Chapter 1: A Chance Meeting New
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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?”
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.