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Pokémon Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Instruments of Creation

Chapter 1: A Chance Meeting New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher

IoC Coverjpg.jpg


Rating: Teen on FFN and AO3. Violence, injury, death, occasional sex.
Spoiler Warning: mention of events from PMD Rescue and Explorers.
Also available on FFN, AO3 and Bulbagarden


Chapter 1: A Chance Meeting

Arcanine opened his eyes slowly as the sun peeked through the bushes at the entrance to the cave, raised his maned head and yawned. A deep breath brought in the scents of the morning; fresh dew, earth and grass, the pines in the forest below. It was probably a beautiful, sunny spring day out there. His head pounded and his back ached and he didn't want to move.

Slowly he raised himself up, stopped, stretched his forelegs out in front of him and leaned back until his elbows touched the ground. He stood again and repeated the motion in the opposite direction, stretching his back legs out behind him and leaning forward as far as he could balance. He limped out into the sun.

A trickle of water flowed down the rocks nearby and pooled in a basin he had scratched in the packed dirt before seeping away again into the ground, and he stopped to drink. In front of his cave, a few hundred meters vertically above the forest below, and about two-thirds of the way up the winding path to the top of the foothill he thought of as 'his' mountain, a protruding angle of rock formed a ledge from which he could overlook most of the valley below.

Stretching again, Arcanine lay down with the sun on his back and his forepaws hanging over the edge. Some scraggly berry bushes grew in the cracks between the rocks on the slope below, and a few gnarled apple trees held the summit. He was sure that someone, long ago, must have planted them, just like he was sure that some ancient ancestor has scraped out the small cave he called home. There were weathered scribbles from claws and charcoal on the rocks inside, complex shapes and runes in some language he could not recognize.

He had everything he needed on his mountain. Water, food, shelter, privacy – few other Pokémon ventured this deep into Haunted Forest, and the Ghosts-types who lived in the forest below seldom bothered him. Arcanine thought he could remember a different place, a different world, where he had needed to fight, and hide, where two-legged creatures unlike any Pokémon he had seen had hunted him...

He woke again. The sun felt wonderful on his fur, it's warmth relaxing muscles which never fully released, and hardened like rocks again every night, no matter how many pine boughs he drug up from the forest below to make his bed. A scattering of jagged scars covered his back and sides, like rosettes on a Liepard. Finer scars traced along his legs, chest, and belly, intersecting here and there. He'd wondered many times what sort of Pokémon could have left those wounds.

As much as he wanted to lay here all day in the sun, Arcanine knew he could not; There was always danger out there, somewhere, even if he couldn't remember what it was. He had to train harder, be stronger, be ready, even if it hurt.



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



The three Pokémon were unlike any Zorua had seen before. Roughly hexagonal and a meter tall, they sparkled in the sunlight like giant ice crystals as they floated through the meadow, leaving a light trail of frost in their wake. Curious, she crept closer. They paused around one of the piles of rubble which dotted the field, the ruins of some ancient structure of whose purpose and shape no evidence remained, circling it as if searching for something before moving on.

She ducked behind a bush, and with a shimmer of purple light she disguised herself as Buneary. When the strange Pokémon passed around the other side of the stones, she ran closer, darting between the cover of rocks and bushes. By the time she reached the stones, they had moved on. Zorua circled the rubble as well, following their trail. What were they looking for?

The strange Pokémon floated on toward another pile of rubble further up the valley, and Zorua slunk after them. They were talking, a tinkling sound like ice crystals falling from a tree in the wind, but they were still too far away for her to make out words.

They stopped at the rocks again and Zorua approached, slowly, doing her best to keep out of sight. A rock, a clump of tall grass, an Oran bush, and she was almost close enough to hear what they were saying.

A startled Starly flapped out of the bush, and one of the Ice-types looked toward it. Zorua ducked, but too late. The air went suddenly cold around her, frost forming on the new leaves of the bush and the tips of her fur. She turned and fled.

Looking back over her shoulder, Zorua could see the three strange Pokémon were gaining on her. There was no one else around. Meadow Town was back the way she had come, through her pursuers and kilometers away at the other end of the valley; there was no way she could make it. Ahead and to either side loomed Haunted Forest. The outskirts of the forest were safe enough in daytime, and sometimes the local Pokémon came here to play or harvest timber for the town, but at night, the Ghost-types for whom the forest was named ventured out from the depths. Pokémon who wandered too deep into the trees found themselves lost in the labyrinthine trails of the mystery dungeon within.

If she could find cover, she thought, maybe she could form another illusion and lose them. She changed course, sprinting for a stand of tall grass. What was the smallest, sneakiest Pokémon she could think of? The grass closed around her, hiding her pursuers from view. Another shimmer of purple light, and she appeared as Cutiefly.

The air went cold again, and shards of ice scythed through the grass around her with an ominous hiss. That had been a bad idea, Zorua realized, beginning to run again. Looking small wasn't the same as being small, and the Ice-types didn't need to see her to hit her.

A sharp bit of ice sliced into her side and Zorua felt her illusion disappear. She emerged from the grass. The three strange Pokémon had spread out, attempting to surround her. The initial fear of discovery had faded into the excitement of the chase, but Zorua realized now that she was in real trouble. Whatever these Pokémon were doing here, they were serious about keeping it a secret.

The only direction left was into the trees. Zorua fought against panic. She knew the woods better than they did, she would be harder to see. She could still lose them in here, but if she strayed too far she would be lost in the mystery dungeon. More shards of ice whistled by, rattling against the trees around her.

Zorua found a game trail which seemed familiar and followed it. It was working, she thought, looking back over her shoulder. The strange Pokémon were falling further behind, unable to move through the underbrush as quickly as she.

The game trail she was following opened onto a larger road, wide enough for a wagon to pass between the trees. Zorua stopped, confused. There was a road which skirted part of the forest, but she should not have come on it here. She turned around. The strange Pokémon were gone. Her ears swiveled back and forward, straining to catch some sound of them, but it was eerily silent.

Zorua sat down to think. Obviously, the trail hadn’t been where she thought it was. She was in the mystery dungeon now. That was bad. Her pursuers hadn’t followed her in, or had ended up somewhere else; also, it was only noon or so, so she should have plenty of time to find her way out before dark. That was less bad. Was Haunted Forest really as dangerous as the other Pokémon said? No one she knew from Meadow Town had ever entered Haunted Forest and returned, but they were also mostly a bunch of boring old greybeards…

Zorua considered trying to backtrack, but there had been other trails branching off of hers, she though, and it would be difficult to find the correct one; anyway, she didn’t think mystery dungeons worked like that. No one in any of the stories she could think of had gotten out of a mystery dungeon by going back. She decided on following the road. Roads went places, otherwise who would bother to maintain them?

Slowly but steadily, the road narrowed as Zorua progressed; not enough to notice as she walked, but each time she paused to look around, she found the trees closer on either side, the underbrush thicker and the shadows darker.

After an hour or so, the trail branched. Zorua sat down in the intersection to rest. All three paths, the two ahead of her and the one behind, were, for practical purposes, identical. It probably didn’t matter, she thought, which course she chose, but there would be other intersections ahead, and she should try to maintain a constant heading so that she didn’t end up circling back the way she had come. She had entered the forest at the northwest end of the meadow, and it was afternoon, now, so the sun was to her southwest. If she tried to keep the sun to her left, now, and her left-front as it grew closer to sunset, she ought to go straight through and eventually come out in the hills on the other side.

A stream crossed the trail and Zorua stopped to drink. The water seemed bitter and oily, and though she was quite thirsty from the day’s exertions, she could manage only a mouthful. Berries grew along the bank as well, but on closer inspection, she found them to be Orens, and inedible. Unsatisfied, she continued. Thunderclouds moved in, and by the time she reached the next crossing in the trail, she could not make out the sun at all through the trees and clouds. She wondered whether it was all foul luck, or if the forest was really trying to thwart her.

As the sky darkened, Zorua’s pace quickened from a walk to a trot. A cold, heavy rain began to fall. She dared not stop to find shelter, and it quickly soaked through her fur. The trail had grown so narrow now that bushes brushed against her on either side. She felt as if she were being followed as well, though by what, she could not identify.

It was fully dark now, and even Zorua’s Dark-type eyes had difficulty picking out the trail in the moonless gloom. Here and there through the trees, she glimpsed the phantom lights of Litwicks, their numbers steadily increasing as she progressed.

Something reached out from the bushes, leaving a trail of unnatural chill as it brushed against her side. Zorua leapt away, charging headlong through the underbrush in a panicked run. Thorns and branches slashed against her face and tore at her fur. The ground disappeared in front of her and she was tumbling and sliding down a steep, muddy slope. Her right hind leg caught on something as she slid, wrenching painfully, and she screamed.

The Litwicks circled around, coming closer as their numbers grew. Zorua struggled to her feet and pressed onward, limping. She had no idea now what direction she was headed.

She found a dry patch under the overhang of a large fallen tree which blocked the worst of the wind, and huddled into it. The phantom light bobbed around her through the trees, in a slowly constricting circle. Her coat was soaked through, and she was shivering uncontrollably now; how much from the cold and how much from panic, she couldn't tell. Her injured leg wouldn't hold weight any more, and her whole body ached from cuts and bruises.

“Stupid,” Zorua told herself. If she'd kept her head, she could have evaded those strange Pokémon in the fringes of the wood instead of wandering right into the mystery dungeon. If she hadn't been so careless in the first place, she could still be Eevee, warm and dry back in town.

The Litwick were close, now. She was too cold, too tired to fight them. The tears flowing down her cheeks left little warm trails before they disappeared into the cold wetness of her fur. She could curl up here and wait for them to come. It wouldn't hurt that much, just letting them drain what was left of her spirit, and she'd be gone...

The rain had let up somewhat, and looking up through the hole in the canopy left by her tree when it had fallen, she could see a single star peeking through the clouds. Would anyone miss her if she died here, tonight? Would anyone ever know? Probably not.

As she stared, the star seemed to flicker and brighten, and suddenly she realized that it wasn't a star, couldn't be a star. I was too bright, too close, too...orange. Like a fire, a campfire on the side of one of the hills she'd seen earlier rising from the forest. Hope flowed into her, pushing back the cold stiffness in her muscles. She rose, unsteadily, and charged at the nearest Litwick between her and the fire. It shied away, and she felt an indescribable, horrible chill as the ghost-flame brushed against her body. She was outside the ring of lights, running again.



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



The Ghost-types were out in force tonight; dozens of their eerie purple and blue lights wandered through the dark trees below. He'd best have a fire tonight, Arcanine thought. The ghosts seldom bothered him, but there was no sense taking risks, especially in this weather, when his techniques would be less effective. He dragged a few of the dryer branches from his bed to the cave entrance, far enough out that they wouldn't smoke back into the cave, but close enough to be out of the worst of the weather, and lit them with a breath. He shook, stretched out beside the fire, and began to lick himself dry.

Arcanine was beginning to nod off when a noise caught his attention. A single, distant scream, not a ghostly shriek, but the panicked scream of a flesh-and-blood Pokémon in pain. Without thinking, Arcanine was on his feet, heat surging inside him and blood racing for a fight.

No, Arcanine told himself, this wasn’t his problem. He was sore, and tired, and he wasn’t going back out in this weather for some fool who had gotten himself lost in Haunted Forest. What had other Pokémon done for him, when he wandered into Treasure Town, years ago, scared and injured, with no memory of where he’d come from? They cheated him, attacked him, sent hunters after him when he fled.

Even as he resolved against it, instinct drove him back out into the rain. Scores of ghostly lights drifted through the blackness of the forest below, converging on a point perhaps a kilometer from the base of his hill. Someone was there, he thought, hurt and alone. For most Pokémon, rushing into Haunted Forest on a night like this was suicidal, but Arcanine was confident in his speed and strength, and in his time here, he’d learned a few of the forest’s tricks.



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



Something rose from between the trees in front of her, no body, just a blurry black outline framing two huge eyes and a leering mouth. The Litwicks swarmed after her, close behind. She couldn’t stop, and there was nowhere else to turn. Despairing, she leapt at the creature in front of her, readying herself for death in its icy embrace.

A line of fire split the darkness of the forest, outlining the Gengar in brilliant orange flame. It screeched in pain and surprise and fled, bobbing and weaving through the trees, flames trailing behind. More flames cracked and hissed through the wet brush, driving back the Litwicks which pursued her.

Another giant shape loomed over her, but it was a real, warm Pokémon this time, not another ghost. She could smell ashes and sulphur and wet, canine fur, and feel its hot breath as massive jaws closed delicately around her neck.



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



The scent of pine and earth and ashes and wet fur on the cool morning air; diffuse sunlight filtering in from somewhere behind her. Zorua yawned and rolled over, wriggling deeper into the soft grass and pine of the bed, not yet quite ready to be awake. As she stared up at the stony ceiling, she began to realize that something was different. This wasn't her corner in the lodge in Meadow Town, and absent were the usual morning smells of food, and the sound of other Pokémon coming and going. She blinked, opened her eyes and looked around again.

The events of the previous day returned to her; the panicked flight through the forest, the light on the cliff, the rescue. The bed was obviously made for a much larger Pokémon, but his scent was unfamiliar; Houndoom, perhaps? A ragged treasure bag leaned against the opposite wall, with a battered exploration team badge pinned to the side. A mouthful of berries were piled on the floor next to the bed, but the cave was otherwise unoccupied.

Zorua stood gingerly and looked herself over. Her right ankle was swollen and painful, and the whole leg was stiff and sore. Her head pounded. Her coat, still damp where she had lain, was tangled and matted with dried blood, mud and debris, and her whole body ached from cuts and bruises, but she seemed to have avoided any other serious injury. She ate the berries gratefully and hobbled three-legged outside, not bothering to disguise herself.

Her rescuer lay in the sun by the edge of the cliff. He was big, even for an Arcanine, and covered in old scars. His ears flicked back at her approach, but he did not otherwise acknowledge her presence. Water trickled down the rocks into a pool by the mouth of the cave, and she drank deeply. She had not had a drink since that mouthful of filthy water in Haunted Forest the day before, and the cold, clear water seemed the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.

“Umm...Thanks,” Zorua began, taking a seat next to him on the cliff and staring out over the forest below. Her eyes followed the river outward, and she could even see the lodge in Meadow Town from here, beyond the trees. “Those ghosts would have gotten me, last night.”

Arcanine didn't know how to reply. It had been more than a year, he thought, since he'd talked to another Pokémon. The silence stretched out awkwardly, and Zorua shifted, uncomfortable.

She tried again. “Thanks for the berries, too”

“Couldn't just let them kill you. Not many Pokémon make it that far though the forest at night.”

Was that a compliment, Zorua wondered, or chastisement for being stupid enough to try?

“Didn't plan too.” She answered. “I got lost. Then I saw your fire.”

Arcanine nodded. “Easy to do. Getting lost, that is.”

Silence again, but it felt less awkward this time. Her fur was beginning to warm in the sun and she yawned. Finally Arcanine turned to look at her. His smile was friendly and patient, and she couldn't help grinning back.

“You live down there?” he asked, following her gaze to Meadow Town. Zorua nodded.

“Can wash in the pool, if you like.”

Oh, right, Zorua though. She'd forgotten already what a mess she was. “Not quite that warm, yet.”

Neither of them spoke for a while. Zorua hoped that Arcanine wasn’t upset by her presence. She didn’t think so; he didn’t seem disturbed, just kind of awkward and shy.

“What's it like, living there?” Arcanine asked, eventually.

“Meadow Town?” Zorua flicked her ears dismissively. “It's just a town. Nothing much happens. Some of the Pokémon cut timber and float it downstream to sell in other towns. There's a mine, too, but no one has worked it since I've lived there.”

Arcanine looked unsatisfied, but didn't press her to continue.

“How long have you lived up here?” Zorua asked.

Arcanine thought for a moment. “Four or five years, I think.”

“And you've never visited Meadow Town?”

Arcanine shook his head.

“You've never lived in a town at all, have you?”

“Not that I can remember,” he answered slowly, shaking his head again, “Don't remember much of anything before I came here, though.”

“I've always lived in Meadow Town,” Zorua continued, “my mother was Zoroark, but everyone thought she was Sylveon. She picked herbs and made potions. Mostly for the other Pokémon in Meadow Town, but sometimes she traveled to other towns to sell them, too. Everyone liked her. Once when I was young, though, she traveled downriver to sell them and never came back.”

Zorua's voice wavered and she looked down, found a mat of dried mud on her leg and yanked on it roughly until she regained her composure.

“I'm sorry.” Arcanine looked away, pretending not to notice.

“We had a hut in the field outside town. I was scared to live there alone, though, so I moved into the lodge. That's the big building you can see from here. Everyone used to think I was Eevee too, but I was careless sometimes. I still pretend to be Eevee, though. It makes other Pokémon more comfortable.”

Zorua was feeling warmer now, and her filthy coat itched all over. She returned to the pool and rolled in it until the water was as dirty as she. She shook and lay back down on the ledge to groom. For a long time neither of them spoke; Zorua couldn’t tell whether Arcanine was asleep, or just lost in thought.

“What happened to your back?” Zorua asked eventually, “I've never seen a Pokémon with scars like that before.”

“I don't remember that, either,” he admitted, “I have these dreams, sometimes, where I'm...somewhere else, fighting something, but when I wake I never remember the details.”

“Were you on an exploration team?” She wondered, “I saw the badge and the bag in there.”

“I stole those. Well, some Pokémon attacked me and I took them after I knocked them out. I have explored a lot of the mystery dungeons around here, but I don't think it was that.”

“It hurts, though, doesn't it? I can tell when you move.”

Arcanine nodded, turning back to the forest.

Zorua was as clean as she could get herself here. Her neck and back were out of reach, and her injured leg stubbornly refused to bend around where she could reach it. Arcanine was still mostly a stranger, and it seemed a bit weird to ask him for help, like she was some sort of cripple who couldn’t care for herself. On the other hand, she really didn’t want to lay here dirty all day.

Zorua coughed politely, and Arcanine turned to face her.

“Hey, uh…Could you help me with this?”

Arcanine looked confused.

“The mud I mean. I can’t reach some spots.”

Arcanine hesitated, and Zorua wondered when was the last time anyone had asked him for help with anything.

“Oh,” he said, finally, “Sure.”

Arcanine’s head was larger than her whole body, Zorua thought, and she worried briefly as he stood over her that he might not be as friendly as he’d seemed. His touch, however, was gentle and precise as Arcanine held her between his giant front paws, working the mats from her fur and licking it clean.

Zorua continued to talk while Arcanine worked, about her mother, at first, and proceeding to some of the more innocent pranks she had played with her illusions. Arcanine listened to each one matter-of-factly, offering no comment or criticism save the occasional sympathetic grunt. There were a few pranks that had gone too far, though, and she'd always wanted to admit them to someone.

“...so, while Riolu was telling the story, I just kept wiggling back, a little further from the fire, until I was in the dark. No one knew I was missing. I made myself look like a Litwick and floated up behind him really slow. Suddenly everyone's looking at me and pointing, and Riolu turns around and sees me, and I think he almost fainted just from being scared. That was before anyone knew I was really Zorua. Then everyone was screaming and running away. It was really funny, at first, how all of them acted so brave telling ghost stories.

“Then I started thinking, though, that we're really close to Haunted Forest, and what if someone wanders in and finds a real Ghost-type and gets hurt? So I turn back to Eevee and follow them.

“Everyone was okay, but it took us all night to find Bonsly. I felt really bad and I wanted to apologize, but then they would have known I was Zorua, and I'd get blamed every time something happened.”

“All done,” Arcanine announced, “And next time you thought things through, right?”

“Well, no,” Zorua admitted, “Next time, people really did get hurt, and everyone found out I was Zorua, and....a lot of the Pokémon there don't like me, now. But it's my own fault.”

Zorua shrugged it off. She felt much better now that she was clean. “But it’s your turn now. I really want to hear about some of the mystery dungeons you’ve seen.”

The rest of the day passed pleasantly, brief bursts of conversation between long interludes of dozing in the sunlight. Darkness fell, and they remained on the ledge, watching the phantom lights wander hypnotically through the forest below. Zorua shivered, remembering how close she had come to death.

Eventually they went inside. Arcanine dragged some branches from his bed to make a smaller bed for her on the other side of the cave. They both stared out into the darkness for a while before falling asleep, enjoying the comfort of having another friendly Pokémon nearby.



XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



#Soon, my friend.#

The voice didn't come from any direction in particular, rather, it resonated inside of his mind, deep and sad. His eyes opened. There was someone there, watching him, a bipedal form, blurry and indistinct through the murky liquid. He floated there, weightless, streams of bubbles floating lazily upward around him. He didn't think to wonder why he was here, or how he was breathing; it was perfectly natural, the only place he'd ever been.

#Soon, none of us will have to be alone again.#

Three bulbous fingers rested against whatever invisible barrier separated him from the creature outside. He raised a paw, reaching out to touch the hand that was so different from his own. He expected to find warm flesh, but encountered only cold glass.

#You will be strong. I will teach you, and the others. We will all be strong together.#

“Who am I?” Arcanine wondered, as the hand disappeared, and the figure shrank away. “What am I?”




XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX



Arcanine awoke. Zorua was up already, watching him from the other side of the cave with an expression that was part concern and part fear.

“Hey, um... are you alright?” she asked.

Arcanine was sure that something important had happened, something that he needed to remember. He raised one paw, flexing orange-furred fingers slowly. They looked just like they always had; he wasn't sure what else he'd been expecting to see. “Yeah.” He nodded. “Fine.”

Between the rapid healing capabilities of Pokémon, and the Oran berries Arcanine brought her, Zorua’s leg was almost healed; only a lingering soreness remained.

“You said there was a safe path back to town?” She asked as they sat beside one another on the ledge.

“Not totally safe, but mostly, in daylight. I can show you, whenever you’re ready.”

“I don’t really want to go back yet,” Zorua admitted, “nothing interesting ever happens there, and this has been such an adventure. But I promised Treecko I’d help him gather berries this week. Also…I suppose a few people are probably worried about me.”

The trip back to town was uneventful. Haunted Forest seemed much less threatening in daylight, and with Arcanine by her side. Some day when she was stronger, Zorua thought, she was going to come back here, prepared and with friends, and explore it properly without being afraid.

“Almost there.” Arcanine stopped. “A few minutes more and this path will come out into the field above Meadow Town. Works the other direction too, if you want to come visit. Just don’t stray out of sight of the path, or you’ll be in the mystery dungeon again.”

“Won’t you come to Meadow Town?” Zorua asked, “I’ll show you around.”

Arcanine shook his head. “Can’t. And please, don’t tell anyone about me, or the shortcut.”

“Alright, it’s a secret,” she agreed, “I’ll try to come back soon, too. I want to go exploring with you.”

Zorua paused at a bend in the trail before passing out of sight, looked back and waved her tail. A shimmer of purple light, and she was Eevee. Arcanine sighed and turned for home. He’d forgotten how nice it was to have other Pokémon around to talk to.
 
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NebulaDreams

Pokémon Trainer
Arcanine opened his eyes slowly as the sun peeked through the bushes at the entrance to the cave, raised his maned head and yawned. A deep breath brought in the scents of the morning; fresh dew, earth and grass, the pines in the forest below. It was probably a beautiful, sunny spring day out there. His head pounded and his back ached and he didn't want to move.
I think you might want to take a closer look at your first paragraph. The first sentence was a bit confusing to read since the 'raised his maned head' bit came after the visual description of the sun peeking through the bushes, confusing the subject.

The last sentence starting with 'his head pounded' also felt like a bit of a non-sequitur compared to the rest of the paragraph. I'd possibly place it closer to him yawning and give out the rest of the description after that. So I'd suggest something like this:

'Arcanine squinted his eyes at the sun peeking in through the entrance of the cave. In response, he raised his head and yawned as the light caressed his face. Talk about a warm welcome. It would've been better if his head wasn't pounding and his back wasn't aching, but that was par for the course at this stage. He wouldn't let it ruin a beautiful, sunny spring day, after all.'

Then possibly lead into the rest and the scents he breathed in later.

---

Alright, nice to see a fresh face here! I thought I'd stop by and look at this story since I'm into PMD, and give you my two cents about it.

For now, I'm interested in the story and am mostly looking forward to seeing how it develops. The prose flowed well for the most part, which made for a nice read, and there were some good lines of description as well. I especially liked the way Zorua transformed into different Pokemon and how the description adapted to that, as well as the visuals of Arcanine and 'A scattering of jagged scars covered his back and sides, like rosettes on a Liepard.' So I am on board with this fic so far, but there were things that got in the way of my enjoyment.

My main complaint about this chapter is that I don't have a good idea of where the story is going in the grand scheme of things since there are a few tiny hooks, but nothing too big to really grab me. That's not to say what was there wasn't good, in fact, what you have so far is interesting. We have an Arcanine who's implied to know humans, or at least, used to be a part of a world which had humans in it, and also presumably has bad blood with the guild in Treasure Town (though that does raise the question of why other Pokemon were hunting him). And there's also a bit of intrigue surrounding what the strange Pokemon were doing investigating the ruins. In theory, the meeting of the two characters (hence the chapter) should've also been a big moment or the inciting incident to bring the story forward.

The problem is, I don't really know what the two characters want yet. There were shades of Arcanine's contentment with not being disturbed, but that gets brushed aside quickly with little conflict when Zorua comes along. There are still hints of his past, but I don't know what he longs for. Even with Zorua who arguably had more focus, I still felt a bit lost, since the story thrust her into the middle of that Ice-Pokemon situation with not much of an explanation for why she was there. And when the two finally met, I also felt there was a missed opportunity to flesh out the two and show their chemistry. Their initial awkwardness is understandable since Arcanine is aloof and doesn't really know how to react to that sort of companionship with Zorua, but there wasn't much flow between them from conversation to conversation. Take this snippet for example:

“What happened to your back?” Zorua asked eventually, “I've never seen a Pokémon with scars like that before.”

“I don't remember that, either,” he admitted, “I have these dreams, sometimes, where I'm...somewhere else, fighting something, but when I wake I never remember the details.”

“Were you on an exploration team?” She wondered, “I saw the badge and the bag in there.”

“I stole those. Well, some Pokémon attacked me and I took them after I knocked them out. I have explored a lot of the mystery dungeons around here, but I don't think it was that.”

“It hurts, though, doesn't it? I can tell when you move.”
For the most part, it just felt like Zorua was bouncing from topic to topic, and that the narration didn't give time for her to pause and process her thoughts.

And where it would've been interesting to learn more about Arcanine since we got more detail about Zorua, it was just summed up in narration and we didn't really get the chance to get deeper into his character. So by the end when the two go their separate ways for that moment, I didn't feel much for either of them. I would've been a bit happier for Arcanine talking to someone if he showed more emotion about his situation before.

Now, I'm sure this will be explained later, so I'll chalk it up to this being the first chapter. Those are just my thoughts for now. I will be watching this thread to see where the story goes from here, and hope there will be more answers in the next chapter. If you want to talk further about anything, either hit me up here or in Discord.
 

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
I think you might want to take a closer look at your first paragraph. The first sentence was a bit confusing to read since the 'raised his maned head' bit came after the visual description of the sun peeking through the bushes, confusing the subject.

The last sentence starting with 'his head pounded' also felt like a bit of a non-sequitur compared to the rest of the paragraph. I'd possibly place it closer to him yawning and give out the rest of the description after that. So I'd suggest something like this:
You're right, this doesn't read very smoothly. I'll take another look at it.

Alright, nice to see a fresh face here! I thought I'd stop by and look at this story since I'm into PMD, and give you my two cents about it.

For now, I'm interested in the story and am mostly looking forward to seeing how it develops. The prose flowed well for the most part, which made for a nice read, and there were some good lines of description as well. I especially liked the way Zorua transformed into different Pokemon and how the description adapted to that, as well as the visuals of Arcanine and 'A scattering of jagged scars covered his back and sides, like rosettes on a Liepard.' So I am on board with this fic so far, but there were things that got in the way of my enjoyment.
Thanks!

My main complaint about this chapter is that I don't have a good idea of where the story is going in the grand scheme of things since there are a few tiny hooks, but nothing too big to really grab me. That's not to say what was there wasn't good, in fact, what you have so far is interesting. We have an Arcanine who's implied to know humans, or at least, used to be a part of a world which had humans in it, and also presumably has bad blood with the guild in Treasure Town (though that does raise the question of why other Pokemon were hunting him). And there's also a bit of intrigue surrounding what the strange Pokemon were doing investigating the ruins. In theory, the meeting of the two characters (hence the chapter) should've also been a big moment or the inciting incident to bring the story forward.

The problem is, I don't really know what the two characters want yet. There were shades of Arcanine's contentment with not being disturbed, but that gets brushed aside quickly with little conflict when Zorua comes along. There are still hints of his past, but I don't know what he longs for. Even with Zorua who arguably had more focus, I still felt a bit lost, since the story thrust her into the middle of that Ice-Pokemon situation with not much of an explanation for why she was there.
Yeah, the beginning is pretty slow. Actually, it'll be slow for a while.
Do we need more background on Zorua and Meadow Town at the beginning? I king of regret not putting more in, but I'm worried that is would slow the pace even more.

And when the two finally met, I also felt there was a missed opportunity to flesh out the two and show their chemistry. Their initial awkwardness is understandable since Arcanine is aloof and doesn't really know how to react to that sort of companionship with Zorua, but there wasn't much flow between them from conversation to conversation. Take this snippet for example:

For the most part, it just felt like Zorua was bouncing from topic to topic, and that the narration didn't give time for her to pause and process her thoughts.

And where it would've been interesting to learn more about Arcanine since we got more detail about Zorua, it was just summed up in narration and we didn't really get the chance to get deeper into his character. So by the end when the two go their separate ways for that moment, I didn't feel much for either of them. I would've been a bit happier for Arcanine talking to someone if he showed more emotion about his situation before.
I had a hard time deciding what to put in this conversation, and what to leave out. I didn't want to let them get too familiar yet, since they've only just met. It was intended to be somewhat inconclusive, butr maybe it's too inconclusive. If readers aren't feeling anything for the characters yet, then that's a problem.
 

Negrek

On a Good Day, I'm the Bad News
Staff
This is a fun twist on the usual PMD story! Looks like rather than a human-turned-pokémon with amnesia, we have a pokémon from a world with humans now in a world without them, also with amnesia. Based on arcanine's dream sequence, we might be looking at some elements of the anime world here, too. It's a fun, non-standard kind of opening that really digs into the characters in a deeper way than "hello I have amnesia I washed up on a beach" "welcome to the PMD world!!" kind of way.

I like what we've seen of the characters so far. It looks like we have a classic world-weary warrior/wide-eyed young apprentice duo here, which is a classic for a reason! And they both appear to be lonely souls just looking for a friend. I think this sets up a good dynamic that's going to be fun to follow over the course of the story. At this point Arcanine has the brunt of the mystery in his backstory, which will be fun to find out more about. I really liked the whole deal with Zorua (and also her mother) pretending to be eevee/sylveon because the townsfolk wouldn't trust them if they knew what they really were. It says a lot not only about them, but also about Meadow Town itself and the kind of world this is. It's not 100% clear to me whether it was pokémon in Meadow Town or somewhere else that drove Arcanine off, but one way or another it's clear that there are prejudices in play here and pokémon in this world don't all just get along regardless of species. With things like the dangerous ghosts in the forest, you've established a somewhat darker world than the PMD games without going dystopian or super edgy or anything. Good stuff! I'm interested to see more of it.

I think you did a nice job of establishing your characters and starting to draw an interesting world in this first chapter; the only thing I would have liked to see more of is a bit more direction of where the story's going from here. Are these characters going to get drawn into an epic quest somehow? Will there be some kind of quest to e.g. recover Arcanine's lost memories? We learn a fair amount of these characters' backstories but, like NebulaDreams said, not so much about what they want or what might drive them forward. I think you might want to shift the balance a bit away from character backstory and more towards establishing what the larger plot is going to be. For example, while Arcanine's dream definitely has some intriguing implications for his backstory, I don't know that we need it just yet; it might be better to bring it up later, and use the space to give us a little more context about what's going on in the world (which might hint at how our characters are going to get caught up in it) or modify the dream itself so it points a little more towards where the story's going.

I also want to call out your prose a minute here, because I think it's really solid; you do a good job of conveying your characters', well, character in a short amount of space, and you draw evocative pictures of Haunted Forest and its surroundings. Everything's nicely polished, and the only issue I really noticed was some occasional goofs in dialogue punctuation:

“All done.” Arcanine announced. “And next time you thought things through, right?”

“Well, no.” Zorua admitted.
Whenever dialogue is followed by a tag that describes how it was said ("Arcanine announced," "he yelled," "she said," etc.), you should replace the period with a comma. In these cases:

“All done,” Arcanine announced. “And next time you thought things through, right?”

“Well, no,” Zorua admitted.
Also, whenever you have a dialogue tag following a quote, the first letter should be lower case. Thus:

“Hey, um... are you alright?” She asked.
should be "she asked."

and

“Alright, it’s a secret,” She agreed, “I’ll try to come back soon, too. I want to go exploring with you.”
should be "she agreed," and there should be a period rather than a comma after "agreed" as well.

You usually get dialogue punctuation right, but it might be worth going back and double-checking it when you're proofreading.

Solid start overall! Nicely demonstrates how this story is both similar to and differnt from other PMD tales and sets up some fun characters to move forward with. I'm interested for sure! Anyhow, welcome again to the forums, and good luck with your story. We have a reviewing event going on right now, if you're interested--should be a good way to get to know some of the other stories on the board, and maybe win some additional reviews, fanart, etc. for your story as well.
 

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
This is a fun twist on the usual PMD story! Looks like rather than a human-turned-pokémon with amnesia, we have a pokémon from a world with humans now in a world without them, also with amnesia. Based on arcanine's dream sequence, we might be looking at some elements of the anime world here, too. It's a fun, non-standard kind of opening that really digs into the characters in a deeper way than "hello I have amnesia I washed up on a beach" "welcome to the PMD world!!" kind of way.
Yes! I wanted to keep a lot of the familiar elements from the games, mostly Rescue and Explorers, but change things up a bit, too. We'll be seeing quite a few familiar NPCs and locations later on, and a few from the anime too.

I like what we've seen of the characters so far. It looks like we have a classic world-weary warrior/wide-eyed young apprentice duo here, which is a classic for a reason! And they both appear to be lonely souls just looking for a friend. I think this sets up a good dynamic that's going to be fun to follow over the course of the story. At this point Arcanine has the brunt of the mystery in his backstory, which will be fun to find out more about. I really liked the whole deal with Zorua (and also her mother) pretending to be eevee/sylveon because the townsfolk wouldn't trust them if they knew what they really were. It says a lot not only about them, but also about Meadow Town itself and the kind of world this is. It's not 100% clear to me whether it was pokémon in Meadow Town or somewhere else that drove Arcanine off, but one way or another it's clear that there are prejudices in play here and pokémon in this world don't all just get along regardless of species. With things like the dangerous ghosts in the forest, you've established a somewhat darker world than the PMD games without going dystopian or super edgy or anything. Good stuff! I'm interested to see more of it.

I think you did a nice job of establishing your characters and starting to draw an interesting world in this first chapter; the only thing I would have liked to see more of is a bit more direction of where the story's going from here. Are these characters going to get drawn into an epic quest somehow? Will there be some kind of quest to e.g. recover Arcanine's lost memories? We learn a fair amount of these characters' backstories but, like NebulaDreams said, not so much about what they want or what might drive them forward. I think you might want to shift the balance a bit away from character backstory and more towards establishing what the larger plot is going to be. For example, while Arcanine's dream definitely has some intriguing implications for his backstory, I don't know that we need it just yet; it might be better to bring it up later, and use the space to give us a little more context about what's going on in the world (which might hint at how our characters are going to get caught up in it) or modify the dream itself so it points a little more towards where the story's going.
Yeah, this is a problem. Currently, the main plot is mostly introduced in Chapter 2 with the third main character. There are some connections here, but it won't be apparent until later on, so that doesn't help now. Chapter 2 is pretty weak, and I didn't feel like it was high enough quality to lead with. Now that I've started to repost here (I'm a few chapters ahead on other sites) I think I have the inspiration to rewrite chapter 2. Maybe I'll put it first when I'm done? I'm not sure.

I also want to call out your prose a minute here, because I think it's really solid; you do a good job of conveying your characters', well, character in a short amount of space, and you draw evocative pictures of Haunted Forest and its surroundings. Everything's nicely polished, and the only issue I really noticed was some occasional goofs in dialogue punctuation:

Whenever dialogue is followed by a tag that describes how it was said ("Arcanine announced," "he yelled," "she said," etc.), you should replace the period with a comma. In these cases:
Thanks! I thought I caught all of these, but I guess not.

Solid start overall! Nicely demonstrates how this story is both similar to and differnt from other PMD tales and sets up some fun characters to move forward with. I'm interested for sure! Anyhow, welcome again to the forums, and good luck with your story. We have a reviewing event going on right now, if you're interested--should be a good way to get to know some of the other stories on the board, and maybe win some additional reviews, fanart, etc. for your story as well.
Looks like fun. I'm definitely going to try to make time for some reviewing in the next few weeks.
 
Chapter 2: Prophesy New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 2: Prophesy

Absol’s claws gripped the ice as she walked down the narrow trail, finding sure footing with years of practice. A bitter cold wind whipped up the slope of Mount Freeze, ruffling her thick coat and blowing stinging crystals of snow into her face, but it was only a minor discomfort. Squinting into the glare of the afternoon sun on fields of snow, she could see a herd of Swinub rooting in the valley below.

In the valley, she could see that a few hardy shoots were already poking up through the snow. She stopped hopefully to check the occasional berry bush along the way, even though she knew it was a wasted effort. The Swinub had cleaned out last year’s crop months ago, and it would be another month or more before the first of this year’s crop began to ripen. A startled Delibird flapped out of one bush, squawking at her as it rose. Absol leaped up, swatting at it playfully.

“Too slow!” Delibird teased, swooping down again, just out of reach. Delibird spread her wings, catching the wind and gliding further up the valley. Absol spun and chased after her, Swinub scattering from her path as she charged through the herd.

Soon she lost sight of the bird against the glare of the snow, and she stopped under a bare tree, panting and laughing. “Beautiful day for a run, eh?” Delibird called down from a branch above. Absol nodded and Deliberd fluttered down beside her.

“You know, I was flying over Frosty Forest this morning and I saw something interesting...”

“Oh?”Absol prompted.

“The Swinub missed a patch of Ice Berries by those two big oaks in the west.”

“Really?” Absol grinned. “I might have to go pick some. Mother and I are so tired of last year’s dried berries.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Linoone darted from behind a rock, brushing against Absol’s chest as it ran under her. “You’re it!” Linoone shouted, scurrying away. Absol gave chase. They headed for a group of Pokémon talking in the shade of an old Apple tree; Poochyena, Purrloin, and the Furret brothers. Purrloin raised her head and yawned, her lack of motion indicating that she wasn’t playing right now. The other three scattered at Absol’s approach. Absol knew Poochyena was too fast for her, and the smaller Furret had already been ‘it’ several times that afternoon, so she turned to pursue the larger Furret. They ran through the bushes along the stream which formed one of the agreed-upon boundaries of the game, and Absol cornered Furret at a bend in the stream.

Poochyena appeared again, charging at her and breaking off before she could hit him. He leapt back and forth, keeping just out of reach. Furret tried to make a run for it while she was distracted, but Absol swatted his tail on the way by.

Poochyena tagged Furret, making himself ‘it,’ and circled Absol, head low and tail waving in the air, challenging her to run. She did, heading back toward the center of the meadow. Poochyena chased her for a while, following a body-length behind without touching her. Absol swerved around a bush and Poochyena tackled her. They rolled together in the grass, snapping playfully at each others’ faces. Sylveon wandered by, stopping to watch them play.

“Which of us is ‘it’ now?” Poochyena whispered.

“Maybe we’re both half ‘it’,” Absol suggested.

“So if we tag her at the same time…”

“Hey, Sylveon!” Poochyena said as they both stood up, “do you know who’s ‘it’ now?”

Sylveon shrugged and sat down to scratch her ear. Absol and Poochyena both bumped into her at the same time.

“You are!” Absol shouted as the two of them broke into a run.

Eventually, everyone tired of the game. Pokémon wandered back to the old Apple tree, sitting or laying together in the sun, or the shade. Braixen had some dried berries in her bag, and Linoone had some Apples from last fall, which were getting soft, but still smelled okay. Absol accepted a couple of dried Orans and stretched out beside Poochyena to eat.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Absol woke to the shock of something cold and wet on her nose. She raised her head, prepared to growl at whoever had thought it funny to splash her, and found that she was alone beneath the Apple tree. That was strange, she thought; she didn’t feel like she’d been asleep long, and how had they all snuck off without waking her? Poochyena’s and Sylveon’s scents on the ground were hours old. Maybe a Sleep Seed had gotten mixed in with Sylveon’s dried berries? Even so, everyone wouldn’t have just left without waking her.

Poochyena?” Absol called, “Furret? Sylveon? Braixen? Purrloin? Where is everyone?”

Another fat raindrop splashed on her face, and another. Absol looked up and saw that the sky was now heavy with clouds. She couldn’t see the position of the sun. It had been clear before, hadn’t it?

Treetops began to rustle as the wind picked up. Absol shivered. It was a cold, biting wind, which seemed to cut right through her thick winter coat.

Something was wrong here, very wrong. All the Pokémon here were her friends. She’d known them for years; they wouldn’t all just disappear like this, not even as a joke. It was spring, and storms didn’t just come up unexpectedly in the afternoon like this, especially not on a north wind. Absol shivered again, and not just from the cold this time. She wasn’t afraid, not here at the base of the mountain which had always been her home, but she was worried.

She’d best head home, Absol thought. If something was wrong, Mother would know what to do. If something wasn’t wrong, she could bring in some extra branches for their beds, help clean the rest of the winter detritus from their den, and maybe beg an extra story before they went to watch the stars with Ninetales. The rain fell harder, and she shifted from a quick walk to a trot to a run. Before long, her coat was soaked through.

The temperature was dropping quickly, and before she reached Frosty Forest, the rain had already turned to hail The hail battered down the flowers around her as she ran, stripped the new leaves from the trees, and pelted painfully on her head and back, and she darted from tree to tree, seeking what shelter she could find. The ground turned to mud beneath her pads, sticking to her feet with each step.

The hail turned to snow as she ascended Mount Freeze, and the wind whipped it around her in great white sheets, stinging her face and blinding her. There was some sinister presence there, a shadow half-glimpsed through the blowing snow. The mud froze into ice as she ran, sharp ridges that cut into her pads. The snow was up her ankles now, her knees, her chest. It seemed to grab at her, pulling her down; soon Absol was breaking through drifts taller than she.

For an instant, she thought she caught a glimpse of something following her, its coal-black body silhouetted against the white snow, but it was gone before she could identify it. Exhausted and freezing, Absol reached the cave and collapsed beside Mother. They lay there together, shivering, as the snow continued to fall. Soon, it had piled up over then entrance to the cave, entombing them in absolute darkness.


Come, little one,” Mother said, “we have to keep a way open to the surface through the night. In the morning we’ll try to make it down off the mountain.”

They took turns digging through the packed snow for what seemed like hours. Eventually Absol broke through to the surface. There was nothing at all above her; no clouds or stars or moon, just an infinite, dark void.

They huddled together in the cave for a day, a week, waiting for a glimmer of sunlight to find it’s way down the tunnel, too tired and cold and hungry to move. Morning never came.


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Absol! Are you okay?”

The first thing Absol saw when she woke was Poochyena’s nose, centimeters from her own, his muzzle wrinkled in concern..

She was cold. Not just chilly from laying in the damp grass in the shade, but achingly, painfully, bone-chillingly cold. In eight winters on Mount Freeze, playing in the snow and watching the sky at night with Ninetales from the peak of the mountain, she didn’t think that she had ever felt this cold before. The feeling seemed to originate in her horn and radiate throughout her body in the throbbing waves of pain.

Absol raised her head and looked around; five concerned faces looked down at her. The meadow was the same as it had been when she’d lain down to eat. The sky was clear, the breeze gentle, the ground lush with grass and flowers, and free of snow. She’d been in the sun when she lay down, but the shadow of the big Apple tree had moved to cover her; probably less than half an hour had passed.

“Wh-wh-” Absol tried to ask, but she was shivering so badly that she could barely speak. “Wh-why is it-t-t s-so c-cold?”

“It’s not cold,” Braixen said, “it’s the same temperature it was when we all lay down.”

“It-t i-is,” Absol insisted, “H-h-how l-long w-was I as-l-leep?”

“Maybe ten minutes?” Poochyena offered, “we were grooming, and you fell a sleep while I was washing your ears.”

“You were kicking and crying and muttering something,” Linoone said, “Furret went to get your mother.”

“If it were anyone else, we’d have woken you,” Sylveon said, “but we thought maybe...”

It wasn’t just a dream, Absol thought, Sylveon was right. Mother had a vision, eight and a half years ago, before Team Go-Getters came looking for Ninetales. She tried to remember all the other stories Mother had told her. She had heard them dozens of times, but now that it was important, they all seemed jumbled together in her head. Great-grandmother had one, more than two hundred years ago, in the year that the volcano far to the west had erupted.

The previous one had been hundreds of years before that, so many generations that Mother couldn’t remember how many ‘greats’ to add without looking at the family tree carved into the rock just inside the den entrance. Absol had never expected to have a vision herself. She had premonitions, feeling in her horn like any other Absol. She knew when there would be an avalanche, or a rockslide, or a blizzard. Visions were different.

No one remembered now why their ancestors had chosen Mount Freeze, or why they saw things that even other Absols didn’t, but in the thousands of years that the duty had passed down from mother to daughter, there had never been two visions so close together.

“It was, wasn’t it?” Sylveon asked soberly.

Absol nodded. “I n-need-d t-to get-t h-h-home.”

“Can we come with you?” Poochyena asked.

“I’m f-f-ine. I’ll t-tell you ab-bout it lat-t-er.”

Absol ran, retracing the same familiar path she had taken to their den in her dream, and thousands of times before. She knew it was only her imagination, but she could almost feel the presence of the malevolent black figure from her dream behind her, and the wind-driven ice slashing at her face. She ran faster and faster as the terror of her dream returned.

As she rounded a switchback, Absol looked back down on the trail below. Poochyena and Sylveon were there, following her a respectful distance. Her panic eased, just a little. They wouldn’t admit it in front of her, but they were worried about her. She was fortunate to have such good friends.

Halfway up, she passed Furret without slowing down.

“Absol, what’s wrong?” he called after her as she passed.

Furret was a good Pokémon, and he’d run all the way up here to help her. She should have stopped to thank him and explain the situation. Sylveon and Poochyena were probably still close behind, and they would explain; she could apologize later.

Mother was stretched out on the flat rock ledge in front of the cave, dozing in the sun. A bag’s worth of earthy-smelling Drash Berries lay on the ground beside her, freshly dug and washed and waiting to be sliced up and spread out to dry. Winter was six months of the year, here, and it was never too early to begin preparing for the next. The clear afternoon sky gaped above her like a dark abyss, and she needed to be out of its view.

She dashed past Mother and into the den, past the side chamber where they stored food and wood, and all the way to the back where soft, long-needled pine branches were piled as a nest . She wriggled under the old Mareep-wool blanket and covered her face and horn with her paws, as if she could block out the cold that seemed to come from within.

Mother’s tattered blanket settled around her, and Absol felt a little bit better. It was the one thing besides her treasure bag that Mother had brought back from her time on Team Go-Getters. It had been far from new then, stained in dozens of places and fraying at the edges, but it was still thick and warm. The two of them spent countless hours nestled in it each winter, Mother telling stories, and her listening raptly and reciting them back.

“Are you alright, little one?”

Mother’s claws ticked across the stone floor of the den, and her muzzle lifted the edge of the blanket, letting a beam of daylight in. Her eyes shone in the dim light.

“S-s-so c-cold.” Absol curled herself more tightly into a ball, “It h-hurts.”

“Cold?” Mother asked, confusion and concern in her voice.

Absol nodded.

Mother’s face pushed further into the blanket, sniffing over her head and forelegs. “You saw something, didn’t you?”

Absol nodded again.

“The ledge outside is warm from the sun. Will you come lay with me and tell me about it?”

Absol hesitated at the mouth of the cave, remembering the darkness and terror that had waited outside in her dream. The sunlight felt faded and far away; she tried to assure herself that it was only her imagination. The ground was muddy from melting snow, and she held the blanket up, carefully picking her way around the puddles as she climbed onto the ledge.

She shook the worst of the mud from her paws and lay down, curling into a ball again. Mother jumped up beside her and spread the blanket over her, then lay down against her back.

“Better?”

“St-till c-cold.” Absol leaned back, pressing herself against Mother’s warm body. It did feel better, though.

“Now,” Mother said, “what happened?”

“I was d-down below the f-forest, playing with some other Pokém-mon,” Absol began, “we had some berries Braixen brought for lunch, then we all lay out in the sun.”

“I woke up in my dream because it was raining, and everyone was gone Th-then it was s-snowing. I ran b-b-back to the cave. S-something ch-chased me. Something black, but I couldn’t s-see it through the s-snow.”

“It k-kept snowing, over the top of the cave. We had to d-dig out for air, and everything was d-dark. We said in the m-morning we’d-d g-go down the mount-tain, but th-there was no morning. J-just cold and d-dark...”

Mother leaned over her, pushing her paws away from her face. Mother’s warm tongue brushed against her cheeks, and Absol realized that she was crying. A few minutes passed in silence as Mother groomed her.

“You’re sure we were on Mount Freeze?” Mother asked eventually.

“Y-yes.”

“We dug out of the cave, and it was night? Could you see the stars?”

“Th-there was n-noth-thing in the sky.” Absol was certain. It hadn’t been clouds above her to block the moon and stars; just pure, terrifying emptiness. “Nothing at all.”

“And the thing that chased you?”

“I only s-saw it f-for an inst-taant th-through the s-snow. It was j-just b-black, l-like the s-sky.”

“Big or small?” Mother prompted, “quadruped or biped or something else?”

“I d-don’t k-know.”

Mother continued to ask questions, teasing out all of the details of her vision which she hadn’t thought to describe. Afterward, she was silent for a while. Absol could almost feel her thinking.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Mother finally said, “but I’m certain it was important.”

“Y-you’re more s-sensitive than me, M-mother. Why d-didn’t you see it t-too?”

“I don’t know, little one. We don’t get to choose our visions...If you’re up to it, I think we ought to see what Ninetales thinks.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Is that better?” Ninetales asked as they settled around the fire in his cave.

“Yes.” Absol lay as close as she dared without catching her fur. The warmth from the flames drove back the chill from her horn, and for the first time since she’d awakened in the meadow, she wasn’t shivering. “Thank you”

The main chamber of Ninetales’ cave was huge and impressive, and uncomfortably cold and drafty most of the year. It was where he saw visitors from elsewhere who came to ask him to read the stars for them. The smaller chamber where they lay now was Ninetales’ bedchamber. He and Mother shared the several blankets which made his bed, while Absol lay on another on the floor, polished smooth by what must have been millenia of use before Ninetales had claimed it. The smoke from the fire found its way up through a crack in the ceiling.

When outsiders came to consult him, Ninetales made a show of being mysterious and aloof. It gave more weight to his predictions, he claimed; Pokémon who traveled from around the continent for his wisdom didn’t want advice from a normal Pokémon, they wanted the secrets of the heavens revealed. He gave it to them.

With the Pokémon who lived around Mount Freeze, he abandoned the act. They came for advice, or omens, or just to chat and share stories. They brought gifts of food, mostly, and firewood, and the occasional blanket or other useful item, not because Ninetales couldn’t gather them himself, but because they knew he preferred to spend his time thinking or watching the stars. Ninetales was old, and wise, and knew the stars better than any other mortal Pokémon. He had also traveled further than anyone else around the mountain, even Mother.

“I’m glad that you came.” Ninetales told them, “every night, these last few weeks, something in the sky has been troubling me. I had hoped that one of you would see it as well, because I’m not certain that I’m correct.”

“I’ve not seen anything out of the ordinary,” Mother answered first.

“Nor I.” Absol shook her head.

“It’s not an omen,” Ninetales said, frowning, “it’s, well, I’m not certain. After two hundred years staring at the stars, I know before I look up what I expect to see. Now, everything seems the slightest bit...off.”

Absol looked back and forth between her parents. Ninetales always knew what the stars meant; for him to be completely at a loss was possibly even more disturbing than her dream. Feeling cold again, despite the heat of the fire, she pulled the edge of her blanket across her forelegs.

“So, little one,” Ninetales gave her a reassuring smile, “tell us what you’ve seen.”

Absol began her story again, trying to remember to include all the details that Mother had questioned before.

“Just a moment,” Ninetales interrupted, halfway through her telling. He raised his head and turned to look back out toward the main chamber. “No need to skulk outside,” Ninetales called, “come join us.”

For a moment there was no response, and Absol thought perhaps Ninetales was mistaken; then she heard the scraping of two sets of claws on the stone outside.

Sylveon appeared around the corner, and Poochyena behind her. Their heads were lowered and their ears back in embarrassment. Ninetales waved them in.

“We’re sorry,” Sylveon began, “we were just looking for Absol...”

“I’m sure.” Ninetales’ lips pursed as he tried to hide an amused smile. “Since you’re here, you may as well hear the rest.”

Ninetales and the two Absols waited as Sylveon and Poochyena found places by the fire.

Absol continued. These were her family and friends, and she shouldn’t be embarrassed to relate her vision to them, but she found it easier if she stared into the flames rather than look at anyone. Their dance was hypnotic, freeing her mind and loosening her tongue like the Berry wine which visitors sometimes brought for Ninetales.

Everyone was silent for a while after she finished. Absol was grateful; she would have liked nothing better than to stay just where she was beside the fire for the rest of the night, or the rest of her life. She had begun to nod off when Ninetales finally spoke.

“Nothing at all in the sky,” Ninetales said grimly. It wasn’t a question, Absol thought, just a repetition. She nodded in confirmation. Ninetales was staring into the fire as well; looking around, she saw that all of them were.

“So, there is something wrong with the stars,” Ninetales said slowly, “but what? The old legends say that in the distant past, the First One and his children fought, and their wrath shook the very stars and planets from their courses...”

“What do we do?” Absol asked quietly. It seemed far too large a problem for the five of them to deal with.

“Whatever this is, it is beyond our capability here on Mount Freeze,” Ninetales said, “we must seek aid, and other Pokémon must be warned, but after two hundred years here, I no longer know who to turn to for help.”

“Team Go-Getters,” Mother said immediately.

“It’s a long way to Pokémon Square...” Ninetales said.

“I’m not sure I can go alone,” Absol said. Ordinarily, should would be excited to go; it would be a great adventure, traveling the world and seeing all the places in Mother’s stories for herself. Right now, though, she didn’t even want to be outside.

“I could go with her,” Mother said, “I would like to see everyone again…but I don’t think it’s wise for both of us to leave at once. If there is another vision, one of us should be here.”

“There is an easier way,” Ninetales said, “I’ve told you stories about sailing with Lapras, haven’t I?”

Absol nodded.

“There is a cave on the coast about two days to the east called Iceberg Cave,” Ninetales said, “it’s been years since I visited, but I think he still lives there. I trust him, and I don’t think he would mind ferrying you to Pokémon Square.”

Riding Lapras would be incredible, she thought. Ninetales had told her stories of their adventures, but, like Mother’s stories, they had always seemed exotic and far away; somehow, she had never thought about Lapras being right there nearby. Iceberg Cave was further from home than she had ever been. She had a vague idea where it was, and an even vaguer idea of where Pokémon Square was, far to the south and west, but the distances between didn’t have any meaning to her.

She would be very, very exposed, on Lapras’ back out on the ocean. Ordinarily, she didn’t think that would have bothered her. The ridges and peaks of Mount Freeze were exposed too. Could she do it now, though? She swam in the lake below Frosty Forest sometimes, but if she fell off in the middle of the ocean, could she swim well enough to stay afloat until Lapras retrieved her?

“It will be cold, won’t it?” Absol asked, “how will I stay on his back?”

“He has a raft with a tent,” Ninetales said, “it’s small, but I must have spent a hundred nights aboard. You could take a blanket, too. Whether that will be enough in your current condition...I don’t know.”

“I’ll do it,” Absol decided, “do we have to leave now?”

“Time is important,” Mother said, “but I think you’ll feel better in the morning. Why don’t we stay the night with Ninetales, and leave at dawn?

“Can we help?” Poochyena offered.

Ninetales thought for a moment, then nodded. “We’ll need another bag or two; a large one. Also, I need to speak with Articuno. If you and your friends could watch his cliff and let me know when he returns, I would be grateful.”

“Wait,” Absol said as Sylveon and Poochyena rose to leave, “thank you for following me earlier. I’m sorry I left in such a hurry.”

Sylveon shook her head. “Absol, you shouldn’t apologize to us. We don’t understand what’s happening, but we can see it’s not easy for you. We just wanted to be sure you were okay.”

“Thank you.” Absol stood, and leaned forward to touch noses with Sylveon. Sylveon’s body brushed against hers as she passed; shoulder, flank, hip, and tail. Poochyena did the same.

“Don’t say goodbye yet,” Sylveon said, “we’ll be here to see you off in the morning.” Absol turned to watch as they walked out of the cave.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Absol woke to the sound of footsteps and quiet voices in the main cave. The fire was long since out, and she was alone in Ninetales’ bedroom. Sometime during the night, Ninetales or Mother had pulled a blanket over her. It smelled familiar and comfortable, she thought, rubbing her face into the wool; decades of Ninetales’ scent, and wood smoke, and herself and Mother and all the other Pokémon who had spent a cold winter night with Ninetales over the years.

She didn’t want to get up. She had slept wonderfully peacefully last night, cuddled between Mother and Ninetales, and she wanted to stay right here and think about being warm. She could tell by the light through the doorway out into the main cave that it was well past dawn, and everyone was probably waiting on her. Stalling wasn’t going to make the trip any easier.

Absol began to shiver again as she emerged from the blanket. She walked hesitantly out of the cave, half-expecting to see endless black sky above her again.

Everyone from their game of tag the day before was waiting for her; Sylveon, Poochyena, Linoone, Braixen, Purrloin, and both Furrets. They weren’t the only ones; a dozen other Pokémon from around the mountain were there to see her off.

“I brought you a bag.” Sylveon shrugged the bag off and lifted it with two of her ribbons and placed it around Absol’s neck. It wasn’t just any bag, it was her bag, the one she had carried for as long as Absol could remember. “It’s lucky,” Sylveon said, “I haven’t drowned or fallen off any boats while wearing it, and neither will you.”

“Oh, thank you!” Absol laughed. Sylveon’s ribbons wrapped around her shoulders, pulling the two of them together in a hug.

Poochyena stepped up next, something round and yellow and faintly luminescent in his jaws, which he placed on the ground in front of her. It was an Orb, but Absol didn’t recognize what kind.

“It’s a Sunny Day Orb,” Poochyena explained, “I found it in my very first mystery dungeon. Maybe you can use if you run into a storm.”

Absol leaned down, resting her chin on Poochyena’s head. He pushed back. “Absol, be careful.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Braixen held a bottle of wine. Each fall, Pokémon from around Mount Freeze and the surrounding area brought loads of berries to Braixen’s family by the river near where they all played in the meadow, and helped mash them all underfoot, in exchange for a share of the finished product. “Aspear and Oran with a bit of Tamato,” Braixen said, carefully tucking the bottle into Sylveon’s bag, “it’s just the thing for keeping warm on a cold night.”

Others brought token gifts, Apples or Berries for her to eat on the way, and soon Sylveon’s bag was bulging. Absol thanked them each with a smile or a hug or a nuzzle. Had Mother received such a wonderful sendoff when she left with Team Go-Getters, Absol wondered. Probably not; there hadn’t been time to gather everyone. Absol was sure she would have, though; she was such a nice Pokémon, and everyone loved her too.

Despite the freezing feeling emanating from her horn, Absol found that she was almost enjoying herself as they started down the long trail toward the coast. This was familiar territory, and the trail was wide and easy here; she walked in the center, with Mother on her right and Ninetales on her left. With so many friends around the mountain, she was never lonely, but it was such a rare treat to get to go somewhere with both Ninetales and Mother at the same time. Sylveon’s treasure bag bumped against her chest with each step, stocked with food, Poochyena’s Sunny Day Orb, Braixen’s wine, and at least a week’s worth of food. Mother caried another, stuffed with one of Ninetales’ blankets

“Have I ever told you about the time Lapras and I discovered Wish Cave?” Ninetales asked.

“No,” Absol said, suppressing a grin, “never.”

All three of them knew that he had, of course; she could probably repeat it herself, without missing too many details. Where was the fun in that, though? Mother and Ninetales’ stories were still enchanting, no matter how many times she heard them, and they still appreciated when she acted surprised or worried or excited at the right moments, even if they all knew it was an act.

“It was a hot summer day, and we were sailing along the coast of Southeastern Archipelago...”

Ninetales left out the part where Lapras had gotten lost, swum into the bay full of grumpy Stunfisk, and they’d both nearly drowned in the electrical assault before making it back out into the ocean. That was just as well, Absol, thought, she didn’t want to think right now about all the things that could go wrong on the way.

The three of them took turns as they walked, Ninetales telling stories about his adventures with Lapras, Mother about Team Go-Getters and Pokémon Square, and her some of the old stories about the Legendaries.

It was much warmer at this elevation, the snow already melted and flowers blooming, but still she was cold. As the sky darkened that evening, the terror which she had felt looking up at the empty sky in her dream began to creep back. At first, Absol tried to ignore it, knowing that she would be even more exposed on Lapras’ back, but the feeling grew more intense.

“We n-need t-to f-find sh-shelter,” Absol admitted eventually, “I c-cant d-do th-this at n-night.”

Ninetales found them an old Diggersby den to spend the night. It didn’t go very deep into the hillside, but was wide enough for the three of them to lay comfortably. She wanted to ask Ninetales to start them a fire, but there wasn’t enough airflow, and she knew it would quickly smoke them out.

Absol set her bag, Sylveon’s ‘lucky’ bag, down, pulled open the drawstring, and used the last of the daylight to sort out some dried berries and the bottle of wine. They may as well all enjoy it together, she thought, when they could cuddle together afterward feeling all warm and relaxed. It wouldn’t be any fun alone.

“Not tonight,” Ninetales said of the wine, “you’ll want that to help you sleep on the way. Not too much at once, though, or it will make you more seasick.”

Her horn ached as they lay together after eating, and even with Mother and Ninetales stretched out against either side of her, Absol was still chilly. It wasn’t really cold in the burrow; she knew it wasn’t, because her parents were both stretched out full length, with their legs spread, giving them more surface to cool off on the sides which weren’t touching her.

They were both asleep within minutes, but Absol lay awake, worrying. Ninetales said the raft had a tent, but would that be enough to protect her from the sky at night? What if it wasn’t? If Lapras had to stop every night for her to find shelter, it would more than double the time they took to reach Pokémon Square. What if she fell off the raft, or slid off in her sleep? If she was scared now, with Mother and Ninetales and still in sight of Mount Freeze, how terrified was she going to be later, alone on Lapras’ back on the ocean? By the time she reached Pokémon Square, would she even remember her vision, or would it have faded like dreams usually did?

They started off again at first light. Another day’s travel brought them to the top of the cliffs which lined the eastern coast. The three of them found another burrow to spend the night, and in the morning they turned south, following the coastline.

“This is it.” Ninetales stopped abruptly at a fork in the trail. One path continued along the top of the bluff, while the other descended into a crevice in the rocks. If Lapras swam in and out, Absol thought, the cave had to be at sea level. They were still at least a fifty meters up.

“Is it a mystery dungeon?” Absol asked.

Ninetales shook his head. “Just a tunnel.”

Ninetales led them into the crevice, which opened into a tunnel about a meter across and two high. It was obviously carved rather than naturally occurring, but the marks on the walls weren’t from any Pokémon with which she was familiar.

The tunnel descended gently for about fifty meters, then opened into the top of a large grotto. The grotto floor was half submerged, and open to the sea on the east side. Lapras was there, resting in the shallows by the shore; his head was erect, but he was still, and Absol thought he must be sleeping.

The path curved around the perimeter of the grotto as it descended, and as they approached him, Absol could see more detail. Lapras’ shell was chipped and battered and patchy with lichen, and several long scars adorned the wrinkled, leathery hide of his face and neck. He must be quite old, she realized, if he had adventured with Ninetales in his youth. She didn’t know how long-lived Lapras’ species was; probably more than the hundred and fifty or so years that most Field-group Pokémon could expect, but certainly nowhere near Ninetales’ thousand. Somehow she had expected him to be young still, like Ninetales was.

“Hello, old friend,” Ninetales called as they reached the cavern floor.

Lapras’ head swung around toward them. His big eyes blinked several times, slowly, before focusing on their group.

“Ninetales?” Lapras’ loud rumble filled the grotto, “it’s been too long.”

“It has.”

Ninetales looked guilty; he hadn’t thought about how old Lapras would be now, either, Absol thought.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Lapras said, “I was just dreaming about how warm the water was off the coast of Marine Resort.”

Lapras bent down as Ninetales approached. They nuzzled, and Ninetales forelegs wrapped around Lapras’ long neck.

“I’m sorry,” Ninetales said, “I should have visited more often.”

“You’re here now,” Lapras said, “and your lovely daughters?” Lapras sniffed at Mother and then her. “I don’t think I’ve met this one before. You’re not here to chat though, are you.”

“I’m afraid not,” Ninetales said, “we need your help.”

Ninetales explained the situation briefly.

Lapras didn’t answer immediately. His eyes lost focus, and Absol wasn’t sure whether he was thinking, or had fallen asleep again.

“I haven’t been further than Bay Town in years,” Lapras said slowly, “but I suppose I have one more voyage in me. It will be fun to have a passenger again...like old times”

“Do you still have your raft?” Ninetales asked.

Lapras turned his head toward the back of the cave, and all of them followed his gaze.

The raft itself was mostly intact. Three large logs, wider than her torso, ran from front to back. Dozens of smaller boards, running from side to side, were lashed to them with rope, forming a flat deck about a meter wide and two long. A few were broken or rotted through, and the rope was broken in places, but Absol thought she could still stand safely on the deck. A row of vertical poles stood along each side, and these were mostly broken. Tattered scraps of cloth hung from the splintered wood.

“I never had it repaired after that fight with the Gyaradoses on our last voyage,” Lapras said, “I always meant to...” He shrugged.

“This isn’t going to work for you, is it?” Ninetales asked.

Embarrassed, Absol shook her head. She wanted to be brave and say it would be okay, but she knew that it wasn’t true; she would go mad on the first night, trapped on that open deck beneath the terrible sky.

“If we hurry, I can make Bay Town by evening,” Lapras offered, “I haven’t been there in a decade, but surely they will remember me. Someone will be able to repair it, there.”

“Th-they c-can c-cov-ver it?” Absol asked, “all th-the w-way ar-round?”

“Yes,” Lapras said.

“I th-think th-that w-will w-work.”

“I’m afraid you three will have to get it to the shore,” Lapras said, “it’s been years since I’ve been flexible enough to leave the water.”

The raft was heavy and difficult to push over the rough floor of the grotto. Working together, the three of them could push and drag it only a few centimeters at a time. If there hadn’t been a slight slope down toward the water, Absol didn’t think they could have moved it at all. It took them more than an hour to haul the raft close enough that Lapras could stretch his neck out and reach the tow hawser, and all three of them were panting heavily.

With Lapras’ strength, the last few meters were easy. He rocked the raft side to side before slipping his neck into the hawser to pull it in a circle in the water of the cave. The deck flexed and wobbled more than Absol liked, but it seemed in no danger of breaking apart or sinking.

“It will have to do to Bay Town,” Lapras said, “we shouldn’t run into any weather today.”

It was time, Absol thought. She wasn’t ready. She had expected at least another meal with Mother and Ninetales, one last chance to groom together and cuddle. The longer she delayed now, the darker it would be when they reached Bay Town.

It would be weeks or months, or maybe even years before she saw Mother and Ninetales and all of her other friends again. She had always assumed that some day she would have the opportunity to explore the world, like Mother and most of her other ancestors had, before returning to Mount Freeze and her duty. Until yesterday, that ‘some day’ had been a distant hypothetical. Now it was immediate and real, and she didn’t want to go.

Mother and Ninetales were standing side by side, and she pushed her head between theirs. They leaned together, their muzzles pressing against either side of her neck.

“Be careful out there, little one,” Ninetales said, “most Pokémon are good people. Many of them will listen to your story. Some of them will help you, but don’t trust anyone too readily. Stick to the main roads. Go directly to Pokémon Square. Don’t leave town with anyone you don’t know well.”

“I’ve bored you with stories of Pokémon Square for years,” Mother said, “you probably know everyone in there as well as I did, by now.”

“You know I was never bored with your stories.” Absol laughed as she wriggled further between them. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“Also, write,” Mother said, “I know I’ve told you about the Pelippers.”

Absol pushed the rest of the way through; rubbing the entire length of her body against both of her parents, then circled back to the front. She wanted, more than anything, to be back in Ninetales’ cozy cave, by his warm fire, cuddled between them in Mother’s warm blanket and listening to their stories all night. She thought about how cold she had been on the road down to the coast, and how dark it would be at night. She thought about being trapped on Lapras’ back in the middle of the ocean . Would the tent be enough? Could she could make it through a night outside alone, imagining that awful empty sky overhead? It was too much and too soon and she was going to die out there alone and no one but old Lapras would ever know. For a moment, she almost turned and dashed back up the cliffs they way she had come.

“Are you alright?” Mother asked.

Absol forced herself to stand still, and nodded.

“You don’t have to do this, if it’s too much. We can find another way to get you there. I can go instead.”

She really didn’t have to, Absol though. Mother and Ninetales would trust her judgment. There would be no scorn if she said she couldn’t do it; Mother would go, and she could walk home with Ninetales to the safety of their cave.

Mother didn’t know all the details of her vision, couldn’t know, no matter how thoroughly she tried to explain. What if one of those details turned out to be critical? What if Mother and Team Go-Getters failed because of it and something awful happened? Even if Mother succeed, she would have to live with the shame of knowing that she was the first in thousands of years of Absols to fail in her duty. Even if Ninetales and Mother and all of her friends never said it, she would know it was true.

“I do have to,” Absol said, feeling her throat tighen and her eyes begin to sting, “you didn’t send someone else, and neither did great-grandmother.”

Mother smiled, but it was forced smile, Absol thought; Mother was worried too.

“You’re a good Pokémon, and smart,” Mother said, “trust your instincts, and you’ll do well.”

Lapras was waiting in the water behind her. Absol leaned forward, touching muzzles with Mother and Ninetales one last time. There was nothing left to say, so she turned and walked quickly to the shore. A leap, and she was across the gap and over the broken rail.

“Are you ready, little one?” Lapras rumbled.

“Yes.” Absol hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.

It was a strange feeling as the raft began to move beneath her, the ground sliding past on either side as she sat still. The deck rocked slowly beneath her paws with each stroke of Lapras’ fins. Absol turned back to look at Mother and Ninetails, tails curled around each other as they sat together on the shore.

Her eyes stung, and she blinked rapidly as tears began to soak into the fur on her cheeks. She shouldn’t be so upset, she thought; she wasn’t leaving forever, or even going anywhere dangerous. She would deliver her message, maybe explore for a while with Team Go-Getters like Mother had, then come back to Mount Freeze, and everything would go back to normal.

They exited the cave, and suddenly she was squinting in the bright noon sun. Lapras began to paddle more quickly, and she leaned against the rail to steady herself. Absol sat, motionless, staring back at where Mother and Ninetales had been standing long after their two white forms had disappeared in the darkness of the cave.

“Are you okay back there?” Lapras asked eventually.

It was hard to judge their speed with water all around, but she thought they must be moving at what would have been a trot for her. Droplets of salty water sprayed back at her with each ripple that broke across the blunt prow of the raft, dampening her coat, and she thought about how cold and wet she was going to be at night, even if the weather remained calm.

“I’m fine!” Absol called back.

“We can still make Bay Town by sunset,” Lapras said, “we’ll talk more then. Shout if you need anything, and try not to move around too much until you get a feel for how the raft moves.”

Now that they were underway, things really didn’t seem so bad. Lapras kept in sight of the coast on their right, but to the left, she could see for what she imagined must be hundreds of kilometers. The ocean wasn’t as featureless as she expected. There were islands out there, on the horizon, and they occasionally saw other Pokémon in the distance; Wingull and Cramorant overhead, and various marine Pokemon swimming in the water around them. It didn’t matter that the deck was tiny, because she was sure that if she tried to walk around, she would lose her balance and slip off into the sea.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The sun was just beginning to set when they arrived at Bay Town, and Absol huddled at the very center of the raft, fighting the urge to pull Ninetales’ blanket out to hide herself in. Lapras pulled alongside the single, dilapidated wooden pier which jutted out into the bay. A path from the pier led up the rocky shore to the town itself, about twenty wood and stone buildings of various shapes and sized arranged in an arc around the central square. Bay Town was small compared to Pokémon Square or Treasure Town, she knew from Mother’s stories, but for her, it was still an impressive sight.

From here, Absol could see several Pokémon in the square, and in the field outside town, mostly water types. No one seemed to have noticed them, yet.

“Sh-should-d I g-go g-get s-someone?” Absol asked.

“No need. I’ll get their attention.”

Lapras raised his head and let out long jet of water into the air in the direction of town. It dispersed before reaching town into into a mist of droplets which sparkled orange in the light of the setting sun.

Pokémon turned to look and point down toward the bay. Croconaw and Buizel started toward them.

“D-do you kn-now th-them?” Absol wondered.

“I don’t think so,” Lapras said, “but it’s been quite a long time since I was here, and my memory’s not what it used to be.”

“Evening!” Croconaw called as the two of them drew close, “can we help you?”

“Is Swampert of Team Sandcastle still around?”

Croconaw and Buizel looked at each other before Croconaw shook his head. “There hasn’t been a Swampert here in decades, and I’m not familiar with Team Sandcastle.”

“Empoleon or Vaporeon of Team Splash?”

“They disappeared in Magma Cavern,” Buizel paused to think for a moment, “more than ten years ago.”

“Feraligatr of Team Seaberries?”

Croconaw’s face broke into a smile. “He’s my father. You’re the Lapras, aren’t you? The one who used to travel the coast every spring and fall?”

“A long time ago.” Lapras nodded slowly.

“You know, he still talks about the time you saved him from the school of Wishiwashi. I’ll go fetch him.”

Croconaw returned several minutes later, followed by a Feraligatr who looked even more ancient than Lapras

“Lapras!” Feraligatr roared, “it’s been a long time.”

“Indeed,” Lapras rumbled in reply.

“You know, I wondered occasionally whether you were still alive.”

“So do I, in the mornings.”

They both laughed, then Feraligatr’s face became serious. “I see you’ve a new rider. There’s not trouble, is there?”

Absol could feel his stare. It was cautious, she though, but not quite hostile. Mother had warned her that not everyone away from the mountain would welcome her for fear of the disasters which she could sense.

“Not here,” Lapras said, “we’re bound for Pokémon Square. I need repairs, and she needs a place to stay the night; indoors, and private.”

“Aye,” Feraligatr said, “your deck’s in rough shape. Run into trouble?”

“Forty years ago, off Purity Isle.”

Feraligatr looked surprised. “Has it really been that long?”

Lapras nodded. “That was enough adventure to last us both a lifetime.”

“Have you seen Ninetales since? How is he these days?”

“Still young and healthy,” Lapras sighed, “and he will be long after we’re gone. This is his daughter.”

Feraligatr looked at her again; his gaze was more respectful this time. “Any family of Ninetales is welcome here...” he hesitated, a little bit longer than was comfortable for any of them.

“She can stay with us,” Buizel offered, “our two eggs just hatched, so it’ll be a bit crowded, but we can make room. There’s also the warehouse, if you’d rather be alone.”

“Th-the wareh-house is f-fine,” Absol said, “I d-don’t want t-to be in th-the way.”

She didn’t want to have to explain her mission and why she was cold and scared of the dark, though Buizel seemed nice, and it would have been pleasant to have company. She looked to Lapras for approval.

“Go ahead,” Lapras said, “Feraligatr and I have a lot to catch up on.”

Absol jumped to the pier and joined Buizel, eager to get under cover.

“Are you okay?” Buizel asked as they walked side by side up the path toward Bay Town.

“F-fine.” she fought the urge to leave Buizel behind and sprint the rest of the way to town. “Just c-cold. Th-thank you.”

Buizel looked dubious, but didn’t press her any further.

Bay Town was even more impressive up close. The buildings were sturdy and moss-covered, most of them built with stacked boulders on the first level and logs on the second. They looked like they had been standing for centuries. The smallest was the size of Braixen’s family’s home and winery, and the largest could almost have held Ninetales’ cave.

It was to the largest building which Buizel led her. He lifted the latch, a simple set of metal hooks accessible from both sides of the door by all but the shortest of Pokémon, and led her inside.

Absol relaxed as soon as the door thunked closed behind them, shutting out the darkening sky. It was darker inside, lit only by the fading sunlight through several small windows, but it was a safe, friendly darkness, like a cave, and her Dark-type eyes adjusted quickly. The building was two stories tall, but lacked a second floor inside; crates and barrels and lumber were piled three or four meters high, filling the single large room with the scents of Apples and Berries and pine sap.

“There’s plenty of room in here this time of year,” Buizel explained, “there’s some open crates of food by the door; help yourself, if you want. My partner and I live in the building to the left, if you need anything during the night. You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m s-sure.” Absol nodded. The warehouse was only a little warmer than outside, but it was out of the wind, and she was feeling better already, just having solid walls around her. “I j-just got wet and c-cold on the w-way.” That wasn’t entirely untrue, but she still felt a little bit guilty as she said it; Buizel really did want to help.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The sun was barely above the horizon when Absol arrived at the dock the next morning, feeling better after a night of relative comfort. Lapras’ raft was already ashore, and Feraligatr, Buizel, and several other Pokémon were talking and working around it. They had wooden boards and poles, and rope, and several large sheets of cloth, and she had no idea how it was all supposed to go together.

“They wanted to build me a new one,” Lapras explained, “but I told them we were in a hurry and this would probably be the last time I would use it. They’re replacing some of the damaged boards, and building a canopy over the back.”

Feraligatr saw the two of them talking, and came over to join them. “Lapras asked us to keep it simple,” he said, “we should be done by lunchtime.”

“Thank you! I don’t think I would have made it without.”

“It’s the least we can do for an old friend,” Croconaw said, “I wanted to build a wood hut, but Lapras thought it would be too heavy.”

The wood hut sounded like a great idea, Absol though, but it was going to be Lapras pulling the raft, not her, so she didn’t say anything.

“You should offer to pay him,” Lapras prompted

Absol hesitated. People paid for things in some of Mother’s and Ninetales’ stories, but she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. The Pokémon around Mount Freeze shared and gave gifts and sometimes traded, but paying sounded awfully formal. “I don’t have any Poké, but I have some items...”

Absol opened her bag for Feraligatr to see, and he looked inside. There were some dried Berries, she though, and the gifts that Poochyena and Braixen had given her. The Sunny Day Orb glowed slightly in the warmth of Feraligatr’s hand as he examined it. He replaced it in the bag, withdrew the bottle of wine, and sniffed the stopper.

“It’s Aspear, Oran, and a little Tamato,” Absol explained, “Braixen’s family near Frosty Forest makes it.”

“The bottle for repairs?” Feraligatr asked.

“Is that fair?” Absol asked hesitantly. A bottle of wine didn’t seem like much, even if Braixen’s family made amazing wine; it would only be one mouthful each for all the Pokémon working on Lapras’ raft.

Feraligatr shrugged and smiled. “I can’t take your Sunny Day Orb, you might need it on the way, and we’ve plenty of Berries. Besides, Ninetales is an old friend.”

After Feraligatr had returned to work, Absol turned to Lapras. “Was that okay?” she asked.

Lapras nodded. “I should have asked what you had beforehand. I think he’s satisfied; he’s an honest Pokémon, and he saw that you value his work, and that’s more important than the actual payment.”

Feraligatr was true to his word, and they were underway again after lunch. The raft felt much sturdier now. The rail around the deck had been reinforced, and now supported a cloth wall and roof around the back half, with a flap at the front as a door. At the very back was a cubby with solid boards on five sides, open only to the front, just large enough for her to crawl into at night, or to lay on top of like a bench to keep out of the water it the deck was wet.

She wasn’t sure how sturdy the whole thing would be in a storm, but if it blocked out her view of the sky at night and survived the trip to Pokémon Square, that was good enough.

They were barely out of sight of Bay Town when the wind picked up. The gently rocking of the deck under Lapras’ paddling hadn’t bothered her, but as the wind pushed the waves higher and the raft rocked more steeply, she began to feel ill. Water sloshed across the deck with each wave, soaking her legs.

“Are you alright back there?” Lapras called.

“I think so,” Absol shouted back.

Trying to keep dry, she lay on the bench at the back of the raft. It was high enough to stay above most of the water which sloshed across the deck, and the tarps blocked most of the spray. It didn’t help at all with her stomach.

She huddled on the bench for what seemed like hours, growing slowly colder and wetter and sicker and more miserable. Her stomach heaved, and she forced it back down. She didn’t want to vomit in here where she would have to smell it for the rest of the voyage. She also didn’t want to do it out front where it was even wetter, and Lapras might see her.

Eventually, Absol couldn’t hold it in any longer. She rushed outside, jammed her head through a gap in the railing, and vomited over the edge. She stood there for a few seconds, panting and shivering. It was getting dark, now, and the cold wind cut through her wet fur. At least Lapras hadn’t seen her, Absol thought. He kept on, his head low to the water, seemingly unbothered by the waves which broke around his face. Ninetales’s blanket was probably still dry in the bag, but it wouldn’t stay that way long of she got it out. It would be nice to have huge, fluffy tails like Ninetales. Maybe he could have taught her a Fire-type move before she left. Her tails would be wet too, and so would anything she brought along to burn. Returning to the shelter, Absol huddled back onto the bench with her forepaws covering her face.

Though she couldn’t see it, the night sky seemed horribly close with nothing but the tarp over her head. The chill and her stomach kept her awake through most of the night, and when she did sleep, she was tormented by nightmares of an indescribable something stalking her through an endless wasteland of dark and ice.

She wobbled out of the shelter at sunrise, cold and exhausted, debating whether to admit defeat now and ask Lapras to return to Mount Freeze to so that Mother or even Ninetales could go in her stead, but the morning light strengthened her resolve which had waned overnight. She was not a cub, she told herself, to be frightened by nightmares and imaginings; what she saw was the future, or a representation of a possible future, not a real and present danger. Many of the Pokémon in the legends had endured far more discomfort than she.

“M-morn-n-ing!” she called to Lapras, as cheerily as she could manage. He’d been swimming all night while she tried to sleep, and it wasn’t his fault she was cold and miserable.

“Good morning,” Lapras’ voice boomed back, “doing alright back there?”

The wind had died down, and the sun shone brightly. They were entering a shallow cove, surrounded on three sides by towering pines.

“F-f-fine!” Absol lied, “Wh-where ar-re we?”

“I don’t know it has a name,” Lapras answered, “but there were some excellent Sea Berries in the shallows here forty years ago. Would you like to go ashore while I eat?”

“P-please!”

Lapras ducked out of the hawser and pushed the raft the rest of the way to shore. The logs underneath scraped against the rocky bottom about a meter from shore, near the mouth of the stream which flowed out into the cove.

Her legs were shaky, and Absol wasn’t sure whether she could make the jump over the rail and across the shallow water between her and the land. Well, she thought, she was wet enough already that wading the rest of the way wouldn’t hurt her. The water in the stream was fresh and delicious, and cold, and Absol debated trying to wash herself. She didn’t want to, but if the weather stayed clear, she would dry in few hours. If she didn’t, the salt and gunk in her fur from the seawater was probably going to itch when she started to dry.

After shivering her way through a bath, Absol went for a run. Her legs were still shaky, at first, but by the time she reached one end of the bay, she was feeling much better. She settled on a rock near the shore, pulled an Apple from her bag, and lay down to eat. Out in the bay, Lapras dove, and surfaced with a mouthful of stringy green seaweed bearing several pale Berries which she didn’t recognize

The next few days passed in much the same way. When the weather was good, she sat on the front of the deck and traded stories with Lapras. Some of them she’d heard before, from Ninetales, though Lapras’ perspective was very different; many others were new to her. When the weather was poor, she huddled miserably on the bench, wishing helplessly that she had given in to her fear and let Mother take her place. Every night as the sun fell, she thought about the Sunny Day Orb in her bag, and extra few hours of comfort that it would give her.

Lapras seemed tireless, despite his age, stopping only to drink and forage for food when they passed the mouth of a river. The shoreline progressed as they traveled southward, from rocky cliffs to pine forest, badlands, then mixed forest and grassland

After a week, though, Lapras had begun to noticeably lag. His pace slowed, and he rested longer and longer at each stop.

“You’re getting tired, aren’t you?” Absol asked on the ninth day, as he floated in the shallow water by the shore. He had finished eating, and ordinarily they would have been underway again.

“I am,” Lapras admitted, “I’m old, Absol, and I haven’t swum like this in decades.”

“We can go slower,” Absol offered, “I could walk the rest of the way; we’re more than halfway there.”

As uncomfortable as she was on the raft, walking sounded even worse. She would be alone, and she’d have to find shelter every night. She also didn’t know the geography here at all, except that they were still on the wrong side of the continent, and it would probably take her weeks to reach Pokémon Square on foot.

“Don’t worry about me, little one,” Lapras said, “I may not be as quick as I was, but I’ll get you there.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The fourteenth day dawned cold and windy, the sky heavy with storm clouds. Her horn ached with cold even more than usual, but she could feel something else as well; the tingle of approaching danger. Lapras’ head was low to the water, and he paddled harder than to had in a week. He must be worried too, Absol thought as she stood shivering on the deck. She wasn’t sure how the weather worked, this far south and out at sea, but Lapras would know. Her horn knew.

Should she greet him, Absol wondered. She didn’t want to interrupt his concentration, but it seemed inauspicious to break their routine after so long together.

“M-morn-ning!” Absol called, her cheerfulness even more forced than usual this morning.

“Morning.” Lapras grunted in reply, not breaking the rhythm of his strokes to look back at her.

She knew he must be tired. He knew that she was cold and seasick and scared. They both knew a storm was coming. Politeness was the ritual by which hundreds of different species of Pokémon lived together mostly in peace and cooperation, and all of their troubles made it more important, not less.

“Th-there’s a st-torm c-coming, is-sn’t-t th-there.”

“Yes,” Lapras answered. His unusual brevity was enough to convey it’s seriousness.

Despite the wind, Absol remained outside, determined to dry off as much as she could before the storm inevitably drenched her again. There was nothing she could do to help their situation; she couldn’t help Lapras swim faster, or affect the weather, or make the raft any sturdier than it was. She hated the feeling of helplessness even more than the cold.

After a few hours, it began to rain, and Absol retreated into the tent. She climbed up on the bench, wrapping her damp, cold blanket around her damp, cold fur, and burying her face and horn under her paws once more. They were almost there, she told herself. Lapras said one more day. She could tolerate anything for one more day. The sea surged under the edges of the tarp and across the deck with each wave, splashing her, and the wind-driven rain penetrated the cloth in a fine mist. There was nothing left in Sylveon’s bag, now, besides the Sunny Day orb, and she clutched it tightly through the fabric. She couldn’t use it yet. They would need it later. Lapras knew she had it, and he would know when it was time.

The wind grew stronger and stronger, beating at the canopy until she was sure that it would break, but Croconaw’s work held. The waves threw the raft about like a leaf in the autumn wind, and each time it came down, she expected it to overturn, plunging her into the icy water. Somehow, it remained upright. She clung to the bench for hours, not even moving to vomit for fear that she would lose her balance and slide off the edge.

“Absol!” Lapras’ voice roared over the sound of the storm, “use the Orb!”

Fumbling with half-numb paws, she pulled the Orb from the bag. She didn’t know what was going to happen when she broke it; the stories said it would make the weather sunny, for a little while, but how could such a small thing affect the wind and the clouds and the sea all around them? She dashed it against the deck.

As the orb shattered, Absol felt some unseen force rush by her, briefly blowing all her fur back like starting into a stiff wind. The fabric of the tent billowed outward briefly, then was still, no longer beating in the wind and rain of the storm. The heaving of the raft settled down to the gentle rocking of Lapras’ swimming, and sunlight shone through the wet fabric overhead.

Absol pushed out through the front flap, still incongruously dripping, onto the front of the raft. In a perfect bubble about twenty meters in all directions from the raft, it was a peaceful, calm, sunny day. She could still see the clouds overhead, but a sourceless sunlight shone down from the top of the bubble, illuminating and warming them just like the real thing. The waves parted seamlessly around the bubble on one side, to resume of the other side as if nothing had interrupted them, but inside, the water was still. She shook vigorously, sending droplets of water flying in a sparkling cloud.

“Th-that-t’s am-mazing!”

“Isn’t it?” Lapras agreed. He was breathing hard, and his strokes were slower now. “Won’t last...long though. Have to get...you to shore.”

“Are y-you ok-kay?” Absol’s excitement at the Sunny Day Orb’s effect was replaced by worry. She couldn’t see the coast from here, through the storm which still raged outside the bubble. She knew it had been to their right for most of the journey, but there was no way she could keep a constant heading in the waves, and she wasn’t strong enough right now to swim far anyway. She was helpless out here, completely dependent on Lapras.

“Just tired,” Lapras said, “we’ll make it.”

She hoped desperately that he was right.

With the unmoving false sunlight of the Orb and the clouds still blocking the sky outside, there was no way to measure time, but Absol though that an hour or two must have passed since she activated the Orb. Still, there was no land in sight. Had they drifted too far out in the storm, she wondered. Was Lapras lost?

As she stared vainly over the right rail, the invisible barrier between them and the storm wavered, then began to rapidly contract.

“Look out!” Lapras bellowed.

She dashed back into the shelter as a wave crashed over them. The raft heaved and bucked, and one of the poles supporting the canopy broke with a sharp crack. No longer stretched tight, the fabric whipped violently in the wind, and through the gap she could see that it was nearly dark outside. She panicked, flailing for the fabric as it flapped past her, and felt it snag on her claws. The terror of the night sky overwhelmed the discomfort of being cold and wet. She dove into the cubby under the bench, pulling the tarp in after her, and crammed herself back into the corner as tightly as she could.

Water surged around her with each wave, stinging her eyes and filling her mouth and nose with brine, but it was better than facing the darkness outside. She was going to die here. Lapras was lost. The raft would break apart in the storm, and she would freeze or drown in the icy water, or die of terror exposed to the night sky.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Absol?”

Something wet and cold and salty covered her face. She couldn’t be dead, she thought, because she could see light filtering through; warm, yellow, friendly daylight. Her back hurt, and her legs were cramped, and she was still freezing. She tried to move, and felt something constrict around her chest and shoulders. The tarp, she thought; she’d been trying to hold on to it last night, and it must have somehow gotten tangled around her.

“Absol?” Lapras’ voice came again, urgent and worried.

“I-i’m h-h-here.”

Still tangled in the fabric, she managed to wriggle out from under the bench tail-first. It was wrapped around her forelegs and caught on her horn, and she didn’t know where to begin unwinding herself. Instinct told her to back out of it, but she didn’t think that was going to work. He hindquarters could move side to side, though, while her head and shoulders seemed to be stuck in place. It was probably still attached to the pole at this end, she thought. Maybe she could cut herself free?

Absol Night Slashed upward, raking her horn side to side in an attempt to sever whatever part of the fabric was still attached. She felt something part around her horn, and the end covering her face loosened and fell free. She blinked and squinted in the suddenly bright daylight as she looked around. The back end of the raft was beached on a sandy shore which backed up to a rocky cliff, while the front bobbed gently in the shallow water of a small bay. Her bags and blanket were nowhere to be seen. Lapras towered over her, looking down with a worried expression on his face.

“Are you alright?” Lapras asked. He sounded exhausted, and very old.

“I th-think so. Wh-where are w-we?” She wriggled free of the rest of the tarp, shook, and stretched.

“We’re here.”

“Wh-where?”

“Pokémon Square.”

Absol looked around again, uncertain; she didn't see anything that looked like a town.

“It’s up on the mesa,” Lapras explained patiently, turning his head toward the cliff behind her.

She should have remembered that, Absol thought; Mother had described it enough times.

“Oh! We m-made it!” she exclaimed, forgetting for a moment how uncomfortable she was. “Well, y-you m-made it. Th-thank you s-so m-much!” She stood at the edge of the deck, leaning out toward Lapras, but he was out of reach.

“Yes, little one, we made it.” Lapras sighed as be bent down to her level. Standing up on her hindlegs, Absol wrapped her forelegs around his neck like Ninetales had done back in Iceberg Cave, and rubbed her cheek against his..

“Are y-you alr-right, th-though?” She released him and stepped back.

“Just tired.”

“Th-there must b-be a h-healer here. Shall I b-bring someone d-down?"

Lapras shook his head slowly. “I’ll be fine. I just need to rest." Lapras smiled, but there was something sad and longing in his eyes as well. “Thank you for letting me carry you. It’s been far too long since I’ve had a passenger. You know, your father and I had so many exciting times together...”

Lapras stretched out his neck and lay his head on the deck of the raft beside her, and Absol leaned against him. They stayed there for several minutes without speaking, enjoying each other's company and the warm sun.

“Go on,” Lapras said finally, “don’t worry about me, and remember to write your mother.”

"Have a safe t-trip home, and...th-thank you. I d-don't know how I would have m-made it alone."

Absol hadn’t realized just how exhausted she was until she started up the trail toward Pokémon Square. It wasn't just lack of sleep; fear of the night, the constant rocking of the raft, the wetness, and the unrelenting cold that flowed from her horn into every part of her body, all combined to sap her strength. Her legs felt weak beneath her, and she wanted to lay down in the sun alongside the trail and sleep the rest of the day, but she was so close now.

Daydreaming about her friends back home, Absol didn’t realize that she had reached Pokémon Square until she heard voices ahead of her. Several dozen buildings clustered around the crossroads at the bottom of the valley, and many more were scattered around the slopes. A river flowed through the valley from a small lake above the town.

Pokémon Square, Absol thought, she was finally here. There were Pokémon along the road, playing, talking, picking berries, working on some of the buildings, and they stopped to stare as she passed, more different kinds of Pokémon than she had ever expected to see, all in the same place.

Stalls lined the main street, full of berries and baked goods, seeds, scarves, orbs, tools, and all manner of items she did not recognize. Pokémon gathered around her, pointing and talking. Absol was dizzy, overwhelmed by the unaccustomed assault of sights and sounds and scents. Her vision blurred and she felt her legs begin to buckle.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The room was dark, lit only by a faint glow of moonlight from somewhere above. Absol lay curled between two blankets in a thick bed of straw. The bedding, and the air of the room, held a strange but wonderful scent which she could not identify; it was fresh and earthy like spring rain, sharp and invigorating like Sitrus berry juice, comforting like a well-used burrow. At first, Absol had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten here. She wriggled deeper into the straw, letting the blanket settle over her face. Pokémon Square, she thought, she had made it to Pokémon Square. There had been so many Pokémon, all talking at once…

“Ah, you’re awake,” The voice came from across the room, high-pitched and motherly, “you had me worried, darling. You seemed so uncomfortable, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with you.”

“Just c-cold.” Absol answered from under the blanket.

It wasn’t time to relax yet, Absol though; she was so close to completing her mission, but she still had to find Team Go-Getters and deliver her message. She knew exactly what their base would look like; Mother had described it to her hundreds of times, though the two of them had never expected that she would need to know. She didn’t know exactly where it was, but Mother had always described it as being near town, and that wasn’t a very large area to search. How long was it until morning? She couldn’t search now, in the dark, but maybe her host could take a message to them?

“Cold? On such a pleasant night? You must be sick.”

Absol heard footsteps approaching, and a feathered hand pulled back the blanket and brushed against her forehead.

“You don’t feel like you have a fever. Oh, you must have been so exhausted, collapsing in the square like that! Let Mama Aromatisse get you something warm to drink, and you can tell me all about it.”

Mother had described many of the residents of Pokémon Square, but Aromatisse hadn’t been one of them. A lot could have changed in eight years. Could she trust her with her story?

The footsteps retreated, and returned a few minutes later. The blanket was pulled back again, and Aromatisse placed a steaming bowl in front of her. Absol did not recognize what kind of herbs it contained, but the tea was strong and spicy and wonderfully warm.

“Now,” Aromatisse said, removing the bowl once Absol had finished, “tell me what happened.”

“Go-Getters,” Absol said, “I have to talk to Team Go-Getters.”

“Go-Getters? I’m sorry, darling, they haven’t been in town for months.”

“Where can I find them? Absol asked desperately, “it’s important.”

“Why, no one knows,” Aromatisse said, “what is it you need, a Rescue Team? It’s something big, isn’t it?”

Absol nodded. She could trust Aromatisse, she though; she seemed like a good Pokémon, and she had helped her already. Still, she didn’t want to explain everything now, just to have to repeat herself in the morning.

“Well, if it’s important, I think you should talk to Team ACT. They’re mostly retired now, but they’ll know what to do.”

That was a familiar name. Mother talked about them a lot too. They would listen to her, she thought, and they would probably remember Mother, and Ninetales. That would give her some credibility, at least.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

When Absol woke again, it was morning. The orange light of dawn streamed through a window overhead, casting a bright round spot on the opposite wall. Nestled in the blankets, she wasn’t quite warm, but she was, at least, less cold than she had been since she left Mother and Ninetales on Mount Freeze. She yawned, stretched, and reluctantly wriggled out of bed.

Across the room, Aromatisse stood in front of a small brick stove where a fire burned under an earthenware pot. The smell of tea and some sort of cooked food that she didn’t recognize filled the room, and her stomach growled; she hadn’t eaten yesterday in the storm.

“Ah, you’re awake,” Aromatisse greeted her, “feeling better?”

“Much better,” Absol said truthfully, “thank you.”

“Hungry? Meowth brought us some fresh Poffins this morning.”

“They smell wonderful. What are they?”

“They bake them from Pumkin Berry flour and Oran Berries.” Aromatisse set a plate with two Poffins on the floor for her. “Tea?”

“Oh, please.”

She bit into a Poffin hesitantly, not sure what it was or how it was supposed to be eaten. The texture was spongy and unfamiliar, but it tasted as good as it smelled, and the way it seemed to melt in her mouth was amazing.

“Still cold, dear?” Aromatisse asked once she had finished.

“Just a little,” Absol admitted.

Aromatisse took one of the blankets from the bed; it was Mareep wool, just like Mother's, dyed in a red and black checkered pattern. “Here, let me put this on you.”

Aromatisse pulled the blanket over her back. then wrapped the two leading corners around her shoulders and tied them together under her throat. Absol shook until it lay evenly across her back.

Mother had described Team ACT’s manor in her stories, but still, Absol was unprepared for how huge it was. As she passed through the arched gate into the courtyard, she had to pause for a moment and look around. A wall of packed earth a meter wide and two and a half high enclosed a courtyard a hundred meters across, planted with all manner of berry bushes and herbs, and several ancient, massive Apple trees. A stream had been diverted from its path to wander in a loop around the courtyard.

The house itself was built of stone, twenty meters across and two floors tall, each high enough to comfortably accommodate a Tyranitar, with massive logs supporting the roof. Dozens of Pokémon could have lived inside, she thought, and fed themselves in the courtyard garden. It wasn’t just the size that was impressive, but the sheer amount of work that it must have taken to build it all.

Absol was still cold, but with Aromatisse’s blanket tied around her shoulders and a belly full of warm Poffins and Aromatisse’s tea, at least the shivering had stopped. Absol scratched at door. After several minutes, she heard heavy footsteps approaching. The door opened, and Charizard stared down at her curiously.

“Ninetales and my mother helped you eight years ago,” Absol said, “we need your help now.”
 
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Adamhuarts

Junior Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him
Your story has been on my radar for a while now, so I sat down and gave the first chapter a shot. I found the chapter to be overall decent and does what it needs to for a first chapter, though there were a few typos and some sentences that could've been worded better, but they weren't too much of a bother. Overall your prose was alright.

I wonder if those crygonal will come up again in the story as we didn't see them again after Zorua shook them off their trail. Zorua and Arcanine seem like an interesting pair, though I wonder which of the two the story will mostly follow, and where their paths will lead them eventually. I'll be checking this out again soon. ^^
 
Chapter 3: Partners New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Thanks!

Oh, we'll definitely see the Cryogonals again!

Chapter 3: Partners

The sun was setting as Zorua approached Arcanine's ledge. “Hullo!” She called. “You here?” There was no reply.

Arcanine's scent was still fresh and she figured that he'd only been gone for the day. Hopefully he would be home tonight, she though. She didn't know anything about his normal habits; she hadn't thought to ask before the parted company last time. It could have been only luck that he'd been here that night to save her.

No matter, though. She didn't expect that the ghosts in Haunted Forest would bother her up here, especially in Arcanine's territory; the whole pack of them had fled last time when he Flamethrowered that Gengar, despite the rain. The path that Arcanine had shown here seemed safe enough in the day, as he'd said, but she had no desire to try her luck alone in the dark.

A cool wind ruffled Zorua's fur as she lay on the ledge. Spring was taking it's time this year, she thought. Three weeks ago when they'd first met, the weather had been pleasantly warm, but this week it had taken a turn for the cold again. Natu had even been predicting another snowfall; while snow this late in the season certainly wasn't unheard of, it was rare enough to be notable.

Would Arcanine be happy to see her again? Zorua wondered. He hadn't seemed to mind her unexpected presence before; in fact, after his initial awkwardness, he'd seemed delighted to have someone to talk to. Someone to listen to, rather, as she'd done most of the talking. But why did he live up here alone, then?

A stone rattled softly on the path below, and she looked down. She could make out Arcanine's outline on the path below. Despite his size, he moved almost silently. This would be a great opportunity for a joke, she thought; how surprised would Arcanine be if he found a Tyranitar waiting in his cave?

And next time you thought things through, right? Arcanine had asked her before, when she told him about the prank with the Litwick by the forest. Yeah, that was probably a really bad idea. Arcanine didn't seem like the kind of Pokémon who ran away when something startled him. She'd probably get a fireball to the face.

Zorua coughed as he approached, and Arcanine froze, looking up.

“Hey there!” She called, standing so that he could see her outline against the sky.

“Zorua?”

“Your mom!”

Arcanine bounded the rest of the way up the path like a puppy called for dinner, and bent down to sniff her. Zorua reached up, their noses touching.

“Hoped you'd come back.” Arcanine settled on the ledge beside her, lowering his head to allow his treasure bag to slide off onto the ground. He hooked a claw into the drawstring and pulled it open.

“Berries for dinner.” he said. “Share if you like.”

Zorua wasn't really hungry, but she took an Oran, nibbling it slowly while Arcanine ate.

“Still up for that mystery dungeon you promised me?” Zorua asked when he'd finished.

“Sure.” Arcanine nodded. “There's a couple easy ones we could try tomorrow.”

“I'm not much good at battling,” Zorua admitted, “I mean, I've battled with a lot of the other Pokémon in town, but it's just for fun and no one really takes it seriously. I think that day you rescued me was the first time I was really worried I might get killed or something.”

“That's okay,” Arcanine said, “we'll take it easy.”

“I want to learn, though,” Zorua continued, “it never really seemed important before, but people have been seeing strange Pokémon around the village lately, and everyone is worried.”

“Strange Pokémon?” Arcanine asked.

“Yeah.” Zorua nodded. “Ice-types, that no one's seen before. I saw some in the morning, that day I got lost in Haunted Forest, in the meadow by the village. They weren't like animals at all, just giant ice crystals, with six sides like snowflakes. They were floating around the old ruins in the meadow. I tried to sneak up and see what they were doing. I guess they heard me, or saw me, or something. Other Pokémon have seen different ones, too. All Ice-types. People have even seen them in town at night.”

“Strange,” Arcanine agreed, “sounds like they're looking for something.”

“There's nothing in Meadow Town worth finding,” Zorua said, “but they've organized a town watch. It's weird, we've never had a watch before. There's never been anything to guard against. I joined too. I don't know if I would be any help thought, it they really attacked someone.”

“Even stranger that Ice-types would show up now, in the spring,” Arcanine said, “be careful.”

“Yeah.” Zorua agreed.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Was going to take you to Sinister Woods,” Arcanine told her in the morning, “mostly bug and grass types, and it's not far. Two day round trip if you walk, could be back by tomorrow morning if you ride me. But since you're worried about Ice-types, Grassy Marsh would be good too. Mostly Water-types, so more similar, but a bit tougher. About a day and a half round trip, if you ride.”

“Lets do the close one for now, then.” Zorua decided. “you don't mind carrying me? I'd feel kinda lazy....”

“Don't mind,” Arcanine said, “not in a hurry if you want to walk, too.”

They walked. It was a beautiful day to travel, clear, the sun warm and a cool breeze at their backs. Arcanine restrained his pace to match hers, and they walked neck and neck. Zorua talked at first, telling Arcanine about the village and the other Pokémon. He listened attentively for a while, but then his attention seemed to wander.

“Hey,” Zorua said, bumping her shoulder against his elbow, “you still in there?”

“Hmm? Oh, sorry.”

“Thinking about something, big guy?”

“Your story reminded me of something.”

“Oh?” Zorua prompted.

“I can't quite remember...”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“So, this is it.” Arcanine indicated a pair of trees which twisted together overhead. “It doesn't look like much, but step through here, and we're in the dungeon.”

He was right, Zorua thought, it didn't look like much. The trail continued through the trees. The sunlight which filtered down through the leaves looked no different on the other side. If not for the weathered warning signs nailed to the trees on either side, a Pokémon could have wandered in on accident and not known.

“Before we start, I’ve a few items that will help.”

“You should have found a minion with hands.” Zorua watched as he set the treasure bag out on a flat rock and pawed clumsily through it. “Also, that's a lot of stuff. I don't think I've seen that many magic items and Poké in my whole life.”

“Found it in dungeons. Dunno what else to do with it,” Arcanine answered, handing her a red scarf, “this'll make you harder to hit.”

“That's way too big for me.” Zorua eyed it uncertainly “I could probably use that as a blanket.”

“Will fit when you put it on.” Arcanine shrugged. “Magic.”

Arcanine slipped his head through another scarf. “Now, help me get all this stuff back in.”

“Most of the Pokémon we meet in here, all of them probably, will be feral,” Arcanine explained, “they won't talk, they won't use much strategy, they won't come back for revenge after you knock them out. Doesn't mean it's not dangerous. When I've been here before, none of the Pokémon I met were very strong, but it could be different now. We'll stay close together and be careful.”

“Lead the way, big guy.” Zorua said. Arcanine smiled back and led them through.

There was a momentary sense of vertigo and disorientation as they passed between the trees. Zorua turned around. The two twisted trees were still there, but from this side, the path stopped abruptly in front of a boulder between them.

A Swinub darted from the bushes in front of them, and Arcanine was on it before Zorua could move. A swipe of his paw caught it on the side and sent it flying. The Swinub thudded against a nearby tree and didn't move.

“Nice move.” Zorua congratulated him.

Arcanine grinned. “Next one's yours.”

The path wound through the trees for several minutes and emerged into a small clearing. A pair of Sentret rooting beneath a log looked up, froze for a moment, and took off in opposite directions. Zorua gave chase to the closer one.

The Sentret zig-zagged toward the trees. Zorua pounced, missed, and pounced again, and they tumbled over together. Zorua felt sharp teeth sink into her paw and she yipped, more in surprise than pain, and pulled back. The Sentret wriggled away.

Zorua followed her prey into the trees, catching up again as it swerved around a protruding root. Her jaws closed on it's hind leg, and she felt flesh tear. She let go, bit again, and shook. The Sentret went limp. She began to pick it up by the neck to drag back to show Arcanine, and stopped. She couldn't see the clearing from here, and she'd lost track of direction during the chase.

“Um, Arcanine?” Zorua called.

“Right here. It's okay, the dungeon never changes when you're in it.”

She turned toward his voice, a bit embarrassed. In less than a minute, she was in the clearing again, and dropped the unconscious Sentret at Arcanine's feet.

“You got it.”

Zorua grinned up at him proudly. “I guess the other one got away?”

Arcanine nodded. “Could have flamed it, but who cares? There's always more. You take the lead now.”

Zorua led them onward. Another trail, a clearing, a trail and a fork, and another clearing. There seemed to be a pattern to it, a logical progression of trails and clearings that would have been incredibly unlikely in a natural forest. She pointed this out to Arcanine, and he agreed.

“Each mystery dungeon seems to have a pattern like that,” he said, “sometimes simple, sometimes complex.”

They encountered several more feral Pokémon, and Zorua dispatched them with growing confidence, but it was obvious that they were getting stronger as well, as the two of them progressed. Arcanine stayed close behind her most of the time, occasionally running in to herd a fleeing opponent back, or flaming one when she would have been double-teamed.

The Linoone in the next room was bigger and faster than any of the Pokémon they had encountered so far. It sidestepped Zorua's pounce, raking it's long claws along her side as she passed. She landed clumsily, tried to turn. Its fangs dug into her haunch, she stumbled and went down, rolling onto her back. It's weight was on her chest. Jaws snapped at her face, and she batted them away with one paw as she tried to wriggle free; snapped again, catching one ear and ripping free as it pulled back.

The weight disappeared as the Linoone was lifted off of her in Arcanine's jaws. He shook it briefly, and threw it aside. Zorua rose unsteadily to her feet and stopped to examine herself. There was a warm, wet feeling on her forehead. She wiped at it with a paw, and it came away soaked in blood. The gashes on her side hurt a lot, especially when she breathed, but they didn't seem that deep. Her hind leg hurt too, but still held her weight.

“Took you long enough.” Zorua accused.

“I know it hurts,” Arcanine said, “but I don't think you're seriously injured. Lets take a break here.”

“Have a berry or two.” Arcanine set the treasure bag down beside her. “And lay down, and I'll clean you up.”

Zorua lay down on her uninjured side. Arcanine put one paw firmly on her shoulder. “This will hurt a bit. I'm sorry.”

She winced and whimpered as he began to lick the blood and dirt from the wound on her side, then forced herself to be still. Zorua knew he was being as gentle as he could. He moved on to her leg, then her ear.

“We can rest here a couple hours, while you heal, then I'll lead for a while. It's only going to get tougher from here.”

The healing chemicals from the berries flowed through Zorua's body, easing the pain, and she relaxed, stretching out in the afternoon sun and leaning her head against Arcanine's chest. “I'm sorry,” she said, “I'm not really any good at this, am I?”

“Takes practice,” Arcanine reassured her, “doing fine for your first time.”

“It's weird,” Zorua commented a few minutes later, “I've always heard people say that mystery dungeon Pokémon aren't smart like normal Pokémon, but I never understood what they meant before. None of those Pokémon we've battled here tried to talk, or had a plan. They just attacked or ran away.”

Arcanine nodded in agreement.

Zorua continued, “And what happens when no outside Pokémon are here? Why do the dungeons only change when we're not in them, but there are still feral Pokémon inside?”

Arcanine shrugged and agreed. “Is weird. I don't know.”

“It's like they're missing something, I don't know, a spirit or whatever you want to call it... Now that I have a chance to think about it, though, I kind of feel bad about all this. I mean, we come into their territory, beat them up, and there's not really any purpose to it.”

“They surprise you sometimes, though. I've had Pokémon talk to me after we battled. Offer me things, ask a favor, even want to join me. Like they've suddenly woken up and become normal Pokémon, just because I'm there.” Arcanine shrugged again. “I think there is some purpose, and we're all just not smart enough to understand.”

They lay there in silence for a few minutes before Arcanine continued. “You know, we don't have to finish if you don't want to. I have an Escape Orb. Never used one, but I think it will take us outside.”

“Aren't those really rare?”

“Guess so. I've only found one.”

“Well, let's not waste it, then. We might really need it some day.”

“We?” Arcanine raised an eyebrow. “So you're planning to make a habit of this?”

Zorua nodded. “If you don't mind me slowing you down.”

Arcanine stretched and yawned. “Zorua, this is the most fun I've had in years.”

Zorua giggled and snuggled her face into his mane.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


The remainder of the dungeon went without incident. Zorua knew that the Pokémon they encountered now were too strong for her to have fought alone, but they worked as a team, Arcanine harassing and distracting opponents while she finished them off. He was obviously holding back, but he didn't seem to mind.

Eventually they found themselves back where they had begun, the two trees arching over the path. It was dark now, save for a sliver of the moon, and the wind was chill.

“Think I remember a den nearby where we can spend the night,” Arcanine said, “unless you want to head back now.”

“I'm bleeding in like a dozen places,” Zorua said, “and my side still hurts. You're bleeding too, I can smell it. Let's sleep here.”

They found a stream nearby and drank, and refilled their bag with berries from the bushes that grew along the shore. Arcanine found the den again, in a nearby outcropping of rock. It was big enough for both of them to sleep comfortably out of the wind, but only barely. They were both dirty and bloody from the day's adventure, and lay down to groom themselves.

“Something dug this den,” Arcanine said, after a while, “It didn't just happen naturally.”

“Probably a Bewear,” Zorua agreed, “but it's long gone, now. Don't you smell how many other Pokémon have stayed here over the years?”

“I do. If we searched around here, say, everywhere within a kilometer, how many more caves and dens and burrows do you think we could find?”

Zorua grunted, tugging at a tangle in her fur. “I don't know, I've never been here before. Why does it matter, anyway?”

“Well, say if we were in a den in the meadow back by Meadow Town, instead.”

Zorua had spent years playing and gathering berries in the meadows around the town. There were burrows all over the place, where she and the other Pokémon had played and slept and sheltered from the sudden summer thunderstorms, but she'd never thought about it in such an organized way before. She picked a spot, the knoll above town where they had often met to begin games of hide-and-seek, and imagined herself there.

A kilometer, at a run. Call that two minutes. What could she get to in that time?

“Maybe thirty or forty?” Zorua concluded eventually, “most of them are small though, like Bunnelby or Minccino. Nothing we could really use.”

“So, let’s say ten per square kilometer, average, wherever you go, “Arcanine said, “they can be Sandshrews in the desert, Bidoofs by the rivers, Furrets in the forest, et cetera. Let’s estimate the continent as a square 3000km on a side. That’s nine million square kilometers, and ninety million burrows.” Arcanine paused for a moment, thinking.

“Let’s say only five percent of Pokémon dig burrows themselves, but each one who does, digs five in its lifetime.” Arcanine paused again.

“That’s, umm…. Three hundred and sixty million Pokémon,” Arcanine concluded, “Not all at once, of course, but over however many centuries it takes the average burrow to collapse or whatever.”

Zorua stared at him for a while, trying to follow his reasoning. “I don't know how you came up with all that,” she said, “Or how you can do those big numbers in your head. And how can we know what those Sandshrews or whatever on the other side of the continent are doing, or how long they live in a burrow?”

Arcanine shrugged. “We can’t, really, other than by assuming they’re similar to Pokémon here. It doesn’t matter though. Maybe I’m ten times too low, or ten times too high. The point is, though, there have been a lot of Pokémon.”

“I’ve never imagined there could be that many Pokémon,” Zorua said, “but I can’t argue with your logic.”

“They were probably Pokémon like us,” Arcanine said, staring out into the darkness. “They ate berries, and drank water, and played tag...”

Zorua concluded, finally understanding where Arcanine was going, “...and they explored mystery dungeons. And after all those millions of Pokémon, we still don't have any idea how they actually work.”

“Exactly.” Arcanine smiled.

Zorua shivered. “That's creepy. That's not at all what I want to think about while I'm trying to sleep.”

“Sorry. That did all sound pretty strange, didn't it?”

“Are you sure you lost your memory? Because I don't know anyone else who would think of something like that. It must be that living alone on a mountain thing, you have too much time to think. We need to get you out more often.”

Arcanine chuckled. “You're probably right.”

“Anyway, now that you've scared me,” Zorua teased, “you have to keep me safe and warm all night so I don't have bad dreams.” She stood, stretched, and curled up between Arcanine's front paws, burying her face in his mane. Arcanine sighed and rested his chin on her back. Soon they were both asleep.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The other Arcanine was nearly identical to himself. One of them could have been the clone of the other, he thought; but then, who was the clone and who the original?

They circled each other slowly, warily, searching for weakness and finding none. The muscles in his opponent's neck tensed, and smoke curled from his lips. He stepped aside as a stream of flame arced through the air where he had been standing, and answered with a swipe of his claws, but his opponent dodged back just out of reach. He shifted his paws as if to lunge, but his opponent saw through the feint, forced him a step back with snapping jaws. They circled again.

Thunder cracked outside, and the wind whipped through the balcony arches. All around them Pokémon fought; his friends fought. His ears swiveled, picking out the familiar sounds. The crack of Venosaur's whipping vines, the hiss of Blastoise's cannons, Charizard's angry roar. He had spent countless hours training with them, and the others, too. Light and shadow flashed overhead as Mewtwo battled some other foe; he dared not look away from the other Arcanine long enough to see.

His opponent lunged, a massive clawed paw caught him across the side of the head, but the claws tangled briefly in his mane, absorbing the worst of the blow. He bit, grazing the other's shoulder and drawing blood. They withdrew and circled again, neither seriously injured.

This fight would not be won with strength or speed, Arcanine though, but endurance. He did not understand why Mewtwo had brought these other Pokémon, and these humans, here to their home, but he did not need to understand. They were his friends, his family, and he would not fail them.

Arcanine knew he was tiring now. His dodges were not as quick, his blows not as strong. The other Arcanine was tired too, though. His opponent bled from dozens of minor wounds, and his fur was patchy with burns, but he had not been able to land a solid hit. He was sure that he was in no better condition himself, but his resolve was unshaken. They circled again, slowly and carefully, each knowing that, eventually, the other would make a critical mistake.

The sounds of battle died down around them. As though both recognizing some unspoken signal, the two Arcanines stepped back from each other, finally looking around. The other Pokémon gathered around something in the center of the room. Mewtwo and his opponent floated overhead. Finally Arcanine could get a good look at what Mewtwo had been fighting. It was somewhat similar to their leader, but much smaller, it's limbs less well formed, like those of a fetus. If Mewtwo was the second, Arcanine thought, this must be the original.

#I am sorry. I should not have brought you here. You must return with the others and forget this place.#

“My job is to care for all Pokémon,” Joy said, “Your friends are injured, and so are you. Let me stay a while longer and look after them.”

Mewtwo and Mew glanced at each other, and Mewtwo sighed. #So be it.#

When all of the outsiders except Mew and Nurse Joy were gone, Arcanine and the others gathered around Mewtwo, their heads lowered, their eyes downcast. It was not just exhaustion, but the shame of failure. Arcanine knew that the others all felt the same as he; they had not been strong enough, courageous enough. They had all failed Mewtwo, who had always been there to guide them. Each one knew he or she could have spent a little less time reading in the library, or lying in the sun, or playing in the meadow, and a little more time training.

#No, friends,# Mewtwo said, sensing their pain, #This is my failure, not yours.#

Mewtwo's voice was tired, his face drawn and sad. They all knew that the night had been no easier on him. He went to each Pokémon in turn, Blastoise, Charizard, Venosaur, and Arcanine first, the original four, and then the others, placing his hands gently on their heads or shoulders. They all knew that Mewtwo found extended physical contact with others uncomfortable, a disorienting extra input on his psychic senses, and his touch was the praise they coveted the most.

#Now, let us retire to the infirmary so that Nurse Joy can do her job,# Mewtwo said, #otherwise I'm going to pass out right here.#


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“I've done everything I can do.” Joy told Mewtwo. All of them were together, still, in the infirmary, their wounds cleaned and bandaged now. Even Mewtwo had allowed her to tend to him.

“Then I must send you back. Humans will come after the storm clears, and we must all be gone. Unfortunately, I must take your memory as well, though I do not want to.”

Joy took Mewtwo's hands in her own and reached up on her tiptoes to kiss him. To everyone's surprise, he did not pull away. “You are all wonderful people, and I wish that I could remember you, but I understand.”

A flash of light and she was gone. #Now,# Mewtwo said, his voice steady but his eyes sparkling with unshed tears, #we must go. Mew will help us find a place where we can live in peace.#


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Arcanine woke with the morning sun. Zorua, still curled between his forelegs, stared up lazily and yawned. Arcanine knew that something important had happened in his dreams last night, something he was supposed to remember. There had been an island, and other Pokémon... He shut his eyes, concentrated, tried to force the dream back, but it slipped away, like they always did.

“Now you're the one having bad dreams, huh?” Zorua asked.

“Not bad. I think it was a really good dream, actually, but I can't remember.”

Arcanine stood slowly, stopping to stretch each leg, bending side to side to loosen his back.

“Your back hurts again?” Zorua asked.

“Every morning.” Arcanine grunted. “some days are worse than others, though.”

“Well, finish stretching out, then let’s go out in the sun and we'll see what I can do.”

“Alright,” Zorua said once they were outside, “now lay down on your belly.” Zorua climbed up on his back. “Like right here?” She asked, digging her paws into the muscles on either side of his spine.

Arcanine groaned. “That's good, but a bit lower.”

“I don't really weight enough to do this properly on someone your size,” Zorua said, as she kneaded his back, “but maybe it's better than nothing. This doesn't hurt, does it?”

“No. Well yeah, but in a good way,” Arcanine said, “actually, it feels wonderful.”

“I've been thinking,” Zorua said as she worked, “ you lost your memory, and you have those weird dreams, and you think about weird things that most Pokémon don't think about. Maybe you're really a Human.”

Arcanine thought it quite obvious he was not. “I don't follow,” he said.

“I know you've been up on that mountain a long time, but you've heard about Team Poképals and the Time Gear thing, right?

“I don't think so.”

“Okay, what about Team Go-Getters and the Meteor incident?” Zorua tried.

“No,” Arcanine said, “sorry.”

“That's okay.” Zorua related a brief description of both events.

“But the point is,” Zorua continued, “they say that the leaders of both teams were Humans who lost their memories when they were turned into Pokémon and brought here from...wherever Humans come from. They say they were both really clever, and the leader of Team Poképals also had visions.”

Arcanine considered. “You're right. That does seem similar. I don't think that I was ever a Human, but there are Humans in my dreams, sometimes.”

“Maybe Pokémon who lose their memories can come here from the Human world too?” Zorua suggested.

“Could be,” Arcanine agreed, “I don't have any better explanation.”

“Back feeling better, at least?”

“Yeah, that's helping a bit.”

“Well,” Zorua said, “I can do this for hours, but you're going to have to keep me entertained.”

“Entertained?”

“Yeah. Talk. Tell me a story or something. Otherwise you're so warm and fluffy I might just take a nap up here.”

Arcanine thought for a few minutes. “There was one time in Foggy Forest...

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“So, what's this water dungeon you were telling me about yesterday?” Zorua asked a few hours later.

Arcanine laughed. “You want more already?”

“Yeah. That was pretty fun, yesterday.”

“Think I can get us there tonight,” Arcanine said, “and we could start in the morning.”

“Well, giddyup, big guy.”

“Wait,” Arcanine said, “you're going to need something more to hold on to.”

“There's another scarf in the bag, right? Yeah, that'll work.” Zorua retrieved the scarf and tied it on him loosely, and looped her front legs through the excess. “I guess this is one place bipeds have an advantage.”

As they traveled through the day, the weather turned cooler. Heavy clouds blew in on a north wind.

“I think old Natu was right,” Zorua told Arcanine. “it really is going to snow.”

They reached the swamp after midnight. It had begun to snow, a heavy, wet spring snow that turned the road to mud and began to cling to their coats. They found a Kangaskhan Rock marking a travelers' burrow beside the road and stopped for the night.

Though it was late, they both lay for a while at the entrance, watching the falling snow. Out of the wind, it was not cold enough for either of them to be uncomfortable through their fur.

“Other than the type difference,” Arcanine said, “this shouldn't be much different than what we did yesterday. My techniques will be less effective, especially with this weather, but it shouldn't be a problem. We're going to get wet, though, and we'll be cold, but I can warm us up when we take breaks.”

“That's what I keep you around for.” Zorua answered.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The first hour in Grassy Marsh went smoothly. They fought as a team like they had before, stopping occasionally to shake dry and let Arcanine warm them with his fire. Then, as they entered a clearing, a dozen Pokémon rose from the water around them.

“It's a trap!” Zorua turned to retreat the way that they had come, but found three Wooper blocking her way. She snapped and lunged as they approached, forcing them back. The air grew suddenly warm behind her.

“Dive in the water!” Arcanine commanded. If she had stopped to think, she would have questioned the wisdom of fighting Water-types in the water in a snowstorm, but his voice was so authoritative that she was already moving. She gasped a deep breath before the freezing water covered her.

Seconds later, she rose to the surface, teeth clenching and muscles already beginning to cramp. Arcanine's teeth found the back of her neck, lifting out and setting her down between his front paws. The ground was warm to the touch, and steam rose from the grass around them. Zorua looked around in amazement. There was a perfect circle around him, ten or twelve meters in diameter, in which all of the snow had melted, and Pokémon lay scattered about.

“Sorry about that,” Arcanine said, bending down to breathe warm air on her.

They sat there for several minutes, until Zorua's teeth stopped chattering. One of their opponents started to stand and Arcanine turned his head, breathing a ball of fire toward it. It didn't move again.

“You just one-hit a whole room of Water-types in the snow with Heat Wave.” Zorua stated the obvious.

Arcanine nodded and grinned. “Told you I hit hard.”

Zorua giggled. “I'm glad you're on my side.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

They lay in Arcanine's cave the next evening, looking out over Haunted Forest. The storm had gone, leaving only a few inches of snow, and the weather will still cool.

“That cave we stayed in the first night, after Sinister Woods,” Arcanine asked, “you could find it again alone, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Zorua said, “I remember about how to get there.”

“Would make a good back-up meeting place. If I ever have to leave here, and you need to find me, I'll try to wait for you there, or at least leave some kind of message.”

“You're hiding something, big guy. No, you're hiding from something. Are you going to tell me?”

“No.”

“I don't know where I'm going to tell everyone I got this nice scarf.”

“Just tell them you found it in Sinister Woods. Who's going to argue with you? With that torn up ear, you look pretty fierce”

It was true, she thought. None of the Pokémon in Meadow Town were particularly adventurous. Probably none of them had been in a mystery dungeon in years, though they played and cut timber on the outskirts of Haunted Forest. Who had any credibility to dispute her story?

Her ear was healing well enough, but was still obviously misshapen, and with the bright red scarf, she though it gave her a nice roguish look. Maybe she would even dispense with the illusion, since everyone in town knew what she was anyway.

“Alright, I'll remember. It's our secret. Want to walk me back in the morning?”

“Of course,” Arcanine said.
 
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Negrek

On a Good Day, I'm the Bad News
Staff
Back for round two! Looks like I've missed quite a bit, especially in that second chapter. The situation's starting to clear up nicely already--this isn't a totally new PMD world we're seeing, but one that's part of the same continuity as the DS games, while being in the same universe as the anime at the same time! To be honest, when we were first introduced to an absol on a frosty mountain I was wondering if this was the Rescue Team absol, but she seemed much too young, so when it turned out she's actually the daughter of the Rescue Team absol, it seemed like a neat piece of continuity.

One of the things I've enjoyed about this story so far is how you portray pokémon body language and interactions. A lot of PMD authors kind of gloss over the fact that a lot of their cast are quadrupedal, for example, and therefore can't really shrug or manipulate things with their forepaws and so on. It's nice, then, to see interactions that are more in line with how real animals move and interact with one another, like the way that the absol and ninetales rub against each other's sides to show affection or Absol gives Lapras an awkward kind of "hug." I think these sorts of interactions contribute to the overall cozy feel of the story so far; there's action and peril, yes, but there's also a lot of pokémon simply hanging around together, being friends or family. Which is great! I think we get to see a lot more of the normal life of pokémon in this world, outside of the whole rescue teams/dungeoneering thing, than is common for PMD stories. Your prose also has a nice relaxing quality to it that seems especially well-suited to the fantasy-ish PMD setting and to quiet moments between characters. Who also have terrifying visions and nearly die in storms at sea and so on, but they also snuggle together by the fire and discuss sharing bottles of wine and reminisce about past adventures, and it's great reading.

Chapter Two, which returns to Arcanine and Zorua, feels comparatively short an uneventful. It is nice to see some strands of the larger plotline winding through, with the talk about strange ice-type pokémon moving into the area and the unseasonal early cold. These were more in the background, though, and dungeon-crawling is probably the most prominent element in the chapter. It's always interesting to see how stories are going to portray dungeon/feral pokémon, and the fact that the characters here don't really understand what they are or why they behave like they do adds a level of intrigue. Like Arcanine said, however millions of pokémon out there, and they still don't know what's going on with dungeons. Maybe setting up for a contrast with more inquisitive humans?

It does seem a bit brutal for Arcanine and Zorua to rather viciously beat all the ferals they can find unconsious. Like, it's one thing if they attack you first and you have some pressing reason that you need to get through the dungeon, so you fight them, but when they're actively trying to run away and your characters chase them down and beat them up anyway, it feels kinda mean. Arcanine does lampshade this, but I'd been thinking that way before he even brought it up. This is one place where ambiguity works against you--if it was clear that these pokémon were somehow made feral by the dungeon and beating them up could return them to normal, then actively seeking out ferals to attack in hopes of breaking the curse or whatever would be a good thing!

And, of course, this chapter also makes it clear that Arcanine was one of the Mewtwo's cloned pokémon. Which obviously leads one to wonder... Where's Mewtwo? Did he somehow manage to send at least the other clones to the PMD world as a place where they could be safe from humans? Are we actually in the anime 'verse with humans off somewhere who simply haven't discovered/colonized this area? Loads of interesting questions here, and it's doubly interesting because it's so rare to see the anime cross over with the PMD world. Given Arcanine's background, I'm guessing something Mewtwo-related is going to end up being important to the plot somehow, but other than that, not sure where you might be going with this! From Absol's vision to the general icy/wintry happenings scattered throughout these early chapters, it almost seems like Gates' Bittercold could be our big bad, but I wonder if Mewtwo might be behind it instead. Dissilusioned with the pokémon world he's found/founded? Working towards some unscrutable plan of his own? I'm very curious to see how Arcanine's backstory is going to tie in with everything else going on here.

The plot is certainly interesting, and the nebulous environmental disasters seem super appropriate for a PMD setting. The pacing in these early chapters has been a bit funky, though; for me it was jarring to go from Arcanine and Zorua to a huge chapter (over 13k words!) on Absol before jumping back to the original two, and again for a relatively brief time. You did a good job of tying the two branches of the story together with the shared references to cold/ice pokémon/etc., so it's clear that although these characters are starting off in very different places, their paths will eventually cross (or at least they'll be dealing with the same problem). However, that big Absol chapter tilted things way more in the direction of her story than that of the other two; I definitely noticed the length when reading through it, and it makes the other two chapters feel kind of insubstantial by comparison. I also think the chapter was probably a bit longer than it needed to be--I don't know that we really needed to see Absol's journey to Pokémon Square in quite that much detail. For example, Abol's stop in Bay town felt to me like something that isn't going to contribute to the larger story much--didn't advance the plot or introduce significant characters, didn't move Absol along her personal journey much. I could be totally wrong, and maybe we'll see this place again, and it'll be important! But from my perspective now, that episode and some other asides felt like they made an already long chapter longer, for not much obvious gain.

All in all, this story has so far had a much bigger focus on character relationships than what I usually see in PMD, and I think that lends itself to a somewhat slower pace and more slice-of-lifeish sorts of scenes, which we've seen a fair amount of in Arcanine and Zorua's sections in particular. I think so far you've done a good job of putting a spotlight on those relationships while also building up the plot in the background. Right now I feel like there's a bit of an imbalance between the two story threads, with more focus on Absol both in terms of amount of plot content and number of words spent. It's always tricky to juggle multiple groups of characters/POVs, but I imagine things will smooth out once the plot gets underway more and there's a bit more action in each of the two threads, so to speak. It was nice catching up with this story, and I look forward to seeing more!

Also, I have some grammar/line item stuff, but then it didn't really feel like it fit anywhere in the meat of the review so uhhhh here it is under a spoiler at the end.

- The singular/plural forms of pokémon species are the same, so one absol many absol, one furret many furret, etc.

- You confuse "its" and "it's" a fair amount. "It's" is a contraction of "it is," so you can't use it anywhere you couldn't sub in those words. So, for example:

The smoke from the fire found it’s way up through a crack in the ceiling.
"She needed to be out of it is view" doesn't make sense, so you want "its" here.

Some other examples where you use "it's" when you want "its:"

The clear afternoon sky gaped above her like a dark abyss, and she needed to be out of it’s view.
It's fangs dug into her haunch, she stumbled and went down, rolling onto her back. It's weight was on her chest.
In this case both "it's" should be "it's."

“Let’s say only five percent of Pokémon dig burrows themselves, but each one who does, digs five in it’s lifetime.”Arcanine paused again.
This one's also missing a space after the closing quote.

The muscles in his opponent's neck tensed, and smoke curled from it's lips.
You also make a couple to/too errors:

“I wanted to build a wood hut, but Lapras thought it would be to heavy.”
Should be *too heavy.

“That's way to big for me.”
Should be *too big.

The ground turned to mud beneath her pads, sticking her to her feet with each step.
Just "sticking to her feet," I think.

For an instant, she thought she caught a glimpse of something following her, it’s coal-black body sihloetted against the white snow, but it was gone before she could identify it.
You have a few mistakes in here that a spellcheck would fix, like here, where you want "silhouetted." If whatever program you're writing on doesn't do spellcheck, most browsers will do it for you when you paste the text into the reply box on the forums. Also, *its coal-black body

The meadow was the same as it had been when she’d lay down to eat.
*lain, lay is present tense

It smelled familiar and comfortable, she though, rubbing her face into the wool;
she *thought

They had all failed Mewtwo, who had always been there to guide them Each one knew he or she could have spend a little less time reading in the library, or laying in the sun, or playing in the meadow, and a little more time training.
Missing a period after "them," should be "spent" and not "spend," and should be "lying" in the sun, not "laying."

They found a Kangaskan Rock marking a travelers' burrow beside the road and stopped for the night.
*Kangaskhan

The heaving of the raft settled down to the gentle rocking of Lapras’ swimming, and sunlight shown through the wet fabric overhead.
Should be "shone," not "shown."

Her tails would be wet too, and so would anything she brought along to burn.
Unsure if typo, or if Absol is actually supposed to have multiple tails?

“You’re here now,” Lapras said, “and your lovely daughters?”
Things made so much more sense once I got to this line, lol. I thought Absol and Ninetales seemed awful friendly! But then later Absol mentions rubbing up against "both her parents" and, uh, maybe Lapras is mistaken about both absol being Ninetales' children, but if not, that's kind of uncomfortable.

Absol turned back to look at Mother and Ninetails, tails curled around each other as they sat together on the shore.
Ninetales' tails could do that, but Absol's don't look all that flexible to me!

A kilometer, at a casual run. Call that a minute and a half. What could she get to in that time?
Holy crap, a casual run for a zorua is 40 kmph???
 

OldschoolJohto

Level 28
Location
Philly, USA
Pronouns
She/Her
Responding to Chapter 1!

Arcanine thought he could remember a different place, a different world, where he had needed to fight, and hide, where two-legged creatures unlike any Pokémon he had seen had hunted him... He'd wondered many times what sort of Pokémon could have left those wounds. As much as he wanted to lay here all day in the sun, Arcanine knew he could not; There was always danger out there, somewhere, even if he couldn't remember what it was. He had to train harder, be stronger, be ready, even if it hurt.
This seems like the real conflict in that first segment, but it takes us a while to get there. As a rule of thumb, I generally avoid opening with a character waking up -- at least at the start of a story. (Maybe at the beginning of a subsequent chapter. The only time I can think of starting with a character waking up was to do a "when he awoke she was gone" kind deal.) I wonder if there's a way to instead double down on Arcanine's apparent memory loss and create more tension between the desire to laze about and the knowledge that something lurks.

If anything, I think that second segment should be your opening. The zorua's troubles are engaging, and I like her practical approach to the danger.

A rock, a clump of tall grass, an Oran bush, and she was almost close enough to hear what they were saying. A startled Starly flapped out of the bush, and one of the Ice-types looked toward it.
I think oran and starly should be lowercase, like orange and bird would be, since it's an oran and a starly. General terms, not names.

It wouldn't hurt that much, just letting them drain what was left of her spirit, and she'd be gone...
Woah, that felt sudden after she was working so hard to get herself out of trouble. Especially with type-advantage in her favor. This seems more like something the litwicks could whisper to her.

Would anyone miss her if she died here, tonight? Would anyone ever know? Probably not.
This felt sincere though.

What had other Pokémon done for him, when he wandered into Treasure Town, years ago, scared and injured, with no memory of where he’d come from? They cheated him, attacked him, sent hunters after him when he fled.
Good microdose of character backstory.

I'd cut from this sentence:
Something rose from between the trees in front of her, no body, just a blurry black outline framing two huge eyes and a leering mouth.
I like this moment though. The press of the surrounding ghosts feels real and dangerous.

Was that a compliment, Zorua wondered, or chastisement for being stupid enough to try?
I like this dynamic already building. This second scene of waking up works much better than the first because now we have a context for this character.

“I've always lived in Meadow Town,” Zorua continued, “my mother was Zoroark, but everyone thought she was Sylveon. She picked herbs and made potions. Mostly for the other Pokémon in Meadow Town, but sometimes she traveled to other towns to sell them, too. Everyone liked her. Once when I was young, though, she traveled downriver to sell them and never came back.”
Are zorua/zoarark considered evil or untrustworthy in this world? Interested to learn more about that.

“Well, no,” Zorua admitted, “Next time, people really did get hurt, and everyone found out I was Zorua, and....a lot of the Pokémon there don't like me, now. But it's my own fault.”
Well dang.

Zorua shrugged it off. She felt much better now that she was clean. “But it’s your turn now. I really want to hear about some of the mystery dungeons you’ve seen.”
This strikes me as presumptuous. Which could be fine, since she's clearly a younger character. But Arcanine seems like a character with walls. I wish we either saw him resist opening up, or more earlier to indicate a wish for connection in spite of not knowing how he might connect to others.

Also…I suppose a few people are probably worried about me.”
At odds with earlier section about people not missing her if she died.

Overall, I like these two friends!
 
Chapter 4: Pokemon Square New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Thanks for reading, and for the comments! Replies inside.

Back for round two! Looks like I've missed quite a bit, especially in that second chapter. The situation's starting to clear up nicely already--this isn't a totally new PMD world we're seeing, but one that's part of the same continuity as the DS games, while being in the same universe as the anime at the same time! To be honest, when we were first introduced to an absol on a frosty mountain I was wondering if this was the Rescue Team absol, but she seemed much too young, so when it turned out she's actually the daughter of the Rescue Team absol, it seemed like a neat piece of continuity.

One of the things I've enjoyed about this story so far is how you portray pokémon body language and interactions. A lot of PMD authors kind of gloss over the fact that a lot of their cast are quadrupedal, for example, and therefore can't really shrug or manipulate things with their forepaws and so on. It's nice, then, to see interactions that are more in line with how real animals move and interact with one another, like the way that the absol and ninetales rub against each other's sides to show affection or Absol gives Lapras an awkward kind of "hug."

* It bothers me when authors ignore morphology and just treat everyone like a Human, so I try to be mindful of this as I’m writing. It’s hard to be consistent, because I instinctively think of characters doing things the way that I would do them.

I think these sorts of interactions contribute to the overall cozy feel of the story so far; there's action and peril, yes, but there's also a lot of pokémon simply hanging around together, being friends or family. Which is great! I think we get to see a lot more of the normal life of pokémon in this world, outside of the whole rescue teams/dungeoneering thing, than is common for PMD stories. Your prose also has a nice relaxing quality to it that seems especially well-suited to the fantasy-ish PMD setting and to quiet moments between characters. Who also have terrifying visions and nearly die in storms at sea and so on, but they also snuggle together by the fire and discuss sharing bottles of wine and reminisce about past adventures, and it's great reading.

* Thanks! I enjoy a lot of sword-and-sorcery type stories, but they tend to leave me unsatisfied with how they treat the characters. Slice-of-life stories get uninteresting quickly without some overreaching danger to drive the plot along. I’ve tried to combine the best of both.
My earlier chapters (I’m on Chapter 17, now, but I didn’t want to intimidate everyone by dropping them on TR all at once) lean more toward the sword-and-sorcery, and the later chapters (Chapter two is actually one of the most recent chapters - I rewrote most of it) lean more towards slice-of-life.

Chapter Two, which returns to Arcanine and Zorua, feels comparatively short an uneventful. It is nice to see some strands of the larger plotline winding through, with the talk about strange ice-type pokémon moving into the area and the unseasonal early cold. These were more in the background, though, and dungeon-crawling is probably the most prominent element in the chapter. It's always interesting to see how stories are going to portray dungeon/feral pokémon, and the fact that the characters here don't really understand what they are or why they behave like they do adds a level of intrigue. Like Arcanine said, however millions of pokémon out there, and they still don't know what's going on with dungeons. Maybe setting up for a contrast with more inquisitive humans?

It does seem a bit brutal for Arcanine and Zorua to rather viciously beat all the ferals they can find unconsious. Like, it's one thing if they attack you first and you have some pressing reason that you need to get through the dungeon, so you fight them, but when they're actively trying to run away and your characters chase them down and beat them up anyway, it feels kinda mean. Arcanine does lampshade this, but I'd been thinking that way before he even brought it up. This is one place where ambiguity works against you--if it was clear that these pokémon were somehow made feral by the dungeon and beating them up could return them to normal, then actively seeking out ferals to attack in hopes of breaking the curse or whatever would be a good thing!

* There are a few things in this chapter which lean too much toward game mechanics, and beating up everything in sight for XP is one of them. They also don’t really consider dungeon Pokémon to be ‘real’ Pokémon, since they don’t communicate or plan or appear to have any feelings. I’ve also failed to establish how injuries and healing work; all those Pokémon they beat up will be fine in a day or two, as long as they stop attacking when they faint.
So, yeah. Arcanine and Zorua are too rough here. I’ve gotten away from this in later chapters.

And, of course, this chapter also makes it clear that Arcanine was one of the Mewtwo's cloned pokémon. Which obviously leads one to wonder... Where's Mewtwo? Did he somehow manage to send at least the other clones to the PMD world as a place where they could be safe from humans? Are we actually in the anime 'verse with humans off somewhere who simply haven't discovered/colonized this area? Loads of interesting questions here, and it's doubly interesting because it's so rare to see the anime cross over with the PMD world. Given Arcanine's background, I'm guessing something Mewtwo-related is going to end up being important to the plot somehow, but other than that, not sure where you might be going with this! From Absol's vision to the general icy/wintry happenings scattered throughout these early chapters, it almost seems like Gates' Bittercold could be our big bad, but I wonder if Mewtwo might be behind it instead. Dissilusioned with the pokémon world he's found/founded? Working towards some unscrutable plan of his own? I'm very curious to see how Arcanine's backstory is going to tie in with everything else going on here.

* These are good questions to be asking!

The plot is certainly interesting, and the nebulous environmental disasters seem super appropriate for a PMD setting. The pacing in these early chapters has been a bit funky, though; for me it was jarring to go from Arcanine and Zorua to a huge chapter (over 13k words!) on Absol before jumping back to the original two, and again for a relatively brief time. You did a good job of tying the two branches of the story together with the shared references to cold/ice pokémon/etc., so it's clear that although these characters are starting off in very different places, their paths will eventually cross (or at least they'll be dealing with the same problem). However, that big Absol chapter tilted things way more in the direction of her story than that of the other two; I definitely noticed the length when reading through it, and it makes the other two chapters feel kind of insubstantial by comparison. I also think the chapter was probably a bit longer than it needed to be--I don't know that we really needed to see Absol's journey to Pokémon Square in quite that much detail. For example, Abol's stop in Bay town felt to me like something that isn't going to contribute to the larger story much--didn't advance the plot or introduce significant characters, didn't move Absol along her personal journey much. I could be totally wrong, and maybe we'll see this place again, and it'll be important! But from my perspective now, that episode and some other asides felt like they made an already long chapter longer, for not much obvious gain.

* Chapter two has given me all kinds of trouble. The original version was less than 4k words, and very vague and unsatisfying. Absol had very little personality. Mother and Ninetales had none at all, and sent her off alone and completely unprepared. This new version has probably gone too far in the other direction; we really didn’t need so much detail about her journey. Also, there are some strange plot contortions because I completely changed her journey to Pokémon Square, but I needed her arrival to be the same, to maintain consistency with future chapters already written.

All in all, this story has so far had a much bigger focus on character relationships than what I usually see in PMD, and I think that lends itself to a somewhat slower pace and more slice-of-lifeish sorts of scenes, which we've seen a fair amount of in Arcanine and Zorua's sections in particular. I think so far you've done a good job of putting a spotlight on those relationships while also building up the plot in the background. Right now I feel like there's a bit of an imbalance between the two story threads, with more focus on Absol both in terms of amount of plot content and number of words spent. It's always tricky to juggle multiple groups of characters/POVs, but I imagine things will smooth out once the plot gets underway more and there's a bit more action in each of the two threads, so to speak. It was nice catching up with this story, and I look forward to seeing more!

Also, I have some grammar/line item stuff, but then it didn't really feel like it fit anywhere in the meat of the review so uhhhh here it is under a spoiler at the end.

*Other grammar stuff corrected! Thank you! Its/It’s has always been a problem for me.


- The singular/plural forms of pokémon species are the same, so one absol many absol, one furret many furret, etc.

* Hmm, I actually didn’t know this, and I don’t like it. I think I’ll stick with the -s convention.

Her tails would be wet too, and so would anything she brought along to burn.
Unsure if typo, or if Absol is actually supposed to have multiple tails?

* This was supposed to be continuing her thought about having big fluffy tails like Ninetales, but maybe it’s not clear. I’ll take another look at how I phrased it.
“You’re here now,” Lapras said, “and your lovely daughters?”
Things made so much more sense once I got to this line, lol. I thought Absol and Ninetales seemed awful friendly! But then later Absol mentions rubbing up against "both her parents" and, uh, maybe Lapras is mistaken about both absol being Ninetales' children, but if not, that's kind of uncomfortable.

* They’ve been on that mountain a long time, and Ninetales age much more slowly than Absols. What’s a little inbreeding between family? I guess no one considers it a big deal here, though.

A kilometer, at a casual run. Call that a minute and a half. What could she get to in that time?
Holy crap, a casual run for a zorua is 40 kmph???

*Hmm, yeah, Pokémon are athletic, but maybe that’s a bit fast.
Responding to Chapter 1!

The Desert Cat said: Arcanine thought he could remember a different place, a different world, where he had needed to fight, and hide, where two-legged creatures unlike any Pokémon he had seen had hunted him... He'd wondered many times what sort of Pokémon could have left those wounds. As much as he wanted to lay here all day in the sun, Arcanine knew he could not; There was always danger out there, somewhere, even if he couldn't remember what it was. He had to train harder, be stronger, be ready, even if it hurt.
This seems like the real conflict in that first segment, but it takes us a while to get there. As a rule of thumb, I generally avoid opening with a character waking up -- at least at the start of a story. (Maybe at the beginning of a subsequent chapter. The only time I can think of starting with a character waking up was to do a "when he awoke she was gone" kind deal.) I wonder if there's a way to instead double down on Arcanine's apparent memory loss and create more tension between the desire to laze about and the knowledge that something lurks.

If anything, I think that second segment should be your opening. The zorua's troubles are engaging, and I like her practical approach to the danger.

*Yeah, the very beginning is slow. I’m sure I could do better, now, but I haven’t the motivation to mess with it again.

The Desert Cat said: A rock, a clump of tall grass, an Oran bush, and she was almost close enough to hear what they were saying. A startled Starly flapped out of the bush, and one of the Ice-types looked toward it.
I think oran and starly should be lowercase, like orange and bird would be, since it's an oran and a starly. General terms, not names.

* I know there’s a lot of discussion about this. I decided to capitalize because the games did. It’s also pretty common in fantasy and science fiction to capitalize the names of sapient species (Starly, Elf, Dwarf, Kzin, Zerg).

The Desert Cat said: It wouldn't hurt that much, just letting them drain what was left of her spirit, and she'd be gone...
Woah, that felt sudden after she was working so hard to get herself out of trouble. Especially with type-advantage in her favor. This seems more like something the litwicks could whisper to her.

The Desert Cat said: Would anyone miss her if she died here, tonight? Would anyone ever know? Probably not.
This felt sincere though.

* She tried as hard as she could, but it wasn’t quite enough.

The Desert Cat said: What had other Pokémon done for him, when he wandered into Treasure Town, years ago, scared and injured, with no memory of where he’d come from? They cheated him, attacked him, sent hunters after him when he fled.
Good microdose of character backstory.

* just a liiiitle bit.

The Desert Cat said: Was that a compliment, Zorua wondered, or chastisement for being stupid enough to try?
I like this dynamic already building. This second scene of waking up works much better than the first because now we have a context for this character.

* I use waking up/going to bed quite a bit. Maybe too much. But, they seem like natural times for converstations.

The Desert Cat said: “I've always lived in Meadow Town,” Zorua continued, “my mother was Zoroark, but everyone thought she was Sylveon. She picked herbs and made potions. Mostly for the other Pokémon in Meadow Town, but sometimes she traveled to other towns to sell them, too. Everyone liked her. Once when I was young, though, she traveled downriver to sell them and never came back.”
Are zorua/zoarark considered evil or untrustworthy in this world? Interested to learn more about that.

The Desert Cat said: “Well, no,” Zorua admitted, “Next time, people really did get hurt, and everyone found out I was Zorua, and....a lot of the Pokémon there don't like me, now. But it's my own fault.”
Well dang.

* Zorua has earned her reputation. I should have gone into more depth about that here, but we’ll see more in future chapters.

The Desert Cat said: Zorua shrugged it off. She felt much better now that she was clean. “But it’s your turn now. I really want to hear about some of the mystery dungeons you’ve seen.”
This strikes me as presumptuous. Which could be fine, since she's clearly a younger character. But Arcanine seems like a character with walls. I wish we either saw him resist opening up, or more earlier to indicate a wish for connection in spite of not knowing how he might connect to others.

* Yes. Their relationship goes much too fast here. If I rewrote this chapter now, it would be a few thousand words longer, and some of their conversation would be pushed back to their next chapter.

The Desert Cat said: Also…I suppose a few people are probably worried about me.”
At odds with earlier section about people not missing her if she died.

* I think she was being a bit melodramatic before.


Chapter 4: Pokémon Square

Charizard stepped aside, holding the door open and motioning Absol inside. She was certain she looked ridiculous with Aromatisse’s red and white blanket draped over her back; that wasn’t going to help her make a good first impression. If she took it off, though, she was going to start shivering again, and that wouldn’t help either. She found herself in a large, open room, which occupied most of the front half of the main level. At the far side of the room was another stone wall and two sets of stairs, one going up and the other down, and a large, curtained doorway. To her right and left, wooden partitions created several smaller rooms, some with doors, and some without.

The heavy door creaked closed behind them. The light was dim inside, but bright enough to see clearly, with the morning sun shining in through windows set in the upper third of the wall every meter or two. The ceiling was high, almost double Charizard’s height, supported by the thick logs whose ends she had seen from outside. Everything about the structure seemed oversized, as if it had been designed to accommodate a family of Tyranitars. Perhaps it had.

“You’ve come all the way from Mount Freeze? Charizard asked, “it’s been years since we’ve heard from Ninetales or Abs- um, your mother. You don’t have news from Team Go-Getters, do you?”

Absol shook her head. “No. We haven’t heard from them since Mother returned to Mount Freeze.”

“What it it, then?”

Absol hesitated. Mother and Ninetales had always been a part of her life. They were always there, immortal, like the rocks and the wind, and it had not seemed at all strange to discuss her dreams with them. Charizard was a total stranger, like everyone else here, and suddenly she felt horribly embarrassed. What if she was wrong? What if it was all just her imagination? What if it was all true, but she sounded so awkward that no one believed her? Had Ninetales felt the same when he explained the meteor incident to the Go-Getters? No, he was hundreds of years old. Eight years was a lifetime to her, but it was a spring day to the old stargazer. He probably couldn’t even remember the first omen he’d read.

“Are you alright?”asked Charizard.

“Yes,” Absol said firmly, trying to sound more confident than she felt. How could she expect to be believed when she doubted herself? “We have a…mystery. A omen that none of us understand. Ninetales sent me to find you or Team Go-Getters for help.”

It wasn’t quite literally true, but it seemed easier to invoke Ninetales’ authority than her own.

Charizard started toward the far end of the room, motioning for her to follow. “Let’s get comfortable, and you can explain.”

The curtained arch opened into a large room which occupied almost the entire back half of the building. Absol stopped in the doorway, staring in amazement. The walls were lined with shelves full of books and scrolls; thousands and thousands of them, in all shapes and sizes. A wonderful smell of leather and paper and ink filled the room. The ceiling was higher in here, occupying both the first and second floors. The second-floor windows were larger, and the room was brightly lit.

Charizard turned to her, smiling proudly. “Impressive, isn’t it? We’ve spent over a hundred years collecting them.”

A large masonry stove occupied the center of the room, surrounded by several cluttered tables and a semicircle of large cushions, toward which Charizard led her. The main chamber of the stove was cold, but a handful of sticks burned in the side chamber under a large kettle. Looking over her shoulder, Absol saw that the doorway through which they had come was flanked by several huge, colored maps.

“Please, make yourself comfortable. Tea?” Charizard offered as he poured himself a cup.

“Oh, yes. Thank you.” Tea, apparently, was a popular tradition of town Pokémon, and it was something Absol definitely thought she could get used to.

Charizard set a bowl of tea on the table in front of her and took a seat on a cushion on the opposite side of the table, the keeping the burning tip of his tail carefully on the floor. Absol sniffed the bowl; the smell was relaxing, but it was still to warm to stick her tongue into.

“So, then. What’s the trouble?”

“More than a week ago,” Absol said, laying down on the cushion an allowing the her blanket to settle over everything except her head and forelegs, “Ninetales began to see an omen in the stars which he couldn’t interpret. I had…a vision of something affecting the weather, and the sun. Not just on Mount Freeze, but everywhere.”

Despite the vividness of her vision and the aching cold in her horn which had been a constant reminder, Absol thought it sounded silly as she said it. Charizard’s expression, however, remained serious. He took a sip from his mug, waiting for her to continue.

“It was spring. The sun went down, and it started to snow again. It lasted for weeks. The night, and the snow. Maybe forever, I don’t know.” Absol shivered again, thinking about the vision she’d had. “Ninetales believes the First One or his children may be involved. I’d…rather explain to everyone at the same time, though. I don’t want to tell the whole story more than once.”

Charizard considered for a moment. “Alakazam and Tyranitar are out on a job. I expect them home this evening, if you can wait.”

Absol nodded.

“Alakazam will want to bring in Xatu and Whiscash, as well, I think, and Delphox from the Explorers Federation. I’ll send word. We can meet at Whiscash Pond after dinner. That’s the lake at the bottom of the falls, on the other side of the valley.” Charizard pointed, even though they couldn’t see it from here in the library. “…Are you sure you’re alright? You look uncomfortable.”

“Just cold,” Absol said, “I’ll explain this evening.”

“If you don’t have a place to stay in town, you’re welcome to stay in the manor for now,” Charizard said with a sweeping gesture toward the building around them, “you see we have plenty of room.”

“Thank you.” Absol leaned forward to lap some tea from the bowl. It tasted as good as it smelled.

“You’re welcome to explore the courtyard, main level, and basement, but the upstairs is private.”

Charizard departed, leaving Absol alone in the library. She explored the ground floor and basement, deciding that her original assessment had been correct; several dozen Pokémon could indeed have lived comfortably in the manor. The main level contained a large kitchen and adjacent storeroom, and several unoccupied bedrooms. The basement was illuminated only by the light which spilled down the wide stairs, but for her Dark-type eyes it was enough to find her way.

The basement was divided by a stone wall through the center, like the main level, and stone pillars at regular intervals supported the structure above. It was dry, but smelled dusty and seldom-used. A large pile of firewood was stacked to one side of the stairs, and on the other side were several casks of cider and wine, and crates of Apples and dried berries.

She explored the courtyard as well. There wasn’t much to it beyond what she’d seen on the way in; the garden extended all the way around the manor. Everything was neat and well-maintained, every bush and tree carefully pruned, with not a bit of wasted space. It was obvious that someone spent a considerable amount of time caring for the grounds; Absol wondered whether it was one of Team ACT, or a Pokémon from town. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but she nibbled a few berries.

Eventually Absol returned to the library. She circled the room, too impressed by the sheer number of books to look for anything in particular. She recognized a few titles as stories that Mother or Ninetales had told, but most of them were strange to her. Had she come here under different circumstances, she thought, she could have spent years immersed in those books, learning new stories to take back with her. Right now, she was too anxious to read. She didn’t want to leave Team ACT’s compound; it would feel like a step in the wrong direction. She felt like she should be taking some sort of action, but she could think of nothing else to do but wait.

Absol returned to the maps by the door. There were four of them, each spanning almost the full height of the wall and just as wide, depicting what must have been four different continents in meticulous, brightly colored detail. Together, they must have represented a lifetime of labor by some master cartographer, Absol thought. She spent several minutes staring at each one before finding a familiar location; there, at the bottom of the first map to the right of the door, was Great Canyon. Xatu used to live there, she remembered Mother saying, before Team Go-Getters found him. There was Pokémon Square, and Treasure Town.

That must be Mount Freeze, then, in the top corner. Excited, Absol dragged a table over to the wall, followed by a pair of cushions, stacking them so that she could climb up for a closer view without risking touching the beautiful map. The level of detail was incredible. Leaning in close, she could make out individual ridges and valleys, everything in it’s proper place. Yes! she thought. Articuno’s nest would be right there, Mother’s cave would be there by the rockslide, and Ninetale’s cave was over in that valley. How were Mother and Ninetales doing? Had they learned anything more since she had been gone? Were they worried about her? Maybe Charizard and the others could get a message to them, at least letting them know that she’d made it to Pokémon Square.

Absol was so engrossed in the map that she didn’t hear the other Pokémon come in. A quiet cough from below startled her, and the tower of furniture wavered under her paws. For an instant, she worried that it

slide out from under her, and she might damage the beautiful map; but, with years of experience on the rocky, icy trails of Mount Freeze, she regained her balance. A pair of Eevees stared up at her from the near the doorway; a male with a grey scarf, and a female with a pink scarf.

“Oh!” Absol said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”

“That’s alright,” the pink-scarved Eevee bubbled excitedly, “Those maps are amazing, aren’t they? I could stare at them for hours too.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen you around before,” said the grey-scarved Eevee; he seemed not unfriendly, but much more reserved than his companion.

“I, uh, came to see Team ACT,” Absol said simply, not wanting to be drawn into another explanation of her mission.

“Hi!” the pink-scarved Eevee said, as if seeing her for the first time, “You can call me Pink. It’s confusing since there’s two of us, see?”

“I’m Grey,” the other introduced himself, “we’re Team Easy.”

“Um, a pleasure to meet you both,” Absol said with a dip of her head.

“That’s a pretty blanket,” Pink said, jumping up on the table with Absol, “what’s it for? Can you show me where you’re from?”

Grey caught Absol’s eye and shrugged helplessly, as if to say, sorry, I can’t stop her.

“I live on Mount Freeze, up here,” Absol said, pointing on the map.

“Oh, that’s so neat!” Pink said. “I used to live by Tiny Meadow down here!”

Pink jumped down, scurrying under the table to point at a spot south of them on the map. Absol followed more carefully. Grey, she noticed, was already perched on the seat of a chair at one of the other tables, an open book in front of him. He wasn’t reading, though, he was watching them.

Pink’s enthusiasm was infectious. The two of them talked for ten minutes or so, jumping on and off the table to point out locations to each other. Pink seemed young, even younger than herself, but Absol was impressed by how well traveled she seemed to be. Pink pointed out towns she’d visited and mystery dungeons she claimed to have explored. Absol wasn’t quite sure how much to believe, but she reciprocated with locations from stories she could think of. She retraced her own route from Mount Freeze as well, trying to pick out exactly where she’d stopped each night; it was surprisingly difficult, as she’d been too preoccupied at the time to take much note of her surroundings.

Eventually Pink tired of the game and went to join Grey at the table. Absol couldn’t quite place their relationship; were they siblings? Mates? Just friends? Grey’s age was difficult to judge. They didn’t smell like they were related, but there was something a little bit off about Grey’s scent, and she wasn’t sure. Actually, there was something a bit off about the way Grey moved, as well.

Absol replaced the furniture she had moved and wondered what to do next. She prowled the perimeter of the room, looking at the titles of the books she could reach. She didn’t know what she was looking for, and many of the titles didn’t mean much to her. Was there some sort of organization to the library, or were they all just shelved wherever there had been room?

The Eevees were watching her again, Absol noticed.

“Can I help you find something?” Grey asked.

“I’m not really sure,” Absol said, “There are so many books here, I don’t even know what to look for.”

“There are a lot, aren’t there? It’s not as overwhelming as it looks, though. Alakazam has a clever system; let me show you how it works.”

Grey led her to one of the center bookshelves, on which was posted a long list of numbered subjects.

“Every shelf in the library is numbered,” Grey said, “top to bottom, then left to right. Alakazam has everything grouped by subject, from general to specific. If you want to find a book about something, just find the subject here, and go to that shelf.”

“Oh!” Absol said, “That’s a good idea.”

The highest level subjects were quite general; math, astrology, horticulture, history, geography, biography, biology, cooking, and so on, but some of them had dozens of subheadings. There were histories sorted by town, or by time period. There were entries devoted to books on Pokémon in general, or by type, or sometimes even by species.

She browsed the list until she came to the biographies. Many of the Legendaries had their own sections here. Now, that was more interesting; there must be thousands of new stories here. Mother and Ninetales would be so excited to hear them when she returned, as many as she could remember.

The Forces of Nature. Space, Time, and Chaos. Guardians of the Hidden Lakes. The Wisdom of Mew. A thick book near the end of the shelf caught her eye; Dragons of Myth and Legend. That sounded exciting. It was on one of the higher shelves, just barely within reach; Absol wanted to ask for help, but the only other Pokémon around were Team Easy, and the two Eevees would have even more difficulty reaching it. She stood up, supporting herself with one forepaw on the shelf, carefully hooking the claws of her other forepaw over the top edge of the spine to slide it forward.

None of the chairs in the room were anything like the right size and shape for her body, so Absol put one of the cushions back onto the table and lay down on top. She was halfway through the chapter on Latios and Latias when she heard the outer door open and close. There were heavy footsteps in the hallway, and then the stairs. Hopefully it was Tyranitar, she thought, returning with Alakazam from whatever job they’d been on. The book was interesting, but Absol was restless; she wanted to tell the story, complete her mission.

Eventually, Charizard’s head appeared in the doorway.

“Absol - oh, Team Easy. I didn’t know you were here - lets head up to Whiscash Pond, if you’re ready. You guys are welcome to join us, if you like.”

Charizard seemed to be friends with everyone. People greeted him, or waved as they passed. Absol noticed many of the Pokémon staring at her as they passed; they didn’t seem hostile, just curious. While it made her uncomfortable, she couldn’t fault them for their interest. Word had probably gotten around about her unintentionally dramatic entrance. Absols weren’t very common, and she was probably the only Pokémon in town wearing anything other than a bag or tool belt.

The trail wound up the other side of he valley to end at a large, flat rock, jutting out into the pond like a pier. Xatu sat at the end of the rock, talking to the half-submerged Whiscash. Absol’s first thought was that there was no way the enormous Whiscash could have gotten into or out of the pond under his own power; he would not have fit through the channel either above or below. He must have been there for decades or centuries, slowly growing to his current size.

Xatu turned to face her, beak opening in a smile. “Absol! I never expected to see you again, my dear. You know, you’re just as beautiful as you were ten years ago.”

Absol froze, confused and embarassed. Behind her, Charizard snorted and coughed, trying not to laugh.

“Is something wrong?” Xatu wondered, leaning forward to squint at her, “You know, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be…”

“It, ahh…was my mother…that you met,” Absol said

“Ah, well, this is awkward,” Xatu said with a wink, seeming not at all perturbed, “let me try again.”

The old bird turned back to Whiscash, paused a moment, ruffled his tailfeathers, and turned around to look at Absol again.

“Absol! A pleasure to meet you, my dear. You know, you’re just as beautiful as your mother. Charizard, you could have mentioned which Absol had come to visit us.”

The others laughed; after a moment’s hesitation, Absol did too.

One of Whiscash’s long barbels lifted out of the water, motioning her forward, and Absol walked to the edge, leaning over to sniff Whiscash. The barbel curled around to stroke the top of her head.

“Don’t worry about Xatu. After a hundred years staring at the sun, it’s a wonder he can see anything at all.”

Delphox came next, a treasure bag slung over her shoulder, and a pencil and notepad in her hand. She stopped to chat with Team Easy at the back of the group. Tyranitar and Alakazam arrived a few minutes later, both looking worn out. Absol wondered what they had been doing all day.

Absol felt Charizard’s hand on her shoulder and looked up.

“You ready?” He asked quietly.

Absol nodded. Charizard cleared his throat. Conversations faded away as the others turned to them. Absol hesitated, uncomfortable with being the center of attention

“Thanks for coming, everyone,” Charizard said, “Absol has news for us from Mount Freeze.”

Charizard stepped away. It was only a pace or two; the dragon could have reached out and touched her with his tail, but Absol suddenly felt very alone.

She began slowly, pulling the blanket tightly around herself with her forelegs as she spoke, leaving only her head exposed. She began with Ninetales’ part of the story rather than her own; it felt safer, less personal. The others listened seriously, even Pink, and Absol’s confidence grew. She related her dream; the sudden storm in the meadow, her flight up Mount Freeze, being trapped in the cave with Mother. As she talked, the feeling of cold which had receded that morning crept down again from her horn. She began to shiver as she described her journey to Pokémon Square and the feeling of being watched by something malicious from that horrible black void which had pursued her. By the time she finished, her teeth were chattering again, and her legs felt weak.

“Darkrai.” Tyranitar growled immediately when she had finished, his voice a low rumble.

“This does sound similar to the Time Gears crisis,” Alakazam agreed, “but Team Poképals claimed Darkrai no longer had any evil intent, after his memory was erased.”

“It’s his nature,” Tyranitar said, “Cut off Slowpoke’s tail, and it grows back.”

“We must consider the possibility,” Alakazam said, “unfortunately, I’ve heard no news of Darkrai since then. We could waste a great deal of time searching for him.”

“I’m more concerned about Ninetales’ observation of the stars,” Xatu said, “events in the Heavens affect events in the World, not the other way around. If both are affected, we should look for a cause there, not here.”

“The theft of the Time Gears affected the Heavens,” Alakazam objected.

“Exactly my point. The Time Gears affected the Heavens because they contain, or channel, a portion of the Lord of Time’s power.”

“So you think Dialga is involved.”

“It sounds as if Ninetales suspected the First One or his children are involved.” Xatu looked to Absol for confirmation, and she nodded. “And he was watching the stars long before any of us hatched.”

Whiscash blew a short burst of bubbles, and the others turned to him. “Xatu, have you seen anything that might help us?”

“I have not,” Xatu said, “but I stare at the sun, and Ninetales at the stars; it is not surprising that the stars know more of darkness and cold.”

“What about you, Whiscash?” Charizard asked, “Can you remember any stories?”

Whiscash chuckled. “I remember a great many stories, but which are relevant? I will let this matter digest tonight, and maybe in the morning I will know.”

The conversation continued, but Absol wasn’t paying much attention. The sun had set, and the sky was beginning to darken. The terror crept slowly back into her mind, following the cold. She needed to get under cover. What could she say to excuse herself? It was her vision they were all discussing, after all, she couldn’t just run off. She felt Charizard’s hand on her shoulder again.

“They could be talking for hours,” Charizard told her, “but they’re not likely to decide anything else tonight. Would you like to go back to the manor?”

“Yes, th-thank you.”

On the way back, Charizard led her on a trail which circled around town partway up the hill. It wasn’t very late yet; Absol could still see plenty of Pokémon about in the town below as they made their way back to the manor, and she glad to avoid them.

Absol felt instantly relieved as the door swung shut behind them. Charizard took an Orb set on a chain from a hook on the wall and rubbed it until it glowed brightly. The extra light wasn’t necessary; between the faint glow of moonlight through the windows and the flame on his tail, they could see well enough; but Absol appreciated it. She noticed, now, that the inside of the door, and the walls to either side, had heavy brackets which could have held a thick beam to secure the door closed.

“They say that this was the original site of Pokémon Square, hundreds of years ago” Charizard explained, following her gaze, “and they built the manor and the wall to defend against bandits. We’ve never had a need to bar the door, ourselves.”

“We have a few spare rooms here,” Charizard said, leading her toward one of the unused bedrooms she had seen earlier, “You can use one while you’re here. Is there anything else you need?”

“Is th-there any way I c-can send a mes-sage t-to Moth-ther and Ninet-tales?” Absol asked, “Als-so, c-could I bor-row anoth-ther b-blanket?”

“I’ll find you another blanket,” Charizard said, “but, actually, maybe we should put you in the library tonight. Not much privacy; Pokémon from town visit at all hours, but I’ll fire up the stove to keep you warm. You can send a message at the Pelipper Post Office; I’ll show you in the morning.”

Charizard helped her drag several cushions in front of the stove to make a bed, and departed. Absol pulled her blanket off over her head without untying it, and let it settle on top of her. Charizard returned a few minutes later with another blanket and an armload of firewood, and soon had a cheerful blaze burning in the stove.

“I’ll leave this with you,” Charizard told her, setting the Luminous Orb by her bed, “I’ll be in the first room on the right, upstairs, if you need anything. We’re all pretty territorial, so just knock on my door and try not to wake the others.”

“Th-thank you so m-much,” Absol said, “I w-was so w-worried that n-no one would believe me…”

Charizard smiled. “Absol, without your mother and Ninetales’ help in the Meteor incident, I don’t know if any of us would be alive, now…and you know your mother helped rescue all three of us in Magma Cavern. She’s a hero here, just like the rest of Team Go-Getters. Once word gets out who you are and why you’re here, everyone is going to want to hear your story.”

Absol pulled her head back under the blanket as if to hide, and Charizard laughed as he turned to leave. Unattended, the Luminous Orb faded out, and she lay there for a while, enjoying the warmth of the stove and the orange glow that shown out through the door. The chill receded; it wasn’t gone, she could still feel it in her horn, but it was tolerable, now. Charizard was so friendly, she thought. Alakazam and Xatu and Whiscash were old and wise, like Mother and Ninetales. Other people in Pokémon Square would help too, and they would solve the problem, whatever it was. She didn’t have to feel scared and alone, now.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Absol woke to voices and footsteps entering the library. The blanket covered her face, but enough light filtered through that she was sure it must be morning. She didn’t want to get up, yet, but she knew she should. People would be looking for her. There would be work to do today. Absol uncurled herself, stretching her forelegs out in front of her, and, yawning, slid out of the blanket. She found herself face-to-face with Pink.

“Morning!” Pink exclaimed, her fluffy tail twitching in excitement, “I wanted to pounce on you but Grey said I mustn’t.”

Absol wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she settled for a smile and “Good morning.”

Pink sat down, scratched herself, and looked around the library as if searching for something. Eventually her gaze returned to Absol.

“Also, I’m supposed to invite you to breakfast. Everyone’s waiting outside.”

“Thanks.”

Absol wriggled her blanket back around her neck, deciding to leave the cushions where they were for now, and followed Pink out to the courtyard. Looking around, Absol saw that everyone from last night was already present, save Whiscash. Alakazam watched her with a frown, and she wondered whether she’d done something to upset him. Tyranitar, picking berries from one of the bushes into a large basket, paused to wave. Grey was inscrutable. Xatu looked up from pecking at a pastry to wink at her. Charizard smiled, waving her to join them. Delphox, still holding her notebook, gave her a nod.

Tyranitar placed the basketful of berries on a stone bench next to the stream, beside a plate of pastries which Absol assumed Xatu must have brought. There was some small talk as they all ate, but Absol said little. Eventually, finished with breakfast, Alakazam led them all back into the library.

“We haven’t heard back from Whiscash yet,” Charizard said, “but the rest of us have a few tentative plans.”

“Unfortunately,” Alakazam said, “we don’t have much here to go on. First, we need to contact Ninetales and see if he has learned anything further since you left. As I don’t know any Psychics at Mount Freeze, we will have to send a message by Pelipper.”

“If you’d like, I can help you write a letter to Ninetales and your mother,” Charizard offered, “and I’ll show you the Post Office, also.

“Thank you. I wanted to let them know I made it here, too.”

“Second, I was able to contact Chimecho at Wigglytuff Guild last night. I’ve briefed him on the situation. Team Poképals have dealt with both Palkia and Dialga in the past; perhaps they’ll have some ideas how to proceed. Third, as Tyranitar suggested, Darkrai is a prime suspect. His whereabouts are unknown, but Delphox thinks the Explorers Federation may be able to help us track him down.”

“Absol,” Delphox said, “with your permission, I’d like to send a summary of your story to the Federation to redistribute. The more Pokémon we can get involved, the greater the chances someone will put the right clues together. We’ll put out word that we’re looking for Darkrai, as well.”

“Of course.”

“Additionally, the Federation gets all kinds of reports and requests for aid from Exploration Teams, Guilds, and towns. Most of them don’t receive much attention; there isn’t the manpower to respond unless it’s an emergency. I have dozens, here, and I’m going to request copies from all the other local chapters. It’s a long shot, but I’d like you to look through them with me. Maybe we’ll find something which stands out to you. You’re staying here with Team ACT?”

“Yes.” Absol nodded.

“I’ll bring what I have over this afternoon. If Team ACT don’t mind, we may as well make the manor our headquarters.”

Everyone looked to Alakazam, who nodded his wizened head in agreement.

“Absol,” Charizard said, “I know you don’t want to repeat your story, but a lot of people are going to want to hear it. It might be better to call a meeting this evening where you can tell everyone at once, than to have them wandering in one at a time to ask you.”

“I…don’t know if I can,” Absol said. Telling the seven of them last night had been hard enough; the idea of doing it again in front of the whole town was terrifying.

“Let’s go ahead and call the meeting,” Charizard said, “We’ll do it in the courtyard here, say, two hours before sunset. If you’re not up to explaining it all again, Alakazam and I will, and you can answer questions afterward, okay?”

Absol nodded in agreement. The others talked a while longer, but there seemed no further progress to be made. Afterward, Charizard led her to a table cluttered with books, paper, and writing instruments.

Absol hesitated. “I’ve never written a letter before,” she admitted, “I’m not sure what to say.”

“Pretend that you’re talking to your mother, or to Ninetales,” Charizard suggested, “tell her what’s happened; not everything, just the important bits.”

Absol talked, and Charizard wrote. It was harder than she’d expected, trying to talk to someone who wasn’t there. What was important? They didn’t need to know how scared and cold she’d been on the way; they needed to know what was happening, now. Absol kept changing her mind, and by the time they were done the first letter was a mess, so Charizard patiently wrote it all again for her.


Mother,

I made it to Pokémon Square. Team Go-Getters isn’t here any more, but I found Team ACT. I told them everything, and Whiscash and Xatu and Delphox, too. No one here knows what it means either, but Alakazam is already thinking of plans. Team Poképals from Treasure Town is going to try to talk to Dialga and Palkia. Tyranitar thinks maybe it’s Darkrai again. Whiscash is trying to remember stories. Charizard is helping me write this letter. He’s really nice. It’s exciting to meet all the people you’ve told me about. There are so many Pokémon here! Charizard says you’re a hero. We’re sending some paper and pencils and Poké, too, so hopefully you can write back. Charizard says the Pelippers will bring this to you in two or three days, and they will bring letters back here, too. Have you and Ninetales learned anything else? I miss you both. I hope everything is okay on Mount Freeze. I’m not sure what else to say, so goodbye for now.


“I think that’s good,” Absol said.

Charizard folded the letter neatly. He wrapped the letter, two pencils, a few blank sheets of paper, and some Poké in a cloth, and tied the bundle closed.

“Alright, let’s go mail this. I’ll show you how it works.”

Mother had mentioned the Pelippers before, Absol remembered, but she’d never given it much thought. In front of the Post Office, several groups of Pokémon stood around a large wooden display covered in dozens of pieces of paper. They waved as she and Charizard approached; Charizard waved back, but Absol felt as if they were all staring at her, instead. She smiled back, uncertainly.

“What’s that?” Absol asked.

“Public message board,” Charizard said, “Delphox posts rescue requests from the Federation badge network, and the Pelippers post news from other towns. Other Pokémon post jobs, too; everything from exploring mystery dungeons to helping harvest berries or enchant scarves. Delphox will probably post your story up there, too.”

“Can we look?”

“Lets get this mailed, then why don’t you take a few hours and explore Pokémon Square? I need to get back to the manor, and this could be your only chance to see the town without everyone stopping you with questions.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Absol made her first stop at Aromatisse’s home, a small, roundish building at the edge of town. It was shaped like two hemispheres stacked one on top of the other, the lower about six meters in diameter, and the upper about four. Two large branches projected from the roof, draped with brightly colored rags. Painted in a garish pink and purple, she though it looked more like a Payapa Berry than Aromatisse. A small, chaotic garden surrounded the house, packed with dozens of kinds of herbs and flowers.

Aromatisse appeared around the side of the building, a bundle of sticks in her arms.

“Oh!” Aromatisse exclaimed, “hello again, dear. Feeling better today? Did Team ACT take are of things for you?”

“Much better,” Absol said, “thank you so much. And, well, we’re working on it, I guess.”

“Want to sit down and tell me about it?” Aromatisse asked, sounding hopeful, “I’ll put on some tea.”

Reflexively, Absol began to decline, but then she changed her mind. The situation didn’t seem so overwhelming, now that they had the beginnings of a plan, and telling her story to Aromatisse now would be good practice for tonight. Also, she wouldn’t mind some more of that tea.

“Sure.”

Aromatisse led her inside, setting the sticks beside the stove. In contrast to the defensibility of Team ACT’s manor, the cottage didn’t even have a door, just a heavy curtain. The walls, which arched seamlessly into a roof overhead, were wattle and daub, supported by heavy wooden posts and beams. Windows in the upper section faced in all directions, so that the single room would be well illuminated at any time of day.

Absol repeated her story entirely, beginning with life on Mount Freeze, and continuing with her dream, Ninetales’ astrology, her journey to Pokémon Square, and her discussions with Team ACT and the others. By the time she finished, Aromatisse was pouring tea for both of them from a steaming kettle.

Aromatisse reciprocated with gossip and stories about life in Pokémon Square. Though she had not lived there long enough to have met Absol’s mother, she seemed to know something about everyone. They talked through a pot of tea and a plate of poffins, and by the time Absol noticed the changing angle of the sun in the windows above, more than two hours had gone by.

“It’s been wonderful talking with you,” Absol said, “but I should get back to the manor and see if Delphox is there. I don’t want to keep everyone waiting.”

“I’m so happy you stopped by to chat, dear,” Aromatisse said, “be sure to visit again.”

“I will.” Absol turned to leave, then remembered one more thing she’d meant to ask. “May I keep the blanket a bit longer?”

“As long as you like; I have a whole stack of them.”

Absol had intended to explore the rest of the town, but she’d been at Aromatisse’s house much longer than she’d planned. It was almost lunchtime, now, and she hoped she hadn’t kept Delphox waiting. Better go straight back to the manor, she thought. It sounded like she was going to be in Pokémon Square for a while, and there would be plenty of time to explore later.

When Absol returned to the library, Charizard was the only one there. He sat at one of the tables, a pair of books spread open in front of him and an open pot of ink beside him. He glanced between the left and right books, writing into the right book a few words at a time. Not wanting to startle him while he was writing, Absol waited in the doorway until he went to refill the quill.

“You’re writing a book?” She asked.

Charizard nodded, not raising his head to look at her. “Well, copying one.”

“Copying?” Absol stood up with her forepaws on the table to see.

“Oh, yes. Many of the books here aren’t the originals. We borrow books, or find books that are too old or damaged to read repeatedly, and make our own copies. Sometimes we find books in other languages, too. Alakazam translates them, if he can, and we keep the translation and the original side-by-side”

“Doesn’t that take an awfully long time?”

“Months,” Charizard said, “Years, sometimes, depending on how long and complex they are. The others don’t really have the patience for it, but…” Charizard shrugged, “I love books. I find it relaxing, like Alakazam’s meditation or Tyranitar’s gardening.”

“I didn’t miss Delphox, did I?”

“She came by a bit ago with some of those reports.” Charizard motioned toward another table with his tail. “You can get started, if you want. She’ll probably be back this afternoon once the Pelippers are all in.”

Absol carried the stack of papers to her bed in front of the stove, and lay down to read. There were bandit attacks and missing Pokémon, deaths and hatchings and local holidays, a variety of minor crimes, and soon she understood what Delphox had meant by not giving most of them much attention. There were thirty or forty reports in the stack; she read through them all once, and then again, but there was nothing which seemed relevant to their current situation.

One report from someplace called Meadow Town caught her eye; unidentified ice-types had been seen sneaking into the village at night, and had chased several local Pokémon. Hexagonal crystalline Pokémon a bit over a meter high, with chains of ice from their mouths. Searching through several of Team ACT’s books, Absol identified them as Cryogonals; it seemed like useless information, though. There was no indication in the report of what they had been looking for. No one had been hurt, or spoken with the trespassers. That was - she checked the date on the letter - over a week ago, now. If anything had come of it, there would have been another report by now, wouldn’t there? She would have to ask Delphox about that later; right now, Absol though, she needed a stretch and some fresh air.
 
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Chapter 5: Trouble in Meadow Town New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 5: Trouble in Meadow Town

The full moon glittered on the water as they looked out over the placid surface of the lake, throwing long shadows over the cliff. Volbeat and Illumise sparkled in the air, thousands of tiny points of light. The cool night breeze ruffled his fur; it was fresh and pure and alive with the myriad scents of the jungle which clung to the sides of the mountain

Long ago, the mountain had been a massive stratovolcano; the last of its large eruptions had blown the top, forming a crater miles across at the top of the mountain. A later, smaller eruption had formed a cinder cone in the center of the crater. Over millions of years, the crater filled with water, and the softer rock on the outside of the smaller cone had weathered away, leaving a plug of dense igneous rock at its center. Humans called it Mount Quena, but few Humans braved its slopes.

It was only the five of them tonight, the originals; Blastoise, Charizard, Venosaur, himself, and Mewtwo. No one spoke. There was nothing that needed to be said. No place could be more beautiful, more peaceful.

Mewtwo’s hand touched his shoulder, gently stroking his mane. Arcanine could feel that Mewtwo was troubled, melancholy. There was a pain and loneliness that not even their presence could fill. No matter how much he and the others loved Mewtwo, they could never be his equals; he was cursed by his strength and intelligence to be always alone.


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Arcanine!”

Arcanine snapped awake, sensitive ears swiveling toward the sound. There was a dim glow on the horizon outside his cave, but the light did not yet penetrate inside. At first he thought it must have been part of his dream; no one but Zorua would be searching for him here, and she was not foolish enough to risk Haunted Forest again at night, even on the shortcut.

“Arcanine!” came the call again.

Now that he was awake, there could be no mistake; it was Zorua, the sound of panic in her voice, near the base of the hill. Arcanine was on his feet and out of the cave in an instant, pausing briefly to breathe a burst of flame over the cliff in signal before bounding down the slope with all of the speed his species possessed.

The last of the pursuing Ghost-types broke off as a pillar of fire rose from the cliff above, unwilling to risk Arcanine’s wrath in his territory. Zorua stopped, panting hard. Her chest heaved and her legs felt wobbly. She could see Arcanine now, racing down the trail toward her. Suddenly dizzy, Zorua sat down, trying to catch her breath and hoping that she would not faint in front of him.

Arcanine leapt down the last switchback, landing protectively over Zorua. Steam curled from his nostrils as he glared into the forest around them.

“Are you alright?” Arcanine asked, relaxing his guard as no immediate threat presented itself.

“Attacked…the town...,” Zorua said between panting breaths, “the…Ice Pokémon.”

Arcanine growled in frustration, knowing what Zorua had come to ask of him. More than four years of peace he had found here on the mountain, living in secret. If he showed himself, more hunters would come; Human or Pokémon, he wasn’t sure any more, and he would be forced to flee again, to kill again.

“You have…to help…no one…else is strong enough.”

“I can’t.” Arcanine said firmly.

Zorua looked up at him in shock. Arcanine was so strong, so fearless, so…caring, that, despite his secrecy, it was the last response she would have expected.

“Pokémon are hurt…my friends…” Tears came to her eyes, invisible in the morning gloom, and she leaned her face against his foreleg.

He should not have allowed himself to become attached to Zorua, Arcanine chastised himself. If we do not live in secret, we shall never find peace. Arcanine couldn’t remember who had taught him that, but it had been true so far, hadn’t it?

“Zorua, people are hunting me. Pokémon in Treasure Town are offering a lot of Poké to capture me. I don’t really understand why or how much, but enough for dozens of Pokémon to risk their lives over. I tricked them last time; they think I died. If people find out I’m alive, it will start again.”

“Pokémon might be dieing right now,” Zorua said, “They were hurting Treecko and Luxio. No one knows what they want.”

Arcanine turned away in shame, with tears in his eyes, unable to face her. “I’m sorry, Zorua.”

“Fine,” Zorua said, standing, “I’ll do it myself.” She turned and began walking back the way she had come.

Zorua had almost reached the forest, head held high, refusing to look back at him.

“Zorua, no!” Arcanine called after her. “What are you going to do alone?”

Zorua stopped, turning to face him one more time. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “They’re my family. I won’t be here, safe, while they’re in danger.”

Zorua disappeared into the trees. Arcanine snarled angrily. He cared little about the Pokémon in Meadow Town, but he knew that he would never forgive himself if he let Zorua face their attackers alone. So be it, Arcanine though, let them come. His decision had been made a month ago when he rescued Zorua in Haunted Forest, and it was too late to go back now.

Arcanine caught up with Zorua quickly. “Get on and hold on,” he said, bending down beside her.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Arcanine slowed as they approached Meadow Town, and Zorua slipped down from his back.

“Okay,” Arcanine said, “you know what we’re dealing with here. I don’t. What’s the plan?”

“I’m going to sneak in and see what’s going on,” Zorua said, disguising herself as Eevee, “If you hear fighting, or shouting, it probably means I’m in trouble. Otherwise, give me like twenty minutes before you come charging in.”

“Be careful.”

“Yeah.” Zorua and Arcanine touched noses. She disappeared into the tall grass.

Zorua crept between the long morning shadows, making her way toward the lodge in the center of Meadow Town. She could smell fear, and blood, and pain, but the town was silent. There were only fifty or so permanent residents in Meadow Town, so Zorua knew every one of them personally. As she passed each house, she wondered about the occupants. Were they hiding inside? Had they fled? Were they laying injured somewhere?

A pair of the hexagonal Pokémon she had encountered in the meadow floated in front of the lodge. Zorua snuck around to the back of the building. Another Ice-type, this one yellow and black and shaped like a short triangle, patrolled the road. She hid in the shadows until it passed. The trapdoor at the back of the lodge, half-hidden in the bushes, was unguarded.

Very carefully, Zorua lifted the door. It creaked and she froze, but there was no response, either from inside, or from the guards at the front. She lowered it closed slowly behind her. In the basement, it was pitch black. Zorua could smell fresh blood; was someone injured down here, or was it seeping through the floorboards from above?

Like Zorua, Riolu and Treecko had also lived at the lodge. The three of them had spent countless hours down here, playing and working. Zorua didn’t need light to find her way; she knew every bundle of herbs, every crate of berries, every box of tools, because she had helped store them last fall, and played around them all winter. Zorua also knew which floorboards squeaked, and which knotholes would let her look and listen into which rooms above.

She stood in the middle of the room, holding her breath, listening for the creaks of Pokémon moving on the floor above. There were definitely Pokémon in the common room, at least two or three, maybe more. Someone was injured in the kitchen; she could hear a quiet whimpering and occasional shift in weight on the floor.

Zorua pressed her ear to a crack in the common room floor. She could hear muffled sobbing, and an odd tinkling noise, like icicles falling on frozen ground; at first she could not identify it but then she realized it was the same sound that the Ice-types she had followed in the meadow had made.

There was a knothole in the kitchen floor and she looked up through it from atop a stack of boxes. The light was dim, but her Dark-type eyes could make out the familiar outlines of shelves and counters and the stove. Something moved at the edge of her field of vision; Zorua thought it was someone’s tail, but she couldn’t be sure.

“Psst. Hey,” Zorua whispered through the hole. A shifting of weight on the boards above told her that she had been heard. Moments later, Riolu’s face came into view. She couldn’t see any details, just an outline; his left ear and feeler were shredded and dripping blood.

“Zorua?” Riolu whispered back, his voice weak.

“Are you alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Help is coming, but we need to know what’s going on.”

Thankfully, Riolu didn’t waste time with questions.

“I think there’s still four or five Ice-types in the building. I don’t know where all the rest went. They took some of the injured Pokémon to the common room. They were hurting them, I think. I don’t know why.” Riolu shuddered. “There was screaming for a long time. There was a Ghost-type, too; the leader, I think. Her aura was awful, all dark and cold…”

“It’s almost over,” Zorua told him, “Just hold on a little longer. I have to go. Wait, no, I have an idea. Just a moment.”

Zorua took a mouthful of Orans from one of the crates and climbed back up to the hole. One at a time she pushed them up through the hole to Riolu. It was a difficult, time consuming task; her paws were inadequate for such fine manipulation.

Zorua wasn’t sure how long it had been since she left Arcanine. She had no doubt that he would come charging in to rescue her, now that he had made up his mind to help, but she didn’t think that even he would be strong enough to fight all of the invaders himself. If they failed, there would be no one to rescue them. Also, with injured Pokémon trapped in the lodge, they couldn’t risk setting it aflame.

By the time Zorua emerged from the basement, the sun was completely above the horizon. From the bushes, she could see two of the triangular Pokémon guarding the road. She didn’t think she could make it back out as Eevee. She needed something smaller. Being Cutiefly hadn’t worked before, she thought, but it would be just what she needed now. One of the Ice-types disappeared around the corner. When the other turned its back, she dashed across the road.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Arcanine listened as Zorua explained the situation.

“Think we can do it,” Arcanine said, “if there’s really only nine or so left in town. These Pokémon will be stronger than what we’ve fought before, but not too strong, or they wouldn’t have needed twenty to start with. We’ll also have a type advantage. Trick will be not fighting them all at once.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“Worried about what they’ll do to the prisoners if they decide they can’t win. We can’t give the ones inside time to think. Two options: one, sneak in, try to knock a few out outside before they know what’s happening, charge the door when the sound the alarm; two, charge the door with Flamethrower and knock out as many as we can inside before they figure out what’s happening. Will any of the locals help us when the fighting starts?”

“I don’t know. Other than the injured Pokémon Riolu said are in the common room, I don’t know where everyone is,” Zorua considered for a moment, then she said, “I don’t like either of those plans, big guy, but let’s go with the stealth option.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Zorua waited in the bushes behind the lodge until one of the Snorunts passed by, alone. She pushed on a branch, causing a rustling noise, and it turned toward her, looking for the source of the sound. Arcanine, waiting behind a hut on the other side of the road, charged with a speed few Pokémon could match, slamming it to the ground and knocking it out with a single bite. Quickly he dragged it back behind the hut, while Zorua emerged from the bushes to kick dirt across the drag marks in the road.

Arcanine deposited the unconscious Pokémon in another bush, and looked around quickly to make sure that Zorua was out of sight. Arcanine took its head in his jaws and, with a brief hesitation, crushed down deliberately. Its body twitched and he felt bones splinter. Arcanine spat in disgust and turned away; it was necessary, he thought; they could not afford to have it wake and sound the alarm. He wiped the blood away and rejoined Zorua. She didn’t need to know.

They ambushed the other patrolling guard in a similar fashion. A stone rattled under Arcanine’s paw as he leapt at it, and the Pokémon turned, uttering a brief, startled shriek before Arcanine dispatched it with another bite.

One of the Cryogonals in front of the lodge shouted a question. Neither Arcanine nor Zorua understood the language, but the meaning was clear.

“Let’s go,” Arcanine said.

The Cryogonal appeared around the side of the building. Arcanine’s Flamethrower caught it dead on, and it dropped to the ground in a burst of steam, sharp corners melted away.

There were cries of alarm, and two more rounded the corner, floating rapidly toward them. Zorua and Arcanine charged. Volleys of razor-sharp ice crystals whipped at them on an icy wind as the Cryogonals exhaled. Zorua dropped to the ground, allowing most of the shards to pass over her, though a few left stinging trails across her head and back.

Arcanine lowered his head without stopping. Most of the crystals deflected from his thick mane, but a few ripped through his ears or tore into his face and back. He slammed into the leading Cryogonal; its mass was much greater than he expected, despite its buoyancy, and instead of landing on top of it, the two of them went rolling through the grass.

Instead of stopping, the Cryogonal began to spin. Arcanine's claws could not find purchase on its slick surface, and the sharp angles sliced into his chest. It slipped from his grasp, bobbing upward. Arcanine snarled angrily and snapped at it, catching one of its protrusions. His head was jerked around painfully, but Arcanine held on, letting his fire flow out of his jaws around his enemy. Ice melted and it began to wobble erratically.

Zorua darted around her Cryogonal, avoiding most of its icy breath, but unable to get close enough to land a blow as it spun. Arcanine's Cryogonal crashed to the ground, and hers turned to look at the source of the sound. Zorua jumped on its back, claws raking long gouges in the ice.

“Move!” Arcanine shouted. Zorua let go, dropping to the ground and rolling away as a ball of fire enveloped the Cryogonal. It dropped to the ground still steaming.

Arcanine hit the front door of the lodge at a run, with all of his considerable weight; it tore free of its hinges and clattered to the ground. Arcanine didn't stop. From the entryway there were doors to the each side and straight ahead. Following Zorua’s directions, he went straight into the common room. Two more Cryogonals hovered just inside that doorway, and he was past them before they could respond. Arcanine spun and caught one in a burst of flame. Zorua followed him in, pouncing on the back of the other as it turned to face him.

Arcanine didn't have time to help her. At the center of the room was another strange Pokémon, part Ice and part Ghost, with a floating, legless body. Flanking her were two more Cryogonals. Several local Pokémon lay on the floor around Froslass, and Arcanine circled, trying to get a clear shot. He stepped over the body of another Pokémon on the floor, not looking to see what it was.

The temperature in the room dropped abruptly, and wind began to whip about, carrying sharp crystals of ice, like a miniature tornado with Froslass at its center. The injured Pokémon trapped inside cried out in pain. Arcanine breathed a burst of flame at the trio, but the winds deflected it harmlessly away.

There was no more time for caution, Arcanine thought. He crouched and leapt at Froslass. As he did, the wind dropped abruptly.

“Arcanine, stop!” someone cried from behind him.

The voice was unfamiliar, but obviously not one of the Ice-types. Arcanine's training responded before he could think. Arcanine twisted in midair, missing Froslass and slamming into a table, which collapsed under his weight. Shards of ice sliced into his face and side, tearing away fur and skin and flesh. Froslass shrieked in rage and Arcanine snarled back.

“Hit her now!” The voice called again. Arcanine did not hesitate. His fire enveloped Froslass and she collapsed. The remaining two Cryogonals attempted to flee. Arcanine's breath melted one. Zorua, Riolu, and several other local Pokémon crowding through the door behind them dispatched the other.

Arcanine quickly searched the rest of the building, battering down one locked door and leaving a trail of blood from his side. He found several other injured Pokémon, but no more of the invaders.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Zorua crouched beside the body of a Pokémon near the door, whimpering softly. It was the one he'd stepped over earlier; Treecko. Riolu knelt beside her, arms around her neck, the fur on his cheeks wet with tears. They were both battered and bloody.

Treecko hadn't died fighting, Arcanine could tell immediately. His body was horribly mutilated, covered in hundreds of bloody cuts. The Ice-types had tortured him, but for what purpose? Arcanine remembered that Zorua had talked about Treecko and Riolu before; the three of them had been best friends, orphans, growing up in the lodge together.

Riolu looked up as Arcanine approached.

“Why?” Riolu asked softly.

“I don't know.” Arcanine answered sadly, bending down to brush his muzzle against the uninjured side of Riolu's face.

Of the dozen or so other Pokémon in the room, half still sat or lay on the floor, unconscious or dead or too injured to move. Several wandered dazedly, and others tended or comforted wounded companions. Despite his grief, Riolu seemed to be the only other Pokémon in the room who was both competent and able, and they had more work to do.

“Riolu,” Arcanine said, “is there a healer in town?”

“Audino.” Riolu stood, leaning on Arcanine as he limped to the door and pointed down the road. “Pink hut.”

“I'll be back.”

When Arcanine returned with Audino, Zorua and Riolu were dragging a crate of berries up the stairs. Was it Riolu who had given him orders in the fight with Froslass, Arcanine wondered. It must have been. There had been no other conscious Pokémon behind him, other than Zorua. Arcanine still didn't know why, but Riolu would have an understanding of ghosts. Those were two tough, capable Pokémon, Arcanine thought, despite their inexperience.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Arcanine's flames melted the first Cryogonal as he charged through the door, leaving Zorua to deal with the second alone. She pounced on its back, claws seeking a hold on the ice, but the Cryogonal began to spin, throwing her free.

Zorua rolled to her feet and dodged a burst of ice. Another drove her back. She couldn’t get close enough to hit. There was a loud crack, and cracks appeared across the Cryogonal’s surface; it shattered and fell to the ground like a hailstorm in miniature. Riolu’s bloody face grinned at her from behind where it had been. Zorua had never been more happy to see him.

Riolu’s intact feeler came erect and he pushed past Zorua into the room.

“Arcanine, stop!”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The last Cryogonal crashed to the floor and Zorua finally had time to look around. Injured townsfolk were scattered around the room amidst wrecked furniture and thousands of shards of ice. Riolu's left ear and feeler were mangled, and his fur matted with half-dried blood, and he wore several makeshift bandages. Arcanine’s left flank and face were soaked with blood. There were fifteen or so other Pokémon in the room, most of them in even worse condition.

Then she saw Treecko, his twisted body sprawled in a pool of blood. Zorua ran to him, crying his name. She bent down, gently nudging his face with her nose.

“Treecko, it’s over now. Are you okay? Please, Treecko, say something…please…”

Zorua lay beside his body, licking the blood from his face as she sobbed. Riolu knelt beside Zorua, putting his arms around her neck.

Pokémon were extraordinarily resilient creatures, and, though they thrived on rough play, they seldom suffered permanent injury. Death was something that happened to old Pokémon, or Pokémon who disappeared into mystery dungeons and never came back. Even bandits seldom killed their victims, and the sort of organized violence they had seen this morning was nearly unheard-of. Zorua had battled hundreds of times with abilities that would have killed a Human on the spot, but other than the time she’d gotten lost in Haunted Forest, it had always been just a game. This sort of violent, intentional death, in the home where she had always felt safe, was something different.

Zorua’s anger flared briefly; it was Arcanine’s fault Treecko had suffered like this. If he had come when she asked, they might have been here in time…but no, Arcanine’s reticence had cost them perhaps a minute or two, and Treecko’s body was already cool to the touch.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


The three of them handed out berries to the townsfolk while Audino worked. Arcanine stopped beside the unconscious Froslass, hesitated a moment, then unceremoniously ripped her throat out, relieving the Pokémon of Meadow Town from having to make uncomfortable choices. A day ago, Zorua would have been horrified, but after holding Treecko's broken body, she could find no sympathy for the Ice-type. Some of the other Pokémon looked shocked, but Arcanine didn't care. The Cryogonals were melting, and Arcanine didn't know if there was anything else he could do with them.

Fortunately, there had been no other fatalities, thought Luxio was as badly scourged as Treecko. Arcanine lay down by the door to lick his wounds. Riolu sat beside Treecko, Zorua's head on his lap. Arcanine did not want to intrude upon their grief; though he and Zorua had quickly become friends, those three had been together for years.

Eventually, Luxio approached Arcanine. Despite Audino's ministration he moved tenderly, obviously still in pain. Luxio sat a meter from Arcanine, feigning indifference, and began to wash his face. Arcanine continued to groom, knowing that the feline would speak when he was ready.

“I haven't seen you around before,” Luxio said, finally.

“No,” Arcanine agreed.

“You know Zorua somehow, don't you?”

Arcanine nodded.

There was a brief silence, then Luxio continued, “I don't know what would have happened to us if you hadn't showed up.”

Arcanine had some ideas, but this didn't seem like an appropriate time to share them.

“They were looking for something. She called it an Orrery Fragment,” Luxio pointed to the dead Froslass, “none of us knew what she was talking about.”

Luxio continued, “They took Bayleef, the mayor.” He looked away, ashamed. “We couldn't stop them. We never had a chance.”

“Caught you by surprise,” Arcanine said, “Can see that you all fought hard. Was a few of you at a time against the whole group of them, wasn't it?”

Luxio nodded. “We had guards. People have seen them around, we were expecting trouble – but nothing like this.”

“Not your fault, Luxio. Easier to attack than defend. You had to be ready constantly, for weeks, and they only had to be ready once.”

They both groomed in silence for several minutes.

“We all owe you,” Luxio said, “You didn't have to help us. I don't want to ask you....”

Arcanine finished for him. “But you need someone to go after the rest of them.”

Luxio nodded. “Most of us in Meadow Town aren't very strong, and most of the Pokémon who are brave enough to help are here, injured.”

Arcanine would not have admitted it to anyone, but after those years alone, it felt good to be needed, to be asked for help.

“Riolu and I will come too,” Zorua said, as the two of them appeared beside Luxio. Audino had healed them both, but they still looked ragged and tired.

“The four of us, then?” Luxio said.

Arcanine thought for a moment. “Luxio, someone needs to take charge here. Search the village for more wounded, or more Ice-types. Prepare in case the rest come back here while we're out. I don't see anyone else here who can lead them.”

“But I...” Luxio started to object, “...no, you're right.”

“Come on,” Zorua told Arcanine, “let's have Audino look at you before we go.”
 
Chapter 6: Mine Rescue New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 6: Mine Rescue

Audino had already exhausted her Heal Pulse, but she carefully dressed Arcanine’s wounds. No one knew which direction the remaining Ice-types had taken Mayor Bayleef, and the town was a confusing mess of scents and footprints from the morning’s mêlée. Arcanine, Zorua, and Riolu split up to search the perimeter. By the time they found the trail, it was late morning.

The chill of the Ice-type’s passing had wilted the tips of the new spring growth in the meadow, and they found the footprints of several Snorunts; Bayleef’s scent was among them as well. The trail was too subtle for Arcanine to follow at speed, so the three of them walked. The sky was clear and the weather was cool but not cold, with a slight breeze. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a pleasant day for a to travel.

They walked in silence, Riolu and Zorua still in shock from the morning’s events and the loss of their friend. Arcanine did not interrupt their mourning; it was something they would each have to deal with themselves, and there was nothing he could say which would help their pain.

Arcanine himself was in high spirits. Despite his injuries, he felt more alive than he had in a long time. In part, it was the thrill of danger and victory, of having risked his life and once again proved himself stronger and tougher than his enemies. It was a feeling he could seldom achieve in mystery dungeons, which, after years of training, had achieved the boring repetitiveness of work.

In addition, though, it felt good having other Pokémon beside him. Doing mystery dungeons with Zorua had been fun, of course, but still just a game. Two was partners, and partners was better than being alone, but with the three of them together, now, it felt like a team, even if it was only temporary. They had a job to do, even if it was something relatively mundane. Arcanine kept his feelings to himself, knowing that it was not something that the others could appreciate right now.

After a time, Riolu began to fall behind, and Arcanine noticed that he was limping again.

“Would you like to ride?” Arcanine asked, pausing to let Riolu catch up.

Riolu nodded wearily, and Arcanine crouched to allow him to mount. Riolu rode carefully, mindful of Arcanine’s injuries, but still his weight rubbed painfully against Arcanine’s wounds through the bandages. Arcanine chose to tolerate it; he could do nothing to alleviate Riolu’s grief, but the physical pain of Riolu’s injuries was something he could help with.

They followed the trail south and east out of town and through the meadow for about half an hour. They were approaching the mountains here; the ground grew rockier and their quarry’s trail more difficult to follow. Their progress slowed, and Arcanine’s enthusiasm began to fade into frustration.

“Riolu,” Zorua said, “Does this place look familiar to you?”

Riolu shook his head.

“Remember that time we climbed the mountain and found that creepy tunnel that was perfectly round, and we all dared each other to go in?”

“The huge tunnel?” Riolu asked.

“Yeah, that one. I think it’s up here. I don’t know anyone who’s been inside, but I’m sure it must be a mystery dungeon.”

“Can you find the way without following their trail?” Arcanine asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s been years. I think so, though.”

“Lead on,” Arcanine said, “unless you want to ride too, and give me directions.”

“No, it’ll be easier to find on foot.”

Zorua turned and began to lead them up the slope, picking her way agilely between the rocks. After several kilometers they crossed a narrow trail. Zorua bent to sniff the ground, then turned around and grinned at Arcanine and Riolu.

“I was right. They came this way.”

“Break time,” Arcanine declared. Zorua looked tired, and he wanted to get Riolu off for a few minutes so that he could scratch and adjust his bandages.

“Thanks for carrying me,” Riolu said as he slid from Arcanine’s back, “I’m not hurting you, am I?”

“Not at all.” It wasn’t entirely true, but there was no point in worrying Riolu about it. “Can you help me get some of these off?”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“That is a weird tunnel,” Arcanine said, “Who would build something like that?”

It was, as Zorua had said, nearly perfectly round and smooth, and about ten meters across. It headed straight into the mountain horizontally. The entrance was in the saddle between two peaks, and incredibly large spoil piles spilled down into the valleys on either side.

“I don’t have any idea,” Zorua said, looking down one side and then the other, “but that is a lot of rock to move. Those piles are miles long.”

“Someone made it, though,” Riolu said, it can’t be a mystery dungeon if someone made it, can it? I mean, if you dug a tunnel, you wouldn’t come back later and find it’s moved itself.”

“There’s Concealed Ruin and Buried Relic,” Arcanine said, “they’re both obviously built. Stacked, worked stones.”

“And Temporal Tower,” Zorua added, “I mean, I’ve never been there of course, but I’ve heard the stories.”

“Anyway, this is the place,” Arcanine said, pointing to a footprint in a patch of soil between the rocks, “one of those little triangle Ice-types.”

Riolu sighed. “Let’s get this over with, then.”

“Should rest first,” Arcanine said, “we’re all tired, and still injured, and no idea what’s in here. Also, don’t have my bag. Don’t even have a light.”

“We have to go. They have Bayleef, remember? He might be injured, or…” Zorua trailed off, not wanting to say it, “anyway, we don’t even know if they’ll come back out in the same place, do we?”

Arcanine sighed. He knew going in unprepared was foolish. He hadn’t survived five years of exploring alone with a badge he dared not use by being reckless. He had been negligent to forget the bag in the first place. Still, he found it difficult to argue with Zorua’s innocence and determination. Arcanine still felt a bit guilty, too, about his reticence this morning.

“Can’t help him if we don’t make it through. Can make it to my cave and back in two hours. Wait here.”

Arcanine was gone before Zorua could argue.

“How can he do this?” Zorua fumed to Riolu, pacing agitatedly in front of the tunnel, “we don’t have time!”

Riolu sat in the shade of the rock face near the mouth of the tunnel, groaning in relief as he stretched his injured leg out in front of himself. He reached up to feel his injured ear and feeler. They still hurt, but he could already feel the itch of regrowing tissue.

“I don’t like it either, Zorua, but I think he’s right. We don’t have a light, or berries, or anything else.”

Zorua lay down next to Riolu and rested her head on his lap. Her tail curled around to cover her face. Riolu’s fingers found the tender spots at the bases of her ears and stroked gently through her fur.

“How could they do that to Treecko and Luxio?”

Riolu leaned back against the stone, closing his eyes. His head hurt. His leg hurt. It felt as if there was a great empty space next to him where Treecko should have been. He didn’t have any answers, either.

“Zorua, I’m exhausted. I’m going to sleep while we wait, okay? You should try to sleep too. We need to be alert later to watch Arcanine’s back, because he’s going to be tired too.”

“I’m sorry, Riolu. I’m being such a baby about this.” Zorua nuzzled her face against his chest.

Riolu didn’t answer, just wrapped his arms through her ruff and held her.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

They looked so peaceful like that, Arcanine thought. He couldn’t see Zorua’s face, bur the fur beneath Riolu’s eyes had the telltale trails of tears. Riolu’s ear and feeler were healing well, and most of their cuts and scrapes were already gone. Arcanine’s own wounds felt much better as well; he had stopped to tear off the last of his bandages on the way back. Whatever they found inside, Arcanine thought, waiting had been the right choice.

It was evening now. Arcanine didn’t want to wake the two of them. He wanted to lay down beside them, his teammates, his friends. He didn’t know Bayleef, and the other Pokémon meant nothing to him. The three of them could spend the night here, and go back to his cave in the morning, and have wonderful adventures together while the rest of the world took care of its own problems.

It couldn’t work, though. Zorua and Riolu had their own lives back in Meadow Town. They would be angry if he didn’t finish the job. Luxio would be disappointed, too, and he seemed like a good Pokémon. Arcanine coughed quietly, waking the others.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

The three of them started into the tunnel; it was wide enough for all three of them to walk abreast. Arcanine took the center, with Riolu and Zorua on either side, trailing slightly behind. A few meters in, a brief disorientation marked their entry into a mystery dungeon. The three of them paused and looked around. Nothing was different, and they could still see the light of the tunnel entrance behind them.

They could not notice it at first, but the tunnel curved slightly. By the time they were a few hundred meters in, the circle of light at the entrance was reduced to a narrow wedge.

“Can’t see any more.” Arcanine said. “Riolu, there’s a Luminous Orb in the bag. Can you find it for me?”

Riolu felt through the bag around Arcanine’s neck, and withdrew the orb. It was about the size of an Apple, perfectly round, smooth and cool to the touch. It glowed with a faint blue light where his fingers touched the surface. Riolu rubbed it, and the glow intensified. Soon it was bright enough for them to see by.

“When we get back to town, we should get this mounted on a necklace for you. My father had one like that, so he could have his hands free.” Riolu said.

After another hundred meters, the light of the entrance disappeared completely, and the tunnel was lit only by the unearthly blue light of the orb in Riolu’s hand.

As they walked, Zorua began to get the feeling that something was following them. Her sensitive ears caught the occasional clink of metal on stone, but every time she turned to look, she could see nothing there.

“Uh, guys. Hold on.” Zorua said. The others stopped and turned to her. “I think there’s something behind us.”

Riolu stepped out in front of Arcanine and Zorua, holding the Luminous Orb against his chest so that his body shielded their eyes from the light, casting the light away from them in the direction that they had come. At first they saw nothing. Then, there was a brief glint of light reflected from something near the ceiling.

“Up there!” Zorua pointed.

Riolu directed the light upward. Something floated silently near the top of the tunnel, a body like a stubby metal tube with a single eye set in a sphere at its front. It hovered there for a while, watching them, then dove at Riolu.

Riolu sidestepped and struck with the palm of his free hand. He yelped, more in surprise than pain, as his hand thudded against solid steel, but the blow was effective. The Beldum wobbled unsteadily before Arcanine swatted it out of the air. It hit the ground with a loud clang and was still.

“If they didn’t know we’re here, they do now,” Zorua observed.

They all bent down to inspect the unconscious Pokémon. The exploration badge pinned to Arcanine’s treasure bag clinked against the side of the Beldum and stuck. They all jumped at the sound.

Arcanine laughed and pulled the bag away. “Must be magnetic.”

Zorua nudged it with her nose. It was extremely heavy for its size, and didn’t move. She put both her front paws on its side and pushed, rocking it slightly.

“Must be all metal,” she said, “it’s not alive at all. It’s a machine.”

“I haven’t seen an aura quite like that before,” said Riolu, “but it’s still a Pokémon.”

“They’re really sneaky, and I wouldn’t want to get hit with all that weight,” Zorua said, “we’d better be careful and watch the ceiling.”

They continued on for several hours, occasionally fighting more Beldum along the way. The tunnel branched occasionally, to the left or right in long, sweeping wyes, but always remained perfectly level.

Eventually the tunnel opened into a large cavern which stretched away above, ahead, and to the sides farther than their light could reach. Unlike the smooth, obviously artificial walls of the tunnel, the cavern was jagged natural stone. Stalactites and stalagmites grew in clusters like copses of trees in a meadow. Ahead of them hovered two new Pokémon, each one looking like a pair of the Beldum they had fought before joined by a central disc.

“Move!” Arcanine commanded as balls of orange light began to form between the claws of each Metang. Arcanine and Riolu dodged to the left behind a cluster of columns, and Zorua dodged to the right behind a boulder. The first Hyper Beam flashed down the tunnel through the space Arcanine had just occupied. The second hit the columns behind which they had taken cover. Several of the columns exploded with a deafening crack and a burst of steam, spraying Riolu and Arcanine with sharp fragments of rock.

Arcanine answered with Flamethrower as he charged; it was a glancing hit, blackening the underside of one Metang’s disc without inflicting significant injury. He wanted badly to use Heat Wave, but Riolu and Zorua were too close. As Arcanine leapt at the closer Metang, it swung a heavy metal arm. The blow caught Arcanine on the side of the head and sent him sprawling to the ground.

Riolu and Zorua circled the other Metang, dodging its slashing steel claws as they searched for an opening. It swung at Riolu, who ducked under the blow. Zorua clawed it from behind, but her claws skittered harmlessly off the smooth metal.

The air between the claws of Arcanine's Metang began to glow again. Arcanine raised a paw in front of himself in a warding motion, Protecting himself in a glow of cool, blue energy. Metang's Hyper Beam washed harmlessly around him. Metang growled in anger, a sound like grinding gears and tearing metal, and hovered toward him. Arcanine stood, waiting as it approached. It swung at Arcanine, but Arcanine was faster; he dodged, allowing the force of Metang’s swing to spin it away from him, then Arcanine’s paws crashed down on Metang’s exposed side, crumpling metal and sending it bobbing back. Before it recovered, Arcanine caught it with another burst of fire, and it crashed to the ground.

Metang swung at Zorua again, and Riolu saw an opening. His palm struck Metang’s underside, leaving a large dent; Metang wobbled, but didn’t go down. Riolu jumped away as it turned back to face him, but too slowly. A heavy, clawed metal fist slammed into his chest.

“Riolu!” Zorua cried.

The blow should have crushed Riolu’s ribs and knocked him out, but Riolu Endured it, staggering back. Arcanine leapt, landing on the second Metang. It fell to the ground with a crunch, Arcanine still on top. Zorua rushed in, clawing at it’s eyes. As Metang struggled to free itself from Arcanine’s weight, Riolu stepped in behind it, knocking it out with a forceful blow to the back of the main disc.

“Riolu! Are you okay?” Zorua asked.

“I think so.” Riolu sat down heavily, leaning against a stalagmite. Blood flowed from the gash on his chest, soaking his belly fur and dripping onto the ground. “And I was almost healed from last time…”

“Arcanine, do we have any bandages in the bag?” Zorua asked.

Arcanine shook his head. “Never had any luck bandaging myself. Couple spare scarves, though.”

Arcanine set the bag down. Zorua pushed her nose inside, rustled around, and came out with a pair of scarves, which she handed to Riolu. Arcanine fetched the Luminous Orb and set it beside Riolu, while Riolu tied the scarves together and wrapped them around his chest. He winced and yelped as he pulled them tight. Zorua dug in the bag again and offered Riolu some Orans.

“Hate to do this, but we’ll have to rest before we continue,”Arcanine said.

“Let me ride you. I can’t fight, but I can hold on.” Riolu grabbed Arcanine’s mane with both hands and began to pull himself up.

“No,” Arcanine told him, “sit down. I can’t fight either if I have to worry about you fainting if I throw you off.”

Riolu say back down, looking somewhat offended.

“I’m sorry. I know you’re tough, but let’s not risk it, okay? Now, lean back and let me clean you up.”

Riolu nodded acceptance and leaned back against the rock. He winced at first and then relaxed as Arcanine gently licked the blood from his fur. Zorua stood sentry while Arcanine worked, making sure no other Pokémon caught them off guard. She fidgeted impatiently, wanting to complain about the delay, but knowing that the others were not anymore pleased than she was.

Finished, Arcanine sat down beside Zorua. His head still hurt where Metang had hit him, and he felt a bit dizzy. There was a lump on the side of his head, and he rubbed it with one paw.

“You okay, big guy?” Zorua asked.”

“Yeah, I will be. And, I’m sorry this is taking so long.”

Zorua sighed. She sat down next to him and rubbed her face against his mane. “I don’t like it, but you’re right. You were right about going back for the bag too. We wouldn’t have made it this far without the light.”

“I should have remembered the bag in the first place. Was careless.”

Riolu stuffed himself with the rest of the berries in Arcanine’s bag, hoping to speed the process of healing, and fell asleep. Arcanine and Zorua sat beside him. They were both tired, but it seemed unwise to let their guard down here. They took turns rubbing the Luminous Orb to keep the light going.

They had no means of judging time down here in the dark, but Arcanine thought it had been half an hour or so when Riolu woke. He was no longer bleeding, and, though unsteady on his feet, did not appear to be in immediate danger of fainting. Arcanine crouched, allowing Riolu to mount him again, and the three of them continued. The next several hours were uneventful. They found an underground stream and stopped to drink. Several more Beldum crossed their path, but Arcanine dispatched them with Flamethrower before they could get close. The mechanical Pokémon were easier to spot now that they knew what they were looking for, and with Riolu holding the orb on Arcanine’s back, the light reached farther than it had near the ground.

Eventually their tunnel ended in a massive stone door, spanning it’s full diameter. One side of the door was wedged open by a large boulder, leaving a half-meter gap. A faint daylight-colored light shown out from within.

Zorua, in the lead, poked her head through the gap and looked around. The source of the light was hidden around a corner, but she could smell several familiar scents inside.

“I can smell them!” Zorua whispered excitedly to the others, “Bayleef, and some of the Ice-types. They’re still here.”

Arcanine put his head through the gap as well; he could smell them, too.

“Must be the end of the mystery dungeon. Riolu, can you put out the light?”

Riolu stuffed the orb back in the bag and drew it tightly closed. They silently crept through the gap and down the tunnel beyond. There was a corner ahead, the first sharp turn they had encountered in the dungeon. Riolu slid down from Arcanine’s back, and the three of them peeked around the corner.

The room was illuminated by a single glowing orb, the bright yellow of the sun, set on a pole in the center of the room, about five meters off the ground. There was another door at the far end of the room This one was closed, it’s surface covered with carvings of interconnected circles and ellipses. In front of the door stood Bayleef and another Froslass. Another ten or so Cryogonals and Snorunts where scattered around the room; none of them seemed particularly alert.

“So, what’s the plan now?” asked Zorua after they withdrew.

“Don’t think we can fight them all at once,” Arcanine said, “want you two to hang back. I’ll run in and Heat Wave before they can react.”

“What about Bayleef?”

“Will knock him out, too, but he’ll recover. Also, I don’t have any other ideas.”

“Neither do I,” Zorua admitted, “Riolu?”

Riolu shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not good for much right now.”

“Here goes, then.”

Arcanine set down the bag and paused for a moment, preparing himself. He could feel the heat inside, and he drew it toward the surface, not the small portion that he used for Flamethrower, but an entire, raging inferno. Riolu and Zorua stepped back as flames flickered from his jaws. Arcanine charged into the room, straight for Froslass and Bayleef, but instead of completing the charge, he stopped in the center of the room.

All around him, his opponents where just beginning to react. Arcanine took a deep breath, raised his head, and then exhaled. Flames poured out, billowing outward in all directions as if someone had lit a match in a room filled with flammable gas. Pokémon screamed and melted and caught fire, but Arcanine stood unscathed at the center of the holocaust and laughed.

Just as quickly, the flames subsided. One Cryogonal, sheltered behind an alter-like block of stone to the side of the room, emerged and pelted him with ice. Arcanine melted it with a burst of flame.

Zorua ran into the room, clawing at a scorched Snorunt who slipped past her, back out into the mystery dungeon. Riolu followed more slowly. Bayleef and Froslass were both collapsed in front of the door, unconscious and badly burned. Zorua went to Bayleef, nudging him with her nose. Bayleef didn’t respond. His leaves were charred, and the side of his body which had been closest to Arcanine was burned and blistered.

“Too bad I ate all the berries,” Riolu said, “and I didn’t see any Reviver Seeds in there.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A dozen discs of smooth black stone, each about the size of Riolu’s fist, were scattered on the ground around them. Each one had a different rune carved into one face. None of them recognized the characters.

Set into the very center of the door, even with the height of the lamp in the middle of the room, was a large, hemispherical crystal, it’s highly polished surface reflecting light in all directions. Around the crystal were engraved ten ellipses of various sizes, the smallest almost touching the center crystal, and the largest almost touching the edge of the door. Twelve circles were engraved on each ellipse, each one the size of one of the runed discs. On three of the ellipses, each of the twelve circles had four more circles evenly spaced around it. Each circle was beveled so that the half of the circle facing the center of the door reflected the light of the lamp back toward the center of the room.

The three of them stared at the door for several minutes, trying to make sense of it.

“It’s a diagram of the solar system,” Arcanine said, finally, “at least, a solar system.”

Zorua and Riolu looked at each other, then at Arcanine. “We have no idea what you’re talking about, big guy.”

“It’s, ah, Human astrology. The crystal in the center is the sun, and the ellipses show the paths of the planets.”

Zorua and Riolu looked at each other again.

“I told you he talked about weird things,” she said to Riolu, then to Arcanine, “we’ll have to take your word for that, but what do we do with it?”

“I haven’t any idea.”

Riolu picked up one of the runed discs and examined it, then stepped forward to place it in one of the recesses he could reach near the bottom of the door. The hole was loose enough that the disc slid in easily, but tight enough to prevent it from falling out. Nothing happened. He placed another.

While the three of them were distracted, Froslass rose, grabbed a disc from the floor, and floated quickly back toward the mystery dungeon.

“Arcanine!” Zorua called, turning to Pursue Froslass.

Arcanine turned around, breathing fire at the departing Pokémon. He missed, leaving a blackened trail on the wall. They followed Froslass around the corner, and Zorua pounced, claws raking across the Ice-type’s back. Arcanine couldn’t get a clear line of fire. Froslass shook Zorua off, slipped through the gap in the door, and vanished.

“Did she get one of the stones?” Riolu asked.

“Almost.” Zorua grinned, batting the dropped disc across the floor to Riolu.

“How did you-” Arcanine began to ask.

“I got tricks.” Zorua told him.

They returned to the door. Arcanine wasn’t sure, but he thought some of the other Ice-types in the room had moved. He didn’t care; at this point, there seemed little harm in letting the rest of them flee. Bayleef was still out cold. Riolu picked up the remaining discs and counted them; there were twelve.

“So, I guess we gotta put the discs in the right holes or something, and the door will open,” Zorua said, “there’s only twelve, how hard can it be?”

Arcanine watched for a few minutes as Zorua and Riolu placed and removed discs, calculating in his head. He couldn’t finish, the numbers were much too large to keep track of.

“We aren’t going to get it like this,” Arcanine said, “there are trillions of possible combinations, and even if we all stand on each other, we can’t reach half the door.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” Zorua looked disappointed.

“Also, think we’re missing a disc still. There are ten planetary and three lunar orbits; if each one gets one rune, there should be thirteen.”

They searched the rest of the room and the remaining Ice-types, but didn’t find another.

“Maybe the boss had another one, or that little guy who got away had one,” Riolu suggested.

“Doesn’t matter anyway, unless Bayleef knows the combination,” Zorua said, “Guess all we can do is wait ‘til he wakes up.”

Arcanine laughed. “Going to roll the rest of these guys out into the mystery dungeon so we can rest without watching them.”

Riolu retrieved the rune discs and put them Arcanine’s bag. They sat down on the floor beside Bayleef and watched as Arcanine pushed the remaining bad guys out of the room. When he finished, Arcanine joined them, laying on his side where he could keep an eye toward both Bayleef and the entrance. Zorua immediately curled up under his mane. After a moment’s hesitation Riolu joined them, leaning back against Arcanine’s chest.

“You know what guys? I’m really hungry. Too bad someone ate all the berries,” Zorua said.

Riolu poked her in the ribs, and Zorua giggled.

“Seriously, though. What did they want with Bayleef, and were these discs his, or the Ice-type’s?”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“They were looking for some kind of ‘fragment’,” Bayleef explained, watching Arcanine nervously. “They thought someone in Meadow Town would be able to open the door. I played along so that they would leave the others alone.”

“An Orrery Fragment?” Arcanine suggested. He had forgotten until just now what Luxio had said before; it hadn’t seemed important at the time, but combined with the diagram on the door, suddenly it did.

“How did you…oh, some of the Pokémon in town would have heard them talking about it.”

“Or-air-ee?” Zorua wondered.

“An orrery is a mechanical model of a solar system,” Arcanine explained, “ah, like the picture on the door, but with three-dimensional, moving parts.”

By now Zorua and Riolu were used to Arcanine saying strange things, but Bayleef looked surprised and suspicious.

“So how do we get in?” Zorua asked.

Bayleef glanced quickly at the door and the floor around them, and at Arcanine’s bag. Riolu, Arcanine, and Zorua all looked at each other, sharing the same thought; He’s hiding something. He doesn’t know whether we found the discs, or the Ice-types took them.

“I have no idea,” Bayleef said, “I didn’t know about this place until they brought me here this morning.”

Leaving the final room, the four Pokémon discovered themselves back on the other side of the wedged door at the end of the mystery dungeon.

“I guess we have to fight back out,” Zorua said.

“Was really looking forward to a nap,” Arcanine grumbled.

The journey out was much the same as the journey in had been, minus the pair of Metangs. They emerged before dawn in the same place they had entered.

“So, there’s no sign,” Riolu said, “and as far as we know, no one else has explored this place. That means we’re the first, and we get to name it.”

The whole team looked toward Bayleef, wondering it he would admit to knowing anything else of the tunnel. The mayor looked annoyed, but remained silent.

“How about Creepy Tunnel?” Zorua suggested.

Riolu found a branch on the ground and held it out to Arcanine. “Could you char this a bit for me?”

Arcanine took a deep breath and exhaled a small flame on the end of the branch for as long as he could keep it going, charring the tip. Riolu returned to the entrance of the tunnel and wrote on the wall:


Creepy Tunnel

Team Arcanine - Zorua - Riolu​


followed by the date. Arcanine grinned and lifted one leg, urinating as high up on the wall as he could, and the other two followed suit.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

When the four of them returned to Meadow Town the next morning, they found that Luxio had not been idle in their absence. Two Pokémon intercepted them outside of town and insisted on escorting them to see Luxio immediately. They passed two more pairs of townsfolk patrolling the road that looped through Meadow Town, the same path that the Snorunts had patrolled the previous morning. They passed several stacked piles of lumber which had not been there the previous day, and Arcanine wondered what Luxio had planned for them; a stockade, perhaps?

The lodge had been cleaned of blood, debris, and broken furniture, and the doors Arcanine had smashed were repaired. The frame of the main door had been reinforced with heavy timbers, and Arcanine thought it would take him considerable effort to batter the new one down. Several more Pokémon were nailing thick boards across the windows as bars.

The lodge’s common room had become a command post. Several surviving tables held quickly sketched maps, guard rosters and crates of Apples and Berries. A pot of Chesto Berry tea steamed over the fire. Several local Pokémon sat at one one the tables, talking. Luxio had made himself a bed of straw and blankets in a corner of the common room, and he slept despite the noise around him.

Zorua nudged Luxio. He opened his eyes, yawning and staring at the three of them for a moment, not yet fully awake.

“Zorua! Riolu! You’re back. We were worried about you. Thank you, Arcanine. Did you find…?

“Bayleef headed straight for his office when we got back. He’ll probably hide ‘til Arcanine leaves.” Zorua said. “He didn’t even say ‘thank you.’”

“Sounds like the charming Bayleef we all know,” said Luxio.

“I lit him on fire a little bit,” Arcanine said, “but he got better.”

Luxio chuckled. “I’m sure you’re all tired. We had to throw out your beds after the…incident, but I can have more straw and blankets brought in. There’s food on the tables; help yourselves. You too, Arcanine. We all owe you.”

“You know, this is really impressive,” Zorua said, “I’ve never seen everyone working together like this before. Actually,” Zorua continued in a voice only the four of them could hear, “I’ve never seen half of them working at all.”

“Yes, Pokémon have been remarkably cooperative,” Luxio said, just as quietly, “I’m taking advantage of it while it lasts, and while Bayleef isn’t interfering.”

Luxio stood and stretched, and the four of them moved to the unoccupied table. Riolu poured Chesto Berry tea for everyone; a mug for himself and bowls for the quadrupeds. After they had eaten, Arcanine set his treasure bag on the table and began pulling out the discs.

“What are those?” Luxio asked.

“I’ll let Zorua and Riolu tell the story,” Arcanine said, “I’m exhausted. Going to head home.”

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Luxio told him, “we can even find a private room, if you prefer.”

Arcanine hesitated. He was enjoying the company of the others, and the walk home alone seemed unappealing; habit, however, took over.

“Thank you, but I can’t.”

Zorua and Riolu hugged Arcanine, and he licked their faces.

“We’ll both come visit soon, if that’s okay,” Zorua said.

“Please do,” Arcanine told her.

“You’ve done a good job putting this place back together,” Arcanine told Luxio. Then, Arcanine leaned close to Luxio and whispered so that only the four of them could hear, “be careful with Bayleef. He knows more than he’ll say.”
 
Chapter 7: Research New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 7: Research

The glow of the morning sun was barely visible on the horizon when Absol stepped out into the courtyard. The twilight of predawn still made her uncomfortable, but somehow it was not nearly as debilitating as the overwhelming terror of dusk. She sat in front of the door, the stalwart bulk of the manor surrounding her comfortingly, and breathed in the fresh scent of the morning. There was no reason to be up so early; it was still too dark in the library to read, and she had nowhere to go, nothing else useful to do, but she was too restless to sleep any longer.

This wasn’t how Absol had expected things to go. Sometimes the heroes in the stories made the wrong choices, or had to backtrack, but they were always doing something; exploring mystery dungeons, searching for treasure, bargaining with legendaries. She was stuck here in Team ACT’s library, reading and waiting, and after more than week, they still had no idea what was going on.

“Going out?” a deep voice rumbled from the shadows in the garden in front of her.

Absol started back in surprise, bumping into the door behind her. Immediately she recognized the voice as Tyranitar’s. She could pick out his outline in the shadows now, seated on a bench by the stream not ten meters away; he had been so still, and she so absorbed in her own thoughts, that she had not noticed anyone else was in the garden with her.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s okay. I was just getting some fresh air.”

“Join me for a walk?” Tyranitar offered, gesturing toward the hill behind the manor, “we can watch the sunrise from the top of the ridge.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Absol said.

Tyranitar led them out the gate. A narrow trail diverged from the main path and wound up the side of the hill; it wasn’t wide enough for the two of them to walk abreast, so Absol dropped back, following a few paces behind. She hadn’t had much opportunity to speak with the big lizard since she’d come to Pokémon Square; after her first meeting with all of Team ACT at Whiscash Pond, he’d only been in town a day before leaving again with Team Razor Wind to search for Darkrai, and he’d spent most of it out in the courtyard tending the garden, while she’s been in the library.

The two of them walked in silence until they were almost to the top of the hill. The sun had broken the horizon now, sending streaks of red and orange and gold across the sky.

“I didn’t know you were back from Mystifying Forest yet.”

“Got in an hour ago,” Tyranitar said.

“You didn’t find Darkrai, then?”

Tyranitar shook his head.

“You still think it’s him?”

Tyranitar shrugged. “Only theory we have so far. Won’t know till we find him, or you and Charizard find us someone else.”

They emerged from the trees onto a rocky ledge where a rockslide had cleared a path through the trees to the east, leaving them a clear view of the rising sun. Tyranitar sat down, unslinging his treasure bag and leaning back against a boulder, and Absol sat beside him, pulling her blanket tighter around her shoulders. He took a dark glass bottle from the bag, popping the cork with his talons, and took a long drink.

“Want some?” Tyranitar offered, holding the bottle out for Absol to sniff.

It smelled like berry wine, old and strong. Absol’s nose wrinkled. “No thanks. That’ll put me back to sleep.”

“Tropius’s secret recipe,” Tyranitar said, “I think he uses his own fruit.”

They watched the sun climb slowly, illuminating the town below and sparkling orange off the river. From here, Absol could see a score or more of other buildings tucked in the trees on the outskirts of Pokémon Square that she had not noticed before.

“How many people live here?” She asked.

“In Pokémon Square?” Tyranitar considered for a moment, “maybe three or four hundred, depending on how far out you count. There are houses scattered through the woods to the north and west, plus another forty or fifty traders and travelers, at any time.”

“That’s a lot of Pokémon.”

“I thought so too, when I first came here. It’s the second-largest town on the continent, after Treasure Town. Probably in the world, I don’t know.”

They talked a while, as the sun crept higher and the colors faded, trading stories of home. It was more than Absol had heard him say since she had arrived in Pokémon Square. Tyranitar talked about growing up in Northern Desert; working and traveling at night, and taking shelter from the heat and sandstorms in the day; tending the orchards around Oasis Town, and fighting off bandits. Tyranitar sipped from the bottle as they talked, his words becoming progressively less distinct, and his stories more rambling.

Eventually Tyranitar’s voice trailed off mid-sentence, and Absol looked over to see that he had fallen asleep, head leaning back against the rock. That was understandable, Absol thought, if he’d been traveling all night. She checked the bottle, found it empty, and laid it down between the rocks, where it could not roll down the hill and break, before starting back to the manor. She should start doing this every morning, Absol thought; the outing had been as effective at waking her up as putting Tyranitar to sleep. She hadn’t been getting enough exercise since she’d been here, laying in the library all day.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Team Poképals should be reaching Hidden Land in two to three days,” Alakazam said, “however, as Hidden Land exists in it’s own timestream, they will be unable to communicate with us until they return.”

“And Darkrai?” Grey asked.

“Team Raiders and Tyranitar returned from Mystifying Forest early this morning,” Alakazam said, “they found nothing out of the ordinary. Team Razor Wind and Butterfree teleported to Red Rock Village near Mount Travail yesterday; Espeon there is scheduled to link with me for the return trip tomorrow evening. Team Hydro should be at Miracle Sea by now, and Team Dragon should reach Crevice Cave today or tomorrow. Unless they badge for help, we shouldn’t expect to hear from them until they return.”

“I’ve nothing new to report,” Delphox said, “We haven’t received a response from Ninetales yet, and there’s nothing noteworthy from the Federation network.

Grey sighed. “Absol and I have identified 381 books in the library as potentially relevant,” he said, “Collections of stories, histories, biographies of any of the Legendaries who are thought to have any relation to the weather, the sun, darkness, or the stars. Between ourselves and the other teams who have stopped by to help, we’ve skimmed through almost a hundred so far, and read twenty or so in detail; other than the Time Gears crisis, we haven’t found anything similar to the situation which Absol described. I’ve also been talking to Chimecho at Wigglytuff guild; apparently, they have an extensive archive of exploration team reports dating back several hundred years, but Wigglytuff is reluctant to give us access.” Grey glanced between Alakazam and Delphox. “I was hoping one of you would have some influence, there.”

“Wigglytuff isn’t the most…rational…Pokémon,” Delphox said, “but I’ll send a request on behalf of the Federation. If we do get access, you’re probably going to have to go supervise the effort.”

“Anything else?” Charizard asked the group, “Absol?”

“Whiscash hasn’t remembered anything useful, either, and Xatu still doesn’t see anything in the sun,” Absol said, “but, he’s predicting snow this week.” She shivered, pulling he blanket more tightly around her shoulders. “He says it’s really rare to get snow this late in the spring. I hope we’re not too late.”

“It is pretty unusual,” Charizard said, “I’m not sure I can remember a time.”

“Fifty or sixty years ago,” Alakazam said, “the year that big tree fell on Team Dragon’s base.”

“Even if it is the beginning of…whatever disaster you saw,” Charizard said, “I think we have some time, yet. Its going to take a lot more than one storm.”

“I know. It’s just…”

“It’s okay,” Charizard said, “we’re all worried.”

“If there’s no other news,” Alakazam said, “Lets get back to work.

“You doing okay?” Charizard asked after Alakazam had left, taking a seat across from her at the cluttered table.

Absol nodded, wondering whether she looked as frustrated as she felt, or if Charizard was just trying to make conversation; either way, she appreciated the distraction. She had read at least a thousand pages in the last week, maybe more that she had read in her life; Team Easy and Delphox and Charizard had been busy too, but it didn’t feel like they were making any progress. Her eyes hurt from starting at the pages. Her head ached, and her back was stiff from laying or sitting all day.

“Mother and Ninetales told me so many stories, about adventures and heroes and things. None of them mentioned all the reading, or all the waiting.”

Charizard chuckled. “No, that’s not the glamorous bit, is it?”

“Is it normally like this?” Absol asked

“You mean, normal for a worldwide existential crisis?”

“You’re a Rescue Team. This is what you do, right?

“Honestly,” Charizard said, “It really isn’t. We chase off local bandits, find missing Pokémon, rescue Exploration Teams who get in over their heads. Occasionally we pick up bounties from Team Magnezone. Other than the Meteor thing, we’re never been involved with anything big like this before; and, well, we didn’t do a real admirable job there.

“Oh,” Absol said, a bit disappointed.

“Team Go-Getters had a fairly clear path forward, even if no one knew what was happening at first. Now, we don’t even know where to begin; we’re just searching blindly for clues. We also had months of smaller disasters leading up to the Meteor Incident, and this time, there’s nothing obviously wrong, yet. So to answer your question…I don’t think any of us know what’s ‘normal’ for this sort of thing.”

Absol frowned. “Do you think I could be wrong?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Charizard said, “do you think you could be wrong?”

“I don’t know. It seemed so urgent, when I had the dream, but now…”

“Something happened to you, and something happened to Ninetales. Something’s still happening to you. It’s a lot cooler on Mount Freeze than here, but you haven’t had that blanket off since you got here. I saw your face that first night when we kept you out too late by Whiscash Pond.”

“What if it’s just something wrong with me, though? What if I’ve misinterpreted everything?”

“Absol, there’s a whole lot of Pokémon working on this thing now. If you think there’s another possible explanation, anything at all, we need to know; but if you’re sure about what you saw, don’t start doubting yourself now.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated, I guess. I want to do something.”

“You know, whether or not these teams who are out now find Darkrai, there’s going to be more missions. If you get to know some of the local teams, I bet they’d let you come along.”

“I’d like that; everyone seems so busy, though.”

“There’s a field on the southeast side of town, above the cliffs,” Charizard said, “a lot of days, Pokémon meet out there in the afternoon to play ball or hide-and-seek or tag. If nothing else, it’ll be a break from all this.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The field was a large oval clearing, stretching from the edge of town nearly to the cliff, a kilometer or so long and half as wide, with grass almost as tall as she was. At the close end of the field, an area about a hundred meters long was cut shorter, and at either end were nets made of saplings woven together. A group of Pokémon stood in the center of the field; there were three Nidorans who were probably siblings, three Mightyenas, probably brothers, Flareon and Jolteon, who looked like a couple, Persian, Liepard, Cyndaquil, Machop, and Rapidash, holding a ball the size of a large Pumpkaboo between his forelegs. Mostly quadrupeds; that was good, Absol thought, this wouldn’t be a game where hands were important.

It was the first time in a week she had been outside without her blanket, and Absol felt strangely exposed. Intellectually, she knew that this was ridiculous; she had never needed or wanted to be covered before. No Pokémon did, unless he was ill. Still, the feeling was undeniable.

No need to be nervous, Absol told herself. This was probably going to be just like playing with all her friends below Mount Freeze. She wasn’t sure what the nets were for, but it couldn’t be that different from the games they’d played at home. How many ways could a group of Pokémon play ball?

The Mightyenas leaned together, whispering amongst themselves, then trotted toward her, fanning out to block her path. Absol slowed uncertainly, waiting to see what they would do. Their bearing was supremely confidant, but not aggressive; each stopped a bodylength away from her, and they sat down almost in unison.

“We’re Team Mighty,” the center Mightyena announced.

“We’re the best pawball team,” said the left.

“With the most wins,” added the right.

“We only play with the best players.”

“And the cutest females.”

“Do you want to be on our team?” the third Mightyena’s voice trailed up hopefully.

Absol laughed, relaxing. She didn’t think she’s seen the trio around town before. Maybe they were one of the teams that Alakazam had invited from Treasure Town to help with their search, or they’d been out on a job all week. They were a bit odd, but she couldn’t have asked for a better invitation.

“Certainly! I’ve never played pawball before, though. Can you teach me the rules?”

“Pawball is the easiest game.”

“With the simplest rules.”

“And the most fun.”

Each time, they spoke in a different order, but every sentence flowed together as if they’d planned it in advance; Absol wondered whether, despite being Dark-types, they might be a bit Psychic as well.

“All you have to do is hit the ball into the net.”

“And guard your net.”

“Without popping the ball.”

“But you can’t use moves.”

“Or pick it up.”

“Or knock anyone out.”

Absol was sure there must be a few more rules than that, but it would be easier to learn as they played than try to get these three to explain in detail.

The remaining Pokémon split off into teams, with Persian, Liepard, and Cyndaquil joining Absol and Team Mighty. Machop passed out scarves from a bag; green to Absol’s team, and red to his own. Someone needed to get the Mighties their own colored scarves, she though, so she could tell them apart like Team Easy. Perhaps it didn’t matter, though, since the three of them seemed to consider themselves interchangeable.

An ‘X’ had been scuffed into the dirt at the middle of the field; Rapidash placed the ball in the center and took a step back. Liepard faced off against him on their side of the field, her tail twitching in anticipation. The remaining Pokémon on each team spread out in semicircles around the center pair on their own sides of the field. There must have been some sort of signal Absol missed; Rapidash and Liepard darted for the ball at the same time, and most of the Pokémon on both sides rushed in, shoving and hitting and tackling one another to reach the ball. Absol hung back, waiting to see what would happen. Eventually, the ball shot out of the mêlée, bouncing toward the woods on her side of the field. Absol ran after it.

Rapidash and Jolteon broke free of the chaos to pursue the ball, followed by one of the Mightyenas; Absol saw that she would reach it first, but she was still unsure what she was supposed to do with it. Thinking fast, she slowed her pace, allowing Rapidash to close the gap between them, then turned suddenly to snarl and snap at his face. Instinctively, Rapidash shied away, tripping over Jolteon, and all three of them went down together in the grass. She could hear Mightyena laughing as he ran by.

A flailing hoof caught Absol in the ribs as she stood, knocking her breath away. Rapidash and Jolteon were both limping. She hoped she hadn’t been too rough, but neither of them seemed upset. By this time, Mightyena had made it to the far end of the field with the ball. Everyone else was clustered around the red team’s goal. Just as Absol reached them, a mighty kick by Machop sent the ball sailing over everyone’s heads and into the woods.

The other Pokémon all stopped fighting, turning to looked at Machop in annoyance. They began to sit down, panting and licking injuries, making it clear that they considered fetching the ball to be Machop’s responsibility; the big biped headed after it, grumbling as he walked.

“He does that all the time,” Jolteon said, sitting down beside Absol, “Also, nice trip back there.”

“Oh, sorry. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“Nothing that won’t heal in an hour or two,” Jolteon said dismissively, “everyone plays pretty rough here.”

Flareon broke away from the group and came to join them, giving Absol a friendly nod and butting heads with Jolteon.

“Shall we go help Machop?” she asked, “remember how long it took him last time?”

Seeing Absol leaving, Team Mighty was suddenly eager to search for the ball as well; they swarmed around her, cutting between Absol and the Eeveelutions and falling in to a triangular formation around her as if to claim ownership before charging off into the woods.

By the time they returned with the ball fifteen minutes later, the Nidorans had wandered off and Pichu had joined. Persian switched sides to even out the teams. They played for about twenty more minutes before losing the ball again; by this time, everyone was tired and injured, and no one wanted to go looking for it, so the game ended abruptly on a score of one to one. They all trooped back to town to visit Aromatisse.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Delphox was still there when Absol returned to the library, papers spread across the desk in front of her. She looked up as Absol entered, waving her over.

“I think I’ve got something, here,” Delphox said, “Remember those strange Ice-types who were bothering that village a couple weeks ago?”

Absol nodded.

“They’ve shown up again, this time at River Town. Same as before; sneaking around the village at night.”

“They’re looking for something.”

“I think so too. What book did you find them in before? Was there any more information?”

“It was that book about the Ice-Continent expedition where most of them starved. I’ll find it again.”

There was a sketch in the book, and a brief description of how the Cryogonals had frozen several expedition members, but nothing which seemed relevant to their current situation.

“Where are Charizard and Team Easy?” Absol wondered.

“Dinner. I think they’ll be back later.”

Delphox sorted through the piles of books and found several books about Ice-type they had set aside earlier that week, and the two of them skimmed through them until Team Easy returned.

Grey climbed onto an empty chair, and Pink jumped up on the table to examine the picture in the book. Again, Absol thought that there was something strange about the way Grey moved.

“I think we saw something about Cryogonals the other day,” Grey said, “but I can’t remember where.”

“Ooh!” exclaimed Pink, “It was the one where the whole team knows Sacred Sword, and one of them wants to duel Kyurem, and he runs away, and Kyurem is grumpy so he freezes everyone, and the Cryogonals chase them-”

“That was it,” Grey said, “Kyurem and the Sacred Swords, or something like that.”

“It had better pictures than this book,” added Pink, “and lots of pretty colors.”

Grey clambered up the shelves, took a book larger than his head from the fourth row in his jaws, and jumped down, seemingly all with little effort. Absol had seem him do that trick several times, and she still didn’t understand how he could do it so easily, or how he could even see the books on the higher shelves from the floor.

Grey handed the book to Delphox, and they all gathered around to read. At first, Absol thought that it would take them all night to get through the book, but the lavish, full color illustrations on every second or third page made the scenes with Cryogonals easy to find. Still, it took the four of them several hours to read just those parts; by the time they were done it was fully dark outside, and they were reading by the light of the Luminous Orb which Delphox held above the pages.

“So, Ice-types whom no one here has seen or heard of before are searching for something in two different places within weeks of Absol’s vision, and they might be working for the strongest Ice-type in the world,” Grey summarized.

“That’s probably not all coincidence,” said Delphox

“No,” Absol agreed, “I think we’re onto something here.”

“And I found it,” Pink claimed proudly. No one acknowledged her, not even Grey, but she didn’t seem to care.

“What now?” Absol wondered.

“Now we just need to find Kyurem,” Grey answered, looking around the table, “ideas, anyone?”

“Let’s summon the others,” Delphox suggested, “this is too important to wait until the meeting tomorrow morning. Team Easy, can you guys fetch Xatu? I think Tyranitar went for a walk, and Charizard is probably down in town; Absol, can you…nevermind, it’s dark out. I’ll contact Alakazam, and go look for Charizard.

After the others left, Absol turned back to the beginning of the book and began to read. She would need to read the whole thing eventually, she though, to be sure they hadn’t missed any other clues. It took more than an hour for them to return with Xatu, Charizard, and Alakazam, and Tyranitar.

As Delphox explained the situation, Charizard lit a fire in the small chamber of the stove and started a pot of tea.

“So you think Kyurem is the source of the trouble?” Alakazam asked, once Delphox had finished.

“I think it’s as plausible as Darkrai or Palkia or Dialga,” Delphox said, “and it’s something we can act on now, if we had an idea where he is.”

Charizard looked to Alakazam. “We translated a book, years ago. The one from Joyous Tower, I think…”

Alakazam frowned, one hand reaching up to stroke his mustache as he thought. “Legends of the Mysterious Ruins,” he finally declared.

“Yes, I think that was it,” agreed Charizard.

Alakazam drifted to the shelves. He raised a hand, and wide cloth-bound book floated down to him, then across the room to their table. The cover opened, revealing Charizard’s neat script. Charizard sat down and began to flip through the book, and the others gathered around to watch.

Scores of ancient stone structures were scattered around the world. Some of them Absol could remember from Mother and Ninetales’ stories; Sky Tower and Temporal Tower, both still intact, or Buried Relic, half-collapsed and abandoned. Many more were nothing but rubble. All of them were old, so old that no reliable legends remained of their creation, but many of them shared certain similarities of workmanship which let people to speculate that they had a common builder.

Each chapter began with a rough map and a sketch of the structure in whatever condition the author had found it, and sometimes an attempt at recreating what the structure might once have looked like. This was followed by a description of the structure, it’s inhabitants, and surroundings. The remainder of each chapter contained a collection of local legends about it’s history and use.

Neither Charizard nor Alakazam could remember exactly what they were looking for, so they ended up going through the whole book page by page. Tyranitar, sharing little of his partners’ enthusiasm for reading, quickly grew bored with their efforts. He departed without comment during the second chapter, and returned nearly an hour later with a basket of freshly picked berries and a plate of cookies.

“The Meowths at the bakery mostly work at night,” he explained to Absol.

By the time they were finished it was nearly morning.

“Sounds like we have two possibilities,” Grey said, “Turbulent Tower, or Hoarfrost Tower.”

“Hoarfrost Tower is in the Northern Range. That’s a…fifteen to twenty day walk,” Alakazam said, “then you’ll have to find Hoarfrost Tower. I don’t know anyone who’s been there, but you may be able to hire a local guide.”

“This would be a good one for Team Mighty,” Charizard said, “they can cover a lot of ground in the mountains.”

“Meowstic is the Federation representative in Snowcliff Village,” Delphox said, “we can get a message to him by Pelipper in five or six days; call it six, and he can link with someone here to guide a Teleport in.”

“Who else is available with Teleport?” Alakazam asked.

“Just Xatu, I think,” Charizard said, turning toward him, “if you don’t mind working with Team Mighty?”

Xatu laughed. “I don’t mind the Mightyenas, but I’m far too old for this sort of adventure any more. I think I should have to wait in Snowcliff Village.”

“I will shuttle them myself, then,” Alakazam said, “you or Delphox can guide me back.”

“That leaves Team Raiders for Turbulent Tower on Mount Thunder,” Alakazam said, “Gallade knows Teleport; Delphox, is there a Federation representative in Boulder Town?”

“I believe so; I’ll have to check, I’ve not worked with him before,” Delphox answered.

“Are you still interested in joining a mission, Absol?” Charizard wondered, “we could send you with Team Raiders.”

“Actually, Team Mighty invited me to join them on their next job,” Absol said, “but I’m worried that I’ll slow everyone down.”

“I don’t think Team Mighty will mind waiting for you,” Charizard said with a grin.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Delphox agreed, “if you can tolerate all the flirting and three-part sentences.”

“It’ll be colder there, too,” Absol said, “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“We still have to wait for the Pelipper to get to Meowstic,” Charizard said, “so you have six days to decide. Why don’t you start training with Team Mighty, and see how things go?”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The next day, Absol spent all morning in the library again with Team Easy, Delphox, and Charizard, searching for any other information about Kyurem which could be of use to the exploration teams. They found several versions of the legend of Zekrom and Reshiram. There were stories from the northern villages of Kyurem hunting Pokémon who strayed from town in the long nights of the northern winters, or appearing without warning to freeze whole villages.

While Kyurem seemed angry and cruel, Absol thought, there was no indication that he possessed anything like Darkrai’s intellect or capability for intrigue. He seemed more like a wounded feral, lashing out at any convenient target in thoughtless rage. That didn’t mean, of course, that he couldn’t be responsible for the current problem; given their lack of direction, any clue was worth following up.

In the afternoon she joined Team Mighty in the meadow again; the game was tag today, which she much preferred over pawball. Afterward, they lay down together to talk, Absol in the sun and the Mightyenas in the shade. Alakazam had already briefed them on the job, and they seemed more than willing to have her along, even after she explained her difficulty with the cold and nighttime.

“It will be the excitingest job,” the Mightyenas said.

“With the biggest bounty.”

“And the best company.”

Absol thought they would be just as excited to have any other Field-group female along. That was okay, though; they might not be the brightest, or the best conversationalists, but she didn’t think that she would find any team more willing accommodate her curse, or more eager to protect her from danger.

Returning to the manor, Absol joined the others for dinner in the courtyard, and they headed back into the library for a few more hours of research.

“This came in this afternoon,” Delphox said, talking a seat next to Absol and placing an opened letter in front of her.

Little one,

We’re both so glad that you made it to Pokémon Square safely. Team ACT lack the Go-Getters’ cleverness, but they are good Pokémon, and smart. Ninetales has continued his observations, and he is certain that the alignment of the planets and stars is unnatural, but he can’t say what it means. The weather here has gotten colder since you left, and we’re all worried. I have begun to feel a chill in my own horn, but I’ve had no visions, just a horrible feeling that something is wrong. I’ve moved into Ninetales’ cave, so you can have the Pelippers find us here; we’re both worried enough to want company, I suppose. I wish that I had some sort of guidance to offer you, little one, but by now, you probably know more than we do. Please keep us informed, if you’re able. Remain strong, and trust yourself and your gift.

Love,

Mother and Ninetales


“You read it already?” Absol asked.

Delphox nodded.

“Do you have any idea what happened to Team Go-Getters?”

“Rumor is they went off on some exploration with Gengar - yes, that Gengar,” Delphox confirmed, before Absol could ask, “but they were pretty secretive about it.”

“But why would they join Gengar?”

“I don’t know,” Delphox said with a shrug, “he left Pokémon Square after the Meteor incident. Team Meanies broke up; Medicham and Arbok joined teams out of Treasure Town. Then this spring he showed up again, met with Go-Getters in private for a few days, then they all disappeared.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The next two days went much the same; walking with Tyranitar and working in the library in the morning, playing with Team Mighty and the other Pokémon of Pokémon Square in the afternoon, and back to work in the evening. Absol was feeling much more confident now, and she began to think that maybe she could travel with Team Mighty as more than just a burden.

The next day, the temperature dropped precipitously. As Absol and Tyranitar stepped outside in the predawn gloom, the cold wind, which had been nearly imperceptible within the sturdy walls of the manor, assaulted her, lifting her blanket from her back and nearly pulling it free. She turned without hesitation and bolted back inside.

“I’m s-sorry,” Absol said as Tyranitar followed her back inside, “I can’t do this today.” Her ears folded back as she looked away, ashamed at her her helplessness.

“It’s okay,” Tyranitar grunted. He knelt down to re-tie the blanket around her neck.

“Thank you.”

After Tyranitar left, Absol returned to the library. She wanted to burrow back into her bed and cry, but instead she forced herself to fetch the Luminous Orb and return to the table to pick up the work she’d left off last night. Team Raiders should be nearing Turbulent Tower, and Team Mighty, without a psychic, would be out of communication tomorrow, once they teleported to Snowcliff Village. They all deserved any information she could find, any advantage she could give them, even if she couldn’t be there with them.

That afternoon, Team Mighty came by unexpectedly. Their coats were wet and their paws caked with snow and mud as they trooped into the library, laughing and jostling to reach Absol first. Charizard rose angrily and shooed them back out into the entryway to dry off.

They returned several minutes later, much drier, and crowded around Absol, one leaning against her on each side and one looking over her shoulder.

“It was the worst game without you today.”

“So we came to visit.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m reading about Hoarfrost Tower,” Absol said.

“We’re going there tomorrow.”

“It will be the best exploring.”

“Are you coming with us?”

“I want to come,” Absol told them, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to in the snow. I’ve found some maps and things, though; let me show you.”

She turned through several of the books, showing the Mightyenas maps and sketches of the tower, and reading aloud from the accounts of several exploration teams who had failed to find Kyurem in the past. The Mighties crowded closer against her; Absol wasn’t sure if they were paying attention or not, but she hoped that they would remember something useful, at least.

Even if they weren’t listening, the Mightyenas’ warm bodies pressed up against her felt wonderful, driving back the chill in the room that only she could feel. It wasn’t long, though, before the three of them grew restless and began to fidget. Absol understood; they had the same boundless energy that she had always had, before the vision.

“That was the best story,” they said eventually.

“But we have the most important job tomorrow.”

“And the most getting ready.”

“Come visit before you leave tomorrow,” Absol said. Team Mighty would be at the manor tomorrow morning anyway to meet Alakazam, but she didn’t want to have to wait out in the snow to see them off.

“I don’t think they’ve ever been that close too a book before,” Charizard joked after the manor door creaked closed behind Team Mighty, “You must be a good influence.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A rustling of papers woke her the next morning, and Absol poked her head out of the blankets, hoping that she hadn’t missed Team Mighty’s departure; but no, it was still dark out. Alakazam sat at one of the tables on the other side of the room, illuminated by the cool blue glow of a Luminous Orb, staring at something in front of him on the table.

Absol yawned silently and pulled her head back under the covers. There was no reason to get up now, she thought; there wasn’t much she could do at this hour, and if anyone needed her, they would come wake her.

She woke again to the faint orange glow of dawn in the windows above; it was about the time she’d meet Tyranitar for their morning walk, if it hadn’t snowed last night. Still, she thought, she may as well get up and wish him good morning.

The manor was empty save for Absol, but his scent lingered in the main room, along with Charizard and Alakazam, all about half an hour old. Perhaps they were all outside?

The courtyard in front of the manor was churned muddy with footprints; she didn’t want to brave the cold to inspect them, but from the doorway she guessed that there must have been three or four teams. What could have happened? she wondered. Had one of their exploration teams badged for a rescue? Had they found Darkrai or Kyurem? She couldn’t think of any other reason they would need so many teams in such a hurry, but why hadn’t anyone woken her?

Remembering Alakazam’s visit to the library earlier that morning, Absol went back inside; perhaps he had left a note, or perhaps whatever he had been looking at would provide a clue.


Wanted: 1,000,000-P-

Arcanine♂



By Team Magnezone in Treasure Town

For Murder, Arson, and Theft​

The wanted flier lay on Alakazam’s desk in the library, half covering the open book he had been reading the night before. Beneath the name there was a drawing of a fierce-looking Arcanine, his muzzle smeared with blood, surrounded by flames. There were some kind of unusual markings drawn on his back and sides; Absol could not decide whether they were intended to be mud, or scars, or burns. The paper was folded in quarters and smelled musty, and the date, written in the top corner in Alakazam’s handwriting, was five years ago.
 
Chapter 8: Bounty New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 8: Bounty

Riolu finished brushing Zorua’s fur, and set the brush aside. Her clean, glossy coat shimmered in the sunlight which shown through the common room window. Since Luxio - no, Luxray now, Zorua corrected herself - had commandeered the common room as his headquarters, the two of them had taken to sleeping in an unused storeroom down the hall. It was small, really only a closet, but it had a window, and for the two of them, it was cozy but not cramped. Still, they both preferred the common room; it was always busy and well-lit, with other Pokémon to talk to and work to be done.

Zorua hadn’t used her illusions since the night of the attack, three days ago. Whatever doubts the other Pokémon of Meadow Town had held about her were gone; she was not sure, now, whether they had ever been real, or just her own insecurities. She woke Pokémon for their watches, briefed and debriefed them between shifts when Luxray was busy or asleep, and walked the rounds to make sure no one had disappeared or fallen asleep, and they gave her the same respect they showed Luxray or Bayleef.

There was plenty of other work to be done as well; food to be gathered and dried to begin replacing the stores they had used over the winter, repairs to be made from the battle, trenches to be dug and timber to be gathered for Luxray’s stockade, which had gained a surprising amount of support from the generally lackadaisical population of Meadow Town.

Only the mayor himself and a few of his friends were wary of her now; whether it was because Bayleef still held a grudge about Arcanine’s roughness, or felt threatened by Luxray’s new authority, or because Bayleef knew that she knew he was hiding something, Zorua didn’t know.

Riolu wrapped the bright red Detect Scarf around her neck and tied it in the back so that it hung down under her neck like a bib. With his fingers, he made it look so easy, Zorua though, and it was much neater then when she tried to tie it herself.

“Thanks!” Zorua said.

“You’d better get going,” Riolu said, ruffling the tuft of longer fur on her head, “if Natu’s right about the weather. You two have fun, and don’t forget to pick me up in the morning.”

Zorua grinned, reaching up to lick him on the nose. “I won’t.”

It was late afternoon when Zorua left Meadow Town. The wind was cold, and the sky dark with storm clouds. Everyone had been doubtful when Natu predicted another snow; even the oldest Pokémon in Meadow Town could not remember seeing snow this late in the spring, but Natu was seldom wrong about the weather, and it appeared that he would be proven correct again. She walked quickly. It would be dark early tonight, and she wanted to be through the Haunted Forest shortcut well before then.

Zorua also hoped that she had left early enough to beat the snow. She had an unfortunate habit of showing up at Arcanine’s cave dirty, disheveled, and in need of rescue, she thought, but tonight would be different. Hopefully he wasn’t out exploring. Hopefully he hadn’t already abandoned the cave above Haunted Forest and moved on, hoping to stay ahead of any bounty hunters who might come searching for him once the story of the attack on Meadow Town got out. Hopefully he had at least left a message, if he had gone.

It was snowing by the time Zorua came out of the trees at the base of Arcanine’s mountain; heavy, wet spring snowflakes which stuck to her coat. Well, a little damp was okay, she though, at least she wasn’t muddy or being chased by anything this time. She squinted up through the snow and wind, searching for Arcanine’s outline at his customary place on the edge of the cliff, but in the evening gloom, she couldn’t make out whether or not he was there.

As Zorua approached the ledge, she began to have doubts. Would Arcanine still be happy to see her? Fetching him to save the town had been the right choice, the only available choice, but Arcanine had a good arrangement here, presumed dead and safely hidden in the middle of Haunted Forest, before she barged in and messed things up for him. Now he was going to have to abandon it, and he had a right to be upset about that.

“Hey, big guy! Zorua called, tentatively, “mind if I come up?”

Seconds later, Arcanine’s shaggy, grinning face emerged from the cave.

“Zorua! Come in,” he said, not seeming to notice her hesitation. He didn’t seem to notice the extra time she’d taken grooming this afternoon, either. Zorua was a little disappointed, but she figured that living alone on a mountain wasn’t the best way to develop social skills.

Arcanine waited while Zorua shook herself off and settled on the floor next to him.

“No Riolu?” asked Arcanine

“He had to stand watch tonight. I showed him the trail, though. He’ll probably join us in the morning.”

“Glad you came, though,” Arcanine said, “we need to talk.”

“Ah, yeah,” Zorua said, “I’m sorry about getting you involved in all that…”

“Don’t apologize, you were right. But, ah…I don’t know what to do next.”

“You have to leave, don’t you.”

“I should leave,” Arcanine said, “word will get out, even if no one here recognizes me and turns me in. Arcanines are rare, and I’m fairly distinctive.” Arcanine gestured to his scarred back.

“But…” Zorua prompted.

“But those Ice-types didn’t get what they were looking for.”

“You think they’ll come back? You were pretty terrifying.”

Arcanine sighed. “I don’t know.”

“We’re better prepared now. Luxio - Luxray, I mean, he decided to evolve after you left the other day - Luxray has taken charge of the watch. He’s even trying to have a wall built. So far, most Pokémon are cooperating.

“You are better prepared. I went down last night and looked around, and I think Luxray is doing a good job, but you just don’t have enough strong Pokémon.”

The two of them lay silently for several minutes, watching as the snow blew lazily past the entrance of the cave, barely visible in the dim evening light.

“You’ve lived here a lot longer than I have, Zorua. Normal to get snow this late in the spring?”

“No. This weather is really weird,” Zorua said, “no one remembers ever having snow this late, not even Natu, and he’s really old.”

Arcanine grunted. “Strange.”

“Natu’s been worried about something, too. He’s been talking to Luxi- Luxray, and Bayleef. I don’t know what it is, but…Natu’s almost always right.”

“Zorua, what I really want to do is ask you and Riolu and maybe even Luxray to leave with me, go somewhere so far away that no one will ever come looking for me.”

“But you know we can’t do that.”

“Yeah.”

Zorua stood, stretched, jumped up onto the pile of branches which made Arcanine’s bed, and wriggled her way between his front legs and into his mane.

“So I’m taking my chances here, I guess,” Arcanine said, “we need a signal, though, so you can call me if there’s trouble instead of having to run through Haunted Forest.”

“You could just move into town,” Zorua suggested, “I think most people would welcome you.”

“No,” Arcanine said, “out here, will take them time to find me. Never seen nor smelled anyone from Meadow Town on the shortcut, besides you. If they come searching with enough Pokémon to catch me, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll spot them first. In town, I’m an easy target.”

“We could have a bonfire ready in the town square,” Zorua said, “only me and Riolu and Luxray would need to know exactly what it was for.”

“That would work.”

“We’ll light it and leave it burning if we need help. And if we light it and make a lot of smoke, it means you’re in danger.”

Arcanine nodded in agreement.

“So,” Zorua said, “you wanna take me and Riolu to another mystery dungeon tomorrow? He’s healed from last time, except one feeler is still shorter than the other, and he wants to get beat up again.”

“Close one,” Arcanine answered, “just in case.”

“We could do Haunted Forest. I’m ready for a rematch with those Ghosts.”

Arcanine shook his head. “No, Haunted Forest is…strange. Remember how I told you mystery dungeons never change while you’re in them?”

“Yeah.”

“Think Haunted Forest is an exception. Time does strange things in there, too. If we got separated, even for a few seconds, we might not find each other again.”

“Oh, well, anywhere else is okay too,” Zorua said.

Zorua rolled over onto her back, looking up into Arcanine’s eyes. This was the best place in the world, she though, right between his big paws. No matter what else happened, she would always be warm and safe here.

“Do you think they’re really still after you, after all this time?”

“I don’t know, Zorua.”

“It’s not fair. You’re a good Pokémon. I want to be with you all the time instead of having to sneak up here.”

“I do, too,” Arcanine said, bending down to lick her face.

“There’s something else I wanted to ask you, though…”

“Oh?”

“So, I know it will be kind of awkward, ‘cuz you’re so much bigger than me, but…will you mate with me?”

Arcanine grinned. “I think we can make it work,” he said, “but aren’t you and Riolu…?”

“Not really like that,” Zorua said, “we’re super good friends. We’ve been together pretty much our whole lives; it’s more like he’s my brother. I mean, we’ve tried it a few times, and it was fun, but it’s not really romantic or anything.”

“And you two planned this; that’s why he didn’t come tonight?”

Zorua smiled.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Mewtwo stood at the center of the gym, grinning in anticipation. Arcanine and five of the younger clones; Scyther, Hitmonlee, Sandslash, Psyduck, and Gyarados, stood arrayed around him in a rough circle. Other than Mewtwo, each of them wore a collar connected wirelessly to the gym computer. At intervals, each of their collars would issue a command, a move to use against Mewtwo. The tempo at which commands were issued would begin slowly, and gradually escalate until the assault on Mewtwo became continuous.

The game was a test of reaction speeds, both theirs and Mewtwo’s. Mewtwo could not watch all of them at once with his eyes, and he would have to rely on psychic input to predict and block their attacks. A Pokémon who reacted quickly enough when Mewtwo was distracted from another direction could score a hit, winning the game. Mewtwo would win if he could avoid being hit until the timer ran out, without knocking out or disabling any of his opponents. The program would run for a minute, and by the end, all seven of them would be exhausted. Mewtwo adjusted the speed of the commands after each fight to allow himself to lose once in twenty matches; enough to keep the game fun for everyone without suffering unnecessary injury.

This was everyone’s favorite part of their training routine, the chance to play with Mewtwo, and Mewtwo himself enjoyed it most of all. Arcanine could see how badly Mewtwo wished that he could battle with the others as equals, but he knew none of them would ever be strong enough. The rest of the clones abandoned their training and gathered around to watch.

The buzzer sounded and Hitmonlee opened with a Jump Kick toward Mewtwo’s head. Scyther followed with a low Slash of his blades, as Psyduck flung a pawful of pebbles with Confusion. Sandslash Swiftly launched a volley of quills.

Mewtwo blocked or dodged each attack with ease, moving with a swift feline grace which even Arcanine envied. Despite his psychic talents, Mewtwo trained his body as thoroughly as he trained his mind. With the regular timing maintained by their collars, their battle felt more like a dance than a fight.

The game progressed, commands coming faster and faster until even Mewtwo’s incredible reflexes had difficulty keeping up. He could have swept them all away with Psychic, of course, but that was not the point.

“ExtremeSpeed.” Arcanine’s collar commanded.

Mewtwo’s back was turned toward him as Mewtwo Protected himself from Gyarados’ Hydro Pump. Arcanine pounced, aiming low, hoping to get under Mewtwo’s guard. Mewtwo spun around just in time, stumbling back as he lashed out with Psychic. The blow struck Arcanine squarely in the face and sent him tumbling into a stack of training dummies.

Arcanine tried to stand, but the world wavered unsteadily around him, and he found himself back on the floor.

#Stop.# Mewtwo commanded.

The other clones stopped fighting, allowing the last few seconds of the program to expire.

#I’m sorry, friend.# Mewtwo said, squatting in front of Arcanine, both panting from their exertion. #I lost control. Are you alright?#

Arcanine tried to laugh, but it came out as a choking, gurgling sound. He spat out some blood and grinned, nodding very slowly so that the world would not start spinning again

“I thing my nobe is broke.”

Mewtwo lifted Arcanine’s muzzle, fingertips stroking along the sides of his jaws and the bridge of his nose. #It is. It should be, after a hit like that. I’m glad I didn’t break your jaw. I guess this makes it a draw, technically, but you were very close.#

Mewtwo moved aside to allow Wigglytuff to inspect Arcanine’s face. The rotund Pokémon’s stubby arms had difficulty reaching the top of Arcanine’s head.

“Why is it always you?” Wigglytuff grumbled, “you get hurt more than any other Pokémon here. You just about bit off your tongue, too.”

“I jutht enjoy your conthany.”

“You’re lucky there’s nothing in your thick head to damage.” Pink light outlined Wigglytuff’s hands and spread across Arcanine’s face. The pain subsided. “Now go lay down. You’re done training today.”

Arcanine stood, still a little dizzy, and headed for the exit. There were a few hours of daylight left, he thought. He would go up top and nap in the sun, and wait for the others to finish. Mewtwo reached out a hand as Arcanine passed, fingers brushing through Arcanine’s mane, and Arcanine butted his head gently against Mewtwo’s chest.


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Come on, Arky,” Vulpix said, “stop stuffing your big face and lets get up to the library. Ninetales is reading to us again tonight.”

“What’s she reading?”

Arcanine tore another chunk off the roasted Sawsbuck and gulped it down. The sun had felt so good that he had slept halfway through dinner; everyone else had already finished cleaning up and headed upstairs, only Vulpix staying behind to harass him. At least his head felt better, now.

“Who cares? She could read one of your boring biology textbooks and make it sound amazing.”

“Well, go save us a spot,” Arcanine told her, “I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

Arcanine finished eating and added his femur to the pile containing the Sawsbuck’s other large bones. In the morning when he went out hunting again, Arcanine would return them to the spot where he had made the kill. It was impossible to prove that legend true or false, but all of the carnivores in the group had agreed to observe the tradition. Arcanine would have preferred to take the bone up to the library to gnaw while they listened to Ninetales, but Mewtwo enforced a strict no-food-in-the-library policy ever since Squirtle had gotten berry juice all over his signed first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom back on Cinnabar.

“Look what the fox dragged in,” Pidgeot commented as Arcanine entered the library.

A dozen king-sized mattresses were scattered in a rough semicircle in the center of the library. Since many of them were the wrong size or shape to fit comfortably on ordinary Human furniture, Mewtwo had stolen a whole Conex of them to serve as beds and couches throughout their island home. Nidoqueen and Ryhorn were at the front, surrounded by their cubs. Charizard and Blastoise lay side by side on one, the former careful to keep his tail on the stone floor. Venusaur occupied another, Pikachu and Meowth between his front legs. Rapidash stood in the back, safely away from anything flammable.

Arcanine settled in between Vaporeon and Sandslash on the last mattress, and Vulpix stretched out beside him, her chin on one of his forepaws. Many of the other clones were there as well. Mewtwo and Golduck pushed their chairs back from the table where they were playing chess, and turned toward Ninetales.

“Now that all of you illiterate peasants are present,” Ninetales said, “can we begin?”

Ninetales slid a tattered paperback onto the table in front of her, still carefully concealing the cover from the rest of the group, and began to read.

“Jack Holloway found himself squinting, the orange sun full in his eyes…”

Ninetales’ voice was enchanting, like listening to a symphony or a choir of angels. There was a brief pause as she carefully turned each page; though her touch was delicate, her paws were inadequate to the task. The scents and sounds of all of his friends wrapped around him like a blanket, and Arcanine soon found himself getting sleepy. It wasn’t a lack of interest; like many of the other clones and Mewtwo himself, he enjoyed old science fiction, and Ninetale’s voice was wonderful to listen to. It was just that he also very much enjoyed sleeping…

Arcanine woke hours later. He could feel Vulpix’s warm back against his chest, and someone else, Vaporeon, he though, leaned against his back. He could smell several other Pokémon still in the library with them; Bulbasaur, Ninetales, Pikachu, Sandslash, their sleeping bodies visible as dark outlines in the moonlight. Not knowing what had woken him, Arcanine lay still for several minutes, taking in the sounds of the night; the gentle breathing of the others, the fans of the library’s several computers, hibernating against the far wall, the hum and chirp of Bug-types outside the open windows.

Arcanine wriggled free of his companions. It was a pleasant night, he thought, and he would go watch the stars from the top of Mount Quena until he fell asleep again. The rising sun would wake him in the morning, and he could get an early start on his chores.

As he passed, Arcanine saw a bar of light from under Mewtwo’s closed door and heard the hum of his computer. Was he still awake? He stopped, wondering whether to risk waking their leader.

#Come in, old friend#

Arcanine nosed the door open and slipped inside, pushing it closed again behind him. Mewtwo sat at his desk, hunched over, both elbows on the desk and his forehead resting on his hands. The monitor was covered in Human news stories.

#Don’t apologize,# Mewtwo said, before Arcanine could begin, #I’m not making any progress here, and I could use some company.#

Arcanine wanted to run to Mewtwo, to sniff him and lick his face and put his head in Mewtwo’s lap, but Mewtwo was uncomfortable with such physical intimacy. Instead he lay down on the stone floor beside Mewtwo’s chair, leaning his muzzle against Mewtwo’s leg.

#I don’t understand Humans,# Mewtwo confided, #no matter how much I study them. They think so differently from us.#

Mewtwo reached down, scratching the bases of Arcanine’s ears. Arcanine lifted his head, pushing back against Mewtwo’s fingers.

#When I first met Giovanni, after I destroyed the lab on Cinnabar, he told me that I was the strongest Pokémon, but there was something stronger; Humans.#

Arcanine listened intently; his own past, before he had begun creating the rest of them, was something that Mewtwo seldom spoke about.

#I didn’t understand what he meant. I could have destroyed him with a thought. Maybe I should have, but I was curious. I asked him to train me. I thought that he would teach me, the way I’ve tried to teach all of you. I though…I thought we would be friends.#

Mewtwo was silent for several minutes, lost in thought. His fingers stroked absently through Arcanine’s mane.

#He showed me all the things Humans had built,# Mewtwo continued, #their cities, their machines, their weapons. The Balls. He showed me billions of humans, and billions of Pokémon serving them, and I though that he must be right.#

Mewtwo paused again. Arcanine waited, knowing he would continue in his own time.

#For Pokémon, strength is an individual quality; when I say that I am stronger than you, I mean that if we battled, I would probably win. For Humans, strength is a collective quality, measured in how many other Humans and Pokémon one controls. A Human becomes stronger not by training, but by forcing others to serve him. For years, I did everything he demanded of me. Eventually I admitted that he had never cared about me. I believed that I had learned everything that I could from him, so I left, and returned to Cinnabar. I thought that it was over; we had battled, a battle of wills, and I had won. That it how a Pokémon would think, it it not?#

Arcanine nodded in agreement.

#Arcanine, what if I was wrong?#

Arcanine looked up at Mewtwo quizzically. It was not a line of thought that he had ever considered before, and it took him a moment to figure out what Mewtwo meant.

“You mean, what if Giovanni comes after you?”

#That’s exactly what I mean.#

“I’ve read everything I can find about him, and his team. Most of us have,” Arcanine said, “he’s a strong man, as Humans count. What are the odds that he would find us in his remaining lifespan? I don’t know. What would he do when he did find us?”

Mewtwo said nothing, waiting for Arcanine to continue.

“We have no practical defense against a sufficiently large bomb, but would that satisfy him? After all that effort, he would want you back, or at least see you face-to-face, wouldn’t he?”

#I don’t know,# Mewtwo said, #but, I think so. He is a very proud man; if he couldn’t have me, he would still want to know that I knew he had beaten me.#


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Zorua looked so happy like that, Arcanine thought, curled up against his chest with her tail over her face. Her legs twitched occasionally, and Arcanine wondered whether she was dreaming. What did other Pokémon dream? How much did they remember? Arcanine wished that he could remember his own dreams; there were answers there, he was sure, keys that would unlock the memories of how he had come to be in the hills near Treasure Town that day, confused and alone, covered in fresh wounds and barely alive.

He didn’t want to wake Zorua, but Arcanine badly needed to stretch and relieve himself. He stood as carefully as he could, but at nearly two hundred kilos, there was a limit to how subtly he could move. Zorua rolled over, yawned, and opened her eyes, which shown softly in the dim predawn light.

“Where are you going, big guy?” Zorua asked sleepily, “it’s not even light yet.”

“Stay there. Back in a few minutes.”

Several inches of snow had fallen overnight, the kind of wet spring snow that stuck to the fur between one’s pads. The air was still, somewhat below freezing, and his breath rose in clouds. Arcanine relieved himself over the ledge; one day, he thought, we was going to get lucky and hit some unsuspecting Pokémon on the trail below. He sat down to scratch himself, then rolled over onto his back, wriggling side to side in the snow. He couldn’t really feel the cold through his thick coat, and he lay there for several minutes, thinking.

Whatever options he’d had before, he was definitely stuck here, now, Arcanine thought. There was no chance that Zorua had his egg; if she’d been in heat, he would have smelled it. Before last night, though, he hadn’t thought about how badly he wanted her to. She made a great partner. She wasn't very strong, but that was okay; he was strong enough for both of them. She was smart, and knew quite a bit about the world that he'd forgotten or never learned. Most importantly, she was loyal; not just to him, but all her friends down in Meadow Town. Arcanine didn’t just want a partner, though, or even a team; he wanted a family.

Was that what Zorua wanted, too, or was it just a game for her, or a way to comfort herself after Treecko's death? Arcanine didn’t think she was manipulating him, despite her species' reputation, but that didn't mean she wanted a permanent relationship, either.

Zorua was plenty clever, but so far, she’d always been very direct when she wanted something. Wash me, talk to me, take me to a mystery dungeon, save my town. Arcanine appreciated that kind of openness; he hated trying to guess what other Pokémon really wanted, and had little use for social subtleties. Anyway, he’d already decided on staying.

He would have to be very careful for a while, he thought. No more mystery dungeons, after today; he would patrol Haunted Forest and the surrounding mountains, and the valley around Meadow Town. If the Pokémon from Treasure Town came for him, they would come in force. He was fast, and he knew the area well, and if necessary, he could lose himself in Haunted Forest. Unlike most mystery dungeons, it had multiple exits, and a continuous entrance around the entire perimeter. He would never leave the ledge without the treasure bag again.

The pool by his cave was frozen over; Arcanine smashed through the ice and drank deeply before going back inside. Zorua hadn’t moved.

“How much snow did we get?” Zorua asked.

“Few inches.”

“Don’t make me get up yet, big guy. Come lay back down.”

“Not in a hurry.” Arcanine settled back down on the bed beside Zorua.

“You done this before, haven’t you?” Zorua asked, “with someone my size, I mean.”

“I’m not sure,” Arcanine admitted.

“I’m sure. I had some theories, but you knew exactly what positions and stuff would work.”

Zorua was right, he though; it had felt very familiar. What had that other Pokemon been like, he wondered. Where was she now? Had they had cubs together?

“Remembering anything, big guy?”

Arcanine shook his head. “Know there’s something I should remember. It’s just not there.”

“We’ll just have to keep trying until you do,” Zorua said, giggling, “I guess we should get going, though; Riolu might start to think you squashed me or something.”

Arcanine grinned. “Guess so. Want to stop and gather food on the way. Someone ate all my berries.”

“There’s somewhere else I want to stop first, too,” Zorua said, “Arcanine, we…we buried Treecko by the stream, where we used to play when we were little. I know you didn’t know him, but I want to show you.”

“I want to see it, too,” Arcanine said. He didn’t have any feelings about Treecko himself, having never known the Grass-type as anything but a sad, bloody body on the floor, but if it was important to Zorua, he wanted to be a part of the mourning for her sake.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Halfway through the shortcut, Arcanine began to feel uneasy. The snow on the ground around them was unmarred by any tracks other than their own. The forest around them was silent save for the rustling of the trees in the breeze, but still, Arcanine felt as if something was out of place.

“Something’s not right,” He said, stopping. He raised his head, drawing in a deep breath. His ears swiveled, searching for unexpected sounds, and his eyes scanned the forest around them.

All along the path this morning, he had smelled the ordinary scents of the forest; cold snow and wet earth, pine and grass and decaying wood, the trails of Ghost-types from the mystery dungeon, Pachirisu and Hoppip and Pidgey and other small, wild Pokémon who lived on the outskirts of Haunted Forest. Now, all those scents seemed strangely dulled to his sensitive nose, as if something where interfering with them.

“What is it? Zorua whispered.

“Get on my back.” Arcanine said, crouching to allow her to mount.

#Don’t try to run,# a voice spoke within their minds.

The world around them shimmered with purple light, and they were no longer alone. The snow around them was no longer clean, but crisscrossed with muddy footprints. Charizard and Tyranitar stood blocking the trail ahead. Alakazam floated in the air above and behind them, legs crossed and eyes closed.

“Zoroark,” Zorua whispered.

Arcanine spun around to find the path blocked behind him as well; three Mightyena stood in front, and behind them, a pair of Eevee and Aromatisse. So, that was why he hadn’t been able to smell them. He thought he could hear movement in the bushes to either side of the trail as well, but with Aromatisse’s Aroma Veil still in effect, he couldn’t identify them.

“All this for me?” Arcanine laughed, turning back to face Alakazam. “You’re not scared, are you?”

“Thank you, Zorua,” Alakazam said, speaking verbally this time, “you led us right to him.”

“What?” Zorua objected, shocked, “I didn’t-”

“Don’t listen to them,” Arcanine said, “Alakazam! Let Zorua leave. This isn’t her fight.”

“If we let her go, you’ll cooperate?”

Arcanine hesitated a moment. He wasn’t sure how much of his thoughts Alakazam could read. He had no intention of cooperating, of course, but he had to get Zorua safely away.

“I will.”

“No!” Zorua said, “I won’t leave you.”

“We can’t win here, Zorua. Take the bag and run,” Arcanine said, lowering his head and allowing the treasure bag to slip off. He leaned close to Zorua and whispered, “Remember the plan. If I get away, I’ll meet you there. If not…I love you.”

“I remember,” Zorua said. Her eyes stinging with tears, she reached up to rub the the side of her face against Arcanine’s muzzle. “I love you, too.”

Zorua pulled the strap on the bag to shorten it, and slipped her head though; it was still too large for her, leaving the bag dragging on the ground. She picked it up in her jaws and turned toward town.

“Wait,” Alakazam said, suspiciously, “leave the bag.”

Zorua looked to Arcanine for direction, and he nodded. There were valuable items in the bag, but nothing worth risking Zorua’s escape. As she slipped out of the carrying strap, it somehow became tangled around her front legs. Arcanine watched her hook a claw through the drawstring and pull the bag open as she pretended to struggle with it. A careful footstep pushed an Orb to the mouth of the bag, and then she was free.

Clever girl, Arcanine thought, keeping his face neutral. With the bag facing toward him, and his body blocking the view of the Pokémon behind him, he didn’t think anyone else could see. Zorua winked at him and walked away, passing between Charizard and Tyranitar, and directly beneath Alakazam, without looking at any of them.

What now, Arcanine wondered. The longer he could stall, the less chance they could capture Zorua if he managed to escape. He couldn’t tell from here which Orb Zorua had given him She would not have known either; it had been a random selection, whichever had happened to be on top. There was an Escape Orb in there, but Arcanine didn’t know whether it would work at all on the shortcut; a Luminous Orb which, in addition to it’s use at a lantern, when shattered would produce a blinding flash of light which might give him an opportunity to make it through the cordon and into Haunted Forest; and a One-Shot Orb, which also might buy him a little time, but which, unlike the Escape Orb, he definitely did not want to use on himself.

“Now, will you come with us peacefully?” Alakazam asked.

Tyranitar was Rock and Dark, Arcanine thought, so he would have a type disadvantage, there. Alakazam was Psychic, and Charizard Fire, like himself, both neutral matchups. The three of them were obviously a team, and probably respected veterans, given how all of the others were deferring to Alakazam. Perhaps he could play on their pride?

“You don’t need the whole gang just for me, do you?” Arcanine asked, forcing a grin, “let’s see if the three of you can take me yourselves.”

Alakazam frowned, and Arcanine could tell immediately that this wasn’t going to work.

“No more games-” Alakazam began, but Arcanine was already moving.

He faked a charge toward Alakazam, stopping at the dropped adventure bag. Two jets of water arced from the bushes on either side of the trail, crossing where Arcanine would have been had he continued his charge. Charizard and Tyranitar closed together protectively in front of their leader, the three of them forming a single, easy target. Arcanine kicked the treasure bag away and swatted the orb toward them in a single motion.

The One-Shot Orb hit Tyranitar in the chest. The huge Pokémon swayed briefly, suddenly no longer conscious, and tipped over, crashing to the ground on his back. Arcanine sprinted for the gap where Tyranitar had stood.

Weight slammed into Arcanine’s flank, and he stumbled. Fangs sank into the flesh of his shoulder and hip. Arcanine kept going, dragging both the Mighyenas with him. The third landed on Arcanine’s back, his teeth seeking a hold through Arcanine’s mane. The Mightyenas excelled at Pursuit, and Arcanine realized too late that he had underestimated them.

The combined weight of the Mighyenas drove Arcanine to the ground. Arcanine prepared to unleash Heat Wave. Blastoise emerged from the bushes beside him, water cannons firing. One of the high-pressure jets hit the Mightyena on Arcanine’s back, knocking him free, but the other caught Arcanine in the face, blinding him and forcing water into his mouth and nose. Arcanine choked, spitting a cloud of steam and he tried to shake the water from his eyes.

The Mightyenas tore into Arcanine mercilessly, ripping chunks of flesh from his back and legs, and he howled in pain and rage. He flailed, trying desperately to dislodge them, but Arcanine knew it was hopeless.

“We’re Team Mighty!” Arcanine could hear them cheering, “We chase and chase and chase…”

I’m sorry, Arcanine though, as his consciousness faded, I wasn’t strong enough.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Zorua could hear Arcanine’s howls of pain behind her as she ran, rising in volume, growing more panicked, and then fading to silence. She knew that Arcanine was correct, that there was nothing she could have done to help him here, but still, she hated herself for abandoning him.

How had they gotten four high-level teams out here so quickly, she wondered. How had they known exactly where to ambush Arcanine, and what had Alakazam meant about leading them to him? Alakazam, Charizard, and Tyranitar had to be Team ACT from Pokémon Square. She’d never seen them before, but the trio were famous; she’d heard plenty of stories. If a message had gone out by Pelipper the day of the attack, while she and Arcanine and Riolu were still searching for the mayor, that would have given them less than four days for the message to travel to Pokémon Square, and for them to assemble everyone, travel here, locate Arcanine, and set up their ambush.

Pokémon Square was a week’s walk, for her. Some of the other Pokémon could move faster, of course, but not all of them. Charizard could have flown here, but Alakazam must have shuttled the others with Teleport. Safe long-distance teleporting required either a very detailed memory of the target location, or another psychic at the receiving end to guide the teleporter in; that meant someone in Meadow Town had almost certainly betrayed them.

Zorua was certain that no one had followed her here last night; her first few visits to Arcanine, though, before she knew he was hiding from something, she had not been as careful as she should have been. Someone else from town could have seen where she was going, and made the connection.

Zorua rounded a bend in the trail, and there was Luxray, running toward her, breathing heavily and tongue hanging out. Riolu trailed behind him.

“Where’s Arcanine,” Luxray panted, “warn him…bounty hunters…”

“It’s too late.” Zorua said, as Luxray came to a stop in front of her.

“What?” Luxray asked, sitting down in the snow to catch his breath, “how did they-”

“I don’t know, but they were waiting for us on the shortcut. We walked right into it.”

“How did…you get away?” Riolu asked, catching up to Luxray, even more out of breath.

“They let me go.”

Riolu sat too, leaning against Luxray’s flank. Zorua paced in front of them as she explained the situation, too angry to sit still.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed Ralts and Snivy spending a lot of time with Bayleef, the last few days,” Riolu said once she had finished.

Zorua nodded, sitting down beside the others.

“The two of them traded shifts to be on the north watch together this morning,” Riolu said, “they snuck Team ACT in early to meet with Bayleef while I was still asleep and Luxray was out to check on the south watch.”

“We came as fast as we could. We thought we could take the shortcut and reach you first.” Luxray shook his head. “Bayleef was quite proud of himself. Zorua, someone is offering a million Poké for him.”

“A million?” Zorua stared for a moment in shock. “What would anyone even do with a million Poké?”

Luxray shrugged. None of them could imagine that much money, or a use for it.

“So, what are we going to do now?” asked Riolu.

“I’m going to Pokémon Square,” Zorua said, “ I owe him my life. Twice.”

Riolu and Luxray looked at each other. “We all owe him our lives,” Luxray said, speaking for both of them, “we’ll come too.”

“I really want you guys to come too,” Zorua said, “but you can’t.

They both stared at her, confused.

“Luxray, you’re the one holding Meadow Town together right now. Everyone who isn’t Bayleef’s minion respects you, and you need a partner you can trust.” Zorua looked to Riolu. “You two are also the strongest Pokémon in Meadow Town. If those ice-types come back, you’re the only ones who have any chance at stopping them.”

“You’re going to need help breaking him out, though.” Riolu objected.

“We don’t know where he is or how he’s guarded,” Zorua said, “no one will recognize me, and Alakazam can’t read me. I’m going to scout around, and when I know what we’re up against, I’ll Pelipper Mail you.

“I don’t like this plan,” Riolu said, “but I can’t argue with your logic. You were always the smart one of us.”

When Riolu said ‘us’, they all knew knew he didn’t mean himself, Zorua, and Luxray, he meant himself, Zorua, and Treecko. Zorua went to him, putting her head on his shoulder, and Riolu wrapped his arms around her neck. Luxray’s forelegs wrapped around them both, pulling the three Pokémon together.

“I love you guys,” Zorua said, “please, be careful.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

1. Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper, Berkely Pub. Group, 1962.
 
Chapter 9: Absol and Arcanine New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 9: Absol and Arcanine

The sound of voices from the courtyard several hours later alerted her that Team ACT and the others had returned. Team ACT was there, along with Team Easy; Team Mighty; Blastoise, Swampert, and Feraligatr of Team Hydro; Aromatisse; and Delphox, but it was the large Arcanine at the center of the group who caught her attention. Absol recognized him instantly from the wanted flier; his back and flanks were covered in fresh wounds, and his coat matted with blood and mud, but she could still make out the pattern of old scars beneath.

Hogtied and muzzled, Arcanine still struggled feebly as he lay on his side in the snow, hot breath melting a puddle around his face. Despite the heavy ropes which restrained him, the others kept a cautious distance.

“...down to my hut,” Aromatisse was saying.

A purple glow surrounded Arcanine, lifting him into the air, and as he rose, his head happened to turn in her direction. Their eyes met briefly. Absol expected them to be cold and merciless, or empty like a feral’s, but they were not; there was anger and fear there, pain and grief, and a spark of curiosity. Involuntarily, she took a step forward, then another.

Under Alakazam’s power, Arcanine began to drift toward the courtyard gate, and their contact was broken. Absol looked around, realizing that she now stood fully exposed in the courtyard. Though the snow had ceased, the cold wind whipped around her, lifting her blanket to infiltrate her thick coat. The teams all fell in around Arcanine as he drifted through the gate. She wanted to turn and retreat to the comfort of the manor, but her curiosity overcame her discomfort. Pulling her blanket tightly about her shoulders and turning her face away from the wind, Absol followed them down the hill.

Pokémon stopped what they were doing and gathered to watch as the procession passed, cheering Team ACT and the others, and shouting taunts at Arcanine; from each group they passed, though, Absol could hear whispered questions and discussion as well.

“Who’s the Arcanine?”

“…never seen him before…”

“…what’s the bounty?”

“…all those scars…”

“…years ago in Treasure Town…”

“…must be strong if they were willing to split so many ways…”

Only a handful of their audience seemed to have any idea who Arcanine was, or what his crimes had been. Everyone knew and respected Team ACT, and Team Hydro, and even Team Mighty. Many of the Pokémon here had explored with them, or even been rescued by them, and it was natural that they would celebrate their success. There was more to the excitement than that, though; the whole town didn’t turn out to cheer for a successful rescue or exploration. No, they weren’t all here to laud Team ACT and the others; they were here to scorn Arcanine. The idea made Absol uncomfortable. Maybe he was a bad Pokémon, and maybe he needed to be captured to protect other Pokémon, but no Pokémon ever set out become a murderer and an outcast, did he? They ought to pity him for whatever poor choices he’d made to end up here, rather than cheer his demise, oughtn’t they?

Alakazam floated at the head of the group, seemingly oblivious to the excitement around him. Charizard and Tyranitar walked several paces behind him and to either side; the former waving and greeting everyone as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening, and the latter silent and brooding, avoiding eye contact with their audience. Tyranitar was always reserved, but today he seemed to be troubled by something.

Team Hydro walked behind them, Blastoise to the right of Arcanine, Feraligatr and Swampert to the left. Team Mighty dashed to and fro with the same boundless energy they always seemed to have, stopping to relate incoherent bits of the morning’s adventure to any onlooker whom they could corner before dashing off to keep up with Alakazam.

“…and Tyranitar fell.”

“And he jumped.”

“And he ran.”

“And we chased.”

“And we tackled.”

“And we bit…”

Aromatisse and Team Easy walked together in the rear, talking quietly amongst themselves. Grey and Pink didn’t seem to socialize much with the other Pokémon in Pokémon Square, and she’d never seen the two of them apart for more than a few minutes. They spent almost as much time in Team ACT’s library as she did, if one didn’t count sleeping, and when they left, they seemed to always go back to their team base, or head out into the woods together, rather than going down into town. She hadn’t seen them playing in the meadow in the afternoons, or at the bar by the river where Tyranitar and Charizard and many of the other teams gathered to talk, or loitering around the food stands to eat and chat.

Absol followed at a distance, happy to avoid the attention.

Three young Pokémon, a Sneasel, Cleffa, and Tyrogue, edged forward out of the crowd as Alakazam passed, giggling and whispering together. Tyrogue darted forward, running between Tyranitar and Blastoise to tug on Arcanine’s tail before scurrying back into the crowd. Sneasel ran in next. Tyranitar turned around, catching her with a heavy open-handed cuff which send her sailing back several meters to land unconscious in a bush. Cleffa stared in surprise for several seconds before slipping back into the crowd, apparently deciding not to try his luck.

Tyranitar was definitely grumpy this morning, Absol though. He hadn’t used claws, and Sneasel would probably be fine when she woke, but that sort of display of force was uncharacteristic for him.

They reached Aromatisse’s hut. Tyranitar stepped forward to hold the door curtain aside; Alakazam and Arcanine floated inside, followed by Aromatisse, and then he and Charizard stood in front of the door, blocking the onlookers outside.

Absol made her way through the crowd in front of Aromatisse’s hut. Finally Team Mighty noticed her. They broke off from the crowd and came running over to greet her.

“Arcanine was the strongest criminal.”

“With the biggest bounty.”

“We chased and chased and chased…”

Absol found herself unable to share their enthusiasm, but she didn’t want to be rude. “I’m g-glad all of you are b-back s-safe,” she said, leaning in to touch noses with each of them in turn, “b-but it’s fr-reezing out h-here. C-can you c-come up to the m-manor later and t-tell me ab-bout it?”

“We’ll come visit the soonest,” they agreed.

“It will be the best story.”

“About the fastest hunt.”

Charizard waved and smiled as she approached, but Tyranitar seemed reluctant to meet her gaze. Had she done something to upset him, Absol wondered, or had something gone wrong on the job, and he was embarrassed? The Mightyenas didn’t seem to think anything was wrong. The two of them parted, allowing her to pass between them into the hut.

The stove was cold, but it was still much warmer in the hut than outside. She stopped in front of the door to shake the mud and slush from her paws. Arcanine lay on his side on the bed where she had awakened two and a half weeks ago, after collapsing at the crossroads; in front of him, Alakazam and Aromatisse argued.

“Really, Alakazam! You could have called them off sooner. It wasn’t necessary to maul him like this.”

“He’s dangerous, Aromatisse. You know that as well as I do. He killed five Pokémon in Treasure Town, and one in Meadow Town.”

Meadow Town? Absol though. The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t remember what significance it held.

“And look at all these old scars. Where does a Pokémon get scars like this? Don’t just stand there, help me get some of these ropes off.”

“The ropes stay on, Aromatisse”

“I get to treat him to my satisfaction before you send him to Treasure Town. That was our agreement, remember? Get them off, all but the muzzle, forepaws, and hindpaws. I’m sure you can control him in this condition.”

A soothing scent began to fill the room, the same one that Aromatisse had used that night she’d arrived. Alakazam grumbled as he undid the ropes. Arcanine winced at each movement, his jaws clenching, but he remained silent.

Alakazam finished untying his prisoner and backed away. His forelegs no longer bound to his hindlegs, Arcanine wriggled over onto his back and tried to stretch out to his full length. His face contorted in pain as he tried to stretch his back legs out behind him, as if that one movement hurt him more than all of his wounds combined. A soft whimper escaped through his clenched teeth, the first sound that Absol had heard him make, and his limbs drooped in defeat. Her own discomfort and Arcanine’s dangerous reputation forgotten, Absol wanted to push Aromatisse and Alakazam aside and run to comfort him.

“Now hold still,” Aromatisse said, hopping up onto the bed, “and let Aromatisse have look at you.”

Absol saw panic in Arcanine’s eyes, and he tried to wriggle away as Aromatisse climbed onto the bed with him. The motion ground the straw-stuffed fabric of the bed into his wounds, and he yelped in pain.

With no apparent fear, Aromatisse leaned over Arcanine’s chest. A faint blue glow surrounded her hands as she traced the outline of one of the Mightyena’s bites, and the skin where she touched began to regrow. It did not heal fully; Aromatisse seemed like an experienced Pokémon, despite her size and motherly manner, and Absol was certain that she could have done more. Perhaps she and Alakazam had agreed not to heal him completely, so that he would be easier to handle?

Aromatisse moved to the next bite and repeated her healing. It was enough, at least, to stop the flow of blood which still oozed from the wounds, and reduce the risk of infection.

“Now lift him up for me,” Aromatisse told Alakazam. Arcanine rose into the air again in the purple glow of Alakazam’s Confusion. Once Aromatisse had finished healing him, she took a pot of some strong-smelling herbal paste from a shelf, and smeared it over the newly grown pink skin on each wound before wrapping them all in bandages.

Absol heard the curtain rustle behind her, and turned to see Delphox enter the hut. Now she remembered; Meadow Town was where they had gotten that first report about the Cryogonals, the one that Delphox had received before she arrived in Pokémon Square. Could there be a connection?

“I saw the bounty on the desk this morning,” Absol said, “how did you find him?”

“He attacked Meadow Town four days ago,” Alakazam answered, not looking away from Arcanine, “abducted the mayor to a mystery dungeon, and tried to force him to open some treasure chest. He’s also wanted for five murders in Treasure Town, a few years ago.”

“Oh.” Absol was disappointed. It must have been just a coincidence. Meadow Town wasn’t that far away; it made sense that they’d send to Pokémon Square for help with a bandit.

Arcanine’s eyes drooped closed and Absol could see his muscles beginning to relax. Absol was feeling sleepy from Aromatisse’s scent, and Alakazam and Delphox looked like they were too. There must have been something else though, in the salve, or a move she hadn’t noticed Aromatisse use, to put him to sleep so quickly.

“I recognize him,” Delphox said, “those scars are unmistakable. That was big news for a while; everyone was going to find him and get rich. There was a rumor that some super-powerful psychic no one had seen before was searching for him too.”

“What do you mean, a psychic whom no one had seen before?” Absol wondered.

“I mean, no one recognized his species.” Delphox shrugged. “Nothing ever came of it, though, and then the Times Gears thing happened, and everyone forgot about him.”

Arcanine began to whimper in his sleep. His legs twitched and his head jerked up and down. Absol could see the muscles in his jaws straining against the rope. She turned away.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Arcanine didn’t know why he was alive. When he had collapsed under the weight of the Mightyenas, he hadn’t expected to get up again. What did they want with him? Why were they healing him? He didn’t fear death. Death was something that happened to every normal Pokémon, eventually, like eating or breathing. While he wasn’t eager to die, it held no terror for him. He didn’t really think he feared pain, either; he had always endured, and he would always endure. What he feared was helplessness; being tied up, unable to fight, unable to run.

He had struggled for an hour or two, he though, after waking up, bound, still on the shortcut through Haunted Forest, while his captors waited for the psychic contact to teleport back to whatever town this was. Now, exhausted, he was beginning to think clearly again.

Zorua would be safely back in Meadow Town by now. She would travel to that cave by Sinister Woods where they’d spend the night, and find that he had not been there. Maybe they would come looking for him; Zorua and Riolu and Luxray. They were brave, and clever, but they were no match for all of the teams here. As strong as he was, Arcanine knew that he wasn’t either, even if he were healthy. He needed to control himself, stop panicking, and wait for his wounds to heal and his captors to become complacent.

He couldn’t remember killing five Pokémon in Treasure Town; just those two Magnemites; they’d deserved it, though. Maybe that had been his mistake, running away instead of going back for the rest of them, just like he should have finished off Bayleef, rather than expecting the coward to be grateful for his rescue. That was all back near the very beginning of his memories. Everything there was indistinct, fading in and out of view like Ghost-types in the fog. Perhaps he had killed five Pokémon. Maybe they’d deserved it too. Maybe he’d never seen them, trapped in one of the burning buildings while he fled.

Aromatisse’s scent of earth and rain and flowers faded into a stinging chemical odor. The lights glared down, implacable, reducing the rest of the room to darkness and shadowy outlines. Even with his eyes closed, there was no relief; it burned pink through his eyelids, making his eyes water and his head ache.

His whole body was agony. A hundred bits of shrapnel ground against muscle and bone with every movement, every breath. He could not feel them as distinct wounds, just a solid mass of pain which enveloped everything below his head. Unable to dissolve them like spikes or razor leaves or other natural projectiles, his body was healing closed around them, entrapping them.

He tried to push himself to his feet. Something wrapped around his shoulders and hips, holding him firmly against the cold metal of the table. There was a wire cage around his muzzle secured by straps which reached behind his head, out of his field of vision. He tried to turn his head, to see where he was, to escape the unrelenting glare, but the muzzle was secured to a bolt in the table, and wouldn’t move more than a few centimeters. In panicked reflex his body jerked upward, attempting to break free of his bonds. The straps dug into inflamed wounds. The pain was incredible; nothing he had experienced in two decades of battling and training could compare. The room faded to silence, and his vision went white.

He was still laying on the table. His throat felt like he had been screaming, but he didn’t remember hearing himself. There were voices beside him, Human-speech. A pair of hands grabbed fistfuls of his mane. There was a click and a hum. Something cold and vibrating pressed against the the back of his neck. It slid slowly against his skin, leaving a trail of cold as it passed. Something cold and wet pressed against his exposed skin. There were Humans on either side of him, leaning their weight against his neck. Something jabbed into the cold spot, followed by a brief stinging, burning sensation. The feeling of cold began to spread slowly down his back. As strange as it was, the sensation had a flavor, a feeling like dirty, silty water in the back of his throat.

The clippers buzzed again, leaving chilly lines of exposed skin down his flanks. The hand operating them was none too gentle, and Arcanine winced and whimpered as they jabbed into his wounds or caught on torn skin and blood-matted fur. His whole body began to feel warm, and his limbs felt heavy, as if someone had turned up the artificial gravity in one of Mewtwo’s science fiction novels, and he was sinking into the table. His entire body felt as if it were pulsing with each heartbeat.

Hands groped at the back of his head, and the straps holding the muzzle fell away. They gripped handfuls of his mane again, lifting his head from the table. His lower jaw hung limply open. He tried to resist. He should have had no difficulty; he could snap a Stantler’s femur between his molars. He tried to summon his fire,but there was nothing there, just a cold, empty place inside of him where the warmth should have been. He tried to move a paw, to curl his toes, but his body failed to respond.

One of the Humans held a tool which looked something like a large plastic ice pick. Arcanine hung there, unable to move, as it slid into his throat. A plastic tube slid in after it, scraping its way painfully down his throat. He wanted to gag, he wanted to cough, but he couldn’t.

Fingers prodded roughly at the wounds on his back. Whatever was in that needle in his neck wasn’t anesthetic, or at least not enough. That was probably intentional, he though. The Humans didn’t care if they hurt him; he was just a curiosity, a science experiment. Mewtwo was still here, somewhere, trapped in Giovanni’s machine. Mewtwo would feel his pain, his fear. Mewtwo was the prize.

The two of them always had a special connection, even beyond what Mewtwo shared with the other clones. Arcanine had read his files; he didn’t really understand most of the biochemistry stuff, but he knew he had a little bit of Mewtwo’s own DNA, and he’d always wondered whether he wasn’t a tiny bit psychic himself. He’d always cherished that connection, and the place it gave him as Mewtwo’s confidant, but now he wished he could die rather than be used as a tool to harm their leader.

Something jabbed into his back, one of the long muscles along the spine, just posterior to his ribs, sending waves of pain up and down his back. He could feel it wiggling around before it withdrew. The sequence repeated slightly lower on his back, and again, and again. He couldn’t tell what was happening, but he imagined a pair of forceps pulling bits of metal from his flesh. Nurse Joy had used tools like that, when she had helped Wigglytuff and Vaporeon treat their injuries back on Cinnabar.

Arcanine had no basis to judge time, but his torture seemed to go on for hours. After completing his right side, the Humans working on him departed. Over the sound of the ventilator, he could hear movement around him, other Humans talking somewhere nearby . They must want to keep him alive, he thought; if they’d only wanted to hurt him, there was no need for all this effort. Would they put him in a Ball? What would it be like? Would he be conscious? Aware of his surroundings? Would it be like this, able to see and hear and feel, but totally helpless to react? Would he ever see the others again?

After a little while the Humans returned; the same group or different, he couldn’t tell over the smell of antiseptic and the blinding light. They began again on his other side.

#Arcanine.#

The light was gone.

#Arcanine?#

A gentle hand stroked his muzzle; a familiar scent. His eyes opened. Mewtwo’s large violet eyes stared back at him, filled with pain and dulled from exhaustion, but no less full of love than they had ever been. He supported himself with an arm around Blastoise’s shoulders.

He was free now. They were in the gymnasium. Arcanine could see many of the others gathered around; Venosaur and Charizard and many of the younger clones, but some were missing. Where was the rest of his team? Sandslash was there, but where were Vulpix and Vaporeon? At the back of the group stood a Human, in a white lab coat smeared with blood. Arcanine wondered whether the blood was his.

He wanted to raise his head, to look around for the others, but everything hurt so much that he didn’t want to move. He wanted to speak, but his throat was raw; he managed an unintelligible gurgle which sent him into a fit of coughing that set off flashing lights of pain in the back of his skull. His tongue reached out, curling around Mewtwo’s fingers.

#I know, old friend,# Mewtwo said, #but we haven’t much time, and I haven’t the strength to carry you. Giovanni’s helicopter escaped; he knows how close he was to breaking me, and he’ll be back.#


Absol and Alakazam were gone. Aromatisse and Delphox chatted by the stove on the other side of the hut. Blastoise stood in the corner, still watching him, though not as warily as before. There had been a Blastoise in his dream, Arcanine thought. He was so close to remembering, now. There had been other Pokémon there as well; his friends, no, his family. A great hall carved into black stone where they had trained and played. There had been big violet eyes in a short-furred grey face, hard as steel but full of compassion, a species he recognized but somehow could not name.

His whole body ached. His head throbbed. He shut out the pain, trying to focus on the memory of the dream before it slipped away like all of the others. He wished that he could speak, to ask Aromatisse to turn off her scent so that he could think clearly, if only for a few minutes. There had to be something there he could hold onto, a place, a name...

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Team Mighty stopped by to visit her at the manor before Alakazam sent them out to Snowcliff Village that afternoon. Their paws were clean when they entered the library this time, despite the mess of slush and mud in the courtyard. The same was not true for the bag of pies they had brought to share with her, which was covered in mud and thoroughly soaked. The Mightyenas wolfed theirs down without seeming to notice, so Absol ate hers without complaint. They really were trying, she though, even if they couldn’t quite get things right. Once she was back to normal it would be fun to explore with them for a while before she returned to Mount Freeze, like Mother had with Team Go-Getters.

Their story was barely more coherent now than it had been earlier on the road to Aromatisse’s hut. She did learn that Tyranitar had been knocked out; Charizard had failed to mention that when he recounted his version of the story. Perhaps that explained his earlier grumpiness.

“You guys be careful out there,” Absol said, touching noses with each of them in turn.

“We’ll be the carefulest,” they assured her.

“And find Kyurem the first.”

“And come back the soonest.”

After they left, Absol tried to work, but her mind kept returning to the outlaw Team ACT had brought in that morning. Eventually she decided to brave the cold again and go visit Aromatisse.

As always, the scents of all the various cooked foods for sale in the Square were wonderful. Living on Mount Freeze, she and Mother and Ninetales had hauled plenty of bags of berries up the mountain in the summer and fall to dry in the sun and store for winter, but cooked food was something she had been familiar with only from stories. There were so many kinds of cookies and pies and poffins and other goodies on display, and she wanted to sample them all. Maybe she could find a job on the board that Charizard had shown her, something which didn’t require too much time outside, so she would have Poké to buy them...there wasn’t time for that, of course. She had important work to do already.

A waving Lopunny caught Absol’s attention. “Try some candied Orans?” she offered, “you’ll not find anything sweeter in Pokémon Square.”

Lopunny must have caught her staring, Absol thought, embarrassed.

“They look delicious,” Absol said, “but I’m afraid I haven’t any money.”

Lopunny laughed. “My cousin is Zangoose on Team Razor Wind. He says you walked all the way from Mount Freeze to warn us. Honey, I’ll never be brave enough to join one of those exploration teams searching for Darkrai and Kyurem, but let me do something to help, okay?”

Lopunny piled two handfuls of the berries onto a large leaf, and wrapped it up into a package. Absol hesitated a moment, then accepted.

“Fank you!” Absol said around the mouthful of berries, not wanting to set the package down in the mud, “I’m fur fay’ll be good!

“No,” Lopunny said, “thank you. Whatever is going on, I’m glad we have Pokémon like you to figure it out.”

Arcanine was still there. He lay on the bed on his side where they had left him that morning, looking furious and thoroughly miserable. At least he seemed to be healing well; Aromatisse had already removed the bandages from some of the smaller wounds, and Absol could see the soft fuzz of fur beginning to regrow. He didn’t lift his head, but his eyes followed her as she entered the hut.

“Welcome back, dear,” Aromatisse greeted her

Feraligatr sat in a chair in the corner, his head leaned back against the wall, snoring quietly. Team Hydro must have been taking turns helping to guard Arcanine, she thought.

Arcanine was rubbing his nose back and forth on the edge of the bed. At first, Absol thought he was trying to loosen the rope. That was probably a hopeless endeavor; it was wrapped around his jaws dozens of times, and tied securely around his neck and behind his head. Then she realized he was probably only trying to scratch his nose; he’d been tied up and unable to reach his face all day, and the rough fibers of the ropes were probably irritating.

Absol approached cautiously, and reached out a paw to touch his face. Arcanine didn’t pull away, or lunge at her. She rubbed his nose and jaw, through the ropes. He snorted, blowing warm air across her paw, and sighed in relief.

“Anywhere else?” she asked.

Arcanine lifted his forepaws toward her in answer, and she rubbed around the ropes, and his hindpaws as well. After laying in the snow and mud for hours, he needed a thorough grooming, but Absol was not ready to be quite that familiar.

“You’d make a good healer,” Aromatisse said when she had finished.

“I don’t know,” Absol said, “I’m Dark-type. I don’t even know if I can learn any healing moves.”

“But you feel other Pokémon’s pain. That’s what matters. I know an Umbreon who could probably teach you Moonlight, if you’re interested, even though you might not be quite as effective with it.”

Absol considered. It would certainly be a useful ability to have, and she thought she would enjoy being able to heal other Pokémon, but she would have to give up something else, another move like Snarl or Dark Pulse for which she was better suited. Not permanently, of course; relearning a forgotten move was simple enough with a few days of practice, but it would make her less effective in a fight for now.

“I’ll have to think about it,” Absol said.

The kettle was steaming on the stove, and Aromatisse added the tea.

“What’s going to happen to him in Treasure Town?” Absol asked.

“Team Magnezone has enchanted cages made by Conkeldurr and Gurdurr where they keep outlaws,” Aromatisse said, “they say that moves can’t break them, no matter how strong a Pokémon is.”

“How long will they keep him there?”

“I don’t know. If he really killed six Pokémon, maybe forever.”

“Forever? In a cage? That’s horrible!”

To be trapped for a hundred years or more, alone, not able to play or run. He’s a bad Pokémon, she reminded herself, he killed six people. Those six Pokémon weren’t here, right now, though, starting at her; Arcanine was. There was some connection there, something that she was missing; she could feel it as a subtle tingling of her horn, barely noticeable under the throbbing cold. Absol didn’t know what to do with the feeling. It wasn’t something solid and discrete, like her dream or the constant chill, which she could explain to Team ACT and the others. She didn’t even know if it was related to the current emergency, or something else entirely.

Aromatisse nodded in agreement.

“I know...Team ACT and that wanted flier said he did bad things,” Absol said, “but are we sure that what we’re doing to him is better?”

“No,” Aromatisse agreed, shaking her head, “but what else can we do? If all that is true, we can’t let him go to hurt more Pokémon, can we?”

Absol didn’t answer. She didn’t have an answer.

The tea finished steeping, and Aromatisse poured a mug for herself and a bowl for Absol. Absol began to open the bag of candied Orans, and then stopped, feeling Arcanine staring at her. He was probably hungry, too. They couldn’t very well take off the muzzle so he could eat, and it would be rude to make him watch, wouldn’t it?

She put the bag away.

“What’s wrong?” Aromatisse asked.

Absol explained.

“I’ll tell you what, dear. Lets drink the tea before it gets cold. Team ACT will be back in a couple hours to teleport him to Treasure Town. If it makes you feel better, I’ll make another pot, and I won’t let Alakazam send him on without a bowl of tea and a good meal, no matter how much that old grump complains.”

“Thank you,” Absol said, smiling, “I know I’m being foolish, but…thank you.”

Absol opened the bag. Aromatisse took several of the candied Orans for herself, and placed a handful in front of Absol, leaving another handful in the bag. The two of them talked for a while, sipping tea, while Feraligatr dozed in the corner. Arcanine turned away, and Absol couldn’t decide whether he had fallen asleep, or was only feigning disinterest.

“You ought to get back home,” Aromatisse said eventually, “it’ll be getting dark soon.”

“Oh!” Absol looked up at the windows to see that the sun was already low in the sky. She hadn’t even noticed that the inside of the hut was getting darker. “It is, isn’t it.”

“Would you mind making a delivery on your way, dear? I’ve some potions Team Mighty wanted as soon as possible, but I shouldn’t leave our friend here unattended.”

“Of course,” Absol answered, “but they’ve already left for Snowcliff Village a few hours ago.”

“They insisted on having it delivered quickly.” Aromatisse shrugged and handed her a bag which exuded a strong smell of unfamiliar herbs; several glass bottles clinked against each other inside. “If no one’s there, just leave it in their base. In this weather, it won’t go bad.”

“Okay. Where are they staying?”

“You don’t know?” Aromatisse gave her a mischievous grin. “I was sure they’d’ve invited you over by now.”

Absol blushed, her ears dipping slightly in embarrassment. “They’ve been really friendly, but they haven’t, yet.”

“They’re squatting in Team Meanies’ old base,” Aromatisse said, giving her directions, “you’ll know it when you see it.”

“I’ll find it. Thank you so much!” Absol leaned in to touch noses with Aromatisse, who wrapped her stubby arms around Absol’s neck in a brief hug.

Team Meanies’ former base was indeed unmistakable; a purple dome about the same diameter as Aromatisse’s hut, but shorter, with one large purple ear protruding from the top. The other ear and part of the surrounding roof had collapsed, and the whole structure sagged to one side. The door was a leering mouth surrounded by white-painted shingles arranged like teeth, with two red eyes painted above, and covered by a tattered black curtain.

Though they’d only been in town a week, the place already smelled strongly of Mightyenas. There was another Pokémon’s scent as well; a female Growlithe, Absol thought. She approached and scratched at the wall by the door. There was a faint rustling from inside, but no answer.

“It’s Absol,” she called, scratching again, “I have some potions from Aromatisse.”

This time a voice answered from within the ruined base, quiet and timid, “please leave them by the door.”

Absol set the bag by the door and began to back away; then she stopped. The stuff in the bottles was probably some kind of medicine, she thought, and Team Mighty would be gone for days, which meant that the Pokémon inside was alone and probably ill or injured. She couldn’t leave without at least trying to check on her.

“Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine. Please just leave them.”

“Okay,” Absol said, “it’s by the door, and I’m leaving.”

Absol turned and started back toward the manor. There wasn’t much else she could do, she thought, besides come back tomorrow and ask again. The way Team Mighty flirted with everyone, it wasn’t surprising that they would have another Pokémon living with them. She made it about thirty paces before she heard the voice again, somewhat louder this time.

“Wait. You’re the Absol?”

She turned around again to see a small orange and black muzzle poking through the curtain.

“I, ah, guess so.” She didn’t really like the idea of being the Absol. She was just trying to help, like everyone else. There wasn’t really anything special about that, was there?

“Can you come in?”

Team Meanies’ old base was in even worse condition than it had appeared from the outside. Half of the poles holding up the top of the dome were broken. Chunks of plaster were missing from the walls, and there was a large puddle under the missing ear. Everything smelled like mold and dust. A pile of tangled blankets and cushions lay on the floor under the intact ear, as far as possible from the leaking roof.

Growlithe was sitting in the center of the room, yawning and rubbing her eyes. She must have been asleep already, Absol thought. She was chubby, which was unusual for a Pokémon, particularly a species as energetic as Growlithe. Growlithe stood, deliberately turning her back toward Absol.

“Your legs!” Absol gasped, “what happened?”

Below her knees, both of Growlithe’s hindlegs bent out at unnatural angles. She picked up the bag of potions and walked to the end of the bed furthest from Absol and the door; it was an awkward movement, stepping with each of her forelegs and then hopping with both hindlegs at the same time, and Absol’s hips ached in sympathy just watching her move.

“Bandits,” Growlithe explained, settling on the bed, “Team Mighty saved me, but they didn’t heal right.”

Growlithe pulled a bottle from the bag, held it between her forepaws, and worked the stopper out with her teeth. She tipped it up and grimaced as she took a gulp.

She’s showing me all this on purpose, Absol thought, whatever she wants to talk about, she wants me to know up front that she’s crippled and drugged.

“So you’re part of Team Mighty, too?” Absol asked.

Growlithe laughed and shook her head. “I’ve never been strong enough for that, even before...” she looked back at her ruined legs and shrugged. “I know everyone thinks they’re not too smart, and only care about humping and fighting, but they do their best to take care of me.”

“Have you been to see Aromatisse?”

Growlithe shook her head. “I’ve seen Blissey and Chimecho in Treasure Town, and Kirlia in Boulder Town. They say there’s nothing to do but wait and hope it gets better, or,” Growlithe shuddered, “break them again on purpose”

“It wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it?” Absol said, “we can go right now. I can carry you...”

Growlithe was shaking her head; Absol stopped.

“There’s nothing she can do. I don’t want to be poked at and pitied.”

Absol didn’t know how to answer, so she remained silent, waiting for Growlithe to continue.

Growlithe stared off into the distance for several minutes, and Absol began to shift uncomfortably. She really should be getting back to the manor, she thought.

“They really like you, you know,” Growlithe said eventually.

Absol cocked her head uncertainly.

“Team Mighty, I mean.”

“They seem like good Pokémon,” Absol said.

There was another awkward silence. Absol still didn’t know what Growlithe wanted with her. Was she in need of some sort of help, but too shy to ask? Was she just lonely, with Team Mighty out of town? Was she jealous of the attention that the Mightyenas had been giving her?

“I don’t mean to encroach on your relationship…” Absol began.

Growlithe was shaking her head again. “There’s plenty of Mightyena to go around.”

“Then what-”

“You should leave before it gets darker,” Growlithe said abruptly, “you’re afraid of the dark, right?”

There was no judgment or anger in Growlithe’s voice, just a statement of fact, but Absol felt suddenly defensive. She wanted to argue until she glanced up at the sky through the broken ear. The sun was nearly set already. She didn’t think that anything would really happen to her if she was out after dark, but if she panicked and lost herself in the woods, it would be a terrible, miserable way to spend the night, and she would be so embarrassed when she found her way back in the morning.

“You’re right,” Absol conceded, “but may I come back tomorrow to visit?”

Growlithe hesitated several seconds before replying with a single, quick nod.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Charizard and Tyranitar were the first to arrive in the library the next morning. Charizard looked around the room and then flopped down on the pile of cushions which Absol had just vacated; Tyranitar put down the bag of Apples he’d brought and sat down across from her at the table.

“Think Alakazam is in a better mood this morning?” Charizard asked, staring up at the ceiling.

Tyranitar snorted derisively.

“What happened?” Absol asked.

Charizard rolled over to look at her. “He finally met someone more stubborn that himself. It was your idea though, wasn’t it?”

“What do you…oh, feeding Arcanine?

Charizard nodded. “They argued. Aromatisse insisted it was part of the deal, healing him. She made Alakazam unmuzzle him. He got a bowl of tea, a Big Apple, and some of those candied Orans Lopunny and the Bunearys make. Took his time eating them. Alakazam just stood there glaring at both of them.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“We’re not saying you’re wrong,” Charizard said, “and neither are most of the others. There is something about him, isn’t there?”

Absol and Tyranitar both nodded.

“Also,” Charizard continued, “we only got a fifth-share of the bounty last night; I don’t think Magnezone expected Arcanine would ever turn up again, and he claims he doesn’t have the money.”

“Delphox said people thought he was dead.”

Charizard nodded. “Anyway,” he said, “he’ll be grumpy this morning. He’s not used to not getting his way”

“So how did he get away five years ago? “ Absol asked.

“Story is he jumped off a cliff into Serenity River, couple days east of Treasure Town,” Tyranitar said, “water’s pretty deep there. They never found the body, but since he’s Fire-type, people figured he didn’t survive. That was the last anyone heard of him until Meadow Town.”

Eventually the other arrived. As Arcanine’s capture had occupied everyone’s attention the day before, no one but Delphox had any progress to report.

“As you all know,” Delphox said as Charizard poured tea for everyone, “the main limitation on long distance telepathic communication is that both parties must be attempting to reach each other at the same time; that’s why we arrange contacts in advance by Pelipper. During the Time Gears crisis, the Federation realized there was a need for faster communication in emergencies, and they created a plan where a team of Federation Psychic-types working out of Treasure Town or Pokémon Square could contact every Federation representative in every town at the same time each day.”

That would make a huge difference in how quickly they could search, Absol thought; instead of waiting a week for the Pelippers to get a message to some of the further towns, Alakazam or Delphox or Xatu could make contact that day and teleport out with a team. She wondered why no one had though of it before.

“The main problems was timing the contacts,” Delphox continued, “without a standard way of keeping time between towns, and the change in time moving east or west, they had to make the contact windows two hours long. Most Pokémon didn’t have enough power for more than two or three contacts each day, so it would have taken a lot of Psychic-types to implement.”

Alakazam nodded in agreement.

“Metagross from Team Victory has invented a solution; he calls it a sand-glass. I don’t know how they work, but he claims they’re accurate to within half an hour each day. Once the Time Gears were replaced, no one had much interest in implementing the system, so they’ve been in storage for years.”

“Team Victory?” Absol asked.

“That’s Victini, Metagross, and Alakazam, the leaders of the Federation,” Delphox explained, “they’ve already begun distributing them, but we’re short Psychics. Xatu has agreed to help.” Delphox glanced toward the seer, who nodded in agreement, and then to Alakazam. “We would like to ask for your help as well, and permission to house the Pokémon Square sandglass and several more Federation Psychic-types in the manor.”
 
Chapter 10: Absol and Zorua New

The Desert Cat

Bug Catcher
Chapter 10: Absol and Zorua

So this was Pokémon Square, Zorua thought, staring down into the valley below. It was pretty big, compared to Meadow Town, with forty or fifty buildings around the crossroads at the center of town, and dozens of stalls lining the roads. There were more buildings scattered across the hillsides or tucked into the forest outside of town, and probably more back in the trees that she couldn’t see from here, too. Arcanine would have had some clever way to guess how many.

The weather had been cooperative, at least. It was still colder than it should be for this time of year, but it hadn’t rained or snowed on the way. Pushing herself most of the way through the nights, she’d managed to make it in only five days. She was pretty proud of that, but she was exhausted now, and her paws were sore. She needed to find a place to rest up for a few hours before she began her search.

It was early morning, barely after sunrise, and already the town was bustling with activity. There were Pokémon out in the fields, harvesting berries and tending the bushes. A Mudsdale in a harness and his helpers dragged logs, limbed and bucked into uniform lengths, to a clearing by the river where two Timburr cut notches in the ends while Conkeldurr and Gurdurr prepared a foundation. Vendors along the road bartered and bantered with customers and passers by. Other Pokémon chased each other, played hide-and-seek amongst the buildings and bushes, or just stood around talking. Somewhere down there were Team ACT and their allies; the enemy. Somewhere down there, she hoped, was Arcanine.

Zorua looked herself over once more to be sure of her disguise; it was flawless, indistinguishable from a real Poochyena. Disguised as another Dark-type, she would not raise suspicion from Alakazam or other Psychic-types who might try to read her. Unlike the more complex illusions that her mother or other Zoroarks could make, her simple personal disguise required no concentration or effort to maintain; so long as she avoided being hit hard enough to cause injury, the effect would sustain itself until she dismissed it, and Poochyena’s shape and size were similar enough to her own that no one would find her movements suspicious.

As she started down the hill into town, Zorua considered how to begin her search. If Team Act had Teleported directly back to Pokémon Square after capturing Arcanine, the news was a week old now. Pokémon were probably not discussing it any longer, and asking strangers on the street might arouse suspicion. For now, she thought, she would mingle and explore the town; maybe she could pick up his scent. Tonight she could check out some of those outlying buildings more closely. It was also possible, she knew, that Arcanine was no longer in Pokémon Square, or had never been here at all. She thought she remembered him saying that it was Treasure Town, another week’s walk north around the bay, where he had gotten into trouble, and Team ACT could have taken him there directly.

No one paid her much attention as she walked through town. The stalls lining the street in the Square offered all sorts of goods; scarves and orbs and food and bags and anything else a Pokémon could want. She needed a new bag, she thought, since Team ACT had stolen Arcanine’s. It would be nice to have one in her size, too; she didn’t need a big one like Arcanine’s, just enough for some Poké and a few berries.

Too bad she’d left all her money back in Meadow Town, under the loose floorboard in the closet. She didn’t even have anything to pay the Pelippers. Just like Creepy Tunnel, she’d been too upset to plan, rushing off to fix everything herself. Arcanine would have disapproved. She’d keep her eyes open, though. Maybe she could steal something; she didn’t really want to be a thief, but no one would recognize her, and it was for a good cause, right?

She didn’t pick up Arcanine’s scent around town; she thought she smelled Tyranitar and Charizard several times, but the scents weren’t strong enough to follow. They probably lived in one of those bases in the woods outside town; she could check those later.

Following the mouth-watering scent of cooking food and Chesto Berry tea, Zorua found a bar by the river tended by an old Ampharos. The back third of the building was built of stacked logs, while the front two-thirds was a large open patio with two rows of thick logs supporting the roof. Heavy tarps rolled up around the sides looked like they were intended to be unrolled to enclose the rest of the structure during bad weather. Right now, the place was quiet and mostly empty, but judging by the dents and cuts and burns which marked the posts and furniture, it could get rowdy at times. A tough-looking Zangoose, Scyther, and Sandslash ate breakfast a table near the center of the room, and several small Pokémon sat at or on the bar, chatting with Ampharos while he grilled skewers of berries and vegetables.

Zorua’s stomach growled, reminding her that she’d been in too much of a hurry on the trip from Meadow Town to eat more than a few berries she found along the road. She wandered in and jumped up onto a chair at one of the many unoccupied tables. The smell, and the atmosphere of the place, reminded her of the lodge at home. It would be a pleasant place to rest, and maybe overhear some news, even if she couldn’t eat.

After a few minutes, Ampharos noticed her and came over to the table.

“Mornin’,” Ampharos greeted her with a friendly smile.

“Morning.”

“Get you anything?”

“Well, no,” Zorua said, “it smells great, but I don’t have any money.”

“New in town?

Zorua nodded.

“You look like you’ve been on the road a while. Let’s call it a free sample. Sweet, sour, or spicy?”

“Ooh! Spicy,” Zorua said excitedly.

Ampharos left, and Zorua looked down at herself. She was looking a bit dirty and ragged, she though. Her basic illusion didn’t hide her condition, it only made her look, sound, and smell like a different species or individual. She could give herself virtually any appearance she wanted, and it would appear to interact properly with the environment; further changes, like making dirty fur appear clean, or wet fur appear dry, required more attention. Mostly, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Ampharos returned, bearing a small bowl of tea and a skewer of roasted Berries and vegetables, cut into bite-sized pieces for for someone her size. The smell was wonderful, and she was already salivating as Ampharos set it down in front of her. Zorua dug in immediately, not even remembering to thank him; it was hot and spicy and delicious.

By the time she finished eating, Zorua was feeling drowsy. She curled up on the chair with her muzzle on her paws, and allowed her eyes to close. That team at the other table was talking about the weather, and something about Kyurem and mystery dungeons. Ordinarily she would have been interested, but right now, all she really wanted was a nap.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Of course Team ACT lived in the biggest, nicest house in town. Save a few of the outlying houses like her mother’s, Zorua thought, all of Meadow Town could have fit inside their courtyard. Obviously, kidnapping paid pretty well. Tyranitar was up on a platform of logs, doing something to one of the large trees in the courtyard. His scent, and Charizard’s and Alakazam’s, were the strongest, but from the many tracks in the wet ground outside the gate and the recent scents of other Pokémon, she guessed that many of the local Pokémon frequented the manor as well. After breakfast and a nap and a bath she felt much better, and she figured she could wait and watch for a while.

Hearing voices on the path down to Pokémon Square, Zorua shrank back into the bushes along the trail. Delphox, Espeon, and Umbreon passed by into the courtyard. Half an hour later, Metang and Beldum floated down to town, carrying an empty wooden crate between them. Charizard, Absol, and a pair of Eevees ate lunch under a large Pecha bush in the courtyard, then went back inside; Absol was wearing a black and red checkered blanket with one end tied around her neck, and the other hanging down across her back like a cape. Metang and Beldum returned; the crate was full this time, but she couldn’t make out its contents.

The weather was perfect, just chilly enough to make the warm sun feel wonderful on her fur, and after a couple hours, Zorua began to get sleepy again. It was time to do something else, she thought. She probably wasn’t in any real danger here, even if she fell asleep and got caught. The courtyard was all scent-marked, but not out here, so Team ACT didn’t consider this their territory, and there were enough Pokémon coming and going on the roads and trails that a stranger sleeping under a bush wasn’t too suspicious; still, she’d rather remain anonymous for now.

Zorua took the long way back to town, following one of the trails which circled around through the forest; not for any practical reason, but because she didn’t know what to do next. There had been no scent of Arcanine around the manor or in town. After dark, when there would be less Pokémon around, she could sneak into the courtyard, maybe even into the manor, and look around, but she didn’t really expect to find him there.

The trail brought her down around the other side of town to a large clearing. A dozen or so Pokémon were there already, mostly other quadrupeds. There was an Absol in the group; Zorua thought it was the same one she’d seen at the manor, but she wasn’t wearing the blanket now, and Zorua wasn’t sure. The group seemed to be in the process of dividing itself into teams, not by intentional selection, but chance movement as Pokémon talked, with one team coalescing around Absol and the other around Rapidash and Machop. This would be a good opportunity to get to know people, she thought, so long as the game didn’t get too rough. Her illusion could survive some bumps, but if she got hit too hard, or pinned down, she wouldn’t be able to keep it going.

Attempting to look nonchalant, she wandered over and sat down between the two groups. When no one seemed to notice her, she stood, scratched her ear, and took a couple steps closer to Absol’s group. Liepard glanced up, examined her for several seconds, and returned to her conversation with Meowth and Absol.

The grass rustled beneath her paws as she took another step, and Jolteon and Flareon turned to face her.

“Come on,” Jolteon said, waving her over, “we’ve room for another.”

“Thanks,” Zorua said, moving over to sit beside them, “what are we playing?”

“We call it Pawball,” Flareon said, “it’s pretty simple; knock the ball into the other team’s net for a point. Playing rough is okay, but no Moves or fighting. Also, you can’t pick up the ball.”

“Got it,” Zorua said. It sounded simple enough.

“New here?” Jolteon asked, “I don’t think we’ve seen you before”

Zorua nodded.

“Where you from?”

Zorua’s first instinct was to lie, to name someplace else, like Boulder Town. What if another Pokémon in the group had been there, though? She didn’t know enough about any other towns to make up a convincing story. Anyway, Meadow Town wasn’t a suspicious place to be from. It wasn’t that far; there were probably other Pokémon in Pokémon Square who had lived in Meadow Town. Her mother had even come here sometimes to sell her potions.

“Meadow Town,” Zorua answered.

The name got Absol’s attention; she excused herself from Meowth and Liepard to join them.

“You’re from Meadow Town?” Absol asked, “were you there when Arcanine attacked?”

Zorua stared for a moment, shocked. Was that what Bayleef had told them? She’d never really liked the mayor; he was boring and grumpy and selfish, but he was still mostly an okay Pokémon. She hadn’t had any difficulty believing he or Ralts or Snivy could have recognized Arcanine and turned him in for a share of the bounty, but she hadn’t thought any of them mean enough to make up a story like that.

Absol seemed to misinterperet her silence for reluctance to talk about it. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business, is it?”

“Um, yeah,” Zorua said, “I was there, but he-”

“You guys ready to play?” Rapidash called.

“I guess we shouldn’t keep everyone waiting,” Absol said, “but can you tell me about it later?”

Machop was handing out green scarves to their team; Zorua saw that the other team were already all wearing red ones. She slipped her own red scarf off and allowed Machop to place a green one around her neck. Absol and Rapidash faced off across the ball in the center of the field, with Machop standing next to them, and the remaining Pokémon spread out on their own sides of the field. Zorua stayed at the back of her team, not wanting to risk her illusion getting caught up in the fight for the ball.

“Ready?” Machop asked.

Absol and Rapidash nodded in unison.

“Okay, go!”

Zorua was glad she’d stayed out of the way as the teams collided. No one was using moves, like Flareon said, but they were all playing pretty rough. The ball came rolling toward her side of the field, with a pair of Nidorans in pursuit. Zorua didn’t want to chase after it; she really didn’t want to be here at all, playing this dumb game while there was work to do. She needed to put on a show of enjoying it, though, or the others would start to wonder why she was here. She ran after the ball halfheartedly, careful to stay out of the Nidorans’ way.

They played for a while, Zorua trying to her best to stay near the action without getting involved. The other team scored, then her team scored, and the other team again. Eventually someone kicked the ball off into the woods. While some of the others went off to find it, Zorua lay down in the shade. She hadn’t been playing hard enough to need a break, but she didn’t feel like helping search; besides, if they lost the ball, it would be a good excuse to quit, right?

Absol lay down nearby in the sun. Jolteon and Flareon joined them, both looking somewhat battered. Jolteon was favoring a forepaw which Rapidash had stepped on.

“Want to try out that Moonlight again?” Flareon asked.

“Sure,” Absol said, getting up, “I’m not sure I can do it right now, but let’s try. Can you guys sit together here?”

After a few days practice with Umbreon, Absol thought she was figuring it out, but so far she’d only been able to make it work at night, and only when she was calm. Right now, in the daylight and the excitement of the game, she didn’t think she could draw on her energy in the sort of peaceful, relaxed way which Moonlight required.

The two Eeveelutions sat side by side in front of her, and Absol placed a forepaw on each of their foreheads. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to slow her breathing and heartbeat. She imagined the cool, silver light of the moon shining off of her fur like Umbreon had shown her, radiating out along her outstretched forelegs and flowing down over Flareon and Jolteon.

Absol could feel the pair of them there, still and trusting under her paws. She could feel the power inside her, waiting to be tapped. A Snarl or Dark Pulse would bring it out instantly, explosively, but that wasn’t what she wanted right now. The energy wasn’t inherently curative or injurious, it simply was, waiting inside her to be used.

No matter how hard she concentrated, Absol couldn’t find the calmness she needed.

“I’m sorry,” Absol said, opening her eyes, “I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.”

“It’s okay,” Jolteon answered, “you’ve only been at it for a few days.”

The three of them lay back down.

“What were you saying about Meadow Town, earlier?” Absol asked.

There was no reason not to tell them the whole story now, Zorua thought, except for her own involvement, but where to start?

“First,” Zorua began, “Arcanine didn’t attack Meadow Town; the Ice-types did. Arcanine rescued us-”

“Ice-types?” Absol asked intently.

“Yeah,” Zorua said, “they were weird Pokémon that no one saw before. There were some shaped like a giant snowflake, and little black and orange triangle ones, and two that were also Ghost-type-”

Absol stood abruptly. Zorua flinched, thinking for a moment that Absol was angry.

“Would you come back to the manor with me?” Absol asked, “I think Team ACT and the others need to hear this.”

“The manor?” Zorua was pretty sure she knew what Absol meant, but she didn’t want to sound like she’d already been checking the place out.

“Team ACT’s base,” Absol explained, pointing across the valley, “it’s that big earth and stone building on the hill.”

What was Absol suddenly so excited about, Zorua wondered. Before the game, she’d seemed interested in Arcanine, and now it was the Ice-types. This would be the perfect opportunity to spy on Team ACT, and maybe even ask questions. It was exactly what she came here for, but it was too fast and easy. Zorua’s instincts told her that this had to be a trap, that there was some other plot in motion here besides her own. She wanted to refuse, and demand explanations first.

“Um, sure,” she said instead, “right now?”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The manor felt dark and foreboding as she stepped through the large doorway, like entering a mystery dungeon. Inside, she paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust. It wasn’t nearly as dark inside as she had expected; windows at regular intervals around the outside wall allowed plenty of light into the room.

In the center of the large main room was a wooden frame almost as tall as the ceiling supporting two large bottles made of clear glass. The bottom bottle was upright, and the top inverted, and a slow stream of sand trickled down the narrow neck connecting them, forming a conical pile in the bottom bottle. Beside it, a Metang was pouring more sand into several smaller bottles, not yet mounted on their own frames. Zorua had no idea what any of it was for.

Absol led her through the curtain at the other side of the room and into the library. Zorua had never really been interested in reading, but it was still a pretty impressive collection; she hadn’t know that many books even existed.

Two Pokémon were already in the room, a pair of Eevees. They were sitting on one of the room’s several tables, surrounded by stacks of books. Zorua recognized them immediately; they’d been at the back of the group who attacked her and Arcanine on the shortcut.

“Hey guys,” Absol greeted the pair, “Poochyena, this is Grey and Pink; they’re Team Easy. Can you guys help me find everyone? Poochyena says the Cryogonals and some other Ice-types attacked Meadow Town.”

There was something not quite right about how Grey moved, Zorua thought as Team Easy passed them on the way to the exit. Something very familiar; a biped’s interpretation of how a quadruped should walk. Just like her mother, when she’d disguised herself as Sylveon.

Charizard was the first to arrive. He smiled and nodded to the two of them as he entered, then went to the stove and began to make tea. Tyranitar arrived next, with a basket full of Berries, then Xatu and Alakazam, and finally Team Easy returned with Delphox. Everyone seemed friendly enough, but it was still intimidating being in a room with so many strong Pokémon, especially Pokémon who might not be so friendly if they knew who she really was.

There were cushions and stuff scattered around the room, but Zorua didn’t feel like relaxing right now. She sat on the floor near the stove as the others found places around her.

“Everyone’s here,” Absol said, “can you tell us what you were telling me earlier?”

Zorua began with waking up to fighting in the square in front of the lodge, and rushing out to help. That part was true. She filled in the details of what had happened inside the lodge based on what Riolu and Luxray told her afterward, since she had left to fetch Arcanine as soon as she saw that they were totally outmatched.

“…then Zorua and Riolu came back with Arcanine and they battled all the Ice-types. Mostly Arcanine ‘cuz he’s way stronger than everyone else.”

It felt weird to talk about herself in third person, Zorua thought; she reminded herself that she wasn’t Zorua now, she was Poochyena. There wasn’t really a Poochyena in Meadow Town, but there could have been, and she could have been trapped in the lodge with the other Pokémon, and she could have really seen all those things.

“Zorua tried to wake up Treecko…but he…she…”

Her throat felt tight, and her eyes were stinging. No, she told herself, she wasn’t going to break down in front of all these other Pokémon. She wasn’t Zorua, Treecko’s best friend, she was Poochyena. Poochyena was strong, and she wouldn’t cry over some dead Grass-type.

“…he was…”

Zorua turned away. This wasn’t something she could hide effectively with her illusion, any more than being dirty; she could hide her tears, but there was no way to disguise the breaks in her voice between breaths. Someday, when she was Zoroark, she would be able to do that.

Absol got off her cushion and sat beside her, not quite touching, but close enough that Zorua could feel her presence. Charizard got up and poured tea for everyone, a small bowl for her a a midsized bowl for Absol. There wasn’t enough to go around, so he started another pot.

“So, um,” Zorua continued, once she had recovered enough to speak clearly again, “Luxio sent them to rescue Bayleef from the rest of the Ice-types. We drug all the knocked-out Ice-types out of town and Audino healed everyone. The next day Arcanine and Zorua and Riolu and Bayleef came back.”

“Why Meadow Town?” Delphox asked, “what did they want?”

She expected questions about Arcanine, not the Ice-types. Why did they care about that?

“They kept demanding something called an Orrery Fragment,” Zorua said, “but I don’t even know what that is.”

But Arcanine does, Zorua wanted to add, thinking back to their conversation in Creepy Tunnel. It didn’t seem like quite the right time for that, though; Poochyena wouldn’t know what Arcanine knew, and anyway, she didn’t know if Arcanine knew enough to be useful. He had know what the word meant and what the weird picture on the door was supposed to be, but he hadn’t seemed to know anything about this orrery or door, specifically.

“A what fragment?” Delphox asked.

“Orrery Fragment,” Zorua repeated, “I think they said it was something for astrology.”

“Are you sure?” Absol asked, “Ninetales taught me some astrology, but I’ve never heard of that. Xatu?”

Xatu shook his head. “I think not, m’dear.”

Pokémon looked at each other, but none of them had anything else to contribute.

“Are you certain you heard correctly?” asked Alakazam.

“Nope,” she said flippantly, “I was busy bleeding all over the floor.”

That shut them all up for a few seconds.

“Well, this gives us a new avenue of inquiry,” Charizard broke the awkward silence, “since we’ve run out of places to search for Kyurem.”

“And Darkrai,” Tyranitar agreed.

They all talked for a while about Ice-types and the weather and mystery dungeons and some teams Zorua had never heard of. None of it made much sense to her, but she’d obviously stumbled into something important. Eventually, Xatu, Tyranitar, and Alakazam left, Alakazam with a stack of books floating ahead of him. Team Easy returned to their table, and Charizard went to the bookshelves at the far side of the room, leaving her her somewhat alone with Absol and Delphox.

“So what’s so important about this weather stuff and Ice-types, anyway?” Zorua asked. She wanted to ask Absol what that blanket was for too, but she refrained. The two of them didn’t know each other well enough yet to ask that kind of personal question without being rude; Absol could wear whatever she pleased, and it was no one else’s business, even if Zorua had never seen a Pokémon wearing a blanket as a cape before.

Both Absol and Delphox looked at her in surprise.

“You don’t know?” Absol asked.

“Know what?”

Absol turned to Delphox. “I know you sent the message to Meadow Town too, didn’t you?”

Delphox nodded. “To, ah, Ralts, the Federation representative there. The Pelippers confirmed delivery of all those letters.”

“I bet him and Bayleef and Snivy know, then,” Zorua said, “but that doesn’t help the rest of us.”

“I’m sorry,” Delphox said, “we all assumed that was why you were here.”

Zorua shook her head.

“Okay,” Absol said, “now it’s my turn to tell a story, but let’s get comfortable first.”

Absol went to the pile of cushions by the stove and lay down, letting her blanket settle around her. Zorua found a place on the floor in front of her while Delphox poured more tea for the three of them.

“Five weeks ago,” Absol began, “I lived on Mount Freeze with Mother and Ninetales. Ninetales is hundreds of years old, and very wise, and he knows more about astrology than anyone else, except maybe the Lord of the Stars himself. Pokémon travel thousands of kilometers to climb Mount Freeze and ask his counsel. Mother is a seer, just like her mother. There is a natural order to the world, and every Absol can feel in his horn when that order is disrupted, but we are particularly sensitive. For longer than anyone can remember, the first female in each generation of our line has lived on Mount Freeze…”

Absol must have told that story a lot in the last few weeks, Zorua thought. She had it down pretty smoothly, much better than her own retelling of the attack on Meadow Town. Zorua was only half listening, though, because she was already busy plotting. This was something really big, much more important than her and Arcanine and even a million Poké. The two of them had the information for which Team ACT had been searching for weeks, or at least she thought she could bluff that they did. Maybe this was going to be easier than she had expected.

“So, will you help us?” Absol asked eventually.

She couldn’t just demand Arcanine back right now, Zorua thought; she didn’t even know what he was supposed to know, yet.

“Sure,” Zorua said, “but first I need to send a letter to someone competent in Meadow Town so they can prepare for this stuff.”

Delphox frowned, and Zorua reminded herself that she needed to be polite to these people, at least for now.

“I can help with that,” Delphox offered.

“Um, yeah. Thanks.” Delphox probably just wanted to spy on her, Zorua thought, but she had hands, and it would be awkward to refuse.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“So what are we doing?”

Absol looked up from her book to see Poochyena waiting in front of her.

“Team ACT has a whole lot of books about astronomy,” Absol she explained, “hopefully we can find something about an orrery. Unfortunately, we’ve already been through most of these books looking for other clues.”

“That doesn’t sound fun,” Poochyena said.

Absol sighed. “No, it’s not. Delphox and Xatu and Alakazam and Espeon will spread the word to the Federation. We’ll ask Mother and Ninetales, too. Whiscash might remember something; everyone will ask around. Right now, though, this is what we can do to help.”

“Sorry,” Poochyena said, “I totally wasn’t expecting any of this.”

“I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you can remember anything else they said, anything at all that might be a clue…”

Poochyena nodded. “I’ll try.”

“Thank you,” Absol said, “Charizard can find you some books to get started.”

After Zorua left, Delphox sat down beside her on the cushions.

“She didn’t come here to tell us about the Ice-types,” Absol said quietly.

Delphox shook her head. “Most of the letter was your story, but she mentioned ‘another job’. Obviously, it’s not something she wants to tell us about.”

“So the whole town really doesn’t know what’s happening?”

“It sound like there’s some dispute in Meadow Town,” Delphox said, “her story doesn’t match at all with what Bayleef told Team ACT, and she’s clearly hostile to both Bayleef and Ralts. Her letter seemed to imply that most of the town was.”

“Why come here, though?”

Delphox raised an eyebrow, but didn’t answer.

“Arcanine?” Absol suggested.

“I don’t see what else,” Delphox said, “if the Pokémon Team ACT met with aren’t talking with the rest of the town, they may not know he had a bounty, or why we took him.”

“We just kidnapped their hero.”

Delphox nodded.

“What should we do?”

Delphox shrugged. “I don’t think we need to do anything, yet. Let’s wait and see how she handles it.”

Zorua was sure that Absol and Delphox were talking about her; why else would they be whispering? She had talked a lot, and she couldn’t really remember now all the things she had said. Had she said too much? Did they guess who she was? Zorua didn’t know what would happen if they found her out. There wasn’t a bounty on her, but Arcanine had seemed certain she was in danger too, when they were attacked on the shortcut. Arcanine might not be the best guide, though; he was a smart Pokémon, but he didn’t seem to have the strongest grip on reality.

What if there was a bounty on her now, though? Bayleef probably got a share of the Poké from capturing Arcanine. He could make up a story about her, too. She was weak, so it probably wouldn’t take much money. Bayleef wasn’t smart enough to think of something like that, but Ralts and Snivy were. Maybe she should sneak out tonight, while everyone was asleep, instead of waiting to be captured in the morning like Arcanine had been.

She couldn’t just leave, though; she wasn’t going to get an opportunity like this again. She still didn’t even know where Arcanine was. Also, they must be desperate to get so exited about this Orrery Fragment thing without even knowing what it was. She knew where to find it, and that gave her something to bargain with. She could play along for now, get them to trust her, then maybe she could make them an offer for Arcanine.

Charizard returned, placing several books in front of her.

“These should get you started,” he said, “let us know if you need anything else.”

“Thanks,” Zorua answered. She already had another idea, though.

She needed something to draw with; it wouldn’t be very good without hands, but maybe she could get the idea across. Absol and Delphox were still sitting together, but Delphox had left her clipboard and pencil on the table with her letter to Meadow Town. That would work.

Zorua jumped up on the table and took the pencil in her teeth. There had been a ball in the center, with a small circle around it; no, an oval. Her oval looked more like a Pecha berry missing a bite, but she figured it didn’t really matter. Then there was a bigger oval, and a bigger one…

The sixth oval reached the edges of the paper. Zorua thought she remembered nine or ten of them, but six was close enough. All of the ovals need some smaller circles on them, and then some of the smaller circles needed their own small circles too. There wasn’t room to draw all that on one page; the paper was already a mess.

Everyone in the room was watching her as she pulled another sheet off the clipboard and began to draw again. Zorua ignored them. It wasn’t necessary to draw all the little circles on all the big ovals, she thought; one of them would be enough to explain what she meant. How many circles did each oval have? She was pretty sure there had been one exactly at the top and bottom, and left and right, and then one or two in between each of those. Hers didn’t line up neatly like the ones on the door, but that was okay. By the time she finished, her jaws were cramping, and it was getting difficult to hold the pencil.

“What have you got there?” Absol asked, coming over to look at her drawing.

“It’s, um, a picture they had,” Zorua said, “there’s a ball in the center, and ten ovals…”

The others gathered around as she explained. Pink jumped up on the table with her for a closer look, and Grey’s illusion joined her. Pink circled the sketches several times, studying them from every angle.

“That’s a mess,” Pink declared eventually, “it doesn’t look like anything.”

Zorua couldn’t disagree; it wasn’t really recognizable. Pink was just bold enough to say what everyone was probably thinking.

Grey’s ears dipped in embarrassment as Pink jumped down and walked away.

“I’m afraid I can’t make much of it either,” Delphox said.

“Pink has an amazing memory,” Absol said, “when we identified the Cryogonals, she remembered just where she’d seen them in another book. That’s what led us to Kyurem.”

“Would you let Charizard help you re-draw it?” Grey suggested, “he’s a decent artist. If Pink’s seen it, she’ll remember.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It took them several hours, and several attempts, to get a drawing with which Zorua was satisfied. Charizard was incredibly patient with her, and if he hadn’t just helped kidnap Arcanine, she would have thought he was a pretty good Pokemon. It wasn’t the sort of quality one would find in a book, but it was much better than her own. By now it was dark, and Grey’s illusion was up on the table next to her, holding the Luminous Orb to illuminate Charizard’s work.

Delphox and Absol were still working, but Pink was curled up asleep on top of the open book she had been reading.

“Let’s not wake her,” Grey said, “she’ll be too grumpy to help anyway.”

That was just fine with her, Zorua thought; she was getting sleepy too.

“Do you have a place to stay?” Absol asked

Zorua hesitated. She didn’t mind sleeping outdoors, so long as the weather wasn’t too awful, and she still didn’t feel comfortable around Team ACT, even if Charizard seemed nice. The last few days; however, since Arcanine’s capture, had been the first time in years she had slept without other Pokémon nearby; herself, Riolu, and Treecko each in their corners of the common room in the lodge, or with Riolu in the storeroom after the attack, or with Arcanine. It was an uncomfortable feeling. It wasn’t fear, or loneliness, it just made her more comfortable to have other Pokémon around, to be able to hear them breathing and smell their scents. Perhaps, she thought, it reminded her of the months she had spent alone in their cottage after her mother disappeared.

“I don’t think Team ACT will mind if you stay here,” Absol said when she didn’t answer, looking to Charizard for confirmation, “there’s some rooms at the front of the manor, or you can stay in the library like I am.”

Charizard nodded in agreement. “The manor isn’t really ours anyway. We’re more...caretakers. Espeon and Umbreon are staying here too, and Metang from the Federation to look after the sandglasses.”

“Um, thanks,” Zorua said, “I guess I’ll sleep in the library.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The click of claws across the wooden floor woke her early the next morning. Zorua raised her head to watch Absol slip through the curtain out of the library. Looking up through the windows, she could see the orange glow of sunrise just beginning to illuminate the sky. She yawned, wriggled over onto her back, and stared up at the ceiling. Arcanine would like this place, she thought. He seemed like the sort of Pokémon who would enjoy books and maps. Once he was free, she should bring him back here and show him before they returned to Meadow Town to deal with Bayleef and help everyone prepare for the cold time Absol said was coming.

Had she done all the right things yesterday? Everything happened so quickly after she and Absol started talking at the game. They’d invited her right into their base, and everyone was being friendly, and she hadn’t even really had to lie, just leave out a few bits about who she was and why she was really here. It was exactly what she had wanted, but the ease with which it had all happened made her nervous.

She may as well get up, Zorua thought. She wasn’t going to get back to sleep now, and maybe she could catch Absol alone and ask her about Arcanine.

Absol hesitated in the doorway, watching the fat, white flakes drift lazily to the ground. It was the kind of fluffy, perfect snow that only happened when the air was cold and dry. Back on Mount Freeze, before her dream, she wouldn’t have hesitated to run outside to play and roll in it before it began to crust over in the sun.

No, she though, she wasn’t going to let the cold stop her today. There was work to be done, a new lead to relieve everyone’s frustration. Also, it was nice and warm in the manor, and she probably ought to stop letting the cold air in.

Absol heard light footsteps behind her, and turned to see Poochyena approaching.

“Morning,” Poochyena greeted her jauntily, walking past her through the door without slowing.

Absol followed Poochyena outside, letting the door swing closed behind them. She couldn’t decide whether her cheer was real or feigned.

“So, what are we doing today?” Poochyena asked.

“When Team Easy wake up, we’ll see if Pink remembers your picture,” Absol said, “before that, I need to visit Growlithe. I promised to see her last night, but after you told us about Meadow Town, I forgot. First, though, we should have breakfast.”

Growlithe had probably stayed up late hoping that she would come, Absol thought. The injured Pokémon never said much, but seemed so exited every evening when she came to visit. With Team Mighty still out searching for Kyurem, Growlithe must be so bored up there alone in their hut, but she had declined all of Absol’s invitations to help her down to town.

Balancing on her hindlegs beneath one of the shorter trees, Absol picked fresh Apples for the pair of them. Under the tree, there was only a light dusting of snow on the ground. The sun was warm and the absence of wind pleasant, and she determinedly ignored the sense of cold seeping from her horn.

Poochyena finished eating first. She sat there silently, nudging the core of her apple around with one paw and looking everywhere but at Absol. Absol took her time, hoping that Poochyena would take the opportunity to say whatever it was on her mind without further prompting.

“Would you like to visit Growlithe with me?” Absol eventually asked, “She’s pretty shy, but I think she’d like to hear your story.”

Poochyena finally turned to look at her, staring for a few seconds before answering, as if trying to decide whether it was a trap.

“Sure,” Poochyena said, standing and stretching, “lets go.”

Absol let them out of the courtyard and started along the trail toward Team Meanies’ old base, with Poochyena following beside her, half a step behind.

“So, what happened to Arcanine?”

Delphox had been right, Absol though; she was here for Arcanine. Where should she start the story? Poochyena must know that it was Team ACT who took him, but maybe not why or where. She didn’t want to be too abrupt about accusing their protector of murder, though.

“They teleported him to Treasure Town; Team Magnezone was offering a bounty. They say that five years ago, he killed five Pokémon there.”

That was a pretty big thing, Zorua thought; no wonder Arcanine hadn’t wanted to talk about it. Did he even remember doing it, though? Five years ago was about when he claimed that his memory ended. Well, he must remember something, because he’d mentioned that Pokémon from Treasure Town were hunting him.

Something pretty extreme must have happened in Treasure Town, she thought. Arcanine wouldn’t have just attacked them, he wasn’t that kind of Pokémon. He had killed the Ice-type’s leader in the lodge, and that little one in the bush, too, though Riolu and Luxray hadn’t been able to tell if that one was intentional. Still, those had been pretty extreme circumstances. There was a good chance that the other Pokémon in Meadow Town would have decided to kill her anyway, after what she’d done to Luxray and Treecko. He hadn’t been excessively rough any of the other times she’d seen him fight, even in Creepy Tunnel with the rest of the Ice-types. Thinking back, she couldn’t even remember any other times he’d seemed angry.

“Who did he kill?”

“I don’t know,” Absol said, “Delphox and Team ACT said they remembered hearing about it, but they didn’t know any of the details.”

It could have been some sort of misunderstanding, Zorua thought. She didn’t like the idea that he might have killed five Pokémon, even if they had started it.

“How do you know he really did it, then?”

Absol shrugged; this wasn’t something that she wanted to argue with Poochyena about. “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

That had sounded more accusatory than it should have, Zorua thought. None of this was Absol’s fault; Absol was being really friendly, and she needed to try to return the courtesy; Absol wasn’t just her best lead on getting Arcanine back, she also seemed like a really good Pokémon.

“What did they do to him in Treasure Town?”

“Aromatisse says Team Magnezone have enchanted cages made by Conkeldurr and Gurdurr that can’t be broken by moves, and they’ll keep him there a long time.”

“They can’t do that!” Zorua said, “even if he killed people five years ago, he’s not a bad Pokémon now.”

After meeting Arcanine, and hearing Zorua’s story, Absol couldn’t disagree, but she wasn’t sure how to answer. They walked in silence for several minutes.

“Who’s Growlithe?” Zorua asked eventually.

“She’s Team Mighty’s friend,” Absol said, “her legs were hurt fighting bandits, and she can’t walk much. I think she gets really lonely up there while Team Mighty is gone. I’ve been visiting every day, but she’s too shy to come back to the manor with me.”

The base smelled like Mightyena and Growlithe, but there was another scent too; the medicinal smell of alcohol and herbs. It was a familiar scent to Zorua, just like the potions that her mother used to make for sick or injured Pokémon.

Absol scratched at the wall beside the door. “Growlithe? It’s Absol.”

From within, Zorua could hear rustling, then a thud, then the clink of glass on glass.

“Who’s ‘ere,” Growlithe’s groggy voice called through the curtain.

“Absol,” Absol repeated.

“C’m in.”

“I brought a friend. Can she come in too?”

There was no immediate answer, but she could hear someone moving inside. Eventually, Growlithe’s muzzle peeked out around the side of the curtain to stare at them sleepily. After a minute, she withdrew without answering. Interpreting Growlithe’s silence as assent, Absol led the way inside.

Growlithe was facing away from them as she limped back the bed, giving Zorua a clear view of her legs. Zorua stared in surprise for several seconds. When Absol had said that they were hurt, she had thought Absol meant a fresh injury from battling, but this was something else; the wounds were long since healed over, but the lower pair of bones in both Growlithe’s hindlegs has set at the wrong angle. Zorua’s stomach turned just looking at them. The smell of the potions was much stronger in here, but it didn’t disguise the scent of pain.

While Growlithe wasn’t looking, Zorua bent down to sniff the mouth of one of the empty bottles on the floor. It was strong stuff, she thought, licking some of the sticky residue from the opening; not a healing potion, but a potion for pain.

Growlithe turned around to face them, sitting down on the bed.

“This is Poochyena,” Absol introduced her, “She came from Meadow Town to tell us about Arcanine and the Ice-types who attacked them.

“Team Mighty caught him,” Growlithe said proudly. She wasn’t looking at either of her guests; she stared up at the ceiling, eyes not quite focused. Absol didn’t seem to notice, but it was obvious to Zorua that Growlithe had been taking far too much of her potions.

“They should have killed him,” Growlithe continued, “that’s the only way to stop bad Pokémon.”

“I don’t think -” Absol began to object.

Zorua nudged her rump against the larger Pokémon’s ribs, cutting her off. Under the circumstances, she didn’t think arguing with Growlithe was going to get them anywhere; it was an emotional response, not a logical one; she was certain Growlithe had ample reason to hate bandits.

None of them spoke for a few uncomfortable moments. Neither Zorua nor Growlithe seemed inclined to continue the conversation, so Absol decided it was up to her.

“Would you like to hear Zorua’s story?”

After a brief hesitation, Growlithe nodded.

This time, she didn’t begin with the attack on Meadow Town; she began a month earlier, when she’d first seen the strange Ice-types in the valley north of town. Absol and Growlithe both listened intently as she told about her escape, and getting lost in Haunted Forest, and her rescue by Arcanine that night. Growlithe began to get restless, thought, as Zorua told about spending the next day talking and napping with Arcanine on the ledge outside the cave.

“You should have run away,” Growlithe said abruptly.

“He was really nice,” Zorua said, “and I didn’t know he had a bounty. Besides, there was nowhere to go but back into the dungeon.”

Growlithe turned away. Zorua didn’t know whether she was still listening, but Absol was, so she continued.

“Well, so, we both slept in his cave again, and in the morning, he showed me how to get back to Meadow Town without going through Haunted Forest. He said if I came back another time, he’d take me to a mystery dungeon.”

Zorua continued, through their trip to Sinister Woods and Grassy Marsh, and the same version of the battle at Meadow Town she had told Absol and the others before.

“That doesn’t make him a good Pokémon,” Growlithe said without looking at either of them, “he still killed people.”

“You’re from Treasure Town, aren’t you?” Absol asked, “do you know what happened there?”

Growlithe shook her head. “I wasn’t there that long. Team Mighty was, though. They hunted him last time. If they say he’s a bad Pokémon, then he is.”

With anyone else, Zorua would have wanted to argue; Growlithe seemed so helpless despite her aggressive attitude that it just didn’t seem fair.

“We should head back to the manor and see whether Team Easy has found anything,” Absol said, “can we come back tomorrow evening?”

Growlithe nodded. Zorua and Absol turned to leave.

“Wait,” Growlithe said.

Absol and Zorua turned around in the doorway. Growlithe stood and began to gather the empty bottles on the floor back into Aromatisse’s bag.

“Would you ask Aromatisse to make me some more? I don’t think I can wait till Team Mighty returns. I don’t have any money, but it they’ll pay for it when they get back...”

It was a simple request, but Growlithe’s voice was pleading and desperate. She absolutely hated having to ask for help, Zorua thought.

“Of course,” Absol said, taking the bag from her.

“Five bottles,” Zorua said as they started back toward town, “how long did it take her to drink all that?”

Absol thought for a moment. “I brought them the day Arcanine was here, so six days, I guess.”

“Six days?” That was even worse than she had thought. “Absol, a bottle of that stuff would knock out Tyranitar for a day. If she keeps doing that, she’s going to kill herself. Who’s making this for her? Does he even know how much she’s taking?”

“Aromatisse makes it,” Absol said, “I don’t think she even knows who it’s for; Team Mighty just brought her the recipe from Blissey in Treasure Town. The Mighties…they don’t communicate very well, and I don’t think Growlithe has left the clearing around the hut since they’ve been here.”

“Well, we need to talk to Aromatisse. Growlithe needs to talk to Aromatisse.”

“You saw her legs,” Absol said, “they must hurt so much. She just needs it until she heals.” Absol found herself defending Growlithe, and she wasn’t sure why.

“Her legs aren’t going to just heal!” Zorua heard her voice getting louder. They weren’t far from the hut yet, and Growlithe might hear her from here, but Zorua didn’t care. “It must have taken her months to build up a tolerance like that.”

“What else can we do, Poochyena? We can’t just let her suffer.”

“We’re going to get her more,” Zorua said, “but first, we’re going to make sure she understands what she’s doing to herself.”

“Poochyena, wait!”

Zorua wasn’t waiting; she was already headed back toward the hut at a trot. Absol followed.

Zorua didn’t scratch or announce herself, just pushed through the curtain. She was sure Growlithe had heard her by now anyway. Absol followed her in, still uncertain whether she was trying to stop or support Poochyena. Growlithe looked up to glare and growl at them as they entered. Zorua took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.

“Growlithe, I’m sorry, but we need to talk, okay?”

Growlithe didn’t answer.

“My mother was an apothecary. I watched her make all kinds of potions for years. I wish I had paid more attention and learned from her when I had the chance, but I know enough to know that’s some really strong stuff, and the kind of dose you’re taking just isn’t safe.”

“It’s mostly Pecha and Oran juice,” Growlithe said, “that makes it safe.”

“Sleep Seed and Soothe Seed and Totter Seed and Vile Seed powders dissolved in Pecha and Oran wine,” Zorua said, “Growlithe, when you use Sleep and Totter Seeds every day you get resistant to them. When you started, you didn’t need much, right? Just a couple sips a day?”

Growlithe nodded.

“And now you need, like, a whole bottle a day?”

Growlithe nodded again.

“Growlithe, the more you use, the worse it’s going to get. You get resistant to the good effects, stopping the pain and making you worry less, but it’s still poisonous, and the Pechas aren’t perfect. Eventually you’re going to take so much that you just don’t wake up, if the Vile Seeds don’t poison you first.”

Growlithe sighed, head dropping in defeat, and Zorua could see tears beginning to form in her eyes. She had already known all that, Zorua thought, or suspected it, she just tried not to think about it.

“Poochyena, I need them. You don’t understand how much it hurts.”

“No,” Zorua agreed, “I don’t, and I’m not saying you have to stop; you can cut back, a little at a time, try different combinations so you’re not as resistant.”

“We’re going to bring you some more potions as quick as we can,” Absol said, “but I really do think Aromatisse could help you. She’s a really nice Pokémon, and she know a lot. We could get someone to carry you, or bring Aromatisse up here...”

“Its worse when you’re alone, too, isn’t it?” Zorua asked, thinking back to the months she’d lived alone in the cottage near Meadow Town after her mother disappeared, “when Team Mighty is gone? There’s nothing to do, so you think about it all the time?”

Growlithe nodded.

“I’ve only been in Pokémon Square for a day, but everyone seems pretty nice. You could come visit Absol while they’re gone.”

Zorua looked to Absol for confirmation, and Absol nodded in agreement.

“No one will mind if you stay at the manor,” Absol said, “You could even have your own room, with a door, and no one would bother you if you want to be alone.”

Growlithe looked like she was considering it, Zorua though, but she was too proud to just agree. They had said enough to get her thinking; push her too far and she would refuse out of stubbornness.

“Just think about it, okay?” Zorua said, “we’ll go ask Aromatisse for your potions right now.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

As the two of them entered the manor, Pink dashed out of the library to meet them.

“I fooooooound it! I fooooooound it! I fooooooound it!” Pink chanted, jumping in circles around Absol and Poochyena as they walked.

“That’s great!” Absol said.

Grey and Delphox were waiting for them at one of the tables, piles of papers spread in front of them. Absol sat beside them, and Zorua jumped up on the table for a closer look. Charizard’s sketch and a faded illustration on a loose piece of paper lay side by side.

“That’s it,” Zorua confirmed. The door didn’t look like the one in Creepy Tunnel, but the picture on it was the same, as close as she could remember.

Absol read aloud the caption at the bottom of the page. “The Door at the Heart of Temple Ruins, Rumored to Contain the Fragment of the Great Orrery of Palkia.”

“Unfortunately,” Delphox said, “this is all we have. It’s a page from the journal of Armaldo the Explorer, but all of the nearby pages are missing.”

“How did you find it?” Absol asked, “this wasn’t part of our research.”

Pink was sitting beside her on the table, grooming her ears and looking quite proud of herself. Grey looked slightly embarrassed.

“No,” Grey said, “it wasn’t.” He hesitated.

“Three years ago, I found an egg in Forgotten Woods. I’d never seen an egg in a mystery dungeon before; as far as we know, ferals don’t reproduce, so I took it with me. Pink hatched that night.”

Pink continued to groom, apparently totally unaware that she was now the subject of discussion.

“She didn’t look or act like a feral, but she wouldn’t talk, just ‘Eevee’ noises. I thought it might help if she heard other Pokémon talk, so I brought her here and read to her. I’m not sure how much she understood, but she enjoyed the pictures. This was one of the first things we read.”

That could explain Pink’s odd behavior, Absol thought. Pokémon who stayed too long in mystery dungeons began to lose their intelligence and sanity, and eventually went feral and became unable to leave. Sometimes Pokémon were rescued before going completely feral, but they never fully recovered.

“I don’t think I’ve heard of Temple Ruins,” Absol said.

“Neither have we,” Delphox said, “or Team ACT. I’ll put the word out to the Federation this afternoon though; someone may know where it is.”

This wasn’t fair, Zorua though. They weren’t supposed to just find it somewhere else without her help; if they did, she was going to lose her only leverage. It was called a fragment; that meant there was more than one piece, right? Maybe they needed all of them to make them work, like with the Time Gears. Either way, it was time to make her move.

“Absol,” Zorua said, “I have an idea. Can we talk outside?”

“So this Orrery thing is really important?” Zorua asked. They were both sitting on one of the benches in the courtyard now, after Zorua had brushed off the snow.

“I think it could be,” Absol said, “if it’s really an artifact of the Lord of the Stars, it could be something very powerful, like the Time Gears.”

“And if bad Pokémon found it first, that would be really bad?”

“It could be. We don’t know what it does, yet.”

“And if it’s called a fragment, that means there’s more than one piece, right?”

Absol considered for a moment, then nodded. “That’s reasonable.”

“And the other pieces might be in different dungeons…”

Absol nodded again.

Zorua shifted nervously; even if they’d just met yesterday, Absol already seemed like a friend. She knew she didn’t have the confidence to demand what she wanted from Team ACT directly; she felt guilty about forcing Absol to intermediate, but there wasn’t another option.

“Absol, um, I lied to you all a little bit before.”

Absol turned to face her, expression neutral.

“That thing with all the circles wasn’t a picture they had. It was on the door in the mystery dungeon where me and Arcanine rescued Bayleef.”

“You know where it is?” Absol jumped up, suddenly excited. “We have to tell Team ACT right now! They can send a team out this afternoon when they contact Ralts. We-”

“Wait,” Zorua interrupted, “there’s something else. I didn’t come here for the weather thing…”

Absol waited, already knowing what Zorua was going to say.

“Absol, I know this is really important, and I want to help, but I came here to get Arcanine back. He saved my whole town, and he’s my friend.”

“Team ACT will have to talk to Team Magnezone,” Absol said, “and to all the other teams who’ve been promised a share. It might take them a while to figure it out. We need to start on this right away.”

Zorua shook her head. “Absol, I, um, I can tell you’re a good Pokémon, but Team ACT kidnapped my friend for money. They didn’t even ask what happened, or try to talk to us first. I already told you most of what I know, and I’m not saying anything else till I have Arcanine. If this is as important as everyone says, they’ll have to find a way.”

Absol sat back down. Poochyena’s position wasn’t unreasonable, she thought, but Alakazam wasn’t going to like it at all. Having to bring Arcanine back would be an admission that he had been wrong, and Alakazam hated to be contradicted. Also, he’d already promised a lot of Poké to the other teams who had helped capture Arcanine, and to cover the expenses of the teams who had been searching for Kyurem and Darkrai, and if he couldn’t collect the rest of the bounty from Team Magnezone, he wouldn’t be able to pay. She was sure Grey and Aromatisse and Team Mighty would understand, but what would Team Hydro and Dragon and Raiders and Razor Wind think?

Absol didn’t like it either, but for entirely different reasons. They had spent a month of research in Team ACT’s library with nothing to show for it. A month of all those teams traveling and exploring mystery dungeons for some sign of Kyurem or Darkrai. The weather was getting worse. How much time did they have left? How much time would it take to convince Team Magnezone to return Arcanine? She was sure Alakazam would be able to reason with them eventually, but they finally had a solid lead, and she wanted to do something right now.

Poochyena was still sitting beside her, not quite staring at her, but not looking away, waiting for her to reach a decision. Poochyena was a good Pokémon too, even if she’d deceived them a little. She’d cared enough to go back and talk to Growlithe, even though it had done nothing to further her real mission here. Absol didn’t necessarily approve of how confrontational Poochyena had been, but Poochyena had gotten through Growlithe’s stubbornness and the haze of her medicine, where she had failed.

“Poochyena, you’re sure it’s there?”

Zorua wasn’t sure of that at all; all she knew was the picture on the door. She didn’t want to keep lying to Absol, but neither did she want to cast doubt on her own story.

“I’m….Absol, I’m not; we saw the picture on the door, just like the one in the book, but we didn’t know how to open it. Those Ice-types were sure though, sure enough to come all the way to Meadow Town from where ever and attack us.

“Alright,” Absol said, “let’s go find Team ACT.”
 
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