*Crazy Absol Noises*
69 - Foreboding
Sandpaw couldn’t shake the feeling she was being watched. The furret twitched nervously, glancing back over her shoulder. Scout kept at her side, ever vigilant. But the younger furret was growing tired. Along with Scratch and Claw, he’d been keeping watch at night, insisting his mother sleep. But the past few nights alone, away from their friends, had been difficult for Sandpaw.
Long grass spread out around them, tickling Sandpaw’s face as she stretched up to gaze back the way they’d come. The woods were behind them now. The mountain even further behind. She couldn’t even make out its peak above the canopy any more.
“Hmm.” Scout frowned at the map Faith had given them. “We should be nearing that ruin. Maybe we could camp out there?”
“Walls?” Sandpaw wound her paws together then flinched. Had she just heard someone walking behind them?
“Walls would keep the Darkness out,” said Scout. “We’d be hidden.”
‘It could also keep them in.’ Sandpaw didn’t voice her concerns. She tried to still her breathing so she could hear more clearly. The wind stirred the grass, making it sound like a whispering voice.
“I second Scout.” Claw folded his arms and stared back the way they’d come. “It would give us a good place to hide.”
Scratch rubbed his blades together but said nothing. His posture almost mimicked Sandpaw’s.
Scout placed a paw on his mother’s shoulder and steered her towards the walls in the distance. “Come on. Let’s go. Once we’re inside, we can have a good rest.”
“I’m not sure.” Sandpaw huddled closer to her son and glanced back. “Maybe we should keep walking. We’ll reach the Fairy Garden faster.”
“Yes, and collapse on the way.” Scout laughed and shook his head. “I know you’re tired, Ma. I heard you tossing and turning all night!”
Sandpaw gave him an apologetic look. “Did I keep you awake? I’m sorry.”
Scout shook his head again, but he didn’t say anything. His neck stiffened and he turned his head to look past Sandpaw. She instinctively followed his gaze and her breath froze in her throat.
The grass swayed against the wind as if something was forcing its way through it. Towards them. Low voices spoke over the wind. It had been voices after all… They’d come so far with no problems and now the Darkness was going to stop them right at the final leg of their journey?
Sandpaw’s heart galloped but her legs wouldn’t obey. She slowly sank, trembling, to the ground.
Scratch and Claw cut in front of them and raised their blades.
Scout slipped between them and adjusted his scarf. “Stay back, Mum. We’ve got this.” There was a little too much confidence in his voice.
A red head rose from the grass, and yellow eyes glinted behind a black mask. A thievul?
“Well, well,” he crooned. “Looks like someone’s walked right into our patch.”
Beside him a mabostiff raised his head and sniffed the air. His tiny eyes glinted at them beneath his heavy eyebrows. “Oh yeah. Huh.”
The thievul crept towards them, a smirk splitting his muzzle. “I wonder if they’ve got anything useful on them?”
The mabostiff moved away from him to come at Scout’s other side. He didn’t even flinch when the pawniard twins shifted to face either foe.
With a speed far exceeding his size, the mabostiff rushed at them. The thievul followed, each moving in towards either pawniard. The twins seemed to vanish into thin air and a yelp came from the mabostiff. The large dog froze and turned his head to sniff his flank. Claw landed behind him and flicked blood from his claws, then turned to face his target.
The thievul gracefully leapt aside, giving Claw a wide berth. The pawniard’s yellow eyes widened with surprise as he turned to watch the red fox land on Scout.
“Scout!” Sandpaw screamed.
The smaller furret rolled beneath the thievul and kicked out with his back legs. The lithe fox soared away from Scout and the pair rolled onto their fronts. The thievul bared his teeth as Scout rose to his feet, his fists balled at his sides.
But the mabostiff was more interested in Sandpaw than the pawniard circling him. “There’s another one there, boss.”
The thievul jerked his head towards the cowering furret and snorted. “We’ll deal with her last. Get rid of the pawniard.”
The mabostiff snarled and lunged, meeting Claw in mid-air. He stifled yelps as the pawniard’s claws sliced through his fur. The pair went rolling into the grass out of sight. The sound of metal striking rock rang out through the air, and Scratch rushed to Scout’s side, his eyes frantic.
“Go aide Claw!” Scout didn’t take his eyes off the thievul. “I’ve got this one.”
Scratch complied, vanishing into the grass. Then a yelp split the air.
“Rather confident, aren’t ya?” A low growl came from the thievul’s throat. “I was only interested in your satchel. Taking you out had better be worth the effort.”
White teeth flashed before Scout’s face and he raised his paws, falling back beneath the thievul. He kicked out again but the fox was prepared for it this time, raising his belly out of the way. His tail lashed as he fought for balance, straining against Scout’s paws as he tried to keep the fox’s teeth away from his throat. His mother’s cries were drowned by the fox’s snarls and hot, panting breaths. Claws dug into Scout’s chest as the thievul tried to force his paws apart. The furret clenched his jaw so tight it hurt.
Then the thievul yelped, falling sideways off Scout in a bundle of red and lavender fur. Yowls filled the air as fur went flying, mixing with the vulpine screams from the thievul. His teeth flashed red, lavender fur lodged between them. The green eyes of a liepard flashed with anger before vanishing amid another tumble of red fur.
The mabostiff forced his way past Scout, upending the furret as he rose panting to his feet. Blood soaked the mabostiff’s fur and one of his teeth was chipped away, but it didn’t stop him grabbing the liepard by its scruff and yanking it away from his friend.
The thievul staggered to his feet, panting heavily. His eyes met those of the liepard and he snorted. He opened his mouth to speak and the liepard’s claws flashed across his muzzle, turning his words into a pitiful yelp. The liepard twisted in the mabostiff’s jaws, wrenching his scruff free and fastening his claws in his throat. The large dog reeled backwards, snarling as bloody slobber trailed from his jowls.
“Retreat!” The thievul rallied his companion and took off through the grass, limping heavily on his right foreleg.
The mabostiff gave one final snarl at the liepard and gave chase after his friend, leaving the liepard panting and trembling.
Scout helped his mother to her feet but he didn’t take his eyes off the liepard. The lavender cat watched them both, but there was no hostility in his eyes.
“Where are your friends?” the liepard asked between breaths.
Sandpaw stiffened and gazed off into the grass. Scout left her, shouting for Scratch and Claw.
One of the pawniard staggered through the grass under the weight of his brother. It was Scratch, his eyes wet with tears.
“Oh no.” Sandpaw pressed her paw to her chest. “Is he…?”
Scratch lowered Claw to the ground and the wounded pawniard let out a low groan.
“That mabostiff…” Scratch took a trembling breath. “He hit him hard.”
“Reversal,” the liepard scoffed and sniffed at Scratch. “I wondered why he was letting your friend land so many hits.”
“Why did you help us?” Sandpaw asked, still trembling.
The liepard met her gaze. “Because you needed it.”
Sandpaw stuttered and wound her paws together. “But-”
“No buts. Let’s get your friend to safety.” The liepard nodded towards the ruin.
Scratch carefully lifted his brother in his arms and followed behind the liepard.
Scout placed a paw around his mother and fought to keep up with them. “What’s your name?”
The liepard glanced over his shoulder. “Prance.”
Scout laughed. “Funny name for an assassin.”
“Scout!” Sandpaw reprimanded.
“It was Pounce,” the liepard told him. “I changed it only a matter of days ago.” He stopped to look up at the towering ivy-covered wall.
“You changed it?” Sandpaw stopped behind him.
“It only seemed fitting. If I’ve stopped working for Hydreigon then a change of name would mark that decision.”
Sandpaw was speechless.
“You’ve left the Darkness?” Scout gasped, a huge grin on his face.
“Yes. I ran into some friends of yours.” Prance turned his head to meet her stare. “A meowstic… and a zorua.”
“Harlequin!” Scout and Sandpaw both exclaimed, the latter more quietly.
Prance nodded and returned to investigate the wall. “Harlequin spared me after I attacked your friends. What he said made me think… And I overheard them talking of a place called the Fairy Garden.”
“That’s where we’re headed,” said Scout.
“I know. That’s why I’ve been following you.”
Sandpaw stuttered over her words, drawing the liepard’s glance. “You’ve been… following us…?”
Humour shone in Prance’s eyes. “Be glad I was! Otherwise you might not have come out of that battle alive. No offence, young furret, but your battle skills are… well…” He inclined his head and chuckled.
Scout frowned, indignant. “Hey!”
“Don’t worry. I can teach you.” The liepard clawed at the ivy, peeling it away from a hole in the crumbling stone. “I think we can all fit? After you, pawniard.”
Scratch muttered a ‘thanks’ as he struggled to carry Claw through the hole. Prance sat aside, ushering Sandpaw and Scout ahead of him. Sandpaw hesitated for a moment as Scout went on ahead. The liepard had helped them, and something told her it wasn’t a ruse. That just like Harlequin, his change of heart was genuine. She felt she could trust him. She returned his smile as she ducked through the hole in the wall. Prance paused to check the ivy fell back over the hole behind him then stared up at the ruined building.
“Look at that!” Scout exclaimed. “It’s huge!”
Prance’s jaw went slack. “What was it?”
“Faith said it was an old abbey,” said Scout. “Come on, Mum. You wanted to see all the tapestries and stuff, right?”
Sandpaw nodded uncertainly and looked back at Prance. “Th-thank you. For saving us.”
Prance lowered his head in a bow. “Any time.” He met Sandpaw’s gaze. “I am just glad I’ve finally introduced myself to you. I’ve been rather nervous. I wasn’t sure you’d have accepted me so easily.”
“I’m glad, too.” Sandpaw gingerly placed a paw on his shoulder. “Please… join us on the rest of our journey.”
“Thank you.” Prance lowered his head again. “I have some healing berries. Let’s get your young friend seen to.”
The sun was warm on the Rocky Plains, chasing away the chill of the fading cold season. Cleo and Faith neatly folded their tent while the other pokemon enjoyed breakfast. The air had felt a lot less tense come the morning. Given how long it had taken them to get through the tunnels none of them had found much opportunity to chat. Harlequin seemed brighter, enjoying the presence of her friends compared to her silence the previous day. Cleo could only imagine the shock of discovering a friend you’d heard had been killed had been brought back to life. Harlequin now nattered to Enigma and Harbinger, the former reclining against a small tree.
The meowstic’s gaze wandered in the direction of the trees. Not far away in the east stood the skeletal remains of the Forest of Ashes. The bright day made the spindly branches stand out against the blue sky. It sent a chill down her spine. Thankfully the exit from the Howling Gorge had taken them away from it, meaning they no longer had to pass through it on their way to the Border Woods. She jerked her head away, back to her task at hand. Cleo’s discomfort hadn’t gone unnoticed by Faith. The mawile smiled as she handed over her corners of the tent so Cleo could tuck it away in her bag.
“I’ll get the poles.” The mawile turned to gather the collapsible rods lying beside the camp.
“It’s okay, Faith, I’ve got it.” Cleo fastened her bag and joined the mawile’s side. “You get some breakfast.”
“I can eat while we walk, it’s fine. I know you want to get away from here. Once we’ve packed up we can leave this place behind.”
“What’s wrong with this place?” Enigma asked around a mouth full of jerky. “Other than being a bit too close to the Shadow Lands? Seems pretty quiet to me.”
Spark frowned up at him, wanting to speak but finding herself unable to with her pouches full.
“Cleo and Spark used to live around here,” Harlequin told him.
Enigma caught the warning note in the zorua’s voice and nodded. “Ah.” He wiped his paws on his scarf and stood up. “Let’s get a move on then.”
Beside them, Mischief sat silently eating his breakfast. The whimsicott had barely said a word except for a morning greeting. He kept a wary eye on the banette, and Cleo couldn’t tell if it was distrust or if something else was bothering him. Whatever it was, he made no move to speed up his breakfast.
“You don’t need to rush,” Cleo told her companions. “Faith, feel free to grab something. I’ll finish up packing away the tent. Keeping busy keeps my mind off things anyway.”
Faith wiped her paws on her front. “Only if you’re sure, Cleo.”
“I’m sure. Please, help yourself.”
“Come and join us.” Enigma sat back down again and tapped the floor beside him.
Faith gladly complied, settling down beside the banette to help herself to the berries.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” Harbinger raised a hind paw to scratch the back of his head. “We need to discuss what we’re doing next anyway.”
“What do you mean?” asked Spark.
“We were sent to help you,” Harbinger explained.
“What? To kill Yveltal?”
Harbinger’s eyes widened, mirrored by Enigma. Spark covered her mouth with both paws and turned her head towards Harlequin. The dedenne mouthed an apology, but Harlequin wasn’t looking at her. The zorua had frozen mid-bite, her jerky clasped between both forepaws. She released it from her jaws and looked between each of her friends. Even Mischief had stopped eating, bracing himself as a sudden tension blanketed the group.
“Kill Yveltal?” Enigma spat. “No! We were meant to help you find the outlaws.” He paused, reading Harlequin’s face. “That is what you were doing, right? Why you’re heading north?”
“No.” Harlequin narrowed her eyes, mirroring Enigma. “Yveltal has been woken up and he needs to be stopped. I plan to assassinate him before he’s at full strength.”
“That’s not our fight, Harlequin,” Enigma warned. “We are meant to round up the outlaws and bring them to Xerneas, not rush back into the Shadow Lands into a fight we can’t win.”
“Can’t win? You’ve seen me fight loads of times, Enigma. You know I’m capable.”
“Yes! Against mortals!”
“Yveltal is mortal,” Harlequin gasped. “He can be defeated.”
“And he’s also capable of sucking the life out of living things!” Enigma dragged a paw down his face and groaned. “You’ve already rushed into one suicide mission, Harle. Why drag everyone into another?”
Harlequin bristled and pulled her ears back. Her canines shone between her lips and she opened her mouth to bite back, but Harbinger stopped her.
“I was there, Harlequin. And Mischief.” He nodded to the whimsicott, who nodded back as he licked berry juice off his paws. “We both know what happens when you rush into something without a plan.”
“I have a plan,” Harlequin told him.
Enigma waved a hand in exasperation. “Then please, tell the rest of us.”
Harlequin stuttered for a moment, her eyes growing distant. “It’s still… a little blurry around the edges.” At another groan from Enigma, she added quickly, “I can’t predict my opponent’s moves! But if I get close enough with my illusion I can poison him! I just need to find a way to sneak into the Shadow Lands.”
“So you don’t even know how you’re getting in?” Enigma growled.
He looked up at the rest of the group, catching Faith’s eye. The mawile had gone silent, her lips tight as she rummaged absently through the remaining apicot berries. Mischief had turned pale, and Spark had stopped eating, not even grooming the juices off her whiskers. Harlequin followed Enigma’s gaze, taking in her friends, her jaw slack.
“It doesn’t look like your friends have much faith in this endeavour either,” Enigma told her.
Cleo sucked in a breath as she gathered up the final tent support. “Out of all of us, Harlequin has the best odds of killing Yveltal.”
Enigma jerked his head towards her, but he said nothing.
“Harlequin can mask her appearance,” Cleo explained. “If she can get close enough to Yveltal to poison him then the battle is won.”
“Yeah, and who’s not gonna notice?” Enigma snarled. “All of Hydreigon’s soldiers would tear Harlequin to pieces before any of you even make it back out of the Shadow Lands!”
“It’s the best plan we’ve got,” said Harlequin.
Enigma cast her a sideways glare. “I don’t like it, Harle.”
“You don’t have to like it. I’m doing it.”
“So am I.” Mischief’s voice took them all by surprise. He finished grooming his paws clean and wiped them in the grass. “If this pokerus is good for anything it’ll be to kill Yveltal.”
Harlequin looked up at him with a start. “Mischief…”
“Harlequin won’t be alone,” Mischief finished.
“I never suggested such a thing!” Enigma scoffed. He took a breath to calm himself and closed his eyes briefly. “I just think we need to discuss this more. Otherwise it’ll be another suicide mission.”
Harbinger nodded once. “We know what happened to Flutterwick. We don’t need any more heartbreak. We can’t be careless this time, Harlequin.”
Harlequin let out a breath between her lips. “Okay. Then I’ll find my way into the Shadow Lands in disguise and you can all look for the outlaws. How does that sound?”
Faith gave a small yell. “That sounds like a terrible idea! You can’t go in there alone!”
“Then what do you expect me to do?!” Harlequin bared her teeth and her hackles rose. “Make your minds up!”
A heavy silence fell over them and Faith shook her head, rising to her feet.
Harlequin closed her eyes and her shoulders sank. “I’m sorry… I just… I’ve lost so many pokemon I care about because of this wretched war. I just want it to end.”
“We all do,” said Spark.
Harbinger stared at Harlequin until the zorua noticed and met his eyes. The absol let out a small sigh. “Then I’ll go with you.”
Harlequin’s sapphire eyes widened. “What?”
“I’ll go with you into the Shadow Lands,” Harbinger explained. “Enigma can take the others to look for the outlaws.”
“I’m going too,” said Mischief with some force. “You said we’d be part of your disguise last time, and you’ll need help. And if Cleo gives you that bracelet, I won’t hurt you if I lose control.”
Harlequin looked from each of them, catching Cleo’s stunned concern. The meowstic stared at Mischief, unable to find words. She couldn’t just let him waltz right into danger.
Enigma pushed himself up, watching Harbinger. “If you’re going in there without me, you’ll need your keystone.”
Harbinger snorted and slid the bracelet off his paw. “I only plan to mega evolve once anyway.”
“Wait.” Faith raised her paws. “This is all getting messy.”
“There’s no mess about it.” Enigma swapped his keystone with Harbinger and fastened it around his wrist. “We go to look for the outlaws, and Harlequin doesn’t go into the Shadow Lands alone.”
“I don’t like it,” said Faith.
“Neither do I.”
“No.” Cleo’s firm voice drew everyone’s attention. All the fur along Cleo’s spine stood on end and her tails resembled twin brushes. Her amber glare washed over the other pokemon, and even Enigma fell silent under it. “None of us are splitting up.”
Harlequin puffed air through her nose. “What, you want all of us to go into the Shadow Lands? Because I think you’ll find we’ll be hugely outnumbered either way. At least this way you can still get the outlaws on Xerneas’ side.”
“There’d be more of us than if you three went in alone!” Cleo countered.
Harlequin shuffled her feet and let out a frustrated growl. It was echoed by Enigma as he rolled his head back against the tree.
“We’re just going in circles,” he groaned.
Cleo sighed and combed a paw between her ears. “Let’s just head into the Borders. We can search for the outlaws first. Perhaps they’ll be able to help us.”
“They got out of the Shadow Lands, right?” Spark shrugged. “Maybe they’ll know a way in.”
Harlequin’s ears drooped and she gave a defeated sigh. “Fine.”
A heavy silence fell over them, thick and suffocating in the air. Cleo distracted herself by making sure their tent was neatly tucked away.
“So that settles it then?” Faith asked, drawing a glance from everyone else. “We’re looking for the outlaws?”
Harlequin was still bristling, but she forced her fur flat and gave a curt nod. “Yes.” Her voice was stiff, but she gave a half-smile. It wasn’t genuine. “We’ll look for the outlaws first.”
Harbinger sighed and shoved his berries away. “I’m done. Let’s get a move on.”
“Well I’m not!” Spark gasped. “And Cleo hasn’t eaten yet.”
Cleo shook her head at the dedenne. “I told you I’ll eat while we walk.”
“You can also eat while you wait.” Spark tugged a strip of dried fish out of its wrapper and held it up to Cleo. “Eat.”
Cleo gave a defeated sigh and took the fish.
Harbinger snorted through his nose and sat heavily back down. “If you could hurry it up? I don’t know about you but I want to get this crazy mission over and done with.”
Cleo cast a glance over her sullen companions. Harlequin wasn’t even looking at Enigma any more. Mischief sat behind her, rolling an apicot stone between his paws. Cleo let out a long breath through her nose and looked back down at Spark, catching the dedenne’s eye. “You can also eat while we walk. Let’s go. I want to put this place behind us.”
Spark stared at her half-eaten berry. “All right. But your fur might get sticky. This berry’s pretty ripe.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Cleo offered her arm to Spark.
The dedenne stuffed her berry in her cheek pouch, finding it much too large. It poked out between her teeth, oozing sticky juices over her chin and chest. Cleo rolled her eyes as the dedenne scrambled up her arm to perch on her shoulder, leaving a sticky trail in the process.
“If we head off now,” Cleo said with a glance at the sky, “We should reach the Border Woods-”
“By sundown,” said Harlequin.
Cleo gave the zorua an irritated glance and adjusted her bag.
“I know the way like the back of my paw,” Harlequin went on, meeting Cleo’s glare. “We’ll need to rest again if we want to avoid travelling through the woods in the dark. There’s good shelter about a quarter-day walk from the woodland edge.”
Enigma snorted and gave a nod towards Spark. “If someone hadn’t been so caught up with breakfast, we wouldn’t need to stop at all.”
Spark’s whiskers crackled, tickling Cleo’s ear. “Oi! A girl’s gotta eat, yanno!”
Enigma chuckled and pushed himself to his feet. “Well. We should make haste if we want to avoid a dangerous camp-out.”
Cleo nodded, her gaze wandering to Mischief. The whimsicott stood up and brushed dead grass and soil off his fur. He’d been very quiet since he’d come around from his faint the previous day, and his silence was really beginning to worry Cleo. He’d only spoken when he’d offered to go with Harlequin into the Shadow Lands. When he met Cleo’s gaze as he joined her side, Cleo’s spine stiffened. His eyes were cold, distant, as if he was somewhere else yet could still see her.
Cleo took in a breath and looked over her friends as they gathered around her. Faith was still eating a berry, dusting down her long skirt of fur as she joined them.
“If Harlequin thinks it will take us that long to reach the Shadow Lands then we need to move fast,” said Cleo. “I’d like to avoid another camp-out so close to the borders.”
“Seconded.” Enigma moved on ahead of her, folding his arms behind his head. “It’s a shame you can’t all warp like me.”
Spark huffed. “I’d much rather fly. It’s a shame Reshiram isn’t here this time to give us a lift.”
“Unwise,” said Harbinger. “A huge white dragon would stand out like a sore paw pad in the Shadow Lands.”
“And you won’t?” Spark looked down at the absol and he returned her look with a glare.
Cleo shook her head and turned to Mischief. He plodded along beside her, kicking a small pebble along over the rocky ground. It didn’t make much noise, since it was muffled by the grass. He appeared focused on it, but his eyes were still distant.
“Are you okay?” Cleo ventured quietly, her voice drowned out to the others as Faith tried to lighten the mood.
Mischief glanced at her. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine.”
He shrugged and dribbled the stone from one paw to the other. “I just want to get this over and done with.”
“We all do,” said Cleo. “If we find these outlaws, then maybe-”
“I want to go with Harlequin’s plan.” Mischief spoke loudly, startling Cleo and plunging the others into silence.
Harlequin raised her head, her sapphire eyes wide as she stared at the whimsicott.
Mischief clenched his fists and forced himself to raise his head, although he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. “I want to be of use to you before I…” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I know this pokerus is taking over me. I can feel it. And I know you know. You must do, right? My outbursts are getting worse. Even now my head is spinning. So… if I can help you kill Yveltal then at least I’ll have been useful.”
Cleo blinked back tears. “Mischief-”
“No, hear me out.” He did meet her gaze then, then turned to the others. “Send me in. Harlequin doesn’t need to go. I’ll take out Yveltal, Hydreigon and anyone else. I’ll go down fighting if I have to.”
Harlequin stuttered, her jaw flapping uselessly.
The fur rose along Cleo’s neck. “No! Absolutely not!”
“You don’t have to come with me, Cleo,” Mischief told her. “Just release me and-”
“That’s not what I meant!” Cleo took in a long breath and clutched her bag strap. “If you go in there alone, you won’t come out alive. No matter how strong you are, Mischief, you’ll be outnumbered!”
“Does it matter?” With each word Mischief flashed his canines. It made Cleo take a hesitant step back. “At least I’ll be free of this curse! I won’t need to look for a cure that obviously doesn’t exist, or keep putting all of you at risk!”
“No!” Mischief waved a paw, silencing Cleo. “Let me in there! If I’m gonna be stuck with this thing I might as well use it for good! If Xerneas says this is my strength then maybe it’s what I’m meant to do?”
Cleo opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She looked to her friends, but none of them looked any better. Even Faith had nothing encouraging to say. Her violet eyes wandered to Enigma and Cleo knew at that moment they were all thinking the same thing. How could any of them tell Mischief now?
Enigma dodged her gaze and a grimace twisted his face. “Let’s put a pin in it for now. We’ll get to the Border Woods and see where things take us once we’re there.”
They all moved on, a heavy awkward air hanging over them. Harbinger’s usually light footsteps seemed heavy, and he made a conscious effort to keep his eyes forward and his head raised, ready to detect any threats.
Harlequin caught Mischief’s eye and something unvoiced passed between them. Cleo didn’t like it. It carried with it a strange air of foreboding. She forced herself to ignore it and pressed on to join Enigma and Faith at the front of the group. No… there was no telling Mischief now. She dreaded to think how he’d react if he found out Xerneas could have healed him and hadn’t.
News of the Outcasts breaching the borders had spread fast. Yurlik perched on the stone wall surrounding the Shadow Lands, listening to his flock as they relayed the story. A sense of dread filled the large honchkrow’s chest. He needed to relay this information to Hydreigon. With that thing present. A shudder shook Yurlik’s body, and his waning flock faded to silence as they watched him.
One murkrow inclined his head on one side. “You okay, boss?”
Yurlik raised his head sharply, twitching an eye towards the curious corvid. “Of course I am! Why wouldn’t I be?”
The murkrow exchanged confused glances, muttering quietly to themselves. Yurlik shook out his feathers and turned his back on them.
“I need to speak to Hydreigon. You lot return to your posts. Keep an eye on those Outcasts. If anything changes, tell me immediately.”
The murkrow rose into the air as a small black cloud before parting into three groups across the Border Woods. Yurlik was about to take off towards the castle when a coarse giggle drew his eye to the tall tree several feet away.
Ilana sat in the branches preening her wings while her scrawny murkrow swerved about in the sky nearby. A few smaller murkrow huddled around her, watching Yurlik with false expressions of reproach betrayed by their trembling, scrawny bodies. Ilana flashed a beady, red eye at him, glittering with humour.
“You could make yourself useful?” Yurlik snapped. “Rather than loitering around here? Don’t you know we have invaders?”
“Oh, I know.” Ilana raised her head and tucked her wings in neatly. “I overheard your boisterous birds.”
“Then get out there and intersect them!”
Ilana narrowed her eyes. “I don’t answer to you, Yurlik. I’m in charge of my own flock.” She nodded towards the murkrow as they formed a neat arrow formation and swooped down towards the deino below, agitating them and narrowly missing the dragons’ snapping jaws they swerved back towards the sky. “We’re training for battle. Something I suggest you do, since you can barely fly to the bordering trees without losing your breath.”
Yurlik snapped his beak in irritation. “How dare-”
“You know I’m right,” Ilana quipped. “How do you expect to survive this coming battle?”
“Better than you and your half-baked hatchlings!” Yurlik bit back. “Couldn’t you have waited until your new recruits had finished growing their adult feathers before you pilfered them from their nests?”
Yurlik didn’t wait for a reply. With one beat of his powerful wings he took off towards Hydreigon’s castle. He landed heavily on the top step, stumbling forwards until his beak struck the door. He gave a frustrated caw, beating the door with his wings. It opened and a krookodile cowered back from the raven’s flailing wings.
“Oi, oi! Hang on!” The large crocodile raised his arms to protect his face, leering at Yurlik over his claws.
The honchkrow tucked his wings in and glared at the soldier on duty. “I have business with Lord Hydreigon.” He shoved the krookodile aside and marched down the corridor, scattering a pair of rattata who had been sweeping the dusty tiles clean.
The krookodile trotted to keep up with Yurlik. “Somethin’ ruffled yer feathers?”
Yurlik had barely touched the door to the throne room when Hydreigon’s voice instructed him to enter. The large, black dragon sat in the middle of the room with a bored expression on his face. His head rested in the open jaws of one pincer while the other traced the pattern of the tiles on the floor. A pair of icy eyes watched Yurlik curiously from the far corner of the room. Yveltal’s very presence chilled the large, bare room, and Yurlik’s feathers fluffed out of their own volition.
“I have some… bad news, my lord.” Yurlik spread his wings in a bow, more out of desperation to hide his sudden trembling.
Hydreigon’s blazing eyes snapped up towards the honchkrow. “I hope I misheard you there, Yurlik.”
“I’m terribly sorry, my lord. But… my murkrow have come back with some worrying news. Two Outcasts have been spotted flying over the Border Woods. A riolu riding on an altaria-”
“An altaria?” It was Yveltal who’d spoken. He shifted in the corner, raising his head until he towered over Hydreigon.
“There are no altaria in Estellis,” said Hydreigon. “My father made sure of that.”
“I know, my lord,” Yurlik went on. “But they claim it was an altaria. A blue, avian pokemon with fluffy white feathers.”
Yurlik wasn’t completely sure, but he thought a look of fear flashed across Yveltal’s face.
“Are you certain they’re not mistaken?” Hydreigon asked. “Could it have been a drampa?”
“It’s hard to say.” Yurlik shrugged his shoulders. “But they all claim the same thing. Whatever it was, it put up a good fight before Ripwig joined it and chased my flock away.”
“Ripwing?” Hydreigon’s eyes narrowed and he pushed himself up. Purple flames flashed within his pincers and smoke billowed from his jaws. “Ripwing is involved?!”
Yurlik cowered back from the heat radiating from the large dragon. “I-it appears so, my lord.”
“So the Outcasts are teaming up with the outlaws?!” A low growl resounded in Hydreigon’s throat and he slumped back down onto the tiles, his flames fizzling out. His head flopped onto one of his pincers and he sighed. “I need to stop this before it even starts. Send out the noibat.”
Yveltal took a step forwards. “If I may-”
“Your time will come, Yveltal,” Hydreigon told him. “Once we know for certain, you can have at all the outlaws and Outcasts you want. But if an altaria is involved, I want it brought back here immediately so I can execute it myself.”
An unsettling hiss left Yveltal’s beak and he ducked back into the corner to preen his feathers. Or was he licking at wounds? It was too dark to be certain.
“Leave now, Yurlik,” Hydreigon growled.
Yurlik spread his wings in a bow and reversed from the throne room. The two rattata scattered from the door, blatantly pretending they hadn’t been spying. Yurlik angrily snapped his beak at one, causing him to squeak and bolt aside, hugging his tail to his chest. It cowered under Yurlik’s glare as he marched back towards the courtyard.
His feathers smoothed back out as the warmth from the corridor washed over him. The krookodile cast him a curious look as he left the castle, but Yurlik didn’t return it.
“Keep an eye on those rats,” he instructed, getting a nod from the giant reptile.
As Yurlik rose into the air his eye fell on the tumble of rocks near the foot of the Shadow Mountains. Yurlik swerved towards it and perched on a large boulder. He lowered his head to peer inside, seeing nothing but darkness.
“Rumble?!” His voice echoed off the wide cavern.
Hundreds of yellow eyes flicked open, fixing on the honchkrow. He met the large eyes of the noivern leader and they narrowed with suspicion.
“What is it, Yurlik?” Rumble asked. “It’s still daylight. This had better be good.”
“Lord Hydreigon wants you to find some Outcasts that have wandered into the Border Woods,” Yurlik explained. “He wants them bringing back to him alive.”
Rumble yawned and spread his large wings, disturbing the smaller noibat. “And what exactly are we looking for?”
“A riolu and an altaria.”
“Altaria?” Rumble spat. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“Are you defying Lord Hydreigon’s orders, Rumble?”
The noivern tightened his wings and stiffened. “Of course not.”
“Then get out there and find them! And if you spot any more Outcasts-”
Yurlik’s sentence ended in a squawk as noibat exploded from the cave mouth, causing him to duck and raise his wings to shield his head. Their shrill cries filled the air, echoing off the mountains. Rumble cast Yurlik a playful grin before joining his swarm, leading them out across the Shadow Lands to the Border Woods.