meadow.

Halfway there, Alice slithered closer to him. "So … was there something you wished to tell me?"

Flame gulped; despite how much he was tempted to refuse, it was now or never.

"Uh… Yes, actually. You see, I've been having a problem lately. A big problem." His gaze wandered off as he spoke. The word 'big' did not nearly do him justice.

Alice kept her warm smile. "Oh? What is it?"

He took a deep breath. "O-okay. Where do I begin… You can breathe fire, right?"

"Of course. You saw me do it in the past, didn't you?"

Flame gulped, mustering up courage. "Well, because I can't. O-or, actually, I can use fire, only I have no control over it. Whenever I get worked up enough it just … happens. That's why I need someone to teach me."

Alice immediately caught the uneasiness shrouding his voice—he wasn't making much of an effort to conceal it—and laughed lightly. "Is this what's keeping you a bundle of nerves today? Of course I'll help you, you're my partner. Have to keep each other safe, right?"

Flame felt his cheeks heat up again—brighter than his crimson hued scales could cover. "… Right. Thank you. Again."

"Just, hold on a moment. Let's see what the legionaries want, and then I'll show you along the way."

Soon, they were back on the main road. The small settlement of Sperantia Nova could be spotted in the distance with some difficulty, while, ahead, treetops obscured the view. Sure enough, there was Virgo, paws on his hips, tapping the soil with his foot as he entertained himself to a whistle.

The Gabite seemed to notice them, but it was then that a sleek shadowy figure dashed by Flame's side, eliciting a yelp. The Umbreon glanced at him in a quizzical fashion, before bringing her eyes back to her partner.

"Finally!" Virgo grinned, "Thought you'd gotten caught in a pitfall along the way."

Woah, hang on a minute, Flame blinked, This whole time we were waiting for her? She's so quiet, I didn't even notice…

"You must excuse me," Yvaine said, referring mostly to Team Phalanx, "Our enemies being who they are, I had to exercise the utmost caution."

"Blah, blah," Virgo mocked with his tongue out and eyes rolling up, "Just cut to the chase. Did you find a path?"

Yvaine kept a neutral expression, and cleared her voice. "Yes. It shall only take us a few minutes; follow me."

The team soon resumed their march, Flame's eyes prodding at his teammate every other minute.

"Mhm? Oh, right, the flamethrower," Alice stopped and blinked to focus, "Stand back a little so we don't hurt the others. Now, watch me carefully."

Then, tilting her maw up high, she cocked her head, puffed her stomach and let forth a stream of blue flames. Flame watched bewildered at the facility with which the Dragonair was able to draw her element, how natural it all looked.

The draconic blaze spread up in the air and dissipated soon after. Gaius, Virgo and Yvaine had turned round to stare at them both wide-eyed.

"Um… Nothing to see here," Alice shooed them meekly, "Just teaching Flame a tecnique."

Now she turned to face him. "There. Think you can do the same?"

Flame nodded, planting his feet deep into the ground and taking a deep breath.

Man up, Flame, he told himself shakingly, his eyes shut, It can't be that hard. You just need to focus. Do what she did.

After preparing psychologically, he too drew his head back, puffed his chest and focused on his inner fire. He felt the pressure building up in his gut with each passing instant.

I'm not going to fail. Flame repeated to himself, I'm not going to embarrass myself. They're all counting on me to succeed, and I'll be damned if I let my team fail!

When the pressure in his stomach reached a boiling point, his throat muscles clenched tightly, and out came a small tongue of fire. His eyes nearly bulged at the sight, so he kept up the stream to see if he could summon more. In seconds, however, the fire turned into a cloud of smoke, pushing the Charmeleon into a brief coughing fit.

"Wait, did you just…" Virgo shifted his head between the two of them, finally catching on to what they were doing. A smile began to creep on his face, and quickly expanded to a grin, before he finally burst into all-out laughter. "Seriously? That's the best you can do? Oh my god, that's so pathetic!"

Why, you little… Flame's brow furrowed, suddenly finding it hard not to slit the legionary's throat right there and then.

Alice tapped his side. "Ignore him, Flame. The fact that you spit fire on will is already a sign that you're improving."

He appreciated her words of encouragement more than she'd ever realise, but the Gabite's mocking laughter was becoming hard to willfully ignore.

Virgo turned to his partner, barely able to speak, gesticulating as he cackled. "Yvaine, did you see that? He looked so serious, like was going to do something epic, and then—"

A thick colums of fire hit the Gabite mid-speech, causing him to yelp and throw his body to the ground.

Flame froze, disbelieving of what he'd just seen. Had his eyes deceived him? For the second time in a row he'd managed to spit fire right when he wanted to, and the second set of flames admittedly looked quite scary, even to him. Did this mean…?

"Hey! Hey!" protested a furious Virgo, "Fine, I'll shut up! Just don't—" his lament was met with a renewed column of flames, though not aimed directly at him.

Flame smiled, his body overtook by euphoria. Yes, it was true, he really could summon his element at will! He wasn't going to be so worthless to his team after all!

"You did it!" Alice beamed, "See? I knew it wouldn't be that hard. I bet the only thing keeping you down is your constant edginess."

Virgo got up, dusting himself off. "The two of you are lucky that my scales are fireproof. Can we please stop messing around and get going?"

The road went only steeper as they trekked forth, passing through small forested sections and eventually disappearing altogether. The expeditionary force cut through a field of tall grass, trekked to the tip of one of the lowest hills, and lo and behold, their destination revealed itself before their eyes.

There wasn't much to really be taken aback from, at least in Flame's view. The Pelorithan Ridge consisted of one long, even valley, flanked on each side by a range of rugged hilltops. Something about those hills didn't escape anybody's eyes however: erected on those slopes were tall structures of stone and wood; from them, barely visible ditches led downhill to a part of the valley hidden by the hillsides.

"What are those?" Gaius wondered out loud. "Watch towers? You two know of any forts nearby?"

"No, it is a bizarre sight," Yvaine said. "Command has never spoken of Imperial positions being present in this area. It may be too early to make guesses, but, if there is indeed a fortress here, then it probably dates back to republican times, and the Great Conquest of the North."

"So … Are you suggesting it's abandoned?" Flame continued.

"Possibly. If you would excuse me for a second, I can find out for you," Yvaine said as she stopped. Eyes closed, she held still, head pointed gracefully towards the valley, and the rings on her body gradually began glowing brighter and brighter.

"Oh, come on, are you that naive?" Gaius spat in the Charmeleon's direction. "The Scum have obviously set up their nest here. Why else do you think the area is so busy?" the Grovyle crossed his arms, a hint of smugness in his voice. "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out."

Flame had to bite his lip to hold back an ugly response. He felt his paw contract into a fist, shaking for a second, but he held it back.

In the middle of a quirky ritual, Yvaine shifted her head uncomfortably, her pupils squeezing even tighter. "Huh? But… I thought…" she muttered.

The Umbreon reopened her eyes, and turned round to find everyone staring at her worriedly.

"It-it is nothing. Perhaps we simply need to move closer."

The stammering in her voice did little to reassure an already distraught Flame. Going by the looks of it, proceeding into the valley was not an attractive course of action. The sky was solid overcast, and it felt as though it would start raining soon.

Evidently, the rest of his squad did not have a tail flame to dissuade them—he cursed his own anatomy.

As the group drew further towards the fort, Flame couldn't help but feel that something was not off in his vicinities. Ripples, thin as webs of electricity, could be seen in the air wherever he turned his head. They sparked and popped noiselessly, one after another. At first he thought it had to have been his imagination, but then the anomalies grew in number so much that nobody could ignore.

"Guys?" Alice said, twisting her head round. "I don't like the look of this. Maybe we should head back.."

The wind howled and wailed in his ears, pushing back against his crimson scales. Flame had to wrap his arms round his own shoulders to keep himself in one piece.

"Nonsense!" Virgo huffed, unperturbed for some strange reason. "It's probably just a thunderstorm or something like that. Is bad weather what keeps you civvies awake at night?"

Flame attempted to rein in his own breathing, teeth grit. "I've never seen one in my two days of life, but I don't think that's how thunderstorms work…"

While that statement did draw a few weird stares, what happened next made all but verified it.

Suddenly, his body became as granite; each vein in his body bristled with cold. He couldn't even shift his lips in a gasp. Everything was contained in a coffin of darkness; then, a flash.

When the bright spots in his vision faded and the world once again took shape, Flame realised that something about his surroundings was wrong. Very wrong. A blanet of haze had suddenly befallen them, thick enough to deny vision of anything beyond a dozen metres. One thing he did see however was a strange grey creature. It looked like the promiscuous fusion between a cyclops and a ghost: a single blood-red eye and a wispy tail. The hollow eye socket injected chills down his spine.

It did not look particularly threatening, nor was it ripping his flesh apart; it just hovered there, staring.

Then, the creature smiled. It wasn't any ordinary smile for sure, especially seeing as the thing had no mouth to speak of. But it was smiling nonetheless. Sweat licked his forehead; fragmented and tangled whispers began playing in his head, over and over again.

Oh! Just as Flame was about to throw himself into a panic, time unfroze, and everything became normal again.

Alice made certain that nobody had disappeared, now on her toes. "Did—did everyone feel that?"

Flame barely took notice, gasping for air, wishing there was something for him to lean on ."Y-yeah… That thing looked…"

Alice stared at him as if he'd lost it completely. "What thing?"

Flame scanned the horizon beyond the fog, and found no ghost creature in sight. He stared back bemusedly, suddenly worried about his mental condition. Had he been the only one to see it? It had looked very much real to his eyes.

"T-the flash," Flame made up an excuse on the spot. "You know, there was a bright flash for a moment, and everything felt really cold."

Her face relaxed only partly. "Oh. Well, you're probably just getting used to the feeling of entering a mystery dungeon. I suppose it was our fault for not expecting one here."

A breath of relief exited Flame's throat, but the problems were merely beginning for him.

"There wasn't supposed to be a fucking dungeon here!" Gaius muttered under his breath. " We didn't bring nearly enough equipment for one…"

"Fear not, me and my partner did," Yvaine said. "Split across the five of us, our food supplies should last us well over three days in the unlikely event that we do not complete the mission by the first."

"Yeah, whatever she just said," Virgo smiled and patted her on the back awkwardly. "Besides, who cares? It doesn't make any difference as long as I get to kill some baddies. If anything, the journey got a lot more interesting."

"Which also means more dangerous…" Alice added sourly.

Soon, the group came to an agreement and decided to keep moving in spite of the unpleasant surprise of being in a mystery dungeon. Before they resumed their trek, Flame double checked the spot he could remember seeing the ghastly cyclops in. Again, there was nothing. The question bestrode his thoughts like a colossus: what was that thing he saw? Was it even real, or signs of furthering schizophrenia? The fact that none of his squadmates seemed to notice pointed very much in one direction.

It was just a hallucination, Flame tried to rationalise, With time, they will go away. Hopefully. Or was that thing real? God, I better not be losing my mind…

He had a feeling it would not be the last time he'd see that creature.


End of Chapter VI
 

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Not that it happens in the story (or not yet anyways), but it would’ve been a real trip to see Flame reflexively bring up the things he saw in his dream there which very obviously don’t fit his current setting as far as the average normie knows, only to realize that he’s describing things that would might as well be magic to Alice and Gaius.
He does this once, if you remember: in chapter XII, during the Portus expedition. The part about steel ships :sneaky:

Surprised that she had the patience to do that for multiple minutes. Most people I know would just go full “do it yourself” within 30 seconds. 60 at most. :V
Aaaaah, I fixed that part on FFN but forgot to do so on the original document! I changed this to something more vague, it really is hyperbolic/cruel to say it was several minutes. I'll change it here too! 😰

I actually hadn’t realized that the story was foreshadowing Alice’s *ahem* background as early as this scene. Perhaps it’s just been the march of time since the first rodeo, but I didn’t notice these lines in the story that implied Alice was educated and came from a comfortable life originally.
I can finally start saying that yes, I did plan this. We're slowly moving out of "things work out by pure chance/later edit" territory.

Gaius: “It means to shave little bits around the edges off so that they can melt them down for counterfeiting or for the actual component metals, which makes ‘mons not want to honor their face value. Though I suppose if they paid us in small denominations that’d be one way of making sure we got paid properly. Not too many ‘mons out there desperate enough to clip those.”
Huh. I didn't know about that! Every review of yours is an unexpected source of new knowledge.

I was about to call out your bloopers Gaius for acting like such a smartass, but... streetwise as he is, he probably would know about the ways other people will try to swindle him.

Gaius: “Blast Traps. Especially with what Blast Seeds do to ‘mons in this setting.”
Alice: “Er… right. Forgot about those for a second. (Assuming they exist, anyways.)”
Not... exactly. Not like in the games, at least--you'll see. I have quite a few plans for the next dungeon.

Small typo there. Though I see that stairs in Rebirth’s Mystery Dungeons are significantly swankier than they are in the Cradle.
At some point I'll probably take them out for good. Hell, since I'm going over the master document to fix the things you pointed out, I may as well do it now. They just feel too "gamey", especially with the realistic tone I'm trying to strike.

All I need to figure out is what to replace them with. A wall of distortion, like with the dungeon exit?

Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been a Nidorina, since I’ve heard that some of them are particularly good at picking apart dragons. :V
Flame, waking up in a sweat: "AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!"

Would dramatically shorten the amount of time involved here given that Flame’s being chased by a wave of headcrabs chittering bugs. Even a minute is going to feel agonizingly slow and harrowing with horrific death nipping at your heels for the entirety of it.
Just as before, I severely overestimated the appropriate and reasonable amount of time needed here 😅

30 seconds is a long time for an action in battle as life and death as this.
Ditto, third time in a chapter.

Also, I could’ve sworn that the scribe that wrote Our Benefactors was credited as Eli Kadabra in later chapters. Is there a story behind the dual names? If not, make sure to keep them consistent.
Ah, you don't miss a single detail, do you? I'm genuinely in awe! Yes, that used to be his name--but I questioned why, in this Rome-inspired setting, a Kadabra would have this name that sounds so Anglo-Saxon. I figured Antoninus sounded more appropriate. (Yes, there's Alice, but I can justify that one by saying it's a Newspeak, more colloquial version of her real name--Alicia. Plus, the whole 'looking-for-a-new-identity-after-being-exiled' deal.

Thank you so much for your reviews! You really didn't have to, but that just shows how kind you are. Your enthusiasm for Rebirth, and the effort you put into your reviews really leaves me... flustered. Worldless. Grazie ancora!
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Ace Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him/His
Partners
  1. nidoran-f
  2. druddigon
  3. swellow
Alright, cutting it a bit close to the next update here to get feedback, but I’m here with a review of Chapter IV. Proportionately there’s a bit more recycled stuff this go-around than in prior writeups, but hopefully there’s still enough new fare to make this chunk of feedback worth your while.

Chapter IV

"Hold still. I'm trying to be quick."

A cloth band tightened its choke around Flame's injured thigh, eliciting light hisses of displeasure through his teeth. Thankfully, the pain was fairly light when compared to the one he felt prior when his leg was being eaten by a rabid Carnivine. It had been like that ever since the Sitrus Berry they'd found back in the dungeon had been basically stuffed down his throat.

Alice soon finished applying the bandage, and smiled reassuringly. "There. See? I told you there was nothing to worry about."

Wait, so how’d Alice manage to be so handy without having hands?
803821849384583219.png


Also, I think something about the middle paragraph feels a bit off. I think if you trimmed some of the passive voice and reordered a couple things, it might sound a bit more natural. Something like the below:

[ Flame let out light hisses of displeasure through his teeth as Alice tightened a cloth band around his injured thigh. Thankfully, the pain in his leg was fairly light when compared to his earlier agony when a rabid Carnivine was trying to eat it. The dull, throbbing pain had stuck with him ever since his teammates took the Sitrus Berry they'd found back in the dungeon and basically stuffed down his throat on their way out Treehound Cove. ]

A grunt escaped him and he clutched his bandaged leg, a throb briefly reigniting his healing wound.

"Ahh-ahh! T-thanks…" Flame croaked, gritting his teeth. "But … will I be able to walk again? What if I can't walk anymore?"

"Of course you will! That's why we gave you the berry. The wound isn't as deep as you think; just give it a night's rest and you will be alright."

Something about the first paragraph feels a bit iffy. I think it might be passive voice again, but not sure if that technically counts or not. Either way, consider something like the following:

[ The Charmeleon let out a pained grunt and clutched at his bandaged leg, feeling a sharp throb briefly reignite his still-healing wound. ]

Also remind me, but are Sitrus Berries in this setting also glorified Oxycontin berries like Oran Berries are revealed to be later on? If so, Alice’s reassurance there is just a little deceptive since she and Gaius basically have just given Flame painkillers of Schrödinger’s addictiveness and are expecting his body to do the hard work of healing. :V

Flame took advantage of the time alone to relax, something he was in dire need of doing. His eyes were glued to the dying sunset. It was a sight that differed radically from the oppressive darkness choking the mystery dungeon, one which brought peace and tranquillity to his weary heart. He noticed that his entire body was one big knot of tension; he granted himself a liberatory breath.

Hm. Not sure if ‘liberatory’ quite works there, though the sentence as a whole I think should be reworked to drop the semicolon. Not sure if it matches the vibe you were going for, but you might find something like the below a handy start:

[ He paused and noticed that his entire body was one big knot of tension, inhaling sharply to to catch a calming breath. ]

His smile crumbled all at once. Even with the many lessons learnt from the experience, there was one thing he'd utterly failed to do: help his teammates out. After all, wasn't that the whole reason they were giving him a chance, to prove himself a valuable hand in mitigating the burden of their labour?

During the entirety of their endeavour—from the moment he set foot in the place—he'd proven to be nothing more than a useless weight, demanding to have his hand held through each step only to cower in terror at the first sign of danger. Already his reputation was scarred when he nearly got himself killed.

He glanced back at his companions. They were chatting away happily, obviously celebrating their mission's success—no thanks to him. With the initial relief of exiting the dungeon gone, there was little for him to celebrate. In fact, he felt a sense of shame looking at the two of them like that, as though he was failing them, all that blind trust put into him for nothing.

Flame: “I mean, I saved us from the Paras horde? So that counts as something, right?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “The Paras horde you brought down on us…” >_>;
Flame: “Er… right. (God, talk about leaving a negative impression there.)”
401074476474957834.png


"Guys," Flame started, his eyes sliding downwards. "Look, about what happened before. I know you were expecting something … more than a good-for-nothing like me, and I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about?" Alice gave him an incredulous look. "You did wonderfully! In fact, I think we wouldn't have been able to complete the mission if you weren't there."

"Uh?" blurted Flame, caught off guard by the praise. "But … I barely did anything to help! I even managed to get myself hurt on my first day, somehow! How can you—"

Flame: “(I know that I kinda need these two for sustenance and support right now, but shouldn’t I be making a bigger deal out of finding that journal from the researchers? I didn’t do that bad if Alice is complimenting me here, did I?)”
- Flame looks over at Gaius, who is still frowning sourly at him -
Flame: “(Er… right. I don’t think tooting my horn in front of Gaius will endear him much to me right now. Even if I’m not sure I have a way of endearing myself to him short of quitting.)” ._.;

"Oh, hush," Alice silenced him, though her voice carried no malice. "Accidents happen to everybody. No one is perfect their first time around, and we didn't expect you to be. Isn't that right, Gaius?"

Gaius remained silent for a few seconds, picking his words carefully. The tiniest of smiles escaped from its steel cage. "Our mission was a success. That's all that matters right now."

You just know Gaius had an internal rant to the effect of "Alice, what the hell are you talking about? This dweeb almost got himself wiped and brought down a swarm of Paras on us!" given that he hesitated enough in his reaction for the narration to notice it. :V

Flame was dumbfounded. "… Do you really mean it?"

"Of course! Think about it; the bag you brought back," she pointed to the object in question. "Wasn't it really far into the forest?"

He nodded in reply.

"Well, the fact is, all pokémon who want to explore a dungeon are taught to never venture off the main pathways, seeing how dangerous it can be. So in a way, if you hadn't broken that rule, we would be going home empty-handed right now. In that sense, yeah, I'd say you did good."

Flame was flattered by that comment, but at the same time found himself deeply dissatisfied with those mere words. The bag was found by complete accident. If it wasn't for his unfathomable spur of luck, he probably would have died back there, inept as he was in battle. How could that possibly count as good work?

Besides, he could sense that their encouragements were a sugarcoating of reality, a way not to make him feel too bad—the tone gave it away. He could almost hear them say: 'Don't worry, you still have another try!' (or was it all his imagination?).

There’s some odds-and-ends changes that I’d recommend to tighten up this segment:

["Of course! Think about the bag you brought back," she pointed to the object in question. "Wasn't it really far into the forest?"]

For the first paragraph, I think you can collapse the bit with the semicolon. If you’re attached to the “think about it”, you could alternatively cut it off there and slip “the bag you brought back” in place of “it” in “Wasn’t it [...]”

[ "Well... all pokémon who want to explore a dungeon are taught to never venture off the main pathways, seeing how dangerous it can be,” Alice said “At the same time, if you hadn't broken that rule, we would be going home empty-handed right now. So in that sense... yeah, I'd say you did good." ]

I was admittedly unsure how much you wanted Flame’s insecurity to be him beating up on himself versus audibly picking up on “er… well you didn’t do terrible?” cues from Alice, but I left some suggestions in mind for her openly leaving a few of those cues. Either way, you should strongly consider breaking up her block of dialogue with a speech tag, since that’s a pretty hefty chunk of pure dialogue there.

[ Flame was flattered by that comment, but at the same time found himself deeply dissatisfied with Alice’s reassurance. He’d found the bag by complete accident. If it wasn't for his unfathomable stroke of luck, he probably would have died back there failing to fight off the Paras horde from his own ineptitude. How could that possibly count as good work? ]

Unless if ‘spur of luck’ is a Britishism I’m not aware of, you want ‘stroke of luck’. There’s also a few changes that can be made here and there in this paragraph that make things smoother, mostly axing passive voice and making a couple parts more explicit.

[ Besides, he could sense that his teammates were sugarcoating reality with their comments. It was clear from their tone that they were going out of their way not to make him feel too bad. He could almost hear them blurt out their true feelings, saying something like: 'Don't worry, you still have another try!' (... or was it all his imagination?) ]

This last one I admittedly got a bit out on a limb with my suggestions, but I think that with some rearrangement and reflowing, you can make the first two sentences sound significantly snappier.

Flame: “Alice, if I didn’t do a good job, you can just say so!” >_>;
Alice: “I mean, your ‘bad’ job just earned us enough money to get by for a week. It’d feel a bit wrong to chew you out for it.”

"So, can you walk?" Gaius asked, tapping his foot on the ground impatiently.

"I … think so," Flame said, placing his arms behind him for support and slowly rising to his feet. His right leg still hurt tremendously whenever he shifted his weight on it, but he could somewhat complement that.

How did it become so late, anyway? Flame rambled mentally as he half-limped his way to the burrow. We entered the dungeon at around … what, midday? I can't possibly believe that we spent so long inside there…

It probably makes sense to slip in a reminder or two of the time of day into the text closer to Flame’s “where’d the time go?” comment, especially if there’s some sort of reminder of “wow, it’s late” such as the sun actively setting. Since I actually don’t think it gets brought up again anywhere outside the first paragraph.

Also, you probably want “compensate for” in place of “complement”. I’d also suggest substituting “I can’t possibly believe that” in the last sentence with something that feels a bit more ‘concrete’ in sentiment like “There’s no way that”.

Truth be told, it really didn't matter to him all that much. If he had to guess, having witnessed just how much dungeons strived to differentiate themselves from normality, they probably had their own quirky time zone and physics.

This actually makes me wonder if it’s possible to just get lost for months in outside time in a Rebirth-spec dungeon like in Whispers of the Abyss when from one’s perspective inside, you’ve just been gone for a few days at most.

Also for the part in bold, I’d suggest something like “just how different dungeons were from the rest of the world outside them”, since it’s a bit hard for dungeons to really strive for anything if they don’t have thought processes of their own.

Resting a paw on either side of the wall for support, Flame entered the burrow, his teammates already inside. The thing that struck him was just how far down Gaius had dug; he'd expected it to be small and temporary, perhaps ten feet at best. Instead, he found at least twice that amount.

I think you can axe the semicolon with a minor expansion and split. Perhaps something like this:

[ The thing that struck him was just how far down Gaius had dug the burrow. He'd expected it to be small and temporary, perhaps three meters deep at best. Instead, the tunnel went on for at least twice that length ]

Also reminder to keep your measurements in SI considering your comments for a similar oops to this back in Chapter 1. Not sure if those measurements were quite what you envisioned for length, but I’ll leave that up to you to iron out if/when you revise that part.

"Uhm … Gaius? I mean, I'm not going to complain about the extra breathing space, but why make the burrow so big? We're only going to stay here for tonight, aren't we?"

Gaius seemed to distance himself from the question. "I know what I'm doing, Flame. Trust me, it's for the best. Go to bed now."

I actually didn’t realize the story was hinting at the inbound portal storm this early on from how Gaius prepared the team’s shelter.

Flame: “Gaius, given that you’re clearly putting a ton of work into this burrow, surely it’d be worth explaining to me why you’re-?”
Gaius:
300px-Creating_Bugs_Bunny%27s_%22No%22.jpg

Flame: “Oh come on! I have amnesia! You can’t expect me to know what’s going on if you don’t tell me!” >.<
Gaius: “I expect you to follow orders. Now go to sleep.”

That's because he wasn't bent on dozing off just yet. His claws travelled to the bag that was still strapped to his shoulder, intending to rummage through its contents, something he had found no time for with bloodthirsty Paras hounding his tail.

However, his intentions were cut short when Gaius reached out with his arm and rudely ripped the bag straight off his shoulder, just as he was about to take the journal out.

"I'll be taking this, thank you." Gaius imposed, hiding the bag behind his form.

"Hey! I just wanted to take a look!" Flame protested.

"No way," Gaius scoffed. "I don't want to have you fiddling with our evidence. It's the only thing we have to prove that we actually carried out the mission and found the guy, so I'd like it to be there when I wake up."

"Why? What do you think would happen if I give it a quick read?"

Gaius' scowl was driven even further. "Don't know, you might light it on fire with that tail. You never know with fire-types."

Flame: "... Aren't you curious at all about what’s in there, Gaius? What if we read it together? If you’re that paranoid about me accidentally setting it on fire, you could even read it to me it like a bedtime story-"
Gaius: "Bed now, Flame." >:|

With that reminder, Gaius laid back down and rolled in the other direction, leaving a disappointed Charmeleon to twiddle with his thumbs. Flame grunted in frustration, his bitterness rising steadily. Why was he being treated like that? Was it a form of punishment for his screw-ups in the dungeon? And, yet, not one minute earlier Gaius claimed that all that counted was their mission's success!

Flame let his eyes slide shut briefly as the bitter truth finally presented himself to him, as obvious as it was disheartening: Gaius simply didn't trust him yet. To the Grovyle's eyes, he was still little more than an inconvenient stranger tagging along with them because he had nowhere else to go. He wished he could do something to change that fact, utter the right words to mend every wrinkle and tear in their relationship. Then again, there were so many things wrong with the situation he was in…

Something about these two paragraphs feels like they would flow better with a rework. You might find something like the below handy to consider:

[ With that reminder to himself of Flame’s danger to the journal, Gaius laid back down and rolled to face in the other direction. Flame grunted in frustration, able to do little but twiddle with his thumbs and stew in bitter disappointment. Why was Gaius treating him like that? Was it a form of punishment for his screw-ups in the dungeon? Why, Gaius just claimed not one minute earlier that all that counted was their mission's success!

Flame let his eyes slide shut briefly as a disheartening realization dawned on him: Gaius simply didn't trust him yet. In the Grovyle's eyes, he was still little more than an inconvenient stranger tagging along with them because he had nowhere else to go. He wished he could do something to change that, to utter just the right words and mend every wrinkle and tear in their relationship. Then again, there were so many things wrong with the situation he was in… ]

Flame: “I’m pretty sure this goes beyond mere mistrust and Gaius is just being an a- OW!”
- Flame gets pricked by Gaius with a Leaf Blade, who shoots a sharp glare -
Gaius: “Can it with the smart-alec comments and go to sleep already!” >:(

"Gaius?" she raised her eyes to the ceiling, rummaging through her memory. "We've been in Civil Protection for … I don't know, three years? But yeah, he eventually got used to being around me."

I actually went and sanity checked this, since I could’ve sworn I remembered that figure being different. Unless if Ariel only got control of Task Force Aegis after Alice and Gaius joined Civil Protection or they transferred in from outside Aesernia, that number should be ‘two’ according to some banter Alice and Flame have in the chapter where they’re heading into Thermae Himerae.

"Did you know him before that?"

Her voice was becoming heavier the more she talked, and she was starting to stumble on her words a bit. "Hmm? No, not really. The guy is still a bit of a mystery to me even now. I think he—" her speech was cut suddenly by a deep yawn, followed by her eyes blinking rapidly in quick succession. "Ugh … Flame, I'd love to keep chatting with you, but I'm really tired. Might just fall asleep on you if we keep going. Let's just go to bed, okay?"

Flame: “... Is he the type of ‘mon to keep secrets from you or something? I thought you two were supposed to be close.”
- Alice bristles uncomfortably a moment at the mention of ‘keeping secrets’, before shaking her head -
Alice: “Flame, I honestly am about to keel over right now. Let’s do this again some other time, alright?”
- Alice curls up and starts to doze off, as Flame side-eyes -
Flame: “(What on earth was with that moment of hesitation there?)”

"Oh, before I forget," Alice suddenly mumbled back. "Don't go outside."

Flame raised an eyebrow. "Huh? Why not? What do you mean?"

"Even if you can't sleep, or … if you happen to hear or see anything, don't go outside. Under any circumstance."

Flame:
401074476474957834.png


"Alice," he said in a distraught tone, almost forgetting to suppress his voice to a whisper. "Are you saying that there's somebody out there that could come for us?"

It took the Dragonair a few seconds to reply. "…What? No, no, there aren't any ferals around here. Not anymore. All I'm trying to say is, if you go outside now, it's … dangerous. I think a portal storm is coming."

"What's that?"

"Just…" she interjected her sentence with a loud yawn. "Don't do it. Tomorrow. No time…"

- Flame casts a glance back up the burrow and shrinks back -
Flame: “This glorified Bunnelby-hole’s really enough to keep us safe from one of those ‘Portal Storms’? I mean, I thought it was suspiciously deep, but…”
- Flame yawns and paws at his eyes -
Flame: “... Whatever, Alice and Gaius are convinced it’s enough. If it’s not, this is going to be one short story.”

Domus Aerelia

It was late when I got to this part of the review, so for a second I read that as ‘Domus Aurea’ there. Dunno if that’s a deliberate nod to it or not in structure, though Ariel’s got a similar narcissistic and detached shtick as most depictions of Emperor Nero have that I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if it was intended to be a reference there.

Steam lethargically erupted from the boiling waters of the thermae, creating a persistent layer of moisture on the sturdy columns that supported the structure around it. Waning moonlight trickled in through the richly decorated window panes, and torches spread further light to every floor tile in the room, each one made of pure marble.

A single pokémon was partially submerged in the steaming bath. It barely even showed any signs of being alive, so entranced it was in its state of pure bliss. Appeased, she let out a sigh of content and threw her head back, careful not to scrape anything with the lengthy tusks that extended from either side of her mouth.

I see that Ariel isn’t a fan of mosaics. :V

Also, even though I now know that Ariel is a reference to the character from The Tempest, I still keep finding myself mentally double-taking at the idea of a giant axe-faced lizard strutting around with a name that means "lion of God".

Also, “lethargically erupted” is a bit of an oxymoron. The first word gives the sense that the steam is coming “lazily”, while the second feels significantly more active/violent. Something like “(lazily) curled up” might make it sound more natural.

As for the second paragraph, you’d want the “it”s to be “she”s or the other appropriate pronouns for consistency. After all, unless you’re explicitly referring to something like Ariel’s figure or silhouette, that’s still her there. There’s also a couple of other tweaks that might tighten things up, so might as well give an example of something you might want to consider:

[ A single pokémon was partially submerged in the steaming bath, barely showing any signs of life. Entranced in her state of pure bliss, she let out a contented sigh and threw her head back, careful not to scrape any of the sumptuous flooring with the lengthy tusks that extended from either side of her mouth. ]

A voice chimed in abruptly through the Haxorus' bubble of tranquillity. The aura of bliss around her dissipated all at once, blending in with the steam, and she turned to glare bullets at the culprit.

Unless the ‘bullets’ thing is some sort of deliberate or dialectical thing I’m overlooking, you probably want ‘daggers’ for that idiom.

"Mistress, we've just received a new assignment request for you to give out," the Flygon explained briefly. "It's coming straight from His Majesty himself."

Ariel's interest piqued. "An assignment? You mean it's for those two morons again?"

"Uhm … It's three now, mistress. They took a new guy in recently."

"As if two weren't already enough…" Ariel muttered with narrowed pupils. "I'll never be able to shake them off my back, will I? No matter how much I try to convince that bloody fool, he just won't give up."

Minor typo there. That’s ‘piqued’ and not ‘peaked’ if you’re talking about someone’s interest getting aroused. Though I’m not sure how I forgot about this exchange being about Team Phalanx getting *ahem* special missions given that I was already spoiled at this point originally as to why Adrian feels the need to do this, but it does a good job at hinting that not everything is as it seems regarding them.

With a relaxed heave, she lowered the rest of her upper body into the relieving water, leaving her head barely above the surface of the water. "Go tell Myco to prepare the paperwork. This is kind of sudden, so he'll probably need some help. After that, report back to me in the morning. I will inform those idiots… Ah, maybe tomorrow."

The Haxorus was about to drift back to bliss land, when she noticed that the head servant was still there, fiddling nervously with his claws as though she'd rip his head off at any second.

The bit in bold I think works better with something like “steamy bliss”, “the blissful comforts of her bath/thermae”, or “her own blissful world”

"M-mistress? Can't you p-please get someone else to do it?"

Ariel stood blank-faced, staring directly at the Flygon while attempting to process his request. She always had been a firm believer that a slave treated well would work better than one treated poorly, but—this!

"It's…" the young Flygon continued. "M-my mate's been sick recently… I haven't seen her in two weeks, so—"

"Watch. Your. Tongue." Ariel hissed, every syllable injected with venom. "Just because you have a few 'enhanced privileges' as the head servant doesn't mean that you get the right to disobey my orders. You still work for me, remember?"

Yeah, okay there, Seneca Ariel. Not going full Vedius Pollio doesn’t magically constitute good treatment. Though this scene in general helps a lot for setting the stage to the readers as to exactly what sort of character Ariel is.

"B-b-but … I still have to finish my cleaning duties, and at this rate—"

"Oh, what's that?" Ariel said in a child-like mocking tone- "You have work to do? Then get to it, dimwit! Don't go crying to me about your life problems! You're … ugh, lucky this bath feels too good to simply get out from, or I'd gladly show you your place. Now go, before I change my mind." She flicked her wrist toward the exit to add to her point.

>heaping verbal abuse on your head slave looking for the equivalent of sick leave
>treated well

592603469265764372.png


Ariel, you can just admit already that you're just too cheap to dangle manumissio out as a carrot to motivate your slaves.

However, the Flygon refused to move. Now she was starting to really become infuriated. "What? What is it? Why are you still here?"

"Mistress, that wasn't all I needed to inform you about. There's something else. Another portal storm is forming along the south-east border of the town. This one is huge, much bigger than anything we've ever seen before. And it's happening right now."

Ariel: “... Is the storm actually posing any danger to me right now?
Flygon: “Uh… well, I don’t think it is? But portal storms are volatile and-”
Ariel: “Then there’s no problem, so shut up and let me get back to my bath.”

He figured it would only be a matter of time until he descended into slumber; after all, the journey in the dungeon had sapped a considerable amount of energy from his body, and almost getting his leg bitten off by a carnivorous plant certainly didn't help support any sort of eagerness to remain awake.

Yet, he was still there. Tired, wishing he could drop the last weight of awareness chained to his ankle and be able to get the rest he deserved, but never quite reaching the drowsiness he wanted. It was an interesting situation, he mused; stuck between sleep and wakefulness, hopelessly exhausted yet still unable to grant himself rest.

After minutes, hours of shifting position and rolling to the opposite side, he came to realise what exactly it was that was obstructing his sleep. There was an unnatural feeling inside him. A feeling that just about drove him mad the more he tried investigating its nature.

The middle two paragraphs have some parts that I think could be smoothed out, here’s an offhand suggestion for you to consider.

[ He figured it would only be a matter of time until he drifted off into slumber. After all, the journey in the dungeon had sapped a considerable amount of energy from his body, and the lingering effects from almost getting his leg bitten off by a carnivorous plant certainly didn't help make him any more eager to stay awake.

Yet, he was still there. Tired. Wishing he could blot out his last tethers to consciousness from his ankle’s dull pain and get the rest he deserved... only to never quite get drowsy enough to fall asleep. It was an interesting situation, stuck in a limbo between sleep and consciousness, hopelessly exhausted yet still unable to grant himself rest. ]

Also, I can empathize with this sort of feeling Flame has here a lot. Nights where you just can’t fall asleep for whatever reason suck hard.

Curse … err… Arceus! Flame thought in mounting frustration, using that name he'd heard his teammates mention various times, What is wrong with me? Why can't I fall asleep? I have work to do tomorrow, darn it!

Not that this isn’t believable given that Gaius has a bit of a blue streak, but I actually wonder if slipping in a line or two of Gaius and/or Alice making curses involving Arceus in this chapter would’ve helped tee this up better given that they haven’t actually done that in-text since the past chapter.

Grudgingly, he lifted himself to a sitting position, adjusting his tail as to avoid crushing it against the wall—or burning one of his friends—and booted his mental processes to try to find a solution to this dilemma. Going outside was out of the question; it would be in gross disrespect of Alice's trust in him, and, if she decided to give him such specific advice, needless to say there was probably a good reason for it. On the other hand, the burrow was beginning to feel pretty cramped—his friends were within feet of colliding with his body, leaving him with very little breathing space.

Something about this paragraph could use another eye for reflowing. Offhand, you might find at least some of the following worth implementing:

[ Grudgingly, Flame lifted himself to a sitting position, carefully adjusting his tail to avoid crushing it against the wall—or burning one of his friends—and turned his mind to the what to do about the impulse calling him outside. Heeding it and going outside was surely out of the question. It would be in gross violation of Alice's trust in him and he didn’t need to give his teammates more reasons to second-guess him. If she insisted on giving him such specific advice, needless to say there was probably a good reason for it. On the other hand, the burrow was beginning to feel pretty cramped—his friends were within a meter or so of brushing up against his body, leaving him with very little breathing space. ]

I don't get why we had to stop here for the night. Flame grumbled mentally, We could have just gone back to camp and had a decent bed to lie on.

The reason, however, was quick to catch up to him. It's because of my leg, wasn't it? I was the reason they decided to stop here, and now I'm the one complaining that they shouldn't have. Great job, Flame. Way to be grateful…

“The reason, however, was quick to catch up to him.” I think probably sounds smoother more explicitly laying it out, as something like: “After a moment stewing to himself, it suddenly dawned on him why his teammates hadn’t returned to camp.”

Flame: “Wait a minute, isn’t the entire reason why we didn’t make it back to camp because Gaius wanted us to go back first thing in the morning? I don’t see why the time of day we’d get back would be relevant when we’d have made enough money for a-”
- Flame looks back up the mouth of the burrow and at faint light flickering in -
Flame: “Right, that ‘Portal Storm’ he was going on about.” ._.;

Letting his guard down for a second, he reached over with his other paw and shoved it in, feeling through whatever object of interest he could find. The leathery texture of a journal's cover greeted his claws.

Flame smirked.

Then, without warning, Gaius rolled to his side. Barely managing to suppress a yelp, Flame dropped the bag and stumbled backwards, nearly falling on top of his teammates when his back very quickly hit the other wall.

He crumbled back to the ground. Now, his team leader was essentially blockading any physical access to the rucksack, trapping it in between his body and the wall. Alas, it was not meant to be.

- Flame recoils and hisses back under his breath at Gaius -
Flame: "What the hell, Gaius? Are you psychic or something?"
Gaius: “Zzz…. Mrgh… Stop being such a creeper, Flame… Zzz…”
- Flame blink moment -
Flame: “(Knowing my luck he probably really is psychic.)” >_>;

And it was because of that reason, he figured, that his attention mechanically shifted back to the entrance that connected their isolated chunk of safety to the outside world. The wind hissed tauntingly at him as it blew by, violently ripping branches and flowers from their rightful place in the landscape. A sound akin to muffled booms could be heard repeatedly in the distance, further stirring a mixture of curiosity and uneasiness in the Charmeleon.

Something is definitely going on out there. But what? A thunderstorm? No, that can't be it, it isn't raining. That doesn't exactly sound like thunder, either. Maybe I should…

Flame rapidly swatted the thought away, soldiering on even as the strange feeling subtly tightened its stranglehold around his subconscious. I can't go out there right now. Alice said it's too dangerous. The wind is growing stronger, too. I can't…

Every word he jumbled out to his mind only fuelled his desire to venture out even more. And it was then that the realisation hit him: whatever was happening outside, it had something to do with him. He couldn't quite understand why that thought entered his mind, nor could he gather substantial evidence to prove it was anything more than a product of some form of parasitic schizophrenia that had infected his brain. But it was there, and he would go mad if he didn't attempt to find out.

Some odds and ends changes I’d recommend for this segment, though the only hard one is fixing the typo on “schizophrenia”.

Flame: “I can see branches flying past the burrow entrance right now. Do I really want to leave this place to go out and see that?” ._.;

In a matter of seconds, the sickening temptation swept over Flame's body, overriding any trace of common sense left in its wake. Before he knew it, he was on his feet, taking hesitant steps toward the exit.

I … Why am I doing this? I can't … This is a bad idea. If his muscles had any sort of awareness of the resistance mounting up in his mind, they were surely ignoring it, for his legs carried him outside of the safety of their shelter.

The entire world seemed to shift to a more somber mood the second he stepped on the grassy plain. Bristling cold soaked his scales and a flurry of leaves collided with his body as the stormy winds whipped his body savagely. Shivers ramified from the tip of his tail, where the ember was crying out in distress, overwhelmed from the sudden onslaught of air threatening to extinguish it.

Flame: “Er… well, too late, but guess I’m seeing it now.
701630550720512120.png

- Cue a voice calling out from the burrow -
Gaius: “Hrmph, I see you lost your impulse control too, Flame.”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “... Aren’t you supposed to be asleep right now, Gaius?”

The first things that met the eye were the titanic storm clouds brewing dangerously close, as though a haze of tar-black poison that suffocated all lights but the one coming off his tail. With that in mind, it was fairly difficult to make out any detail with clarity, yet the shadows failed to hide the obvious fact that something was very wrong.

A tingling sensation began spreading through his guts as he stared at the carpet of storm clouds, not unlike the kind of euphoria one would feel when meeting a loved one again after a long time apart.

… What is this? What is my body trying to tell me?

D4N82FNXsAUeK6G.jpg


Basically that, but with Portal Storms, clearly :V

The moment Flame reached the top, he immediately regretted ever leaving the safety of his burrow.

What felt like the entire universe's fury struck his body head-on, and he was just on the verge of being picked up and swept away by the sudden gale.

Behind the tornado of leaves, tree trunks, and rocks being carried away by the weather's might, Flame could only make out darkness. But it wasn't the normal kind of darkness formed by the absence of ambient light that flees away in its presence. Instead, the darkness carried the shape of an enormous, spiralling blob, hovering above the ravaged landscape.

Would recommend making the changes in bold or else something like them.

Flame: “Not that this isn’t a mesmerizing show, but how have I not been hit by flying debris yet?”
701630550720512120.png


I … I should really head back… This is crazy.

Something stirred in the darkness. It was an almost imperceptible movement, like trying to spot a fly in a pitch-black room. But it was there. A red eye. There was something in the portal.

As Flame stared, one word emerged in his mind spontaneously. And it wasn't he who uttered it.

"Ascension."

Oh, so that’s how Daedalus got back out of scouting around in Aesernia and back to the Teutonii. I think, anyways. Unless if there’s else something going on I’m overlooking, there’s always been one figure in this story associated with the mention of a “red eye” like that.

That was the straw that broke his mind out of its stupor. Without a second thought, Flame turned around and, aided by the favourable gusts, stumbled back to the burrow. Thankfully, his teammates were still sleeping. The last thing he needed was for them to find out that he'd ignored their warning.

Quickly, as if the storm was chasing after him, Flame dropped down in what little space there was left, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping that he hadn't touched or kicked any of his teammates in the process. To quell his frayed nerves, he came to a swift conclusion regarding the entire episode: for all he knew, tonight never happened. He didn't see anything.

This time, sleep was quick to arrive.

See, all you need is a freaky voice dropping arc words in your mind, and you too can nope your way back to snooze city. :V

Also would recommend the changes in bold or something that pulls off a similar effect.

The next morning, when sunrise bathed the land with its healing light, the trio awoke almost in unison—Flame being the last of Team Phalanx to drowsily rise to his feet and leave their temporary shelter behind. Once on the road, the team nibbled down a few berries that went unused in their last exploration, making sure to leave a few to spare. The three didn’t exchange very many words as they hiked ahead, only some small talk between Gaius and Alice about something Flame didn't quite catch, and a few questions directed at him about his leg's current condition.

That last topic brought his spirits up a bit. He was still a little unsure about this whole rescue team thing—not that he had any choice in the matter—so hearing that his teammates were still concerned for him in spite of his lapses the previous day was reassuring. Enough so that despite part of him not fully trusting the sincerity of their words, he couldn’t help but put a smile on his face.

As for the wound itself, his thigh had healed almost completely during the night, leaving behind only a small strip of scar tissue roughly where the Carnivine's teeth latched onto him.

Traces of discomfort persisted as he walked, but he managed to bottle them up and ignore their existence as best as he could.

Left some suggestions for word tweaks and the like here and there to tidy up this block. The second paragraph’s a bit invasive as surgery, but in general I think that expanding the last sentence of it and trimming the one before it by reshuffling details around would help make it go smoother.

Flame: “Ow. Ow. Ow. So… uh, what’s Task Force Aegis’ sick leave policy like?”
Alice: “If you’re well enough to get out of bed and fight, you go and do missions?”
Flame: “Er… what do they count as ‘well enough’ in their book-?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “You count as ‘well enough’, so don’t go getting any ideas of kicking your feet up once we get back if you’re planning on eating regularly!” >_>;

Roughly half an hour of walking later, the three entered a portion of the land that deviated so dramatically from its surroundings that Flame would have thought it was another one of those ‘Mystery Dungeons’. Looking around, he found the most accurate comparison to describe the forest's state to be that of a war zone.

Debris was strewn all around, as though a divine being suddenly got bored and decided to make that particular spot his playground: chunks of wood, rocks, along with mounds of dirt and mud. Only a few lucky trees were left standing, most stripped to a mere naked pole. One could make out the almost circular-shape of the affected area, where virtually everything was devastated.

Looks like this is where that storm took place last night. Must be the epicentre… he assumed, and drew circles with his head to witness the aftermath of the storm. So much for dismissing the previous night's events from his mind.

Would suggest making a few changes along the lines of the stuff in bold there.

Also, it’s subtle, but I like how Flame’s explicit comparison of the forest the Portal Storm chewed up to a ‘war zone’ hints at his background from pre-amnesiac life. I definitely didn’t think much of that in my first reading, but it stood out this time, especially after you pointed out that him comparing Camp Tempest to a military base was deliberate.

From the corner of his eye, Alice and Gaius were reacting much the same, a twinge of perturbation lingering in their faces.

For the bit of bold, I’d either say “a perturbed twinge”, or else keep the present formulation and cut “perturbation” entirely and replace with something like “a twinge of anxiety”, “a twinge of worry”, or “a twinge of unease”.

Although the path they'd been following was smeared by the remains of its former ecosystem which littered its length, that turned out not to be much of a problem, seeing as they soon reached the gate leading into Aesernia.

Or, at least, what was left of it. Once the team drew closer, they realised that there was no south-eastern entrance anymore; the storm had butchered an entire section of the walls, leaving behind a heap of shattered stones lying on top of the dust from the smaller fragments.

"I think this is the closest one's ever gotten to the town…" Gaius muttered to Alice, exchanging a preoccupied glance with her.

I actually don’t remember if they ever patched up that wall and gate in time for when Aesernia gets besieged like 2 weeks after this point in time. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised that Gaius and Alice didn’t have more of an immediate reaction to the state of the walls given that it’s obviously been badly damaged even at this distance and they had just encountered hostile scouting parties within a day’s journey from here.

Flame: “Wait, but if it took out the front gate and a chunk of the wall, then didn’t it by definition reach the town?”
Gaius: “Meh, rest of it’s still standing, it barely counts.”
Alice: “We should probably be more concerned given that there’s a giant hole in Aesernia’s defenses.”
401074476474957834.png

Flame: “But didn’t some ‘legion’ just come in to help defend the town? Surely things would be fine with them around.”
Gaius:
youre_serious_futurama.gif

Flame: “Er…” o_o;
Alice: “Ignore that, but the point is that this really isn’t a small matter for the town to deal with.”

"Yes," Alice confirmed. "That's exactly the reason I told you to stay inside. Fortunately, I think we were just outside its range. Otherwise, we might have been gobbled up by it. Arceus knows what would happen to us then."

Flame bit his lip, unsettled at learning the dangers he'd run the previous night. That only spurred more questions though. Why did he feel so compelled to get so close to the storm, even start thinking that it might be connected to his past? Maybe it just was the paranoia messing with his head—the one that came with forgetting who you are and in what world you are in.

Flame: “Wait, so if we were in the storm proper, that deep burrow Gaius dug wouldn’t have done anything to protect us?” o_o;
Gaius: “Did you not just see the giant gouge in the earth we walked past earlier? Do you really think the burrow would’ve held up against that?
Flame: “(P-Probably a good thing these two don’t know about how I snuck out last night.)”
401074476474957834.png


"Oh, by the way," Alice turned to Flame as both walked behind the Grovyle. "Hope you didn't take any offense from that warning I gave you last night. I wasn't trying to imply that you're stupid enough to sneak out to look at the storm or untrustworthy or … something. I simply figured that you couldn't remember what portal storms looked like."

Oh, come on! Do you have to shove it in my face like that!? Flame clenched his eyelids and breathed deeply through his nostrils. His lie was starting to come back to him. Now he was at, what, two naked lies he'd told his companions in the space of a day since joining? First, his birthplace, now his encounter with the portal storm. One hell of a teammate he was being…

Quickly though, he calmed himself, and uttered an answer.

"What? I don't see how that was rude in any way. Don't worry about it." It was true, however. That warning sounded perfectly logical in his head considering what he knew now. He really did fail to pick up on any possibly offensive tone to it. What was she apologising for, again?

Would recommend the changes in bold.

Alice: “Er… I’m not trying to make you feel like a child or be patronizing. It’s just that with your memory the way it is…”
Flame: “Alice. Stop. Talking. I was perfectly content to wonder why you were apologizing, now I’m just feeling dumb.” >.<
Alice: “Uh… Right then.”

The trio entered the town through a breach that cut through the mountain of rubble. Fortunately, their fears settled down somewhat at the view of what awaited them on the other side. The town hadn't been reduced to a sorry heap of rubble by the storm—at least, judging by what they could see. Whilst part of the district closest to the wall carried considerable structural scars, and a few of its weaker buildings had collapsed, it seemed that this amounted to everything as far as material damage went.

"Oh, Arceus…" Alice muttered as she beheld the scenery. "This is bad. These walls aren't going to be rebuilt in a day. What if we come under attack right now? Are we supposed to set up a welcoming banquet?"

Some more recommended tweaks there.

Flame: “Not that it wouldn’t be absolutely horrible from a military strategy perspective, but wouldn’t the banquet option be better off for the ‘mons that actually live here since attackers tend to deal with opponents that yield early more leniently?”
- Gaius and Alice stare blankly at Flame -
Gaius: “I didn’t realize that that amnesia also made you stupid. Flame, that sort of gambit doesn’t work on Scum.”
Flame: “It… doesn’t?” ._.
Alice: “No, and don’t let anyone in town overhear you talking like that. It… usually doesn’t end well for ‘mons that do that, to say the least.” ._.;

"Hey…" Flame tried to hearten their spirits. "Relax. I'm sure … um … Ariel is going to do something about this."

Gaius seemed more amused by his encouragement than anything. "Ariel giving a damn about what happens in town? Good luck with that. If I had to guess, she's probably in her villa, enjoying a steaming bath."

Alice: "Gaius, don't be ridiculous. Ariel's villa is a short walk away from here! She'd have every reason to care about anything that happened here-"
- Cue steam clouds rising in the distance -
Alice: "... Okay, she's in her bath." -_-;

Visibly relieved for managing to avoid the mole's request, Gaius seized the chance to slip away from the disaster site, his teammates in tow.

Flame rushed by his side as they swerved into the main road. "Hospital? I thought you said the berry would take care of everything."

"It did," noted Gaius matter-of-factly. "I just can't be bothered to do all the monkey work."

Despite this being a very dishonourable way to win, Flame couldn't really find a reason to complain.

Kind of a missed opportunity to not have slipped in ‘Mankey work’ as a mythology gag to the series there. :V

Though I suppose that’s one way to make lemonade out of lemons. Even if that Excadrill was probably side-eyeing them as they left if Flame wasn’t visibly limping off. o<o

Thankfully, Alice decided to continue the conversation herself. "So, how about the mission? What did you think of it?"

"It was … interesting, to say the least. Although to be honest, those dungeon places creep me out. Getting lost and almost having my leg chewed off didn't really help either."

<>

"Flame, you must stay close to us within dungeons," Alice compelled him with a tone of urgency. "Fall behind even a little bit, and the stairway might send you off to a completely different place."

<>

"Sorry… It's just that, I-I didn't realise…" Flame blurted out, his mouth curled into a frown. <>

"Hey, relax. I'm positive that with a bit of time and experience, you will glide through them like a breeze," she reassured him with a warm smile. "Do you see yourself getting used to all this?"

Flame smiled back a little, calmed by her words. "Actually, I think I could. Can't say I enjoyed the endless trek to get there, though."

Alice grinned playfully. "You think that one hour walk and back was exhausting? Try doing eight. Treehound Cove is the closest dungeon to Aesernia you can get."

I think that this segment is missing a bit of body language / reaction, since a few of these lines feel a bit sudden coming right off each other. The spots marked with <> I think are logical places to slip in some extensions to the scene.

The first one feels like it should show Alice react a bit to Flame’s statement and the gears turn in her head before giving that chide of “don’t do that sort of thing again”. The second feels like a logical place for Flame to get a touch visibly defensive and taken aback. And the third seems like a good place to explicitly put Alice back in a more amiable mood.

Also, would suggest changing “remain together” to “stay close to us” or something similar to it.

As the two lay in calm, the Charmeleon's thoughts began floating back to the previous day's events. He remembered his encounters with that Pidgeotto and that Paras, and just how defenceless he felt through it all…

The only reason I made it out is because my friends were there to cover my back. Flame reflected. But … they can't afford to babysit me all the time, not after everything they've already done for me! If I am to be worth something, I need to learn to defend myself.

Something about “in calm” feels strange. Maybe something like “in quiet calm” is sufficient to smooth it out, but it might also make sense to jump down a completely different train of thought like “down in their tent” or something like that.

As for learning to defend yourself, Flame… I mean, you could always start by chucking some Geo Pebbles. Oh, and also being a bit less clingy to the pair who almost turned you in for bounty money. :P

"Hey, Alice. Guess what?" the gecko asked with a sly grin stuck on his face, arms crossed together.

Yeah, thanks for noticing me… Flame grunted quietly.

The Dragonair raised her head, staring at Gaius hopefully. "Did we get it?"

Expecting the question, Gaius smirked even wider, and pulled out a handful of coins from the bag, displaying them proudly. "Damn right we did."

Alice's eyes lit up at the sight of the currency. Gently, a joyful smile spread across her features. "I can't believe it… We actually succeeded! We got our reward!"

Flame: “Wait, the ‘mon who put up this mission just paid up even though we were only able to find one of the researchers?”
Gaius: “I might have told ‘em that we found the rest of the researchers with some Paras holes in their heads along with that Elmore ‘mon.”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “But isn’t that lying, Gaius?”
Gaius: “I mean, even if we didn’t see them, it’s probably what happened to them assuming they didn’t get eaten by Nidos. Besides, do you really want to go back there to find the rest of their corpses?”
Flame: “Okay point taken.”
401076862924750848.png


She then turned to address the Charmeleon, her voice overloaded with candour. "Flame, do you realise just how important this is? It's been so long since we completed an assignment, I almost forgot how relieving it felt!"

Flame: “Uhm… just how long has that been again?” ._.;
Alice: “Long enough that Gaius’ idea of turning in an -ahem- bagauda honestly seemed like the most rational course of action.”
701630550720512120.png

Flame: “(Okay, so long enough that I probably don’t want to know, then.)” ._.;

The Dragonair then continued. "And a good part of the merit goes to you. I knew that letting you on the team was the best option for everyone. Not regretting the decision in the slightest."

Visibly irritated, Gaius's lip twitched briefly, but decided not to speak out.

Flame: “Oh come on Gaius. You still don’t want me on the team after you finally took home reward money because of me?” >_>;
Gaius: “Yes? This was literally because of a lucky fluke and we all know it!” >.<
Alice: “Gaius, let’s not look the gift horse in the mouth here, okay?” -_-;

Gaius rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. The jury is still out there, though." His expression stabilised, caught in the feeling of accomplishment that hung around in the tent. "Anyway, Myco asked that we pass by his office later on. So keep that in mind. Right now, I gotta go."

"Uh? To where?" Flame asked him, getting up on his feet.

"Err … I have a few … errands to take care of. Meanwhile, the two of you can go do something productive. As long as you don't spend all of our money, of course."

"Productive? Like…?" Alice inquired, confused at the vague terminology.

"Don't give me that face, Alice." Gaius said. "I'm sure you can come up with something decent. That's what that big brain of yours is good at, isn't it?"

With those last words, the Grovyle parted the exit with his claws and walked away, leaving the two alone once again.

Alice heaved a sigh. "… You'll never change, will you?"

He totally went out drinking there, didn’t he? :V

The building that stood before them was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous temple-like structure, its lacteous concrete deteriorated by years of exposure to rain and vandals. The sturdy columns that kept the whole structure from collapsing on itself looked worn and smelt of a variety of unpleasant odours. It was as though the building was desperate to keep its eye-pleasing facade up, even in spite of the obvious neglect.

From where Flame stood it was easy to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the caption that ran above the entrance:

COGNITIO EST VIGOR.

KNOWLEDGE IS STRENGTH.


"Um … What is this place?" Flame asked bemusedly.

"This right here is Aesernia's very own Imperial Library." Alice explained with a pinch of pride in her voice. "As far as I've heard, it's one of the few scattered about the northern provinces. You're very lucky to have ended up in this town in particular, you know that?"

Flame: “... Could’ve fooled me with an appearance like that.”
Alice: “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Come on, let’s go inside.”

"Oh. Yeah, I guess so." Flame muttered. "Not meaning to sound rude, but what exactly are we here for? Something you need to look into?"

She looked at him as if he was missing the point entirely. "No, Flame. We're here for you." she jerked her tail in his direction for added effect.

"Wait, are you saying…"

"Exactly. See, the thought of your amnesia crossed my mind, and how horrible it must feel not knowing anything, so … you know, I figured this would be a good place to commence your recovery."

One of those mysteries that has yet to be revealed by the story at this point in time is how Flame’s able to read the same script used in Urbe without missing a beat. I mean, the easy solution would’ve been that the script they’re using here was introduced by Our Benefactors, though that makes a few things that Flame reads later in the story that predate their arrival a mystery in and of themselves.

… unless Our Benefactors were interacting with Urbe much earlier on than the historical record captured. After all, it could explain a few things about how Urbe’s broad strokes history happens to track that of the Urbe of our world.


Flame: “Wait a minute, how do we even know that I’ll be able to read any of this?”
Alice: “You read the sign on the library just fine, didn’t you? These books are written in the same script, so I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
- Beat moment -
Flame: “(Did I really come from the South after all? Or otherwise how do I know how to read this script?)”

Inside, the library didn't look quite as run down as it did on the front; beyond the modest atrium, the only features present were the rows after rows of tall wooden bookshelves, most of which were only partially filled with books. Bright blue orbs were affixed to the ceiling to act as a lighting source. As Flame and Alice explored its many lanes, the wooden floor boards groaning under the strain of their weight, the occasional visitor could be seen wandering around, or sat at one of many tables.

- Flame gawks about the surrounding library and the walls and walls of books -
Flame: “So wait, just what are all of these books about anyways?”
Alice: “Everything you can imagine! Dictionaries, atlases, historiographies, books of art and science!” ^^
- Flame squirms a bit at Alice’s visible excitement -
Flame: “Uh… do they have any light reading? Those sound like they’d hurt my head even without amnesia.”
Alice: “I mean, we are here to help you learn about your surrounding world. But there’s no shortage of things to read here for your own amusement! Novels, plays, satires…”
Virgo: “Oh sweet! They’ve got the new issue of Playdrake in!”
- Alice and Flame turn their heads just in time to catch a Gabite sauntering past with a toothy grin and beelining for the checkout counter -
Flame: “What’s an ‘issue of Playdrake’ and why’s that guy there so eager to read it?”
- Alice hems and haws a moment -
Alice: “It’s a not particularly respectable magazine that some Pokémon find… entertaining. And that’s all you need to know about it.” >.<

Just saying, you totally missed a chance to slip in an early bird cameo of Virgo in the actual text given what he says he’s been up to in his introduction next chapter.
803821849384583219.png


"See if you can find anything that looks interesting, okay?" Alice suggested. "Just let me grab something, and I'll head right back to you."

Fine. Guess I'll just have to look through each one then… She must have chosen this shelf for a reason, after all. Flame supposed, extending his arm to buckle the dusty books out of place and judge their helpfulness. His eyes glazed over a few titles.

'Our Benefactors' sounded intriguing, but he didn't have the luxury to read for leisure, so he placed it back into its slot.

Flame: "Also, it'd be gigantic spoilers just four chapters in. Moving on!"

It still gets me that the entire tone and pace of the story in the earlier section could’ve been wildly different had Flame’s curiosity gotten the better of him here.

After a whole line of uninteresting titles, he caught another one. 'The Kingdom, the Republic, and the Empire: the history of our great nation.'

Flame's interest peaked: this actually looked informative! He attempted to extract the volume from its position, but then noticed with alarm that its pages were bloated so thick that it would have looked more proper at a construction site.

This is way too long, I can't possibly read it all. There must be something simpler… he thought with a sort of vague distaste, looking back at the twenty-something texts he'd already inspected. None of them looked remotely like what he was looking for.

OQSdX1r.gif


I still wanna see what’s in that book someday to play spot the difference with Real!Urbe’s history and its analogous eras. Since it’s just cruel to tease 700+ years of history across three distinct eras and never delve into it. >:V

Thankfully, fortune seemed to be on his side for once. After a bit of disoriented lingering, his digits came to rest on a particular book, its title inscribed on a slightly bleached cover.

'Encyclopedia of the species: a brief overview of every Pokémon.'

Well, it certainly sounds more dignified than ‘Encyclopedia Pokémonis’
803821849384583219.png


Taking a seat at the ruggedly carved table, he laid the heavy book down and opened its pages at a random point. What his eyes were greeted with was about three pages of text dedicated to a family of living rocks with arms and faces, and an image detailing each one of them.

Overlooking the sheer bizarreness of those creatures, he wondered what entry he should take a look at first. Maybe he could look at the Dragonair entry, or the Grovyle one, to find out what his teammates were capable of, or perhaps that creepy Paras bug…

… Or maybe he could use it to learn more about himself.

I mean, they say to write what you know. If you’re starting from a complete blank of knowledge, reading what you know probably isn’t a bad idea either. o<o

He read and reread each word until he could be sure they'd been assimilated into his head—perhaps lingering a little too long in the 'Reproduction' segment—and just then, he heard Alice return behind him.

Flame turned around, a paw covering the pictures on the page he'd been reading. The Dragonair was holding a roll of paper in the corner of her mouth, but looked as though she'd already done it a thousand times.

"Hope I didn't take too long," she spoke fluently, passing next to the table, scrutinising the open book. "What are you reading?"

Ah yes, fantastic timing to be caught reading about that. Since that’s only marginally less embarrassing getting walked in on reading Virgo’s preferred genre of… ahem, entertainment.
803821849384583219.png


"That's not a bad idea," Alice commented, shifting the roll of paper with her jaw to keep it in place. "Learning a bit about your own species should help you regain some sense of identity, not to mention battle prowess. Anything about fire attacks in there?"

"No, the book is kind of vague about that subject. It says here that my species is adept at breathing fire since birth, but that doesn't really help me much." He stared at her for a moment, reflecting. "Maybe I have a dysfunction of some kind… ?"

More like you should find a better encyclopedia, Flame. :V

Realising his tactlessness, he nodded in apology and lowered his eyes to the table. Spread across its surface was a fair sized map, representing the outline of a rugged peninsula enclosed by the sea on all but one side. More or less small islands littered the southern coastline, while a tall mountain range, acting as a natural barrier of sorts, ran along the peninsula's only land border. The edges of the map were ripped and torn slightly from use.

"Alright, so," Alice drew a breath, foreboding a long speech. "Seeing as there is always a chance that our job may require us to travel far and wide, it would do you good to learn about the geography of the Empire. For a start, see if you can find Urbe on the map. Bet you can do it in under five seconds."

Flame: “... What’s that landmass wedged on the eastern fringe that just goes off the map anyways? The one labeled ”Basileia?”
Alice: “That’s an outlying province. I tried to stick with places that were closer by since they’d be more relevant for us. Basileia’s basically a backwater and I can’t imagine we’d ever need to go there...”
Flame: “(Kinda defeating the point of trying to learn about the Empire’s geography if we’re not seeing the whole sweep, but whatever. She’s probably right. I doubt we’re going to go on a whole lot of long-distance journeys with the sort of money problems we have.)”

"This one?" Flame tapped a claw on the spot.

"Exactly. Urbe is the capital of the Empire, centre of knowledge and the fine arts. 'Tis the richest and most populated city in our lands—some say the world. Aesernia looks like a tiny hamlet in comparison; trust me, I lived there for most of my life."

"You lived in Urbe?" Flame asked, enchanted by her description of the city, "How was it? And why move over here?"

Alice sharply ignored those questions, acting as though she hadn't even heard him—though a strange glimmer in her eyes and a sudden rigidness in her stance suggested otherwise. Before he could start worrying about whether he said something wrong, her friendly expression came back within seconds.

"Anyway, memorise all the major cities and dungeons you see there. I want this map burnt into your brain by the end of the week." she added with a wry quirk of her lip, her tone feigning severity.

Flame: “O… kay? (What on earth was that reaction about?)”

Flame decided to let those questions hang, and did just as advised, starting in the south of the peninsula and moving upward. The major settlements of Portus, Urbe and Agia Marina met the eye among many others, as well as a few mystery dungeons scattered along the coast or on one of the many isles. The number of cities dwindled as one travelled north, instead replaced by a much higher concentration of mystery dungeons. And up there, sitting on a lonely stretch of plains, was Aesernia.

51664855.jpg


My money’s still on Agia Marina being the setting’s stand-in for Neapolis/Naples. I can see that Greek name there, and it’s important enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Urbe.

"Uh, Alice…" Flame started, having just noticed something odd. "Why is the land up there so hazy?"

His claw pointed to the stretch of earth extending beyond the northern mountains, where the map's author had seemingly drawn clouds to obscure the area. Yet confusingly it was part of a greater landmass, seeing as there quite clearly wasn't any ocean there.

Alice checked behind her before addressing his question. "Flame, that place is what we refer to as 'the wasteland'. The reason it's obscured is quite simple: no one knows what it looks like, or what territories lie beyond our border. Obviously, we know that there is something out there, but the hordes of Scum roaming the area make any attempt at exploration suicidal."

Flame: “And it’s just always been like this?”
Alice: “I mean, the last big expeditions to try and explore them were in the early days of the Empire. They… didn’t exactly end well, to say the least.”

Flame turned in his seat, facing Alice directly. "What's with these Scum? You keep mentioning them, but I haven't the slightest idea of who or what they are."

Seeing as the Dragonair was staring at him pensively, he nervously added: "If … if you wouldn't mind explaining, of course."

Alice shook her head. "It's fine. You deserve to know, especially with all that's been going on lately. It all started twenty years ago. One day, we lost contact with some of our northernmost settlements. Messages and caravans of silver from the nearby mines stopped flowing all of a sudden, so Civil Protection assembled a rescue team to scour the towns and figure out what was wrong."

"And? What happened there?" Flame asked, curious to find out what kind of individuals might have been behind his amnesia.

"They never saw it coming. Turns out, a massive army had razed the towns to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants, and proceeded to do the same with the rescue team. A few survivors managed to turn back, and news spread of the incident. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock at the time, and although a legion quickly beat them back from the towns, ever since then … they just keep coming. Attacks are a daily occurrence now…" She cleared her throat. "But I'm sure things will get better. Someday."

>look at setting
>look at literally any history book

youre_serious_futurama.gif


After a few moments of silence, Flame spoke up. "Hey, so, I was just thinking … thanks for bringing me here." he said softly, fiddling with his claws as he looked at Alice. "I feel like this is really helping me out. Could … could we come back some other time?"

"Most certainly. I'll try to bring you here whenever our mission schedule allows for it." A sudden grin crossed the Dragonair's face. "Oh, by the way, I think I remember seeing an image book about Urbe and the south in another section. Want to see what home looks like?"

Flame's expression faltered. Seconds passed in silence as the two exchanged blank stares.

"Uh? Did I say something wrong?" asked Alice, puzzled at his shift in behaviour. "Look, if you want to stay here some more, that's fine. I was just making a suggestion…"

Slipping up a bit there, Alice. o3o

Flame: “Wait, ‘what home looks like’? Not ‘what your home looks like’?”
- Alice hems and haws a bit -
Alice: “I mean, I’m from the South too, so… it’s kinda my own as well.”
Flame: “I don’t think it can hurt, I guess. (So then why was she so evasive about this earlier?)”

But now, regardless of how Flame felt about it, both she and Gaius seemed to genuinely believe that he was born in the south. For reasons he couldn't fathom, they trusted him enough to take his word for it. Dangerous connotations arose with that thought: could he mold an image to his favour simply by telling them lies? It would certainly make life much easier for him, especially now that he was learning bits and pieces about the world around him. That way, just maybe, he could avoid uttering the wrong thing at the wrong time, possibly infuriate his teammates, lose the only pokémon he could rely on…

Not one second after those thoughts wandered into his head, a tremendous guilt forced them back out. These were his friends! Why on earth were ideas of somehow manipulating his first and only friends even entering his brain? After everything the two had done to give him a chance at life, was this how he would pay them back?

I mean, your accent does canonically sound like a Southerner’s, Flame. (Or at least at the time of reading anyways.) Though shame you don’t have a douchey, reality-warping Mismagius to help keep you in line like another Charmeleon protagonist from an imploding imperial setting. Seems like you could use a hand not succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome there. :V

I mean, I suppose Daedalus arguably fills the role on that front, but he’s not exactly directly interacting with Flame or the other members of Team Phalanx at this point in the narrative.

Flame slowly parted the first few pages, revealing an artist's representation of what appeared to be a majestic square with a fountain erected in its centre, rows of elegant plants donning the image with an aura of solemnity.

Alice smiled slightly at the sight. "Ah, look! The communal gardens in Urbe! I remember all the afternoons spent playing there as a cub… "

"It sure looks beautiful…" commented Flame kind of distantly.

"Hey, who knows, maybe you too went there in your youth. I mean, I can't really recall ever seeing any Charmander running about, but then again my memories are quite fuzzy. Does any of this feel familiar to you?" she gave him an optimistic smile. "Maybe if we keep looking, we might just unearth some memory from your past."

Not pictured in said book: all the squalid insulae right down the hill that have a tendency to catch fire and spontaneously collapse from substandard construction quality.

Though I’m surprised she’d never recall seeing Charmander down there. After all, they’re Dragon-types in this setting, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from reading around this year, it’s that Chars make for particularly dutiful and loyal servants. Even if they can get a touch naive and childish. :V

"Hm. For some reason, I had a feeling I'd find you here," Gaius said, shifting his eyes around disinterestedly. "Guess you could call this 'productive.'"

Flame: "Wait, you did? Because there was an awful lot to see in Aesernia even before almost getting dragged into wall repairs."
Gaius: "Well duh. It's because Alice is a giant dork who basically just needs a pin drop to go and give an infodump."
Alice: "Wait, so since we're all here, maybe we could get to that copy of The Kingdom, the Republic, and the Empire-"
Flame + Gaius: "No."

"What is it? Finally decided to spend some actual time with your team?" Alice asked, traces of scorn present in her voice.

Gaius delivered her a dismissive glare. "Sorry, but I'm not interested in your little history lesson here. Ariel just contacted me. She wants us in her office ten minutes from now."

Flame + Alice:
401074476474957834.png

Flame: “I don’t suppose we could get into that history book now could we-?”
701630550720512120.png

Gaius: “Flame, we’re not blowing off Ariel. Get up and get moving already!” >:(

"Your Majesty, as you are surely aware I have always been one of your most faithful servants, and would never dare to cast doubt upon your genius. However, your recent decision to personally employ particular members of Task Force Aegis has stirred a great amount of controversy within my ranks.

The discovery of barbarian encampments so deep into our territory is certainly a cause for worry, make no mistake. I assure you that a full investigation is underway, as well as toughened security measures.

But that begs the question: is it wise to send out a group whose track record consists almost entirely of failures? Considering the delicacy of this mission's outcome, it is my obligation to remind you that there are many other teams in this Task Force who would be just as willing to take their place.

You made your choice and I have followed through with it. Just don't expect a positive outcome."

Recommending the changes in bold there. Also missing an attribution to Ariel there. Or if you wanted to disguise it at this point in the story, an attribution to something like the ‘office of the Governor of Aesernia Province’.

Flame: “I-I’m sorry, did that text just say that there were barbarian encampments discovered nearby here? As in Scum encampments?” o_o;
Alice: "... Not gonna lie, with a teaser like that, Flame might have been onto something about running away from the plot. It’s sounding pretty tempting to ditch Aesernia and go and bum around in Capri for a while." ._.
Gaius: "Alice? Capri is where the richest and fattest Southerners sit around lazing about on holiday! (And I’m pretty sure the Emperor owns the place and that you need to be a serious ass-kisser to be allowed onto it.)”
Alice: “(Or be in his family and get exiled there. That works too.)”
- Gaius rolls eyes -
Gaius: “Look, the point is, we're broke. Even if we get let onto the island, how in the hell do you expect us to afford to get down there? Let alone do anything there other than just sit and watch clouds go by from the bushes?"
Flame: "Yeah, plus from the way you're talking about her I’m pretty sure this 'Ariel'’s going to personally put our heads on pikes if we try and run away from her. So… for our own self-interest, maybe let’s entertain these fantasies of skipping out from the plot after we get that over with and keep our heads safely on our shoulders.
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Kudos for the chapter and hope the feedback was helpful @Shadow of Antioch . I’ll be looking forward to seeing our favorite ironically-named Gabite and bookworm Umbreon of dubious backgrounds pop up next time and see what details I missed the first go-around. ^^
 
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Chapter VII: Invictus

Shadow of Antioch

Viaggiatore
Location
Messina, Italy
Pronouns
he/his
Partners
  1. charmeleon
Chapter VII: Invictus


"The invasions are a small price to pay. Urbe can be defended; Our Benefactors have already guaranteed their support to that end.

Unfortunately, for the time being, that can only happen if and when we get to the bottom of the disappearance. If our state is to preserve any dignity, then it is vital that their project is finalised. Two legions have already been diverted to investigate.

I expect the Praetorian Guard to deal with the issue at hand swiftly, as we all know what stalling would entail."


Emperor Adrian's Decree.


Senate House, Urbe

A door flew open in the expansive palace hall, echoing faintly throughout its marble domes and arches. Imperial banners hung motionless from the upper levels, tinted of bright red and depicting a proud, heraldic eagle, with the letters SPQU stamped below its talons.

The Dragonite's lip twitched, and he nearly had to take a step back, so strong was the aura of grandeur. Although he'd entered this room more times than he could recall, on this particular day, it felt close to overwhelming. Rain drops flicked endlessly against the glass panes embedded in the roof—no way of telling how late he was.

Clutching the door handle with a soggy paw, he leaned his head inside, eyes darting around the hall.

"Sycorax! Where are you? Sycorax!" he called out tentatively. Only the echo of his own voice answered.

The dragon didn't bother to shut the door behind him. He brought a paw to clutch his throbbing cranium, and barely managed to hold back a grimace. For all he knew the Senate had already convened, yet he couldn't find the energy nor the will to hurry.

As he trudged forward, his eyes were glued to the intricate mosaic underneath his very feet. It depicted a gloomy and tempestuous sea: the Imperial fleet had just inflicted a decisive blow on the enemy ships, which now lay scattered in the treacherous waters. Scores of creatures plunged overboard as their vessels ripped apart, others desperately clinched whatever was at sea to remain afloat, others yet attempted vainly to grab on to the Imperial flagship. On its deck—

His heart nearly fluttered at the sight. There stood a Dragonite, tall and proud, arm held out in a salute. Light descended upon it from a breach in the clouds, akin to a hero receiving the blessing of the gods.

A volatile smile caught his face unprepared. Images swept through his head, fragments drawn from easier times: stories about his father, of the anarchy brought forth in the Year of the Seven Emperors, of the role he played in holding together the entire world...

It was only when a puddle of rainwater started to form over the delicate mosaic that he noticed just how soaked his scales really were. The Dragonite shook his wings and arms as vigorously as he could, and hurried down a hallway—the carpet would absorb the mess.

I don't understand; even after all I have tried, nothing seems to work. What is it that I don't have, but he did? He kept his chin down, his stare drilling a hole unto the rug.

Past the lavish gold decorations, dozens of paintings dotted the hallway's length. It was with a sort of vague distaste that he spotted the portrait of a different, younger Dragonite draped in his imperial robes, a fairly recent addition to the hall.

Flavius Hadrianus Augustus, the caption read.

Adrian didn't loiter around to gawk at it. In the end, it only made him feel more stupid than renowned (not to mention fat).

As the dragon contemplated the myriad of ways the hearing could go wrong, a soft voice seeped in through one of the doors on the side; he recognised it at once, and knocked vigorously.

The door opened to reveal a purple insectoid pokémon. Its metal carapace gleamed under the will-o-wisp lamps, and its glass red eyes flickered at the sight of him.

"Oh—my emperor!"

In one hasty motion the Genesect brought a knee to the ground and bowed, the burdensome cannon on its back in full display.

Adrian witnessed the handful of other pokémon behind it mimic their superior. While such a gesture would at times create a lump in his throat, he nevertheless couldn't help but wear a smug grin for a moment.

"At ease, Sycorax." he nodded to accompany his words.

The general rose back to full height, stopping just below his chin. "My emperor, may I ask your reason for being here? The sitting has already begun."

Adrian tried his best not to cringe at the sound. Sycorax's voice could be described as artificial, both introduced and ended by a tiny yet noticeable bout of static. Its small mouth never moved whilst speaking either, suggesting that the source was hidden somewhere just behind it.

"Figures. I was on my way there just now. What's going on?"

Sycorax glanced back inside the room, where a few dozen pokémon stood round a table. "We were ... discussing your recent proposals to widen our manpower pool. Mandatory draft in the affected provinces sounds like a feasible idea, though some of my colleagues insist that it would only ... deepen tensions between the north and southern portions of our realm."

Adrian's brow furrowed. "Nonsense. I am confident that common sense can surmount such petty rivalries." He turned to leave. "Anything else, general?"

Sycorax paused, dragging his foot along the carpet, his leg armour clanking. "Well, yes. I have been informed pertaining to the letter Ariel wrote. Which disciplinary action shall be taken?"

The emperor looked downwards, and sighed. "None. Not this time. I suppose her concern is justified in some ways, yet ... the reason why I'm doing this goes beyond her or Civil Protection."

"But, my lord, she has insulted your judgment!"

Adrian looked in Sycorax's glowing eyes sternly. He motioned it to follow, and so the Genesect did.

"General, I know what I'm doing," he hissed, turning a corner, "Whether she approves or not, I shall continue to personally select operatives to carry out missions as long as it proves necessary. My choice has not been taken lightly. Relay these exact words to her."

Sycorax nodded quietly. "Understood. Do you wish for me to attend the hearing with you?"

Adrian gathered a half-smile. While it felt wrong to constrain the only subject he could stand into attending the entirety of the session, having a presence by his side would definitely take some pressure off him.

"... Yes. Let's just get this over with."

Despite still being out of view, the clamour seeping through the walls suggested that their destination was close. Adrian shut his eyes and filled his lungs in a deep gasp of air. Much to his dismay, the noise only became louder and louder, until they finally reached the Senate Hall.

The instant he stepped inside the room, all sounds within it ceased. Adrian took a long but unenthusiastic look of his surroundings: levelled on three broad steps, the senators sat arranged in a semi-circle pattern which could feasibly seat three-hundred pokémon—only a hundred or so were present. A gargantuan dome towered far above, while his throne rested opposite the formation, flanked by burning braziers.

Adrian felt each and every single pair of eyes homed in on his body, following his every movement. Silence. Only fount of noise in the room were his footsteps. He both detested and revered this illusory peace, for while it allowed him to think straight, the silence would quickly turn nerve-wracking.

Slowly, he made himself comfortable behind his platform, eyes dashing among the seats. He aligned his back correctly, while trying his best to ignore his heart thumping in his chest—just remember the speech, he repeated mentally. Once Sycorax took position by his side, every creature's eyes turned away from them and to the newcomer.

A procession of Gardevoir, each wrapped in a silky vest covering their hair, slowly strode to the centre of the room, just in front of Adrian's throne.

This is it, he thought, The meeting is starting. Better brace myself while I can...

Slowly, yet with an elegant gait, the lead Gardevoir set her knee down on one of the lower steps leading up to his seat, and bowed her head parallel to the ground for well over a minute. The memory awoke in his head—it all served as a throwback to an ancient event, the (forced) marriage of hundreds of females early in Urbe's history, when the city represented naught but a spot in the landscape.

Then, she rose and faced the senators, hands cusped as she composed herself. "Good morning to all. Thus begins the weekly convention of the Imperial Senate of Urbe."

Adrian could only hold himself back from openly showing his impatience. There was no ruler in his bloodline who gleed ancient traditions greater than himself, yet right now he wished nothing more than to dismiss the session at once.

"As the honourable members might recall, His Majesty has decreed that any disturbance deemed obstructive to the course of this session shall be dealt with accordingly." She paused, not least to let the message sink in.

"Psst, my emperor," Sycorax buzzed into his ear, "Do you wish to go over your speech again?"

"Y-yes. Thanks." Adrian gulped, gracefully accepting the paper sheet offered to him.

"... Of course, considering the continued state of emergency, there will be much to discuss. Now, it is my greatest honour to cede the floor to our divine ruler, Emperor Adrian Augustus!" With that, the Gardevoir stepped aside.

It was then that he realised the whole room was waiting for him to speak. And he still hadn't read a single line. Suddenly the whole speech he'd so meticulously prepared hazed; he couldn't remember anything beyond the introduction!

Calm. They can see your shaking, Adrian said to himself, If you bare your weakness, they'll pounce like dogs. You've got this.

He snuck a glance downwards between the middle and end lines, hoping to catch key words that would help him remember. There! That's what he wanted to say. Taking a deep breath, Adrian rose to his feet for the added effect, and sent a sweeping, hardened look toward the aisles.

"My senators. My ... friends," Adrian said with some reluctance, "As you may already be aware, this day holds great significance to our state. For a hundred-and-ten years ago, on this very day ... barbarian armies stood at the gates of Urbe."

Silence once again took over as he paused to carefully observe the reaction in the room. While there were more than a few whispers and disinterested faces among the audience, the subject captured enough attention for him to continue.

"Many deemed the situation unsalvageable, even suggested our unconditional surrender. Yet the Eternal City survived. It was because my father, then sitting upon this same throne, rallied this body together for the common good, ended months of obstructionism and passed much-needed reforms."

Murmurs arose from the crowd, and faces contorted in indignation. Was he doing this all wrong?

Adrian chewed his lip, but kept going, his tone rising. "Now, as I stand before you on this day, I ask you to come together to preserve our great nation. I realise that we may not find agreement for every sticking issue, but action must be taken! For the Senate and people of Urbe!"

When his heart rate settled and the soreness in his throat forced him to stop, Adrian crashed down on his throne. In between pants, he quietly wondered whether any meaningful result would arise from this sitting. To more or less blame his audience for the current state of affairs risked being a suicidal move, yet it needed to be said.

Then, one of the senators on the right side of the aisle, a Servine, stood up from her seat.

Adrian nodded. "Yes, senator, you may—"

"'Tis most ironic that you mentioned your father," the noble said, "Seeing as it was he who decreed that all bread in Urbe come from the northern fields. Meanwhile, food shortages province-wide are becoming increasingly the norm!"

Cheers of endorsement erupted from her section, and whoever had paws began clapping fervently.

The emperor grit his teeth. "Senator, I will not tolerate slander directed at my father! Besides, your claims are absolutely unfounded."

"Your rule has seen a silent slaughter of my people!" the Servine shouted unhindered, turning heads, "Just two days ago, Sperantia Nova was burnt to the ground by barbarian Scum. Your army was nowhere to be seen!"

"Senator, stand down!"

Suddenly, an entire aisle rose to their feet and burst in a chorus of 'Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!'

Adrian felt a lump forming in his throat. His heartbeat escalated with each series of chants, just as disorder took over further sections of the room. Next thing he knew, a Golduck amongst the rebellious stopped chanting, and shot a small ice beam just above Adrian's shoulder.

The emperor gasped as the ice beam missed his throne by millimetres, instead creating a rough patina on a wall behind him.

Sycorax dashed to his feet, assuming a battle position. "Order! Order! Guards, take them away!"

Adrian could only watch as a platoon of Bisharps converged on the Golduck's position, shoved it roughly to the ground and dragged the culprit off, as well as all those still hurling insults.

His eyes swam from those senators to the patch of ice on the wall behind him. The chorus continued.

Gods be with us...


Castra Aeterna – Outskirts

After more than half an hour of aimless wandering, Team Phalanx and their legionary escort were still advancing through the mystery dungeon, the fortress nowhere in sight. The freezing fog suffocated their figures, cancelled their surroundings completely—Gaius had ordered them to huddle together in a spearhead formation to avoid being swallowed by the whiteness. Flame knew that to walk out of formation would equate to vanishing from existence, a dark stain upon the purity of the mist.

At some point, a sturdy-looking stone wall at least three times taller than each of them appeared within their cone of vision. Many individual stones bore a pale brownish discolouration, and patches of vegetation flourished in between.

"Okay, we've reached the perimeter now," Gaius felt the wall with his claws, motioning the others to follow, "The wall feels sturdy; no use trying to bring it down. If we keep circling, there should be some kind of breach or gate we can use to get in."

As they travelled along the ancient wall, Flame's arm rubbing uncomfortably against Virgo's, he saw Alice intensely studying the wall in front of him.

"It doesn't make any sense..." she muttered, "How is this structure still in one piece? It must date back to the Republican era! You would think that by now all those years of abandonment and exposure to the elements would have taken their toll."

Yvaine perked her ears. "Mystery dungeons do not abide by the rules of time. It is a basic principle of dungeoneering."

"Yes, I know very well. Two years of going through these places has taught me as much," Alice said, "What has me perplexed is how ... fresh it looks. Surely it couldn't have been engulfed just a few days into disuse?"

"There is a feasible explanation, in my view," Yvaine pointed out, "The anomaly may have forced the garrison to evacuate while it was still operational."

Alice didn't look convinced. "Didn't mystery dungeons start appearing just over a century ago? Long after the establishment of the Empire?"

Yvaine's eyes widened in realisation, and she remained quiet for a few moments. "I suppose that is technically ... correct. We shall see."

The moment they stopped talking, Flame began reflecting on what had just been said.

So ... mystery dungeons didn't always exist? Odd. Might want to ask Alice if we can go to that library again, he thought, a small smile appearing on his face.

Right as he started musing about what he'd want to learn there, the order was given by Gaius to halt. What he didn't notice was the sudden, gaping void in the earth to await his next step, and suck him into free-fall.

Flame let out a high-pitched scream right before his maw smashed against a hard surface. Pain flared up through his face as the wood bent inward and shattered into splinters. He lay there aching for what felt like minutes, though probably amounted to less than that.

Gaius' voice echoed from above. "Damn it, I ordered you to stop, moron!"

With a considerable effort, Flame pushed himself up with his arms and clamped the side of his jaw—somehow not dislocated from the impact. Once his wobbly feet steadied, he surveyed his surroundings. A pair of unscalable walls flanked his sides, leaving little room to wiggle, while duckboards made of wood served as impromptu flooring. The passageway extended out of sight in both directions, strangely free of the fog that acted as a ceiling of sorts.

What is this place? he asked himself incredulously. Within seconds, blood rushed through his veins. The great barriers felt like they were going to crush him at any moment, and there was nowhere to move. Was it him, or did each breath suddenly become more laboured?

No. Calm down. There's no need to panic, he spun his head round, I'll climb out of here and get back to my friends.

Facing the wall to his right, he raised his paw tentatively and gripped the furthest brick he could reach. Moisture rested all over. It took some effort to stabilise his hold, as each embedded brick interlocked with the next almost perfectly, so minute was the space between them. Next came his foot, which, again, could barely prevent him from slipping under gravity's rule.

Flame's other paw trembled as he attempted to reach even higher up, but then he froze.

I can't. The gaps are too narrow. I'll hurt myself. I can't. he repeated in his head, and hopped back to the ground, back flattened against the opposite wall, defeated. There was nothing he could do; he truly was stuck in that cursed ditch.

It was then that he noticed his squadmates still calling out to him; keeping quiet would only make them worry more.

The voice of his team leader reached his ears once more. "Flame? Flame, can you even hear me?"

"Y-yeah, yeah, I can hear you. I'm here..." he trailed off, eyes wandering in both directions.

"About time! I was starting to think that you'd knocked your head a little too hard. Can you tell us what's down there?"

Flame picked his words carefully. "Looks like ... a trench, or a tunnel of sorts. I'm not sure."

Gaius hummed, his silhouette faintly discernible in the fog above. "Interesting. Must be part of the defence systems ... How steep is the fall?"

"Not too much; just make sure to brace yourselves beforehand." Flame said, and grasped his aching jaw.

The whole team stood quiet for a while, uncertainty reigning dominant. Flame could only turn his head in both directions in a nearly paranoid fashion while the others decided on a course of action.

"Listen, I don't think jumping down there is the best decision," Gaius spoke up, "What if the Scum are lurking in ambush? We'd be crammed in a single file, waiting to get slaughtered."

Flame's heart jumped a little when he heard that. No, they couldn't possibly do that to him, could they? He inhaled deeply. It was his fault, his fault.

"And what are we going to do, leave him behind?" said Alice, "You know that's preposterous."

"Yes, but maybe if he paid more attention to where he's going..."

Flame banged his fist against the wall, head tilted up to the Grovyle's silhouette. "N-no, wait! ... T-there's no fog down here! We're no less vulnerable here th-than inside all that fog!"

It was a fair point, he figured, especially considering that he came up with it on the spot—saying 'Please don't leave me alone' wouldn't have sounded very befitting.

"What difference does it make?" Gaius argued, "I don't want to jump into a ditch that can barely fit me!"

Just as Flame was about to counter his point with another plea, Yvaine's almost imperceptible voice could be heard. "I think your friend is correct. Splitting up would only render us more liable to being picked off one by one."

A moment of silence ensued, after which Gaius sighed audibly. "Ah, fine. We'll have it your way then."

Relief flooded Flame's body as his teammates jumped down one by one with a creaking thud. First among them was Gaius—he couldn't help but shrink back under that glare. To the best of their abilities, the five positioned themselves in a single file line. He prayed silently that nobody would make some witty remark, though considering the circumstances he probably deserved it.

"W-w-which way do we go?" asked Flame quietly, tail held forth like a torch.

Gaius pointed to the path leading away from the dungeon entrance.

They moved forward. The trench line snaked for what felt like an eternity, bending left and right and branching off in different directions at multiple points. In between the duckboard flooring, the ground was damp, and soft. There were puddles of mud in some places, which Flame took care to avoid: keeping his feet on the wood was already in itself a challenge.

He snuck a look behind his back. Alice and Virgo seemed quite comfortable, Yvaine as well. Were they still thinking of his mishap? Perhaps it wasn't the best moment to smother them with questions—nor, frankly, to lose himself in his thoughts.

No other form of life made their presence known, not even cockroaches, and deafening silence rumbled in his ears. Silence. A kind of quiet that bristled one's scales more than any sound could. There were only their footsteps, the creaking duckboards, and their every breath.

Flame bit his lip. He adjusted his pace ever so slightly to let Alice behind him catch up, and turned his head round.

"S-so ... Alice, what are we l-looking for?" he whispered to her, "The stairs, like last time?"

Alice sent him an encouraging smile. "Spot on. Admittedly though, I have yet to see a mystery dungeon tied to an artificial structure; only to landscape features. Not sure what to expect when we get there."

Flame nodded, and forced himself to stop playing with his tail. The path now led straight forward, with no turn in sight. He briefly wondered whether this meant they were getting somewhere.

"I believe I know how this system functions," Yvaine said, "Trenches serve as a secret passageway to bring in reinforcements and evacuate the wounded. In most designs, they are connected to an underground layer of the fort."

"That's promising," said Gaius with a noticeably flat voice, and glanced at Flame briefly, "Unless, of course, the dungeon's messed with its path."

Damn it, Flame cringed, I didn't think about that! It better not be the ca—

A sharp crack from underneath his feet derailed his train of thought completely and sent him tumbling in the mud, narrowly managing to catch himself before his face submerged. He squeezed his eyes shut and cringed as he slowly got up to his feet, the horrible liquid oozing down his scales. It coated his paws up to the wrists as well as his knees and feet. The sudden urge to vomit became quite appealing.

Audible chuckles sounded from behind Flame's back—he could bet his life it was Virgo.

"S-shut up!"

Yet that only led the Gabite to laugh harder. In front of him, Gaius merely shook his head.

"It-it's not f-funny!" he snapped, turning and hurling droplets of mud at the Gabite's face.

Borderline growling, he grabbed his tail again and signalled his leader to continue forth. Overt humiliation was about the last thing he desired right now.

Soon though, everyone's thoughts rose away from the scene when the path gradually began expanding outwards. A little further ahead, the path offered enough space for two fair-sized pokémon to stand side-by-side, though not at all comfortably. The wall too seemed to rise, when they understood that in fact it was the path which began sloping downwards.

"Flame, move ahead," Gaius ordered, "Looks like this is it."

For a moment, Flame cursed his tail flame for being so warm and fuzzy, and grudgingly took the lead of the expedition to light the road ahead. Only the path suddenly stopped. Within moments the object of the search became visible: a rough opening dug into a stone brick wall, coloured differently from the ones coating the trenches.

The group halted a small distance away. Flame leaned closer to peek inside the opening; pure blackness greeted him back.

"All right team," Gaius gave everyone a sweeping look, "Is everyone ready? Remember, we enter together and we stay together."

The Charmeleon huffed silently, and crossed his arms. Was that a jab at him? It better not have. Even though his legs were visibly trembling.

"Hey, you pumped yet?" Virgo put an arm on his shoulder, clamped down firmly. It wouldn't budge when Flame tried to shake it off. The legionary kept grinning, and pushed even rougher.

With a sigh, Flame conceded a tiny smile. "Yeah. I'm ready."

He wiggled out of the chokehold just when Gaius motioned them to follow. Tail in hand as always, he squeezed the tip for comfort, and stepped inside at once.


Castra Aeterna – B1F

The fortress' interior was larger than any structure he'd entered yet. If getting lost on the outside looked relatively easy, in here would be no different—the total absence of light meant that nobody could deviate too far from Flame for he served as a mobile torch.

The corridor they kept following would occasionally sneak into another direction or deviate abruptly, in such a way that no sane architect would ever plan. Moisture trickled down from the ceiling almost continuously. Every time his ember was hit, it flickered, and Flame shivered in response. Yet he preferred that to the humidity which would rush in his lungs after each breath. Sporadic rooms appeared erratically on the side of the corridor, with doors made of iron, wood, or merely absent.

At some point, curiosity overtook him; he opened a door and leaned his head inside to catch sight of the contents. A stack of ruined wooden crates, some no more than broken planks, rested in a corner, while a foul odour assaulted his nostrils at once. He yelped when a small bat-creature zoomed out of the room with a squeak.

"Hey! Keep up!" Gaius barked within three seconds of his straying away.

Flame fumbled with his tongue as he caught back up with his teammates, light flaring the path once again with its orange crackles. "Yes. S-sorry."

"There's nothing in there, you're wasting your time."

In that moment, Flame was tempted to dissent. Couldn't there be valuable items stashed inside somewhere? Then again, he grumbled mentally, perhaps there weren't. What with the dungeon seemingly distorting every norm of reason for its own purposes, it didn't take a leap of faith to believe.

Better not take unnecessary detours, he supposed.

"You know, there's a lot of stories circulating about mystery dungeons." Virgo began, "Not sure if you civvies heard them. There's one which says that dungeons are a gateway between our world and a parallel dimension, and that the two will eventually collide."

Alice shut her eyes, and heaved. "Yes, and there's also the bedtime stories about naughty children being taken here if they misbehave. Do you honestly believe such fiction?"

"Well, gee, sorry Ms. Smartass. If you have a better idea, feel free to share."

"I'm not insinuating I could possibly comprehend these anomalies; just that you're—"

Then, Yvaine suddenly halted, and perked her ears. "Hold on a moment."

Once again, as everyone turned to stare she held still, eyes shut and head pointed towards the ceiling, the rings on her body casting a warm glow upon the nearby shadows.

Each of them waited quietly for her curious ritual to come to fruition (whatever that might have been). Then, her face convulsed into a sharp grimace, almost as though in pain.

"Well? What do you see?" Virgo asked, bringing a claw to his chin.

Yvaine bit her lip, holding her breath. "There is ... something. But..." her legs quivered for a moment, and a strained groan sounded in her throat. "I ... cannot explain. Too hard. Too much interference."

The Umbreon's eyes flew open, and she brought her head down to catch her breath.

Virgo narrowed his eyes and creased his brow. "What, seriously? I thought your quirky dark 'powers' were infallible."

"It matters not," Yvaine lifted her chin and turned away, "We shan't need them anyway. Let us move along."

The group resumed their systematic exploration of the floor. Flame led the way for obvious reasons, but never strayed from Gaius' side just in case. The ceiling, walls and floor of the dungeon looked anything but pristine, yet he couldn't help but wonder how many years had gone by since any pokémon—well, a sane one—set foot inside.

Despite the barely perceptible noises in the distance, no wild pokémon jumped them by surprise. Though that didn't prevent Flame from feeling increasingly on edge. The humidity wasn't helping either.

Close to representing an omen for the future, a dust-showered skull from a horned creature jutted out of the ground, lying camouflaged amongst one of the many piles of dirt and debris (Virgo joked that they looked very much alike).

As the team explored the floor, the paths began to unwind. Or rather, the complementary corridors and rooms had all caved in, effectively leaving them no option but to march in one direction. Though this was only the first layer of the anomaly, things were surprisingly calm so far.

We didn't meet anything yet, Flame reflected, Maybe our numbers are what's keeping ferals away. Granted, I'd still prefer if we got out of here as quickly as possible...

It was then that they located the stairwell. It jutted out of the floor all of a sudden, leading up to the ceiling and digging a path upwards. One could have plausibly considered it part of the original structure if it weren't for the unnatural positioning in the middle of the room. Behind it, an opening led to somewhere deeper inside the dungeon's bowels.

Yeah, no thanks. Flame told himself sarcastically as he tried to keep his eyes away from the penetrating darkness.

Wasting no time, Team Phalanx unanimously ascended the steps.

Castra Aeterna - B2F

One thing became clear to Flame the moment he emerged on the next floor: his system had definitely not habituated to the motion sickness. He rested his shoulder to a surface while everybody made sense of the new surroundings.

Rather than yet another labyrinthine corridor, they found themselves inside a room wider than any prior. Dusty cabinets lined the wall, only some of them holding contents. There was even a desk covered with some sort of map and strewn papers, while a torn banner hung just above it. Beyond the rips and wear, the words 'Legio XI: Aeterna' could be read just below a figure representing a once majestic eagle.

"Hmm ... Looks like you were pretty much right," Virgo elbowed his partner's shoulder and pointed at the writing, "Imperial fortress. That number look familiar to you?"

Yvaine shook her head. "Disbanded. Quite some time ago."

Flame stared at the banner for a few seconds, then at the legionaries, then back at the banner. None of that made much sense to him—perhaps a secret military code? Oh well; someone would likely force him to learn it one of these days.

However, the inscription stopped holding much significance as soon as he examined the landscape more thoroughly. Something was off. He spun his head round again and again, trying to pinpoint which detail was getting under his scales.

"We're ... trapped." he realised.

"Trapped?" Alice replied, tilting her head at him.

"T-there's no—I can't see a door, or any kind of opening. No way out." he gulped, and let the others see for themselves.

Indeed, the walls looked smooth and well chiseled the entire length, almost as if an entrance had never even been considered in the planning phase.

"What? No ... That's impossible," Gaius mumbled as he paced around the room, "I've seen an anomaly play stupid tricks, but never like this. Check behind the cabinets. There has to be a way out."

Hearing that, Flame nodded vehemently, and faced the nearest cabinet. He paused for a moment. Inside were all in all about a dozen books and tomes, their covers irreversibly discoloured, and just as many singular documents. The thought entered his head that they may have been important, but the haste with which the rest of the team got to work nagged him to continue regardless.

With his feet anchored to the ground, Flame rested his shoulder upon the wood cabinet, inhaled sharply and channelled all the energy he could muster to his arm. The bookshelf creaked as it became subject to so much force after an ungodly long period of time.

It slid an arm's length, so he pushed again with a groan, trying not to lose his balance.

What did lose it instead was the cabinet itself, when a supporting shelf on the opposite side spontaneously collapsed. He wisely decided to take a step back as the whole cabinet began to slowly tip forward, before it crashed to the ground in a shower of dust and splinters.

Flame stood there awkwardly, eyeing the papers now scattered at his feet. Well, that's ... one way to do it...

Unfortunately for him, no gaping hole was to be seen in the spot previously concealed by the cabinet. Only more wall. Looking around the room, he noticed similar results from by his teammates.

"Any luck?" he asked, just as Gaius toppled the last piece of furniture big enough to hide an exit.

"Fuck! Just what we needed..." Gaius kicked a half book, scattering the pages all over. "It's like we ended up in a goddamned cage."

"Oh, stop making such a big fuss," Virgo said, "First time for everything, right?"

"Just shut your mouth and let me think." Gaius growled as he paced back and forth.

"Um ... What now? Isn't there an item, or something like that which could help?" Flame spoke the first thing that came to mind.

"Well ... we did pack an escape orb for emergencies," Alice tapped her bag with her tail, "So there's little risk of dying here, but ... jettisoning the mission like this? It'd spell the end for us. Ariel would ... we can't." she seemed to cringe for a moment, and shook her head.

The news that their fate wouldn't be that of starvation in some demented tomb alleviated his nerves, though only somewhat. An exit still needed to be found for there to be any chance of completing the mission.

"Would a blast seed help?" Yvaine offered, "A single one should be enough to open a breach."

Gaius stopped, mumbling to himself. "Could do... I say we inspect the wall, try to find a weak spot. No need to waste more items than necessary."

As the rest of the team made preparations for the plan, Flame drifted off to the other side of the room. Bored out of his wits, he approached the desk, rested his paws on its surface, leaned down to gaze at the plethora of documents and papers scattered all over. A faded map drew an overview of the surrounding area: the fortress system was detailed extensively—trenches, walls, and artillery positions all marked accordingly, built into the valley and surrounding forest.

He grabbed one of the many documents, holding it in his paws. The paper was so yellowed, so full of smears and crumbles that no angle helped it become more readable. He laid it back and grasped another; this one more or less comprehensible. With a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes, he began reading:

Lieutenant Arcadius, 15 March 508 AUC

New prisoner came in the other day. Guards saw someone trespassing, so they brought him in; didn't see it myself, but from what I heard nobody could recognise what it was.

Then the next day an Espeon of the Praetorian Guard barged in with a Senatorial mandate. Warned us of another incident like this happening, and then she wiped the memories of any guards who'd seen the prisoner, and the cellkeepers too. Cell found empty after she left. No trace of the prisoner. Honorius won't say a word...


Just as he finished reading that paragraph, the sound of Yvaine's voice intruded upon his privacy.

"Everyone, hold still."

Flame raised an eyebrow, noting that never had her voice sounded so troubled. He turned round to face her, as did the other pokémon.

The Umbreon stood rigid as stone, gaze lost towards the ceiling. "No movement. We may have a problem here." she said in a whisper.

Everyone followed her judgment, and held still, eyes darting to where a threat may lie (he didn't understand—where could a feral possibly hide from them?)

"Sure it's not 'voices' again? We still need to talk 'bout that..." whispered Virgo.

"Quiet." Yvaine said, "I'm positive this time. There could be—"

The legionary never ended that sentence, as she quickly shot her head to the side, gathered a pulse of dark energy in her mouth and hurled it forth in a fraction of a second. It took Flame a second to realise something: it was aimed straight at him!

There was barely any time for his brain to react as the projectile—oh! But the pulse stopped short of him and exploded in mid-air. Only when a shriek rumbled his eardrums, and a dark, gaseous sphere took form did he understand that he had never been the target.

The ghastly shrill reverberated in every corner of the room for a moment longer, before the gases dissipated into thin air.

"What—what was that?" Flame gasped.

"Form on me," Yvaine ordered, "And get ready. There will be more."

No pokémon questioned her plan—not even Gaius, who would normally throw a tandrum about being ordered around as team leader. They stood in a pentagonal form in the middle of the room, eyes bolting around frantically. Nothing further had appeared after three interminable minutes, though Flame couldn't shake off some peculiar feeling, as though they were being watched. Shadows were dancing at the edge of his vision, and he heard, somewhat muffled as if far away, malicious cackles.

"Above us," Yvaine said, "They are idling. Observing."

"You haven't answered my question," Flame grit his teeth, "What is 'they'? The Scum?"

"Perhaps," Yvaine never moved a facial muscle, "Or, they could be ferals. It remains to be seen."

Wow, nearly thought you were going to be helpful for once. he was tempted to say aloud, before remembering that it would be extremely impolite.

Though he wasn't lost just yet, for Alice heard him. "That was a ghost-type ... Ghastly, I think. They can't do much so long as we're in a group; they prey on lone wanderers."

Flame nodded slowly, letting the information sink in. "Okay ... Then w-why are we just standing here?"

She acknowledged him with a glance, whispering. "Only problem is that ghosts are ... intangible. At least, until they choose to appear. So there's nothing we can do but wait."

He smiled politely at her as a sort of gratitude, even though curses ran in his head. Could he never catch a break? As if things weren't convoluted enough, now he had to worry about ghosts.

In a mere two seconds his own thoughts became unviable though, as the room suddenly turned into a massive echo chamber. Disgruntled sounds cascaded upon them from some source above, so close that it was kissing his horn; slowly but surely the screech took the form of a feminine screech, painting an image in his mind of a pokémon being slowly ripped apart limb by limb.

Flame had to cover his ears lest his head imploded. The cries reverberated through his bones—his knees were starting to feel weak.

"G-gaah ... Stay focused!" he could just barely hear Gaius' plea, "They're trying to lower our guard!"

How, he thought, how could he possibly keep his guard up when various points of his cranium felt close to rupturing?

"G-g-gaaaahh!" Flame squeezed his eyes shut, "Stop! Stop it! Enough! P-please!"

When he opened his eyes again, the last thing he would have expected was for a stubby, dark purple pokémon with a roundish body to be floating before him, wearing an exaggeratedly large grin.

Desparate for nothing but to halt the ghoulish screams, Flame dared uncover his ears as he lunged forward with his claws, teeth bared. Yet instead of running through tender flesh, the swipe felt more like submerging his claws into a pool of gelid water; they passed through like thin air. Eyes wide, he nearly tipped forward from the shock.

The Gengar only widened its smirk, stuck its tongue out, and proceeded to create a sphere of pitch-black matter in its hands. Before it could be cast—the infernal shrieks still lacerating his thoughts—a bolt of electricity arced through the air and intercepted the shadowy orb. Its owner had no time to react as it disintegrated, dazing the ghost-type.

Within a few seconds, the hellish barrage of noise ceased at once, though it took Flame some time to realise over the ongoing ringing in his head.

This finally enabled him to stand up properly, and turn round to assess the situation: Alice stared at him wide-eyed and panting, mimicking the expression on everyone else's face. Yvaine and Virgo were facing off with a small skull-faced phantom, while Gaius still clutched his head tightly.

However grateful for finally regaining awareness of space and time, no distraction could be afforded. He turned back just in time to witness the Gengar recover. Without thinking, he appealed to his inner ember, drew his head back and—

Oh! Now the phantom's eyes glew a pinkish hue, and a gust of invisible energy hit impacted his scales, them too glowing faintly. His jaw remained sealed, with flames still boiling in his throat.

"Flame! Someone give him support!" he heard Gaius's voice from behind, a mere buzz in his ears.

The Gengar crossed its arms in open mockery, then scowled momentarily. It floated closer and closer, till their faces essentially touched. A cold shiver ran down Flame's spine—he wasn't certain at which point he'd started holding his breath. Fire still raged inside his body, down his throat and stomach, boiling to no end, awaiting sweet release. Pain erupted from his chest the more it idled in place.

Just when he could have sworn the ghost uttered something, a dark pulse directly to its face caused it to recoil. The external pressure keeping Flame's body in place vanished instantaneously, and with that, his singed throat muscles could finally release their contents.

The ember attack caught the flinching Gengar off-guard, and evoked a primal shrill that just about shook the walls. Then, under everyone's stare, it flew up to the ceiling, and glanced at Team Phalanx one last time before dematerialising abruptly.

Flame merely stood there panting for a few moments, with a paw clutched to his throat. Albeit each intake of oxygen would only prompt the burnt tissues to sting more, nothing couldn't hold back a sigh of relief.

No. No time to rest, there's still more. He shook his head and turned round to where Gaius and Alice were exchanging attacks with a Ghastly. He stumbled into position, before drawing another large breath and vomiting whatever ember he could muster. The attack was thin and ineffective, yet what mattered was making his presence known.

And it worked. The Ghastly's wide eyes flew between its two opponents and the newcomer, mouth hanging open. One additional leaf blade to its eye convinced it once and for all to drift off to the opposite side of the room, where it disappeared in a flash of light.

A similar treatment awaited two distinct ghost pokémon challenging Yvaine and Virgo: however agile, their dodges proved futile under the Umbreon's constant barrage of dark pulses. Soon, they too vanished into thin air.

Still trembling, Flame plopped himself down on the cold stone pavement, waiting for the earth to stop its neckbraking. The bitter taste of his own fire still remained on his tongue. Within a few minutes, the ringing noise bouncing from ear to ear subsided too. When that happened, the first reaction that sprung was to twist his body and check on his teammates.

But they looked all right—relief hoisted a considerable weight off his chest. Alice and Gaius were already up on their feet, with the legionary duo soon to follow suit.

The Grovyle jerked his head around, while a bead of sweat licked down his forehead and cheek.

"Looks clear. What's your status?"

An affirmative echo followed, except for Yvaine, who nodded wordlessly.

"Copy that. Flame?" Gaius turned to face him, having noticed his lack of an answer.

Only unintelligible croaks came out when he attempted to reply, a reminder of the soreness permeating his trachea.

He cleared his throat, and spoke again. "Y-yes. No injuries."

Yvaine walked closer, inspecting his face. "Good. Sorry about that feral; I could barely think straight for a moment."

"It's okay..." he said earnestly, though sighing underneath, "I could handle it. T-thanks."

"Goddam bastards. I think I may have lost part of my hearing for good..."

"Hey, we held up quite well, r-right?" Flame smiled tentatively, "Even with those ungodly screams, we managed to send them running."

Suddenly, a loud curse by Alice made everybody's head turn, her eyes wide in realisation.

Flame turned to her and flinched backwards, unsure whether to say something. Did I ... say something wrong?

She shook her head to his unspoken question. "My apologies. It's ... ferals don't retreat. Never. Once they see you, it's a fight 'till one of you lays defeated." she stressed, letting the message sink in.

The implications of that statement didn't take very long for Flame to decipher. It had always been a possibility, he figured, running into the enemy at a moment's notice—did he truly expect to stumble upon a big bad lair in the last floor?

"... That's correct." Gaius conceded, "I doubt we have much of an element of surprise left after that."

"Fan-fucking-tastic. Guess they can throw us a welcoming party now." Virgo chuckled loudly to himself.

"What's so funny?" snapped Gaius, "Remember that we still have to blow our way out of this cage."

Alice stopped their bickering, mainly because of the bemused look on her face. "Hey, uh ... guys, I don't think that's a problem anymore—look."

Lo and behold, when everybody's gaze shifted to the wall opposite their shoulders, they did not find a cold, featureless surface. Now there were not one, but two exits to the chamber, both on opposite ends of the same wall.

"H-how?" Flame gasped, "Didn't we check the walls...?"

"Just as I suspected," Yvaine uttered with a twinge of pride in her voice, "This room didn't feel right. The phantoms must have broadcast an illusion to stall us here."

"Illusion?" he repeated, wrapping his head round the concept, "So, you're saying that everything we saw... " a groan exited his throat, "Ah, never mind. As if these places weren't already screwy enough..."

"Oh, you'll grow to love 'em," Virgo closed his eyes and chuckled, "Where else can the possibility of death feel so exciting?"


Castra Aeterna - B5F

Perhaps it was only his unabashed carelessness coming into play, he figured, a total disregard of common sense engrained unto his forehead.

That, or he was being overly fatalistic again, unable to think even for an instant outside himself. How else then could he explain the feelings flowing through his body? It had happened again just a while earlier, besides the stairway leading to the fifth floor—a particularly large rock-monstrosity (a Rhyhorn, or so they told him) took fancy as a nesting spot; then Gaius challenged him to defeat the beast by himself. Sure enough, he did so, albeit entirely by accident: the Ryhorn charged too harshly into a wall while pursuing him round the room. No congratulations followed, no cheers or pats on the back.

Nothing.

After all, with how things stood, this whole job with Civil Protection amounted to everything he possessed. Yes, even in his head it sounded almost too self-demeaning to say comfortably—but at the end of the day, wasn't fighting his only purpose?

You're overreacting, Alice would surely tell him. Maybe he truly was. Maybe he just needed to spend some time in a state of total lassitude, sprawled on his bed (they were right to call him lazy).

Granted, the last two floors of the dunegon proved exceptionally lenient; in both cases the dungeon unraveled relatively quickly, save for some isolated nests and tricky pathfinding. Any feral inhabitant which crossed their paths would end up getting demolished by a whole flurry of attacks, so much that in a way he started feeling sorry for them.

This floor felt different, however.

Ever since the first, he'd started noticing a pattern: though not starkly different one from another, with each passing staircase he felt as though there were always less and less labyrinthine rooms and corridors. Chambers felt wider and more distinct, while torches had started appearing every now and again in the hallways—still burning, eternally so. He was almost certain they were advancing further into the actual fortress.

Could this dungeon, he pondered, be following the original building's layout?

"No, no, you're thinking the wrong way," Gaius answered once he voiced his hypothesis, "Remember, this is a dungeon. Not a normal place. For all we know, the next up could lead down, and vice versa."

"I-I was just voicing my thoughts," Flame replied in a nearly defensive manner, "Haven't you noticed h-how at first we entered in a cold, dark basement, and now it's gotten brighter? Heck, look outside!"

Gaius' face contorted into a preemptive sneer. "Again, doesn't work that way. Mystery dungeons don't—hang on, outside?"

Sure enough, Flame's claw pointed to a breach in the wall, shield-like in form and overlooking the perimeter outside, only for a passage further down the hall to carve through the space that the window claimed as thin air.

Team Phalanx approached it cautiously. Gaius leaned his head forward. A barrier of fog denied them view of whatever outside world existed in such a twisted dimension, though it mattered little right now.

"I'll be damned, we really did get higher. Probably just a coincidence..." Gaius lost his serious expression for a moment, lip curving in a smile, "But still, wouldn't be surprised if this were a completely new type of mystery dungeon we just discovered."

"Congratulations!" Alice lauded in an obvious taunt, "Now what, you intend to name it after yourself?"

Gaius looked forward in a distant grin, snickering."Gaius-type mystery dungeons ... Doesn't sound half bad, if only it had a chance of passing through the registry."

It might have been his imagination, but this might have seen the first time Flame had seen Gaius exhibit anything close to a smile.

"Oh, you better not." Virgo crossed his arms, "Last thing we need is putting strange ideas into Ariel's head."

"Right. Still waiting for the day she renames the town into 'Aerelia'..." the Grovyle muttered.

"Hey, look at the bright side of things," Alice replied, halfway sarcastically, "If we're lucky, the Scum might take it before we ever see that day."

"Not if we can help it," Flame added without much thought.

Alice's face changed into one of mock smugness. "Let's hear you repeat that after two months under her rule."

Just that moment, a far-away groan, as though coming from a pained beast, boomed throughout the hallway—Flame's legs froze in place concurrently with his face.

"Oh fuck," Gaius mouthed. "Don't get distracted. There's a time and place for that. Not here. From now on, nobody says a word."

Flame hurried his pace and followed everybody else into the first available passageway, his ears leant behind him. Some garbled noises—possibly heavy footsteps—arose from far away, but eventually faded off once they got far enough away.

Nobody uttered a word for some time, now aware just how far its echo propagated.


End of Chapter VII
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Ace Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him/His
Partners
  1. nidoran-f
  2. druddigon
  3. swellow
Whelp, it’s that time again. Another fortnight, another set of nitpicks critiques and cheeky caricatures of “Rome c. 475 the PMD” well, sorta, but we’re not at the part of the story yet where it becomes obvious why that’s an incomplete summary. You’ll definitely be recognizing a bit more content this time around, but I’d like to think that I have a decent ratio of fresh and remixed takes to old material, so hopefully today’s writeup still feels like a new experience for you.

And with that, let’s get right into things:

Chapter V

Flame was about to meet ‘Ariel’. He hadn't much of a clue who or what she was, [but the air of quiet apprehension emanating from his teammates spilt over to him with little resistance.]

It was through their mouths that the name had come to his attention. First, on the path back to Aesernia that day he woke up without his memories, and then on various occasions at Camp Tempest when Alice recruited him. [Each time he heard her name it was always being phrased in a way that implied submissiveness, so he could only make a wild guess at her being some sort of chief, one who held a degree of power over their team.]

That thought did nothing to make him feel any less uneasy, and only served to make her more of a menacing figure to go before.

Left some throwaway suggestions in bold there. The bits in brackets I think could stand to be reworked, though there’s multiple ways of slicing that apple. You might find something along the lines of the following helpful:

[Every time he heard Alice or Gaius bring up her name, it was always phrased as if she were some sort of angry parent who needed to be appeased. So he could only make a wild guess at her being some sort of chief, and one who held a degree of power over their team.]

Just as Gaius laid a paw on the door leading to the registry, he turned his head to deliver the Charmeleon one last reminder. "Keep in mind that occasions like this could affect our future. Ariel holds absolute power over the whole of Task Force Aegis, including our team. One moronic comment and we're all going down the drain."

Flame felt himself gulp under his leader's warning glare.

Would recommend making the small tweaks in bold to smooth things out.

Flame: “Uh… actually… A-Are we sure that we don’t have some way of skipping out from this?”
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Gaius: “Do you feel like having your neck meet the business end of a Haxorus’ tusks?” >_>;
Flame: “N-No…?” ._.;
Gaius: “Then no, we can’t skip out on this!” >.<

Flame nodded acquiescently, his lips glued shut.

I’d use some sort of simpler synonym to ‘acquiescently’ there, since for a second I didn’t even know there was an adjectival form of ‘acquiesce’. You might find something like “nodded back overhastily” or “nodded back nervously” if you want to sell the idea Flame’s giving a nervous “Uh huh, uh huh” assent given the latter part of the sentence. You could also do something like “nodded submissively” or “nodded without objection/protest”, since those both more closely follow what “acquiescently” means.

But no, he soon discovered, she was not. Just then, a sizable lizard-like creature stomped out of a side corridor and silence fell over the room. The Haxorus surveyed her surroundings for a second, as though only to command the bystanders to attention. Not one even had to be told to squelch their voices.

When Ariel made her way to the trio, Flame's body refused to buckle from its position. She hadn't even spoken a word yet and already he felt intimidated by her: those plated yellow-green scales, those tusks jutting out of her mouth like a pair of sickles, all contributed directly to make him wish the Haxorus was somewhere, anywhere other than right in front of him.

And if that wasn't enough, her eyes did naught to alleviate that feeling, quietly scanning each of them [with an eerie look of disinterest].

"Team Phalanx, eh? I suppose fate has brought our paths together again. And as always, I'm the one that gets fucked over."

Would recommend the changes in bold. Given how Flame is described as all but quaking in his non-existent boots here, I think that it might make sense to slip some sort of hint of aggression or displeasure in Ariel’s expression in the bit in brackets. Perhaps something like [with an eerie, disinterested scowl]

Alice: “... She’s still mad about that whole bagauda thing from earlier, isn’t she?” ._.;
Ariel: “Yes. Yes I am. Fortunately, I’m not counting on you to deliver results today.” >:|

Not one soul made any attempts to speak.

I think this bit would sound better expanded and tweaked slightly along the lines of “Not a soul in the room made any attempt to speak up.”

The Haxorus grunted back some kind of acknowledgement and continued. "You know, it was quite a surprise this morning to find out that the three of you actually completed your assignment. For a moment there I suspected I’d had too many glasses of wine, but it seems like it actually happened after all. Any comments you'd like to leave?"

Now that he paid attention to it, Flame noticed that her breath carried a heavy scent of wine, though her features did not suggest any major intoxication.

Would recommend the changes in bold. And just saying, unless if Ariel’s literally been bathing in her wine casks, it’s more likely that it’s her breath that smells of wine and not her body at large.
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"Well, congratulations,"[ ]Ariel said dryly, her tone dripping with sarcasm. "But that's not why I'm here squandering my time with you lot. As much as it pains me to tell you, your team has been drafted for a B-rank mission. Priority one. Departure is tomorrow."

[Both Alice and Gaius looked as though they were nearly ready to pale at the mention of those words.] The Grovyle, who just a moment prior seemed ready to defend their reputation with bared teeth, was now more bewildered than anything. "Woah, hang on! This isn't possible… You deranked us, didn't you? We aren't even allowed to take those kinds of missions!"

Recommend the tweak in bold, and for the part in brackets, I’m wondering if it works better if they either are just flatly described as paling, or else have some other body language described other than being “nearly ready to pale” such as stiffening up or having their eyes widen.

Flame: "What does 'B' stand for to make you two this nervous, anyways? 'Burial'?" ._.;
Alice: “More like ‘Barbarian’.” ._.
Gaius: “So you know… same difference.”
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