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Pokémon The End: Rekindled (Part 4 is here!)

Hero - Part Two

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
Hero

Part Two​



“You all know why you’re here.”

Hydreigon drifted back and forth above the snow-covered ground before his troops, teams formed of assassins, soldiers and aerial warriors. Enigma watched him from beside Kera, mirroring everyone else as they turned their heads left and right to follow the hulking dragon.

“You are all fighting to make this world a better place,” Hydreigon went on. “Never have dark- or dragon-types been accepted in this world. The other pokemon fear us. They see us as pokemon that live in darkness, hiding in caves. Huge predators that wouldn’t blink an eye at snatching away their hatchlings.

“Predators. Shadowy murderers. Omens. That’s how they see us. For centuries we’ve been persecuted! Driven away under accusations of bringing doom and disaster. Accused of harming those who fear what they don’t understand! No dark-type or dragon-type has lived peaceably with other pokemon. They don’t trust us. As soon as they see us they are quick to act, calling it ‘self defence’. But me? I say it’s nothing more than murder!”

Enigma bit back a scoff and cast a quick glance to the sky. Any sound he would have made would have been drowned out by the shouts and cries of agreement around him, anyway.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say how tired I am of their resentment. Like you, I’ve never grown up in a world that understands us. Centuries ago all dark- and dragon-types were driven to the Shadow Lands. Only recently has it begun to spread its reign across Estellis in a bid for freedom. But do the Outcasts want us to have that freedom?”

The troops replied as one voice, their cry of ‘no’ rending the air like thunder.

“I can assure you, we will get that freedom!” Hydreigon roared. ”No longer will we stand for resentment. We will show those Outcasts that we won’t take these accusations lying down! We’ll take back this world, and if they fear us then we’ll give them something to truly fear! You will fight for our freedom! You will fight to spread my reign across Estellis! We will drive the Outcasts to extinction just like they tried to do to us centuries ago! Tried, and failed! We will show them how to finish a job! From this day forth, the dark- and dragon-types will rule Estellis!”

Roars, howls and cheers filled the courtyard, and Kera leapt into the air, punching her fist towards the sky. Flamethrowers erupted from those that could breath fire, lighting up the night sky. Enigma did a twirl in the air beside his friend, but no words left his mouth. He didn’t agree with Hydreigon, but he feared if he did nothing to ‘show support’ then the Darkness would turn on him.

Hydreigon said no more. The large dragon flew back towards his castle, tailed by Yurlik his honchkrow officer. The troops dispersed to return to their respective barracks and training grounds, their paws crunching over the freshly fallen snow.

Enigma gave one glance back towards Hydreigon then zipped after Kera.

“Riveting, huh?” Kera flashed Enigma a grin.

The shuppet shrugged. “Same as always.”

“Well sure, it’s the same speech, but it always gets me so pumped!” Kera bounced on her toes and swiped at the air before her. “I’m gonna train extra hard today.”

Enigma gave a noncommittal reply and looked over at the rest of the trainee assassins. They were all engaged in energetic conversation as they made their way back to the barracks.

“Come on,” Kera told him. “Ya never seem all that pumped after a rally.”

Enigma shrugged again. “Why should I be? He never includes ghost-types in it.”

“Yeah, but ya workin’ for him, aintcha?” When Enigma didn’t reply, Kera chuckled and nudged him with an elbow. “C’mon, little ghost dude. Let’s go train, eh? Maybe that’ll getcha blood pumpin’.”

A small smile spread across Enigma’s face, which Kera returned with a beaming grin. “All right, sure.”

Enigma followed her along the familiar trail towards the barracks’ training grounds, Hydreigon’s rally echoing around his head. For the past three seasons every day had felt the same, and each one of Hydreigon’s speeches blended into the next. Training with Kera had become the highlight of his day, and as soon as night fell he’d zip into her room to greet her. Unless he actually managed to sleep, in which case it was the other way around. Enigma had lost count of the times he’d been woken up by the excitable sneasel bouncing off his stomach.

The shuppet didn’t draw attention from the other assassins anymore. They’d grown used to having a ghost-type around, whether or not they were happy about it. After his previous mishap, Jex and Niana had arranged it so that Kera and Enigma were paired together, but on the odd occasion Enigma had found himself sparring with a couple of the other trainees. It had surprised him how much he’d enjoyed training with the nickit, Vixen; and a burly krokorok had surprised Enigma with his speed. The krokorok was much more experienced and had only been involved in training since a lot of the younger trainees were struck down with a bout of sickness for a couple of days. What had surprised Enigma was that a krokorok was an assassin in the first place, since a lot of the larger and more bulky dark- and dragon-types were recruited into soldiers, lacking the light-footed agility required of an assassin.

“Think fast!”

A flurry of ice shards appeared in Enigma’s vision, and he jerked to the side to avoid them. A couple of them clipped his side and he let out a hiss as he righted himself in the air. He narrowed a glare at Kera who was bouncing on her toes a few feet away.

“I wasn’t ready!” Enigma scolded.

She shrugged. “Woke ya up, didn’t it?”

Before Enigma could respond, the sneasel flicked her claws, sending more shards his way. Enigma shot towards the ground, vanishing into the shadows. Kera twisted on the spot, raising her claws to catch him in a throat chop. Enigma had calculated this and leapt up behind her, jabbing his horn into her back.

The sneasel yelped and twisted towards him, sweeping her left paw through the air. Frost peppered Enigma’s body, biting through his fur.

Kera chuckled and wiped a claw across her nose. “Is that all ya’ve got?”

Enigma stuck his tongue out at her and did a somersault in the air. His eyes widened as he glimpsed the grinning face of the sneasel, and he looked down at himself in confusion.

“Will-o-wisp ain’t gonna work now, little ghost dude.” Kera raised her claws in the air again and lunged at him.

The shuppet thought fast, zipping towards the ground. The frost bit at his flesh making his movements sluggish, but he reached the shadows just as her claws clipped his long fur. She let out a shout, leaping around to greet him. Enigma emerged from the floor with a jingle, aiming his horn at her chest. He yelped with surprise as he instead collided with the sneasel’s claws. She flicked him away from her, sending the young shuppet soaring across the training grounds.

He corrected himself in the air, ready to soar back towards her. But Kera wiped her claws on her chest, laughing as she panted to catch her breath.

“Caught me off guard there,” she said as Enigma returned to her side. “Ya definitely gettin’ faster.”

“You taunted me,” he said flatly.

“Yep! After yesterday I thought I’d keep that ace up my sleeve.” She folded her arms and smirked at him. “Wanna get some breakfast now? I’m starvin’!”

Enigma’s answer came as a loud rumble from his stomach. Kera chuckled and Enigma felt his face heat up.

“C’mon then!” she said as she skipped back towards the barracks. “Yanno, ya might be even faster once ya get legs!”

Enigma mused over that statement as he followed the sneasel back to the barracks. She stopped by a small room just next to the entrance. A gabite stood behind a long table handing out small packages of brown paper with that morning’s rations, each one catered to specific diets. Although most of the pokemon in the Shadow Lands were carnivores. Enigma glanced the rota on the wall as he came in, noting the name of the trainee on duty that day - Ranthan. Of course, none of the trainees in his bracket were on there. Enigma’s mornings were taken up by reading and writing lessons (the latter of which was almost impossible for him) and Hydreigon’s rallies.

Kera grabbed two bags and motioned for Enigma to follow her while the rest of the trainees crowded in. Enigma hovered over their heads while Kera slipped through the rowdy crowd. She was nattering to him the whole time, but it fell on deaf ears. He watched her carrying the packages effortlessly in one paw, swinging them at her side by the string as she gestured with the other. He’d found himself observing her a lot recently, tuning out to her conversation as he just watched her instead. He barely paid attention to where he was going, drifting along on auto pilot. As he expected, she continued on towards the back exit to their usual spot by the lake.

Kera flopped to the ground beneath a willow and unwrapped one of the packages, spreading it out before her. An assortment of berries tumbled out over strips of dried jerky, the brown kind that suggested it definitely wasn’t fish. Enigma drifted down opposite her as she unwrapped the second package for him. He snapped up one of the berries with his tongue and shuffled into the damp grass.

“I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I wanna take my time with this before we head back to the grind.”

“That’s not like you,” said Enigma. “You’re always so keen to get back to training.”

“Eh!” Kera shrugged and leant back on her paws. “I feel like takin’ it easy a bit today.”

Enigma swallowed his mouthful of jerky and met her eyes. “You’re not still sick are you?”

“Nah! I’m as right as rain now. I just wanna have fun for a change. I mean, by the time the Warming Season hits I’ll be classed as an adult and I’ll be moved into the next class. It gets real strict there, yanno. Lots more trainin’, and way less reading lessons.”

Enigma snorted and looked away from her. Mainly because he didn’t want her to see his disappointment. Did that mean he’d have an entire two seasons without Kera? Who would he be paired up with?

“What? Ya jealous or somethin’?”

Enigma met Kera’s eye again and his cheeks heated up at her playful smile. “No! Just… you’re older than me, that’s all. And I don’t get along with any of the other trainees.”

“Ya were fine with Vixen,” said Kera. “Although… she’s gonna be movin’ up soon, too. Ah well, they’ll find someone for ya. Besides! Ya not meant to ‘get along’ with anyone. We’re not meant to have attachments here, yanno. Ya know that already.”

“Really?” Enigma felt his heart sink. “I thought we were friends?”

“C’mon, little ghost dude! Everyone here’s gotta talk to someone or we’d all go mad! That’d make us pretty bad at our jobs.”

Enigma’s heart sank further but he didn’t look away from her face. “So… you’re saying you’re not my friend?”

Kera closed her eyes and smiled, letting a silence draw out before them that for Enigma felt like an eternity he didn’t want to be in.

The sneasel gave a dry chuckle and tossed an oran berry pip in his direction. “Of course we’re friends.”

Enigma rolled his eyes to mask the flood of relief that washed through him and returned to his meal. But he couldn’t help thinking over what she’d said. Two seasons without someone fun to train with seemed like such a daunting idea. A wall he couldn’t see past. What if he encountered another situation like the gible, Tannen, and found himself on the receiving end of another beating? He might be a lot stronger than he was when he first arrived in the Shadow Lands, but he was still a hatchling. Still a shuppet with a limited means to defend himself.

He watched as Kera sliced up a pecha berry with her claws and expertly removed the stone. She tossed half of the fruit Enigma’s way, but it landed in the grass beside the long fur that covered his small, limbless body. The sneasel’s muzzle creased as she assessed him, and she took a bite of her pecha slice.

“Somethin’ wrong?” she asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and looked out at the lake.

“Well… we’ve got a long day ahead of us,” she went on. “I know! What d’ya wanna do after trainin’?”

“I want to evolve.”

The words surprised even him, and Kera thumped her chest as she choked on her mouthful. After a moment she gave him a wide-eyed look.

“Ya wanna what?” Her voice wheezed and she coughed a few more times.

Enigma blinked as he rolled his own words around in his head. Had he actually said that? But… the more he thought about it, the more it set a fire inside him. If he evolved, then he’d definitely stand more of a chance at defending himself once Kera left their group. Not only that, he’d be able to keep up with her when they sparred. He’d also be able to do a lot more, like carry his own ration packets, or read a book without needing Kera to turn the pages for him.

Maybe… he wouldn’t need her anymore.

His heart clenched at that thought, and he looked away from her back towards the barracks. “I want to evolve.”

“Are ya serious?” She crawled towards him, drawing his eye back to her dainty face. “Ya like… way too young for that.”

“Am I?” he asked. “I’m sure pokemon have evolved from training at my age.”

“Yeah, but… yer all new here ‘n’ stuff. Ya’ve only been trainin’ for what? Two seasons?”

“Three.”

“Ta-may-to, ta-mah-to.” Kera shrugged. “It’s still, like, a seriously small amount of time. How d’ya expect to evolve in one night?”

“I don’t,” he said. “But you never know. If I train-”

“We’ll be trainin’ all day!” Kera laughed. “When I asked what ya wanna do I was expectin’ ya to say ‘chess’ or somethin’, not evolution.”

“Well I want limbs,” said Enigma. “I want to be able to hold my own, and do things by myself. Is that too much to ask?”

Kera sank back on her hindquarters and scratched behind her feathery ear. A long sigh left her chest but her eyes sparkled as they met his, making a funny feeling bubble inside him.

“All right!” she grinned. “I’ll help ya! I like havin’ a good scrap anyway.”

A smile spread across Enigma’s face and his tongue poked out almost on it’s own. It drew a tinkling laugh from the sneasel and she smacked her knee.

“Ya so adorable! Stop it.”

Enigma gave her a playful smirk and returned to his breakfast. With the thought of evolution to look forward to, the rest of the day seemed to go by a lot faster. Before Enigma knew it, they were finishing up their final meal for the day and heading to the indoor training room.

The room was dusty, and the smell of stale sweat assaulted him as they entered. It wasn’t a room that was used often, usually reserved for days when the weather made training outdoors a nigh impossible task. Some pokemon used it in the middle of the day when they couldn’t sleep, but that was a rare occurrence. Most of the time, if a trainee couldn’t sleep, they’d entertain themselves with games until they finally drifted off or the sun set, forcing them into the next day’s routine.

Kera stopped in the middle of the room and stretched one arm behind her back with the other. “So… where d’ya wanna start?”

“What do you recommend?” Enigma asked.

“I dunno, I ain’t evolved yet.” She shrugged. “I’ve always heard buildin’ on ya weakest moves might help. And if it doesn’t, then at least we’ve got some value from this.”

“Then… I guess I’ve got to hone shadow ball?”

“Sure thing!” Kera clapped her paws together and took a step back. “Throw ‘em at me!”

Enigma wasted no time. He curled into the air and flipped forwards, sending a shadowy ball of energy right at the sneasel. She leapt aside, dodging it with her phenomenal agility. Enigma muttered under his breath and tried again, sending one at her opposite side. Again, the sneasel leapt aside, chuckling at the frustration on his face.

“Ya tryin’ to hard!” she said.

“Well if I don’t I’m not going to get anywhere, am I?” Enigma snapped.

“Ooh, the little ghost’s showin’ attitude!” Kera folded her arms and smirked. “Chill! We’ve only just started, and we’ve got plenty of time!”

“No I’ve not! You’re about to move up in the ranks, leaving me here like this!” Enigma wriggled his tiny body, and Kera lowered her face into her paw.

“All right,” she said quietly. “I see what this is about.”

“Nobody else here lacks limbs!” Enigma went on. “I’m… useless…”

“No ya not.” Kera moved over to him and offered a paw, but Enigma shrugged it off. “Look, we’ll get ya trained up and if ya don’t evolve before I leave your class, ya will soon enough! Okay?”

“I’m just worried,” he explained, “that when you leave, someone will start picking on me again. I’m not strong.”

“Well firstly, Niana and Jex won’t let that happen. Heck, even Lord Hydreigon won’t let that happen! And all the trainees here’ll be too scared of him to pick on ya! He chose ya, right?”

Enigma shrugged and glanced towards the window, where orange rays were already leaking in from the rising sun.

“And… I’ll make a promise to ya,” said Kera. “If ya haven’t evolved by the Warming Season, I’ll keep trainin’ with ya late into the mornin’ until ya do. Okay?”

She punctuated it with a grin, and Enigma felt a smile spreading across his face.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Great!” Kera skipped backwards from him and clapped her paws again. “Now c’mon, throw some shadow balls at me! I wanna see whatcha can do when ya really try!”

Enigma twisted and tossed a shadow ball at her, and Kera leapt aside just as he expected. He did the same as last time, causing the sneasel to leap the other way. She shouted a taunt at him which fell on deaf ears. Enigma wasn’t slacking. As she tried to dodge his third attack he followed it up with a fourth, aiming for where Kera was leaping.

Her eyes widened and she staggered, but the attack hit her in the shoulder, bowling her ear over tail. As she leapt to her feet, a grin plastered on her face, she turned to congratulate him. But Enigma had vanished into the shadows. She turned just as he leapt from the floor behind her, and raised her arms. He struck her wrist with his horn and she flinched, flicking him aside.

Kera wiped a claw across her nose and laughed. “Not bad! Ya learnin’!”

“That’s because you’re predictable,” he teased.

Kera tutted, but the smile never left her face. She leapt forwards, raising her claws. Enigma tried to dodge, but she was too quick, landing a cleaving strike to his side. Tufts of grey fur fluttered into the air, dancing around the sneasel like grey snow. Enigma fixed her with a wide-eyed stare, his tongue poking out.

“Guess I’m not all that predictable after all, huh?” Kera laughed.

“That was a new move!” Enigma gasped.

Kera shrugged and folded her arms. “Not really. I’ve known feint attack for years. I just prefer moves like ‘beat up’ now. And I don’t really like hittin’ ya with dark-type moves. Doesn’t really seem fair.”

“If it’ll help me evolve, then hit me with all you’ve got,” he said.

“Don’t be a plank! Ya can’t take all that!”

“Then I’ll learn to dodge,” said Enigma. “Try me.”

Kera sighed, rubbing her paw down her face. Then she launched herself into another feint attack.

By the time they were finished, the sun was high in the sky. Kera called it to an end, too exhausted to keep training, and Enigma went to bed disappointed he’d not managed to evolve.

Days went past as the pair settled into a new routine of hard training, with the entire training room to themselves. Enigma got faster and stronger, and he was convinced he was close to evolving. But it really began to take its toll on Kera. The sneasel often overslept, missing breakfast, and Jex began to call her out on her regular mess-ups during their training classes. So Enigma and Kera agreed to alter their routine, reducing their personal training sessions to every-other-day. Then every three days, with the Warming Season drawing ever closer. Enigma began to wonder if he’d ever evolve at all.

...​

Frantic barking and yelling invaded Enigma’s dreams, painting his memories of the Shadow Mountains a vivid red. He flung himself from his nest of stale hay, blinking his wide eyes as the chaos followed him into the waking world. He turned his head to the window where the makeshift blind allowed the dim afternoon light to leak into his room.

The Shadow Lands were in utter chaos. Soldiers raced towards the Border Woods, lead by the mightyena pack. Canine jaws snapped at the heals of a pack of terrified white pokemon. Their snowy fur contrasted with navy claws and dark faces, and as one looked back its ruby eyes flashed with fear and anger. Its crescent horn tore through the air, sending a blade of wind slicing through the mightyena’s troops.

The dogs fell back as black fur and crimson blood misted the air, giving the snowy pokemon a chance to advance further. But they were intersected by the Wildfires. The houndoom leader launched a flamethrower, scorching the earth ahead of the fleeing pokemon. Enigma pushed himself towards the window, his heart racing. What was going on?

“Absol.”

He looked up at Kera. The sneasel stood in his doorway, her eyes as wide as his.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

“I don’t know…” said Kera. “Lord Hydreigon must blame them for that landslide yesterday.”

Enigma turned to look back through the window. Mounds of earth were still backed up against the breeding pens in the distance. It had been unpredictable. Pokemon had scattered, and those that were too slow had been crushed to death beneath it. Hydreigon had called it a freak accident, and many of his soldiers had spent the afternoon digging out the pens. The small shacks the soldiers resided in had been shattered, and the dark dragon’s troops had been cut by a third.

Enigma shook his head. “Why would he blame the absol?”

“I guess because they didn’t warn him,” she explained as she perched on his bed. “Absol can sense disasters. Didn’t ya know that?”

Enigma blinked at her, confusion clouding his mind. “I’ve never even seen them here before.”

“They lurk near the mountains, in underground burrows,” said Kera. “The landslide never even touched their home, yet there was no sign of them after the disaster. Lord Hydreigon is furious. It looks like he’s ordered them to be driven from the Shadow Lands and exterminated.”

Enigma’s jaw went slack. All he could do was watch as the leader of the absol was buried under the black pelts of salivating, barking canines. The absol’s crimson eyes flashed towards the barracks, and for a moment Enigma was convinced she’d looked right at him. He could almost hear the dark-type’s desperate plea:

‘You know this is wrong. Why don’t you do something?’

Then she was gone. Consumed by the vicious, writhing bodies of her enemies.

Enigma’s mind reeled with memories of his own home being ransacked, ghost-types driven out and killed. Anger burned inside him, but what could he do? One tiny ghost couldn’t face off against the Wildfires or the mightyena’s pack.

The rest of the absol fled, fighting to get through the Wildfires. The edge of the Border Woods was ablaze, but the absol leapt through the wall of fire with screams of desperation.

The big mightyena watched them with his canines bared, barking commands for his pack to scatter and double round to cut before the fleeing pokemon.

“That’s Kane,” Kera explained. “He’s ruthless. His pack’ll pursue those absol until they collapse from exhaustion.”

The smaller mightyena and poochyena faltered before the wall of fire. Kane barked louder, and his soldiers scattered. Some of the smaller ones yelped with confusion and fell into pace behind their larger comrades as they gave chase.

“Can’t we stop them?” Enigma asked.

Kera began to laugh then stopped as she met Enigma’s stoic expression. “Ya serious? C’mon, little ghost dude! What’re we gonna do? For all we know, Lord Hydreigon’s right, and his word is law.”

Enigma sank onto the windowsill, unable to look away from the chaos.

“C’mon.” Kera pulled Enigma back from the window, but the little ghost resisted. “We can get some trainin’ in before the rally.”

Enigma jerked his head towards her, his eyes flashing. The rally… how could he listen to Hydreigon after this? But Kera wasn’t looking at him. She watched the chaos continue as the Wildfires followed Kane’s pack around the fire.

“Please tell me you don’t agree with this,” Enigma said.

Kera looked at him briefly then shook her head. “The absol were loyal… Or at least we thought they were.”

“You don’t believe they caused that landslide?” Enigma gasped.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “They claimed to be loyal. But if they knew that landslide was comin’, why not say anythin’?” She watched the tail-end of the troops as the barking faded into the distance. “But yer right, in a way. He shouldn’t be drivin’ ‘em out without investigatin’ further. Our numbers are already so small. Least he could do is listen to ‘em, right?”

Enigma let out a small sigh and moved away from the window.

“But that’s just the way it is I guess,” said Kera quietly. “I was always told when I was little, ‘Never trust an absol. Their presence is a curse, and only brings disaster.’ Perhaps Niana was right.”

The absol leader’s accusing eyes flashed in Enigma’s mind and he felt a chill run down his spine.

“That’s just a myth.” He wasn’t sure if he was trying to reassure himself or not.

“Maybe.” Kera slipped from the bed. “But there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it. So, since we’re both awake, let’s train.”

Enigma gave one final glance at the window. The troops had long vanished, leaving those capable of ground and water attacks to put out the flames. Enigma slipped through the door after Kera and followed her to the indoor training room. The cold season was ending, the days growing slowly warmer. But all the snow had melted into the ground turning it into mush beneath their paws.

The training room was cold and draughty, biting through Enigma’s fur. Kera didn’t seem to care, in fact she seemed to relish it. Her smile returned and she spun to face him, clapping her paws together. Enigma’s eagerness didn’t return. He kept glancing from the window. Stiff leaves poked from the ground around the base of an ancient tree. Crocuses, waiting for the warm sun so they could break into full bloom. The tree’s gnarled branches were decked with tiny green buds. A constant reminder that, in a matter of days, Kera would be moving from his class.

“Hey, little ghost dude!” Kera clapped her paws, dragging him out of his own head. “Time is ticking! The sun will set in, like, an our or somethin’.”

Enigma shook out his fur, trying to summon the will to fight. He didn’t have much time to prepare. Kera flicked her claws, sending sharp blades of ice at him. He swerved to avoid them, but they clipped his horn, sending a jarring, freezing pain through his head. He hissed and bit his tongue, twisting towards the floor.

“Enigma!” Kera dashed towards him. “Yikes! Are ya all right?”

His head was spinning, but he forced himself up. He was fine. He’d prove to her he was fine.

She skidded onto her knees beside him, and he melted into the floor. A yelp of surprise left the sneasel’s throat, followed by a gasp as he rocketed from the shadows into her back. She sprawled across the dusty floor with a grunt.

Kera tinkled laughter and pushed herself up, flashing a grin at the shuppet. “Ya got me.”

A cloud of ice soared towards Enigma, and he twirled to avoid it. It barely skimmed his fur as he followed up his dodge with a shadow ball. One after another he tossed them towards the sneasel, causing her to race across the training room. The sneasel leapt against the wall and raced along it, trying to come at Enigma from the side. He faltered for a moment, trying to work out where she’d land. This manoeuvre was new to him, and she was getting very good at it. She kicked off from the wall as he threw another shadow ball, taking advantage of his miscalculation. She raised her claws and brought them down on his back, sending him into the floor.

Feint attack.

Enigma rolled away as she followed it up with another and slipped into the shadows. He popped back up behind her, scoring her back with his horn.

Kera hissed and spun away from him, bringing her claws up in an arc. They flashed black and sliced through his fur. A scream left Enigma’s throat as he was tossed into the air in a cloud of shadowy fur. Kera’s eyes widened with shock and she recoiled back, watching the little shuppet as he thudded to the floor several feet away.

“Enigma!”

Kera dashed towards him and landed at his head. She checked over his body and cursed under her breath.

“Are ya okay?” she asked. “Argh, I shouldn’t’ve done that! I’m sorry! Think, Kera!”

Enigma’s face contorted in a grimace. His entire body throbbed. Kera’s attack felt like nothing more than a thorn prick in comparison. Pulsing pain radiated from his head down his spine in waves, growing more and more intense. He let out a loud scream, sending Kera reeling back from him on her bottom.

“What’s wrong?!” she squealed. “Tell me, please!”

A sob thickened her voice, but he couldn’t see if she was crying. The pain reached a pinnacle as he felt as though he was being stretched towards all sides of the room. Everything was red and black as spots danced across his vision. It was so intense he wasn’t sure if he’d passed out for a moment.

Then it ended.

He lay, gasping for breath as a dull ache spread across his body.

“Enigma?” Kera’s voice was tiny. She crept towards him and knelt at his side, her eyes scanning up and down him. Her feathers quivered as she trembled from ear to tail. Her paws clasped around his silver bell and she hugged it to her chest.

He followed her stare to his own body and his eyes fell on a paw beside him covered in smoky grey fur. He flexed his claws and a gasp left his throat.

“Well…” Kera chuckled and wiped a paw across her eyes. “I guess I ain’t callin’ ya ‘little ghost dude’ anymore, huh?”

Enigma tried to push himself up, but his arms trembled with the effort. “I… I evolved?”

His voice was hoarse, and deeper than it had been previously. Kera placed an arm behind him to help him up, and he stared down at his new body. The sneasel seemed a lot smaller now. Her slender form trembled as she tried to calm herself from her fright.

“I thought it was me,” she said in a small voice. “I thought I’d really hurt ya.”

He shook his head and placed a heavy paw on her shoulder.

“I used night slash without thinking,” she explained. “Ya’d told me to use dark-type moves, but I never wanted to use somethin’ like that. I…” She paused and scratched behind her ear. “I want to apologise-”

“Don’t,” he said. “I don’t know if it was your attack or not, but something caused me to evolve.” He paused and shrugged. “Mission accomplished, I guess.”

Kera laughed and sat back on her paws. “At least we can now sleep more, huh?” She gave him a half-smile and Enigma felt his face flush. “I’m gonna miss our trainin’ sessions.”

A pang tugged at Enigma’s chest. He felt he was going to miss them more than she was. At least he’d evolved before she moved on up the ranks. He pushed himself up with a grunt, but his legs felt like jelly. He flopped back onto his bottom, knocking the wind out of himself.

Kera stood and tucked her shoulder beneath his arm, helping him to his feet. The sneasel huffed as she tried to hold him up, and she gave him a playful smile.

“Never thought a ghost would weigh so much,” she joked.

Enigma snorted back laughter. “I never thought evolving would hurt so much.”

“Eh.” She shrugged as she lead him towards the door. “Neither did I. But I suppose it makes sense. I mean… ya just, like, grew a whole new set of limbs.”

The pair staggered down the hallway towards Enigma’s room. It felt like miles. By the time he was back on his nest he fell back with a sigh.

“I’ll tell Jex yer ill today,” Kera told him. “Well… I explain ‘n’ stuff, but I’m sure he’ll understand and give ya time to recover, eh?”

Enigma’s paw flopped over his face. “I appreciate it.” He turned his head to fix one eye on her, receiving a small smile. “Thanks for helping me, Kera.”

“Ah, ya don’t have to thank me! I had fun!” She gave a dry laugh and set his bell down on the hay beside him. “Well… not countin’ that time I thought I killed ya.”

Her smile broadened into one of her familiar mischievous ones and Enigma’s heart skipped a beat. The pretty sneasel moved backwards to the door and grabbed the handle.

“I’ll check in on ya later, little ghost dude.” She paused, catching Enigma’s eye. Then she laughed and shook her head. “Nope. Doesn’t work anymore. I’ll think o’ somethin’ else.”

She slipped from the room, closing the door behind her.

Enigma closed his eyes, wondering if he’d even be able to rest. Sleep was rare, but he was absolutely exhausted. Just when he was about to give up, he was back in the dreamy world of the Shadow Mountains. But this time, Kera was at his side.

...​

Enigma was bored.

Two days had passed since Kera had moved up in the ranks. She’d barely had any time to spend with him. The training must have been much more intense as she’d come back to her room exhausted and fallen asleep not even an hour later. She’d assured him she’d adapt and get used to it, but Enigma’s patience was lacking. He’d already maimed his mother’s cloak, which passed an hour. Being too large for him currently (and then much too small when he reached his adult height) it was impossible to wear, and it had taken on the scent of the stale hay. He’d hacked the length of it into a scarf and tucked the rest beneath his bed. The scarf was still too long, hanging down at his knees on either side. But at least that way he’d always have something of his mother close to him wherever he went.

He sat on his bed twirling his silver bell around his claws, waiting for night to fall. A stack of books stood beside his bed, all raided from the barracks. All about training and Hydreigon’s laws. All utter droll and boredom. Yet reading very rarely sent him to sleep, as much as he wished it would.

A strange noise drew his attention to the wall beside him. A shuffle, like scales rubbing up against the cold stone. He pushed himself up and crawled to the window, pulling the blind back enough to peer through. His view was blocked by a blue sloping muzzle. It turned to face him, causing Enigma to fall back from it.

Ripwing’s eyes widened briefly and the salamence stood back to give him some space. Ripwing wasn’t a pokemon Enigma was all that happy to see. He’d been the one to drag him to the Shadow Lands in the first place, following Hydreigon’s orders. But still, there was something about Ripwing that didn’t frighten him and he couldn’t put a claw on what it was.

“Well.” Ripwing’s voice cracked slightly and he cleared his throat, casting a glance back towards the Border Woods. “Looks like you’ve gone and evolved.”

“A week ago,” Enigma told him.

“Really! So soon!” The dragon’s muzzle split into a smile that to anyone else might have been unsettling. “I guess you show promise after all.”

Enigma huffed and looked away from him. “I need to get back to…” He waved a paw and sighed. “Whatever I was doing.”

“Sleeping, I’d imagine?” said Ripwing. “You are nocturnal, right?”

“Can’t.” Enigma shrugged but he didn’t look at the dragon. “Insomnia.”

Ripwing grunted and shuffled closer to the window. “We’ve all felt that blight. Have you tried counting mareep?”

Enigma turned to face him and narrowed his eyes. “Are you mocking me?”

“It works for some of us.” Ripwing returned the banette’s glare. “Perhaps if you keep provoking me like that I’ll knock you out cold and you could sleep for moons?”

Enigma let out a sigh and rubbed the bridge of his muzzle. “Sorry. I can never tell with you dragons.”

He didn’t want to bring up his home. He didn’t want Ripwing to think he still held hostility towards Hydreigon. Dying in the Shadow Lands was the last thing he wanted, and part of him still desired to find a way to escape. That desire was growing stronger now that Kera wasn’t keeping him occupied.

Ripwing raised his head slightly, peering past Enigma into his room. “I see you’ve amassed quite the collection of books.”

Enigma shrugged. “I like reading.”

“Not very interesting though, I’d imagine,” said Ripwing. “Battle Tactics, Assassin 101, Killing Blows and How to Deal Them… all old stuff written well before our brilliant lord took over.”

Enigma jerked his head up sharply, but Ripwing’s gaze was distant. Enigma was sure he’d detected a hint of malice behind those words, but nothing in the dragon’s expression gave it away.

“Well.” Ripwing shuffled back from the window. “I’ll leave you to it and hope you manage to catch some sleep.”

“Wait.” Enigma called after Ripwing as he turned away.

“What is it?” Ripwing swished his tail and Enigma began to doubt whether he wanted to engage him further. But a probing stare from Ripwing dragged his question out of him.

“Don’t you have any literature in the Shadow Lands?” Enigma asked. “Reading all this technical stuff is just so boring.”

Ripwing clicked his tongue and craned his neck to look behind him. “There is the library.” He turned back to Enigma. “But whether or not there are any books left is a mystery. Lord Hydreigon doesn’t like us to read fiction, so Kane’s been using it as a den for moons. Long before you were hatched. I’d bet my scales most of them have been shredded and left lying in tatters.”

Enigma’s heart sank and he fell back from the window.

Ripwing watched him and his expression softened. “But… you can always have a look?”

Enigma stared back at the dragon for a fleeting moment, then looked over Ripwing’s shoulder. One of the buildings stood taller than the others, rather out of place in the Shadow Lands. Its ornate roof rose into a pinnacle topped with a large spike that might at one point have sported a flag. Was that the library?

“Kane is away at the moment on a mission, but he’s expected back any day now,” Ripwing told him. “You wont get another chance like this in the near future.”

“I suppose it’s worth a look,” said Enigma. “It might pass some time at least.”

The banette reduced himself to a smoky mist and slipped through the wall, manifesting at Ripwing’s feet. The salamence raised a brow and gave an approving nod.

“Is that it?” Enigma pointed a claw at the old building.

Ripwing nodded. “You have a keen eye.” He paused, looking as if he was going to walk away. But his shoulders fell in a silent sigh and he nudged Enigma onward. “I’ll come with you. Just in case Kane decides to return. Word has spread that Lord Hydreigon has taken a ghost into his assassin ranks, but… Kane won’t take too kindly to finding anyone on his territory let alone a rogue like you.”

Enigma wasn’t sure how he felt about being called a rogue. But he said nothing, following Ripwing across the dusty ground towards the library.

The sun was beaming down on them, warming through Enigma’s fur. It was the first time he’d been out during the day for anything other than training. The Shadow Lands were unfamiliar past the barracks and he felt the fur prickle along his spine. Most of the pokemon were asleep, but in the distance he could see dragon-types sprawling over the warm ground or engaged in battle to hone their skills. He’d wanted to call them ‘friendly brawls’ but he had never once thought a dragon looked ‘friendly’. Teeth flashed and claws glinted, flames spewed from jaws, tails whipped and thrashed. Kommo-o scales clanged like cymbals, rending the air over the shouts and roars of garchomp and haxorus.

Very few trees grew in the middle of the Shadow Lands. They were concentrated along the borders, but a few were scattered here and there. Enigma scanned the branches, finding a small flock of murkrow with their heads tucked beneath their wings. A couple of flapple perched in another, huddled up in a way they could easily be mistaken for fruit. One of them cracked an eye open as Enigma and Ripwing strolled past, then closed it again as it returned to its nap.

It was a stark contrast to the dead of night. Everything seemed so… quiet.

“Here we are.” Ripwing stopped beside the library and sniffed the window. “Kane is still out. Not even a poochyena in sight. Knock yourself out. I’ll just stay here looking nonchalant.”

The salamence moved away from the window and flopped onto the ground. He rolled onto his back, wriggling on the warm ground.

Enigma raised his head, not taking his eyes off the dragon. “What are you doing?”

Ripwing fixed him with one eye. “Dust bath. Go on. Be quick. I haven’t got all day you know.”

Enigma stared up at the building, taking in its immense size. So a whole pack of mightyena called it home? Even if they were inside, they could be anywhere.

Enigma took a deep breath and pulled himself up onto the windowsill to lean inside. The glass had long-since been removed. Only a few sharp shards stuck out of the top, matted with black fur from the dogs that had leapt through over the years. Enigma squinted into the shadows. Nothing moved. Not even a whimper or a snore reached his ears.

Realising Ripwing’s nose hadn’t lied, Enigma slipped inside and landed on a mass of torn papers and binding. He frowned down at it and shifted a paw from a mangled cover.

‘Before the Sunrise.’

The synopsis was impossible to read, gnawed to bits like the bookshelves around it. Many of the shelves had been pulled from the walls, and the larger bookcases lay like dominoes against each other, their contents scattered along the floor in a blanket of destruction.

Enigma crept carefully over it towards the precarious shelves. Like Ripwing had said, they were empty. The books were nothing but hollow shells. Torn and shredded and lying like confetti around him. Kane and his pack had done a thorough job. The banette’s heart sank as he took it all in. Any hope he’d find a decent read was rapidly fading.

He moved around the shelves, sticking close to the wall like a rattata. Shelves lay at odd angles, forming a maze towards the library’s rafters. Enigma followed them with his eyes. They were covered in claw-marks, small ones like a hatchling’s. Not a single part of the library was untouched by Kane’s pack.

His paw caught on wood and he stopped, turning towards a lopsided bookcase. It lay propped against the wall, crushing another smaller shelf beneath it. The splinters were gummed up with fur and what Enigma desperately hoped wasn’t blood. He made to move past it but something tugged at him to investigate. He crouched down beside the shattered shelf and pawed through the shredded books around it. A small opening appeared and his heart lurched. Was there a part of the library the dogs hadn’t got to? He scooped more of the paper aside, tossing it into a pile beside him. The large bookcase beside him creaked as its support of paper was removed and it jerked towards the ground, stopping as the shattered shelf refused to give way any more.

Enigma pushed himself onto the ground to peer through the gap. It was a narrow opening, leading to a separate room with more bookcases. Many of them were still standing but the low light made it impossible to see if any of them still held any books. The floor was littered with paper, but the standing shelves gave Enigma a surge of hope.

He slipped through into the room like mist. Dry paper crunched under his paws as he approached the shelves. The windows had been barricaded by shelving units, but a faint trickle came through a dirty skylight above him. He followed the light towards one of the book cases standing proud against the far wall, and his heart soared.

He rushed towards it, hoping he’d find its contents undisturbed. A thick layer of dust covered the spines of hundreds of books, and he smoothed the dust away from the sign above it. ‘History of Estellis’.

Well, it wasn’t literature. But it would undoubtedly be more interesting than mindless training manuals.

He swiftly swiped the spines clean so he could read each one: ‘The Short Reign of Queen Felicia’, ‘The Missing Herbs’, ‘History of the Seas’, ‘Yveltal’s Fall’…

Enigma faltered, reading the last title a second time. Yveltal? He’d never heard that name before. He tugged the book free and wiped his paw over the cover. On it was a large ‘X’, and circling it were two pokemon he didn’t recognise. A stag, and a draconic bird.

A thud snapped him from his thoughts and he looked up with a start. Voices. Gruff, barking voices, followed by Ripwing’s.

Enigma’s heart pounded. Kane had returned! He scurried back towards the gap and cursed under his breath. He couldn’t turn invisible or warp his way through while holding a book. He pushed it through the narrow hole until it wedged in place between the shelves and splintered wood. Another hefty shove and its spine scuffed along the sharp splinters, snapping them free. The shelf creaked again and the splintered shelf complained until a loud crack echoed around the library. Enigma slipped through the wall and scooped up the book as the large bookcase crashed down onto the remains of the ruined shelf, blocking the entrance to the room.

“What was that?!”

Enigma didn’t recognise the voice, but it was followed by whines and curious barks.

“It sounds like something fell over,” said Ripwing. “Perhaps you need to investigate?”

Enigma swore loudly and dashed towards the window. His heart galloped and his pulse sounded loudly in his ears. Scuffling came from the wall outside and a muzzle appeared at the window. Enigma hurled himself at the wall and dropped the book, standing on it as he turned invisible. The muzzle sniffed, turning left and right. Then another smaller one appeared beside it, mimicking.

“Get back!” barked the mighteyena. “All I can smell is your flea-ridden hide!”

The poochyena growled and dropped from the window.

The mightyena sniffed again and its lips pulled back from two rows of sharp teeth. “Someone’s definitely been in here. It stinks of hay and sweat.”

“I can assure you, Kane, I saw no one come in.” Ripwing appeared behind the mightyena. “Something has obviously just fallen over. I mean, look at this place! It’s little wonder it’s not come down on top of you!”

Kane growled at the salamence then dragged himself through the window, landing a mere foot away from Enigma. Kane raised his head, sniffing loudly. Enigma’s heart hammered, and he feared the canine’s sharp hearing would notice. The mighteyena was still for a long, painful moment. Then he lowered his head to the floor, following Enigma’s scent trail towards the hidden room.

Enigma didn’t dare breathe. He turned his head slowly towards the window. Ripwing’s face obscured it, but the dragon’s eyes were filled with concern. Enigma edged towards it as slowly as he could, hoping his bell would remain silent and not betray his presence. He lowered himself to the floor and let himself solidify enough to pick up the book. His paws trembled as he raised it to the window. It was taken gently from his paws by the dragon, and Ripwing fell back letting light into the room.

Kane raised his head sharply, turning to the window. Enigma melted through the wall, but he spotted Kane’s ears prick and swivel towards him. The banette reduced his density, vanishing before Ripwing’s eyes. But the salamence stepped over him and placed a large paw over the book.

Kane leapt up at the window, growling until saliva peppered his lips. “Where is it?!”

Ripwing met the mightyena’s scowling face. “What?”

“That ghost! Don’t play dumb, dragon, I saw it! Lurking by the window!”

“You mean Enigma?” Ripwing raised his head until he towered over Kane, but the canine didn’t even flinch. “He’s in his room. I saw him earlier.”

“Mighty friendly with him, eh?” Kane’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re obviously exhausted,” said Ripwing. “That was a long journey. Perhaps you’re just seeing things?”

“Calling me deluded?” Kane spat. “I know what I saw, my eyes don’t lie. And neither does my nose. This whole place reeks of the barracks! Lord Hydreigon will hear about this, Ripwing, mark my words. I don’t care if you’re his favourite. I don’t want no filthy ghost wandering around in my den!”

More of the pack had entered the library, and moved back and forth sniffing the ground before the hidden room. Their whimpers and high-pitched barks echoed around the hollow walls.

“Tell him what you want,” said Ripwing. “It’s no scales off my snout. If you ask me, that entire building needs gutting. Good night, Kane.”

“It ain’t night!” the mightyena howled.

He dropped away from view and barked commands to his pack. Ripwing watched the window for a moment longer, then turned his muzzle towards Enigma. The banette relaxed, letting his body solidify once more.

“You found something then?” Ripwing asked.

He moved his paw away from the book and watched as Enigma picked it up.

“Peculiar title,” said the dragon. “Well… I hope it wasn’t a wasted trip and you actually find it interesting.”

“Anything would be more interesting than the drivel I’ve been slogging through.” Enigma tucked the book under his arm and gave one last glance back at the library.

Ripwing fell into step beside him as he returned to his room. Once there, the pair both turned towards the library. But there was no sign of Kane. No evidence he’d followed them.

“He won’t do anything,” said Ripwing. “And if he does, well… it’s up to Lord Hydreigon at the end of the day.”

Enigma felt a chill run down his spine. Ripwing sensed his anxiety and gave him one of his strange, unsettling smiles.

“I hope you sleep,” said the salamence. “See you around.”

Enigma clambered onto his windowsill, and Ripwing turned to leave. The ghost looked back at him and lifted his head.

“Thanks.”

Ripwing froze and craned his neck to look back at Enigma.

“For having my back,” Enigma added.

“Anytime.” Ripwing turned again to leave. “Enjoy your book.”

Enigma watched the salamence slink off towards the lake, then the banette dropped through the window onto his bed. What neither of them noticed was Yurlik sitting atop the roof of the barracks watching them like a sinister, feathery gargoyle.

...​

Enigma was hooked.

With every turn of the page, the book just got better and better. He’d never seen anything like it. Perhaps that was because it was the only book he’d read that wasn’t a training manual or Hydreigon’s ideals? Or perhaps the story was just that good? Whatever the case, he read it all in one sitting. Before he knew it, he was opening it again.

The second time through he took the time to examine all the images. They were painted by a talented artist who had the eye for colour. They interpreted the war that took place in the story with such amazing skill the images contained just as much of the message, be it a peaceful vibrant scene or a battle filled with dramatic flair and danger.

Enigma paused on one particular scene - the Fairy Garden. Pokemon of all shapes and sizes were mixed together. An eevee raced along with a bagon and nikkit. Marill played in the water with sneasel and dratini. A gardevoir sat beneath the tree sharing a drink with a little shuppet. A gastly played hide-and-seek with a pair of pichu and a zorua.

In the distance stood a pokemon Enigma had never heard of before. A stag, his antlers radiating light onto the blissful scene. The writer called him Xerneas, and he looked after the Fairy Garden and all the pokemon within it.

It was a world so alien to Enigma. All his life he’d grown up believing dark- and dragon-type pokemon didn’t mix with the other types. Even the ghost-types had been wiped out, leaving him all alone in the world. Did the writer of the story have the hope that such a peaceful world could exist?

Sadly, the peace in the story didn’t last long. Another strange pokemon, Yveltal, didn’t like the existence of the fabled ‘fairy-type’. He sowed lies and doubt among the pokemon, tearing a rift between them that lead to a bloody war. Death and destruction filled the world, leading Xerneas’ armies to battle against it and bring an end to Yveltal.

Xerneas’ warriors were gifted strange stones that allowed them to unlock stronger powers to take down their foes. Gardevoir, mawile, ampharos… various pokemon were pictured wearing one of the stones around their necks or wrists, leading a small portion of the army into battle. It all built up into one final scene where Xerneas clashed with Yveltal, taking the rotten bird down.

The final page showed an egg-like cocoon sitting in a snowy wilderness, surrounded by statues of the pokemon that had followed the draconic bird into battle. Peace hadn’t quite returned. It had ended on an ominous note that Yveltal’s influence was still filling Estellis and one day the black bird would reawaken, resulting in his final fall - along with each and every pokemon that followed him.

Enigma couldn’t help but feel Yveltal was already back. The resemblance he shared with Hydreigon was uncanny - they shared the same belief. Dark- and dragon-types were held higher than any other, and those that didn’t share it were wiped out. Was he the inspiration for the story? Was it written to bring hope during the war? A metaphorical tale to spark hopes in the hearts of every hatchling it was read to? If so, then what was it doing in the Shadow Lands?

Enigma couldn’t understand it. The Shadow Lands had stood for centuries. How had this book gone undiscovered? Or hadn’t it? Hydreigon had kept the library standing. Kane and his dogs had clearly tried to demolish the books in the room that had been cut off from the rest of the library. It was fortunate that the shelves had collapsed, barring their entry to finish off their task. Could the book have triggered the ancient Hydreigon’s war in the first place?

Enigma grit his teeth. It made no sense. If that was the case, then surely he’d have destroyed the book? He wouldn’t have kept a book that would give others hope of his downfall. It was true he’d been perceived as less of a tyrant than his abomination of a son, but still…

Enigma flicked backwards through the book until he reached the scene where Xerneas defeated Yveltal. The stag’s antlers clashed with Yveltal’s claws in a flash of light, obliterating the terrible dragon-like pokemon. One hit. That was all it took. Xerneas’ light sliced through Yveltal’s darkness like a hot blade. The evil bird didn’t stand a chance. He’d claimed the lives of those that had fought against him, and even some of those that didn’t. Xerneas destroyed him and brought back the lives of his loyal followers.

A pokemon that could defeat the Darkness… in a world filled with such evil, the pokemon needed a hero like Xerneas.

Enigma closed the book and traced his paw over the ‘X’ emblazoned on its cover. Even if it was written to give a little hope, it had sparked something inside him. Hydreigon had killed his family. He’d taken a lot from every pokemon across the continent, even the islands that surrounded it. Places were left barren and lifeless, much like the statues Yveltal left in his wake. The abhorrent dragon needed to be stopped, but pokemon were too afraid to stand up to him. He was much too powerful, and wielded too much fear over Estellis. Fighting against him with tooth and claw wasn’t an option. The pokemon needed a much more powerful tool. They needed to rally together like the pokemon who fought alongside Xerneas and hold onto the hope that Hydreigon’s reign of terror would come to an end. If he lost all of his followers he’d be as weak as a day-old hatchling.

Enigma felt a fire well up inside him as he stared at the book’s cover.

Estellis needed a hero.

Maybe he could be that hero.

A noise sounded outside his room and he leant over his bed to tuck the book beneath it, dragging the remains of his mother’s cloak over the top. It was just someone passing down the corridor, but his heart was racing. He wasn’t ready to reveal the book to anyone just yet. First, he needed a plan.

...​

Light was flickering through Enigma’s window. He blinked his eyes open, waking from a light, dreamless sleep. It wasn’t daylight… so where was the light coming from? He pushed himself up on one arm, growing more and more aware of the voices filling the barracks. Was he late for training?

He rubbed a paw across his eyes and leant towards the gap in his window blind. His heart did a somersault and he pushed himself closer to the window. The library was ablaze. The Wildfires stood before it, their jaws gaping, spewing flamethrowers while Hydreigon stood behind them barking his orders. It was impossible to hear them over the roar of flames and the crack of wood and crumbling stone.

The library… why would Hydreigon want it torched?

Enigma’s stomach lurched. The book! The voices outside were growing louder, and he could hear the familiar squawking voice of Yurlik. The banette scrambled onto all-fours, dragging the book out from beneath his bed. Where would he hide it? There were no nooks and crannies in his room large enough for such a book. He turned on the spot, his eyes falling on the pile of books beside his bed.

Of course… where else to hide a tree but in a forest?

He tugged the dust jacket off one of the training manuals and smothered it over the book’s cover, his eyes lingering on the ‘X’ as he hid it from view.

Kane’s angry bark retorted something at Yurlik. Claws scraped over the handle of Enigma’s door, too heavy and clumsy to get a good enough grip. Enigma quickly buried the book near the bottom of the pile and flopped back onto his bed before the door staggered open. He met the blazing eyes of a mightyena as Kane glared through at him. A feathered wing shoved it the rest of the way, and Yurlik strutted in ahead of Kane, tailed by Niana and Jex.

Enigma’s heart was racing, but he gave the group a cheerful grin and tucked his paws behind his head.

“Wipe that look off your face, banette,” Yurlik warned. “This meeting isn’t in your favour.”

Enigma’s smile fell and he pushed himself back from the wall. “Have I done something wrong?”

“Wrong?” Yurlik clicked his beak with frustration.

Niana opened her mouth to speak, but Kane didn’t give her a chance.

The mightyena stepped forwards, his hackles bristling and his shaggy mane standing on end like quills. “You know full well what you’ve done, ghost!”

“I told ya!” Jex growled at the mightyena. “He ain’t done nothin’!”

“I know what I smelled,” Kane growled. “I always thought Lord Hydreigon had a screw loose takin’ on a sneaky ghost.”

“Now, now.” Yurlik’s voice was firm and he swept Kane’s muzzle away with a wing. The honchkrow never took his eyes off Enigma. “I’ll handle this.”

Yurlik strutted forwards and a smug smile tugged at the corners of his beak. “You can lie all you want, Enigma. I saw you and Ripwing only a few hours ago. You’d both been in Kane’s territory, and happened to be smuggling a book.”

“From the blocked off area,” Kane growled. “I know there’s stuff still there. None of my dogs have been able to get to it since it caved in on one of ‘em.” He lowered his head and bared his canines. “What was it?”

“Enigma wouldn’t have the gall to go in there!” Niana gasped. “Ya both deluded!”

“Shut up, wench!” Kane barked, bristling at the scrafty. “I ain’t talkin’ to you.” He turned his livid red eyes back onto Enigma. “I was talkin’ to him. Now tell me, ghost. What was it?”

Enigma shrugged and leant back against the wall. “I dunno. Some boring thing about a queen who used to rule the frost continent.”

Niana’s jaw dropped and Jex stuttered.

“So ya did take a book?” Niana gasped.

“Yeah. But I dropped it back off before dusk.” He waved a paw as if he was throwing something. “Posted it through the window. I heard a yelp, so I guess it hit someone. I didn’t hang around long enough to find out.”

“I heard nothin’,” growled Kane.

Enigma shrugged. “You were probably asleep.”

Despite the words pouring from his mouth, Enigma’s heart was pumping like a piston. All four were staring at him in disbelief, although the scrafty siblings were probably more surprised the ghost had possessed the audacity to enter Kane’s den.

“Was there such a book?” Yurlik asked the pack leader.

“I dunno,” said Kane. “Probably. That place were full of Estellis’ history. We never got to destroy it all.” He narrowed his eyes at Enigma. “Now tell me… what were you doin’ pokin’ around my den?”

“I was bored,” said Enigma. “I wanted something to read that wasn’t some dull training manual.”

The mightyena tutted through clenched teeth and his mane managed to rise even more. “My den is being torched because you were bored?!”

“Well if you’d just let pokemon read-”

Kane’s jaws snapped and he lunged towards Enigma. The banette panicked, scooting backwards until he was part way through the wall. Yurlik leapt between them in a flapping, oily mass and beat the mightyena back with his wings. Niana stood beside the honchkrow, her fists raised ready to strike the dark dog pokemon.

Kane glared at the pair. “Out of my way!”

“Not a chance,” said Niana. “Ya prove he’s guilty first. I ain’t havin’ an innocent hatchling killed in my barracks.”

A low growl rose from Kane’s throat as he glared at the scrafty for a moment longer. His eyes flashed to her fists a couple of times, then he stood back, flattening his ears slightly.

“Niana’s right,” said Jex. “If he is innocent, then Lord Hydreigon will be pretty narked with ya for killin’ a ‘mon he’s chosen himself.”

“He’d be inclined to agree with us if he thought he’d stolen incriminating information,” growled Kane.

“Well we want proof,” said Niana. “Ya saw him steal a book, Yurlik. Didja see what it was? Or are yer old eyes failin’ ya?”

Yurlik fluffed out his feathers with indignation and Enigma had to stifle a chuckle. He’d never seen the bird so flustered.

“He claimed himself he took one,” said Yurlik. “My eyes work just fine. It’s his claim to have returned it I don’t believe.”

“I don’t either,” said Kane. “His stink around my den wasn’t fresh enough for that.”

“Then let’s search the place,” said Yurlik. “We look for evidence. Search the room. We believe he stole a book.” He waved a wing towards the mountain of books. “Search them. See if we can find it.”

Jex and Niana shook their heads and began to search through the books.

“They all look like training manuals to me,” Jex muttered.

“I’ll sniff under the bed,” said Kane. “Yanno… just in case he’s hidden it?”

“You do that.” Yurlik stood back and watched the trio, keeping one eye on Enigma.

Jex scoffed as he fired a glare at the honchkrow. “Don’t wanna get yer feathers dirty?”

“Watch your tongue!” Yurlik snapped. “You keep up that attitude then it won’t be only his eyes I’ll be eating.”

Jex paled and turned away, muttering as he helped his sister check through the books.

Enigma watched with bated breath, deeply hoping they wouldn’t start flicking through them. But the scrafty duo checked the covers and spines and set them aside.

“These all look like ours,” said Niana. “Just training manuals.”

“All boring,” Enigma muttered.

Niana fired a glare at him but Jex snorted laughter.

“C’mon, sis,” he said. “He’s got a point.”

Kane dragged his head and shoulders out from beneath the bed and shook dust from his fur. “Nothin’ under there except a stinky rag.”

Yurlik and Kane both turned to the scrafty siblings. The books lay in small, haphazard piles around them.

“Training manuals,” said Niana. “Just like I said.”

Yurlik swept a pile aside with his talons and narrowed his eyes. Silently he stood back and exchanged glances with Kane.

Jex’s shoulders sank in a sigh. “Ya wanna search the whole barraks, don’tcha?”

“He could’ve hid it anywhere,” said Kane. “I’ll turn the place inside-out if I have to.”

Jex shot a glance at his sister and she rolled her eyes.

“Fine. I’ll take ‘em.” She motioned for the two elites to follow her and they slipped from the room, leaving Enigma with Jex.

Once the door had closed, Jex waited until their claws faded into the distance. He turned to Enigma and folded his arms.

“Ya’ve got spirit, ghost,” he said, fixing Enigma with narrowed eyes. “Sneakin’ into Kane’s lair like that? Yanno what the problem there was, eh?”

Enigma’s spine tingled and he tried his best not to hug his knees to his chest. “I know I shouldn’t have done it-”

“That weren’t the problem, Enigma.” Jex flashed him a grin. “Ya got caught.”

Enigma stiffened and pulled his head back. “Eh?”

Jex laughed and slapped a paw on the banette’s shoulder. “An assassin shouldn’t get caught! Read ya trainin’ manuals. Either way, ya gave it a good shot. Keep it up. With yer courage ya could go far. Lord Hydreigon were right when he chose ya.”

“You don’t think he believes Kane do you?” Enigma’s voice wavered.

Jex’s smile turned into a confused frown. “What? Ya think he’d care? The only thing he cares about is if ya found somethin’ that went against him. All ya wanted was a dang book to read. If anythin’, this will only have impressed him. Ya ask me, if he wanted to destroy all those books he should’ve left it to the Wildfires a long time ago.”

Enigma let his shoulders relax and he sank back against the wall.

Jex gave him another pat on the shoulder and turned to leave. “Don’t worry about Kane. He’ll find another den for his pack. Maybe he can use the old absol lair or somethin’. See ya in an hour for trainin’.”

Enigma watched him slip through the door, leaving behind an unsettled air. Yurlik’s threat still hung heavily over him. The banette’s eyes wandered to the pile of books. He couldn’t remember which one hid Yveltal’s Fall. He dropped to his knees and quickly piled them all back up. Anything to make the room feel better again.
 
Hero - Part Three

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
Hero

Part Three​


Claws clipped Enigma’s ears as he slipped into the ground. It chilled around him as a coating of ice formed over the hard, trampled dirt. Kera turned, twitching both her ears to follow his shadow. Enigma emerged a foot away from the weavile and tossed a shadow ball. She leapt, letting it explode beneath her feet. The eruption seared the tip of Vixen’s tail and the nikkit yelped, twirling to face them. Her partner, a gabite, took the chance to clamp his jaws over her ear. She squealed, yanking her ear free, and rounded on Enigma.

“That wasn’t fair!” she wailed, narrowing her eyes at the banette. She smoothed out her sore ear with a paw. “Stick to your own fight!”

Enigma chuckled and melted back into the floor, but Kera gave the nikkit a quick apology before turning to spot her friend. Her ears twitched for Enigma’s bell and she honed in on him as he darted from the ground, flexing his claws. She raised her own to block him and grunted as she staggered back from his blow.

“Yanno…” She panted and scooted away from him. “That bell gives ya away.”

The weavile raised her claws and rushed towards him. Enigma gave her a playful grin and warped backwards, slipping through the wall just as Kera swung a throat chop. Her claws sparked against the stone and she yelped, shaking them to remove the pain. Enigma strolled back through the wall and smirked at her.

“You cheat.” She returned it with a playful grin. “You know I can’t do that.”

“None of you can.” He raised his paws in a shrug. “If I can go where you can’t then my bell doesn’t matter, does it?”

“It’s still a blatant warning to ya targets,” she said.

“Not if they can’t see me,” he teased.

Kera flicked her claws towards him, dusting his fur with ice. He tutted and melted back into the floor. As Kera honed in on his bell again, Enigma let out a little chuckle. He leapt back out of the shadows close to her back and when she turned she was forced to re-calculate her move. Her claws glowed with ice and she stepped back to launch it.

“You know,” Enigma crooned, “your eyes sparkle when you think you’ve got me.”

Kera stuttered, her eyes widening as a blush emerged under her dark fur. Her attack dusted his fur with chilly air and he laughed, falling back from her.

“What-” She swallowed, her entire body tense. “What on earth was that?”

Enigma chuckled and tucked his paws behind his head. “Didn’t you know I could be captivating?”

He burst into fits of laughter as Kera’s blush spread to her ears. She smacked his arms repeatedly but it only made him laugh harder.

“You should see your face!” he wheezed, falling to his bottom.

“Shut up!” she squeaked, hugging her arms. “Ya caught me off guard, that’s all.” She paused and gave the giggling ghost a sideways glance. “When on earth did ya learn ‘captivate’?”

“I’ve always known it.” He wiped a tear from his eye with a claw. “I’ve just never had a use for it before.”

“We’ve been trainin’ for over a year and only now ya decide to wave that card?” She shook her head and offered a paw to tug him to his feet.

“Eh.” He shrugged and folded his arms. “I like to keep you on your toes.”

Kera tutted and raised her claws. “Shall we continue?”

She still seemed breathless and uncertain, but Enigma nodded and stood back, preparing to fall into a shadow sneak. But Niana clapped her paws and roared over the chaos of the training pokemon.

“Right! Sun’s rising!” She clapped again, the sharp noise ringing across the room. “End of session! Get some dinner and go to your nests!”

The group broke apart as they filed from the room, chatting among themselves. Enigma and Kera followed after a shelgon who was boasting to everyone around her that she was close to evolving. The only one who seemed impressed was a male fraxure who nodded at every word.

“I’m so glad she called an end to that.” Kera stretched her paws over her head and yawned, flashing her sharp canines. “I’m absolutely exhausted.”

“Really?” said Enigma. “I’m not feeling it.”

Kera fixed him with a raised eyebrow. “Well ya look shattered.”

Enigma smirked down at her and she twitched the feathers of her right ear and looked away. It was a habit she’d developed since she’d evolved and he’d since learned she only did it when she was feeling nervous.

“If ya try’na impress me, it ain’t workin’.” They stopped outside his room and she aimed a punch at his stomach. “Get some sleep ya clown.”

“I slept two days ago,” he whined. “Come on. Play chess with me.”

Kera leant against her own door and rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Enigma. I told ya. I’m exhausted.”

He gave a mock sigh and shook his head. “Fine. I guess I’ll have to find something else to do instead of lying awake waiting for you to get your eight hours.”

Kera rolled her eyes again and groaned. “Fine! Wake me at sun high. I’ll get up and entertain ya for an hour or so.”

He caught her playful smile as she turned towards her room and returned it. The weavile waved a paw as she bade him ‘good day’, and Enigma turned towards his own room. He froze with his paw on the door handle and bit his lip.

After spending over a year in the Shadow Lands, one would think he’d be used to spending the waking hours alone. But it was getting worse and worse as time went on.

He sighed and looked down the corridor. Jex and Niana wanted all the trainees to sleep during the day, but they’d been much more relaxed towards him. Insomnia wasn’t a common condition among pokemon, especially the kind that persisted throughout one’s life. He gave Kera’s room one last, longing glance, then turned to head outside. The corridor was long and wound around the horse-shoe shaped building until he found himself standing in the cool warming-season air. The sun painted the horizon a vivid pink as it poked itself over the horizon. Soft rays were already reaching out to warm what they could reach of the dewy earth. Sharp caws and honks spread through the air as the murkrow flock returned to roost across the Shadow Lands and the Border Woods.

Enigma followed a familiar trail around the edge of the barracks towards the lake. A weeping willow stood beside it, dipping its branches in the stagnant water. Its branches were decked out with fluffy catkins and surrounding it was a stretch of small circular leaves that reached out across the water. Yellow blossoms were waking across it, and those that were fortunate enough to find themselves in the light had uncurled their petals.

A large blue shape lay beyond a wall of stiff stems holding up cream, tufty flowers. Ripwing stretched himself out on a large flat stone and scratched under his chin with a hind claw. Alone again… Ripwing was often alone. Enigma rarely saw the salamence with any other pokemon. He’d seen him with Boomer, the noivern leader of the noibat swarm, on a couple of occasions. But Ripwing often seemed to distance himself from the other members of Hydreigon’s army. The banette wondered if this was why he found the salamence approachable. The salamence spotted Enigma and gave him a small nod. Enigma perked up and trotted around the edge of the lake to join him.

“Good morning,” Enigma announced, drawing an amused growl from the salamence.

“Huh. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” Ripwing lowered his leg and spread his wings, lying flat on the warm stone. “Let me guess… you can’t?”

Enigma shrugged. “Isn’t that always the way.” The banette joined Ripwing on the flat stone and perched on the edge, dipping his feet in the cold lake.

Ripwing watched the ripples spread out from Enigma’s claws and gave a small grunt. “You’ve almost reached your adult height now, I see?” The salamence reached for a small pebble from the edge of the lake. “The last time I saw you was the end of the cooling season and you couldn’t even touch the water. It always amazes me how fast you mammals grow.”

Enigma turned his head towards him. “What do you mean?”

“Compared to us dragons you guys grow super fast, and have super short lives to match,” Ripwing explained. “I’ve seen it happen so often in my three hundred years. You mammals shoot up in size in the first year or so, then you slow down and it takes half of a dragon’s hatchling years until you’re covered in grey fur.” The salamence laughed and shook his head. “The only pokemon that age any faster than you are bugs and birds.”

Enigma was still processing the first part of Ripwing’s observation. His eyes had widened and he stared at Ripwing, slack-jawed. “Three hundred?!”

Ripwing leant his head on his paw and grinned. “And I’m still classed as young.”

Enigma mouthed the word ‘wow’ and looked out across the lake. “So dragons live a long time then?”

“Yup!” said Ripwing. “Our previous leader had been ruling the Shadow Lands for more than seven hundred years before our gracious lord took over.”

Once again, Enigma detected a hint of malice in Ripwing’s voice. He turned to look at the salamence but Ripwing was eyeing the pebble as he turned it in his claws. As much as the banette wanted to investigate it further, he decided to avoid the topic. He quickly glanced at the trees. The murkrow were still flocking over the Border Woods, screeching their caws as they tried to find each other.

“So if dragons grow so slowly,” he said, “is that why there aren’t any other hydreigon or salamence?”

“No. That’s not it at all.” Ripwing flicked the pebble into the air and caught it again. “Right now, you’ve hit your adolescent stage, right? That means you’re driven by your hormones.”

Enigma tried to fight back a blush, but Ripwing ignored it.

“It’s the same with dragon-types,” the salamence went on. “But with us it works differently. The challenge hits in. We want to compete and lord it over the pack. But only one can become the alpha and reach their final evolution. If an adolescent dragon wants to overthrow his current leader he can only evolve to challenge them if he senses a weakness. And only one will be left at the end of the battle. The other will either be exiled or killed.” He paused and met Enigma’s eye. “That’s exactly what happened with the previous Hydreigon. Our current leader sensed a weakness. His father didn’t want to push his reign further across Estellis, so he challenged him and killed him. Now his son rules the Shadow Lands and most of Estellis, hiding behind his followers while he resides in his castle only emerging to remind us he’s still ruler.”

Ripwing flicked the pebble across the lake and it landed with a plop near the middle. Silvery shapes flashed beneath the surface and Ripwing slapped his lips. He pushed himself up and watched as the flashes of silver drew closer. Then he shot his head like a dart into the water, snapping his jaws shut around one of them. Water cascaded off his head and his catch as he dropped it onto the warm stone. A lumineon flailed in a desperate bid to get back to the water, but Ripwing stilled it with a firm bite of his jaws.

Enigma stared down at the fish in shock. Ripwing looked up at him and nodded to it.

“Wanna join me?” he asked. “There’s enough to share.”

“Share?” Enigma licked his dry lips and shuffled uneasily. “But… it was alive…”

“So was all that dried meat they feed you in the barracks,” said Ripwing with an amused glint in his eye. “Where else did you think it had come from?” When Enigma said nothing, Ripwing motioned to the fish. “The only difference here is this is fresh. Much better for you. Not to mention you know where it’s from. That dried meat could have come from anywhere.” He shrugged and turned to his catch. “But if you don’t want any, I won’t force you.”

Ripwing lowered his head to tuck into his meal, and Enigma felt a lump rising in his throat. He felt sick. The only pokemon he’d ever seen killed were his parents, and then that absol leader. Whether or not fish had the same level of intelligence as he did, they were still pokemon right? Suddenly his meals of meat and berries seemed a whole lot darker. In a bid to tune out Ripwing’s breakfast, Enigma let his gaze wander around the Shadow Lands. More pokemon had woken up and he spotted various diurnal dragon-types flocking to where it was warm. Haxorus and garchomp spread out on the warm soil where the sun hit, nattering to each other and their younger kin.

“Wait a minute.” Enigma turned back to Ripwing. “If dragons don’t reach their final evolution often then why are there so many among the assassins and soldiers.”

Ripwing flashed his canines in a grin. “Because they don’t need to prove anything to each other. They just want to get stronger to please Lord Hydreigon, not to lord it over their own pack. To be honest, it makes things a heck of a lot more peaceful.”

Hydreigon… so had something good actually come from his rule?

“It still happens more than you think, though,” Ripwing went on. “Look at Boomer. He’s the only noivern in his swarm. And how many salamence do you see? I had to leave my old pack cos the silly shelgon kept trying to challenge me.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I often wondered if that’s why our previous leader took me on as his ace.”

A small smile spread across Enigma’s face at the thought of hundreds of smaller dragons trying to overthrow the massive salamence. Ripwing seemed rough at first glance, but he’d soon learned he was an oddly gentle creature. Especially in the Shadow Lands. Enigma gazed out at the castle, leaving the dragon to eat his meal in peace without him staring. Now the sun had risen the huge castle was much clearer. At night it was a tangle of black thorns against the night sky. During the day he could see the moss clinging to the paw-carved ebony and onyx stones.

“You said Hydreigon rarely ever leaves his castle,” said Enigma. “Did the previous Hydreigon do that?”

Ripwing licked grey scales from his lips and followed Enigma’s gaze. “No. He was much more active, and protective of us all. He’d mix with his followers and even dine with them. You ask me, that’s exactly how a dragon should lead his pack.” He lowered his head to take another bite of his fish. “He was happy with the way things were.”

“Really?” Enigma raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah. He didn’t want to claim the Shadow Mountains. He was happy with you ghosts just living there in peace. I mean, you share the same fate as us, right? Feared ‘cos you’re unpredictable.” Ripwing snorted and fired a glare at the castle. “His son, however… he’d wanted change since the day he became a zweilos. He couldn’t understand why his father didn’t pursue the ideals he’d grown up learning about. As far as our previous leader was concerned, he’d already embraced those ideals. We had it all here. A place where dragon- and dark-types could live without the persecution of other pokemon. That was the point. He never intended to wipe them out entirely, just to push them back a bit.”

Ripwing had dropped his voice to hushed tones. Enigma glanced up at the branches of the trees around him. The murkrow weren’t nesting by the lake. They didn’t like how sunny it was compared to other areas of the Shadow Lands. They clung to the shade, concentrated around the castle or towards the Border Woods. The flock of them still hadn’t settled. They swerved towards the sky, their caws loud over the silence the morning always brought. Then they swooped, spearing the canopy.

Enigma pushed himself up onto one knee as he watched them vanish. “They’re fighting something? I thought they were coming in to roost?”

“The murkrow?” Ripwing turned his head towards the woods. “Yeah. Just before sunrise they found the remaining absol pack. They were hiding at the edge of the Border Woods, just outside the Shadow Lands.”

“The absol…?” Enigma searched the edge of the Border Woods.

It was more active than he’d first thought. Howlinger paced back and forth with his houndour pack, his head low and tongue lolling. His envious eyes flashed red whenever he looked up at the murkrow.

“Hydreigon won’t let him go,” Ripwing explained. “He doesn’t want the Border Woods torching so soon after the last chase. A bare canopy lets in too much light.” The dragon lunged his head towards the remains of his breakfast and snapped it up.

Enigma wondered if he’d even noticed the bones. Ripwing’s avoidance of the title ‘lord’ hadn’t fallen on deaf ears.

“So he’s killing the last of them?” Enigma asked.

“Of course he is.” Ripwing’s tail swished as he looked back up at the woods. Enigma noticed his movements had become smoother, and warmth radiated off his scales. “They found a little hatchling hovering outside an old burrow. They’d taken shelter there.” He settled back down on his rock but he kept an eye on the flock as it swelled in the air again. “The absol had barely had a chance to recover.” He sighed and his eyes turned distant. “I knew Blight. She was a good leader.”

Enigma’s only memory of the absol leader was the glare he was convinced had been aimed at him. He shuddered at the memory and hugged his arms around himself.

“Didn’t they cause that landslide though?” he asked Ripwing.

“Are you kidding?” Ripwing snorted, narrowing his eyes at the banette. “The only reason we didn’t get a warning about that landslide is because it was sudden! Even an absol’s keen senses aren’t without fault. That cliff was sodden from the snow and rain. There was no way it would have held. She sensed it and then it caved in before she could warn anyone else. Her priority was to get her clan out of the way, like any good leader.” He fixed Enigma with a piercing stare. “Do you know what was found once the rubble was cleared? Two absol casualties. Sure there were some of ours, too. But Blight didn’t want to bring disaster on us. That massacre was driven by nothing more than superstitious paranoia.”

Paranoia… like the persecution of his own kind?

“I saw it,” said Enigma quietly. “The absol being driven out.”

“Did it remind you of anything?”

Enigma stared back into the dragon’s eyes, trying to work out if he was testing him. But he felt Ripwing already knew the answer.

“Are you asking me if I remember Hydreigon killing my parents?” Enigma asked.

Ripwing nodded.

Enigma dug his claws into the soil. “Vividly.”

Ripwing closed his eyes briefly and stared into the lake. “Huh. This is what I mean. You grow up fast. A dragon hatchling wouldn’t have remembered.” He flashed a glance at the banette. “I wonder how much of a flaw that’s going to be in his plan?”

“You’re questioning my loyalty now?”

Ripwing shifted to rest his head in one paw again. “Questioning your loyalty… and where would that be? Here with the dragon who murdered your parents… or with that little weavile I see you hanging around with?”

Enigma felt his blush return and he shifted uncomfortably. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve seen you together,” said Ripwing. “You know full well what the rules are among the soldiers and assassins here. If you want to prove your loyalty, then you’re meant to abide by those rules.”

“I am.” Enigma’s gaze wandered back to the barracks.

“Sure. For now,” said Ripwing. “You’re young. You wouldn’t be the first to fall down that hole. But trust me, it never ends well.” Ripwing nodded towards the castle. “Those rules aren’t in place to protect you, Enigma. They’re in place to protect our leader. Family and loved ones are a gaping wound in the wall of soldiers and assassins that are assigned to protect him. All it takes is for one of our enemies to poke at it and you’ll be screaming out all of Hydreigon’s weaknesses before daybreak. He wants rid of those wounds as much as our enemies want to find them.”

Enigma jerked his head around towards Ripwing and anger flashed in his crimson eyes, taking the salamence by surprise. “Are you saying he’d hurt Kera?!”

“That depends,” said Ripwing firmly. “If keeping you obedient through fear is what he needs to do then he’ll exploit your weaknesses to do it.”

A cold chill ran through Enigma’s body and he felt himself begin to shake. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because I know where your loyalties lie,” said Ripwing. “You want to fight for what’s right. That much became clear when I saw what book you chose from the library.” The salamence narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice to a near whisper. “Be very careful, Enigma. Because I won’t always be around to help you.”

Enigma stuttered for a moment. “What… what do you mean?”

But Ripwing’s attention had gone to the murkrow flock again. They were in a frenzy, swerving away over the canopy into the distance. More of their kin had joined the fray, swooping from their roosts at the edge of the Shadow Lands to pursue their targets deeper into the woods.

Ripwing turned back to Enigma, but the banette could tell his friend’s attention was divided. “Tell me, Enigma. Are you planning to stay here? Are you loyal to Hydreigon?”

Enigma shifted and his feet brushed the water until the cold bit through his fur. What was Ripwing getting at? The banette glanced up at the flock of murkrow as they swelled and spread above the canopy of the woods. Was the salamence testing him? If Enigma told the truth, would he be killed by the dragon he’d assumed was a friend?

The banette met Ripwing’s eye and forced himself to remain stoic. “Yes.”

The corner of Ripwing’s mouth twitched and he looked over Enigma’s shoulder towards the barracks. “I know your mate is. Or was. I suppose it depends if her loyalties have shifted in favour of you.”

“She’s not my mate.”

“Don’t remain here for the wrong reasons, Enigma.” Ripwing pushed himself to his feet. His voice was no more than a whisper. “You’ll only regret it. It’s possible to leave, and if you choose to, I can help you. But you’ll have to decide fast.”

Enigma’s jaw dropped and he stared up at the dragon, speechless.

“I can’t stand by while the rest of my friend’s clan is being murdered,” Ripwing went on. “I’ve regretted every day I didn’t rush to help her out of fear. It was bad enough watching that abomination destroy your home and family. Fear. I’m a coward, and I need to change that.” He paused to glance up at the murkrow, then looked Enigma in the eye. “I’ve tried to remain loyal for the sake of my former leader. But I know he wouldn’t have agreed with this pointless murder. It’s your choice, Enigma.”

Hope welled in Enigma’s chest. He could leave. Just like that. But it soon waned as his thoughts went back to Kera. He sank on the stone and glanced away from Ripwing’s probing stare. “I can’t leave Kera behind.”

“Would she come with you?”

Enigma was silent as he thought over that. Would she? He’d seen how excited she was in the rallies, how she always addressed Hydreigon as ‘lord’ without fail, how she was so keen in her training and eager to fight. Yet she was willing to call Enigma a friend…

“I honestly don’t know,” he said quietly.

Ripwing’s soft gaze washed over him and the dragon spoke just as quietly. “I don’t think she would.”

When Enigma looked back up, Ripwing was watching the murkrow once more. The mightyena pack was fleeing through the woods, much to Howlinger’s frustration. Ripwing’s tail swished over the ground, stirring up dust. With a heavy sigh, he gave one last look back at Enigma.

“Then I guess this is where I leave you,” said Ripwing.

Enigma stood up, his heart racing. “You’re actually leaving?”

“I have to,” said Ripwing. “I owe it to Blight. If I can save what’s left of her pack… then I want to do that.” He took a deep breath. “I hope it will be my redemption.”

Enigma’s heart twisted and a sense of loneliness washed over him. He watched as Ripwing tested his wings in the sun’s warm rays.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join me?” the salamence asked.

“I can’t,” said Enigma. “Not without Kera.”

Ripwing glanced over his shoulder towards the barracks. “I can’t wait for you to convince her, Enigma. I need them to believe I’m assisting.” He nodded to the murkrow. “I’ve hung around for long enough just trying to get warm.”

Enigma nodded his understanding and shuffled his paws together. Was he really turning down an offer to flee the Shadow Lands? His heart ached and he found his eyes wandering back to the barracks.

“Very well.” Ripwing spread his wings and Enigma took a step back. “Please… be careful. You’ve already lost enough.”

With one beat of his wings, Ripwing was in the air. Enigma barely saw him leave as he took off like a rocket towards the Border Woods.

‘Fighting for what’s right’… Enigma bit his lip. What was ‘right’? Ripwing had given him an offer to escape a land filled with evil… and he’d declined because of Kera.

...​

Enigma was still re-living his conversation with Ripwing when he went to wake Kera. It was after sun high. He’d lost track of time, and he hoped the weavile wouldn’t be annoyed with him for causing her to almost miss out on her second half of sleep. When he slipped through her closed door like mist he found to his surprise that she was sitting up in bed, watching him. A playful smile spread across her face and she bounced off her nest to land before him.

“It’s so cool when ya do that!” she squealed.

Enigma blinked with surprise. The weavile’s excitable smile and playful glint in her eyes seemed to chase away the cloud that had been hovering over him since morning.

“So… Chess?” She grabbed his wrist. “It’s in ya room, right? Let’s go!”

Enigma found himself half-dragged out of her room to his across the corridor. The weavile stopped at his door and pointed a claw at it.

“Go on! Do it again!” she demanded.

Enigma blinked at her and shook his head. “Why are you so keen to see me do this today?”

“I dunno.” Kera watched him as he slipped through the door. When he opened it to let her in she continued, “I’m just really excited after our battle this mornin’ when ya, like, blocked my attack by phasing through a wall.”

Enigma was already on his knees, dragging the chess board from beneath his bed. All the pieces toppled about on it and Kera joined him to scoop the rest from among the scraps of his mother’s cloak. The wooden pieces were made up of nidoking, nidoqueen and their family. Blue and pink nidoran made up the various pawns, and to keep in pattern with their colours the two opposing forces were blue or pink. Kera had joked on many an occasion that her nidoqueen was the wrong colour, but as far as Enigma knew, no pokemon their age had ever even seen any members of the nido-family.

They set their pieces up and sat opposite each other to begin the game. But Kera’s mind was blatantly occupied with other thoughts. She kept making ridiculous moves that meant Enigma soon had taken many of her pieces. A few of them had even been recruited to his side, and he raised an eyebrow at the weavile as he watched her move her knight (a young nidoran wrangling a tauros) into an obvious trap.

“You are really sloppy today,” he said as he charged into it with his nidorino.

“I’m sorry.” She chuckled and twitched her right ear. “I’m just thinkin’ about battle strategies.”

Enigma inclined his head on one side. Part of him wanted to ask for more details, while the other was running over Ripwing’s questions about loyalty.

“I just think,” Kera went on, unprompted, “that when we both graduate we could be teamed up together, right? You an’ me.”

Enigma’s heart began to race. He’d never thought about that before. His thoughts had just been on getting through each lonely stage of the day. He’d never thought about what might happen should he actually pass his training classes. Kera wasn’t looking at him. She held her nidorina, turning it in her paws as she searched for a safe spot to move it to.

“I mean, we work well together, right?” she went on. “I think we should probably come up with some strategies that’ll really wow Jex and Niana.”

“Hmm.” Enigma scratched his mane as he watched her place the nidorina right in the path of his nidoqueen. “Perhaps a better strategy than your current chess game?” He kicked over her piece with his queen and snapped it up, flashing her a playful grin.

Kera slapped her knee and swore. “How didn’t I see that?!”

“Come on, Kera.” Enigma sat back on his paws and looked at her. “Where is your head today? You usually beat me at this game.”

She toyed with her ear feathers and waved a paw. “I’m sorry, Enigma. I can’t clear my head. I keep thinkin’ about how we could mix ya ghost skills with my sneak attacks and bring ‘em together for our exam next season.”

Enigma almost toppled over. “Exam?!”

“Oh come on!” Kera’s eyes widened and she met his gaze. “Surely ya knew about that! If we pass, we’ll go onto Elite classes! We’ll be close to graduatin’!”

Enigma grit his teeth and looked away. It was starting to ring a bell, but he’d clearly dismissed it.

“This is whatcha get for just goin’ with the flow,” said Kera. “Maybe we should talk about it rather than playin’ Chess, eh?”

Enigma sighed and looked back at her. It wasn’t really how he wanted to spend his time with her. “Go on. What do you need to know?”

“How ya do it,” she said. “How’dja, like, just go through walls like that?”

He shrugged. “I just can. I don’t know how it works.”

“So ya can do all these cool things like warp to new places, go through walls and sneak through the shadows… and ya don’t have a clue how ya even do it?”

“Nope.”

Kera rolled her eyes and fell back on her paws. “Then we need to figure that out, don’t we.”

“Not really,” he said. “You want to co-operate with them, so we should look at that. You can already follow the sound of my bell. Can’t we work with that?”

“Probably.” Kera was keen again, leaning forwards on her knees. “That sounds pretty cool, actually! We could come up with a signature move. You come from one way, I come from the other, and bam! We hit our target at the same time! They’re bound to miss at least one of us.”

Enigma chuckled and shook his head. “That would never work.”

“Yeah it would.” Kera flashed him a grin. “They’ll miss a sneaky ghost for sure! Ya’ll pop up behind ‘em and take ‘em by surprise.”

“It would make more sense if I surprised them, then you leapt out as a second surprise.”

“Ya want me to go in for the kill, then?”

Enigma opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out. The kill? No, he didn’t want that at all.

If Kera had noticed his falter, she didn’t say anything. Instead she leant towards him, eyes sparking. “So can ya phase through anythin’, then? Anythin’ solid at all?”

He nodded. “Pretty much.”

The weavile bounced on her knees. “Do it to me!”

“Eh?!” Enigma scooted back slightly.

“C’mon! If I’m gonna team up with ya then I wanna know if our targets can feel it! If not then ya’ll have a huge advantage!”

“No!”

“No?” Her eyes widened. “Why not? This is important!”

“Kera, ghosts don’t phase through other pokemon,” he told her. “It’s our law.”

“Law?” Kera scoffed.

“It’s the same for all ghost-types. Such acts were forbidden centuries ago!”

“Oh come on!” She threw her paws in the air. “Ya trainin’ to be a freakin’ assassin! Who cares if it’s forbidden or not!”

“I do!” he exclaimed, causing Kera to reel back in surprise. “It could be seriously dangerous! There’s a reason it’s forbidden! It’s not just some taboo thing to phase through someone else. If my kind were still alive I could be put to death!”

“But they’re not are they, so who cares?”

Enigma stuttered, staring at Kera in disbelief. Regret clouded the weavile’s face and she wound her claws together.

“Oh yikes. I’m really sorry, Enigma,” she said. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

How else was it meant to sound? Enigma looked away from her and clenched his jaw. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he actually wanted to be alone.

“What I meant was it don’t matter anymore.” She shuffled over the chess board to join him, scattering the pieces. “No one’s goin’ to hurt ya for tryin’ somethin’ that could have benefit.”

“What benefit?” he scoffed. “If something went wrong I could seriously hurt you.”

“I know that!”

He met her gaze, dumbfounded. “You’re not acting like it.”

“That’s cos I trust ya!” She sat back on her heels and flashed him a grin. “I don’t believe ya’d ever hurt me. And if anythin’ does go wrong, it’ll be my fault for askin’! Besides.” She chuckled and lowered her voice. “I don’t think ya could hurt anyone if ya tried. Although, I won’t tell Lord Hydreigon that.”

He narrowed his eyes, exhausted with the effort of arguing with her. “Kera…”

“Just my paw!” She stuck her paw out before his face and twitched her claws.

“Kera, please!”

“C’mon!” she pleaded. “Just once an’ I won’t ask again. Promise.”

Enigma let out an exasperated sigh. Just once… He stared at Kera’s outstretched paw and bit his lip. How was he even considering this?

“You won’t ask again?” he met her eyes.

Kera shook her head. “Like I said. Promise.”

Enigma sighed again and raised his own paw to hers. Just once… then he’d never have to do it again.

He let his paw turn to mist and drifted it through Kera’s. Her fur tickled his paw, then it was surrounded by warmth. The weavile’s eyes widened and he felt his own heart skip a beat. A strange pulsing sensation spread through his paw; steady, but the shock of it made him fall back on his tail. It was a huge effort not to suddenly retract his arm. His heart raced at the fear of hurting her. The rest of his surroundings seemed to fade away as he kept his full focus on his paw, watching he shadowy mist travel through to her other side. Only a beat of time had passed, but once he’d drawn back and materialised it felt like a lot longer. Too long.

He shuffled back against the far wall and clutched his paw to his chest as he stared blankly past her. But he could still see her excited bounce as she scampered over to him.

“That was amazin’!” she said. “I didn’t expect it to feel like anythin’, but I felt ya pulse!” She paused and chuckled, settling down before him. “Not as sneaky as I’d hoped, but eh. We could make it work.”

Enigma rubbed his claws over the fur of his knuckles. It felt filthy but there was nothing on it.

“Makes me wonder what it would be like if ya just walked right through me.”

Kera’s words made his spine stiffen and his eyes darted to hers. The coldness behind his stare made the weavile recoil.

“Don’t you ever make me do that again,” he warned.

Kera raised her paws in defeat. “A promise is a promise, ghost dude. But a girl’s free to wonder, right?”

Enigma didn’t reply. He stared down at his paw, barely even recognising it anymore. It felt so detached and alien.

“Are ya okay?” Kera’s small voice betrayed her concern more than her words did.

“I want to be alone for a while,” he said.

Kera’s ears drooped and she fell back onto her haunches. “I really shouldn’t have forced ya, should I? I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not just that.” He flashed a canine and looked away from her. “You don’t even seem to care about what I believe in. Or that my entire species were slaughtered-”

Kera leapt towards him and placed a claw over his lips. He jerked back so abruptly his head bounced off the wall and he winced.

“Shush,” Kera whispered. She cast a glance towards the door and released him. “The walls have ears. Be careful whatcha say.” He caught her gaze, and all playfulness had left her eyes. When she continued, her voice was barely audible. “It’s not that I don’t care, Enigma. I don’t understand.” She paused and wound her claws together, glancing aside. “I was raised different, okay? I have no idea what it’s like to have ya family torn away. But… at least ya actually have memories of ya parents.”

Enigma’s breath caught in his throat and he found it impossible to look away from her. Were there tears in her eyes? He felt his anger fizzle out and he closed his eyes with a sigh.

“I’m sorry,” said Kera.

“It’s fine,” Enigma grunted.

“No it’s not. I shoulda been more careful.” Kera paused for a moment and shifted with unease. “I know ya wanna be alone.” She pushed herself up and nodded to the door. “I’ll leave ya for a bit.”

As he watched her go, he wanted to call her back. The door closed behind her, and he absently stroked the back of his paw. Her sad face, along with her words, lingered in his mind. It was as if she was hiding something, that there was more to the weavile than he’d realised, and he found himself desperate to go after her.

...​

Kera had seemed different as the next week tumbled past. She’d been cheerful, but full of questions about Enigma’s origin. She’d bombarded him with questions about his parents - their names, if they cooked for him, what they did, what they were like. Even questions about life in the Shadow Mountains. Enigma couldn’t answer them all. He’d forgotten a lot of it over the past year, but he tried his best, and he found himself enjoying talking to her about it. She spent hours after training had finished just talking with him, finally falling into her nest at sun high. Her tiredness caught up with her, and the dark rings around her eyes began to resemble his own.

After a few clumsy moves resulting in Kera’s concussion, Niana insisted the weavile spent a day resting. Enigma ached with guilt. He’d warped out of the way, sending Kera tumbling into the wall. But the weavile scolded him for apologising and left him to join Vixen and a liepard named Kit.

The two quick pokemon ran circles around him the rest of the night and he actually slept that day.

He woke up well before dusk. Five hours was a decent sleep as far as he was concerned. He pushed himself from his nest and stretched until his spine popped. He thought about waking Kera, but given how exhausted she’d been he decided to leave it and get her at dusk instead.

His eyes fell on the stack of books beside the bed. Dust blanketed them, making the covers of the top-most books almost impossible to read. He was one of the newer members to the barracks, but it wouldn’t always be that way. Sooner or later others might be needing the training manuals.

He gathered them up one by one to pop back into the storage closet. Then he found the book he’d removed the dust jacket from. His eyes widened as his heart picked up pace. The book from the library! He scrabbled to find it, knocking the books over in his desperation. Ripwing’s words echoed in his mind. ‘I know where your loyalties lie. You want to fight for what’s right. That much became clear when I saw what book you chose from the library.’ If the salamence was right, then Enigma had to make sure that book never found its way into the paws of another assassin. If they knew he’d brought it into the barracks, then he’d be skinned alive.

He found it still wrapped in the dust jacket for Assassination 101. He let out a sigh and fell back onto his bottom. It was all there. The battle between Xerneas and Yveltal. As he begun to remove the jacket he decided against it. If he needed to keep it hidden, then there was no sense in removing it. If he’d managed to bluff Jex and Niana, then he’d be better off keeping the dust jacket on. He tucked the whole thing under his bed and pulled the scraps of his mother’s cloak over it.

Done. He returned to tidying the books away. It took four trips to the storage closet. He stopped in his doorway, cradling five books in his arms. His room seemed a lot smaller without those stacks of books next to his nest.

On his way back from the closet, voices echoed down the corridor. Jex… and Yurlik. Enigma dropped his density and stood against the wall, straining his ears to listen in. He couldn’t quite catch it, but his heart was racing. The honchkrow wasn’t here for him again, was he? He hadn’t overheard his conversation with Ripwing?

Enigma closed his eyes as the horrible, dark thought that Ripwing had been captured washed over him. He clenched his claws into his scarf and held his breath. Yurlik’s arrogant voice was blocked out as the main door closed. All he could hear was Jex, talking in a low voice. Claws scraped over the dry earth as the scrafty made his way back up the corridor.

Enigma pressed himself against the wall as Jex’s mohawk bobbed around the corner. The banette almost popped back into physical form when he spotted the pokemon accompanying the scrafty. A small, shaggy fox-like pokemon skulked along behind him, head held low. Blue markings blazed on their head and paws, and bright blue eyes wet with tears glistened in a face of black fur.

A zorua? He’d never seen one like that before. Zorua were grey, with red markings. Not black and blue.

Curiosity welled in Enigma’s chest and he turned his head to follow the pair.

“We’re a mixed bunch here,” Jex told the zorua. “If poison’s ya speciality then ya’ll be addin’ some surprises to our trainin’ sessions.”

If the zorua had heard him they didn’t show it.

Jex continued on idly chatting as the pair vanished around the bend. Enigma crept along after them, desperate not to lose them. His bell grated in its metal casing, and he tried his best to silence it to no avail. He lagged behind Jex and his new charge, straining his ears in case they vanished into one of the rooms. Enigma didn’t feel like waltzing through the rooms of the other assassins to find the strange zorua. He’d encountered raging dragons and grumpy dark-types too many times to count during his short time in the barracks.

Just when he thought he’d lost them, he picked up Jex’s voice behind one of the doors, two down from Enigma’s room. The door handle wobbled as the door clicked open, and the scrafty’s voice became much clearer.

“Look, I understand yer scared, but ya here now,” he said. “Ya might as well make the most of it. Trainin’ starts an hour after dawn. I’ll send someone in to get ya.”

Jex closed the door and turned towards Enigma. The banette pressed himself against the wall before the scrafty walked into him. But much to his surprise Jex stopped right beside him.

“A little tip,” said the scrafty. “If ya gonna spy, either remove or silence that bell.”

A dry chuckle escaped Enigma’s throat and he solidified, leaning back against the wall with his arms folded.

“I couldn’t help it,” he said. “I was curious.”

Jex gave an amused grunt. “I can’t say I blame ya. Our new friend is a bit of an odd-ball.” He paused, looking the banette up and down. “Thinkin’ about it… ya might be just the one to help him settle.”

Enigma’s eyes widened. “Me?”

“Yeah. Ya see any other ghost-types here?” Jex folded his arms and smirked. “Ya more of an odd-ball than he is. He seems nervous, and apparently doesn’t fight. He caught Yurlik’s attention in the Border Woods and was snatched up to be recruited here. Lord Hydreigon loves the idea of havin’ a poison user as an assassin.”

“Poison?” Enigma’s muzzle creased with confusion.

“Aye. Like I said, odd-ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if our new little friend becomes one of his aces in time.” Jex glanced back at the closed door. “Go on. See if ya can get him talkin’, eh? I can’t get so much as a squeak outta him.”

Enigma watched Jex strut back down the corridor, then he looked back at the door to the zorua’s room. Why was he hesitating? It was just a small zorua. This one didn’t look much older than a hatchling.

Enigma shrugged to himself and slipped through the door without touching the handle. The zorua was curled up against the wall, as far away from the bed as they could get. A messenger bag lay by their tail, and one paw was clutched around a strange orb hanging from a piece of black thong. Tears streaked their cheeks with salty trails, and their tiny body shook with sobs. Enigma felt a twinge in his chest. He’d been just like that when he’d arrived, snuggled in his mother’s cloak as the reality set in. Had this zorua met a similar fate? Parents murdered before their eyes, then snatched up to start a new life in the miserable Shadow Lands?

Perhaps Jex was right. Perhaps they were more alike than Enigma could have ever imagined.

The banette crept across the room towards the bed, his bell jingling with every footstep. He flopped onto the hay and the zorua’s ears twitched. Their eyes flashed open, trapping Enigma in a pair of sapphire lights. The zorua scooted backwards before they’d even managed to sit upright and flopped onto their side, flanks heaving.

“Huh. Interesting.” Enigma chuckled and leant back against the wall with his paws tucked behind his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a single dark-type who’s scared of me.”

The zorua’s eyes trailed over his body and their jaw went slack as they broke into a terrified pant. Their eyes widened until the whites of their sclera showed, and their blue paws scrabbled over the floor in a feeble attempt to scurry away. Enigma feared for a moment that the zorua might faint from sheer fright.

“Come on, you’ve got nothing to be scared of.” Enigma gave the frightened dark-type a friendly grin. “Hey, with all the training I’ve endured today, one dark pulse off you could put me in a coma.” He closed his eyes and chuckled at his own dry joke.

The zorua diverted their eyes and, still panting, lowered their head onto their paws. The vulpine’s posture was stiff, but they’d begun to calm down at least. Or were they just exhausted? Enigma couldn’t work it out. He inclined his head on one side, taking the small pokemon in. Their muzzle was oddly pointed, perhaps due to their young age. The shaggy coat blanketed a tiny frame that, in the pokemon’s current position, showed their scrawny spine poking out around their pointed shoulders.

“So what are you doing here?” Enigma asked. “I can only assume you haven’t joined willingly?”

“I…” The zorua clasped their tiny paw tighter around their pendant. “I was kidnapped.”

Enigma’s ears stiffened. Just as he’d guessed. His own memories flooded back, screams as shadows flitted back and forth through the darkness desperate to flee the inferno of dragon fire. Nausea flooded his stomach and he fought to bring himself back to reality, fixing his full attention on the unusual zorua.

The zorua shifted uneasily and their pupils turned to pinpricks under his gaze. “Why are you staring at me?”

Their voice was oddly high, as if it hadn’t quite broken yet. It cracked with the hoarseness from crying and fresh tears trailed down their cheeks.

Enigma shook his head sharply and diverted his eyes to the door. “Sorry. I was just… well, you’re clearly young. You’ll probably forget all about it in a few seasons.”

A lie.

The zorua stiffened and huffed through their nose. “I doubt it. I’m probably no younger than you.”

“How old are you?” Enigma asked.

“Five seasons.”

Enigma raised an eyebrow. Older than he’d expected. He’d have guessed two or three at most. “You’re still younger than me.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, add a year on that kid.”

The zorua’s ears twitched with amusement and they pushed themselves up onto their haunches. They batted the pendant closer to them as they idly rolled it on the floor. Their eyes had turned distant as they watched the light reflecting off its glassy surface.

Enigma watched the zorua, curiosity gnawing at him. The fox’s tiny paw fumbled at the end of the black string, snatching it in their claws only to drop it repeatedly.

“So what am I meant to call you then?” he asked. “I’m assuming you have a name.”

“Tell me yours first.”

“Enigma.”

The zorua flashed him a sideways glance and he noticed extreme distrust clouding their eyes. But they shrugged and returned to their pendant. The string slipped through their claws again and the zorua muttered something before answering Enigma.

“It’s Harlequin.” They lowered their head to grab both ends of the black string in their jaws.

“Too long.” Enigma watched as he realised what the zorua was trying to accomplish. “I’m gonna call you Harle.”

He warped from the bed to land beside Harlequin. The zorua let out a squeal of surprise, dropping the pendant to the floor. Enigma snatched it in his claws and tossed it towards the bed. In one fluid motion he landed back on the hay and snatched the pendant from the air.

Harlequin shook their fur as they realised what Enigma had just done. Their livid blue eyes locked on him and their fur bristled along their spine.

“Give that back!” they hissed.

Enigma let the pendant hang by its thong, twisting back and forth slowly in his claws. It was an unusual thing. A glass ball surrounded by a golden ring. A blue and white band curled inside the glass, and he had the strangest feeling he’d seen it somewhere before.

A flash of black seared his fur and exploded off the wall behind him. He jerked his head around towards it. The dirty yellow wall smoldered where dark energy had hit it, leaving a large black mark. He looked back at Harlequin, his crimson eyes wide. The zorua bared their canines and a low growl left their throat. The fur around their tail bristled as they held it low to the ground.

“I said give it back!” The zorua’s eyes flashed with blue fire.

“Calm down, Harle.” Enigma sighed and swiftly knotted the two ends of string together. “I was just tying it for you.”

He tossed the pendant back to the zorua and it landed at their feet. They stared at him for a moment, stunned, then looped the pendant around their head so it hung just below their thick ruff. They mumbled something that might have been an apology and flopped onto the floor.

“Tired, huh?” Enigma slid from the bed and landed with a soft jingle. “Well you’ve had a long day. I guess I’ll let you get some sleep.”

As he plodded across the room he could feel the zorua watching him. “Long day is an understatement.”

Enigma paused by the door and looked back at Harlequin.

“Why are you being nice to me?” they asked.

Enigma faltered for a moment. What did he say? It was because Jex asked him to be? Or because Harlequin reminded Enigma of himself when he first arrived here?

The banette chuckled and rubbed a paw in his mane. “I dunno. ‘Cos you’re a kid?”

“I’m not a kid.”

Enigma raised his paws in a shrug. “We’re not all monsters. Get some sleep. I’ll see you during training.”

He slipped through the door and took a deep breath. The air in there had felt stifling. Cold chills washed over him as he stared back at the door. That zorua… Something seemed off about them. Their attitude towards that stone… It suddenly hit him where he’d seen it before and his head began to spin. It was exactly like the ones from that book!

...​

Daylight streaked through Enigma’s window, trailing over the pages of the open book. Enigma scanned the pictures of pokemon going to battle against Yveltal’s forces. Those leading troops did indeed have similar stones to Harlequin, but they each carried two. Enigma couldn’t work out what exactly they did. They seemed to change the forms of the holder, but why did they need two? Did Harlequin have two?

Claws scraped against his door and the handle rattled. Enigma jerked his head up and his heart pounded. He leant over the edge of his bed, swinging the book back beneath it. He’d just dragged the scraps of cloth over it as the door was released from its catch.

A slender black muzzle nudged its way into his room, followed by the scraggy form of that unusual zorua. Harlequin kicked the door shut with a hind paw and sat down heavily, shifting their paws in the dust. They still had their messenger back with them, and it scraped over the dry ground with every small movement.

Enigma sat back against the wall and tucked his paws behind his head. “What’s wrong? Can’t sleep?”

Harlequin shook their head, keeping their gaze on the wall. “No.” They licked their lips and cast a brief glance his way. “I guessed you couldn’t either. ‘Cos… you know… your eyes.”

Enigma absently rubbed the dark rings beneath his eyes and shrugged. “I’m used to it.” He frowned at the zorua. “How did you find me? I never told you my room.”

“I used my nose.”

Enigma grunted. He still wasn’t sure about this zorua. They sat hunched by the door, shivering as they took everything in. Why bring the bag? And what would they have done if Enigma actually had been asleep? Jex had said something about poison…

“What do you want?” Enigma blurted.

Harlequin recoiled and jerked their head back to the door. “I… well… you tried to help me earlier. And… well, I threatened you. I wanted to apologise.” The zorua took a deep breath and forced themselves to look at Enigma. The effort seemed to pain them. “I feel trapped here. I… I don’t know what to do.”

Enigma stared at Harlequin, and the zorua flinched under his gaze. He didn’t have any reason to believe they were lying, but something about the zorua just seemed… odd.

“To be honest, there isn’t much to do,” Enigma told them. “You could try to escape, but you wouldn’t make it out alive.”

Harlequin stiffened and lowered their head, ears back. “And I guess you’d stop me?”

Enigma didn’t answer that. He scratched behind his ear and stared past the zorua to the door.

“Well… what do you do?” Harlequin asked. “What exactly happens here?”

Enigma shrugged. “I train. Go for walks. Hang out with Kera.”

“Kera?”

“She’s a friend of mine,” said Enigma. “You’ll probably meet her later.” ‘Especially if you keep hanging around me,’ he added mentally.

Harlequin made a noise akin to an ‘oh’ and looked back at the door. “I guess she’s asleep.”

“Yeah, she’s not exactly an insomniac.”

Enigma stared at Harlequin for a moment longer, then dropped from his bed to approach them. Harlequin’s eyes darted towards him and the fur along their spine bristled. They raised one paw, ready to bolt.

“So what are you going to do?” Enigma asked, stopping a foot away from the vulpine. “Are you going to look for a way out, or are you sticking here?”

Harlequin’s voice wavered. “Why are you asking me?”

“Hydreigon chose you ‘cos you use poison.” Enigma shrugged. “Were you an outlaw, or a dark-type waiting to be noticed?”

Harlequin pulled their ears back and their white canines flashed behind black lips. “What would it matter to you? You’re not even a dark-type!”

Enigma stood up straight and tucked his paws behind his back. A smirk played at his lips as a fire lit up in Harlequin’s eyes.

“You’re just pretending!” the zorua snapped.

Pretending? Oh… the little fox had no idea.

Enigma chuckled and shook his head. “This coming from a zorua?”

Harlequin had risen to their feet and glared up at him, their head held low.

“You get fired up fast,” said Enigma. “I was only asking you a question.”

“You were probing,” Harlequin snarled.

Enigma raised his paws in a shrug. “And you’ve told me all I need to know. You weren’t brought here willingly.”

Harlequin’s jaw went slack and they stuttered. As Enigma chuckled, the fire left the zorua’s eyes and they inclined their head on one side. “What’s so funny?”

“I didn’t think a zorua would be so easy to read.”

Harlequin bristled and swished their tail.

“So…” Enigma relaxed and smiled down at Harlequin. “What do you want to do since you can’t sleep?”

“Well they’ll want me when night falls, won’t they?” Harlequin grunted. “So I probably should sleep.”

“We could take a walk?” Enigma offered. “It might help tire you out.”

“Wait, what?” Harlequin’s eyes flashed to the exit and they pushed themselves back from Enigma until their tail brushed the door. “You… you want to walk with me? After all that?”

Enigma shrugged again. “I don’t exactly take offence easy, Harle. You’re not the first one to snipe me for being an oddity in this place.”

The zorua looked away and their shoulders sagged. Enigma thought they’d muttered an apology but it was so quiet he missed it.

“So are you coming?” he asked.

Harlequin glanced up at the window and huddled into themselves. “I… I don’t know.”

“All right.” Enigma shrugged and made for the door, placing a paw on Harlequin to move them. “I’ll just get us something to eat then.”

The words were barely out of his mouth as a sharp bark tore through the room. Harlequin jerked around, and Enigma felt sharp teeth fasten around his paw. The pair leapt apart and Enigma was winded against the wall. He stared, wide-eyed, at the zorua now cowering at the far side of the room. Their back was arched, fur bristling, and their tail tucked so tightly between their legs that it vanished in their belly fur. The zorua’s eyes were ablaze, their pupils nothing more than pin-pricks.

Enigma cradled his paw and glanced down at it. Tiny red welts spread over his fur and he clutched it to his chest.

A low whine came from Harlequin and they closed their eyes briefly. Was that regret? “Don’t ever touch me!”

A dry, humourless laugh rose in Enigma’s throat and he wiped his paw on his scarf. “Noted.”

“I… I should leave.” Harlequin dragged themselves to the door, their tail still tucked tightly beneath them. Enigma moved, keeping a wary eye on the zorua. “I’ve not…” Their voice choked. “I’ve not had a very good day.”

As Enigma watched the zorua reach for the door handle he couldn’t help but wonder if their words were a huge understatement.

“Hey.”

Enigma’s voice froze Harlequin and they glanced back at him, still trembling.

“Wait here,” Enigma told them. “I’ll get us some snacks.”

“Why?” Harlequin whined.

“Eating always calms me down,” Enigma answered. “And I get the feeling you could use company.”

The zorua fell back from the door and landed on their haunches. They looked away as Enigma left the room. As he stepped out into the corridor it was like a breath of fresh air. He glanced back at the closed door, standing there like an ominous gateway. He could still see the livid flash of blue in his mind as the zorua’s jaws fastened around his paw.

His claws twitched at his sides and he considered for a moment waking Kera. Did he really need back-up? Something was very odd about that zorua. He couldn’t help but feel they were hiding a lot more than that mysterious stone indicated.

It didn’t take Enigma long to rustle up some snacks for him and Harlequin from the pantry at the back of the barracks. It was always locked, but he slipped his paw through the wood and flicked the catch open on the other side. At this time of the day no one was awake to stop him. He quickly bundled various dried meats into a pouch, along with some oran berries that were well past their best. When he returned to his room, Harlequin was back by the far wall, huddled into a loaf on the floor. Sapphire eyes watched the banette as he settled down against the opposite wall and unfolded the pouch. The tension that filled the room made Enigma feel as though he was moving through tar. It made him desperate to improve the atmosphere, or flee, and he was beginning to lean heavily towards the latter.

“I’m assuming you’re a carnivore,” he said as cheerfully as he could. “But I brought some berries just in case.”

Harlequin ventured forwards in a low crouch and sniffed at the oran berries. “They’re all dried up.”

“They’re from last year’s harvest.”

Harlequin snorted and slumped onto the floor.

“Help yourself,” Enigma told them as he took a bite from a piece of jerky.

Harlequin watched him with distaste and glanced towards the window. “No thanks. I’m not hungry.”

Enigma stifled a sigh and dropped his meal back onto the pouch. His eye wandered to the gaping darkness beneath his bed and an idea sparked in his mind.

“Do you play Chess?” he asked.

Harlequin quirked an ear and a puzzled look crossed their face. “Do I play what?”

“Chess.” Enigma scrambled across the floor and dragged the board out from beneath his bed. “If not, I can teach you. It’s fun, and a great way to pass time.”

As he dragged the board and its pieces towards Harlequin, the zorua looked on with great interest. Their eyes seemed brighter, scanning over the pieces as they toppled off the board. Harlequin scooted a nidorino towards them with a blue paw and inclined their head on one side.

“Nidoran?” The zorua looked up at Enigma.

“I think it’s a nidorino, actually,” said Enigma has he set the pieces up on his side of the board.

“I know that.” Harlequin’s eyes turned dark again and they retracted their paw as they looked over all the pieces. “I’m just confused.”

“The nidoran family is large,” said Enigma. “And they live with status among their clans. I’m assuming that’s where the inspiration came from.”

“It’s not that,” said Harlequin. “Hydreigon wiped out all the poison-types, and the nidoran family is believed to be extinct. So why would he allow you to have this?” The zorua nudged their nidoking and it toppled onto the board.

Enigma stared at the zorua for a fleeting moment then returned to setting up his pieces. “I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about it. Do you want to play or not?”

Harlequin shuffled their feet and gave a stiff nod. “Okay. It might… take my mind off things.”

Enigma watched Harlequin as they tried to set their pieces up in the same pattern Enigma had. He couldn’t help but wonder what ‘things’ Harlequin wanted to forget, but he didn’t want to pry. His eye wandered to the stone that swung around the zorua’s neck as they picked up the pieces one by one in their jaws. Could it have something to do with that?

He reached over to swap Harlequin’s king and queen, and the zorua gave an embarrassed grunt and rubbed their forepaws together. Enigma flashed them a grin and sat back one one paw. With the other, he pointed out what all the pieces were and what they did - Nidorino could only charge forwards or backwards; the Nidoqueen could go anywhere on the board in a straight line; the Nidoran could move one square forwards at a time and that was it. Once he’d explained all the pieces and the aim of the game was to take or trap the opposing Nidoking they could begin.

Enigma was surprised at how fast Harlequin picked it up. He found he didn’t need to explain the rules again to the zorua much at all. Their sapphire eyes lit up as they focused on the board with a calculating air. The zorua missed nothing. Pretty soon, Enigma found himself backed into a corner. Many of his purple pieces lay scattered around Harlequin’s feet as the board swiftly became dominated by the zorua’s blue ones. They hadn’t needed to recruit any of his. Enigma had barely even dented their army save for a few Nidoran and a lone Knight.

Enigma watched as Harlequin’s remaining Knight leapt over the head of one of his Nidoran to claim the last of his Nidorina. The zorua didn’t meet his gaze as he looked up, and a dry chuckle left his throat. He could definitely see what had caught Hydreigon’s eye. The zorua was bright and didn’t seem to miss any details.

“I think you might have beat me,” said Enigma.

Harlequin looked right at him and sat up straight. “Do you give in?”

Enigma leant forwards to look over the board. Was there any way he could recover? It didn’t seem like it. His King was trapped on three sides, and if he moved it then it would only lengthen the game by two more turns before Harlequin had it penned in completely.

The banette sat back on his paws and laughed. “Yes, I think I give in. Well done. Anyone would think you’ve played before.”

Harlequin said nothing as they scooped their pieces back into their starting positions. Enigma found himself doing the same, collecting up his pieces which Harlequin batted his way with their bushy tail. The banette’s eye wandered to the strange stone again, and he cleared his throat to get the zorua’s attention.

“That stone,” he said, nodding towards it. “What is it?”

Harlequin looked down at it then returned to adjusting their Nidoqueen in its square. “I don’t know.”

“So you just… happen to have it?”

Harlequin shrugged. “It belonged to a friend. He said it was an heirloom.”

“So why do you have it?” Enigma felt he knew the answer.

Harlequin stiffened and they placed a blue paw over the strange stone. “He was murdered.”

The zorua’s eyes had darkened again, and that heavy air pressed down on Enigma once more. Murdered… he could still hear his mother’s screams whenever he thought back to his own past. It was a dark reminder of why he wanted to leave. And here was Harlequin carrying a similar burden…

“Oh.” Enigma licked his lips and idly toyed with the hem of his scarf. “So I’m guessing he was an outlaw?”

“You could say that,” Harlequin snorted. They took a deep breath and tucked the pendant into their ruff. “He was an absol.”

Blight’s crimson eyes flashed in Enigma’s mind and he sat back up so suddenly he knocked the Chess board, sending the pieces tumbling across the floor. Harlequin leapt back and stood with one paw raised, their flanks heaving.

“An absol?” Enigma blinked and settled back on his paws, trying to calm his suddenly racing heart. Why did Blight haunt him so much? Was it because he hadn’t moved to help? He’d only been a hatchling… what could he have done? He looked up into Harlequin’s frantic eyes and took a steadying breath. “Sorry. You just surprised me, that’s all.”

Harlequin snorted through their nose. “So you hate them as well? A bit hypocritical of a ghost, isn’t it?”

“That’s not it at all.” Enigma narrowed his eyes, trying to hide his nerves at that haunting memory of Blight glaring at him.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you were one of the ones who chased them away!” Harlequin snapped.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that!” Enigma snapped back. “You’re forgetting I’m a trainee here. They don’t send us on missions!” He paused and tugged at his scarf. “I know they were found recently, but I wasn’t involved.”

“You knew about it?” Harlequin’s lip curled and they raised their head. “And you didn’t do anything to help?!”

Enigma narrowed his eyes at the zorua, a fire burning in his chest. “This isn’t a productive discussion.”

He snatched up the board and scooped the pieces onto it to slide it back beneath his bed. Harlequin watched, their cold eyes like fire on his back.

“We were meant to run away together.” The zorua’s voice was small, and the ice lacing it had melted away.

Enigma looked around at Harlequin, but they were staring at something only they could see.

“Even his clan didn’t want him anymore,” Harlequin went on. “He’d been exiled for sneaking out. They told him he was a risk, that it would be his fault if the Darkness found them. They stripped him of his name.” The zorua took in a trembling voice and slumped onto the floor. “He called himself Harbinger, a name given to cursed exiles.”

“But absol don’t bring curses.” There was doubt behind Enigma’s voice, and Harlequin’s ear twitched at it.

“I know,” they said flatly, giving him a pointed stare.

Harlequin closed their eyes and fastened their paw over the strange stone. “He was… the only good thing in my life.” A sob wracked the zorua’s small body and they screwed their eyes shut. “And the Darkness took him away.”

Tears streaked down Harlequin’s face, pooling onto the dusty ground. Enigma felt helpless. All he could do was watch, silently. He dug his claws into the ground as he glanced at the door, wondering if he should just leave. After a short while he became aware Harlequin had stopped crying. They lay in the same position, claws clutched around that odd pendant. The zorua’s back rose and fell with deep, steady breaths and their head lay on one side as if it had slipped off their paw.

Dwindling daylight stretched through the window, highlighting the zorua’s vivid blue markings. As night drew closer, Enigma didn’t have the heart to wake the zorua. Surely they could miss just one day of training? They were in no fit state to join in anyway. Not just yet. Enigma feared if Harlequin brought up the absol attack to anyone else, the zorua would mysteriously vanish so no one would hear of it again.
 
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Hero - Part Four

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
Blood, wounds, and allusions to self harm.
Hero

Part Four​


It took Harlequin over a week before they joined in with training classes. Running up to that, Niana had taken the zorua on privately. Enigma didn’t see much of Harlequin in that time. Whenever he went to check on the zorua they were either not in their room or asleep. The two times he did managed to catch up with them was when Harlequin sought him out, poking their nose into his room in the late hours of the morning. One of those times had been for a game of Chess, which had gone on until sunrise. It was the first time Kera met the unusual zorua, not that Enigma hadn’t told her about them. It hadn’t gone down well. Harlequin had bristled under Kera’s glare, and soon left Enigma’s room muttering that they needed to get ready before Niana wondered where they were.

Harlequin’s presence in the training class caused a bit of a stir. Niana had given them a baton, carved from a branch that had been broken from one of the trees near the barracks. Assassins didn’t usually use tools, so Harlequin’s use of one only added to the strange air that the zorua gave off.

Enigma wasn’t the only one distracted during training. Harlequin was swift, diving past Niana to tap them with the baton clutched in their jaws. The scrafty would counter it with a swing of their arm, which only made Harlequin grin. Enigma wanted to know what the zorua found so amusing. If they’d been countered then surely their attack had failed?

Frozen claws whipped past Enigma’s face, coating his fur in a bitter frost. He shook his head sharply and turned to meet Kera’s disappointed face.

“Look sharp!” She folded her arms and sighed. “What’s with ya today?”

She followed his gaze towards the zorua as they pivoted behind Niana to jab them in the tail with their stick.

“Ignore Harlequin,” Kera told Enigma. “We’re supposed to be graduatin’ soon! Ya need to pay attention!”

“Sorry.” Enigma turned back to Kera and raised his paws. “I’m ready this time.”

“Ya should be ready all the time!” Kera jabbed a claw into his scarf. “What if someone were to sneak up on ya, huh? Ya’d be mince meat!”

“With your claws, yes.” Enigma rubbed at his chest as Kera retracted her paw.

A playful smirk brightened Kera’s muzzle. “Well it keeps ya on ya toes! Now… have ya got any new moves to try on me? ‘Cos no offence, Enigma, but ya battle style is gettin’ a bit predictable.”

“Predictable?” Enigma narrowed his eyes at her.

“Oh come on, ya have a pattern!” Kera placed a paw on her hip. “Ya vanish into the floor and pop up behind me and bam! If it ain’t that, then ya just tossin’ shadow balls. It’s been the same for the past… what… seven seasons?”

Enigma snorted and folded his arms. Predictable, huh? He vanished before her eyes, catching a surprised raise of the eyebrow. Kera turned her head to look for him, tracing the shadows and twitching her ears for his bell.

Silence.

Enigma had to stifle a chuckle as he watched her. She paced around where he’d vanished, then turned towards the door. Enigma slipped behind her and grabbed her arm, eliciting a squeak from the weavile. She turned to face him as he manifested again, and the banette burst out laughing.

“See?” he said between gasps. “That wasn’t predictable.”

“That was just some childish prank!” she gasped, snatching back her paw. Her voice sounded angry but her eyes betrayed her humour. “I thought ya’d got mad and left, I was gonna go lookin’ for ya!”

“Childish?”

“Ya missin’ the point, Enigma!”

He took her arm and lead her back to the spot they’d occupied. A few curious glances were fired their way by the gabite Tannen and his dragon companions, and they soon turned their attention back onto Harlequin as they continued their distracted training session.

Enigma and Kera returned to their spar, but despite warming up the effects of Kera’s icy wind still lingered, making Enigma’s movements more sluggish. Her dark-type attacks frequently hit home and Enigma could feel himself wearing down.

He glanced to the window, noting the moon high in the sky. Soon, they’d be stopping for lunch. As he failed to dodge another beat up from the weavile, Enigma wondered if he should try a move he’d been practising in his room for the past few days. The idea had come to him while he was bored, and he’d wanted to perfect it before pulling it on Kera.

The weavile raised her claws in a night slash and Enigma decided that it was as good a time as any. He vanished, but not into the shadows. Kera stumbled, blinking at the spot the banette had previously occupied. With a soft jingle, he reappeared behind her and slammed a paw into her back.

The weavile gasped and stumbled forwards. Enigma warped before her and caught her in his arms. Her look of surprise was joined by a deep blush and she pushed herself back from him. She scratched behind her ear, diverting her gaze as she caught her breath.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Phantom force.” Enigma stared at his claws and sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t like it. It just isn’t fast enough.”

“Not fast enough?!” Kera rounded on him, her eyes wide. “That’s ya strongest attack yet! Who cares if it’s fast or not?”

“It’s not my style.” Enigma raised his paws in a shrug. “I want to be quick, not held back waiting to reappear behind my target. If they knew what was happening then that would give them enough time to catch on and counter it.”

Kera’s paws hung limp at her side as she stared up at him. “I guess…”

“Right!” Jex clapped his paws together, bringing the training to a slow stop. “Time to wrap it up! There’s no trainin’ this afternoon. Barracks are a dump. We need ‘em cleaned.”

The trainees groaned and Enigma felt his heart sink. Cleaning duty? Was it really that time of year already?

“I don’t care whatcha think!” Jex roared. “Go to Niana an’ she’ll assign ya’ll a task. Hop to it!” He clapped his paws again and the trainees sulked over towards Niana.

Harlequin appeared at Enigma’s side, still clutching the baton in their jaws. “Cleaning duty?”

“Every year.” Kera folded her arms and pouted. “I always thought it were a rookie job, but no. They’re assignin’ us older lot n’all. Guess movin’ up in the ranks don’t free ya from menial work, huh? I’d much rather just go to bed.”

“Hopefully they won’t have us digging over the mess holes this time,” said Enigma.

Kera wrinkled her nose and shot him a glance. “Think it were the only time I envied ya not havin’ any paws. All ya had to do was hold the bucket.”

Enigma chuckled, making his bell jingle.

When they finally reached Niana, the scrafty looked up from her list and nodded to Enigma, Kera then Harlequin.

“You three? Trainin’ hall,” she said. “This place could be used as a dragon’s dust bath. I want it clean before dusk.”

Kera looked between Enigma and Harlequin. “Us three?”

“Do ya see anyone else?” Niana motioned to the door. “Each of ya grab a broom and get a wiggle on.”

Kera muttered under her breath and stomped from the room, leaving Enigma and Harlequin to follow after her. The supply closet was by the front of the barracks, stuffed with various equipment from books to tools. Enigma groaned inwardly at the mess of books that he’d neatly stacked only a week before. Kera tossed him a broom and grabbed the matching dustpan and another broom for herself. Harlequin glared after the weavile as she left the closet, then climbed in to search around the cleaning supplies.

Enigma was about to join the zorua and help, but Harlequin lifted their head from behind the supplies and dragged out a small brush and dustpan. The zorua had to drag it by the handle in their jaws, but they didn’t even look at either of their companions as they passed.

Enigma shrugged and followed after Harlequin and Kera. The training room was empty, and their claws echoed loudly over the dry earth. Kera begun at the far end, whipping up a cloud of dust with her broom. Enigma decided to start at the opposite end and meet her in the middle.

Harlequin watched the pair beside their small dustpan, looking between the two. Kera opened her mouth to say something, but Harlequin grabbed their tools and trotted over to Enigma to sweep up the pile he’d created.

Well, with the three of them working together it shouldn’t take so long.

“They didn’t give us much of a heads up did they?” Harlequin scoffed.

“They don’t,” said Kera, her voice echoing slightly. “I quizzed Niana on that last year. She said they used to, but come the day so many of the assassins here would claim to be sick. So they decided to drop it and just dump it on us, that way we wouldn’t get the chance to cry off.”

Enigma flashed her a knowing grin. “I take it you wanted to do just that?”

“Oh aye!” said Kera. “Rotten lot ruined it for the rest of us.”

Harlequin snorted, disturbing some of the dust from its pile.

Enigma laughed at Kera and continued sweeping, creating piles for Harlequin to scoop up.

“If we get this done fast enough,” said Kera, “we might even have enough time for a game of Chess or somethin’.”

“They don’t expect us to keep training?” asked Harlequin.

“No one said anythin’ about keepin’ trainin’,” said Kera. “We were told that was it for the day.” The weavile paused to look head on at the zorua. “Besides… ya don’t exactly train do ya?”

Harlequin narrowed their blue eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well ya just leap around with a stick.” Kera shrugged and whisked up dust into the dustpan standing beside her. “Assassins ain’t meant to use tools, yanno. We’re meant to fight.”

“I am fighting,” said Harlequin. “Lord Hydreigon took me on to be a poison user.”

“But ya ain’t a poison-type,” said Kera.

“Exactly.” Harlequin puffed out their chest, and Kera’s eye went straight to the stone around their neck. “My targets will never see it coming.”

“And what’s that?” Kera nodded to the stone. “’Cos I doubt that’s protocol, either.”

Harlequin looked down at their pendant and grunted, returning to their duties.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” said Enigma. “I think it’s more interesting to see a pokemon do something out of the ordinary. Better than the boring same-old every day.”

Harlequin flashed him a glance, which didn’t go unnoticed by Kera.

“Really?” The weavile folded her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. “Well Harlequin ain’t gonna get stronger that way. Are ya?” She aimed a glare at the zorua. “Pokemon get stronger through combat and, like Enigma there, zorua evolve through battling too. Ya ain’t gonna evolve if ya keep smacking your opponents with a stick.”

Harlequin bared their canines. “I don’t want to evolve.”

“Well it’s gonna happen,” said Kera. “Ya’ll be forced into proper combat sooner or later to build up ya strength. Deal with it.”

“Then…” Harlequin shifted uneasily. “Then I’ll wear an everstone.”

Mischievous fire lit up in Kera’s eyes and she leant her broom against the wall. “An everstone? And how exactly are ya gonna carry it?”

“I’ll wear it.”

“Ya can’t.” Kera raised her paws in a shrug. “Ya can’t wear anythin’ that can be used against ya! Someone could grab it and strangle the life outta ya, or it could get snagged, or worse… lost and leave valuable evidence!”

“Don’t lie to me!” Harlequin spat. They nodded towards Enigma. “He wears a scarf, and has a bell somewhere. You can’t tell me assassins can’t wear stuff!”

Enigma looked down at Harlequin’s pleading eyes as they looked towards him for backup. He shrugged and gave a small sigh.

“They’re made from ghost materials, I can manipulate them,” he explained. “Besides, even if they weren’t then I could just phase through them and escape.”

“And leave evidence,” Kera added as she returned to her sweeping.

Enigma shrugged again and turned back to the zorua. “Sorry, Harle. You’re best speaking to Niana. I can’t help you here.”

“Oh, just evolve,” said Kera. “It ain’t that bad. It only hurts for a short while, and I bet it’ll hurt a zoroark a lot less than Enigma when he evolved.” She flashed him a playful smile. “I remember ya screamin’ like a baby!” The weavile snorted laughter and wiped a claw across her eyes.

“Well at least I look cool now!” Enigma retorted playfully.

Harlequin’s hackles bristled and they dropped their brush to the floor. “I don’t want to evolve! What part of that don’t you understand?!”

“Why not?” Kera asked.

“I just don’t, okay?!” The zorua closed their eyes briefly and looked towards the door. “I’m gonna go speak to Niana.”

Harlequin’s claws scraped over the floor as they dashed towards the door.

“Ya meant to be cleanin’!” Kera called after them.

The doors swung on their hinges as Harlequin fled through them in a blur.

Kera sighed and begun sweeping again with increased vigour. “Great. This will take even longer now.”

“Don’t you think you were a bit hard on him?” Enigma asked.

“Him?” Kera looked up with a start. “What?”

“Harlequin.” Enigma narrowed his eyes at her. “He’s scared. You didn’t need to jab at him like that.”

“It’s character buildin’.” Kera paused her cleaning and narrowed her eyes at him. “Ya think Harlequin’s a boy? What’re ya on?”

“That’s what Jex told me.” Enigma looked back at the door. “Besides, aren’t zorua predominantly male? I thought that was why there’s so few of them.”

Kera shrugged her shoulders as she begun cleaning again. “Then maybe I’m wrong. What does it matter? Get a wiggle on, ghost dude. I wanna get this over with so I can chill before sunrise.”

Enigma rolled his eyes and complied. “Maybe we could watch it? It looks like it might be a good one.”

“What? No way.” Kera shuddered and cast a wary glance towards the window. “It’s way too hot at this time of year. I can’t stand it.”

That was fair.

Enigma turned his focus onto cleaning, desperate to get it finished before the sun rose. If Kera didn’t want to watch the sunrise, then maybe he could think of something else for them to do. They’d had so little time to spend together lately. It would be nice to finally catch a break.

...​

Kera stretched until her spine cracked and let out a long groan. “Finally! That took forever!”

The sun had almost completely risen by the time Enigma and Kera had finished with the training room. Harlequin hadn’t returned to help them, which Kera had gradually turned more and more prickly about. The pair had swept the entire room including the walls, leaving it almost transformed.

Enigma stopped at his door, ready to phase through it, and opened his mouth to bid Kera a good rest, but the weavile stuck beside him. She gave him an expectant look and Enigma took the hint. The weavile wasn’t going to bed yet, despite how exhausted she looked.

“So…” Enigma turned the handle and pushed the door open. “Chess?”

“It would help me wind down, yeah.” Kera yawned and followed him inside, nudging the door shut with her foot. “After all that I could use a bit o’ fun.”

Enigma dragged out the chess board, feeling Kera’s eyes on him the entire time. His fur prickled around his neck, and he silently thanked his scarf for keeping it hidden.

The weavile flopped down opposite him and began to set up her side of the board. She turned a Nidoran in her claws and examined it before setting it in place.

“Thinkin’ about what Harlequin said…” she began.

Enigma looked up at her with a start. She’d not mentioned the zorua since they’d abandoned them.

“It’s pretty convenient ya can just… carry whatever ya want,” Kera finished. “Like… none of us can, yanno?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Enigma. “I can’t carry a bag unless it and all its contents were made from dusclops cloth and honedge steel. I’d have to abandon it if I needed to escape, or travel quickly.”

Kera shrugged her shoulders and made her first move, nudging a Nidoran across the board one square. “Well, it fascinates me. I never thought a ghost could just transport their belongings like that. So I guess ya can’t carry anyone with ya unless they were a ghost-type too?”

Enigma raised an eyebrow. He’d never considered that. “I guess not.” He casually took Kera’s Nidoran and popped it beside him.

Kera smirked at him, saying nothing about his move as she focused on the other side of the board. Was she distracted again? Enigma couldn’t tell.

“So why do ya wear a scarf?” Kera asked. “I noticed you started doin’ that after ya evolved, but I never thought much about it until Harlequin pointed it out.”

Enigma shrugged. “My mother’s cloak would never fit me, really. I want to keep her close.”

Kera stared at him for a moment, her eyes softening. She sat back on her paws and twitched her feet. “That’s kinda sweet actually. I… well I don’t remember my mother.”

Her expression turned distant and Enigma thought for a moment she was going to elaborate on that. But instead she shook her ears and fixed him with a curious tilt of her head.

“And what about the bell?” Kera asked. “I never see it but it rings all the time! Ya’ve had it since ya came here.”

Enigma turned his focus back onto the game. “My Dad gave it to me, shortly before… well…” He retracted his paw and the Knight he’d been moving toppled over. He hugged his paws around his knees and took a deep breath. “You know what happened.”

Kera took a sharp breath and looked away from him as he stood his Knight back up. “So… why d’ya keep it hidden?”

“I never really thought about it.” Enigma turned back to his game. “As a shuppet I didn’t have paws so I’d carry it in my body. It was easier than dragging it around in my mouth.”

“But ya have paws now?”

“I guess I never grew out of the habit?”

Kera looked up at him as curiosity lit up her eyes. “So where do ya hide it?”

Enigma opened his mouth to answer, then stopped. That look on her face… he couldn’t turn down an opportunity to mess with her. Instead, he chuckled and moved one of his pieces across the board. “That would be telling.”

“Aww c’mon!” Kera leaned forwards on her knees. “Why won’t ya tell me?”

“I like to keep some things secret.” He flashed a grin. “It’s in my name after all.”

“Pff, fine.” Kera puffed her cheeks out. Then her eyes glittered and she bounced in her seat. “Can I at least guess?”

Enigma raised his paws in a shrug. “Sure. But I don’t have to answer.”

“No, ya do! If I get it right, ya tell me?” Kera pleaded. “Capiche?”

“Okay, sure.” Enigma leaned his head on one paw and pointed to the Chess board. “It’s your move.”

Kera quickly moved her Nidoqueen and Enigma raised an eyebrow as she plonked it right in the thick of danger. “Is it in ya scarf?”

“No, it’s not in my scarf,” said Enigma. “I didn’t have one when I was given the bell.”

“Well ya can’t hide it in ya body,” said Kera. “It’d be dangerous, right?”

“Would it?” Enigma purred, meeting her gaze.

Kera flicked her feathery tail and pouted. “Ya havin’ me on, surely?”

Enigma shrugged again and a playful grin spread across his muzzle.

Kera shook her head and sighed, but it was cut off sharply as he took her Nidoqueen with his Knight. “Well that wasn’t fair!”

“You put it there,” he said flatly.

She shook her head again and looked up at him, her expression serious and calculating. She trailed her eyes over his body, making his fur prickle around his shoulders.

“What about ya tail? It’s fluffy enough, right?” she asked.

“Nope.” He sat back on his paws, the jingle of his movements making Kera’s ears twitch. “It’s not secure enough. It would fall out.”

Kera’s eyes lit up at that comment and she leaned forwards over the Chess board. “It’s in ya mane ain’t it?!”

“Wrong.”

“Nah, I’m right!”

He shook his head, but he couldn’t stop a smile forming at the excited look on Kera’s face.

“C’mon!” she said. “Prove it to me! It’s there, right?”

“I don’t have to prove anything,” he said. “Make your move.”

“All right then.” Kera scampered over the board, scattering all the pieces. “I’ll check myself!”

Enigma recoiled as Kera reached for his mane. He moved backwards until his back touched the wall.

“Kera, cut it out!” He caught her flailing paw in his.

“C’mon, I only wanna check!” she retorted.

She reached with her other paw, but lost her balance, toppling forwards onto Enigma. Her nose bumped his and he jerked his head back so hard it bounced off the wall with a jingle. He grunted at the impact, but thankfully his mane took most of the punishment.

“Yikes, are ya okay?” Kera asked, pushing back slightly.

Enigma looked up to answer her, but his words froze in his throat. She was close enough for him to see the golden flecks in her eyes. His heart began to race and he silently willed it to slow down perchance she heard it. Her breath tickled his face as she said something he didn’t quite catch. Claws tightened on his shoulder and he thought she was about to push herself back. He didn’t want her to, but how could he stop her?

She didn’t. Instead she inched closer until her nose brushed his again. Enigma’s heart flipped into his throat.

“I give up,” she whispered. “Ya win.”

Enigma no longer cared. He reached up to stroke her feathered ears with his claws and brushed his lips against hers. A sigh washed over his muzzle, and she trailed the back of her paw over his cheek towards his mane. He pulled her into him, catching her in a kiss.

Kera looped her arms around his neck, returning it as she nestled into him. Heat spread from Enigma’s ears to his feet. He didn’t remember ever feeling so warm. Kera’s claws combed through his mane and she shifted, her breath catching. Her ear twitched and she pulled herself back. Her face was flushed beneath her black fur and she looked away from him towards the door. Her claws trembled with nerves and she shook her head.

“Sorry,” she muttered breathlessly. “We shouldn’t be doin’ this.” She stood up and scurried for the door. “I should go.”

“Wait!” Enigma watched after her as she fled his room, his heart still pounding. “Kera!”

The door slammed behind her and Enigma blinked as he tried to work out what had just happened. He pushed himself to his feet, staggering so his bell jingled erratically. Everything was spinning in a web of confusion. He slipped through the door and across the hall towards her room.

As he slipped through her door, frantic sobbing reached his ears. He manifested in Kera’s room and his eyes widened at the sight of the weavile huddled on her bed. Her face was buried in her paws, but she looked up when she heard his bell.

“Please go away!” she begged.

“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

“Ya know full well what’s goin’ on,” she choked. “We can’t, Enigma. It’s against the rules. Assassins can’t have families or loved ones. We’re not even meant to have friends!”

Rage boiled in Enigma’s chest and he stuttered for a moment before finally spitting out, “Well it’s rubbish!”

“Is it?” Kera turned so she was facing him, and her eyes flashed with fury. “If one of ya targets were to catch me and hold me hostage, would ya go through with ya job or would ya take risks to rescue me?”

Enigma’s mouth flapped open, speechless.

“My life shouldn’t matter!” Kera went on. “Ya go through with ya job regardless, unless it harms Lord Hydreigon.”

“And what about you?” Enigma asked. “If the tables were turned, would you risk your job for me?”

Kera met his eyes and what Enigma saw in them both excited and terrified him at the same time.

“No…” The weavile blinked back tears and hugged herself, diverting her gaze to the wall. “That’s what frightens me.”

Enigma stood by the door, speechless. He didn’t know what else to say. Ripwing had been right. Kera’s loyalties had been altered. Enigma took in a deep breath. He had to do something. Could he get them both out of the Shadow Lands?

“I think we need to stop seeing each other.” Kera’s quiet voice cracked and she choked back a sob.

Enigma jerked his head around to look at her. It was as if an icy spear had pierced his heart. “What?”

“I’ll find another trainin’ partner,” Kera went on. “Ya should do the same.”

“But Kera-”

She raised a paw to cut him off. She didn’t even look at him. “Just stop. It’s for the best, okay? Now leave. I want to be alone.”

Her voice wobbled and tears glistened on her fur, but she still wouldn’t look his way.

Enigma faltered for a moment, trying to find words that could change her mind. There was nothing. He turned and slipped through the closed door as the icy claws of loneliness clutched around his heart.

He slumped back against Kera’s door and took a deep, trembling breath. What was he meant to do? Kera had been his only companion since he’d arrived in the Shadow Lands. His only other friend, Ripwing, had left and there was no news as to what had happened to the gentle salamence.

Enigma rubbed a paw over his eyes as tears threatened to break free. He needed to get back to his room and try to sort out his head. There had to be something he could do to change Kera’s mind. He didn’t care if they only remained friends, so long as he got to see her. That playful smile, her constant jokes and laughter… he already missed her. A low groan escaped his throat and he pushed himself back from her door.

It hurt.

As he staggered towards his room, a soft noise tickled his ear fur. A whimper? He turned his head to look down the hallway. It wasn’t coming from Kera’s room. It wasn’t her voice. Was it coming from one of the others?

He crept down the corridor following the noise as it grew louder, finally stopping at the door second from his. The whimpering was definitely coming from there. He frowned as he realised who’s room it was. Harlequin?

Enigma muttered and turned to walk away. But something gnawed in his chest with urgency. It wasn’t the whimpering of a frightened pokemon. It was pain.

Enigma gave himself a mental shake, turning himself invisible as he slipped through the closed door. He almost popped back into reality as his eyes fell on the zorua. Those icy claws of loneliness turned into thorns of dread. Harlequin lay in the middle of the room, surrounded in a puddle of blood. They held an iron thorn in their jaws and were jabbing at something sticking out of their right leg. A low whimper resonated from their chest as they desperately tried to remove whatever it was, but each prod just sent the thing deeper.

Enigma leapt towards the zorua and whipped the iron thorn from their jaws, causing Harlequin to yelp. “What are you doing?!” Enigma hissed.

Harlequin whined and fixed wide, sapphire eyes on the banette. They widened as Enigma grabbed the zorua’s paw, slick with blood.

“Get off me!” Harlequin howled, trying to yank their paw back.

Enigma kept a firm grip as he tried to grab whatever was sticking out of their limb. The zorua wailed, gnashing helplessly at his paw.

“Stop it!” Enigma snapped. “I have to get it out!”

“Put! Me! Down!” Sapphire flames burned in Harlequin’s glare as they opened their jaws wide to attack.

“Do you want to bleed to death?!”

Dark energy turned to shadowy wisps around the zorua’s fangs and the anger left their eyes. Harlequin reluctantly sank back to the ground, panting heavily. The whites of their eyes showed as they kept a close watch on the banette.

Enigma returned to trying to prise the sharp object from Harlequin’s leg. Whatever was sticking out was thin and hard, and he struggled to get a decent grip on it. Harlequin yelped and tried to tug their paw back, but Enigma kept a firm hold to try and keep them steady. Harlequin was growing weaker, their cries turning into feeble whimpers. The zorua was exhausted, most likely from blood loss. The stony fragment slipped in Enigma’s claws but after what felt like an eternity he managed to tug it free.

He released Harlequin, letting them flop back onto the floor. They placed their other paw gingerly over the wound, their blue eyes frantic as they watched the blood pool away from them. Enigma glanced around the room, trying to make sense of what was happening. Lying a little away from Harlequin was a needle and thread already prepared, and what Enigma slowly realised was an everstone sat next to it. A chunk of it had been broken off and lay in crumbling fragments around it. Had the zorua actually been trying to force part of it into their body?

“Am I going to die?” Harlequin’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

Enigma looked back down at them. They weren’t looking at him. Their eyes were blank and distant, as their breaths came in quick bursts.

Enigma shook his head, reaching for the thread and needle. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

The needle was covered in blood and dust, but if he didn’t work fast then Harlequin didn’t stand much of a chance. Of course, he wasn’t going to admit that. With trembling paws, Enigma began to sew up Harlequin’s wound. The zorua wailed but didn’t resist, instead kicking their hind legs. Tears streamed down their face. The wound wasn’t as big as Enigma had first suspected. In a matter of seconds it was closed up, although the banette’s work was somewhat shoddy. Tufts of fur stuck out from around the stitches in a mangled mess. He tossed the bobbin aside and stood up, tracing his eyes over the zorua’s body. Harlequin’s blue eyes were fixed on the far wall, unseeing. But their chest rose and fell frantically as their tongue lolled from their mouth. Their blue feet were almost dyed rusty red and clotted with dirt from the floor.

Enigma shook himself and left the room to return to his. He needed to get something to fasten around that leg. The scraps of his cloak would have to do. Again, it was dusty, but he didn’t have time to look for something else. Besides, the barracks weren’t great at keeping their medical supplies in top condition. They were all stored with the cleaning supplies and books, stuffed on a shelf.

Enigma tore a piece off the cloak and whisked it back to Harlequin. The zorua didn’t fight as Enigma fastened it around their leg. Once the bandage was in place, Enigma hoisted Harlequin into their nest.

“Get off me,” Harlequin whispered, shoving Enigma away with their good paw.

Enigma stared back into their sapphire eyes, rage boiling inside him. “What on earth were you doing?”

Harlequin didn’t answer. But Enigma was growing more certain as to what the zorua had been trying to do. He glanced around the room again at the broken everstone, the fragment that had been wedged in the zorua’s leg… and on the floor beside their bag, the strange stone Harlequin held dear.

‘I don’t want to evolve! What part of that don’t you understand?!’

Enigma closed his eyes and grimaced. Kera… Had her words really driven Harlequin to this? Or had it been Niana? Both, maybe?

Was there anything Enigma could have done to prevent it?

He picked up the remains of the everstone and looked back at Harlequin. “I’ll get this cleaned up. You rest.”

Harlequin closed their eyes and let out a small whine. “Why are you helping me?”

“Because I feel like you need a friend.”

Harlequin’s eyes widened with surprise. They curled their paws towards their chest and rolled away, turning their back to him.

There was more behind those words than Enigma had intended. His gaze wandered to the door, but he couldn’t see Kera’s room. Her door would now always be closed… his heart ached. He shook it off then turned from the room.

“I’ll get you some sitrus berries,” he said. “You should eat them before any infection sets in.”

Harlequin didn’t reply. And they didn’t say a word as Enigma mopped up the mess, desperate to get it done before Jex or Niana saw it. As far as he was concerned, no one needed to know. Harlequin was in no state to argue their case. They were terrified enough already.

...​

Despite how exhausted he felt, Enigma couldn’t sleep. His mind was reeling over the events with Kera and Harlequin. Whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was blood and Kera’s pained face. Her words echoed through his mind, mixed with the frantic screams of Harlequin until the events blurred together.

It wasn’t until the sun set that Enigma finally dragged himself from his nest. Stale hay clung to his dishevelled mane and he shook it out to no avail. He had no energy to preen himself. He adjusted his scarf and slumped from his nest. Nausea claimed his hunger, but he wanted to make sure Harlequin had actually eaten the berries. They’d been sound asleep by the time he’d finished cleaning their room.

As Enigma slipped through his closed door he almost walked smack into Niana. The scrafty recoiled with a yell of surprise, then quickly regained her composure as she slicked back her mohawk.

“Jumpin’ joltiks, Enigma!” she gasped. “Give a girl some warnin’!”

“Sorry.” Enigma ruffled his mane and cleared his throat. “Didn’t see you there.”

“Clearly.” The scrafty raised an eyebrow as she looked him up and down. “Ya look like ya ain’t slept in months. Is somethin’ wrong?” She punctuated that by plucking a piece of hay from his fur.

He sighed and raised his paws in a weak shrug. “Just the major drawback of insomnia,” he lied. “I was actually going to check on Harlequin.”

“Why?” Niana narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong with Harlequin?”

“He… had an accident.” Enigma paused, noting the concern that spread over Niana’s face. “He’s wounded. I don’t think he’ll be joining us today.”

“Neither will you, lookin’ like that,” said Niana. “Take the day off. Ya no use to us in that state.” She waved a dismissive paw as she stomped past him. “Ya might as well look after Harlequin, n’all, eh?”

Enigma watched the scrafty go then crept towards Harlequin’s room. Soft noises came from the surrounding rooms as the assassins stirred in their nests. Enigma was through Harlequin’s door just as a jangmo-o exited the opposite room, yawning widely.

Harlequin lay curled up in their nest, their sides rising and falling steadily. The bucket of water Enigma had left beside the bed was untouched, the zorua’s paws still matted with dried blood. The pouch of berries, however, lay on the floor empty save for a few sitrus skins. Relief washed over Enigma and he picked up the pouch to take back to the storage room.

Harlequin’s ear twitched in his direction and the zorua raised their head slightly. One sapphire eye locked onto the banette, widening briefly with fear.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” Harlequin mumbled.

“Checking you ate your berries.” Enigma waved the pouch. “Niana’s given you the day off. Enjoy it.”

The banette turned from the room but froze as Harlequin asked, “Did you tell her?”

“What? That you maimed yourself?” Enigma fired a glare over his shoulder. “Do you think I’m that heartless?”

“I don’t know you.” Harlequin shifted in their nest so they were facing him fully. “Besides, isn’t being heartless part of the assassin job requirement?”

Enigma closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. He wasn’t about to let the zorua rattle him while he was still reeling from his argument with Kera.

“Go back to sleep, Harle. You lost a lot of blood.” Then, leaving the room, he added under his breath, “I should know, I cleaned it up.”

“No one asked you to.”

Enigma froze part way through the door and glanced back at the zorua. So their hearing was as good as their nose? He shook his head and stormed to the closet to return the pouch. Jex was already there, and he gave Enigma a questioning look. The banette didn’t answer. He dropped the pouch in the shoddy pile with the rest, then turned towards the queue of pokemon waiting for their rations. A few glares were fixed on him, thick with accusation.

“Don’t worry, I’ve not been helping myself,” Enigma scoffed.

A heavy paw fell on his shoulder and he looked back to see Niana staring down her brother.

“Harlequin needed medical berries,” she told Jex. “Enigma was just returnin’ the pouch.”

Jex shrugged. “Whatever. No skin off my snout. Get in line if ya want ya breakfast.” He nodded to the back of the queue.

Enigma gave it one look and frowned. He wasn’t hungry today, no matter how much his stomach complained. As he turned away, he realised he’d noticed something. He jerked his head back towards the queue, scanning the pokemon hungrily licking their chops or practising their moves as they eagerly waited their turn.

Enigma’s heart sank. There was no sign of Kera.

Should he check on her? He trotted back down the corridor, and faltered by her door. No… she’d told him to leave her alone. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t watch out for her, did it? He stood close to her door and dropped his density until he was invisible to the naked eye. Then he strained his ears over the noise of the barracks. It was useless, he couldn’t hear a thing. Silently cursing under his breath, he phased part way through her door.

The nest was empty.

Where was she?

He whipped himself back into the hallway, muttering under his breath. Should he go and look for her? His feet answered that question for him as he found himself walking towards the back of the barracks. Harlequin’s door opened as he went past and the zorua’s blue eyes followed him down the corridor.

“Where are you going?” Harlequin asked around the bucket in their jaws.

“Lake.”

The zorua trotted behind him, limping heavily on their right paw and leaving a trail of wet footprints. “Me too. I need a drink.”

Enigma’s fur bristled and he swished his tail, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t want the zorua following him around like a wooloo especially while he was trying to find Kera, but he couldn’t begrudge them a drink. It was a relief they were up and about anyway.

Soft moonlight leaked down onto the lake, illuminating the ripples over the surface. Harlequin dipped their nose towards the water and lapped quietly, leaving Enigma to look around at the surrounding foliage. A small movement caught his eye beyond the willow tree, and he thought he could just make out the silhouette of a weavile. The moonlight glinted off water droplets as they tossed water over their face.

Enigma relaxed and turned away, gazing out over the lake. He slowly realised he was thirsty himself, and joined Harlequin on the bank. The weavile’s soft footsteps made him look up, and he watched her return to the barracks. So it had been Kera? Relief washed over him and he finished his drink and stood back.

Harlequin shook water from their whiskers and fired Enigma a glance. “Is something wrong? You seem off.”

“What makes you say that?” Enigma asked. He looked back at the weavile’s retreating shape.

“You’re not your usual playful self,” said Harlequin. “It’d be obvious to anyone here.” The zorua paused, following his gaze. “And you didn’t even say ‘hello’ to Kera.”

“Was it her?” Enigma shrugged. “I hadn’t noticed. I guess zorua have a better sense of smell than banette?” He walked away from Harlequin, following the trail back to the barracks.

“That’s true.” Harlequin limped after him, wincing with the effort to keep up. The empty bucket swung from their jaws. “But I don’t believe for one second you hadn’t noticed.”

Enigma slowed his pace to match Harlequin’s limp and tucked his paws behind his back. “Whatever. Friends argue.”

“You’re not just friends, though, are you?”

Enigma hissed and fixed the zorua in a fierce glare. Harlequin cowered beneath it and pulled their ears back.

“Keep your voice down,” Enigma warned. “Or your mouth shut. One or the other.”

He stormed away from the zorua, desperate to get back to his room and shut himself away forever. Harlequin’s uneven footsteps echoed behind him, and he tuned them out as he phased through his door. Moonlight bathed his nest from the gap in his blind, and he tugged it aside to block it out to no avail. Giving up, he flopped heavily onto his back in the hay. How had things gone so badly? He covered his face with his paws and groaned. Loneliness stabbed him like a pawniard’s blades. He just wanted to escape. To get out of the Shadow Lands and never look back, and if he died trying then so be it. The Darkness had taken away everyone he cared about, anyway.

Claws scraped the door, tearing through his thoughts and dragging him back into his musty, damp room. He cracked his claws to peer at the door as Harlequin’s slender muzzle nudged it open.

“What do you want?” Enigma spat.

Harlequin closed the door with a hind-paw and sat down heavily in the dust. Their sapphire eyes fixed on his. No fire behind them, just the slightest hint of fear that the zorua was trying hard to suppress.

“You said yesterday I needed a friend.” Harlequin shrugged their shoulders. “But I think you’re the one who needs it more.”

Enigma’s fur smoothed out and he removed his paws from his face. A small smile spread across Harlequin’s muzzle and they glanced away as if eye-contact caused them physical pain.

“I don’t expect you to talk to me,” the zorua went on. “You can if you want. I don’t know what’s happened with you and Kera, but I know what it’s like to lose someone.” Harlequin’s voice cracked as they added, “At least she’s still here, and you know she’s okay.”

“I guess.” Enigma stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

“So… do you wanna play Chess?” Harlequin asked. “Or shall I just curl up in the corner and quietly keep you company?”

“What makes you think I want company?”

“Just a feeling.” Harlequin shrugged again. “I’ll leave if you want.”

“It’s fine.” Enigma pushed himself up and smoothed the hay from his fur. Somehow the moonlight didn’t bother him anymore. “I’ll get the Chess board.”

...​

Days rolled by, turning into weeks. An eternity seemed to pass before the leaves began to change colour, dropping their hold on the trees they’d accompanied for two seasons to drift in a rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows onto the sandy floor. Enigma sat on the edge of the lake, watching the golden boughs of the weeping willow trace ripples on the murky surface. The sun was setting, painting the sky behind him a vibrant red, smudged with black clouds that warned of rain. Estellis needed it.

He wasn’t looking forward to training that day. Most of the assassins had been called out to the Border Woods to deal with a group of outlaws. Rumour had spread that they were planning an uprising, and Hydreigon’s forces were still too weak to deal with a rebellion from his father’s followers. Niana had taken a large group of assassins with her, along with most of Yurlik’s flock, leaving a disgruntled Jex behind to keep an eye on the newer recruits to the barracks. Enigma had been asked to assist him, much to the chagrin of those he trained alongside.

Enigma didn’t want that task.

The Shadow Lands felt quiet. The forces had only left that morning, hoping to get a sneak attack in on the outlaws. Since Enigma had been awake and heard everything, Jex had recruited his assistance immediately. Enigma couldn’t help but wonder if it was to keep him quiet. Spreading news of a possible rebellion would be too risky given the unbalance that was still contaminating the Shadow Lands. Those secretly harbouring hatred for Hydreigon would be too tempted to join in. Much like Enigma himself.

He picked up a smooth pebble from the bank beside him and skimmed it out over the surface of the lake. It bounced along a few times before sinking with a quiet plop several feet away.

“Nice.”

Enigma almost leapt from his skin. Harlequin sat behind him, nodding with approval. Enigma settled back on his paws and let out a repressed sigh.

“Still worrying about your new job?” Harlequin asked before picking up a pebble in their jaws.

Enigma nodded and looked back out at the lake. “I don’t think I’m the one to help train a bunch of rookie assassins.”

“I think you are.” Harlequin’s voice was muffled by the rock.

They twisted their head back and spun, sending the rock skidding over the water. Enigma watched it bounce along past where his had vanished before it sank into the murky depths.

The banette stuttered and jerked his head around towards Harlequin. “How?”

Harlequin fluffed out their chest. “I’m a zorua of many talents.”

Enigma chuckled and scooped up another stone. It was less smooth than the previous and didn’t go far at all. Harlequin snorted laughter and sat down beside him.

“You might think I’m the right fit,” said Enigma. “But I’m as much a rookie as the rest of them.”

“You’ve been here longer than most of us left behind,” Harlequin reminded him.

That wasn’t exactly true. Sure, Enigma was older than the hatchlings who’d joined the barracks towards the end of the warm season. But Kera, Vixen, Tannen and Jannen had also been left behind, and they were a whole lot more skilled than he was. Harlequin knew full well the only reason Enigma had been asked was because he’d overheard everything. Because he’d been sneaking, and Jex had caught him. And, in typical Jex fashion, the scrafty hadn’t been annoyed, he’d been impressed.

Harlequin motioned for him to follow them with their muzzle. “Come on.”

With a sigh, Enigma pushed himself up. Harlequin stood a little way away from him, watching him with soft sapphire eyes. He fell in step at their side as they headed back to the barracks. The zorua had grown considerably since they’d joined over a season ago. The top of their head reached past Enigma’s waist. But they were still small and scrawny underneath all that shaggy, unkempt fur.

The remaining assassins were already awake when he returned, hovering around the rations table to grab their breakfast. Those that had finished were stood in the training hall, firing punches to warm up before their training session. A few leers were thrown in Enigma’s direction, and the banette balked and took a step back from the door. It wasn’t just their reaction that had bothered him. Kera stood against the wall licking oran juice from her claws. She hadn’t spoken a word to Enigma since the end of the warming season, and every time he saw her his heart ached. She had one eye fixed on Enigma, but when he noticed her watching she looked away and kicked back from the wall to join Tannen. The gabite flashed Enigma a menacing grin as he lead Kera out into the middle of the training room.

A chill ran down Enigma’s spine and he clenched his fists tight. He watched Tannen ready a flamethrower, the flames licking around his sharp canines. A heavy paw landed on the banette’s shoulder, snapping his attention away from the spar between his former friend and the arrogant dragon. Jex stood over him, his eyes narrowed in a way that told Enigma he meant business.

“Right.” The scrafty nodded towards the assassins flooding into the training hall. “I need you to keep an eye on things with me, all right? Make sure everyone’s doin’ what they’re meant to be doin’. No goofin’ off, no laziness. I want everyone here in top shape when Niana comes back, an’ that means you too. Understand?”

Enigma felt a jolt deep in his chest, and his bell jingled in response. How much did Jex know?

Given the odd number of assassins left, Enigma helped Harlequin hone their skills. Harlequin leapt towards him to strike with their wooden baton. It was oddly difficult to dodge. The zorua was fast. Even Enigma’s warping wasn’t enough to avoid getting clipped. He was silently thankful Niana had banned the zorua’s use of their nidoking horn.

“That’s my tail!”

The cry caused Enigma to freeze and Harlequin’s baton struck him hard in the ribs. He doubled over, clasping a paw to his chest. The zorua muttered an apology around the baton, but their voice was drowned out over the sudden argument that had exploded between the new recruits.

A nikkit stood with his tail between his paws, canines bared at a fluffed-up purrloin.

“Watch where you’re putting your paws, you dumb cat!” the fox snapped.

“Dumb?!” The purrloin’s back arched and she swished her tail. “Watch who you’re calling ‘dumb’ you stupid fox!”

The other hatchlings were stood aside watching. A scraggy and dark-furred meowth wore silly grins on their faces while a zigzagoon cheered them on, his tongue lolling from his mouth.

“Bite her ears off!” he goaded the nikkit.

The nikkit’s ears pricked forwards and he lunged towards the purrloin. But the kitten reared back and lashed at his face with her claws. Tiny specks of blood splattered the floor and the hem of Enigma’s scarf.

“That’s enough!” Enigma cut between them. “You’re supposed to be training, not maiming each other.”

A low growl came from the nikkit but the small fox didn’t retort. The purrloin, however, craned her neck to see around Enigma’s legs. Her claws were out and a loud hiss came from between her teeth. She looked back up at Enigma and swished her tail.

“Move it, ghost,” she warned as her lip curled back in a sneer. “This isn’t your fight!” Her eyes narrowed. “It will never be your fight.”

As she made to lunge past him, Enigma grabbed her by the scruff. The nikkit winced back, but the purrloin never reached him. The feline hissed and spat, kicking her feet as Enigma dragged her across the training hall. He dropped her in the far corner and glared down at her. The purrloin’s ears pulled back and her fur fluffed out, but instead of retaliating she huddled down, back arched. Enigma stared at her for a moment longer before turning his back to stalk across the hall towards Harlequin.

“Well done,” Jex told him as he passed. “I’ll take it from here.”

Enigma watched the scrafty stomp over to the now cowering purrloin then returned to assisting Harlequin.

“That was fierce,” said the zorua. “Sorry you had to put up with that.”

“It was nothing,” said Enigma. “Just silly kids.”

Harlequin’s expression told him they’d overheard everything, and that it wasn’t just ‘silly kids’. He looked away, catching Kera and Tannen watching him. He thought he saw concern in the weavile’s eyes, but the gabite only looked amused as he muttered something to Kera. Enigma tried to ignore it as he returned to his battle with Harlequin, but those words echoed around his head until the sun finally rose.

‘It will never be your fight.’

Enigma had always felt out of place in the Shadow Lands. Having some insolent hatchling point it out only made him feel even more so.

...​

Enigma was last from the training hall, making sure all the trainees returned to their rooms. He finally went back to his alone, but when he arrived there he found Harlequin waiting by their own open door. They quickly stepped out to greet him with a wide yawn.

“Get some sleep,” he said, reaching for the handle.

“Later,” said Harlequin. “I don’t like sleeping straight after-”

“Straight after training, I know.” Enigma pushed the door open so Harlequin could head in before him.

He’d got used to it over the past season. Harlequin rarely ever went straight back to their own room, always joining Enigma in his for a game of Chess before falling asleep on his bedroom floor. Enigma had lost count of the times he’d had to either wake them or carry them back to their own nest.

As he turned to follow Harlequin inside, another door clicked open behind him. He looked back to meet Kera’s red eyes peering out from beyond it. Enigma’s heart skipped a beat, and he masked his surprise by clearing his throat.

“Good morning,” he muttered as he stepped into his room.

“Ya did well.”

Her voice surprised him, freezing him mid-step. He hadn’t expected her to say anything. He’d just assumed she was going to wash up before bed and was trying to avoid running into him.

He turned his head to meet her eyes, but she was looking away from him. “Thank you.”

The weavile shrugged. She hesitated in the door for what felt to Enigma an eternity. Just when he thought she might say something else, she closed her door abruptly. He could just hear her claws over the dry earth as she retreated to her nest.

Enigma stared at her closed door, feeling a lump form in his throat. He gave himself a mental shake and forced himself to join Harlequin in his room. The zorua stood watching him, and once they’d caught his eye they inclined their head questioningly.

Enigma closed the door and silently paced over to his nest to retrieve the Chess board.

“What happened between you two?” asked Harlequin quietly.

“Nothing you need to concern yourself about.” Enigma sat back on the floor and began setting up his side of the board.

Harlequin joined him on the opposite side, setting each piece neatly in its place. “Well I hope you eventually work things out.”

Enigma shrugged. “It’s unlikely. Kids are different to adults. Once you start taking things seriously here, you put your job first.”

Harlequin eyed him curiously and raised an eyebrow.

“We don’t have friends.” Enigma put a lot of emphasis in that last word.

The zorua’s eyes widened and they retracted their paw from the Chess board. “Oh…”

Enigma watched the pain spread across Harlequin’s face. They drew their ears back and shuffled a paw on the dusty floor. Enigma sighed and pushed himself up.

“Maybe this was a bad idea.” He nudged the Chess board with his foot back beneath his bed then climbed onto the hay. “You can leave if you want.”

Harlequin didn’t leave. Instead, they stared at the door, every muscle in their body as taught as a coiled spring. Enigma rolled his head back against the cold wall. No friends. No family. Without even thinking, he’d removed his bell and rolled it in between his paws. The soft jingle caused Harlequin’s ear to flick his way, and they turned their head towards him.

“It’s pretty.” Harlequin’s voice snapped him from his thoughts. The zorua sprang up onto the hay beside him and nodded to the bell. “Where did you get it?”

“My father.”

“So you weren’t raised in the Shadow Lands?” Harlequin asked.

Enigma felt a jolt shoot down his spine. He shook his head, avoiding the zorua’s questioning gaze.

“So… where did you come from?”

Enigma took a breath as he braced himself to answer. “I… don’t really remember.”

If Harlequin had detected the lie they didn’t reveal it. They shuffled a paw in the hay and gazed at the far wall. “I was raised in the Border Woods. Yurlik snatched me and brought me here. I… only had one friend, and he was taken away from me. So… I suppose I get it.”

Enigma looked up at the zorua then, probing them with his own questioning gaze.

“The whole assassin thing,” Harlequin elaborated. “Why you can’t have friends or families. To lose someone, well… it hurts. Lord Hydreigon needs us in top form, right? So it makes sense. It protects us, and it protects the Shadow Lands.”

Enigma grunted and shrugged. He wasn’t sure he agreed with the zorua. He turned the bell in his paws, and his reflection scowled back from its silver surface.

“So if you don’t consider me a friend,” Harlequin went on, “then that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean we can’t keep each other sane, right?”

Something about that statement made a lot of sense. Maybe it was just the zorua-traits speaking, to suggest a friendship could be masked as nothing other than keeping each other company. Illusions were their strength, after all.

Enigma closed his eyes and chuckled. “You’re a strange one, Harle.”

Harlequin shrugged and cracked a half-smile. “Eh. I suppose.”

“Well, I’ll take you up on that offer.” Enigma shuffled round on his bottom and tossed the bell towards the zorua. They caught it instinctively in their jaws, and their sapphire eyes widened with alarm. “Like you said. We need to be in top form.”

Harlequin blinked, unable to speak around the bell’s thick ribbon. Enigma clapped his paws and spread them. Taking the hint, Harlequin swung the bell back towards him. Enigma caught it nimbly in both paws.

Harlequin smiled, their entire face lighting up. “Then I guess I’ll do my best to keep you sane.”

“Likewise.” Enigma tossed the bell back towards them.

Harlequin wasn’t taken off guard this time, snatching it up by the strap and tossing it back to him in one swift movement.

Rather than a game of Chess, the pair sat in the hay chatting until the sun was high above them. By then, Harlequin could barely keep their eyes open. They flopped into the hay, curling their tail around their paws. This time, Enigma didn’t move them. He sat beside the sleeping zorua, soothed by the soft, rhythmic snores that filled his room. Much to his surprise, the next time he opened his eyes it was sunset, and Harlequin had gone.
 
Hero - Part Five

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
Hero

Part Five​



The next day was a lot easier. The hatchlings were better behaved, the purrloin being especially wary not to anger Enigma. This left him to focus on Harlequin, although the sleep he’d had left the banette feeling sluggish and dozy. Harlequin got in more than one lucky strike, and by the end of the session Enigma’s ribs were feeling a little bruised.

He rubbed at his chest as the pair headed back to their rooms. They were both a little worse for wear. The zorua’s fur was matted with drying mud from a misfire Enigma had thankfully managed to avoid.

Harlequin lowered their head, but a smile adorned their muzzle. “Sorry. I think I hit you a bit hard.”

“Don’t apologise,” Enigma told them, flashing them a grin. “You’re getting good with that stick. You could really give a ‘mon a run for their money.”

“I hope so,” said Harlequin. “I don’t plan to use my usual attacks much at all.”

“Let’s just say I’ll be staying well out of your way when you’re allowed to use your nidoking horn.” Enigma chuckled, and Harlequin shook their head.

“I’ll catch up with you later,” they said once the pair had reached Enigma’s room. “I wanna wash up. That gible’s mud shot is really gumming up my fur.”

“Sure. I’ll set up the board.”

So used to Harlequin joining him, Enigma actually opened his door without thinking. He glanced back at the zorua’s retreating tail, then shut the door behind him. He’d barely released the handle when it shook, and he leapt away as the door brushed against his tail. He half-expected to see Harlequin changing their mind, but instead a pair of red eyes met his. Enigma’s heart flipped inside his chest as Kera closed the door quietly behind her.

“K-Kera?” Enigma stuttered. “What are you-?”

He cut off as the weavile’s eyes filled with tears. She leaned back against the door, glancing over her shoulder as if she was considering leaving again.

“I had to see ya.” Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. “I thought… speakin’ to ya yesterday was a mistake. But…”

She closed her eyes and tears leaked over her cheeks. It took every ounce of willpower for Enigma not to snatch her into his arms.

“I miss ya.” Her voice was thick with tears and she hugged her arms around herself. “I thought it would get easier, but it’s not. I can’t do this anymore!” She wiped a paw across her eyes. “I just want things to go back to the way they were.”

Enigma took a deep, trembling breath as he mentally kicked himself at what he was about to say. “I don’t think they can.”

Kera looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “Please.”

Enigma’s heart ached. He hated seeing her like this.

“Ya were a friend.” Her voice was thick with sobs again and her body shook. “A dear friend.”

“Kera…”

“I…” She covered her face with both paws and began to sink down against the door. “I miss ya so much.”

He couldn’t take it anymore. He reached out to catch her, and she stuck out a paw, placing it on his arm.

“Don’t.” Her voice was a whisper.

Enigma froze, confusion swirling through his mind. He stared down at the weavile quaking on his bedroom floor. Just as he was about to question what she actually wanted from him, she tightened her grip on his arm and pulled herself into him. She nuzzled into his scarf and let out a loud sob. Enigma fastened his arms around her and lowered his muzzle between her ears. Her familiar scent flooded over him, making tears prick his eyes.

“I’ve missed you too,” he murmured into her fur.

She wound her claws around his shoulders and her entire body shook with sobs. He brushed a paw over the back of her head and nuzzled her. Neither of them said anything else, yet he didn’t mind the silence. He just wanted to hold her like that forever. He didn’t want to let her go. He didn’t want to lose her again.

She swallowed audibly and pushed back from him. Much too soon. He reluctantly removed his arms to release her.

“Can I stay with ya for a while?” She finally met his eyes. “I just wanna talk. And play Chess. Like we used to.”

Enigma nodded and released her. “Of course.”

She stood back, but didn’t relax. Her eyes darted around his room, trying to look anywhere but at him. Enigma shifted with unease, and he glanced back at the door. Something dawned on him. Something that, oddly enough, made him feel a bit better with the situation. However, he wasn’t sure how Kera would take it.

He opened his mouth to tell her, but a soft scratching at the door made them both look up. Kera’s ear twitched and she flexed her claws at her sides.

The door nudged open and Harlequin dragged their small body through the gap. The zorua’s sapphire eyes widened when they saw Kera, and they ducked back slightly.

“Sorry,” Harlequin muttered as they turned to leave. “I can come back.”

“Wait.” Enigma’s voice froze the zorua in the door. “You don’t mind Harlequin joining us, do you?” he asked Kera. “I promised him a game of Chess.”

Much to Enigma’s surprise, Kera seemed to relax. “Not at all.”

Harlequin looked up at the weavile with an expression Enigma couldn’t read.

Kera shuffled her feet and hugged her arms around herself. “It might make things easier, actually.”

Enigma motioned for Harlequin to enter. The zorua slowly plodded into the room, keeping one eye trained on the weavile. Kera’s ear twitched again and she took a step back, still keeping her arms wrapped around her small body. The tension in the air was so thick Enigma was convinced he could feel it pressing down on him, choking him. He briefly considered pulling the blind aside on his window just to let in some air.

He ducked to drag out the Chess board then looked back at his friends. Harlequin and Kera were sat watching him. Harlequin shuffled a paw on the floor and glanced back to the door, while Kera diverted her gaze and cleared her throat. Enigma expected her to say something, but she didn’t. After a long, painful moment of silence Enigma started setting up the board. Then it struck him. How was he meant to play a two-player game with both of them?

Kera seemed to pick up on this. She took a wobbly breath and moved backwards to the door. “I’m gonna grab us some snacks.”

Enigma forced a grin which may have formed more of a grimace. “Don’t get caught.”

“Don’t worry, there’s hardly anyone here.” The weavile moved swiftly through the door, leaving it ajar.

Enigma’s heart twisted at the idea she might not come back. Harlequin peered over their shoulder at the door, ears erect. They fixed blue eyes back on Enigma and nodded to the door.

“So you made up then?” they asked.

Enigma shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going on, Harle.”

“I was gonna say,” said Harlequin. “I could cut the tension in here with my claws.”

Enigma was about to tell the zorua they could leave, but the words died on his tongue. The truth was he really didn’t want them to. The thought of being stuck with Kera alone, with emotions flying in all directions, was terrifying. He desperately wanted Harlequin to stay. So much so he feared he’d be clinging to the zorua’s tail pleading with them if they tried to leave.

Kera stepped through the door again, drawing their attention. The weavile clutched a small pouch in one paw and she dropped it beside the Chess board. Harlequin gave it a cautious sniff, and Kera shuffled aside to squat down near the board.

If the ground opened up and swallowed Enigma there and then, he would consider it a form of mercy.

Enigma scratched his arm as he looked between the two. The words that came out of his mouth surprised even him.

“Why don’t you two play first?” he suggested. “I’ll play the winner.”

...​

That night was so painful Enigma wished he were elsewhere. He had been pleasantly surprised that Kera and Harlequin had actually taken his offer to play against each other. What hadn’t surprised him was the toxicity. Kera had become more and more agitated as their game went on. The pair of them were good at Chess, and it had almost become a contest not to play against Enigma but to try and best the other. On the plus side, Kera had begun to show her true colours. The fiery weavile returned in full force, spitting venom at Harlequin who bit back just as harshly.

It was a close win. Harlequin managed to assassinate Kera’s Nidoking after amassing an army of Kera’s former pieces. The weavile’s red eyes had bored into Harlequin’s sapphire ones. Then, the tense thread snapped. Kera flipped the board across the room and rose to her paws. She marched from the room without a word.

Enigma had tried to call her back, receiving a reply in the form of a slammed door.

Harlequin’s ears drooped. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Enigma sighed and leaned back against the stone leg of his bed. “She’s… I don’t know.”

“Lost it?” Harlequin offered.

Enigma nodded stiffly.

Harlequin left not long after. Enigma didn’t sleep. He sat staring at the wall, trying to make sense of what on earth was going on. How had that become a contest? What were they trying to prove?

He was still running those questions around in his head during that night’s training. A blow to his head jerked him back to reality, and he met a concerned look off Harlequin. They held their baton firmly in their jaws, and as Enigma rubbed the bruise forming on his brow the zorua shook their head.

Enigma looked past them at a grinning gabite. Kera stood by Tannen’s side, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Sorry,” Tannen scoffed. “That rock kinda got away from me.”

“Rock?” Enigma muttered, then raised his voice. “’Rock throw’ isn’t one of your skills and you know it!”

“Oh?” Tannen moved away from Kera and spread his arms. “Are you dissing me now?”

A scowl spread across Enigma’s face and he marched past Harlequin. The zorua scurried back in front of him and cut him off.

“Enigma, leave it,” they said quietly.

Enigma brushed Harlequin aside, causing the zorua’s fur to bristle under his claws. His crimson eyes were fixed on the gabite. Tannen spread his arms again, inviting the banette’s challenge.

Enigma’s muzzle twisted in a scowl and he lowered his paw from his throbbing forehead. “What’s your problem?”

“Really?” Tannen moved closer to him and lowered his muzzle to Enigma’s nose. “You’re tryin’ ta steal my partner, that’s what.”

Enigma shook his head in confusion. “What?”

“Kera told me she wanted me to step down so she could resume trainin’ with you lowlife.”

Enigma’s heart skipped a beat. He glanced past Tannen’s shoulder but Kera was no longer stood behind him. A sharp blade pressed into his throat and he jerked his attention back to Tannen. The dragon bared his canines and a low hiss leaked between his teeth.

“How’s she meant to even train fightin’ you?” he growled. “Always at an advantage? Don’t make me laugh, that ain’t how war works! I bet you can’t even fight. She just goes easy on ya.”

That was it. Enigma furrowed his brow and raised a paw, shoving Tannen’s blade away from him. “You think I can’t fight?”

“Is that a challenge?” Tannen purred.

Enigma vanished into the floor, and the dragon let out a gasp of surprise. It formed into a yell as the banette leapt up behind him and rammed his claws into his spine.

Tannen staggered forwards then spun, bringing his blade around in a crescent. Sand whipped up around Enigma, buffeting him with sharp rocks. He tried to vanish into the floor and his heart galloped as he realised he couldn’t phase through the storm. His eyes widened and swivelled in all directions, desperate to find a way out.

The gabite’s shadow loomed through the sand and Tannen struck Enigma with a full-body blow. The pair rolled out of the storm in a tangle of claws, fur and scales. Tannen’s sharp blades tore through Enigma’s fur and he hissed with pain. But he saw his chance. He slipped from the dragon’s grip back into the floor again.

Tannen twisted to look behind him and stuck out a paw. Enigma reappeared, ready to strike, just as Tannen lunged forwards. The dragon’s claw struck Enigma in the chest, winding him.

Harlequin let out a yell, followed by a gasp from Kera.

Enigma slumped to the floor, nausea flooding through him in waves. He trailed a paw over the wound and looked down. His claws came away sticky, not with blood, but with some strange purple substance.

Poison jab?

“Tannen, what are you doing?!” Kera shrieked, but Tannen ignored her.

Engima looked back up at his opponent. The dragon fixed him with a grin and leaned over him.

“Just as I thought,” he crooned.

Enigma sucked in sharp breaths and tried to stand. Tannen slumped towards him in an unfocused blur, his tall form distorting and warping. His voice came out almost mechanical, echoing around Enigma’s throbbing head.

“Your moves are so predictable a hatchling could dodge them.” The gabite shook purple droplets off his claw. He lowered his head to aim a stretched, distorted smirk right into Enigma’s face. “You’re pathetic.”

...​

Faint light broke through the blackness as Enigma opened his eyes. Dull pain pulsed through his chest and he sucked in a hissing breath. As faint as the light was, it bore into his head like a pikipek’s drumming bill. He narrowed his eyes against it and touched a paw gingerly to his chest. It came away sticky and he frowned at an orange, grainy substance clinging to his claws.

“It’s turmeric.”

He jerked his head around at the voice. Harlequin stood beside his bed with their forepaws on the hay, frowning at him worriedly.

“How are you feeling?” the zorua asked.

“Like I just got bowled over by a donphan,” Enigma croaked. He pushed himself up, wincing with the effort. Ignoring Harlequin’s pleas, Enigma set himself against the cold stone wall. “What is that stuff? It stinks.”

Harlequin nosed at the orange paste coating Enigma’s fur and shrugged. “It smells fine. It’s a natural antidote. It should draw the poison out.” The zorua sighed and shook their head. “Ideally I’d have used milkwort root, as that’s best for reptile venom, but I can’t get into the Border Woods without drawing suspicion.”

Enigma sniffed the orange stuff on his paw and, with a grimace, wiped it into the hay. “I thought that was what pecha berries are for?”

“A common misconception,” said Harlequin. “Pecha berries are fine, yes, to help you cope with the effects. They don’t combat most poisons alone. As pokemon grow stronger their poisons become more potent. You want something that will actually neutralise it.”

“Well, you’re certainly a guy who knows his stuff.”

Harlequin stared at him blankly, their mouth open slightly. The zorua made a noise as though they were about to say something, but all that left their throat was a dry cough. They glanced to the side, their ears drooping a little. “Well… I had a good teacher.”

“Clearly. I’d have never had known you could have used this in such a way.” Enigma frowned at the sticky paste as he rolled it in his claws. He sighed and restrained himself from wiping it all off his fur. “I never liked the colour orange.”

Harlequin chuckled and dropped from his nest. “Is there anything I can do?”

Enigma turned to look at the zorua then. The motion made his head spin and nausea flooded up from his stomach. He sighed and gently rubbed his temple. “How’s Kera?”

“Sleeping, as far as I know,” Harlequin explained. “She stayed up until sun high, keeping an eye on you. I told her to get some sleep.”

“And she listened?”

“I had to promise to wake her if anything changed.” Harlequin shrugged. “She’s stubborn. But I know more about medicine than she does, and she could barely keep her eyes open.”

“Sounds about right.” Enigma sucked in a breath as he pushed himself back from the wall. “I should let her know I’m okay.”

A loud yip made his eyes snap wide open and he froze, staring into Harlequin’s sapphire glare.

“You stay there,” the zorua told him. “I’ll wake her and let her know. I have to get some more poppy seeds anyway.”

As the zorua turned to leave, Enigma asked, “Poppy seeds?”

“For the pain,” Harlequin answered without looking back.

Barely any time passed between Harlequin leaving and Kera scurrying into Enigma’s room. Before Enigma could even greet her the weavile was at his side checking over his body.

“I can’t believe that Tannen,” she scoffed. “We’re meant to be workin’ together and he does this?”

“You don’t want to get any of that on your claws.” Enigma sighed and pushed her paws away from his chest. “Good morning, by the way.”

Kera retracted her paws and perched on the edge of Enigma’s nest. “Sorry. I… I was just worried sick.” She hugged her arms around herself and looked away from him. “All I did was ask him if he minded me goin’ back to my original partner and he over-reacted.”

“He’s always had it in for me,” said Enigma. “That’s why I avoid him.”

Kera let out a single laugh. “Well this time I think he actually intended to kill ya.”

Enigma’s eyes widened slightly and he lowered his paw from his head. “I’d call that an over-reaction, yeah.”

Kera relaxed, letting her paws fall into her lap. She turned to look at Enigma and a small smile spread over her face. “I’m glad ya okay.”

Enigma returned her smile. Suddenly the pain didn’t seem as bad. “Thanks.”

“Harlequin really knows her stuff, huh?” Kera sat back on her paws and kicked her legs. “I’m impressed. Never seen anythin’ like that before.”

Enigma blinked at the weavile then let out a sigh as he adjusted himself against the wall. “You really think Harlequin is a girl?”

“I don’t think, Enigma, I know,” said Kera bluntly. “It’s so obvious.”

“Well he didn’t correct me earlier.”

Kera’s ruby eyes widened, meeting his, and she shook her head slowly. Whatever she was going to say was interrupted as Harlequin plodded back into the room clutching a brittle stem between their teeth. They paused to look at Enigma and Kera in turn, then trotted over to the nest.

“Here.” The zorua dropped the dried-up seed head on the hay and stood back. “Don’t take too many or you’ll be seeing stars for the next hour.”

Enigma nodded and tipped some of the tiny seeds into his open paw. Satisfied, Harlequin gave a curt nod and stood back.

“I’m gonna get some sleep,” the zorua explained. “If you need me you know where I am.”

Enigma watched them leave, then turned back to Kera. The weavile seemed uneasy again, shuffling in his hay. After a moment she slid to the floor and smoothed out her tail feathers.

“I should go too.” She looked back at him, avoiding his eyes. “Ya’ll be okay, right?”

Enigma nodded, his head already feeling lighter. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“Then I’ll see ya later, before trainin’.” She paused by the door and her ears stiffened. “Oh yeah. Jex said to take it easy. Only come to trainin’ if ya feel up to it. He don’t really need ya with the numbers so low n’all that.”

Really? Somehow Enigma felt Jex was trying to tempt Enigma to take the day off. He’d known the scrafty long enough to know he hid his soft core under a ruthless mask. The banette shrugged and settled back down into his nest. The door clicked shut, leaving him to get lost in his thoughts. They didn’t last long, soon replaced by a deep, unusually dreamless sleep.

The sun had set when Enigma woke again. He had no idea what time it was. The sky was thick with clouds, with only a couple of stars peeking through. The yells from the training room told him that night’s session was still ongoing. The heavy spice of turmeric stung his nose as he pushed himself from his hay. Harlequin must have applied another poultice while he was asleep. Enigma must have slept like a log. His head spun slightly as he stood, and he rubbed by his ear. The dizziness was only brief, and didn’t bring with it any nausea. He licked his dry lips. Good grief was he thirsty. The need for a wash and a good drink screamed at him and he staggered from his room.

Cold night air washed over him as he stepped through the back door to head for the lake. It chased away some of the groggy cobwebs that clung stubbornly to his consciousness. He crouched on the stony bank of the lake beneath the shelter of the weeping willow and scooped up water in his paws to have a deep drink. The cold water was refreshing, and after a short while he was feeling a lot better. Once finished, he sat back and examined the sticky orange stuff clinging to his fur. He cautiously flicked it off, revealing the small puncture wound made by Tannen’s nasty claw. It looked clean enough. Would Harlequin scold him for washing the turmeric off?

Shrugging at the zorua’s disapproving look in his head, Enigma began gingerly washing the sticky poultice from his fur. After a few moments, a voice called out to him and he looked back over his shoulder.

Kera trotted towards him, casting a glance back at the barracks. She was alone, but Enigma could hear the faint voices coming from it. The clamour of claws and chattering voices that he’d grown familiar with as training drew to a close. However, it was a lot quieter than usual. Of course. Enigma shook the water from his claws and smoothed out his damp fur. Most of the assassins were away, dealing with a rebel group in the borders.

Kera reached his side and crouched down, dipping her muzzle into the water for a quick drink. Once she was satisfied, she sat back and beamed at him, flicking water from her muzzle with her long claws.

“How ya feelin’?” she asked.

“Better.” Enigma’s voice came out as more of a mumble and he sat back on his paws. His next attempt was voiced a lot clearer. “Whatever Harlequin did seems to have done the trick.”

“I dunno what we woulda done without her.” Kera scratched behind her feathery ear and stared out at the lake. “I know I ain’t exactly been nice to Harlequin. But last night, she impressed me. I mean… she saved ya life.”

“Really?” Enigma’s eyes widened and his head spun with the previous night’s events. Tannen’s grinning face, those mocking words. Had the dragon actually intended to kill him? “Well… I suppose we are training to be assassins.”

“Yeah, but we’re not meant to kill each other!” Kera gasped. “I dunno… Jex is really unhappy with Tannen. But I don’t think runnin’ laps is gonna be punishment enough for this.”

Enigma shrugged and idly toyed with the marred fur on his chest. He could still smell the turmeric. “I guess I owe Harlequin some thanks.”

“Me too.”

Enigma looked up at Kera. She was still gazing out at the lake while winding her claws in the dry grass.

“I was really worried.” She bit her lip and lowered her head. “I’m sorry I went weird on ya.”

Enigma gazed at her for a moment. The memories of the past season twisted his insides, but seeing her looking so sullen and guilt-ridden was more painful.

“It’s fine,” he said.

“No it ain’t.” She looked up at him, meeting his eyes. “I shouldn’t have done that to ya.”

“You needed space. I get it.”

“But it weren’t fair, was it?” She took in a long breath as she looked away, and tugged at the grass. “It weren’t fair to either of us.”

Enigma stroked his claws over a smooth pebble that had found its way into his paw. He couldn’t look at Kera anymore. It was too much. Seeing her looking so sorry for herself was almost unbearable. He just wanted to pull her into him and tell her to stop being so foolish, but the last thing he wanted was for her to go cold on him again.

He skimmed the pebble out over the lake and the pair of them watched it bounce away over the dark, murky surface until it vanished into a pool of duckweed.

“I dunno,” Kera went on. “After last night, all this has just made me realise somethin’.”

Enigma lifted his head to look at her, but she was still gazing out at the lake.

“I was terrified,” she explained. “The thought I might lose ya… I don’t think I’m cut out to be an assassin after all.”

Enigma’s heart skipped a beat, and all words failed him as he watched the weavile. She hugged her arms around herself and leaned forwards on her knees.

“I dunno what to do,” she went on. “We’re not meant to have feelings like this. They get in the way. It makes me wonder… what would have happened if Niana hadn’t sent me to check on ya that night.”

Enigma couldn’t speak. All he could see in his mind was the face of an excited sneasel peering under the bed to coax out a terrified hatchling.

“I dunno what I were expectin’,” said Kera. “I just remember seein’ this adorable shuppet, and suddenly I just wanted to protect him.” Her words trembled and she sucked in a wavering breath. “It seemed so innocent at the time. When did things get so complicated?”

Enigma gazed up at the empty branches of the willow tree as the wind stirred their branches over the lake. “We don’t have to stay here you know.” His voice was barely a whisper, but Kera heard it.

She jerked her head towards him, her ruby eyes wide. “Whaddya mean?”

He moved closer to her, keeping his voice low. “We could leave. Get out of here and live in the Border Woods, or go further south.” He cut her off before she could retaliate. “We could be together. There’d be no rules, and most of all neither of us would have to hurt anyone.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she whispered. “How would we even get out?”

“I don’t know,” said Enigma. “But I’ve never wanted to stay here, working for that dragon. I’ve thought about leaving many times. I almost managed it once, but I couldn’t do it.” He tried to meet her eyes but all he could manage was a glance. “The only thing keeping me here is you.”

Kera stared at him, dumbfounded. Her mouth opened a few times as she let out a confused ‘Wha’?’ Finally, she managed, “You almost left? How?”

“Ripwing offered to take me with him when he fled,” Enigma explained, managing to meet her baffled gaze. “But I turned him down.”

Kera’s eyes widened as much as her mouth. Her ears drooped as the realisation sank in at exactly why he’d refused the salamence’s offer. She didn’t say anything. Instead she scooted closer to him and pulled him into an embrace. A pained grunt escaped as the motion jarred the wound in his chest, but it was stifled as Kera pressed her lips against his.

Enigma shifted slightly so he could return her embrace, pulling her small, warm body into his. Enigma didn’t know how long they remained like that as he returned her kiss, brushing his paws over her soft fur. When Kera had to break away, he brushed his nose against hers and she wound her claws into his mane.

“Run away with me,” he whispered.

She opened her eyes to meet his, then gave him another brief kiss. He didn’t need words. He knew it was a yes. His heart soared with both joy and fear as he held the weavile against his chest. He had no idea how he was going to get them both out of the Shadow Lands. But he’d do it, even if he had to die trying.

...​

The sun had long since risen by the time Enigma had returned to his nest. Neither he or Kera wanted to go back, and despite the heat of the sun Kera had been happy to stay with him as they strolled around the lake. It was a cool, sheltered spot within running distance of the barracks. The Shadow Lands were quiet with very few murkrow remaining, since most of Yurlik’s flock were assisting Niana and the assassins. Yet Enigma couldn’t help feeling on edge. Everywhere he looked he expected to see spying eyes, and once he and Kera returned to their nests he was just waiting for Jex to point an accusing claw. The pair of them returned to their sleeping quarters with an air of nonchalance, and Enigma lay on his nest waiting for nightfall.

How would they get out? He bit his lip as he rolled over various scenarios none of which seemed remotely viable. His thoughts were broken by the clamour of caws and flapping wings. The murkrow flock had returned. That meant the assassins wouldn’t be far behind. Any respite he hoped to have with Kera was shattered at that moment. The Shadow Lands would be teeming with Yurlik’s watchful soldiers, and the ground around the barracks buzzing with trainees. Even during the day, spending time together would be a risky endeavour. They needed an escape plan and fast.

Enigma was deep in his thoughts, picturing Kera and himself fleeing through the Border Woods. Despite the danger, they were enjoying each other’s company, and safety was on the horizon. He’d already decided they’d head for the mountains, perhaps find a cave to spend the rest of their lives in. But a loud shout jerked him back to reality. He sat bolt upright, straining his ears to pinpoint the noise.

Jex?

Enigma peered through his window blind but he couldn’t see anything. Just a small number of murkrow perched in a scraggly tree, preening their bruised and mangled feathers.

The banette pushed himself from his bed and dropped his density so he was completely invisible. He moved like smoke through his door and sought out Jex. Enigma was following his angry shouts through the corridor when he spotted the scrafty storming towards him. Curious eyes peered through the doors as Jex roared at them to get up.

“Meeting in the training room, pronto!” he shouted through a closed door. “C’mon, ya lazy lot! Get ya tails in gear!”

“But it’s broad daylight,” rasped a nuzleaf in return.

“Ya think I don’t know that?!” Jex dragged the small pokemon from his room and shoved him aside. “Get a move on.”

The scrafty continued his march, barking orders. Enigma’s heart pounded. He’d never seen Jex so riled up.

Assassins moved past Enigma in a tidal wave and he had to strafe to the side to avoid being walked through. He spotted Kera in the crowd and caught her voice as she asked an axew if he knew what was going on. Enigma touched her arm, bringing her to a stop, and he made himself visible.

Kera didn’t seem surprised. She followed Enigma’s gaze back towards Jex and urged him on beside her.

“D’ya know what’s goin’ on?” she asked.

“Not a clue,” he said. “But I think it’s got something to do with that mission.”

Kera paled and craned her neck to spot Jex, but the scrafty had vanished around the bend. “Have they returned?”

“I believe so,” said Enigma. “I heard the murkrow come back earlier this morning.”

“Then maybe that’s what it is,” said Kera. “I reckon the assassins didn’t pull their weight and now we’re sufferin’ for it by being forced into extra trainin’.”

Enigma chuckled as Kera yawned widely. When they entered the training room the numbers surprised Enigma. He’d expected it to be full with trainees, but the majority were rookies. Only a small number of the advanced and graduates who’d accompanied Niana were present. Most of them were wounded in some way. Enigma guessed those with worse injuries were recovering in their nests.

“What on earth happened on that mission?” Kera gasped quietly.

Enigma wished he had the answer. A sense of dread washed over him as he began to wonder how bad things really were. He spotted Harlequin a few feet away and caught the zorua’s eye. They quickly joined his side and looked from him and Kera.

“What’s this about?” Harlequin asked.

Kera shrugged, but the worry was plain on her face.

The doors were swung open as Jex barged in, tailed by a timid-looking zigzagoon and the purrloin Enigma had scolded earlier that week. Jex’s expression was unreadable. Enigma searched his face as the scrafty marched into the centre of the waiting crowd. Where was Niana? He looked back at the door, expecting her to follow him through while softly scolding a stubborn rookie. But the closed doors and the drone of worried voices made Enigma’s heart sink slowly like a lead lump in a peat bog.

“Silence!” Jex roared.

The assassins’ voices petered out as all eyes turned onto the scrafty.

“As ya might be aware,” he growled, “the patrol Niana took out has returned.” He cast a glance at the wounded assassins. “The numbers have dropped yet again. Needless to say, we lost that battle. And why? Because ya’ll can’t pull ya soddin’ weight!”

Voices rose into a clamour of protest and Jex’s mohawk stiffened as he roared, “Quiet!”

Once silence had washed over them yet again he narrowed his eyes at his trainees.

“We lost a lot of good assassins,” he said bluntly. “And we lost Niana.”

“No!” Kera squealed, echoed by Harlequin.

Loud gasps came from the assassins, particularly the younger ones. The purrloin let out a wail and her fur fluffed out.

“Not Niana,” Kera muttered beneath the chaos.

Enigma fought back the urge to take her paw, his claws instead itching at his side. At his other side, Harlequin’s ears had drooped and they sat with their head bowed.

“Exactly!” Jex barked. “And why? ‘Cos ya’ll are a bunch o’ weaklings! Now we need to train extra hard, ya hear me? While I try to find replacements to send out again ‘cos Lord Hydreigon is brayin’ for the blood o’ those scuzzy outlaws.” His eyes flashed with fury and he bared a canine. “Now get trainin’! I don’t want any of ya to stop until sunrise.” A few trainees opened their mouths to protest but Jex added loudly, “An’ if I hear one complaint it’ll be forty laps around the barracks!”

The trainees silently nodded and turned to find their training partners.

Niana… Enigma’s heart twisted painfully in his chest and he clenched his teeth. She was a strong fighter. What had happened for her to lose like that?

Enigma watched Jex leave and reached for Kera. He wanted to console her, but the weavile darted from him to intersect Jex at the door.

Kera’s eyes were wet with un-shed tears, which seemed to take Jex back a little as he bit back a scolding reprimand.

“What happened?” Kera pleaded. “How did Niana lose like that?”

“Get to trainin’ Kera.” Jex shoved her aside, but Kera grabbed his arm.

Why won’t ya tell us?” she asked. “Please.”

“Why do I need to tell ya?” he growled. “Ya just a trainee.”

“Because it might help us?” Kera offered. “And… well, I wanna help ya drive out those outlaws.”

“I ain’t gonna drive them out, Kera,” Jex growled. “I’m gonna kill ‘em.” He turned towards her and folded his arms. “As for what killed Niana, it were some ruddy mercenary the rebels had hired. A braviary.”

“A braviary?” Kera straightened and jabbed a thumb-claw into her chest. “I can take on a braviary! Easy! Those things drop when you coat ‘em in ice!”

“Really?” Jex’s eyes sparkled and he nodded back towards the trainees. “Ya wanna count how many weavile came back from that battle, Kera?”

Kera looked over his shoulder and her ears drooped. Enigma followed her gaze and a cold dread filled him. Not a single weavile stood among those who had returned. He shook himself and joined Kera’s side, drawing a glare from Jex.

“Train,” Jex told them bluntly. “Ya need it.”

Kera clenched her fists at her sides as she glared at the back of the scrafty’s head. It broke Enigma’s heart to see her so upset. Almost everyone in the barracks had a soft-spot for Niana, himself included. Knowing they’d been robbed of her warm smile and carefree attitude made the whole place feel darker somehow.

“She were like a mother to us hatchlings,” Kera muttered as her eyes welled up again. She wiped a paw across her face and let out a shuddering breath. “Yeah, I know I’m not a hatchling anymore, so don’t ya say nothin’.”

Enigma hadn’t planned to say a word. He inched closer to the weavile, fighting back the urge to pull her into his chest.

Harlequin plodded to his side and looked up at the pair. “I guess we should train, huh?” The zorua paused as Kera cast them a sideways glare. “For Niana?”

Kera relaxed her paws, but her fur still bristled down her spine. She opened her mouth to say something but was cut off as a blue blade looped around her waist and pulled her aside.

“C’mon,” Tannen crooned. He smirked at Enigma as he lead the weavile away. “We better get trainin’ before Jex skins us alive, eh?”

Enigma’s claws dug into his paw pads. Did that gabite have no tact?

“Enigma?”

Harlequin’s soft voice tickled his ear fur and he looked down, meeting the zorua’s sapphire gaze. With a sigh, Enigma nodded, and the duo moved away from the door to begin their training.

The day was long, rolling into night. Exhausted, the assassins kept on pushing themselves until the moon was high above them. Enigma’s wound complained, but it wasn’t enough to make him stop. Not that he dared. Jex barked orders, rallying those who flagged and picking up any who stumbled. His words were harsh, his eyes flashing in the darkness. Several trainees collapsed from exhaustion, unable to get up and press on. Reluctantly, Jex saw them to their nests with the threat of laps the following day to build their stamina.

Enigma was silently thankful he wasn’t among them. Harlequin was panting heavily by the time the sun painted the horizon a dusty orange, and Kera’s fur was slick with sweat. Enigma’s mane tangled along his back and he tugged the knots free as he followed his friends to the lake. Many trainees had made the same decision, lapping noisily at the water and bathing the dust and sweat from their fur and scales.

One by one they retired to their nests, leaving Enigma sitting by the lake with Kera and Harlequin. The weavile had long since finished her wash and gazed out across the glassy surface towards the rising sun.

Harlequin licked a drop of water from their nose as they caught Enigma’s eye. “We should head to bed. We all need our rest if tonight is gonna be anything like that.”

“You’re right.” Enigma stood and stretched until his back popped. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“Go with Harlequin.” Kera’s voice was icy cold, freezing Enigma mid-stretch. “I need to be alone for a while.”

Harlequin and Enigma both stared at the weavile. She continued to gaze blankly across at the sunset, sitting back on her paws. Her fur was still damp from the water, but Enigma could make out the salty trails over her cheeks.

“Are you kidding?” he muttered quietly. “I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”

Kera took in a trembling breath. “Fine.”

Enigma sat back down beside her and his claws itched as he considered taking her paw from her lap. He couldn’t even find the words to say. In the end, he decided to just sit quietly. After a moment he heard Harlequin’s soft paws as the zorua carried themselves back to their nest.

Enigma watched the sun rise over the distant canopy of the Border Woods, painting the sky a dusty orange smeared with grey clouds. Yurlik’s murkrow flock cawed in the distance as the night watch gathered in the branches by the far wall that rimmed the edge of the Shadow Lands. The day watch roused from their slumber, groggily swarming into the sky to spread out across the Shadow Lands and out over the borders.

Their raucous cawing set Enigma on edge and he cast a sideways glance at his companion. Kera didn’t budge, her eyes still glossy with tears. A lump welled in Enigma’s throat and he sucked in a deep breath past it.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Kera leaned into him until her head was resting on his shoulder. Suddenly Enigma didn’t care about the murkrow, or any other lurking threats in the Shadow Lands. He secured his arm around Kera and held her, gazing out across the lake. The pair continued to sit in silence. After a while Enigma couldn’t help but notice Kera’s relaxed posture and deep, steady breathing. Enigma gazed down at her sleeping face and his heart flipped in his chest. He didn’t want to disturb her, but he knew they both needed to get back to their nests if Harlequin’s fears for that night’s training turned out to be true.

Enigma rubbed Kera’s shoulder and shifted beneath her. “Come on.”

A surprised grunt came from the weavile and she looked around blearily. “Wha’?”

“We need to get back,” Enigma explained. “It won’t be long before sun high.”

Kera shoved herself to her feet and slumped after Enigma towards the barracks. Everything was silent, save for the deep snores that resonated behind closed doors. Enigma paused outside his nest and looked back at Kera as she opened her door. His heart ached, and words rose in his throat only to fade away on his tongue. He wanted to invite her into his room, to keep her company rather than let her suffer in pain alone.

She glanced back at him and forced a smile. It looked very out of place amid her unreadable expression. “Thanks.”

“Any time.” He sucked in a sharp breath and turned to face her. “Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I just… probably need a good sleep. That’s all.”

Enigma nodded, watching as she slid into her room. After a short beat of time he slipped through the crack in his own door, not solidifying until he was lying on his back on his own nest.

Sleep refused to come. The banette watched the rays of light traverse the dirty surface of his wall and ceiling as the sun made its journey over the assassins’ barracks. His mind remained fixed on Kera, playing out various scenarios to help raise her spirits. But he couldn’t help thinking about Niana. Her plight only highlighted the dangers the assassins were to put themselves in day after day. After a while he found himself thinking up ways to get himself and Kera out of the Shadow Lands. Was there any way at all? Would it be possible before they had to graduate? Surely graduating wouldn’t be easy. Few ever spoke about it, but what deadly task would Jex throw each of them into in order to test their skills?

A soft sound jolted Enigma out of his daydream and he pushed himself up as his ears trained on his door. He knew that sound all too well. Kera had left her room. He cast a glance at his window. The sun was still high in the sky. She shouldn’t be up at this hour.

Enigma slid from his nest and scratched his chest. The wound had healed over and was now nothing more than a dull ache. He slipped from his room just in time to see the weavile’s pink tail feathers as she headed towards the main door. What was she doing? He opened his mouth to call after her, then thought twice about it. The last thing he wanted was to wake the entire barracks.

He trotted after her, but had barely made it five steps before another door opened behind him. He stifled a curse and lowered his density as he cast a glance over his shoulder. Harlequin’s blue eyes burned right through where he was standing. The zorua’s nose twitched at the air and their ears rotated towards him.

“Enigma?” Harlequin whispered.

Enigma made himself visible to the zorua and let out a breath he’d been holding.

“I thought it was you.” Harlequin yawned, flashing two rows of sharp teeth. “I heard your bell. Can’t you sleep?”

“When can I ever?” Enigma kept his voice low and glanced back at the door.

“Is something wrong?” Harlequin asked.

“I heard Kera get up. I wanted to make sure she was okay.” Enigma nodded towards Harlequin’s door. “Go back to sleep.”

Harlequin huffed through their nose. “I can’t. I think your insomnia is catching.”

Enigma rolled his eyes and turned to chase after Kera. He paused to glance into the training room, half-expecting her to be getting in some extra training, but the room was empty. The courtyard was just as bare. Enigma’s heart sank and he raised his head to look out over the Shadow Lands. His heart leapt into his throat when he spotted the weavile racing off in the direction of the Border Woods.

“Kera!” He silently scolded himself for raising his voice.

She’d heard him. She turned her head to look back but didn’t stop running.

In one swift motion, Enigma leapt through the air and vanished, reappearing before the surprised weavile. He reached out his arms to steady her as she tried to break to a halt. He almost buckled beneath her as she stumbled into him.

“Whatcha doin’?” she hissed.

“What are you doing?” he scolded.

Kera snatched back her paw and narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s it look like? I’m goin’ to avenge Niana.”

Enigma’s jaw dropped and he stared at her, at a loss for words. He shook his head sharply and returned her glare.

“Are you serious?” he scoffed. “You’re still in training! And you’ve not even been assigned this task!”

“So what! I’m close to graduatin’!” said Kera. “Jex said it were a braviary, right? Those things are weak to ice!” She jabbed a claw into her chest. “That’s my forte!”

“Jex also told you none of the weavile made it back!” Enigma snapped. “What makes you think you can take that thing on alone?”

Kera glanced to the side, suddenly seeming uncertain.

“Kera, come back to the barracks.” Enigma placed a paw on her shoulder. “Maybe after a nap you’ll be thinking more clearly?”

Kera jerked away from him and flashed her canines. “I am thinkin’ clearly!” She closed her eyes and her ears drooped. “I have to do this, Enigma. Niana weren’t just some… trainer to me. I never knew my parents, not like you did. She practically raised me! And now… to know that braviary killed her? I have to go and fight it. I have to win!”

Enigma’s arms hung limp at his sides. The memory of his parents demise was still fresh in his mind, but he’d been too young to think about revenge at the time. If he’d been older, would he have wanted to get back at his parents’ murderer like Kera did?

“Okay.” His voice surprised even himself, reflected in Kera’s wide ruby eyes. “But you won’t be alone. I’m coming too.”

“Wha’?” Kera’s ears pricked up. “Ya’ll help me?”

“So will I.”

The pair looked back at Harlequin. Enigma hadn’t even heard the zorua creep up on them.

“Three is better than two, right?” Harlequin raised their head. “We’d stand a better chance.”

Kera wiped a paw across her eyes and laughed. “All right then. But ya both better pull ya weight, ‘cos I ain’t carryin’ ya.”

A smirk spread across Enigma’s muzzle and he shook his head at the weavile. He nodded towards the borders, and his two friends followed his eyes to the distant trees.

“One problem,” he said. “How do we get out without being mobbed by murkrow?”

“Easy,” said Kera. “We tell ‘em we’ve been sent out to deal with the mercenary.”

“And they’ll believe us?”

“They should do. I mean, he’s proved a big problem.”

“Failing that,” said Harlequin, “I could talk to them. Zorua can be very deceiving.”

The grin Harequin flashed them reeked of overconfidence, but it was enough to encourage Enigma and Kera. The trio made for the far wall, whispering their plan amongst themselves. Enigma had originally decided to turn invisible and sneak out that way, but that wouldn’t have helped his two companions. Instead, as they drew closer to the stone wall, they slipped into the cover of an overgrown bramble. No one had paid them much attention so far. Most of the murkrow were asleep, or tending their wounds from their failed battle. Those that were awake had gone out on patrol or were guarding the barrier between the Shadow Lands and the Border Woods.

“Okay,” Harlequin whispered. “I’ll use my illusion now. Try to look nonchalant.”

The zorua’s form changed before Enigma’s eyes, and Kera stifled a gasp of surprise. If he hadn’t seen it for himself, Enigma would have thought Jex had just strolled into the bramble without notice. Harlequin even had his trademark scowl down to a fine art.

“Convincing enough?” Hearing the illusion speak with Jex’s voice was just as unnerving.

Harlequin chuckled at the alarmed expressions on their companions’ faces and shook their head.

“I guess neither of you have seen illusion in action before?” It was Harlequin’s voice that left the scrafty’s mouth this time. “I’ve not seen many of my kind in the Shadow Lands myself.”

“There aren’t many left,” said Kera. “The Thieves Guild is their usual haunt. They don’t usually go for the assassin trade.”

The scrafty illusion grinned and peered back out of the brambles. “This is our chance. If we fail… well.”

Enigma snorted. He didn’t even want to consider that outcome. His heart was racing at a mile a minute. This was it. They were actually going to try and leave the Shadow Lands. Perhaps… perhaps he wouldn’t come back. He could just leave after this mission, and Kera would go with him. His mind was spinning as they approached the stone wall that served as the Shadow Lands’ main defence. It wasn’t too tall, but tall enough to slow down opposing forces. A large hole gaped near its base, and loose stones were piled at either side of it which forced the larger pokemon who came and left into single file. Murkrow stood vigilant along the top of the wall, and filled the branches of the surrounding trees, their wicked beady eyes staring out across the steep slope that lead down into the Border Woods.

One of them spotted the trio and let out a sharp caw. Enigma almost froze, his head snapping round towards the small bird. More caws sounded in reply from behind it, and several black beaked heads turned towards the trainee assassins.

A large honchkrow appeared among them and he hopped from the branches to land in an ungainly feathered heap on the stone wall. Enigma hadn’t seen Yurlik in quite some time, and despite his memories of the massive bird the honchkrow still seemed larger than Enigma remembered.

Yurlik’s attention fixed on Harlequin and he eyed the scrafty illusion with distaste. “What are you doing wandering across the Shadow Lands at this hour?”

“What does it look like?” Harlequin’s Jex impersonation was spot on. They even folded their arms and scowled up at the honchkrow without even the slightest hint of fear. “I’m takin’ these two out into the borders to deal with that mercenary, ain’t I?”

“On who’s orders?” Yurlik asked.

“Lord Hydreigon’s,” said Harlequin. “He asked us to deal with the merc an’ my last troop failed. So I’m pickin’ up where they left off.”

Yurlik raised his head and stared down his beak at Enigma and Kera. “With only two? And trainees no less?”

“These two are advanced,” said Harlequin. “If they can deal with this merc then I might graduate ‘em early! Besides… who’ll see a banette comin’? Might spell the end o’ that rebel group.”

Yurlik’s eyes glittered and a rattling laugh left his throat. “Indeed. Well… I guess I’ll find out what the outcome is in due time. Whether or not you come back.” He stood back and looked up at his flock, nudging his head towards the Border Woods.

Three murkrow rose into the air and drifted out across the canopy. Enigma watched them go, his heart sinking. Was Yurlik seriously sending his flying spies out to watch over them? He clenched his fist as he followed his friends out through the wall. The make-shift stone corridor forced them close together but before long they were out in the open, standing amid a tangle of ancient roots. Large, gnarled trees pressed up against each other, their branches waving overhead like claws.

Enigma and his friends crept carefully down the steep slope, clambering over roots and fallen branches, and forcing their way through bramble barriers. Enigma had never seen this side of the wall before. It had been a well chosen spot to build the barrier wall, and each obstacle seemed to have been deliberately placed. He dreaded to think what the climb back up would be like. Although he never planned to find out.

Harlequin’s Jex illusion kept glancing up at the branches as the murkrow Yurlik had sent hopped through the leaves. Did Yurlik suspect something? Was that why he’d sent his spies? Harlequin clearly wanted to drop their illusion, and Enigma feared it would break before they reached the rebels’ base.

Suddenly, one of the murkrow dropped to perch on a protruding root. He stretched out a wing, cutting Kera off. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Harlequin made a grunt and turned to address the murkrow. “Really? Have they moved?”

The murkrow nodded and tucked in his wing. “Didn’t Lord Hydreigon tell you?”

Was this a trick question? Enigma frowned and flexed his claws at his sides. The other murkrow moved along the branches above their flock-mate, keeping a watchful eye on the trio of assassins.

“No,” said Harlequin, maintaining Jex’s cool attitude. “Or maybe I wasn’t listenin’? I weren’t expectin’ us to lose that badly.”

The murkrow fluffed out his feathers at this and an amused glint lit up his eyes. “Well, they’ve moved closer to the old swamp. So your group did a number on ‘em if they don’t feel safe in their little camp. Want us to guide you?”

The Jex illusion nodded and motioned for the murkrow to take the lead.

The murkrow left his perch and cawed at his flock-mates. They took off over the canopy, keeping low so the assassins could see them. Harlequin trotted after them, and Enigma and Kera kept their sights on the illusion’s yellow tail. The murkrow left their sights more than once as the canopy grew in so thick it blocked out the sky. But Harlequin didn’t falter. They vaulted over protruding roots and slipped through nettle patches, only looking back to check their companions were following. It was as if the zorua was familiar with this part of the Border Woods.

Suddenly, Harlequin stopped, and told Kera and Enigma to hush. The group peered out through a thick bed of bullrushes. A large swamp greeted them, and in its centre stood the remains of an ancient hollowed oak. Its branches were bare unlike the rest of the woods, and the heavier ones trailed their spindly twigs in the slimy stagnant water. Even in the encroaching sunset the water was black, the crimson light of the sky failing to reflect on its murky surface.

The murkrow perched in the trees on the opposite side of the swamp and the one Enigma guessed was the superior jerked his head towards the trees behind him. Enigma could make out voices and his heart galloped. He desperately wanted to run. He didn’t want to get into a fight with innocent pokemon.

Kera bounced on her feet beside him and an icy wind radiated off her fur. Her ears were trained on the voices and she took in a deep breath. In a flash she was gone, racing across the swamp and leaving a solid path of ice in her wake. Harlequin was next. The zorua motioned for Enigma to follow and trotted across the ice. Enigma warped his way across, landing just ahead of the Jex illusion. Harlequin gasped and slipped past him, landing in a wad of thick ferns. Their black bushy tail was the last thing Enigma saw as the zorua bit back a curse. Enigma wanted to apologise for startling Harlequin, but he didn’t want to draw the murkrow’s attention to their deception. Instead he sought out Kera through the maze of tree trunks.

The weavile crept close to the ground, her senses trained on something Enigma couldn’t see. As he joined her side, he noticed a gap in the trees that lead out into a large clearing. A handful of pokemon occupied it, all dark- and dragon-types. A drapion stood over two bundles of fur Enigma couldn’t make out. They were so covered in sharp-smelling herbs it masked both their scent and appearance. What really caught Enigma’s eye was a sableye skittering around the clearing, gathering up medicinal herbs and berries for the drapion. The small ghost-type didn’t look very old, and he seemed out of place among his companions. A vibrava accompanied him, its voice a buzzing drone.

Enigma cast another glance over the group. Was this what was left of the rebels the assassins were meant to deal with? These pokemon outcast from society, just trying to survive?

A loud voice resonated from the branches above them. “Darkness spotted! Get out of here, now!”

Enigma and his friends looked up at the canopy as a large braviary swooped down towards them. The trio scattered as his talons raked the spot where Enigma had been standing. The murkrow bolted into the air in a flurry of feathers, their caws fading out as they sought shelter elsewhere. Enigma didn’t care. Without them it would be easier to flee.

The banette leapt and rolled into the bracken, grunting as his chest twanged. He twisted and fired off a shadow ball, skimming the braviary’s wing. The large bird was unfazed, turning towards him for another strike. Enigma cursed his foolishness and rolled aside as the large eagle’s talons dug into the soil beside him.

The outlaws’ screams filled the clearing as they fled. The wounded pokemon had been hurried onto the drapion’s back and its barbed tail vanished through the trees. Enigma let out a sigh of relief. At least they wouldn’t be getting hurt in this ridiculous battle.

Kera leapt up behind the braviary, spinning in the air in a tornado of ice. Sharp shards cut across the braviary’s feathers and he shrieked, beating back with his wings. He shot like a dart into the sky, turning to lash out at the weavile.

Enigma raised his claws, creating a fiery wisp which he sent up like a flare. It struck the braviary across the wings as he swooped at them. The corners of his beak tensed and the lashes from his wings did little more than bowl both Enigma and Kera over.

Kera lashed out with her claws, raking deep welts across the braviary’s chest. He leapt back with a screech and swiped back with his claws. He cleaved through Kera’s feathered ear, severing it clean away. Kera yowled and clasped her paw to her head. She pushed herself to her feet and lobbed an ice shard at the braviary. It struck the bird across the face while he was rising back into the air.

His wings left fiery trails as Enigma’s will-o-wisp kept hold, and the pain was clear to see on the massive bird’s face. The eagle’s eyes were calculating as he took in his prey. Across the clearing, Enigma spotted Harlequin plodding through the undergrowth with a jagged branch clasped in their jaws. What was the zorua doing? Were they seriously not going to fight?

Enigma’s questions were short-lived as the braviary swooped again. His talons glowed black as he aimed a night slash at the banette. Enigma vanished into thin air, appearing again several feet away. The braviary struck the ground in a cloud of dust, only to be pelted by ice from Kera. Harlequin shot from the foliage like a hairy bullet and plunged the sharp stick into the braviary’s flank. The eagle threw its head back with a screech and beat the zorua across the head with his massive wing. Harlequin was sent rolling tail over head back into the bracken.

The braviary rose into the air once more, tailed by a series of ice shards from Kera. The weavile’s eyes were blazing as she watched the mercenary rise high above them. He swooped around the clearing once, then again, each time building up speed. Enigma faltered as he watched him, trying to hone an attack but what could he do? His attacks did nothing to this bird, and all of Kera’s were falling short as the braviary built up speed.

Kera shot out into the middle of the clearing, her claws glinting in the sun. Her eyes remained fixed on the braviary, who locked his onto hers. His wings begun to glow, radiating a sinister red energy across the twilight sky. Enigma’s heart flipped into his chest. No, it wasn’t some unknown energy. It was fire!

With a deadly screech the braviary turned, bolting down towards Kera. Heat radiated off his body, expanding out across the clearing and shrivelling the dry grass.

“Kera!” Enigma roared.

He kicked off from the ground to warp beside her, snatching her in his arms. He flipped back to the side of the clearing, reappearing above the bracken and rolling to safety as the braviary landed with a crash. Flames exploded from his body torching the surrounding bracken and blazing across the canopy. The heat seared through Enigma’s fur and he grit his teeth in a hiss.

As he sat back he unfolded his arms and stared down at his empty paws. His stomach churned as he looked back out at the clearing. The braviary had rose into the air once more, and amid the crackling flames Enigma could make out the black motionless shape of a weavile.

“Kera!” He leapt through the flames and landed beside her, trailing his eyes over her small body. Her black fur had been torched away, revealing raw red skin and blackened dirt. “No…”

He nudged her, trying to rouse her. She felt so hot. He scooped her into his arms, and the roar that left his throat didn’t feel like his own. It echoed through the canopy, filling the empty air over the crackle of flames.

Wind beat at his body, growing stronger in violent surges.

“Enigma!”

Harlequin’s voice shattered through the silence, but Enigma didn’t budge. He clutched Kera to his chest, staring into the flames as they flickered back and forth, taunting him. Mocking him. Why had he done that? Why didn’t he think? She wasn’t a ghost-type. He couldn’t carry her like one.

Black fur streaked past his vision and the wind whipped away from him. The braviary struck the ground with a strangled screech that was cut short. Silence spread through the clearing, broken by the crackle of burning grass and bracken.

Harlequin’s soft paws plodded towards him and the zorua cautiously nosed at Kera’s scalded form. “Is she…?”

Enigma finally looked at the zorua. Harlequin’s eyes widened and they took a step back, their mouth forming silent words. Enigma turned his head towards the braviary. Shadows and firelight danced erratically over his prone body. He lay on his back at an awkward angle with one of his wings crumpled beneath his own weight. The mangled feathers on his head indicated the impact he’d taken with whatever attack Harlequin had finally unleashed upon him. His eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell slowly. Stunned.

Enigma looked back down at Kera and tears stung his eyes. All that, and they hadn’t even killed the mercenary. Kera’s revenge had gone unanswered, and she’d died for it. All those weavile killed by a braviary. She’d had her warning and ignored it. And as for Enigma… he was useless. He couldn’t even touch that braviary. He couldn’t even save her. His foolish attempt had resulted in her demise.

He looked back up at the braviaray lying prone. A moan escaped his beak and his eyes fluttered open for a moment before closing again. The pain radiating through Enigma’s chest was unbearable. Anger flared inside him and he screwed his eyes shut, letting out a strangled groan. He wanted to make that braviary pay. He wanted to make him feel the same pain he felt.

He lowered Kera to the floor and pushed himself up, turning towards the fallen eagle.

“Enigma?” Harlequin’s voice seemed distant, detached from reality.

Enigma strolled over to the braviary and cast his eyes over his chest, looking for anything. Some weakness he could exploit. But he could do nothing. Nothing…

‘Ghosts don’t phase through other pokemon. There's a reason it's forbidden!’

Enigma stared down at his own claws, then he looked back at the bravairy. No. Perhaps his attacks couldn’t do anything to him. But he could certainly do something. He watched his paw slowly turn translucent, then lowered them to the fallen bird’s chest. His ghostly claws vanished beyond the braviary’s creamy white feathers and locked around his heart. The braviary’s eyes flew open and a loud screech exploded from his beak. His pupils turned to pinpricks and his voice became a wet gurgle. His one good wing flailed, buffeting Enigma. But he didn’t let go. Enigma clenched his teeth, his crimson eyes blazing with fury. Finally, the bird’s screaming cut off and his wing fell still.

Enigma withdrew his claws and shook them once, splattering red blood over the bird’s pale feathers. The sight of it snapped him back to reality. His breath caught in his throat and a muffled ‘no’ slipped out from between his lips. His eyes widened as he glanced over the dead braviary, and he plunged his paw into his white feathers in pursuit of a heartbeat. Blood streaked over the once proud feathers and Enigma retracted his paw to examine his claws. They felt dirty. Sticky. Matted with rapidly drying blood in the blazing heat of the clearing. What had he done? Enigma sank to his knees. All he could see was blood. It was as if he was looking at the paws of a completely different pokemon. The clearing blurred around him as his mind filled with the screaming, agonised face of the flying mercenary.

“Enigma?”

The banette snapped his head around at Harlequin’s small voice. The zorua crept slowly and silently towards him, their sapphire eyes flashing between Enigma’s blood-soaked claws and the defeated braviary. Was that fear? Enigma’s heart couldn’t shatter any further, but a pained groan escaped his throat and he beat his paw onto his knee in anguish. He raised his head to look back over his shoulder at Kera’s body, lying where he’d laid it. The flames were creeping in closer, then fizzling out as they encountered the torched earth.

“We should get her out of this clearing,” said Harlequin. “Bury her, and report back.”

Report back…

Enigma bit his lip so hard he tasted blood. The metallic tang was unwelcome. He spat it into the dirt and pushed himself to his feet, staggering as his head spun. What had he done?

He scooped up Kera’s small body. It felt vulnerable and weak in his arms. Smaller than he’d ever noticed. He carried her away from the clearing with Harlequin in tow. Harsh caws spread across the canopy, failing to register in Enigma’s mind. He didn’t know how long he walked for. The soft gurgle of a river broke him from his thoughts and he looked up at a lush clearing filled with wildflowers. Red poppies and yellow rattle waved in the breeze, interspersed with willow herb and trefoil. The moonlight glimmered on the frothing surface of the river as it cascaded away from the Shadow Lands over algae-slicked stepping stones. Enigma followed the river’s path, his eyes barely seeing it. His mind was so wrapped in that battle. What had gone wrong… how he could have solved it… it was all a fantasy. Nothing he could have done would have changed that outcome. He could never have got both himself and Kera out of the way of that blazing attack. Perhaps if he’d stayed there he’d be with her now?

Enigma lowered Kera into the wildflowers. They almost hid her completely. Enigma didn’t see the damage to her fur. He didn’t want to see it. He wanted to remember her as she was. He trailed a paw over her ear, tracing where the feathers used to be. Then he screwed his eyes shut and his body shook with strangled sobs.

He moved from her side and began to claw at the earth. The crust was dry and tough but his claws tore through it, discarding the soil beside him. Harlequin crouched in front of him digging with their forepaws. Between them the grave didn’t take long. Enigma gently placed Kera inside it and stood back, gazing at her for a moment longer. Then he pushed the loose earth on top of her. When Harlequin made to help he nudged the zorua aside, and Harlequin sat a short distance away, watching quietly. Once Enigma was done, he stared at the small mound of soil lying exposed amid the wildflowers. He reached for a clump that had been disturbed and set them in place. A pair of red poppies.

“I think you chose a good spot.” Harlequin joined his side and let out a shuddering sigh. “Before long, the flowers will move in and no one will even know she’s here.”

Enigma nodded stiffly.

“But you will.” Harlequin looked up at him. “That’s what’s important. If I knew where Harbinger was, then I…” Harlequin trailed off.

A strange jolt went through Enigma at that name. An absol… a pair of crimson eyes burned into his mind almost as if they’d been accusing him. They faded away into two glowing stars and Enigma found himself gazing at the night sky. He took in a trembling breath as he tried to get past the fear that had welled up inside him. An absol’s curse… had she actually cursed him? Was all this her fault?

No. He shook it off, trying to bring himself back to the present. He wasn’t going to place blame. This was no one’s fault but his own. Something moved in the canopy across the river and he thought he could make out the murkrow trio perched amid the branches, but their oily feathers blended with the dark swaying leaves. As he followed the curve of the river with his eyes he thought again about leaving. Leaving and never coming back. But somehow that dream felt bitter without Kera at his side. And with the prying eyes of Yurlik’s flock it would be impossible. He crouched beside the river and scrubbed the blood and dirt off his claws, if only to mask his wandering glances towards a freedom he no longer felt he deserved.

The braviary’s blood marred the clear water for a fleeting moment before it was washed downstream, and Enigma stood back to dry his paws in the grass.

The murkrow fluttered onto a low branch above him and their leader looked over Enigma and Harlequin.

“Where’s Jex?” he asked.

Enigma looked away, and Harlequin opened their mouth to respond then closed it just as quickly.

The murkrow nodded his understanding and his beak tensed. “You two should get back. Pride yourself in the fact you won this battle. And if I were you, I’d be hoping desperately that Jex, or even Lord Hydreigon, won’t hold your lies against you.”

Enigma let out a small puff of air. What did it matter anyway? As he followed Harlequin and the murkrow back towards the Shadow Lands he stared at his claws. There was no sign of the mercenary’s blood, but they still felt dirty. And whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was the braviary’s face, and Kera’s mangled body.

...​

Jex was fuming.

The scrafty paced back and forth as Harlequin relayed their mission. All of the trainees had been woken as Jex called them to an important meeting, and each one was transfixed by Harlequin’s words. Enigma couldn’t speak. He stared blankly ahead across the courtyard, listening to the zorua’s rendition of the events. Things were glossed over, but Harlequin didn’t fail to mention it was Enigma who’d dealt the killing blow. This in particular drew the scrafty’s interest. But the loss of yet another promising assassin scoured a deep wound on the Shadow Lands.

After Harlequin had finished Jex was quiet for a painfully long moment. Enigma shifted, desperate to return to his nest. Finally, the scrafty turned towards them and tucked his paws behind his back.

The anger had ebbed, but it was still apparent in his glaring eyes. “You three went against my orders. I told ya’ll ya wouldn’t be able to handle that braviary and look what happened!” He flashed his canines with each following word. “Ya lied! Ya pretended to be me and went off on a mission no one sent ya’ll on!” He then stood back and straightened his spine. “However, ya proved me wrong. Ya actually managed it, and a ghost-type too. The pair of ya have shown surprising skills. Illusion. Being able to inflict wounds on a target ya’d normally struggle against.” Jex looked at both Harlequin and Enigma in turn. “I have no choice but to graduate the both of ya. Well done. Ya now full fledged assassins.”

Harlequin’s eyes glittered as the courtyard broke into applause, but Enigma couldn’t look at any of them. He stared past the scrafty’s shoulder, his words washing over Enigma like wind. Graduated. What did it even matter?

“Now!” Jex turned to the surrounding assassins, bringing them back into silence. “The next part of this meeting ain’t gonna be a nice one for many of ya. After discussin’ with Lord Hydreigon after Niana’s loss, we decided to make some changes. Losin’ Kera only adds to the severity of this decision. Too many pokemon here were close wi’ my sis, me included. Her loss caused some pain, and even rash decisions. I got angry. I shouldn’t have taken it out on ya.” He took a step back and brushed a paw over his mohawk. It was clear whatever decision he was going to make caused him a great deal of distress. “So it’s been decided that, much like the soldiers and the murkrow flock, all assassins from here on out are to be males only. So any females here will be immediately retired.”

“What?!” Vixen stood up quickly and flicked her bushy tail over the dusty floor. “Are you serious?!”

“You’re forcing us to leave?!” the purrloin rookie asked.

“It ain’t just my decision!” Jex countered. “This has been decreed by Lord Hydreigon himself! Ya’ll know where to go.”

“Yeah,” Vixen sneered. “The breeding pens.”

A few smirks spread across the faces of the older dragon-types, and Tannen flashed a toothy grin at a seething linoone. She returned it with a glare and reared up to her full height, flexing her claws.

A look of horror washed over Harlequin’s face as their head swivelled between the bickering females.

“But the numbers are so low already!” the linoone wailed. “Seriously, think this over!”

“We have,” said Jex. “Cutting out a risk matters more.”

Vixen raised her head. “But-”

“Enough!” Jex barked. “This decision is final! I want every female out by sunrise. Meetin’ over.”

He marched from the circle of assassins, his expression unreadable. Enigma watched him go, then let out a small sigh. He broke away from the circle and returned to his nest in silence.

The banette flopped onto his back and let his paw fall over his eyes, blocking out the moonlight. Where had things gone so horribly wrong? One moment, he was wanting to be a hero. Xerneas’ defeat of Yveltal had resonated a deep hope in his chest that one day Hydreigon would be defeated. Enigma had longed to be on the winning side of that battle. But now his paws were bloodstained. Forever dirtied by an action driven by hate and revenge.

Revenge.

He clenched his teeth and tears leaked from his eyes to streak over his cheeks. Kera was gone. Her longing for revenge had lead them into that battle, and Enigma had been nothing short of useless. She was gone. He could have stopped her. He could have done much more to encourage her to leave it, to come with him, to escape. But instead he’d followed her into battle and let her go to her death. He couldn’t save her. His ghost-type abilities had been useless. He couldn’t carry her with him to safety. All he’d been able to do was save his own hide. So instead he’d used them to claim the life of a mercenary fighting against the forces of the Darkness. Through a veil of anger he’d broken the laws of every ghost-type in Estellis.

No. Enigma was far from a hero. He was nothing short of a monster.

A monster.

His body shook with sobs and he clasped his paws over his face. A long pained and muffled roar resounded behind them. He didn’t care who heard. Nothing would bring Kera back. Nothing would bring the braviary back. Nothing could undo what he’d done. Even from the moment he’d entered the Shadow Lands pokemon had died because of him. His parents gave their lives to save him, and for what?

His breathing turned frantic and he sucked in deep breaths to try and still them. His head spun with the faces of those he’d loved. One after the other they’d gone. Now he was alone.

Another moan left his throat and he let one of his paws flop onto the hay. The other remained across his face, a useless barrier against the flood of tears.

A soft paw nudged his shoulder and he cracked one eye open. He hadn’t even heard his door open. He met a soft sapphire gaze, but it was fleeting. Harlequin hopped onto his nest and stood astride him, then their light shaggy body flopped on top of him like a blanket. The musty smell from their fur washed over him, but the warmth from their body somehow calmed his frantic sobs.

Why? He’d seen that look of uncertainty in the zorua’s eyes. After all they’d seen, Harlequin still wanted to comfort him?

“I’m so sorry.” Harlequin’s voice was a whisper in his ear.

Enigma looped his arms around the zorua’s neck and buried his face in their warm fur. He felt Harlequin tense for a moment and their breath froze. But then they relaxed, resting their head on his shoulder. Suddenly Enigma didn’t feel so alone anymore. He wound his claws into their fur, unable to find the words to thank them. Enigma’s tears still flowed until the darkness of sleep washed over him.

He might not be as alone as he’d feared. But he was certainly no hero.
 
Chapter 42

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
42 - A Murder of Murkrow​

Enigma watched Faith’s small frame vanish beyond the gates of Stonehaven. She closed it behind her, but he didn’t hear the lock. He’d manged to bust it when he’d picked it earlier. His current mind-set was making him clumsy.

He bit his lip and turned his gaze to the square, but he was barely seeing it. His mind was swirling. Why had he told her so much? What was it about that mawile that had made him spill his darkest thoughts like that? A heavy dark cloud had fallen over him, thicker and more oppressive than usual. Memories cascaded through his mind like a filthy waterfall.

The heartless expression on Hydreigon’s face as he murdered Enigma’s parents.

The anger that swelled inside him as he clutched his mate’s warm, lifeless body.

The screech of terror of the first pokemon who’s life he’d taken.

The first time he’d felt a victim’s frantic pulse against his paw.

Hot blood and fur surrounding him as he found himself trapped in the body of that lycanroc.

The final memory made him stumble away from the tree as he stared at the imaginary image unfolding before him. Lou’s dead body covered in blood yet sporting no visible wounds. Killing had become so easy. He didn’t even feel anything anymore. So why did that haunt him so much? Was it because it had been an accident?

It was as if something had shredded him in two and he’d been watching that mis-step outside his own body, shouting accusations at himself. Yet he’d so casually killed Rio and felt nothing.

Just like a monster…

With a yell, he spun around and rammed his fist into the trunk of the tree. Rough bark skinned his knuckles but it didn’t stop him launching another strike, then another. Before long he stood panting, letting his sore paws hang at his sides. Blood and fur streaked the trunk of the tree, the dull throb in his paws bringing him back to reality.

That Faith… he’d felt nothing when he’d told her to kill him. And she’d declined. Any other pokemon would have just done it. Get rid of the monster that stalked their streets, taking lives as if they were nothing. She should have just done it. Next time he might not offer such an easy win.

He raised a paw to his chest and brushed his claws over his sore knuckles. The sting made him hiss and he clutched it to his scarf. Well at least he still felt something.

He slumped sideways against the tree and turned to look back at the village square. Pokemon were still milling about, but he couldn’t see Harlequin anymore. Was what Faith said really true? Had Harlequin changed sides, fighting alongside the Outcasts? And why would the Outcasts even accept such a pokemon? Harlequin had taken their own fair share of lives. Perhaps not as many as Enigma. Harlequin stuck to their job, taking down their targets. Enigma took out anyone in his way.

‘You want to change. I can hear it in your voice.’

“Get out of my head, Faith,” Enigma hissed. He rolled his head against the tree.

‘You regret everything you’ve done. And you can change. It’s possible.’

Was it?

Enigma opened his eyes, finding himself still staring down at the square.

Was it really possible? If so, it wouldn’t be easy. Old habits were hard to break.

And who would even want him?

He closed his eyes again and cradled his sore paws. Faith had told him Xerneas would forgive him. That name… he couldn’t remember much about what he’d read back as a hatchling. He barely even remembered what he’d done with that book. After what had happened to his mate he’d never touched it again.

He pushed himself back from the tree, giving one last glance at the square. Blue flashes showed Harlequin’s location under the table. Hiding. Had the zorua really switched sides? Or were they still a prisoner to that meowstic and her friends? Part of him wanted to find out. The other… if Harlequin really had changed, if they really were leading a better life, then he had no place in it.

He turned from the village to climb further up the mountain, each step pushing him further and further into a smog of loneliness. It smothered him until he could barely breathe, filling his chest until he begun to sink to his knees, gasping. Harsh, screeching caws cut through his mind and Enigma snapped back to reality. He took a few deep breaths as he focused on the noise, confusion replacing that bitter fog.

Murkrow?

The cries were relentless. Enigma stiffened and looked to the sky, died pink as the sun stretched its dozy rays over the clouds. As he turned his head to follow the war cries screaming from behind him his heart lurched. A huge black cloud of flapping wings spread across the dawn sky. Murkrow. A lot of them. And they had their sights set on Stonehaven.

...​

Cleo’s paws struggled to keep up with the jaunty music. Mischief swung her around under his arm and pulled her back into himself, twirling as far into the dancing pokemon as they could. Cleo caught a glimpse of her friends around the table, meeting Harlequin’s blue eyes. The zorua still hadn’t left their hiding place, observing Cleo and Mischief with a look of bewilderment. It was only a fleeting glimpse as Mischief swung her away and the view became blocked by a bewear and her ursaring companion.

The music sped up and Mischief took both Cleo’s paws and skipped her back and forth with what she felt was significantly more grace than she possessed. He raised one paw and swung her away from him then back under it, catching her against his chest. He gazed at her for a moment as he held her there, turning her gently back towards the table. The warmth of his body melted through her fur, and she tore her eyes away from his to stare over his shoulder into the crowd.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile like this,” he said.

Cleo tried to hide her flushing face. “Hey, I can be happy.”

“I know, but you seem more relaxed.” He shrugged and twirled her again, keeping pace with the tempo. “Just something I noticed.”

Relaxed? She glanced away from him, clenching her paw into his furry shoulder. Maybe she had been more relaxed. It was nice to spend time with her friends, not worrying about an attack from the Darkness. The last time she’d felt that way, they’d been in the Fairy Garden. But this wasn’t the Fairy Garden. Should she really be letting her guard down?

The thought didn’t have much time to stick as the song came to an end and Mischief brought their dance to a close with an elaborate flourish. Cleo found herself tossed to the end of his arm, and he held her like that for a moment before tugging her back towards him. The whimsicott beamed at her, but he was out of breath, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly as he turned his eyes back towards the table.

“I think I could use a rest,” he said. “Shall we get something to eat?”

Cleo caught her own breath and nodded. “That sounds like a great idea.”

As they slipped through the crowd to rejoin their friends, Cleo spotted Faith chatting to Harlequin. She’d lost sight of the mawile earlier, but Faith gave her a beaming smile as Cleo joined them. Harlequin had emerged from their hiding spot, and their nose crinkled with distaste at Cleo and Mischief. Spark was scampering back and forth on the tabletop with Scout as he swung a berry stem like a sword.

“Welcome back!” the dedenne called over her shoulder before diving behind a glass of oran juice.

“Oh Cleo!” Faith clapped her paws and chuckled. “That was too adorable!”

Cleo paused with her paw stretched towards a plate while Mischief poured her a drink. “What was?”

“You two!” Faith flashed Mischief a grin as he passed her. “You looked like you were having fun.”

“Oh we were!” Mischief exclaimed as he helped himself to the remaining cheri muffins.

“So when’s the wedding?” Spark asked, wincing as Scout caught her ear with his makeshift sword.

“Wedding?” Cleo’s muzzle twisted in a frown. “It was just a dance!”

Faith covered her mouth and chuckled, and Harlequin gave a derisive snort.

“I’ll never understand this nonsense,” the zorua mumbled.

“Really?” Faith inclined her head on one side. “Have you never been in love?”

Cleo almost choked on her drink and Mischief patted her back a few times.

“Nope,” said Harlequin, oblivious to Cleo as they reached for a strip of dried fish. “Don’t want to be either.”

Faith made a thoughtful noise but didn’t press the topic.

Scout dashed across the table, drawing all their eyes. Electricity streamed after him, flashing across the plates and soaring over Harlequin’s head. It struck Faith in the muzzle and she leapt back with a yelp, raising a paw to her face. Scout screeched to a halt and rounded on Harlequin. The zorua’s sapphire eyes widened as the hatchling jabbed at their nose with the berry stem.

“Hey!” Scout barked. “What do you think you’re doing? You should be protecting that pretty mawile!” The sentret looked up at Faith and puffed out his chest. “Don’t worry, Ma’am, your knight is here!”

Another flurry of static lit up the table and struck the little sentret, making his fur fluff out.

Spark skidded to a halt beside him and rubbed behind one ear. “Oops!”

Scout dropped the berry stem and looked down at himself, his eyes wide with amazement.

Harlequin snorted laughter and had to dig their claws into the tablecloth to stop themselves from falling over. “You look like a colbur berry!”

The rest of the pokemon burst out laughing, and Cleo had to wipe her eyes with a paw. The little sentret did look ridiculous! Scout joined in their laughter, falling flat onto his stomach.

“Oh boy!” said Spark between giggles. “I’m sorry about that, Scout!”

“Goodness, what happened?” Sandpaw trotted over to them and traced her eyes over her son. “Oh, Scout! You do get into some mischief, don’t you?” She smoothed out the static with a gentle paw and chuckled.

“Not in front of my friends!” Scout swatted his mother’s paw away and frowned. “A hero needs dignity!”

Sandpaw raised a claw and opened her mouth to scold him, but her words were cut off as a deep wailing siren blared through the air. The dancing was brought to a stop, and Cleo stiffened as she turned to see what had caused the alarm. The sentries from the streets filed into the square, shouting commands that were drowned out by the siren and frantic voices. Their pleas for order were ignored as pokemon fled from the square.

Then Cleo saw it. A mass of flapping ebony wings descending on the square. Red eyes flashed in the dim light and talons glinted as they stretched out to rake at their targets. Among them, Cleo spotted a scrawny honchkrow. The large bird swooped over the square, shouting commands at her troops before slicing her claws through the canopy of the music stage.

The square descended into chaos as pokemon shoved their way through the crowd in a bid for freedom. Cleo grunted as she was pushed against the table, and she ducked as a murkrow swooped close to her head. Electricity flashed above her and the murkrow fell to the ground to be trampled under frantic feet.

Cleo shouted a cry for order that fell on deaf ears, then turned her attention to the birds. Ordinarily she’d join the masses, trying to control them as she lead them to safety. But she wasn’t useless against murkrow anymore. She uncurled her ears and let out a loud yell, sending a flash of pink towards an oncoming assault. The murkrows’ eyes widened as they were blown back before dropping into the chaos. More swiftly took their place, raking at Cleo before she had the chance to launch a second attack.

A flash of light beside her signalled Faith had taken on her mega form. One of the mawile’s horns swung over Cleo’s head and Faith commanded her to duck as she brought the other one around. Cleo dropped to all-fours, and stunned murkrow flopped to the ground around her.

Cleo’s heart pounded as she tried to keep up with what was going on. Everything happened so quickly yet it seemed to go in slow motion. A flash of electricity lit up the square, and she caught a glimpse of Tinker as he gestured with his paws to guide a mass of frightened, wounded pokemon towards the streets. Murkrow soon filled her vision, static dancing over their oily wings as they fell, stiff, to the ground to be crushed under the feet of a bewear.

Cleo stood back up and joined Faith, launching another disarming voice at the thinning flock around them. The honchkrow swerved overhead, giving a hoarse cry to her flock. The sky was black with flapping wings, and a fraction of them shot down towards the square.

“There’s too many of them!” Cleo gasped.

“Keep fighting!” Faith swung her horns, clipping the wings of the closest bird. It twirled away from her, catching its comrades with its sharp talons.

Cleo uncurled her ears again, and the eyes of the murkrow flashed. They swarmed towards her, beating at her face with their wings, turning her cry into a yelp. Something struck her in the back of the head and pain stunned her ears, causing her to lurch forwards. Spots danced across her vision and she raised her paws in a feeble attempt to stop the flock’s raking claws and tearing beaks as they slashed at her arms and ears. Black, flapping wings overwhelmed her and she screamed, lowering herself to the ground. Electricity coursed through her body, stiffening her muscles, and an alarmed caw echoed through the flock. The murkrow around her dropped like lead as they took the full force of the attack, static dancing over their spasming wings.

Spark landed on Cleo’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Cleo’s voice came out husky and she rubbed at her stiff limbs. “Thanks for the help.”

Spark left her shoulder to rush into the crowd, her attacks lighting up the square, causing the shadows to strobe in a disorienting fashion.

Cleo pushed herself to her feet. Her muscles jerked uncomfortably as the electricity left her body, and she rubbed idly at her raw shoulder. There was no time for rest. She crept through the square, launching her attacks to take down the murkrow. Those that got too close met her claws as she tore her way through to find a better spot to fight. There were so many. Too many for the Guild to deal with alone. A tug at her wrist told her she’d reached the end of Harlequin’s leash. She looked back to keep a track of her friends, noting Faith as she snatched birds out of the air with her horns. Spark’s electricity signalled her location like a beacon as the tiny dedenne dashed around the square, stunning murkrow with her discharge. Harlequin was still beneath the table watching the events unfold with wide, sapphire eyes. Cleo tutted. Why had she expected any different. She tore her gaze away to keep searching for Mischief, but there was no sign of his sparkling pink lights. Where was he?

Worry gripped Cleo and she turned to scour the crowd for him, searching through the mass of scrabbling bodies and flapping wings. She met his orange eyes peering out from beneath the table several feet away from Harlequin. The whimsicott’s entire body trembled as he cowered behind the edge of the tablecloth. He was hiding?! They needed him! Cleo bit her lip and tore her eyes away, feeling rage boil up inside her. She turned back towards him, opening her mouth to yell at him to help. But it was cut off as an explosion of sparks filled the air. The honchkrow dropped like a cannonball towards the table, a tiny orange body in her beak. The massive corvid somersaulted, tossing Spark’s tiny body to the ground.

“Spark!” Cleo screamed.

She dashed towards her, but two soldiers barred her way as they were pushed back by the murkrow flock. Cleo twisted towards the vicious birds and yelled at the top of her lungs. Pink light blasted back the murkrow, stunning those closest. She flashed a back-handed scratch as the birds tried to get closer to her, swatting one of them out of the air with a startled caw. She glanced back towards the table. Scout stood over Spark’s fallen body, waving his paws at three murkrow as they lashed out at him with wings and claws.

Cleo’s heart lurched. What was he doing? Where was Sandpaw?

The tiny sentret shouted something, but Cleo couldn’t hear it over the din of beating wings and war cries. One of the murkrow clipped Scout’s ears with its claws and he ducked, raising his arms to defend himself. The bird went in for a second attack, but it was knocked backwards as a streak of black and blue tackled it from the air.

Harlequin stood over the sentret, baring their canines at the murkrow. Their jaws snapped at those unfortunate enough to get too close, and the zorua pressed themselves to the ground, sheltering Scout and Spark beneath their belly.

The two remaining murkrow rose back into the air, their eyes flashing with malice. They stretched their talons with the intention to maim and swooped towards Harlequin. A shadow ball struck one of them in the stomach, causing a startled caw from its companion. The remaining bird watched its friend flop to the ground before Harlequin, but it soon joined it as another shadow ball exploded off its beak.

Cleo raised her head to see where the attacks had come from, but more birds broke away from the swarm above them and replaced the fallen in the square. She staggered back from beating wings and fired a blind disarming voice into the flock. Her back met warm fur and she jerked her head back to catch a glance from Meredith. The delphox aimed a flaming branch towards the murkrow, sending out a stream of fire. Birds dropped around him, filling the air with the stench of burning feathers and flesh.

“We must keep pushing them back,” he told her. “Don’t lose heart, Cleo, we have the upper paw.”

“Do we?” Cleo gasped, turning her attention back to the battle.

“Yes.”

Cleo found it hard to believe. Until she realised the murkrow hadn’t been mobbing her as she’d searched for her friend. A few feet away, the bewear and ursaring were tearing the birds out of the air and lobbing them into the walls. The exploud and his band members blasted the birds with deafening bursts of sound. Mulch sheltered hatchlings behind him as he sprayed acid into the air, while a blissey and stantler stood on either side of him, protecting the children from splashes with light screen.

Cleo couldn’t get over how many pokemon were still standing in the square, fighting. The murkrow flock was a lot smaller. The cobbles were littered with black, feathery bodies which were crushed underfoot as Meredith’s allies pushed back. Cleo found her second wind, and joined the delphox with her disarming voice.

The honchkrow swerved overhead, her red eyes scanning over the battle. She jerked her head left and right, a calculating look in her eyes. Then she let out a sharp commanding caw.

The flock broke away from their battle, rising into the air. Cleo set off another disarming voice, clipping the retreating murkrow and knocking one of them from the air. She wasn’t the only one to get in another attack. Several of the murkrow broke into a panic, rising higher than their leader. The honchkrow didn’t seem to mind. She gave one last look at the square below, no fear in her eyes. It was almost a look of success that made Cleo’s blood run cold.

With another caw, the honchkrow lead her flock away from Stonehaven into the mountains.

Meredith stood beside Cleo, panting for breath. Cleo couldn’t take her eyes off the retreating flock. Her fists were clenched tight at her sides as fury welled up inside her. What had they wanted? Was Hydreigon still looking for them? And why fall back? That honchkrow hadn’t appeared to have been thinking she’d lost.

Cleo barely saw Faith arrive beside her. The mawile crept carefully over the murkrow bodies, frowning sadly at them.

“It was only a matter of time,” said Meredith. “It won’t be long before the rest of the Darkness knows about us now.”

Cleo’s heart skipped a beat and she looked up at the delphox. That was it, wasn’t it? The flock were going to break the news of a village hiding in the valley. The meowstic’s heart broke at the thought and she screwed her eyes shut.

Ahead of her, the blissey had broken away from the children to assist a wigglituff, checking over the fallen Stonehaven pokemon. Faith nodded towards them and placed a paw on Cleo’s shoulder.

“I’m going to help them,” Faith explained. “You check on Spark.”

Spark! Cleo jerked her head towards the table. Harlequin had already stood up and was nosing at the dedenne, their blue eyes frantic. Scout crouched beside Spark, shaking her shoulder with a paw. Cleo jogged over towards her fallen friend, her heart galloping. The tiny dedenne stirred, raising a paw to push Scout away. But Cleo didn’t slow her pace. She let out a sigh of relief and skidded to a halt beside Spark.

“You’re okay,” she gasped.

“Of course I am,” Spark croaked, rubbing at her back. “Pass me a berry, would ya?”

“Scout!” Sandpaw’s cry made them all look up, and she stampeded towards them. She only stopped when she’d scooped up her child. “Scout! Oh my goodness, you’re okay!”

“I’m fine, Mum!” Scout pulled his face back from the furret’s smothering kisses. “Harlequin saved me! He wouldn’t let them hurt me!”

Sandpaw turned to stare at the zorua. Harlequin stood with their head lowered, avoiding the furret’s gaze. Red welts showed beneath their black pelt, and their fur was matted with blood around their ears and neck. Sandpaw’s expression softened and she took a step towards Harlequin.

“You did?” Sandpaw’s voice choked and she dropped to her knees to pull the zorua into a crushing hug. “Thank you so much!”

Harlequin stiffened, the fur along their spine bristling. Their blue eyes widened with surprise, oblivious to Scout struggling against their ruff.

The sentret spat black fur from his mouth and his nose crinkled with disgust. “You taste like dust!”

Sandpaw broke into sobs, burying her face into Harlequin’s neck. The zorua shifted with unease and pushed the furret back with a blue paw.

“It’s fine,” Harlequin muttered. “I wasn’t gonna let them hurt a kid.”

Sandpaw released the zorua and wiped a paw across her eyes. “I can’t thank you enough. He’s all I have left.”

“You protected Spark, too,” said Cleo slowly, drawing a surprised look from the dedenne. “Thank you.”

“Wait, what?” Spark looked between Cleo and the bewildered zorua. “She did?”

Harlequin shuffled their paws and stood up, muttering, “I’m going to look for some berries.”

Cleo felt a heavy paw on her shoulder and she looked up into Meredith’s warm face. “I’m glad your friend is okay. We’re collecting the wounded. If you need any help, please see one of our nurses.”

“Spark needs someone.” Cleo reached down to scoop up her fallen companion. “I’ll take her.”

“Don’t bother.” Spark waved her off and stretched, wincing. “We should help too. There are pokemon way worse off than us. We can get looked at after.”

Cleo looked out at the battlefield. Spark was right, there were pokemon much more in need. Tinker stood barking orders to the Guild as they gathered up the fallen onto stretchers. There was no sign of the wigglituff, but the blissey was aiding the soldiers with her heal pulse on the worse victims.

Harlequin returned to drop a few oran berries beside Spark then plodded around Cleo’s feet and flipped one of the murkrow over with a blue paw. The zorua let out a grunt and muttered, “Hydreigon must be getting desperate.”

Cleo raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth to question Harlequin, but Meredith caught her eye.

“I should get back out there,” he said. “Are you sure you’re happy to assist me? You both look quite beaten up.”

Spark had already tucked into an oran berry and mumbled a reply around a mouth of pulp.

“We’re fine,” said Cleo, pushing herself to her feet. “Just a few scratches. Where can we start?”

“Can I help?” Mischief’s quiet voice made Cleo look up, and her fur bristled.

The whimsicott stood beside Meredith, looking out at the battlefield. He was still trembling, and his face was wet with tears.

“Of course you can,” said Meredith. “Assist the soldiers with their stretchers if you can. Or you can help with clearing up the murkrow?” He gave Mischief a nod and moved out to join Tinker.

Cleo couldn’t take her eyes off Mischief. She clenched her jaw and balled her fists. “Where were you earlier?”

Mischief jerked his head towards her. “I-”

“Hiding!” Cleo spat. “You were hiding! When we needed you!”

“I’m sorry! I told you, I don’t want to-”

“I don’t want to hear it.” Cleo’s voice came out as a growl. “That’s not how the Guild works. We help, not hide, no matter what the cost.” She choked on the final words and glanced down at Spark.

The dedenne was still rubbing her back. Two tiny black seeds dropped at her feet and she looked up at Harlequin.

“Eat them,” the zorua told her. “For the pain.”

Spark’s muzzle creased and she shook her head. “What are they?”

“Poppy seeds.” Harlequin turned their back and continued examining the fallen murkrow.

Mischief gazed down at Spark as she nudged one of the seeds, and he rubbed his arm. “I want to help. Please?”

“Fine,” Cleo spat. “Help the soldiers clean up the bodies. Just stay out of my way.”

She turned her back on the whimsicott and marched across the square towards Tinker and Meredith. Harlequin yelped as they had no choice but to follow the seething meowstic. It was going to be a long night. Cleo just deeply hoped the honchkrow didn’t show up for Round Two.

...​

Enigma moved unseen through the streets, slipping into the dark empty alleyways. The soldiers and sentries had flocked to the square to assist in the battle and collect the injured. Enigma didn’t know what had driven him to help those Outcasts. When he’d seen those murkrow swoop towards Harlequin, he’d just… acted. One shadow ball after another, each one hitting its target. Every murkrow he’d struck had dropped as if it had been struck by lightning. Enigma had only stopped when he’d heard a movement behind him, blending into the shadows so the frantic soldier didn’t see him.

Enigma stared down at his paws, still seeing the murkrow dropping in his mind. Yurlik’s troops weren’t usually that easy to deal with. Was that the pokerus taking effect, or were those murkrow just feeble little weaklings? He hadn’t recognised the honchkrow. A female… Yurlik would never employ them. Were they even with the Darkness?

Enigma shook his head and leapt through the gate like mist. He paused to look back at the square and flexed his claws. So he’d helped them. He’d helped the Outcasts. He gave a single, unfeeling laugh and turned his back on Stonehaven. Perhaps the mawile was right. Perhaps he could use his powers to help others.

Striking unseen from the shadows, slaying the Darkness.

Slaying… He clenched his jaws and muttered under his breath. Was taking lives really all he was good for?

He shook his head again as if trying to dispel a dark cloud, and turned to climb the path through the trees. A cold drop of water bounced off his muzzle and he looked up at the dark sky. Not a star in sight. Another drop struck his face, then his mane. Ignoring it, he pressed on up the slope, leaving Stonehaven behind.
 
Chapter 43

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
43 - Bad News​

Hydreigon’s castle was littered with bodies. Noibat, murkrow and sneasel lay strewn across the floor, forming a path from the dragon’s throne room to the main door. Corpses were scattered down the stairs towards the courtyard where they were trampled by deino. Hydreigon didn’t give them a second thought. He sat back, frowning at the cocoon. A deep, red glow emanated from it, but it caused no shadows. The light pulsed like a heartbeat, thrumming in the air like static.

“It’s grown more intense with each sacrifice,” Hydreigon scoffed. “How much more does it want?!”

“I have no idea, my lord,” said Yurlik. “But I implore you, we cannot afford to sacrifice any more of your troops. Our armies are small enough as it is.”

“Then get more from the breeding pens.”

“We’ve already halved them-”

Hydreigon turned one of his pincers towards the honchkrow, and narrowed his eyes over its head as it mouthed his words. “That was an order, Yurlik!”

The pincer trembled with barely contained rage. Yurlik stammered as he strutted backwards from it. “B-but what about your harem?”

Hydreigon pulled his pincer back and raised his head, dwarfing the quaking bird.

“W-we need the pens,” Yurlik went on. “Once this cocoon has hatched, then we’ll need to increase our forces. Even doubled, with this on our side we’d be a force to be reckoned with! So why not… spare some of the zweilous instead?”

Hydreigon gave a thoughtful growl and looked back at the cocoon. “That… might be an option. If it’s strength this thing wants, then puny little half-baked weeds aren’t going to satisfy it. Yes, my zweilous might do nicely. Go and get three of them.”

Hydreigon watched the honchkrow skitter from his throne room, then turned back to the cocoon. Beyond the light was a shadowy form, curled up tight like a foetus. The dragon raised his head above it as he examined it from all angles.

“What more do you want?” he muttered. “Why won’t you hatch?”

It wasn’t long before Yurlik returned with three zweilous in tow. Immediately the throne-room broke out into chaos as the first zweilous tripped over a sneasel. The dominant head berated its twin, met with a harsh curse. The dominant one locked its jaws around its second head. The zweilous at the back was almost pulled in two as the more timid of its heads took one look at the bodies littering the throne room and tried to drag itself back down the corridor. The only zweilous not arguing with itself looked up from the massacre to fix both Yurlik and Hydreigon with twin frowns.

“What do you want?” She asked, her second head casting a wary look at the cocoon. “Why do you want three of us?”

A low purr rose in Hydreigon’s throat. The zweilous had no idea what his plans were. He had no desire to tell them, they were just females producing deino. Only the females evolved, since they didn’t try to overthrow him. Any males were swiftly dealt with before they became a problem. The females didn’t fight. They weren’t raised to be soldiers. Their obliviousness to his plans would go strongly in Hydreigon’s favour.

“I need all of you to help hatch this.” He waved a pincer at the cocoon.

“Why?” The zweilous frowned, suspicion narrowing her eyes. “None of us laid it. And you never call us out for anything unless you want more eggs.”

“This is an egg.” Hydreigon shrugged. “I can’t hatch it. And it’s too big for just one of you to hatch.”

The zweilous huffed and nodded her submissive head at Yurlik. “And too heavy for him to bring it too us, I guess?”

“It’s too precious to move,” Yurlik explained. “If it were dropped then the poor thing inside might never hatch.”

“And what’s with all the bodies?” The zweilous asked, causing her sisters to look up at Hydreigon. They’d been thinking the same thing. “Were you trying to fashion some kind of blanket?”

“They were trying to hatch it,” Hydreigon explained. “They weren’t strong enough.”

The zweilous’ face creased with confusion and she stuttered.

“I find that very hard to believe,” muttered the zweilous beside her.

The one by the door stopped arguing with herself and stared, quaking, at the cocoon. “It’s glowing.”

“And it’s weakening,” Hydreigon growled. “The longer you leave it uncovered the weaker it gets! Hurry up and sit on it!”

The zweilous didn’t move. They stared at Hydreigon, the bolder of them challenging him.

Hydreigon let out a dangerous growl. “If you don’t, I’ll make sure none of you see moon high.”

The bolder zweilous sighed and nodded to her sisters, ushering them towards the cocoon. The timid one remained by the door, watching as her sisters moved towards the cocoon.

Hydreigon raised a pincer and dragonfire leaked from its jaws. The timid zweilous gulped and skittered towards the cocoon, reaching it first. As her side brushed against it her entire body stiffened. The other two zweilous froze, their eyes fixed on her. But the second didn’t stop in time. She skidded across the tiles and collided with the cocoon. Both zweilous fell limp to the floor.

The bolder one took a step back and snapped her dominant head towards Hydreigon. “What is this thing?! What have you done?!”

Hydreigon barely heard her. The cocoon pulsed faster and faster, its glow radiating off its body and washing over the surrounding pokemon in crimson waves. The shadow inside uncurled and a pair of red eyes flashed from within the crystal surface. The shadow threw its wings out to the side, and the cocoon shattered, raining shards onto the tiled floor like hail. Hydreigon lowered his head and flinched as they bounced off his scales.

The shadow stood, back arched, as it turned its head to take in its surroundings. Its black feathers were oily, shimmering in the low light like the hide of a hatchling fresh from its egg. Its eyes were no longer red, but an icy blue. Perhaps it had been a trick of the cocoon? Its beak opened in surprise, revealing two sharp canines.

“Where am I?” Its voice was hoarse and it licked its beak, then its eyes fell on Hydreigon. “Is this the Shadow Lands?”

“Yes, and this is my castle.” Hydreigon waved at the walls. “I am ruler of the Shadow Lands and soon all of Estellis.”

“Ruler?” The bird sounded like it was tasting the word, trying to work out what it meant.

Hydreigon straightened, then lowered his head in what he hoped the bird would take as respect. “Are you Yveltal?”

The bird was silent for a long moment, tracing his blue eyes over Hydreigon’s body. “Yes.”

Hydreigon’s words came out in a breathy, “Finally.”

“And I am hungry.”

Hydreigon met the bird’s eyes. Something about that look told him Yveltal wouldn’t settle for dried meat from the food stores. He waved a pincer at the remaining zweilous. She looked between the dragon and Yveltal then staggered backwards towards the door.

“Be my guest,” said Hydreigon. “I think you’ll find she’s quite strong.”

Yveltal snapped his head around towards the zweilous.

“No!” She turned and bolted from the room.

Yveltal opened his beak wide. A crimson beam shot from his throat and struck the zweilous, freezing her mid-leap. All colour left her body, turning her scales into grey stone. She landed with a clatter on the floor of the throne room, crushing the soft bodies of sneasel and noibat beneath her.

Yveltal straightened and stretched his wings. Crimson splotches decorated his chest and spread out along his wings like freckles. He gave a contented sigh and tucked his wings back against his sides.

“That was very much needed.” He locked his gaze onto Hydreigon and a smirk spread across his beak. “Now… tell me more about your rule over Estellis. I wish to know what has changed since I last flew in these skies.”

...​

Cleo lay on her back in the cool hay, her eyes fixed on the dark sky. She hadn’t closed the door to the hut. It was only her and Harlequin in there. She’d barely noticed the zorua following her as she’d returned to their makeshift den behind the Guild. Tiredness had taken over Cleo as she helped deliver medicinal berries to the wounded pokemon filling the ward. There weren’t even enough nests to deal with the amount of pokemon suffering near-fatal wounds from the attack. Cleo found herself traipsing back, her mind elsewhere, with no idea what time it was. The moon was hidden behind thick, heavy clouds and the streets were wet with fresh puddles. It was impossible to see them with the whole village in a blackout. No light, not even a single star to guide their way, would hamper the Darkness almost as much as it hampered Cleo and the rest of the Outcasts.

Guards stood on every corner, and she could hear their voices from by the Guild as they expressed their fears of another attack. Cleo could still see the look in the honchkrow’s eye as she lead her flock out of the square. That expression of triumph, not even a hint of fear. It made Cleo wonder if the Outcasts had truly won, or if they’d lost. What if an even bigger attack followed? Did Stonehaven have to throw in the towel and move away from their mountain home?

Cleo closed her eyes and sighed. She felt defeated herself. She hadn’t even had the stamina to keep helping, leaving Faith, Spark and Mischief to assist Meredith and the others as they cleaned up the square. Faith had been the one to encourage Cleo to go and get some rest. Her head was still aching from the strike she’d taken from the murkrow, but it didn’t take much encouragement to accept Faith’s advice. As for Mischief, he’d wanted to stay and help out to make up for ‘being useless’, as he’d put it.

Useless…

Cleo cringed. It was her who’d made him feel like that. She’d been unreasonably cold with him. She knew exactly why he’d not wanted to fight, and she’d attacked him for it. If he’d joined in and snapped then there would be even more casualties to deal with.

A loud yawn jerked Cleo out of her spiralling thoughts and she propped up on her elbow to see Spark stretching as she waddled into the hut, followed by Faith and Mischief. Spark’s electricity lit up the hut for a moment as she tried to navigate, then cut out, plunging them into darkness.

“Boy am I tired.” The dedenne flopped onto the hay beside Cleo. “It must be nearly dawn, right?”

“Hard to say.” Faith cast a glance at the dark sky.

A brisk wind whisked through the door, causing Cleo to huddle into herself.

“You still look exhausted,” Faith said as she turned back to Cleo. “Have you had any rest? How’s your head?”

“Better, thanks.” Cleo rubbed the back of her ears. “I’ve just not managed to get any sleep yet, that’s all.”

“I don’t think many pokemon here will be getting much sleep,” said Faith. “There’s been talk of moving.”

Cleo clenched her teeth in a grimace. She’d been fearing that.

“The guards will be on watch all night,” Faith went on. “So you can get some rest. I’ll help them and keep an eye out.”

“I’ll do it,” said Mischief. He shuffled his paws as Faith turned to look at him. “It’s the least I can do since I didn’t help in the fight.”

“Nonsense!” Faith exclaimed. “You’ve done a lot. Get some rest.”

“You’ve done more,” Mischief scoffed, diverting his gaze.

“Well I’ve already said I’ll do it.” Faith placed a paw on his shoulder and tried to catch his eye with a smile. “Go on. Get some rest.”

Mischief stared at her, almost challenging Faith’s instruction. Then he let out a defeated sigh and waved a paw as he slumped over to the hay. He did look exhausted, but it was probably more to do with him battling his guilt all night. The whimsicott fell down onto his back heavily and his arm flopped across his face.

Faith’s smile fell as she watched him, and she turned her back to sit in the open doorway. In the low lighting the mawile’s form was like a shadow against the thick darkness.

“Mischief?” Cleo said softly.

He opened one eye to look at her.

“I’m sorry.” Cleo paused, then added quickly, “For getting upset with you.”

He closed his eye again. “You had every reason to be upset.”

“No I didn’t. I know how you feel about battling and I shouldn’t be annoyed with you for wanting to avoid accidentally hurting anyone. It was chaos out there.” She took in a sharp breath through her teeth. “I was scared, and I lashed out at you. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“So was I.” Mischief let his arm fall onto the hay beside him and he stared up at the ceiling. “I need you to understand me, Cleo.”

Cleo gave a soft sigh. “I thought I was.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone, you’re right there,” he explained. “But I also don’t like seeing others get hurt, and those murkrow were everywhere.”

“Yeah, that happens,” said Spark before Cleo could respond. “This is a war after all.”

“I’m aware of that,” said Mischief. “Tonight has made me think. And… next time this happens, I’m going to protect you.”

Cleo’s heart leapt into her throat and she turned her head to look at him.

“But you have to promise me something,” he said.

“Go on?” Cleo ventured.

“Promise me you’ll run,” he said. “Run, and don’t come back for me unless you know for certain I’ve passed out.”

Cleo didn’t know what to say. All she could do was stare at his fuzzy dark shadow lying sprawled on the hay. She could see where he was coming from. If he was to deliberately risk a burst of madness to protect his friends then it only made sense for them to run. But she wasn’t sure if even Mischief could stand up against a flock of murkrow. He was still a grass-type, pokerus or not. What if the tables turned and he needed the help of his friends but they weren’t around to give it because they’d fled?

The thought stabbed at her heart. She closed her eyes and rolled onto her back.

“Cleo?” Mischief pressed.

“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “I promise we’ll run.”

There was a long pause as silence filled the little hut. Cleo didn’t know how anyone else felt about the situation. Spark was clearly awake, listening in, but she said nothing. There was one thing that didn’t settle well with Cleo at all, and she took a deep breath as she voiced it.

“But I’ll never abandon you.” She heard Mischief shift in the hay and could almost feel his eyes on her. “You want us to run, sure, but if I think you need my help then I’ll stay and fight beside you.”

“Cleo…”

She turned her head, meeting his orange eyes glinting against what little light leaked through the door. His voice trailed off and he let out a small sigh. He’d known her long enough to know it was pointless to argue. She would never abandon her friends and he knew it. If he was willing to risk his life to protect her then he should expect the same in return.

Another chilled breeze drifted through the hut and Cleo huddled further into the hay. Faith shifted in the doorway and held out a paw.

“Heh!” she said. “It’s raining again! I should come inside.”

The mawile retreated into the hut and perched near Cleo’s feet. She kept her large violet eyes on the world outside and hugged her knees to her chest.

“It’s suddenly really cold, too,” she said. “If it keeps up like this then we might even get some frost!”

“You’re not wrong.” Cleo wrapped her tails around herself. “I want to close the door, but…”

Faith gave Cleo an understanding glance. “I think we’ll be okay to close it.”

“Should we ask Tinker to let us in?” asked Spark.

Harlequin scoffed at that. “So long as I’m with you, I doubt Tinker would let us inside if there was a blizzard, let alone a little chill.”

“Harlequin’s right,” said Cleo, trying to stifle her growing irritation at Tinker. “We’ll just have to huddle together for warmth.”

“Great,” said Spark. “It’s about to get real cozy.”

The dedenne clambered onto Cleo’s shoulder and snuggled down into her neck fur. Faith and Mischief gathered the hay against the wall away from the door, but the draft still managed to find them. The wind picked up blowing the rain sideways. It pelted against the wooden hut until it sounded like someone was throwing gravel at the walls. The door slammed repeatedly on its weak hinges, and Faith tried in vain to keep it shut. The lock was so thick with rust it wouldn’t budge.

The mawile gave up and joined her friends on the hay, keeping a watchful eye as the pokemon tried and failed to summon sleep. The threat of another attack, and the rattling wood and freezing drafts were too much for all of them.

Cleo felt a tug at her arm and she looked back at Mischief. The whimsicott was trembling and he moved closer to her, looping his arm around her waist. Cleo’s heart did a flip and she looked away, letting him huddle into her back. The wind began to howl and rattle the wooden walls. Harlequin raised their head to look over their shoulder, ears pricked as they frowned at the draft whistling through the wood behind them. They stood up reluctantly and plodded over to Cleo until her bracelet jerked. The zorua stopped a mere inch from Cleo and lowered themselves onto the hay. A shiver wracked the zorua’s small body and they curled up into a tight ball. The wind whisked its way through the door, bringing a flurry of slushy rain with it. Harlequin let out a low whine and edged closer to the wall.

Mischief rose to clamber over Cleo, eliciting a yelp of surprise from the meowstic. He nudged her back and flopped down between her and Harlequin. The zorua’s head jerked up in surprise, and they watched as Mischief settled onto his back in the hay. Cleo eyed him curiously, but turned as Faith settled herself at Cleo’s back. Harlequin gave a loud yawn and lowered their head back onto their paws. With a nod of understanding, Cleo lay back down and huddled into Mischief’s creamy fur. A small smile tugged at her lips as the scent of pollen filled her senses. The shivers soon left her body and she found herself drifting into a light sleep.

...​

Enigma sat under a tree, its sparse branches doing little to shelter him from the sudden downpour. His fur was soaked through, and he huddled in his sodden scarf as the wind whisked around him, carrying flurries of freezing, slushy rain. He ventured a glance back towards the village, but it was barely visible anymore. He thought for a moment he could make out the silhouettes of the little houses against the mountain, but that was impossible. The entire village was surrounded by stone walls. Not far from Stonehaven, Enigma could just make out the lake. Its surface was inky black and deadly to anyone who would be unfortunate enough to venture out in the storm. It lay like a hidden death-trap, protecting the village from unsuspecting Darkness.

Enigma tore his eyes away and tugged his scarf around himself. The rain was getting heavier. All he had to do was wait it out. He’d been sitting beneath that tree for long enough. Each blast from the wind seemed to chill him to the bone, and he grit his teeth against it.

So this was it. The cold season had officially started, and Enigma had nowhere to go. The wind howled, only echoing the emptiness he now felt inside. It was a stark contrast to the laughter that had filled the air only earlier that night, making the mountain feel eerie and unwelcoming.

Nowhere to go…

No one would want him anyway. Enigma didn’t belong anywhere. He’d tarnished the ghost-type’s already suspicious name the second Hydreigon had appointed him as one of his aces. A monstrous assassin. A ruthless killer. Yet that mawile had called him a friend.

The memory made Enigma chuckle. Why would anyone consider him a friend? Perhaps Harlequin, but they were also a killer. Assassins didn’t have ‘friends’. So why did Harlequin’s change of heart hurt so much?

The longer Enigma stewed on it the more obvious it became. Harlequin had stuck by him during Enigma’s darkest moments, they’d laughed at his jokes, they’d assisted him on missions and even saved his life, and now they’d left him.

Faith was right. Harlequin was the only thing tying Enigma to the Shadow Lands. Enigma had given up long ago, and Harlequin had dragged him through it. Prior to that, Enigma had wanted to leave. He’d had it all planned out and it had fallen through with the ferocity of a landslide. If Harlequin had known about his escape plan, they’d never said anything. And Enigma had kept quiet. Telling Harlequin would have risked both of their lives, if the zorua hadn’t turned on him for being a traitor. Fleeing was impossible anyway. Yurlik’s watchful eyes spread beyond the Border Woods, keeping an eye out for rebel activity and outlaws. Those who were found never survived for much longer.

The only way to survive was to obey. So Enigma had kept killing, following orders, gathering information, each time returning back to the Shadow Lands. It had become a way of life, a nasty habit. The only way to keep surviving. No… the only way to keep existing.

Fear and vengeance had corrupted his mind. He could see that now.

Now Harlequin was no longer a part of the Darkness, what reason did Engima have to go back? None. None whatsoever.

He was free now. Freedom… Something he thought would feel fantastic, yet it just felt empty and tasted bitter.

Another strong gust washed over him, coating his already sodden fur with a layer of freezing slush. Enigma huddled into himself, his entire body shivering. The branches of the towering trees around him swayed back and forth, spraying droplets from their bare, skeletal branches. The wind howled over the empty mountain peaks, barely visible in the dark sky. It made Enigma realise how small and insignificant he really was. One lone banette in a world that hated him.

Enigma didn’t know how long he sat there with the cold, wet wind washing over him. But after a while it began to ease off, becoming nothing more than damp air. He opened his eyes, wondering for a moment if he’d actually been asleep. The mountain peaks were rimmed with the golden light of dawn, yet the sky was still black above him.

Enigma sat shivering as he looked around him, trying to get one last glimpse of Stonehaven. It was still impossible to make out in the low light. Yet it wouldn’t be long before the village woke up. Enigma wouldn’t be surprised if the Guild sent out a patrol after that attack. As Enigma tried to move, his entire body protested at the effort and each breath came in shuddering bursts. It was as if his limbs were no longer his own. He rubbed at his arms, numbed from the cold. He really needed to get a move on before someone spotted him.

He pushed himself to his feet, grimacing at the stiffness in his muscles. He flexed his shoulders a few times then raised his paws above his head, stretching his spine. Water cascaded down from his scarf and mane and he grabbed the end of his scarf and twisted it to wring the water out. It was completely sodden. He’d have to remove the whole thing to strain it, otherwise it would take forever to dry.

Paws splashed over the wet grass and Enigma froze, raising his head and bracing himself for any threat. Crimson eyes burned with hatred from a face of dark, almost black fur. The pokemon’s white body was tense, his long fur plastered over his muscular frame. Twin pawniard flanked him on either side, their yellow eyes wide and wary. Yet Enigma was pretty certain they could do a great deal of damage if they desired. Their companion, however…

Enigma’s heart broke into a gallop. He knew what that pokemon was. An absol. A bringer of disaster. A walking curse. He’d not seen one in many years, but he knew nothing good ever followed an absol. His only memory of them was of them being driven from the Shadow Lands as he watched from a gap in his window blind. He could still remember the pack leader’s red eyes seemingly locked onto him in an accusatory glare. Yet it must have been all in his head, there was no way she could have seen him. But if that was the case, how else could one explain the events that had followed him since that day?

Enigma dug his claws into his scarf as he met the absol’s seething leer. The absol’s black claws cleaved into the soggy earth and his breath fogged before his muzzle in a low growl. Enigma wasn’t stupid. He knew a fight he couldn’t win when he saw it. Three dark types against one ghost? With a snort, Enigma warped into the branches above him just as the absol swung his head forwards. Where Enigma had been stood, the ground exploded into a mist of dark energy. Wet soil splattered around the base of the tree, and the absol swore loudly as he turned his head to spot Enigma. The banette warped again, and in two more bounds he was behind the absol, high up in the tangled branches of a mountain ash. His heart raced as he stared at the ruined earth. A split second later and that would have been him.

The absol muttered something to his companions and the twin pawniard took off in opposite directions, leaving the absol to search the bare canopy. Great, now they were looking for him.

Enigma dropped his density and clutched onto the trunk of the tree, silently hoping the absol wouldn’t be able to track him by scent. It didn’t take long before the absol gave up and moved on, barking a command to the pawniard. As Enigma watched him go, he couldn’t help wondering if the absol was the same one Harlequin had spoken of. The zorua had believed him to be dead, murdered by Yurlik’s murkrow flock.

There was absolutely no doubt about it. Like Enigma, absol had been driven to near extinction by Hydreigon. If one was still alive, then it had to be Harlequin’s missing ‘friend’, Harbinger. Enigma made a mental note to keep a close eye on the absol before he brought disaster onto Harlequin. That was if he hadn’t cursed the zorua already.

...​

Cleo twitched her nose as something tickled it. She wafted it away with her paw, but to no avail. When it didn’t relent, she rolled onto her back, swiping out with her claws.

“Hey!”

Her eyes snapped open, spotting a rather cross Spark standing on the hay beside her. The dedenne clutched her long tail in both tiny paws and twitched her whiskers with irritation. Faith sat behind Spark, chuckling.

“Sorry,” Cleo mumbled, rubbing her bleary eyes.

“I was only tryin’ to wake you!” Spark dropped her tail and raised her paws in a shrug. “I know a mouse shouldn’t taunt a sleeping cat, but I didn’t have much choice! I don’t wanna miss breakfast again!”

“You could have gone without me,” said Cleo.

“Yeah I know but I didn’t wanna be impolite so I decided to wait.” She paused, then added, “Impatiently.”

Cleo smiled at Spark’s tapping foot, then looked up as Mischief stirred. Harlequin lay with their head resting across his chest, fast asleep. A jolt of surprise filled Cleo’s chest, and she caught an amused twitch of the whiskers from Spark.

“Should we wake them?” Faith asked.

“Yes,” said Spark.

“We don’t have much choice anyway.” Cleo raised a paw to show Spark the bracelet. “It’s either that, or you go on ahead.”

“Nah, I’ve waited this long. I say we wake them.” She cleared her throat. “Oi, Mischief!”

“Hmm?” The whimsicott’s eyes fluttered open and he rubbed a paw across his face, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Why are you staring at me?” He turned his head slightly as he spotted the sleeping zorua and his mouth opened, but no words came out. Just a strangled squeak of confusion.

Harlequin’s sapphire eyes snapped open and fixed on his. A brief moment past as realisation dawned on the zorua. Then with a yell, Harlequin leapt backwards across the hay. The collar jolted, keeping their head ahead of their feet, and they landed face-first in the hay.

Spark burst into fits of laughter, tears streaming down her face. She pointed a claw at Harlequin as she keeled over, clutching her stomach. Every word she tried to gasp out was interrupted by her uncontrollable laughter.

Harlequin sat up and glared at her. “It’s not funny!”

“Ih-!” Spark took a deep breath and managed to gasp out, “It is!” before rolling onto her back in the hay.

“Oh my!” Faith covered her muzzle with a paw and chuckled. “I think we need to get Spark some food fast! She’s going delirious with hunger.”

Harlequin’s eyes snapped to Faith then back to the writhing dedenne. “It’s not funny! It meant nothing!” They cast a glance at Mischief and looked away, their face flushing with embarrassment. “Don’t read anything into it. I was cold! That’s all!”

Spark sat up and looked at Harlequin. “Oh I wasn’t laughing at that! I was laughing at you fallin’ flat on your face! But now you mention it, yeah, it is pretty funny.” She paused and spurted laughter through her lips. “Did he make a comfy pillow?” The dedenne rolled onto the hay as she exploded into hysterical giggles once more.

Harlequin’s neck bristled and they rose to their feet.

“Come on!” Cleo scooped up Spark and carried her through the door. “Let’s get you some breakfast.”

The others followed her outside, and Harlequin grumbled as they exited the hut last.

“You lot are getting much too comfortable around me,” they growled.

“I’d say you’re the one getting comfortable,” Spark jibed from Cleo’s shoulder.

“Spark…” Cleo warned.

Harlequin’s eyes widened and they looked away, muttering, “You let your guard down once and suddenly you’re going soft.”

“I think you need to lay off her now,” said Faith. “Besides, it’s nice that she’s feeling happier around us.”

Harlequin looked up at the mawile and flashed a canine. “Happy?!”

Faith smiled down at her and tucked her paws behind her back, keeping pace with the zorua.

When they reached the door to the Guild, the mienshao guards hailed them from the door.

“Tinker wants a word with you,” one of them said. “He asked you to meet him outside.”

Cleo nodded at them, then turned to her friends. “You lot go inside, I’ll wait out here with Harlequin.”

“But… what about your breakfast?” Spark asked as she hopped onto Faith’s shoulder.

“Bring me something,” said Cleo. “I can wait while you have breakfast. I don’t mind eating on the go.”

“You’re really sure?” Mischief asked.

“Of course!” said Cleo. “Just… please also collect the supplies Meredith promised us?”

“Will do!” Spark gave her a wave as Faith ascended the stairs. “I’ll try to eat fast!”

“Oh don’t give yourself indigestion!” Faith’s voice faded as she went inside the Guild.

Cleo turned from the stairs and sat down with her back against the Guild’s wall to wait for Tinker. Harlequin sat down heavily beside her and looked away.

“You could have just removed your bracelet and fastened me somewhere,” they said. “It’s not as if I could have done anything about it.”

Cleo looked from the zorua to the street. Pokemon were milling about it as if nothing had happened the night before. She could even smell the pastries baking only a few feet away. Her eye wandered to the rail running along the stairs to the Guild, a convenient place to fasten Harlequin in plain sight of the soldiers. But it was too risky. Not because she believed Harlequin posed a risk to Stonehaven, but because she didn’t want to be accused of causing a risk. Some pokemon in Stonehaven might have accepted Harlequin wasn’t a danger to them, but other pokemon were much harder to convince. She could already hear Tinker’s voice berating her for such a ‘foolish move’.

“Cleo!”

Cleo let out a hiss and tried to force her fur flat. Her yellow gaze searched out the riolu.

Tinker trotted down the stairs towards her, trailed by Meredith. The riolu looked rather happy, contrasting the bitterness that clouded Meredith’s face. Cleo attuned that to the events of the previous night. Things looked to be getting to normal, sure, but an unexpected attack like that would have left some scars. Cleo had felt the shadows lift herself with Spark’s playful jibes, and seeing Meredith brought it all back down on her.

“Here.” Tinker dropped a coin pouch onto Cleo’s lap. “Your payment, as promised.”

Cleo looked down at it with an air of suspicion. “I doubt this is what you wanted me for? Besides, I thought you wanted me to come back with you before you paid us?”

“I only asked for you to report back to me,” said Tinker. “Since I’m already here, you’ve done just that. Technically. I mean, you were rather late.”

“Getting attacked wasn’t my fault, Tinker.”

“Which is why I’ve not docked your pay.” He flashed her a smile. “Everything is there.”

“Thank you.” Cleo couldn’t hide the fact the words were forced, and if Tinker noticed he didn’t say anything.

Meredith placed a paw on Tinker’s shoulder, silencing anything he was about to say. “I wanted to thank you again for last night, Cleo,” said the delphox. “I’ve never seen those attacks you and your friends used before, or that unusual form-change Faith went through. Whatever they were, they worked very well against the murkrow flock. I don’t think we would have survived such an attack without your help.” He scratched behind his large ears as he looked down at Harlequin. “I do fear they were after you, however.”

“They were after all of us,” Cleo explained. “Unfortunately, my friends and I have a price on our heads. We’ll be out of here soon, and hopefully another attack won’t happen here again.” She looked up at Meredith and folded her paws. “How are the injured?”

“Recovering,” Meredith answered. “Thankfully we’ve not lost anyone else, and those we feared wouldn’t make it until morning are now stable.”

Cleo let out a sigh of relief.

“I do have questions for you,” Meredith went on. “I really want to know more about those strange attacks of yours, and that form-change. They were quite amazing.”

Cleo gave him a smile. “The best pokemon to ask about all that would be Faith. She knows a lot more than I do. She’s in the dining hall.” She nodded her head towards the Guild door.

“Then I’ll certainly join her! I’ve not had breakfast yet.” Meredith released Tinker’s shoulder with a friendly squeeze. “You chose the right pokemon for the job, Tinker.”

Before the riolu could answer, Meredith headed back into the Guild. Tinker watched him go then turned back to Cleo and Harlequin.

“I have some news for you, Cleo,” he said.

So that’s what he wanted? Cleo sat back against the wall. “And what’s that?”

“I’ve decided to take Sandpaw and Scout back with me,” he said.

Cleo’s tails swished and she gave him a questioning look. “Already? You think they’re safe?”

“Without a doubt.” Tinker turned to lean against the wall beside her. “Those pokemon they worked for weren’t actually Heretics. They’d broken away from their beliefs and were working against the Darkness, while keeping up the facade that they were doing it all for Hydreigon. What they were really doing was finding that new fairy-type - which they’d codenamed Type18 - and were afflicting those pokemon with the new strain of pokerus. Their plan was to send an army of fairy-types into the Shadow Lands to wipe out Hydreigon and his followers.”

Harlequin snorted out a laugh. “That sounds like it would have worked.”

“Oh, it may have done.” Tinker rubbed his muzzle and sighed. “But their plan was not very well thought out. Their leader was impulsive and didn’t look at the bigger picture.”

“It does sound rather flawed,” said Cleo. “All those pokemon would have uncontrollable bouts like Mischief, surely?”

“Oh, it goes well beyond that, Cleo.” Tinker took a deep breath and toyed with his everstone. “That pokerus has a very nasty side-effect. After a certain length of time it takes over the host entirely, rendering them completely insane.”

Cleo’s jaw dropped and she stuttered, unable to find the right words.

“I’m rather concerned about Mischief,” Tinker went on. “If that means he might be susceptible to this, then your safety will be compromised.”

Cleo said nothing. What could she say? She stared down at her paws and wound them together.

Harlequin looked at Tinker out of the corner of their eye. “There’s no cure to this pokerus, is there? Rio didn’t manufacture one?”

“We’ve never had a need for one,” said Tinker. “And Rio didn’t see a need for one either. So unfortunately, unless a cure suddenly crops up in the very near future, there is no hope for those who he’s infected with this pokerus. What makes me even more worried is the amount of infected pokemon that have fled his laboratory and are now hiding out in the Moorlands Forest. They may have spread even further than that, but it’s not for you to be concerned about, Cleo. I’ll send out a couple of groups to round them up and we’ll try to help them as best we can.”

“Then that makes finding a cure a big priority,” said Harlequin. “Estellis could be in danger from this.”

“The pokerus isn’t contagious, so I don’t fear for Estellis.” Tinker looked down at the zorua. “But a cure might be in your best interest, personally. Rio’s biggest mistake might be your biggest setback.”

Harlequin’s muzzle creased and they flashed a canine. “What do you mean by that?”

“Rio’s latest - and last - victim to be infected with this pokerus is your friend Enigma.”

Harlequin’s jaw dropped and they let out a single cry. Their eyes widened with despair, and their ears pulled back flat against their head.

Cleo pushed herself back from the wall, fixing Tinker with a look of alarm.

“What?!” Harlequin cried.

Tinker shrugged and returned to toying with his everstone. “Either you find a cure, or Enigma will have to be destroyed.”

“You can’t-!”

“He’s a threat to the Guild,” said Tinker. “He’s also a threat to you. And so long as you are tied to Cleo, that puts all of you at risk. I can’t have that.”

Harlequin leapt to their feet. “Then let me go! I’ll find something! A cure that can help all of you!” They met Tinker’s doubtful stare and took a step towards him. “You’ve seen you can trust me! I helped cure all of Stonehaven! I helped you during the murkrow attack! So… so let me go and I’ll help.”

Tinker stared down at the assassin’s pleading face, his expression calculating.

Cleo sighed and rolled her head back against the wall. “It wouldn’t change anything, anyway, Harlequin. Enigma has been sent after us. He’d still be on our tails whether or not you are with us. He’s still a huge risk, even more-so now he’s infected.”

Harlequin snapped their head towards Cleo. “And that ticking time-bomb we’re travelling with isn’t?!”

Cleo’s fur bristled and she fixed her glare right onto Harlequin’s blazing eyes. But Tinker spoke before she had the chance to bite back.

“That ticking time-bomb is tied to the same fate,” he explained. “If he shows any sign of worsening then… well… we’ll have to wait and see. If there’s no cure found in time then it will be unfair to him and to the rest of you to keep him alive.”

Cleo felt icy claws fasten around her heart. The fire in Harlequin’s eyes went out and the pair sank under a cloud of misery. Is this what that pokerus did? Was it really nothing more than a slow death-sentence? It slowly took over the infected pokemon, bending them to its will and consuming them with madness until they were nothing more than a walking husk controlled by a murderous parasite. It wasn’t fair. What were those Heretics doing? Did they really believe it was okay?

“I’m sorry, Cleo.” Tinker’s voice was oddly soft. “I’m going to get as many pokemon as I can to look for a cure. Once we find it, Mischief will be our top priority. And Enigma, too.”

“You’re offering to help the Darkness now?” Harlequin scoffed.

“Harlequin, I am offering to help Estellis. That has always been my job.” Tinker kicked himself back from the wall. “Enigma will only be more dangerous with this infection.” He paused and gave one last glance towards the meowstic. “Do take care, Cleo.”

She watched him head back up the stairs until Harlequin’s voice drew her eye away.

“I’m sorry.” The zorua stared blankly at the walls of the houses opposite them. “I know you care about Mischief. There’s got to be a cure somewhere.” Harlequin shook their head sharply. “There’s a cure for every poison.”

“It’s not a poison,” said Cleo bluntly. “It’s a parasite.”

Harlequin licked their lips in thought. “Then… then we poison the parasite.” The zorua’s sapphire eyes widened and their voice rose with a hint of hope. “We poison the parasite!” They turned to look at Cleo, eyes sparkling. “We just need to find one that won’t poison the host!”

“That’s… brilliant!” Cleo leant forwards on her knees. “Do you know of one? Does it exist?”

“I don’t know.” Harlequin’s shoulders slumped slightly. “It might take a while to find one. But there has to be one! Some pokemon can eat certain fungi that would kill another. If we can find something that wont harm Mischief then we can rid him of pokerus. Enigma too. And all the others.” Harlequin paused and bit their lip. “The only problem is grass-types are susceptible to most poisons.”

Cleo’s heart sank again. Was it really going to be this difficult?

“There you are!” A happy squeal drew their eyes back to the Guild.

Sandpaw streamed down the stairs with Scout bounding along ahead of her. Mischief followed, with Spark perched on his shoulder. He looked oddly happy compared to the previous night, and Cleo found herself wondering what had happened in the Guild to cheer him up so much. Each of them carried a tray stacked with berries and breakfast pastries.

“We couldn’t leave you out here alone,” said Spark. “So we brought breakfast to you!” She elbowed Mischief in the jaw. “It was actually his idea.”

Mischief rubbed the back of his fluffy head. “Well… you’re all alone, so…”

As Cleo stared up at his happy face a pang shot through her chest and her eyes filled with tears. She had to restrain herself from leaping to her feet and throwing her arms around his neck to sob into his shoulder.

“Is something wrong?” he asked her.

Cleo shook her head. “No.” She forced a smile and tapped the floor beside her. “Sit down and join me, will you?”

“All right!” Mischief handed her his tray and flopped down beside her. “I got enough for both of us!”

Sandpaw popped another tray onto the floor before Harlequin, and Spark leapt from Mischief to land on its other side.

“For me?” Harlequin asked with surprise.

Sandpaw nodded, and Scout puffed out his chest.

“Yup!” said the little sentret. “I thought we could share?”

A smile spread across Harlequin’s face and they let out a laugh. “Thank you.” The zorua looked up at the furret. “Where’s Faith?”

“She’s still inside,” Sandpaw explained.

“Yeah, she got talking to Meredith.” Spark took a huge bite of a sitrus berry. “She said she’ll catch up with us in a bit.”

Cleo smiled at that news, glad that Meredith had managed to catch the mawile before they left.

“Harlequin?” Sandpaw’s voice stopped the zorua before they could take a bite out of a piece of fish. “I wanted to thank you again for saving Scout last night.” The furret edged closer and pulled something from their bag. “I want you to have this.”

Harlequin sniffed the pink scarf. “Is it woven with pecha berries?”

“It is! I thought it would help you, since you work with poisons.”

Sandpaw leaned towards the zorua to fasten the scarf around their neck. It rested against Harlequin’s thick, black ruff. The edge was trimmed with white spots, and it perfectly hid the collar they’d been forced to wear.

“It suits you, actually,” said Sandpaw.

“I dunno, I would have gone with blue,” said Spark.

Cleo cuffed the dedenne playfully across the ear, causing her to drop her berry.

Harlequin wasn’t paying attention. They stared down at the scarf, their eyes wide. “Th-thank you.”

“I told Mum you’d be better off with a cape,” said Scout. “But she said it would look silly.”

“I agree with your mum,” said Spark as she dusted down her berry.

Scout threw his arms wide. “But heroes are meant to wear capes!”

Sandpaw scooped up her son and laughed as she rose to her feet. “This is where we part ways.”

“But Mum, I’ve not finished my breakfast with Harlequin!”

“We need to get back inside to get ready,” Sandpaw told him. She turned back to Cleo and her friends. “Tinker is taking us back with him, so it’ll be the last we’ll see of you for a while.” A fond smile spread across her muzzle and she dipped her head in a bow. “Thank you so much for helping us! Who knows where we would be now if we hadn’t run into you.”

Cleo returned her smile and lowered the strip of fish she’d been nibbling on. “It’s nothing, really. I’m just glad we found you. You two take care, okay?”

Mischief waved a paw and beamed. “If he’s taking you back, then we’ll definitely see you again! I look forward to it!”

Sandpaw’s smile faltered as she forced to maintain it. “Yes. Hopefully.”

The furret retreated towards the stairs and bade them farewell once more. Scout waved both paws with such enthusiasm Sandpaw struggled to hold onto him. His voice rang out across the street, “Bye! See you again soon!”

Cleo’s heart sank and she stared down at her half-eaten fish. Mischief continued his breakfast beside her, exchanging banter with Spark. A chill ran down Cleo’s spine and she glanced back towards the stairs. From Sandpaw’s reaction it was obvious that she knew about Mischief. Was it possible that once they’d finished their quest they’d be returning to New City without him?

The Guild door opened and Cleo heard Meredith’s voice as he muttered an apology to Sandpaw. The delphox sidestepped to let her past and descended the stairs with Faith and Mulch in tow.

“I have to say, Faith, what you’ve told me is absolutely fascinating!” Meredith closed his eyes in a smile, which was reflected in Faith’s dainty face. “If I hadn’t seen your form-change for myself I might have struggled to believe you!”

“I’m so glad I could help!” Faith clapped her paws together. “It’s wonderful that you got to see mega evolution in action!”

Meredith laughed heartily. “Well the second time wasn’t a disappointment either!”

“Ahh, that is wasn’t!” said Mulch. “It was a delight to see it with no murkrow to disrupt us. I can’t believe we’d never heard of all this until now.”

Faith placed her paws on the rail beside the stairs. Her eyes sparkled with glee. “That murkrow attack was absolutely terrible, but it seems something good has come from it! Everyone seemed so much more brighter after our little talk this morning.”

Meredith steered her down the stairs and nodded. “I feel so too, Faith.”

“Perhaps if you need to leave here,” said Faith, “you will all be able to find the Fairy Garden?”

“I do hope so. I only wish I could hear more about it.” The delphox stopped at the foot of the stairs and placed a paw on Faith’s shoulder. “Honestly, I could talk to you for hours. If you could stay a little longer, I’d be delighted. But I understand you need to be on your way.” He turned to Cleo and her friends and tucked his paws behind his back. “Faith tells me you’re on a mission to find a fire-type pokemon? I’m just sorry I’m not the one you’re looking for.”

“So are we,” said Cleo. “You’re a talented fighter, Meredith. It’s been an honour to fight alongside you.”

“Why thank you, Cleo!” Meredith chortled. “As much as I regret I can’t go with you, my heart remains here in Stonehaven. But I can do my best to help you! Long ago, my grandfather told me of a place called Fire Island. It was the home to many ground- and fire-type pokemon. I believe it’s barren now. Most of the fire-types you’ll have met descended from its inhabitants once they migrated to the mainland. But there’s rumour that some remained. You might find who you’re looking for there, or perhaps in the desert not far from it?”

“Fire Island, eh?” Mulch rubbed the back of his head and gazed up a the sky. “I’ve heard of that myself. I’d always believed it to be a legend.”

Cleo and Spark exchanged puzzled glances.

“It’s worth a start,” said the dedenne. “I mean, we don’t exactly know where we’re going so why not start there?”

“Looking for somewhere that might not exist?” Cleo stared down at her half-eaten fish. “I don’t know…”

“I’ve heard of it.” Faith’s voice took Cleo by surprise. “I was also of the belief it was barren, so it never occurred to me to mention it. It’s an old volcanic isle to the east, miles away from the mainland’s coast. It suffered a massive eruption that even the most tough of fire-types would have struggled to withstand. But if some have survived, then it is definitely worth a look!”

Cleo’s ears pricked with surprise and her eyes widened. “If they managed to escape the eruption then they could have eluded the Darkness!”

Faith’s muzzle split into a beaming smile and she nodded rapidly. The mawile turned to Meredith, a bounce in her step. “You may have helped us out more than you realise! Thank you!”

“Don’t thank me yet.” Meredith shook his head and placed a paw on her shoulder. “Not unless you find your fire-type helper. Like I said, it’s only a rumour.”

“Well it’s a start,” said Spark. “So we go east?” The dedenne turned and pointed towards the north gate.

Cleo picked her up and turned her so she was pointing the right way.

Mulch doubled over with laughter. “Ahh, you younguns. Well, I need to be on my way. Got cleanin’ duty with little Fussy. I look forward to the day we meet again.”

He looped his long arms around Faith and pulled her into a crushing hug, which the mawile returned gratefully. Once they’d parted, he waved to Cleo and her friends and shuffled away down the cobbled street.

“I’ll be leaving as well, I’m afraid,” said Meredith. “I need to check in on the ward. I honestly can’t thank you enough, you’ve been such a huge help to Stonehaven. I can’t help but think you came here at just the right time.” He glanced to Faith and the mawile gave him a small smile. “Take any supplies you need. It’s the least I can do.”

“Thank you, Meredith,” said Cleo.

The delphox smiled warmly and, with a nod to Harlequin, he returned to the Guild.

“Well!” Faith twirled to face Cleo and her friends. “We get to look for a potentially lost culture? How exciting!”

“It is pretty exciting,” said Spark. “I mean, imagine if we found them? How huge would that be?”

“Potentially devastating if Hydreigon found out.” Harlequin’s words made Spark visibly sink. “We have to keep hush-hush about this. If they are there, then we need to find them first. Don’t we?”

“She has a point,” said Cleo before Spark could retort. “If there is a fire-type there who is key to defeating the Wildfires then we absolutely must keep any hint of them secret.”

Spark nodded and took a huge bite out of an oran berry.

Cleo looked over at each of her friends as they broke out into conversation. She settled back against the wall beside Mischief, but the conversation blurred as her mind wandered over both Tinker’s words. How long would it take them to find this fire-type? Would they need to prioritise finding a cure for Mischief first? Her friends were oblivious to the true nature of Mischief’s condition, save for Harlequin. She desperately wanted to tell them, but if she told Mischief about his potential fate then how would he take it? The last time she’d held something back from him, he’d been devastated. But this? It would crush him.

Her paw tightened around the strip of dry fish, causing it to crumble against her pads.

‘We poison the parasite… We just need to find one that won’t poison the host.’

Cleo looked up at Mischief, his face lit up in a smile as he discussed their next course of action with his friends. Cleo bit her lip and turned her head towards the sun as it traced its path towards the west.

They needed to find that cure. But a poison that wouldn’t harm the host? Did such a thing exist?

Cleo hoped desperately that, for Mischief’s sake… for the sake of Estellis… that it did.
 
Chapter 44

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
44 - Sacrifice​

Tinker’s paws were silent over the wet mountain grass. Dew from the rain sparkled over it like fallen stars, soaking through his short fur. He kept his head low, peering at the trees as they passed by. Sandpaw followed behind him more slowly, keeping a watchful eye on Scout as the little sentret scampered ahead. The river wound its way back down the mountain slope, its surface glittering in the sunlight.

“What are you looking for?” Sandpaw asked.

“Hmm?” Tinker twitched an ear at her but didn’t look back.

“You look like you’re searching for something,” Sandpaw explained. “What is it? I might be able to help.”

“I doubt it,” said Tinker. “I’m afraid I can’t really divulge that information currently. And even if I could, you likely wouldn’t recognise it if you saw it.”

Sandpaw inclined her head on one side, and Tinker moved deeper into the grass, his eyes fixed on a row of brambles. Their prickly thorns formed an impenetrable net that wound along the glen’s cliff face for several yards. The tangle of branches stretched up over the rocks behind them, embedding themselves amid the stiff mountain plants. He knew exactly what he was looking for, but he’d misplaced it over the years. That thorny barrier would be as good a place as any to hide it. He was desperate to find it and get out of the open. Those murkrow could come back at any moment, and he wasn’t exactly confident in his abilities to defend himself and his two new charges. A fighting-type like him would crumble beneath their beaks and wings.

Sandpaw joined Tinker’s side, her breathing heavy from the climb up the mountain. They’d not been moving at a brisk pace. It made her life among the flat grounds of the forest and moorlands increasingly obvious.

“Are you sure I can’t help you?” she asked.

Tinker gave a noncommittal grunt and parted the leaves of the brambles to peer inside. He leapt back as a small brown bundle of fur exploded from amid the thorns. Tinker stifled a yell of surprise and raised his paws before his chest.

“Hey, look!” Scout rose up on his tail and pointed back into the thorns. “I found a cave!”

Tinker placed a paw on his chest and took a breath to calm himself. “Goodness, Scout, you almost scared the life out of me.”

“That’s because I’m fierce!” Scout puffed out his chest, then caught his mother’s disapproving eye. The little sentret sank slightly and looked back at Tinker. “I didn’t mean to, though.”

“That’s quite all right.” Tinker lowered himself to the sentret’s level. “Where is this cave?”

“Oh, Tinker,” said Sandpaw, cutting Scout off before he could answer. “You don’t need to entertain him.”

Tinker ignored her and nodded to the sentret. “Show me.”

Scout let out a squeal of glee and dashed back into the brambles. Tinker ducked in behind him and motioned to Sandpaw to follow. The furret sighed and crouched down onto all-fours, her lithe body slipping in behind him with the ease of an ekans.

Thorns snagged in Tinker’s fur and he winced as one of them cut a little deeper. Scout scrambled ahead of him, ducking under the thorns and leaping over low branches with the nimble grace expected of a young, energetic hatchling. For a moment Tinker lost sight of him, but he soon spotted the sentret standing beside the rocky wall.

“Here!” Scout waved a paw at a hole yawning in the cliff’s surface. “It’s dark inside, but there’s something in there that looks cool!”

“Keep your voice down,” Tinker hissed, drawing closer to it.

Something inside? It wasn’t a member of the Darkness, was it? After Scout’s reaction to Harlequin he wouldn’t put it past the little fuzzball to find a lurking assassin ‘cool’.

As the riolu peered inside, he found the cave as barren as he’d expected it to be. On the far side was a stone slab, which Scout bounded over to. The sentret jabbed a claw into a small engraving on the stone.

“It looks like your badge,” he whispered. “What is it? A drawing?”

Tinker remained silent, rising to his feet before the stone slab. His ears brushed the ceiling of the cave, and Sandpaw had to duck as she joined his side. Tinker removed his badge from his bag and jammed it into the sun-shaped engraving. He pushed a button on the back of his badge and a hidden pin shot out, causing a quiet click from the hidden lock. Sandpaw’s ears twitched at it and she gave Tinker a questioning look. The riolu turned the badge and the slab rolled away on its mechanism.

“Quick,” he said, ushering Sandpaw in ahead of him. “Once it closes I won’t be able to open it again for a good while.”

Sandpaw craned her neck back to question him. “What… what is it?”

Once Tinker and his friends were inside, the stone slab brushed his tail as it rolled back into place. They stood in a tunnel as low as the cave, lit up by torches in the distance. The firelight glinted off Sandpaw’s wide eyes, and the tunnel echoed as Scout exclaimed ‘Cool!’

“Where are we?” Sandpaw’s whisper sounded oddly loud in the hollow underground. She covered her mouth with both paws and stared into the darkness ahead.

“This,” Tinker explained quietly as he ushered them along, “is a hidden passageway to New City.”

“You travel underground?” Sandpaw exclaimed.

“It’s safer,” Tinker explained. “Only the Guild Leader can use that exit as an entrance, and once it’s been opened from the outside it locks for the rest of the day.”

“That doesn’t seem safe,” said Sandpaw. “What if you need to get out?”

“It’s very safe,” said Tinker. “Guards patrol these tunnels, keeping them lit, maintained and protected. If someone were to steal my key and break in they’d then be stuck. Guards on one side, and a locked exit behind them.”

“So we’re gonna meet some Guild Warriors?” Scout squeaked with delight.

“I should hope so,” said Tinker. “The torches look like they are about to burn out. We might run into them very soon.”

Sandpaw twitched her tail and ears, and looked back over her shoulder. “What if we need to get out, though?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. Neither of you will be leaving now we’re underground.”

“Not leaving?” Sandpaw exclaimed.

“No. It’s not safe,” Tinker explained. “You’re both new to New City. Newcomers need to prove their loyalty before they’re given a badge and the freedom to come and go. Even then, badges are reserved for Guild workers such as myself and the Warriors who protect the Outcasts. You’ll find everything you need to survive in New City and more.”

“But…” Sandpaw rubbed her paws together and glanced at Scout. The conversation appeared to have gone over his head. He hopped along on his tail, gazing up at the roots tangling over the ceiling. “But I was hoping to travel to the Fairy Garden once Scout is old enough.”

Tinker’s muzzle creased with a frown and he bit his lip.

“Do you really not trust us to leave?” Sandpaw asked. “I’ve already promised we won’t tell anyone about New City.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” said Tinker. “I said you need to prove your loyalty. You were both Heretics. Besides, if I didn’t trust you I wouldn’t be bringing you with me at all!”

The tunnel began to descend further underground with steps to make the decline easier. It was a good thing too. The sharp scent of wet earth rose up from beneath them, and Tinker crinkled his nose. It had been some heavy rain the night before. Even the stone steps were slick under his pawpads and he had to steady himself with a paw against the rough surface of the wall.

“How long does this tunnel go on for?” Sandpaw asked.

“A good few miles,” Tinker explained. “They’re designed to cut out a lot of the tricker routes to make travel to and from New City easier. The ones further out from New City are very rarely used by Guild Warriors. They’re mainly used by myself.” He then added, quietly, “If anything happened to me, the Guild would crumble.”

“How come?” Sandpaw asked. “Isn’t there anyone else who could do your duties, like Cleo?”

Tinker scoffed laughter and shook his head. “Good grief, Sandpaw. If the Guild was handed over to Cleo I dread to think what would happen! She’s a good warrior but she is not a leader. No. I shouldn’t be leader, really. I took over when my father went off on an important mission.”

Tinker trailed off as the words left his mouth. He wasn’t really seeing where he was going anymore, and he faltered by the foot of the stairs. Sandpaw looked back at him and her expression softened.

“Did… did he not come back?” she asked.

Tinker shook his head and pushed on past her. “Come on. There’s a fork up ahead.”

Silence washed over them with a thick and heavy air of tension. Tinker suspected Sandpaw wanted to ask more questions, but she didn’t voice any. Instead she drew Scout in closer and nattered with him quietly as they turned along the right fork. Tinker tried to keep his mind off the past, focusing instead on where they were headed. A constant drip of water echoed deep in the tunnel, growing louder as they progressed along. He had no idea how long they’d been travelling when a dark shape appeared out of the shadows ahead. Light from the torches glinted orange on a heavy set of metal claws as they dug away at a mound of loose earth.

The pokemon looked up as Tinker’s pawsteps reached its ears, and it stopped its digging to rise to its feet.

“Tinker!” The excadrill raised his paws. “I’m gonna have to stop you.”

Tinker’s eyes widened and he looked from the excadrill to the pile of earth. Tinker’s paws prickled with worry and he trotted towards the large mole pokemon. “Is there a problem-”

“Stop!”

Tinker skidded to a halt over the damp soil. It crumbled under his feet and he scurried back, watching with wide eyes as loose, wet earth vanished into a dark void.

The riolu took a few deep breaths and took another pace back. “I see. There’s a big problem.”

“That’s an understatement.” The excadrill lifted a paw to the ceiling. “That rainfall last night was pretty heavy, and the wind didn’t help matters at all. It’s been blowing into the air vents in the trees and its soaked right down to the earth. The ground here’s caved in on the tunnel below.”

Tinker took a cautious step towards the gaping hole. It was too dark to see anything much further than his feet. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No one was down there, thankfully.” The excadrill scratched beneath his chin, smearing dirt over his fur. “I dunno how we’re gonna fix it though. Me and my guys are planning to fill the entire tunnel in and dig it back out again when the soil’s dry enough. As for the ceiling here… it seems pretty sturdy. But I think we’re gonna have to block this tunnel off too, until the storms have passed.”

Tinker sucked in air through his teeth and glanced up at the ceiling. A drop of muddy water bounced off his nose and he shook his head sharply, narrowing his eyes at the roots knotted above him. Water stretched along them, dripping down into the cavern and splattering over the wet earth.

“It seems like a good idea, so go ahead,” Tinker told the excadrill. “I’ll look into this further when we get back to New City. Hopefully no other tunnels have suffered like this.”

“Perils of living underground, I’m afraid,” said the excadrill.

Sandpaw joined Tinker’s side and stuck her tail out to stop Scout from peering into the hole. “Does this mean we’re stuck?”

Tinker scratched his head and sighed. “I hope not.”

“I’d suggest taking a different tunnel,” said the excadrill. “Go back and head through the north tunnel. It eventually winds back to New City, but it’s not suffered like this one has. One of my diggers checked it out earlier, and reinforced the ceiling just in case.”

Tinker nodded and bit back a bitter sigh. It would lengthen the journey exceptionally. “Thank you. Send message back to me when you’re done here. This tunnel will need to be kept under supervision for a while.”

“Like I said, we’ll be blocking this whole section off,” the excadrill explained. “The last thing we want is it caving in and the Darkness finding it.”

A cold chill washed over Tinker. Why hadn’t he considered that? With a wave of farewell, he steered Sandpaw back the way they’d come, and gave one last glance back at the excadrill. The perils of living underground… Tinker deeply hoped this would be the only disaster to happen to New City. The war couldn’t end fast enough… that was, if it ended at all.

...​

Lightning lit up the canopy, arcing through the murkrow flock. The black mass of feathers parted, allowing the lightning to erupt through the evergreen branches.

“They just won’t stop!” Spark squeaked, letting off another discharge.

Cleo stood with her back to Harlequin and Faith as they kept their eyes on the murkrow. Their honchkrow leader hovered above them, barking out orders with deep, husky caws. Each instruction was followed by a small number of murkrow swooping down towards their targets for a swift attack before returning to the canopy. It was like a tag-team, each small group replaced by the next.

The walk from Stonehaven had been going well until they’d reached the woods on the fringe of the mountains. Sunset was on the horizon, but it was still daylight. Cleo had guessed the attack on Stonehaven had been aimed at her and her companions. Now she was certain of it. The honchkrow boss and her flock had been waiting for them, possibly stalking them to ambush in the woods.

Cleo let off another disarming voice, which came as no surprise to the murkrow. They expected it now. Only Faith’s mega evolution had managed to surprise them, despite having performed it the night before. Feathered bodies littered the floor around the mawile’s feet. The murkrow had become more cautious since, treating Faith as a larger threat they’d rather skirt around.

Mischief stood several feet away, hiding in a patch of bracken. ‘Stay out of the way!’ Cleo had told him. ‘Only jump in if things turn nasty.’ She hadn’t needed to tell him twice. He was gone before she’d even finished her instruction.

The murkrow knew he was there. Spark’s electrical attacks formed a barrier between them and the whimsicott, blasting any that got too close. Cleo deeply hoped they’d manage to repel the flock before Mischief had to leap in.

Five murkrow swooped down towards Cleo, talons extended towards her. Cleo waited, watching them as they drew closer. Two of them faltered, suspicion clouding their beady eyes. Before the other three could strike, Cleo launched a disarming voice. Two scattered into her blind spot, but the third was struck head on. The two that had held back were caught in the aftermath and flew back from her, dazed.

“They’re being rather cautious.” Faith dropped one of the murkrow that had tried to get behind Cleo, only to be mangled by her play rough attack. “We could be here for a while.”

Cleo nodded stiffly, her eyes on the honchkrow. “We might need to break apart and go all-out.”

“No.” Harlequin cast her a brief sideways glance. “That’s what they want. They’re trying to drive us apart so they can pick us off one by one.”

“Really?” Cleo asked. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t understand murkrow but I’ve seen the strategy before,” Harlequin explained. “The mightyena and the Wildfires are famous for it. ‘Scatter the flock, pick off the weak’. Trust me. If you fall for it, you’re dead.”

The honchkrow jerked her head slightly, her eyes lighting up with amusement. She gave a series of harsh caws that, to Cleo, sounded different from before. The flock parted, sticking to the canopy as they surrounded the Outcasts.

The meowstic stiffened and her tails fluffed out. “Guys… I think-”

Another five murkrow swooped down towards them from the front. Cleo didn’t have time to finish her warning. She unfurled her ears, unleashing two disarming voices in quick succession. The first clipped the murkrow, but the second hit home, knocking three of them from the sky.

‘Caw!’

Five more replaced the three she’d struck and Cleo sent out another attack. Faith was a blur beside her, swinging her horns to catch those outside Cleo’s range. Wings bashed against the back of Cleo’s head, causing her to stagger and cut off her attack. Spots danced before her vision as pain radiated from her ears into her head. Sharp talons fastened around her ears and pain blinded her as a sharp beak jabbed into her psychic organs. She crumpled to the floor with a blood-curdling screech that seemed to come from outside her own body. Bright lights filled her eyes and she flailed, lashing out at her assailant with her claws.

A shrill caw echoed in her ears and the attack was brought to an end. Pain pulsed in Cleo’s ears and she blinked the spots away, trying to get her breath. Harlequin stood beside her, ragging a murkrow in their jaws. They tossed it aside and fixed Cleo with wide, blue eyes.

“Are you okay?” they asked.

Cleo gingerly touched her sore ear and hissed. Blood marred her paw and she grimaced, nodding stiffly. She pushed herself up into a crouch, quickly glancing around the battlefield. Faith stood close by her, swinging her twin horns over her head to keep the murkrow at bay. Spark had moved from Mischief’s hiding spot, her breaths coming in heavy bursts. She kept one eye on Cleo, aiming her attacks at the flock that had concentrated on the meowstic and her companions.

The honchkrow barked another command and the murkrow relented, rising into the canopy. The large raven-like bird dropped from the sky to land before Cleo, tilting her head from side to side as she took in her prey.

“Not so threatening now you’re disarmed, are you?” the honchkrow crooned.

Cleo was silent, panting as she met the large bird’s eyes.

“Now… give me what I want,” the honchkrow said slowly, “and maybe I’ll let you go.”

“And what do you want?” It was Faith who’d asked, turning fully to face the honchkrow.

“The whimsicott,” answered the honchkrow. She turned her head towards Harlequin and a smirk spread across her beak, “and the traitor.”

“You expect us to just hand them over to you?” Cleo grimaced at how pathetic her own words had sounded, and she resisted the urge to nurse her head.

“If you don’t, then we’ll take them by force.” The honchkrow lowered her head towards Cleo’s and spread her wings slightly. “And I don’t think you’re in any fit state to keep on fighting. With one down, your friends don’t stand a chance. Today, I, Ilana, will succeed where Yurlik has failed.”

“Then I guess we have to fight.” Cleo pushed herself to her feet, staggering as pain pulsed from her ear behind her left eye. “Because we’re not just going to hand over our friends.”

“Friends?” Ilana threw back her head and laughed. Then she gestured with a wing to Harlequin. “You consider this cur a friend? Didn’t anyone teach you never to trust a zorua? They do nothing but lie and deceive.”

Harlequin’s hackles rose and their lips pulled back from their canines. A low growl rose in the zorua’s throat as they lowered their head.

Ilana barked a strange, cawing laughter. “Oh, Harlequin. You know I speak the truth! Perhaps if you’d waited a while, you wouldn’t need to hide behind a mask?”

“What, and end up as some half-baked soldier filling in the holes brought about by years of failure?” Harlequin snapped. “Because that’s what Hydreigon’s doing by leeching the breeding pens dry.”

Ilana stiffened and her face tensed.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Harlequin went on. “I mean, let’s face it, Hydreigon is obviously desperate. I doubt Yurlik would allow females into his flock so willingly.”

“This is not Yurlik’s flock!” Ilana’s beak snapped close to Harlequin’s muzzle and the zorua flinched back. Ilana righted herself and smoothed out her ragged plumage. “This is my flock. A new uprising for Lord Hydreigon’s armies! I shall prove our worth! So what will it be, Outcasts? Hand over what I want, or shall I take it by force?”

Cleo stood her ground, psychic energy humming in her good ear. Ilana looked at each of the Outcasts in turn, her eyes lingering on Harlequin.

“Very well.” The honchkrow whipped her wings back, beating up the air around her.

“Wait!” Mischief forced his way through his friends to stand beside Cleo. “You don’t have to fight. I’ll go with you.”

Cleo jerked her head towards him. “Mischief, no!”

“It’s fine, really,” he told her. “It’s because of me that this keeps happening to you. If they take me, then you’ll be safe. Right?”

“But Hydreigon will kill you.” Cleo met his eyes, and the look he gave her told her he’d thought this through. It was almost as if he was pleading with her to trust him.

‘Promise me you’ll run.’

She bit her lip and looked away, balling her paws into fists. She couldn’t leave him. There was no way she was going to lose him after they’d come so far.

“You’ll really come willingly?” Ilana asked him.

Mischief nodded. “Yes. On one condition. You let my friends go, and that includes Harlequin.”

Harlequin let out a surprised yip and jerked their head towards him. The whimsicott’s gaze lingered on Harlequin for a moment, then he turned back to face the honchkrow.

“I’ve been tasked to bring both you and Harlequin to Lord Hydreigon,” Ilana said smoothly.

“It’s either that, or you fight us. All of us.” Mischief narrowed his eyes. “And I think you already know what I’m capable of.”

Ilana straightened herself up and nodded once. “Very well. But with that in mind…”

She brought her wings together and a crescent of air whipped up before her and smashed into Mischief, knocking him off his feet. The whimsicott rolled away from her to land in a sprawled heap by the bracken.

Cleo gasped and spun around towards him. As she stretched out a paw, the murkrow surround her and dragged her back with their talons. Ilana whisked past her, snatching Mischief in her claws.

“Let me go!” Cleo fought against the murkrow as she watched Ilana lift Mischief’s unconscious body through the canopy. “Let me go! Mischief!”

Tears stung Cleo’s eyes and she released a disarming voice at the surrounding flock. It sputtered out as it struck one of the retreating birds in the tail.

Ilana, safely out of reach, turned her head down towards her flock. “Finish them!”

The murkrow let out a blood-curdling war cry and turned on Cleo and her friends. Claws raked Cleo’s fur and she lashed out with her claws, firing disarming voices blindly into the thick mass of black feathers, each one causing a shocking pain in her head. Spark screamed as a mass of birds fell on her, only to part again as electricity scorched through them. Faith twisted through the flock, knocking them back with her dual horns. They landed upon her with raking talons and bashed her with air until the mawile was forced to drop her mega form.

Cleo forced herself up, wincing as claws yanked her fur and ears. She glimpsed Spark as once again the small dedenne was buried under vicious wings and talons. This time no electricity forced the birds back.

“Spark!”

Cleo’s heart wrenched in her chest. She wasn’t about to lose her too. She caught Harlequin’s blue eyes as the zorua tossed two murkrow aside to try and reach Spark. Harlequin looked from Cleo to the dedenne, straining at the end of their confines. Cleo jerked the zorua back towards her, wincing at the relentless claws tearing at her blue and white fur. Harlequin yelped, flailing their paws as murkrow fell upon them. Cleo grabbed the zorua’s collar, fumbling until she found the release switch. With a click, it fell away.

Harlequin looked up at her, their sapphire eyes wide with surprise.

“Go,” Cleo wheezed. Claws raked her ears and her vision blurred as blood trickled into her eyes. “Help her. Please.”

Harlequin leapt to their feet, their eyes fixed on Spark as the dedenne was buried under a mass of screeching feathers. With a loud yowl, Harlequin dived away from Cleo - away from Spark - towards the bracken where Mischief had been hiding. Cleo let out a cry of despair, shoving herself to her feet. Her head spun as the world swirled around her. Then she spotted an explosion of shadow amid the black feathers, stirring the murkrow into a whirlwind of panic just before her vision turned black.
 
Chapter 45

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
45 - Snowfall​

Enigma trudged his way over the battlefield, nudging a fallen murkrow with his foot. The battle had been a nasty one, and only a few murkrow had lost their lives. Most of them had managed to recover, fluttering away from the fallen Outcasts to nurse their wounds in the boughs of a tree. They hadn’t stuck around for long. Now the little mountain wood was quiet.

He checked over the Outcasts, feeling around their necks for a pulse. All of them were still alive, although the meowstic was barely clinging on. Her left ear was mangled, lying at an awkward angle beneath her head. The hum of psychic energy had long since fizzled out. The dedenne lay huddled underneath Harlequin’s thick fur, and the zorua’s paws twitched occasionally as they slowly began to regain consciousness. The mawile lay curled at the base of a tree, the yellow fur around her shoulders matted with blood. There was no sign of the whimsicott. As far as Enigma was concerned, the battle could have gone a lot worse. Harlequin had caused a stir with their poison, keeping the murkrow at a distance as they tried desperately to avoid the deadly nidoking horn. The shadowballs Enigma had thrown had disrupted the flock further, causing them to fly into a confused frenzy as they tried to work out where their hidden assailant was hiding. With the odds against them with two professional killers in the mix they’d soon retreated, satisfied that the Outcasts were down if not eradicated. They definitely weren’t part of Yurlik’s ruthless war-hardened flock, that was for certain. They would have slaughtered their enemies no matter what the cost, or face Yurlik’s wrath. The Outcasts were lucky. Harlequin hadn’t collapsed until the murkrow had started to back down. The zorua had given in to their extensive wounds and exhaustion, falling under a flurry of wings as the birds foolishly believed the battle was about to turn in their favour.

A soft groan came from Faith, and Enigma tore his attention from the canopy to watch her. Her claws scraped over the grass as she tried to right herself, her eyes screwed shut with the effort. Enigma dropped beside her and helped her up until she was propped against the tree’s sturdy trunk.

Faith groaned again and rubbed a paw across her face. “What… happened?”

“You lost.”

She jerked her head towards him and winced. Her paw flew to her wounded shoulder and came away sticky with drying blood. Her eyes widened with realisation and she looked around at her fallen friends.

“Is everyone-?”

“They’re all alive,” said Enigma flatly. “I checked.”

“We need to help them.” Faith tried to push herself up, but Enigma shoved her firmly back against the tree.

Without a word, he trudged over to the meowstic and dropped beside her to fumble in her bag. He found a couple of oran berries and returned to Faith’s side.

“Start with yourself.” He dropped one of the berries into her lap, then tore the other open to squeeze its juices over her shoulder.

Faith hissed but that was the extent of her protest. She obediently took a bite of the oran berry then cast him a sideways glance.

“You helped us, didn’t you?” she asked.

Enigma said nothing as he rubbed the berry pulp into her fur. He could feel her violet eyes burning into his head, and it took all his strength to not meet her gaze. He was already warring with conflicting emotions and part of him was scared of what she’d see there.

“Thank you,” she said.

Enigma shrugged and wiped his paws on his scarf, leaving Faith to finish tending to her own wounds. He wasn’t sure if her thanks was for his help with the berries or her correct assumption he’d assisted them in their fight. The mawile took another polite bite of her berry and adjusted herself so she was sitting more comfortably.

“Oh my goodness, this is such a mess. What happened?” her voice wavered slightly. “Where’s Mischief?”

“Gone,” said Enigma. “That honchkrow carried him away.”

“Did you see which direction she went?”

Enigma shook his head and looked away from her, his eyes lingering on Harlequin’s twitching paws. Relief poured through him and not for the first time. He still remembered the fear he’d felt as he dashed to the fallen zorua’s side, beating off the last of the lingering murkrow.

“Then… I guess we have to find him.” Faith stood up, wincing slightly. But her movements were much more fluid. The berries were doing their job. “I need to check on my friends. Do you mind helping me?”

Enigma opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as Harlequin let out a loud whimper. The zorua tucked their paws beneath themselves as they rolled over onto their belly, completely smothering the little dedenne.

The banette shook his head again and stood up. “I should go. I’m not hanging around where I’m not welcome.”

“Not welcome?” Faith gasped. “But you helped us.”

“I was only returning the favour.”

“What for?”

“Getting me out of that Heretic lab.” He fixed her with an amused raise of the eyebrow, which she mimicked perfectly. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re even.”

“But-”

“That meowstic has plenty of oran berries. You’ll be fine without me.” He leapt up into the branches where he perched on all-fours, leaning down to catch her eye. “See you around, Faith.”

Before the mawile could respond he warped away from her, deeper into the woods.

...​

Voices pulsed through Cleo’s head, muffled and distant. She knew them, but she couldn’t place them. Her parents? Her siblings? Pain pulsed with them, in rhythm with a faint light, causing her to grit her teeth. As the light grew brighter she hissed, flinching back from it. She raised a paw to her head, the source of the pain, and snatched it back just as quickly.

“Is she actually awake?”

Spark!

Cleo’s eyes shot open and she hissed again, screwing them shut once more. Her claws brushed dried leaves and dusty feathers and she retracted her paw back to her side. It was all coming back to her now. The battle. Mischief. The brutal loss. Her heart twisted in her chest and she groaned, rolling onto her back. The pain in her ear was nothing in comparison.

“Cleo?”

She opened her eyes again, turning her head stiffly towards Spark’s voice. Three faces stared down at her, Spark’s from between Harlequin’s pointed ears. The concern on each one of her friends’ faces melted with relief and Harlequin sat down abruptly, causing Spark to vanish down their back with a yell of alarm.

Faith crouched down beside Cleo as the meowstic reached up to her mangled ear.

“I’ve rubbed some oran juice into it,” Faith explained, “and fastened it closed with some goosegrass. It might be a little uncomfortable, but I don’t think it’s broken.”

“Thank you.” Cleo pushed herself up, aided by Faith’s arm.

Spark poked her face out between Harlequin’s ears again. “You were misfiring confusions for a good minute back there. Sent the murkrow into a tizz ‘cos they didn’t know what was going on. I think it scared them off.”

Faith cast a glance Spark’s way, but the look on her face suggested to Cleo that it wasn’t her unconscious attacks that scared the murkrow. For one thing, murkrow weren’t affected by ‘confusion’.

Cleo looked over each of her friends, noting the extent of their injuries. Faith’s shoulders were matted with dry blood, and a strong smell of oran juice came from her fur. Long, red welts lined Spark’s flank and vanished towards her back. Cleo hoped it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Harlequin’s ears were nicked and a long scratch scoured their muzzle, but all in all the zorua looked less worse for wear. They’d even managed to reclaim their satchel which hung neatly at their side.

The satchel…

Cleo lowered her face into her paws as the memories came back thick and heavy, and a loud groan escaped her throat. “We lost Mischief.”

Her friends were silent, and Faith closed her eyes as she lowered her head. Only the sound of the breeze stirring the evergreen leaves filled the woods. The murkrow were long gone.

“We can go after him if you want?” Harlequin’s voice caused Cleo to look up too quickly, sending a flood of nausea from her ear into her stomach.

“I know what it’s like to lose a friend,” Harlequin went on. “I don’t think the murkrow will harm him. They want to take him to Hydreigon. And…” The zorua paused and licked their lips. “That… might not be such a bad thing.” At Cleo’s blank expression, Harlequin elaborated quickly. “I mean, one dazzling gleam from Mischief and that dragon is history. He could be an unexpected hero.”

“Are you suggesting we just let him walk right to his death?” Cleo snapped.

“I’m not saying that at all!” Harlequin gasped. “I’m suggesting we go after him. But if we don’t succeed then we need to look on the bright side. Who knows? Mischief might even have planned this!”

Cleo lowered her head into her paws again. Perhaps Harlequin was right. Everyone knew Mischief was unhappy with his situation, thinking himself a danger to his friends. Yet the thought he’d willingly enter the Shadow Lands to face Hydreigon still filled her with dread. She couldn’t imagine he’d willingly go that far. But how much did she really know him? He didn’t even know himself.

“I’m sorry to suggest this,” said Faith, “but I really don’t think it’s a good idea to go after him right now.”

“What?” Cleo looked up at her, fixing the mawile in a glare.

Faith shook her head, her lips turned down in a frown. “I’m sorry, Cleo. But we’re not in any fit state to face those murkrow again. You least of all! If we try, we might all be killed. I think Mischief can actually handle this.”

“Yeah, he might have already,” said Spark. “I mean, if Harlequin’s right, then… well, I don’t know what to think. But he could totally handle those murkrow.”

“He’s a grass-type,” Cleo reminded her. “A grass-type among a flock of flying-types!”

The dedenne opened her mouth to reply then closed it again, glancing to the side. Harlequin lowered their head and looked away, their face sullen. Even Faith had nothing to say.

The mawile sighed and climbed to her feet, offering a paw to Cleo. “Come on. Let’s find shelter. You need some rest.”

Cleo took her paw and let Faith help her to her feet. Faith looped a paw around the meowstic’s back, supporting her on her shoulder.

A soft clatter drew Cleo’s eye and she looked down to find Harlequin carrying a loop of white metal in their jaws. The collar! Cleo’s eyes widened as the zorua dropped it at her feet.

“I suppose you want to put it back on?” Harlequin took a step back and raised their head, exposing their throat. “Go on.”

Cleo looked between the zorua and the collar. Her eyes wandered to the zorua’s bag, hanging over their shoulder, expertly fastened so not a hint of the toxic horn was visible. She reached down for the collar, but Faith stopped her. The mawile grabbed the collar and handed it to Cleo without question.

Cleo stared at it for a moment, her mind whirling. She still remembered Harlequin bolting off into the ferns. She’d thought the zorua had left them to their death and fled. What was clear to her now was that Harlequin had known Mischief had left their bag in those ferns. Harlequin hadn’t left them at all. Cleo had told the zorua to save Spark, and Harlequin had done just that. There was no question about it. Cleo tucked the collar into her bag, followed swiftly by her bracelet. Harlequin’s sapphire eyes widened, remaining fixed on Cleo’s satchel.

“There’s no need,” said Cleo. “You’ve proved you can be trusted.” She met Harlequin’s eyes which glistened with tears. “I know you want to find your friend, so you’re free to go.”

“I…” Harlequin stuttered and looked away from the meowstic. “No. Not yet. I… I want to make sure you’re all okay first. You’re all in worse a state than I am.”

The zorua turned, leading them through the trees. Cleo and Faith fell in step behind them, following slowly.

“Thank you,” said Cleo.

Harlequin’s ears pulled back slightly and they gave a stiff nod. “It’s okay. I might even have something in my bag that can help you.”

“I thought you only carried antidote herbs?” Cleo questioned.

“I know a lot more about natural remedies than you think,” said Harlequin.

Faith flashed Cleo a smile. “She really does! It was Harlequin who suggested I bind your ear with goosegrass.”

“It’s tough and sticky,” Harlequin explained. “It won’t be coming off in a hurry.” They glanced back at Cleo. “I can teach you some things if you want?”

“I think that would be very interesting,” said Faith.

Cleo nodded, a smile spreading across her muzzle. “Given how long a rest we’re all going to need that might actually pass some time.”

“I’m all ears,” said Spark. She’d moved down onto Harlequin’s back, huddling into the zorua’s thick black ruff.

Harlequin smiled, a natural one that lit up their whole face. The zorua’s pace picked up and they marched confidently through the woods, slowing when they realised how far behind Cleo was falling.

The walk wasn’t a long one. They soon reached the edge of the woods and Cleo let out a sharp gasp. A huge blanket of grass spread out before them, rising and falling over steep mounds as far as the eye could see. In the far distance the hills rose up into rocky peaks crested with white.

“Rolling Hills,” said Harlequin quietly.

The grass had a yellow tint to it where it reached the tops of the hills, parched from the drought. It was virtually untouched by paws, showing no one had come through recently. The long grass came up to Cleo’s waist and she staggered through it as they climbed up the first hill. Already out of breath, Cleo needed to stop and leaned heavily against Faith as the group looked out over the hilltops.

Grass, with very few trees for cover. The sky above was turning grey as the clouds blew in from the mountains, hiding the sun and chasing away the remaining white clouds. Not a single murkrow was in sight, but what might be lying in wait in the grass was another story entirely. Cleo was beginning to feel very exposed. They’d be easy targets.

“It might take us a while to find somewhere to rest,” said Spark.

“Then let’s keep moving,” said Harlequin. “I don’t like the look of those clouds, either.”

“On the upside,” said Cleo as she followed Harlequin down the gentle slope, “if it snows, the murkrow won’t fly.”

“No, but weavile will ride right through it.” Harlequin glanced back at her. “Quick. There’s got to be a bush or something around here.”

As they pressed on through the long rolling meadow, finding shelter seemed more and more unlikely. With each hill climbed the sky darkened as the heavy clouds rolled in. A soft cold flake of snow brushed Cleo’s nose and she raised her face towards the sky. More of them begun to drift down, growing larger and heavier.

“It’s snowing,” said Faith.

“And it looks like it’s going to be a heavy fall,” said Cleo. “We need to find shelter fast before we find ourselves trapped in a blizzard.”

Spark huddled down into Harlequin’s thick ruff. “The Cold Season is officially here. Well, on the upside I can look forwards to a nice winter hotpot at the next Guild hall, huh?”

Cleo picked up her pace as best she could as they climbed the next hill. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up, Spark. I didn’t have any plans to stop at another Guild.”

“Oh man!” Spark whined.

The snow fell heavily around them, blanketing the long grass. It buckled under the heavy flakes, becoming less of an obstacle at the topmost parts of the hills. Each crest was soon covered in white, leaving the rest almost bare as the snow gradually filled in the gaps in between. The wind picked up, billowing snow into Cleo’s face. She snorted, shaking her head to free her whiskers. Her fears were soon confirmed. The wind buffeted them as it grew stronger, whipping snow across her vision until she could barely see her paw before her face. She squinted against it, trying to peer out past the sheet of white into the oncoming stormy darkness. She wrapped her arms around herself and leaned further into Faith’s warm body. But the cold still penetrated her fur. Just before her she could make out Harlequin, their body held low to the ground and ears back as they forced their way through the blizzard.

“There’s not a single tree!” Harlequin barked, their voice muffled by the barrier of wind and snow.

“Don’t lose hope,” said Faith. “If we can’t find somewhere then there’s nothing stopping us from digging a burrow in the snow.”

“That sounds exceptionally cold,” said Spark.

“You’ll be surprised how well insulated it is,” said Faith, lowering her head as the snow blew towards them. “But I suggest it only as a last resort.”

“I’d be happy enough just to find a tree,” said Cleo. “Somewhere to prop up our tent.”

“It would blow away,” said Harlequin.

Cleo hissed through her teeth. Not because Harlequin had corrected her, but because she now realised how silly her suggestion had been. She was too tired and beaten to think straight.

“I’m beginning to miss that hut back in Stonehaven,” said Spark, hugging her tiny arms around herself.

“Me too.” Cleo shuddered, and she felt Faith’s arm tighten around her waist. “Right now, I’m regretting leaving that wood.”

“If this storm doesn’t let up soon we’re gonna become tiny little pokemon-shaped icicles!” said Spark. “Surely one of these hills has a burrow already in it, right? Like an old bunnelby den?”

Harlequin had stopped in front of her, bring Cleo and Faith to a sudden halt.

“How about a bush?” Harlequin asked, raising their head to look at Cleo.

Cleo blinked snow from her eyes and squinted past the zorua. She could just make out the form of a large bush with thick, broad leaves. Before she could answer, Harlequin stuck their head inside. Just as quickly, they came back out and nodded at her.

“It’s spacious. We could all fit,” said the zorua.

“You don’t need to ask me twice.” Spark bailed from Harlequin’s back and vanished inside the bush.

Harlequin ushered Cleo and Faith in ahead of them. The bush was indeed spacious, and its branches were so thick with leaves they created an impenetrable barrier against the snow. Cleo settled herself down at the far end, but something had caught Faith’s eye. She crouched in the opening to inspect the floor and almost toppled over as Harlequin bumped into her.

“Faith!” Harlequin shook their head, sending up a flurry of snow. “What are you-?”

“There are flowers here.” Faith looked up at them, her face lit up with delight. “Do you know what that means?”

“That the cold season is so late the flowers didn’t get the message?” Spark asked.

Faith shook her head. “No! These are the wildflowers that Xerneas leaves behind.”

“Wait.” Harlequin pushed in beside Faith and sat down, staring at the flowers. “Are you saying he put this bush here?”

Cleo folded her paws in her lap. She couldn’t take her eyes off the tiny flowers trailing into the bush. “He must have. I mean… These hills seemed devoid of any cover.”

Faith nodded enthusiastically. “That means he’s watching over us.”

“Then what about Mischief?” Cleo met Faith’s violet gaze.

Faith sat back on her paws. Her smile didn’t falter, but the light of joy left her eyes. “I honestly think Mischief will be fine wherever he is.”

Spark inclined her head on one side. “But… he was snatched away by that honchkrow.”

“I believe Xerneas is watching over him whatever happens.” Faith closed her eyes in a smile. “No matter what happens to Mischief, he’ll find his way back to the Fairy Garden.”

The group fell silent. A dark, heavy fog had descended over Cleo. She lowered herself to the ground as exhaustion took over, and she raised a paw gingerly to her sore ear. ‘Whatever happened’… She bit her lip, hoping desperately that Mischief was still alive.

Faith gazed out at the blizzard from the opening to the bush, then tugged a few of the branches forwards to keep it at bay before it changed direction.

“We could be here a while,” she said quietly. “Why don’t we pass a little time?”

“What? Like play charades?” Spark asked as she took a berry from Cleo.

Faith chuckled and shook her head. “No. I just think this might be a great time to get to know each other better. I mean, I don’t even know how you guys met! I have a vague idea of how you met Harlequin.” She flashed a smile at the zorua then turned back to Cleo and Spark. “But how did you two end up working together?”

Spark looked up at Cleo and twitched her little nose. “Huh. Well, that’s not a story either of us like re-visiting.”

Faith’s smile melted away. “It’s not a happy one then?”

Cleo shook her head as Spark answered, “Not at all.”

Faith nodded her understanding. “Well I don’t want to force you. How about you?” She turned to Harlequin.

“You already know how I met Cleo and Spark,” said Harlequin.

“Yes, that I do.” Faith chuckled and turned slightly towards the zorua. She folded her paws neatly in her lap, then said, “I’m curious as to how you ended up teaming up with Enigma.”

“Really?” Harlequin raised an eyebrow and recoiled slightly. “Why?”

“You’re an odd duo.” Faith shrugged. “I’m surprised there’s even a ghost-type working for the Darkness. But you two clearly have a reputation. I was just curious as to how it all started.”

Harlequin snorted. “Well I suppose it all started the day he showed up in my room behaving like a goofball.”

“A goofball?!” Berry pulp sprayed from Spark’s mouth and she wiped a paw across her whiskers. “I find that hard to believe.”

Harlequin shuffled their paws uneasily. “Believe it or not, he wasn’t always such a sadistic moron.” The zorua turned and slumped to the ground, tucking their nose beneath their tail.

“Now you’ve got my interest,” said Spark.

The fur on Harlequin’s tail stirred as they huffed through their nose. “Well it’s not my place to talk about it.”

Cleo and Spark exchanged glances, but they didn’t have much time to think about what the zorua had said. Harlequin took a breath, drawing their attention back.

“I suppose it all started when he saved my life.”

“Really?” Spark scoffed. “Huh. I didn’t think the Darkness looked out for each other. I mean I’ve seen enough murkrow ditch their flockmates to come to that conclusion.”

“Well Enigma isn’t a murkrow,” Harlequin spat. They lowered their head onto their tail and sighed. “No. It was all my fault anyway. I mean, I completely lost it after a training spar. It wasn’t long after I’d joined as an assassin, and I found out that there was absolutely no way for me to avoid evolving. I’d planned to wear an everstone, but assassins can’t wear items since they’re hazards. We can get trapped on things, snagged, or even have them used against us.”

“Really?” Cleo raised her head slightly. “But I thought Enigma wore a scarf.”

“And bell,” Spark added.

Harlequin shrugged. “His items are made from ghost materials. He can manipulate them.” Noticing their answer satisfied the pair, Harlequin went on. “I wanted to find a way to carry one without it becoming a problem, but I was upset. I could think of nothing other than to embed it into my body in some way. So… I tried to force a shard of it into my leg.” They extended their right leg and nodded at it.

“Yikes.” Spark’s spine bristled and she flinched back. “Talk about taking things to the extremes.”

Harlequin snorted and tucked their leg back in. “Thankfully Enigma found me. It’s all a bit of a blur, but he removed the shard and sealed up the wound. If he hadn’t found me I would have bled to death.”

Cleo looked away, trying to blink the awful image out of her mind. For a pokemon to go to such extremes… She recalled the time they’d apprehended Harlequin how the zorua had walked with a limp. Then later, their attitude towards Spark at her remark that they’d not evolved. Cleo had never heard of a fear of evolution before, but had such a thing come up among the Outcasts she was certain there would be support for them. To cause someone to feel forced to take matters into their own hands? Cleo hadn’t thought it possible to loathe the Darkness more than she already did. She became aware the entire bush had fallen into silence. She turned back to Harlequin who was staring blankly at the wall of leaves.

“So you’re afraid of evolving?” Cleo asked.

Harlequin shrugged. “Pretty much.”

Cleo licked her lips and relaxed back on her paws. “But you’ve still not evolved.”

“Yeah, I know.” The zorua took a breath. “We think part of the shard broke off and is stuck in my leg. Even if I wanted to, I’ve lost the chance now.”

“Well you don’t need to evolve anyway,” said Faith. “Just be yourself.”

Harlequin let out a bitter laugh. “That’s one thing you can’t be in the Shadow Lands. ‘Yourself’.”

“What do you mean by that?” Spark asked. “Did they force you to become an assassin or something?”

“Yes, actually.” Harlequin raised their head to look Spark dead in the eye. “But that’s not what I was getting at. There’s a reason I’m scared of evolving.” They diverted their gaze as their eyes widened at some unseen memory. “And there’s a reason I’ve been living a lie since I arrived in that wretched place.”

All eyes were on the zorua as they took a few deep breaths. Harlequin closed their eyes briefly then looked at each of their friends.

“One thing an assassin cannot be is female,” they said. “It was either lie, or be thrown into the breeding pens.”

“Wait.” Spark held up a paw. “So everyone in the Shadow Lands believes you’re a male?”

“There have been a couple who worked it out near the start of my training,” Harlequin explained. “I just never bothered correcting anyone.”

“And I guess that goes for Enigma, too?” Faith asked.

Harlequin shrugged. “Believe me, it’s not been an easy decision to keep lying to him all these years. As for everyone else, making them think otherwise was a piece of cake. You see, zorua might be small and weak, but one thing we are great at is deceiving.”

...​

Snow buffeted Mischief’s small body, soaking through his thick fur. Ilana’s talons felt like icicles around his shoulders, and blood matted his fur where her claws had pierced his skin. Her wing-beats were stiff as she soared through the blizzard, and the smaller murkrow accompanying her shuddered. The occasional one lost momentum and dropped towards the ground, only to regain itself and carry on below them.

Mischief clenched his teeth tight as he craned his head to look back. He couldn’t see the woods anymore. They’d been flying for ages, and the blizzard obscured anything further back than a mere paw’s length. It had seemed to come from nowhere, surprising the honchkrow and her flock and biting through Mischief’s thin fur. Her instructions had been to find a tree for shelter, but what did that mean for him? Mischief didn’t plan to make it that far. Now he’d put enough distance between the birds and Cleo he could break free and flee. The blizzard would only serve to help him hide from their prying eyes.

The whimsicott looked back up at his captor. Her red eyes were focused on the path ahead, narrowed against the storm. The feathers of her face were tinted grey and white with snow, and she blinked to dislodge a flurry as it blew straight into her eyes. Now would be the perfect time to strike, while the wind was in his favour.

Mischief balled a paw at his side then, grimacing against the tightness in his shoulders, he brought his paw up in an arc. A shimmering purple light flew out from him, striking Ilana in her underbelly and clipping the murkrow closest to her. The honchkrow squawked with surprise, veering up away from the attack. Her talons loosened, and Mischief dropped suddenly towards the ground. He caught an angered glare from the large bird before the snow swooped in to obscure it.

The whimsicott turned as gravity pulled him downward. The wind filled the fluffy white fur on his back, slowing his descent. He turned his head to squint through the snow, but there was no sign of the honchkrow. Just in case, he turned against the wind, letting it blow him wildly off course. Where was the wind even taking him? Back towards the woods? His heart ached and he resisted the urge to look around him and loose his balance. He had no idea where the wind was carrying him, except away from Ilana. Perhaps, just maybe, he’d find Cleo waiting for him at the end of it.

...​

Ilana swooped back and forth, squinting towards the ground. Her flock fluttered around her, desperately searching for a glimpse of their prisoner in the storm.

“What on earth was that?!” she screeched. “Argh! We’ve lost him!”

“Ilana…” A small, scrawny murkrow drifted closer to her. The wretched thing’s feathers were plastered to her body, and she flailed her wings against the wind to stay airborne. “We can’t find him in this storm. We need to find somewhere to rest and wait it out.”

“By then he’d be miles away,” Ilana protested. “We must find him!”

“He’ll suffer as much as us,” the murkrow went on. “He won’t stand the cold for very long alone. And neither will we if we don’t rest.”

“Really?” Ilana looked around at the rest of her flock. “Does anyone else agree?”

The rest of the murkrow looked back at her with pleading eyes. Their feathers were heavy with snow, and many struggled to remain airborne. The honchkrow sighed and pushed back from her flock.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll find shelter, and look for that whimsicott when the storm subsides.”

The murkrow rallied beside her and they forced their way against the wind. Snow buffeted them as the wind picked up, almost forcing Ilana to close her eyes. She yelled a command to pan left, letting the wind carry them higher. She had no idea where they were. No idea if they were even travelling over woodland anymore. For all she knew, they could be over the ocean.

A shrill cry echoed from behind her and she jerked her head back to see one of her flock drop like a rock through the snow. The murkrow’s small body clipped the wing of her flockmate and the pair went spiralling into the blizzard. Panic flooded Ilana’s chest and she almost turned back to search for them, but she remembered the rest of her flock. Their tiny, weak wings beat against the cold air as they fought desperately to stay airborne. A few bolder ones turned back to retrieve their fallen comrades.

“Press on!” Ilana called, stopping their descent. “Don’t look back!”

The birds rallied themselves again, following their leader through the storm. Soon Ilana could make out the spindly branches of a tree through the blizzard. Its branches were heavy with snow, weighing down the brown leaves that still clung to it. It stood on the edge of a small grove, surrounded by bare oaks and fruit trees. It would have to do.

Ilana landed close to the trunk where the branches knotted overhead. Her flock gathered in around her, and once they were settled she looked back out at the storm. Narrowing her eyes was pointless. She couldn’t see anything through the curtain of spiralling snow. Her heart was racing, her mothering instinct to retrieve the fallen birds warring with her desire to warm up her stiff body. Instinct won.

“Huddle together,” she demanded. “I won’t be long.”

Before they could protest, she kicked off the branch and soared back into the blizzard. She lowered herself closer to the ground, squinting at the vast whiteness below her. It was likely a fruitless endeavour. Just as she was giving up hope and about to turn back, her eyes picked out black among the white. She swooped towards it, reaching out with her talons. They fastened around the cold, still body of a murkrow. Not far from her flockmate’s fallen body she could see the snow stirring. Ilana reached out again, fumbling until she found the second bird. She didn’t stop to check them over. She swooped back towards the trees, her beak clamped tight as the cold shocked through to her bones.

The honchkrow’s stiff wings carried her back to the tree where she first deposited the two frozen murkrow. The first one she’d grabbed was barely breathing, while the other trembled like a sickly chick. Their flockmates steadied them before they fell from the branch like bird-shaped icicles. Ilana landed heavily between them and spread her wings, huddling the trembling birds against her freezing body. With the rest of the flock huddling in around her, the blizzard didn’t seem quite as cold. She just hoped it would end soon and they’d all make it through alive.

...​

The bush had fallen into silence as the Outcasts absorbed Harlequin’s words. The zorua fidgeted, occasionally glancing out at the falling snow. Cleo folded her paws in her lap as she thought over what the assassin had told them. As much as the Shadow Lands was an awful place, she’d had no idea those who worked for the Darkness suffered the way they did.

“How on earth did you end up there in the first place?” The words left Cleo’s mouth before she’d even finished thinking them.

Harlequin shrugged her shoulders and curled her tail around herself. “I was plucked from the Border Woods while I was still a hatchling.”

“You were kidnapped?” Faith gasped, clapping both paws over her muzzle.

“Kind of,” said Harlequin. “I was at the older stages, not quite an adolescent. Not that it really matters. Hydreigon was desperate to fill out his rapidly depleting forces and sent Yurlik into the borders to find anyone who would be willing to work for him.”

“And you were willing, I guess?” Spark scoffed.

Harlequin fired a glare at the dedenne. “I had to be, I was terrified. How would you have felt? A kid just dropped among vicious assassins and forced to train or die?”

Spark opened her mouth to retort, thought twice, then closed it again.

Cleo closed her eyes briefly and turned back to Harlequin. “So… you said he wanted to fill out his army? Had something happened?”

“Yeah, cos I was under the impression we were on the losing side,” said Spark.

“Well, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you.” Harlequin shifted with unease. “When Hydreigon overthrew his father for the throne not long before I was born, the Shadow Lands rebelled.” Cleo’s jaw went slack, but Harlequin continued. “He lost a lot of soldiers. They either fled or were slaughtered. Only those loyal to him remained, and were sworn to secrecy.”

“Hang on a sec.” Spark raised her paws, looking a little winded. “Are you saying the Hydreigon we’ve been fighting all these years isn’t the original one?”

“That’s what I hear, yes.”

“That’s huge!” Spark squealed.

Cleo brushed back the fur between her ears. “So the one in power is the former Hydreigon’s son? Did he… kill his father?”

“That’s exactly what he did,” said Harlequin quietly, casting a glance outside. “And I’d keep your voices down. This isn’t common knowledge.”

“No, it’s huge!” Spark repeated. “This could like… be used against him.”

“Precisely,” Harlequin hissed. “So before anyone overhears and decides to silence us all, hush!”

“You said it happened before you were born,” said Cleo quietly, drawing the zorua’s eye. “So how long have you known?”

“A few days,” said Harlequin.

Cleo nodded stiffly and bit her lip, glancing aside. “So is that the reason you’re turning against him now?”

“No. I’d decided that before I found out.” Harlequin shifted again.

Cleo took a deep breath through her teeth. “Well, Spark is right. It could be used against him. We need to inform the Guild.”

Harlequin’s fur bristled along her spine, but she didn’t retaliate. Instead she licked her lips and cast another glance out at the snow. The only pokemon who didn’t seem disturbed by the news was Faith. She sat deep in thought as she mused over everything Harlequin had told them.

Seeing the zorua’s discomfort, Faith picked up the conversation again, moving it away from the topic of Hydreigon.

“It mustn’t have been easy for you,” said the mawile. “I mean, taken from your home and forced to work for a cruel leader under a disguise? How did you manage to keep your secret for so long? A zorua’s illusion isn’t exactly unending, is it?”

Harlequin shrugged and rolled the mega stone under her paw. “It didn’t really matter at the time. When I arrived there were plenty of female assassins. Hydreigon hadn’t put the rule in place, and doing so was a tough decision. It reduced our numbers by about a third, further damaging his army.”

“And you managed to avoid it,” said Spark bluntly.

“I had to.” Harlequin pulled her ears back and stared down at the absolite. “If I didn’t I’d have been thrown into the breeding pens. I…” Her eyes widened and she dug her claws into the earth. “I’d sooner die.”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Faith gently, “what happened for him to put that rule in place?”

“A mission went wrong,” said Harlequin. “It cost the lives of two female assassins, one of which was a scrafty named Niana. She worked with her brother in the barracks, looking after those too young to fend for themselves. It meant a lot of us got rather attached to her, and her death broke morale.” She paused and took a deep breath, and Cleo couldn’t help wondering if she was hiding something. “Assassins aren’t meant to have attachments. Families are considered a weakness. We’re not even meant to have friends.”

Cleo’s mind flashed back to Enigma’s assault on them near the old abbey. His scathing comments to Harlequin about them never being friends. Suddenly, it all began to make sense. She bit her lip as Faith probed a question.

“You said two were killed.” The mawile inclined her head on one side. “Who was the other one?”

Harlequin was silent for a moment, staring into the shadows cast by the leafy walls. “A weavile,” she finally said. “Named Kera.”

“Kera…” Spark twitched her nose at Cleo then turned back to Harlequin. “I think you mentioned her before.”

Harlequin nodded stiffly.

“A friend of yours?” Faith asked.

The zorua took a deep breath and shook her head. “Not mine, no.” She waved a dismissive paw before Faith could ask any further questions. “It’s… not my place to talk about it.”

Spark threw her paws in the air. “Aww, now I’m curious.”

“Anyway,” Harlequin shot her a scathing look, “to prevent such things from happening again, Hydreigon kicked all the females out of the barracks.”

“He discarded them all as breeding stock?” Spark spat. “That’s abhorrent!”

“Exactly.” Harlequin bristled. “But some thankfully managed to avoid that fate. They found positions in the Thieves Guild, which has its own rules separate from those over Hydreigon’s armies. They serve him, yes, but they don’t work under him like the soldiers and assassins do. He’d probably destroy them entirely if they didn’t serve some purpose, but that’s where most of his supplies come from.”

“Thieves…” Cleo rolled the word over her tongue. “Weren’t they the guys who jumped us?”

“The thievul and nikkit?” Harlequin nodded. “Yes, they’re part of the Thieves Guild.”

The bush fell into silence again as the Outcasts digested everything. Now they knew more about what went on in the Shadow Lands it made the Darkness seem even darker somehow.

Harlequin lowered her head onto her paws and let out a long sigh. “So… now you know. That’s me.”

“So you managed to go on undetected?” Faith asked softly.

“Exactly.”

“That must have been really difficult.” Faith’s expression had turned sullen. “To have to lie about who you are for so many years.”

“I did what I had to in order to survive.”

“I know, but…” Faith looked up at her, but the zorua didn’t meet her eyes. “You said you aren’t allowed to be friends there, but Enigma is your friend, right? Surely he wouldn’t have betrayed you?”

“No. I don’t think he would have.” Harlequin’s eyes welled up and she closed them tight. “But I had no choice. Lying to him made it easier to lie to myself.”

Spark scratched between her ears. “Why would you need to convince yourself you’re a male?”

Cleo lowered her head to whisper to her friend. “I don’t think that’s what she means.”

Spark gave her a baffled look which Cleo ignored. The meowstic sat back on her paws again and twitched her foot.

“Well, since Harlequin’s told us a bit about herself,” she began slowly, “then I think it’s our turn, Spark.”

Faith looked up sharply, her violet eyes sparkling.

“Wait, what?” Spark gasped. “Are you sure about this?”

Cleo shrugged. “I’m anxious about re-living it, but… I think it might help to get it off my chest. I mean, we’ve never really told the entire story to anyone before.”

“Not even Tinker?” Faith asked.

“He has an idea. I mean, if it weren’t for him we’d both have died,” Cleo explained. “But he doesn’t know the finer details. It was pretty traumatic. It’s always been something we both don’t really like to talk about.”

“Until now, apparently,” said Spark. She hugged herself and huddled next to Cleo. “Somehow I feel it’s about to get a whole lot colder in here.”
 
Ashes

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
Content warning contains spoilers!
Death, injury, and references to meat-eating predators

Ashes​

Smoke billowed into the air like a heavy cloud as the flames consumed everything in their path. Wood crackled and popped and heavy branches gave up all hope and dropped onto the forest floor. A small espurr scrambled over scorched ground, her tiny paws clasped over her muzzle. The smell of burning wood and flesh was overwhelming, and she daren’t pay much attention to the smoldering mess that surrounded her. She choked and spluttered, gulping in tainted air.

“Mum!” she yowled. “Dad!”

She slumped against the rough bark of a hollowed sycamore and coughed into her paw.

“Mum…” Her voice cracked and she swallowed around a lump in her throat.

She knew it was hopeless. The flames swept forwards, urged on by the wind. Howls faded into the distance as the dark canine forms raced on ahead of the blaze. She could still see that awful shape in her mind. The tall, lithe canine, its head crowned with two curving horns. Flames reflected in its red eyes before it tossed its head back and let out a chilling howl. Then the flames had followed. Flamethrowers launched from the jaws of his houndour pack as the houndoom raced on, burning all in his path.

The espurr’s father had scooped her up and lowered her from a window much too small for her parents to escape from. “Run, Cleo. Run and don’t look back.”

Of course she’d looked back. Why hadn’t they come with her? Why leave her to escape on her own? Her answer came when she saw the smoldering remains of her family’s wooden door. The barrier of fire was impossible to break through. Her heart raced as she fled, desperate to find any trace of her family. Her desperation had taken her into the thick of the blaze, and she was surrounded by towering flames.

“Where are you?!”

Her yowls rose over the crackling wood, and another bough broke away from its trunk and crashed down only several feet away. Embers sprayed up from it, splattering Cleo’s thin grey coat. She raised a paw to protect her eyes and choked back a sob. It escaped regardless. Her entire body shook as it took over and she sank down against the hot sycamore bark.

“Why?” she gasped, covering her eyes with her paws. “Why didn’t you come with me?!”

The blaze continued around her, eating up what remained of her home. She hugged her knees into her chest, gasping against the sobs that took over her body. Her lungs burned and her dry eyes stung, unable to shed any more tears.

“Mum!”

Cleo’s head jerked up towards the squeaky voice.

“Dad! Where are you!”

A tiny dedenne scrambled over the scorched ground, her orange fur thick with black soot. She stopped and raised her head, sniffing at the air. Then she coughed.

“Mum!” She called again, turning around on her feet. “Da-” Her eyes landed on Cleo and the rodent froze.

Cleo stared back, meeting the dedenne’s large black eyes. The dedenne stiffened with primal fear, remaining perfectly still regardless of the flames that threatened to consume her. Her black eyes glowed orange in the firelight and suddenly her nose twitched. Then she turned and bolted through the flames.

“Wait!”

Cleo pushed herself up chasing after the dedenne. She spotted her tail vanishing between two large trees and the dry, brown grass beyond it swayed as she raced away. Cleo’s heart did a flip. The gap seemed so small even to her. One of the oaks was burned up one side as flames continued to eat away at it. Cleo forced her way through the gap, sucking in her breath in a bid to make herself smaller. Rough bark scraped her fur and the heat from the fire made her gasp. But finally she was out. She followed the dedenne’s trail, but there was no sign of the small rodent. Then, in the distance, she heard her cry again as she sought her parents.

Cleo’s heart went out to her, and she found herself calling for her own parents once more. The flames thinned out as she reached the edge of the forest. Her paws raced over hot stones until she found herself standing on the cool grass of the Rocky Plains. Cleo turned, throwing her voice back into the blaze.

“Mum! Dad!” Her voice choked off and she doubled over, placing her paws on her knees. Her energy left her and she sank to her bottom, staring wide-eyed at what remained of the Sparkling Forest. Once a lush forest made of ancient trees it was now a skeletal, blazing mass against the night sky. The branches of the trees reached up like claws, permanently frozen in a silent scream for help. Once bustling with psychic- and electric-type pokemon, the forest glowed red. No jovial cries filled the air, just the roar of flames and the popping of dying wood.

The short grass rustled beside Cleo and she turned to see the dedenne shuffling over the rocks. She was tiny, standing not much taller than Cleo’s knee. Her large eyes were fixed on the blaze, glistening with tears. Side by side they watched their home burn. Neither of them knew where to go. Both of them were too young. Cleo had never been beyond the Rocky Plains. Her heart broke and she let out a guttural sob, lowering her head into her paws.

“It’s all gone.” The dedenne’s quiet voice shook. “Our home. Gone.”

Over the roar of flames a piercing howl rent the night air. Cleo’s spine bristled and she looked up sharply, swiping the tears from her eyes. She thought she saw the shadowy dark canine shapes racing through the flames. Or was it a tree falling? Whatever it was, she didn’t want to stand around and find out.

“We need to get out of here.” Cleo pushed herself to her feet. “How fast can you run?”

The dedenne frowned up at her and her whiskers crackled with electricity. “Fast enough to outrun you.”

“Fast then.” Cleo smoothed out her fur and looked down at the little rodent. “My parents told me about a group called the Outcasts. They have a Guild. If we can find them, then-”

“We?” The dedenne balled her fists and electricity bounced over her fur, vanishing into the soft ground. “What makes you think there’s a ‘we’? I’m not gonna stick with some dirty predator!”

“Dirty?” Cleo scoffed.

“Your kind hunts us!” The dedenne jabbed a claw into her chest. “There’s no ‘we’, feline. I might have shown you a way out of that blaze, but now you’re on your own.”

The dedenne turned to race away and Cleo’s heart lurched. Alone.

Another howl filled the air and the dedenne froze, lowering herself to the ground. Cleo’s fur fluffed out and she held her breath until the unearthly wail petered out.

“There’s safety in numbers.” Her quiet voice still reached the dedenne’s large ears.

The dedenne rose to her feet and stood still for a moment, then stomped a tiny paw.

Turning to face Cleo, the dedenne’s nose crinkled in a frown. “Fine. But only as far as the Guild.”

Cleo trotted to join the rodent’s side and tried to force a polite smile. “Thank you.” She paused as the dedenne marched on ahead. She’d heard the espurr’s thanks but showed no indication of it. “My name’s Cleo. What’s yours?”

The dedenne twitched her nose at Cleo as she caught up with her. “Spark.”

“Fitting,” said Cleo.

Spark grunted, letting stray static scatter off her whiskers.

The unlikely duo continued on in silence, their ears straining for any hint of the Wildfires. The hungry crackle faded out as they moved away from the inferno. With each step Cleo’s heart ached. Every time she closed her eyes she expected to find herself back in her familiar home, but she’d open them again and still be outside, walking over the coarse grass of the Rocky Plains. That little wooden house she’d called home wouldn’t have stood a chance in that fire.

“I can’t believe it’s all gone.”

Cleo’s heart leapt at the dedenne’s voice. She jerked her head back to search behind them, half expecting someone to leap out at them.

Spark plodded on, seemingly oblivious. “Who knows how long it’ll take us to get to the Guild? I mean… we’re in the wide open out here. I wouldn’t be surprised if a pidgeot swooped down and nabbed me.”

Cleo smoothed out her bristling fur and forced an air of confidence. “I wouldn’t let it.”

Spark scoffed and fired her a scathing look. “Like you could take a pidgeot?”

“I could give it a hard time.”

“Yeah! Right!” Spark laughed and shook her little head. “I’ve heard stories of pidgeot snatching espurr kits before. You’re not small or nimble enough to slip out of its wicked talons.”

Cleo boiled with indignation. She clenched her fists and held back the urge to bare her canines. “I’ve never heard such tales.”

“Maybe your parents just didn’t want to scare you?” Spark spread her paws in a shrug. “We dedenne are warned from the day we hatch from our eggs what threats to avoid. Number one - meowstic. Number two - pidgeot. Number three-”

“What kind of tall tales did your parents feed you?” Cleo scoffed.

“They warned us what would try to eat us,” Spark explained, scanning Cleo with a probing gaze. “Come to think of it, you’re too small to be a threat.”

“And you’re too small to be much more than a snack.”

Spark’s whiskers crackled and she rounded on Cleo with a shrill hiss. “What did you just call me?!”

“Small?”

The espurr shrieked as hot electricity seared through her body. Her muscles locked and she toppled back onto her bottom, landing painfully on her stumpy tail. It only lasted an instant but it was enough to leave her gasping for breath.

Spark glared up at her, whiskers crackling with residual static. “Never… call me small.”

“Noted.” Cleo rubbed her sore limbs as she staggered back to her feet.

Her mother’s words echoed around her head as she was brought back to a distant memory on the river bank. ‘Sometimes it’s the smallest fish that have the fiercest bite.’ Cleo shook her head as she watched Spark’s soot-stained body hopping away over the rocky ground. ‘Fierce’ was glossing over it a bit.

Cleo forced herself on, every muscle complaining with the effort. After a few minutes however her limbs began to ease and she managed to catch up with Spark. But she let the dedenne continue on ahead a foot or so, not willing to put herself at risk of another thundershock.

The further they moved from the forest the cooler the air became. Cleo noted Spark’s shadow spreading out behind her, much longer than her little body. Cleo’s gaze wandered to the sky and her heart sank. Pretty soon the sun would be setting beyond the blazing forest, plunging the Rocky Plains into darkness. Soon, the two little hatchlings would find themselves wandering around in the dark.

“We need to find somewhere to sleep.” Cleo’s voice came out as a near whisper.

Spark stopped and stood tall to look back at her. “Where? This place is barren.”

Cleo marched past her, searching over the sparse horizon. “There’s got to be a thicket or something somewhere.”

“You expect me to sleep in a bush?” Spark scoffed.

“Neither of us have much choice,” Cleo retorted.

Spark sighed and scampered to keep up with her companion. “I really miss my little tree house.”

Cleo cast her a sympathetic glance. Spark wasn’t alone there. Cleo would give anything to undo the destruction of her home. She pressed on, keeping her wits about her as the sky darkened above them. Long shadows stretched out from the wiry plants that forced their way between the rocks.

Spark stopped suddenly in one of the shadows and dropped to a crouch. Cleo stifled a yell of surprise as the dedenne’s head vanished out of sight. Spark’s long tail swished from side to side and a curious squeak came from beyond the shadows. She stood again and scanned Cleo with her eyes.

“Suppose you wouldn’t fit in here, huh?” She nodded to a crevice created by the persistent trunk of a sapling.

Cleo gave it one glance and shook her head.

Reluctantly Spark left the promising shelter behind and kept pace beside the espurr.

A low howl rumbled through the air, freezing the pair to the spot. Their ears swivelled forwards as they stared off towards the noise. It was difficult to pinpoint, and Cleo found her gaze wandering back the way they’d come. Their former home was no more than an orange hue on the horizon. Above it, the sky was painted a deep blue with the first stars of the evening poking through.

“That wasn’t the Wildfires was it?” Spark asked.

The dedenne’s gaze was still trained on the path ahead of them. Cleo shook her head slowly, and kept her voice low.

“No. It didn’t sound right.” She scratched behind her ear and narrowed her eyes. “I think it might have been the Howling Gorge.”

Spark shuddered and hugged her arms around herself. “It sounds horrible.”

Cleo glanced down at her little companion and relaxed. The pair of them had never been any further than they had come that day. Cleo had only heard stories of the Howling Gorge. It was the main obstacle separating the Sparkling Forest from Guild territory. It wasn’t impossible to cross. Pokemon came and went with ease. The only major risk was the wind that tore through it with the force of a gale, whisking unsuspecting pokemon off their feet.

Cleo nodded at Spark and moved on ahead. “Come on. We might find shelter nearer the gorge.”

Spark trotted along beside her on all fours, keeping her belly close to the ground. If Cleo hadn’t known she was there she would have lost her.

Another low howl reached their ears, and Cleo became more convinced it was nothing but the wind. Before long she could make out the deep gouge in the plains as it spread out before them. It looked like a river had once cut through it many years ago. The steep slope was almost a vertical drop on the far side, while the ground at their feet sloped down dramatically. It was much too wide to leap across even for a pokemon like arcanine, and the drop would have killed anyone instantly. Cleo had to squint to see the bottom through the oncoming dark of night.

She stood back and looked left and right. “There is meant to be a bridge along here somewhere.”

“Oh good,” said Spark. “I was beginning to wonder if I had to sprout wings.”

Cleo narrowed her eyes as something caught her eye to her left. She nudged Spark to follow her and scampered along the length of the ravine. Her heart leapt as what she’d made out began to sway in the wind.

“There it is!” she gasped.

A rope bridge stretched out across the chasm, swaying as the wind washed over it. Wooden slats spread out across it, but large gaps remained where the wild winds had torn several of the planks free, leaving a free drop right down into the gorge.

“I don’t like the look of that,” Cleo muttered, hesitating at the entrance to the bridge.

Spark paid no attention to the espurr. The little dedenne hopped onto the bridge and bounded across it, building up a running jump to land nimbly on the rope. That way, she didn’t have to brave the gaps.

Cleo’s heart raced. There was no turning back now. There was nowhere else for her to go. Swallowing around a dry lump in her throat, Cleo stepped gingerly onto the bridge. It creaked slightly but held her weight. Creeping one paw in front of the other, Cleo followed after Spark. Her companion was already half way across, scurrying along the rope on all-fours.

A deep howl reached Cleo’s ears and her heart sank. There was no time to abandon the bridge. The wind roared through the chasm, buffeting the bridge and the hatchlings perched upon it. It swung wildly from side to side, sending Cleo onto her bottom. A sharp cry jerked her head up. Spark was clinging to the rope with her forepaws, her little claws tearing across the frayed surface. The merciless wind whipped the dedenne clean off the rope, threatening to drag her along into the ravine. Spark screamed, her eyes screwed shut tight as she somersaulted through the air.

“Spark!” Cleo uncurled her ears, trapping the little rodent in a purple bubble.

Spark eyes flew open, staring around her as she hovered several feet away from the bridge. She met Cleo’s focused stare as the espurr dragged her back towards her. The wind buffeted Cleo’s grey fur and she dug her claws into the wood to stop herself being dragged from it. The swaying of the rope bridge made concentrating difficult, but Spark was soon safely hovering above Cleo.

The wind died back down and Cleo let out the breath she’d been holding. Once the bridge had stopped swinging, she lowered Spark at her feet.

The dedenne trembled from ear to tail, her large black eyes staring out across the chasm. “I thought I was dead.”

Cleo pushed herself to her feet and stepped past Spark. “Let’s get a move on before it tries it again?”

Spark skipped along after her, and bounded over a wooden gap. She landed ahead of Cleo as the espurr braced herself to leap across it. It wasn’t wide, but the thought of the wind picking up and knocking her hundreds of feet to her death didn’t settle well with her.

Spark took a step back, patiently waiting for Cleo to make her move. The espurr leapt and landed in a crouch. Spark beamed up at her and turned to finish crossing the bridge. Feeling more confident, Cleo managed to leap the rest of the gaps. As they reached the other side, the wind began to pick up again. Cleo leapt the last of the way, rolling to a stop on the cool, welcoming grass. The rope bridge creaked ominously, and Cleo looked back to see one of the slats torn free with a loud snap.

Spark paled and shuffled backwards, away from the bridge. “Well… I can safely say I don’t wanna do that again.”

“Ditto.” Cleo pushed herself up and shook out her fur. It was still on end from the whole ordeal.

She became increasingly aware of Spark watching her. Unwilling to meet her gaze, Cleo turned to orient herself. Where were they meant to go from here? The grassy plains were less rocky on this side of the ravine, and they ended in a large woodland Cleo was unfamiliar with.

“Thanks.”

Cleo jerked around to meet Spark’s gaze.

The dedenne nodded back towards the bridge and wound her little paws together. “For saving me back there. If it weren’t for you… well, I don’t really wanna think about it.”

Cleo nodded and a small smile adorned her muzzle. “Don’t mention it. You did save me from the blaze after all.”

“So we’re even?” Spark shuffled past her and motioned with a paw. “’Cos I don’t really wanna save you again, or vice versa. I think I’d rather we made it to the Guild without any more danger, don’t you?”

Cleo laughed and caught up with the dedenne. “That would be great.”

Spark came to an abrupt stop and tensed. “Do you know where to go from here? I… don’t like the look of those woods.”

Dark trees stretched out before them, their branches spiking like jagged shadows against the darkening sky. Stars spread out like a sparkling blanket over a deep blue backdrop which seemed to blacken by the second.

“We might not have much choice,” Cleo explained. “Besides, the only place we might find shelter is closer to the woods. I can’t see any bushes nearby.”

“We might find a burrow?” Spark suggested.

Cleo didn’t really want to waste time they didn’t have searching for a burrow. There was also the possibility any would be occupied, and not necessarily by a welcoming inhabitant. Spark kept her eyes on the sky, eyeing the canopy warily. The little hatchling’s primal fear of aerial predators was becoming more and more apparent. Sheltering in the woods at night was more of a threat than the wide open plains. Everyone knew murkrow liked to keep watch for their prey at night, hidden in the shadows of the leaves.

“We could try and go around the woods?” Cleo offered. “It will take us longer to find the Outcast town that way, but it will keep us out of the way of murkrow.” ‘Hopefully’ she added silently.

Spark nodded and turned stiffly away from the tree line. The pair followed the invisible path around the woods, searching for any shelter that could offer them a good night’s rest. Faint caws echoed through the night sky, setting Cleo’s fur on end. She found herself walking low to the ground, occasionally dropping onto all-fours. Spark was almost invisible in the rough grass, trying to hide among the rocks.

Soon only faint moonlight shone on the plains, turning the grass silver. The dark shadows of the trees spread out on their right, while the plains stretched on as far as Cleo could see to their left. Cleo still felt following the tree-line was the safest option. She feared they’d get hopelessly lost wandering over the plains. Her eyes fell on a spiky mound trailing out only a few feet from the woods. Long thorny branches draped down over the knotted roots of the trees beyond it.

Cleo hissed to get Spark’s attention and pointed a paw towards it. Spark twitched her nose uncertainly, her gaze trailing up the towering trees behind the hawthorn. Cleo beckoned for her to follow, and Spark gingerly scurried behind, her ears trained on the woods.

The hawthorn wasn’t especially tall, but its long branches were decked out with slender thorns that would deter persistent predators. She found a crook in one of its sturdier branches and pulled herself up into it. Spark leapt up and clung to her tail, then scampered over her back to land on the branch beside her. The dedenne looked over it with a snort of disdain, then nodded.

“It’ll do,” she whispered, followed by a wide yawn. “Good grief am I hungry. Think we can find some berries soon?”

Cleo caught the dedenne’s yawn, covering her mouth with a paw. “Sure. We can find a razz bush or something.”

She settled back against the trunk and closed her eyes. The blaze roared through her mind and her heart ached. It felt like so long ago, but it was still fresh in her mind. She couldn’t believe it had only happened a matter of hours ago. Her parent’s… tears pricked her eyes and she placed a paw on her stomach as nausea flooded over her. She wasn’t remotely hungry.

Spark let out a shrill shriek and Cleo’s eyes snapped open. The dedenne walked backwards along the branch until her back pressed into Cleo’s foot. Cleo followed her gaze, heart pounding. Stretched across the branch were the skeletal remains of a ratatta. A long thorn poked out from between its ribs. Some of the bones had fallen away, leaving nothing but the head and torso, but the implications were unmistakable.

Cleo licked her dry lips. “I’m sorry, Spark.”

“This was a fletchinder’s larder…” Spark sank to her bottom, keeping her trembling spine against Cleo’s paw. “Why… why are you predators so cruel?”

Cleo closed her eyes and sighed. “Everyone’s got to eat.”

“I can’t…” Spark shook her head sharply and turned away from the espurr. “I can’t… stay here… not with you. I have to go!”

The dedenne leapt from the tree, landing in the thick foliage below.

“Spark, wait!” Cleo hissed.

Nothing but the rustle of grass answered her. She couldn’t see Spark in the darkness. Cleo’s heart twisted in her chest as she warred with the decision to chase after the dedenne or stay sheltered in the protection of the hawthorn.

Faint caws echoed from the trees behind her, washing over her with a cold dread. She couldn’t leave Spark out there on her own. She’d be picked clean by the Darkness long before dawn broke. Muttering under her breath, Cleo pushed herself from the tree and landed awkwardly. The resulting thud made her sound a lot larger than she was. The cawing cut out, plunging the plains into an eerie silence.

Cleo’s ears strained to pick up any sign of Spark. For a long moment she thought she’d lost the dedenne completely, but a faint rustle came from the grass a few feet away. Cleo took off after it, trying to keep her steps light. Pain throbbed in her right ankle and she staggered, forcing herself onto all-fours again. Limping on three legs she followed the sound, but it wasn’t long before she lost it.

Cleo froze, her ears twitching back and forth. The caws returned, louder this time, followed by the unmistakable sound of birds taking to the air. The beating of their wings was like a thunderclap over the silent plains. Cleo turned her head back slowly, her eyes widening. A huge black cloud rose from the canopy of the woods making a beeline straight for her. Red eyes shone in the moonlight, shooting down towards her like falling stars. A loud feline wail left her throat and she turned, bolting blindly across the plains. Her ankle complained with each step until she had to force herself to keep it tucked beneath her belly.

The loud cries from the murkrow grew louder as the flock swarmed towards her. The wind from their wings whipped up around her and she pressed herself on, racing as fast as three legs would allow. Her fore-paw struck something solid, sending her sprawling across the uneven ground. She leapt back to her feet, but was knocked back to her stomach as sharp talons plunged into her back. She screamed, rolling with claws flailing to dislodge her assailant. All she saw was black. Wings beat at her face as talons flashed before her eyes. The murkrow shrieked their caws, hidden insults spat out in their own raucous language.

Cleo’s eyes flashed and she bared her canines at the murkrow poised on her chest. She wailed out her own reply in an unearthly yowl that could chill any bird to the core. The murkrow was unfazed, lashing out with its talons. Cleo lunged forwards, her teeth flashing before its throat.

‘Why are you predators so cruel?’

She hesitated, her eyes widening. The murkrow’s wing smashed across her face, sending her sprawling sideways. The rest of the flock rained down on her, slicing with their beaks and talons. Cleo shrieked and raised her paws to protect her face.

“Get off her!”

The sky lit up and the murkrow screeched, dropping off Cleo like rocks. Sparks danced over their oily feathers and their wings jerked uncomfortably. It wasn’t all of them, but it was enough to allow Cleo back to her feet. Spark raced over the grass, her whiskers crackling for another attack. The murkrow turned from Cleo, interested only in the electrical threat racing towards them. They lunged at the dedenne, and a streak of lightning parted the black cloud. Murkrow rained down from it, ignored by those that could still fly. Soon Spark was buried beneath their screeching, violent bodies. Another sputter of electricity danced through the cloud, shocking a couple more of the birds. But the dedenne was overwhelmed, her shrill voice drowned out by the excited caws of the Darkness.

Cleo rubbed her bloodied arm and fought for breath. All she could do was stare. How on earth was she meant to deal with those murkrow? Her psychic attacks wouldn’t so much as tickle them. She had to do something. Spark needed her. She’d saved her. Cleo couldn’t let her die. Her claws flexed out from her paws and she took in a deep, painful breath. Then she leapt into the fray with a loud yowl. Her claws swiped over the backs of two of the murkrow who shrieked with pain. They turned to beat her with their wings, but Cleo clipped one of them with her claws. It fell at her feet and she tore into it violent slashes. The other tore at her ears and she wailed, batting it with the back of her paw.

A scream came from the flock, followed by a huge jolt of lightning. It exploded out through the murkrow flock and washed over Cleo, stiffening every muscle in her body. The flock flew into a frenzy, rising up into the air like a black tornado. Many murkrow lay prone, sparking and bloodied.

Cleo flopped to the ground, unable to move. Every muscle jerked, hot with electricity. Spark lay in the midst of the murkrow, her eyes screwed shut. Red welts marred her soot-stained fur. The dedenne’s whiskers crackled with static. Then she went limp.

“Spark…” Cleo whispered.

The world turned blurry, and the murkrows cries sounded distant in her head. But she could still feel them circling over her, the beat of their wings.

Cleo’s last thought before she lost consciousness was of her parents. Soon, soon she’d see them again. She just wished she’d been able to prove to Spark that not all predators are heartless killers.

...​

Cleo roused to gentle rocking and the sound of rocks scattering beneath her. She sat up, rubbing a paw over her bleary eyes. Soft voices formed over the clattering. Excitement swelled inside her. It was all a bad dream. She was home! But as she opened her mouth to shout for her mother, the name died on her tongue. A riolu sat a few feet away, talking to a marshtomp. The latter was holding a pair of reins while an arcanine raced along ahead of them. Cleo was sat in a wooden cart wedged between two large lumpy sacks. She turned her head, causing the world to spin. She cradled a paw to her sore ear and blinked a few times to clear the fog away. Another pokemon sat near the back of the cart. An audino, cradling Spark’s beaten body. A soft pink glow came from the rabbit-like pokemon, washing over the tiny dedenne.

“Where am I?” Cleo’s voice sounded bleary despite the confusion racing around her head at top knot.

The three pokemon looked up, and the riolu’s eyes widened. Only one of his eyes seemed to respond to her, while the other looked vaguely off to her left.

“You’re awake!” He didn’t sound much older than she was. He leaned forwards on his knees and tipped his head on one side to examine her. “How are you feeling? Do you need any more help?”

“Any more?” Cleo rubbed a paw over her ears. Her arms felt sore, but the wounds were already healing. She cast a curious glance at the audino. Then her gaze fell on the sun-shaped badge pinned to the pink pokemon’s scarf. “Are you… with the Outcasts Guild?”

“Yes,” said the riolu, drawing Cleo’s gaze back to him. “I’m Tinker. I’m the one currently running the Guild, and-”

“Give yeseln more credit, Tink,” said the marshtomp. “Ignore thissun, kitty. ‘E’s th’ Guild leader ‘n’ commander, right enough.”

“Acting leader and commander,” Tinker hissed. “My position is temporary, Finley, and you know it.”

The marshtomp chortled merry laughter, which was echoed by the arcanine. Cleo didn’t laugh. She stared blankly at the riolu. In charge? But… he was just a hatchling like her and Spark. How could he be running the Guild?

“You’re lucky we found you,” Tinker told Cleo, jolting her out of her thoughts. “I was nearby at the time, gathering supplies from an orchard just north of your home. I’d got wind of the attack on the Sparkling Forest and had gone there to check for survivors, but…” His eye misted over, stifling any hope Cleo was starting to form. “I’m so sorry. You’re both too young to have gone through that.”

Cleo diverted her gaze to the passing scenery. There was something in his voice that told her he deeply understood. She found herself wondering again how someone so young had been put in charge of an entire guild of Outcasts. However, she couldn’t find the nerve to ask him. They were travelling down a mountain slope towards a massive moorland. It shone like a green gem amid the rocky landscape.

“Thank you for rescuing us,” she said. “Is Spark…?”

“Your friend is alive, just very weak,” Tinker explained. “I fear if we hadn’t heard the murkrow attack then you both wouldn’t have made it.”

Cleo’s heart ached. All she could do was watch the audino continue her healing of Cleo’s tiny companion. She had no idea how far they were from the Sparkling Forest now. How long had she been unconscious?

“Where are you taking us?” she asked.

Tinker met her gaze and gave a small, weak smile. “You’ll see soon enough.”

As Cleo watched the mountain trundle past she felt her strength begin to wane. Before she knew it, she was out like a light, with only the rattle of the cart replacing her absent dreams.

...​

When Cleo woke again, she was lying in a soft bed of hay. For a fleeting moment she thought it was her own bed, but the smells were all wrong. Sharp medicinal berries wafted through the air, and the light padding of paws trotted over dry earth. Cleo pushed herself up slightly, blinking away the fog of sleep. The audino she’d seen in the cart paced back and forth, checking over the nest beside her. She spoke softly, cheerfully. As she stepped aside, Cleo spotted Spark sitting up in a nest much too big for her. A large plate of berries lay at her feet, or would have been if the dedenne didn’t have to hop onto it to reach her meal. The berries were almost the same size as her, and she tucked into a massive cheri with relish.

“Spark!” Cleo squeaked, feeling an uncanny happiness swelling inside her chest.

The dedenne turned to look at her and beamed. She licked juice from her whiskers and nodded. “You’re awake then?”

Cleo nodded. “I can see you are too. I’m so glad. I thought…” She trailed off and stared down at her paws.

“Eh.” Spark waved a paw and turned to her meal. “We reached the Guild at least. Good eatings, too.”

The audino chuckled at that. “You’ve got a large appetite that far outweighs your size! It must be all that energy you spent fighting those murkrow.”

“I gave ‘em what for,” said Spark around a full mouth. “Pokemon shouldn’t pick on those smaller than them.”

“Well, that’s Hydreigon for you,” said the audino. “He’s just one big bully.”

“Totally.”

Cleo wound her paws together in her lap. “Did you really find no more survivors?”

“No.” The audino wiped her paws on her apron and shook her head sadly. “Just you two. It seems that murkrow flock was stationed there to pick off any survivors who fled.”

“So there was really no one else?” Spark asked, her eyes widening. “No one else managed to get out of that blaze?”

“There might have been,” said the nurse. “You have to remember, there was only four of us travelling through and we weren’t on a rescue mission. If we had been, we would have sent a much larger number of soldiers. The only reason I was with Tinker was because I needed medicinal berries and wanted to select them myself.” She chuckled. “He worries more about keeping things cheap than effective, but he’ll learn in time.” She gave the pair a fond smile. “I’ll get you some breakfast, Cleo, and I’ll let Tinker know you’re awake.”

Cleo watched the audino shuffle towards a little wooden box situated in the wall. It rattled up and out of sight as she pulled on a thick rope. Blinking back her surprise, Cleo turned to Spark.

“You’ve been awake a while then?” she asked.

Spark swallowed her mouthful and nodded. “Dunno how long though.” Her expression changed to one of concern and she turned fully to face the espurr. “How are you feelin’?”

“A little sore.” Cleo rubbed her arm, tracing her claws over the raw scars. Her fur smelled like sitrus berries. “What about you? You took a real beating yourself.”

“I had a headache, but I ate it away.” Spark licked juice off her paws and selected another berry. This time an oran. “Berries are good for healing as well as filling your stomach.”

A small smile spread across Cleo’s muzzle. “Do all dedenne eat so much?”

Spark snorted and twitched her whiskers. “We gotta. Fast metabolism to outrun you lot.”

Cleo’s heart sank and she lowered her head onto her knees. How on earth would she be able to convince this pokemon that she wasn’t a threat to her?

“You really came through for me,” said Spark.

Cleo turned her head on her knees to meet the dedenne’s fleeting glance.

“More than once,” Spark added. “Thanks.”

“You helped me, too,” said Cleo. “I mean… I can’t really do anything to murkrow. My attacks don’t work on them. I have to use my claws.”

“Sounds like you could use some electric moves in your arsenal.” A smirk tugged at the corner of Spark’s mouth and she plunged back into the plate of berries.

The box rattled again as the audino came back down into the ward. She cradled a plate in one paw while hoisting on the rope with the other. As she stepped out, the smell of smoked meats tickled Cleo’s nose and her stomach growled. She hadn’t realised she was hungry, yet the thought of eating made her feel sick. She watched the plate as the nurse placed it on a little table beside her nest. A selection of berries and dried meat lay before her. Meat of varying colour from white to brown. Cleo’s paw hovered over the plate and she looked up at the audino. Spark hovered at the edge of her vision, watching her with her ears pricked. Her long tail swished with uncertainty over the hay.

“I only eat fish,” Cleo told the nurse.

“Oh!” The audino’s eyes widened and she trotted over to the plate. “I did put some on there. I’m very sorry, I’ll take away the rest.”

Cleo muttered her thanks and told the nurse not to worry about it. The audino took the darker meat from the plate and apologised again as she trotted back to the box.

Cleo took one of the strips of fish. It wasn’t as if she’d never eaten other meat before, but now it just felt… wrong. She caught Spark’s gaze. A knowing look glittered in the dedenne’s large eyes and she nodded.

“Thank you,” she said.

Cleo nodded back to her and tucked into her breakfast. They sat in silence for a while, Spark gulping down one berry after the other while Cleo picked at the contents of her plate.

“Yanno.” Spark flopped back onto her bottom and stretched her little arms over her head. “After all this, it’s made me think. What they did was pretty awesome, yanno.”

“You mean saving us?” Cleo asked.

“Not just that but looking for survivors!” Spark looked up at her and twitched her nose. “This Guild is filled with all kinds of pokemon, it’s not like home. It’s gonna be weird walking around this place seeing pokemon so much bigger than me. Bigger than you even! But I think what they do is amazing.”

Cleo’s gaze wandered to the foot of her bed, although she wasn’t looking at it. “It really is.”

“You all right? You don’t sound amazed.”

“Sorry,” said Cleo. “At the moment I’m just… stuck in that blaze.”

“Me too.” Spark licked her paws and wiped them over her whiskers. “But if it weren’t for the Outcasts Guild…”

“I know.”

Spark sat back on her paws and twitched her feet back and forth. “I think… I might ask them if I can join.”

Cleo looked up at her, but Spark continued to stare across the room.

“Going out there,” Spark went on, “helping pokemon like us. That’s what they do, right?” She looked up at Cleo with wide eyes.

Cleo nodded. “Yeah. That’s what they do.”

“We hadn’t done anything to the Wildfires or those murkrow.” Spark’s whiskers began to crackle and she swished her tail from side to side. “Yet they just stormed through our home and destroyed it! Then those birds had the nerve to pick on little hatchlings?! It makes me so angry to see pokemon be persecuted like that! We’d done nothing to them!” She looked up, meeting Cleo’s surprised stare. “There are so many like us out there and I wanna help them.”

The dedenne’s words had resonated with Cleo. She raised her head and nodded, sitting back on her paws. “So do I. But… the Darkness is full of dark-types.”

“And dragons,” said Spark. “My electricity struggles with dragons.” She scratched behind her ear, keeping one eye on Cleo. “I know I’m small. I’ve always been small! But I pack a punch! And I think if we worked together, with my lightning and your psychic skills, we could really make a difference out there.”

Cleo’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“You want to work with a pokemon you don’t trust?” Cleo asked. “You said you don’t trust predators.”

“I was always raised to believe that,” said Spark. “But I think if my parents met you, if they knew you’d rushed to save me, then they’d change their minds in a heartbeat.”

A small chuckle left Cleo’s throat and she closed her eyes in a smile. “All right. I’d be glad to team up with you. Let’s ask Tinker about it later.”

“Ask Tinker about what?” The voice came from the wooden box. Cleo hadn’t noticed it rattle down into the ward.

Tinker leaned from it, eyeing the two girls curiously.

“We’re thinkin’ of signing up with the Guild,” said Spark.

“You want to sign up as warriors?” Tinker asked with some surprise. “You’re barely out of your eggs.”

“Probably about the same age as you, actually,” said Spark.

“It’s not about age,” said Tinker. “It’s about experience. You’ve been raised in a woodland environment with barely any experience of what the Darkness can do. I doubt you’ve had much battle practice?”

“I squabbled with my siblings a lot,” said Spark.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Tinker.

Spark’s whiskers crackled and she stood, spine bristling. “Want me to demonstrate?”

Tinker raised a paw to dismiss her and turned to Cleo. “Are you both certain of this? You want to train to be Guild Warriors?”

Cleo bit her lip and glanced aside. It was a huge decision. One conversation with Spark, a pokemon she’d only just met, wasn’t enough to decide that. Was it? Her home, destroyed. Spark was right. They weren’t the only ones to suffer like that. It happened every day. It had only been a matter of time before Hydreigon turned his sights on her home. Which one would be next?

“I think… I’d like to give it a try,” she said.

To her surprise, a smile spread across the riolu’s muzzle. “Very well. I’ll have you signed up for training immediately.”

She snapped her gaze onto his, and Spark’s whiskers ceased sparking as her arms flopped at her sides.

“You serious?” Spark asked.

“If you are, then yes,” Tinker replied. “Once you are fit and ready you can start training. At your age, you’ll grow into fine warriors in no time.”

Cleo and Spark exchanged beaming glances. So it was decided. The unlikely duo would strive to become a formidable team, and hopefully form a strong friendship in the process.

Tinker strutted from the room, leaving Cleo and Spark in an excited conversation about what the future might hold for them as warriors.
 
Chapter 46

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
46 - A Sheet of White​

As Cleo and Spark drew their story to a close, Faith and Harlequin continued their silence. Not one of them had interrupted the two warriors as they relayed their tale, although Faith had let out an audible gasp on more than one occasion. After a short pause, the mawile shifted her weight and sighed.

“That must have been awful for the both of you,” she said. “To have fled that blaze, then get attacked by murkrow… Hydreigon must have really wanted to wipe that place out.”

“It makes sense,” said Harlequin. “For some reason he was most scared of psychic-types. The first to go were gardevoir, right?”

“Over many hundreds of years ago, yes,” said Cleo. “If that was the case, then it wouldn’t have been the Hydreigon in power now. He’s the one responsible for our home being destroyed.”

Harlequin frowned at the meowstic. “I know that!”

Faith made a thoughtful noise as she stared at her feet. “Something does seem a little odd about it all.”

Her three friends looked up at her expectantly, prompting her to go on. When she didn’t, Spark cleared her throat to get her attention.

“What do you mean?” asked the dedenne. “’Cos I’ve always just thought he was nothing more than a bully, starting with those he knew his forces could wipe out quickly.”

“Anyone would, if they didn’t know any better,” said Faith. “But psychic-types are more likely to carry fairy-type moves. Gardevoir in particular is part fairy. If he started with those, then…” She rubbed her head and groaned. “It might be possible he knows about the fairy-type.”

Cleo almost leapt to her feet. Her shout of surprise was drowned out by Spark’s. Cleo exchanged a shocked glance with Harlequin, then everyone turned to face Faith again.

The mawile raised her paws in a shrug. “I might be wrong. But both dark- and dragon-type pokemon have difficulty learning fairy-type moves. Over the course of history, Hydreigon has wiped out a lot of pokemon. But now that I think about it, there might be a pattern. First he started with the Endless Woods, which were named the Gleamgrove Woods before the gardevoir enchanted it. It wasn’t only gardevoir that lived there. Many psychic-types did. Mr Mime, alakazam, and hatterene to name a few.”

“What’s a hatterene?” Spark asked.

Faith chuckled. “There weren’t very many if my memory serves me right here. They rarely left the woods, and when the gardevoir found their way into the Fairy Garden the hatterene weren’t far behind. I don’t believe any are left in Estellis.”

Cleo found herself wondering if she’d seen this unusual pokemon in the Fairy Garden or in the tapestry. She’d met so many pokemon and seen so many different faces she wouldn’t be able to remember if she tried.

“After they were ‘wiped out’,” Faith went on, “Hydreigon turned his attacks on anyone who wouldn’t form an allegience with him. Grimmsnarl and altaria, in particular. Then he destroyed the Frozen Isles where the ice-types lived, and even NyukNyuk’s former home. I wouldn’t be surprised if before you came to the Fairy Garden you’d never met an ice-type ninetales.”

Cleo and Spark shook their heads.

“All those pokemon are capable of either being fairy-type or learning their moves,” said Faith. “I’m now really beginning to wonder if Hydreigon has some secret motive here.”

Harlequin shuffled a paw over the floor, scattering the old dried-out leaves. “I’d heard rumours he’s looking for something.”

All eyes turned to the zorua.

“I always thought it was Outcasts.” Harlequin shrugged. “I mean, the assassins are still sent out to deal with them. Yurlik’s flock would find a town, then assassins were sent in to pick off the larger threats.”

“What if he’s not looking for Outcasts?” Cleo suggested.

Harlequin shook her head and shrugged. “I’ve no idea. This is making me wonder if Faith’s right. Maybe Hydreigon knows way more about the fairy-type than we realised. I mean, he has motive to keep it to himself doesn’t he? He’s weak to it on both sides!”

Faith sighed and looked at each of her friends in turn. “I don’t think we should jump to conclusions just yet. We need to think about this rationally. Either way, it doesn’t really change anything. We’re still at war against him and we’re on the winning side.”

“No offence, Faith, but it doesn’t feel like it,” said Spark.

Faith smiled at her. “One day, the Darkness will be defeated. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never extinguish it’. Remember that.”

Mischief’s sparkling attack shone in Cleo’s mind and she felt a smile forming at Faith’s words. Somehow, it instilled some hope inside her.

Faith parted the leaves to peer outside. “It looks like the snow has stopped.”

“Great,” said Spark in a flat tone. “That means the Darkness might come out again.”

“I guess someone needs to stay on watch.” Cleo began to rise to her feet.

“Get some sleep,” Faith told her. “I’ll take first watch.”

Cleo wanted to protest. They’d all taken a beating in that attack, and were all very tired. But Faith’s kind face stifled any argument the meowstic wished to make. Instead, Cleo thanked Faith and settled down on a soft bed of old leaves.

Harlequin looked up at Faith. “I can keep watch with you if you like?”

“Thank you, Harlequin,” said Faith. “But you need rest too. I’ll be fine. If I need anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Just don’t go off talkin’ to ghosts this time, eh?” Spark said as she huddled down in Cleo’s tails.

Faith chuckled and edged out of the bush, her paws crunching over the thick snow.

...​

Enigma sat perched on the bough of a sycamore. Its branches were weighed down with snow, and it flecked his grey fur and dotted his scarf like twinkling stars. He’d managed to shelter from the worst of it, although it wasn’t perfect. The roots of the sycamore parted at the base into a shallow hole, but while it provided shelter from the wind it had been far from warm.

The banette shivered, hugging his arms over his scarf. He’d lost track of Harlequin and their friends in that blizzard. He’d barely been able to see his own paw before his face. The snow had stopped, but the wind still whipped over the hills and stirred up loose snow into drifts at the base of his tree. Movement caught Enigma’s eye and he looked up at a small figure several feet away. His heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be Faith, surely? The mawile had climbed out of a snowy lump in the ground and settled into the snow. If she was there then it meant Harlequin was too. Enigma let out a small breath and settled back against the tree. Snow trickled down from the branch with every movement he made, and a flurry of it rained down from the thinner branches above him. He shook it from his mane, the jingle of his bell muffled by the snowy landscape, and muttered under his breath. Even if he could sleep it would be pointless to try in such flimsy shelter.

He warped to the floor, landing silently in the snow. He shook his paws free and turned, searching the white landscape for another shelter. Everything looked white and barren, the blanket of snow rising and falling as the hills rolled away from him towards the horizon. The few stars that had poked free from their cloudy prison shimmered on the snow-cloaked ground. With a shake of his head, Enigma gave up and turned to walk away. But his paws faltered as something nagged within him. He turned his head to look back at the mawile sitting alone outside that snowy mound. Her bright yellow fur made her an easy target in that vast sheet of white. Enigma knew only too well how easy it was to pick off one lone pokemon. His claws twitched at his sides and he found his gaze wandering to the dark sky. Faith could hold her own, that much he knew. But she could also fall just as easily. That murkrow flock had proved as much.

They were even now. He didn’t need to hang around.

Yet he found his feet moving towards her, sinking into the snow with each step. She looked up long before he reached her. Her violet gaze softened when she spotted him and she flashed a smile before turning her attention back to the rolling white hills.

“You’re still following us.” It wasn’t a question. She kept her voice quiet so as not to disturb her friends.

Enigma shrugged. “Not really. I just got waylaid by that blizzard.”

Faith watched him for a moment, but he avoided her gaze. It made him uncomfortable in a way he couldn’t describe.

“I’m sure you could join us if you wanted to?”

“No.”

There was no break between her offer and Enigma’s answer. The word just kind of… came out on its own. He turned his head to look between her and the snowy mound. Close up it was much more obvious that it was a bush encased in a thick shell of snow.

“You shouldn’t be sitting out here,” he told her. “It’s too open. If I could spot you then a murkrow definitely could.”

Faith leaned forwards on her knees and smiled at him. “Murkrow won’t fly tonight. There’s too much risk of another blizzard. They’d freeze.”

Enigma grunted and folded his paws behind his back. His gaze wandered back to the sky. Faith wasn’t wrong. Murkrow can’t fly in a snowstorm, and those that had taken the whimsicott wouldn’t have got far before it hit. They’d have searched for shelter or died on the wing. No sensible bird would take the risk to fly while there was the smallest chance another blizzard might start up again. Weavile, however… if Hydriegon wanted to send out more assassins to track down the whimsicott then a pack of quick and sneaky weavile would be perfect in the snow.

“You can sit with me if you like,” said Faith.

Enigma shuffled his foot through the snow. “No thanks.”

“Okay.” She closed her eyes in a smile and chuckled. “Then continue to stand.”

Enigma grunted and glanced away from her, but only for a moment. When he looked back she was staring off into the snow, leaning back on her paws as if the cold didn’t bother her at all. She bobbed a foot back and forth, a small smile on her face. If Enigma didn’t know any better he’d expect her to be humming. Did his presence really not bother her? There was no drill of questions as to why he was hanging around her and her friends. No scathing comments towards his dispatch of Rio. What was with this mawile? He could easily kill her if he wanted to, yet she didn’t push him away.

He stared down at his claws and grimaced. Did she truly believe there was good in him? Or was she just oblivious?

“Why did you break me out of that lab?” he asked quietly.

“I told you why.” She turned her violet gaze on him. “They were holding pokemon against their will, and infecting them. Why would I leave someone there to suffer like that?”

“Do you regret it?”

Faith blinked a few times as she became rendered speechless. It was all the answer Enigma needed.

He closed his eyes and let out a sour laugh. “You saw what I did to Rio, and I saw your reaction. So go on, say it. I know you regret saving me.”

“I don’t. Not for a second.”

Enigma found himself desperately searching for any hint of doubt in her voice. When he came up dry he met her violet gaze, now the one rendered speechless.

“What Rio was doing was wrong,” Faith explained. “I told you this. No one deserved to be locked up in that lab. The only part I regret is letting my guard down enough for you to take Rio’s life.”

Enigma closed his eyes and clenched his fists tight.

“Do you regret killing him?” Faith asked.

“I don’t know,” said Enigma. “On the one paw, I’m glad Rio’s gone.”

“And on the other?”

Enigma opened his eyes again, meeting the mawile’s gaze once more. Regret… the only thing he regretted was that killing Rio bothered her. But those words didn’t come out. Instead, he found himself saying, “There is no other.”

Faith’s eyes widened and she looked away. Her shoulders sank in a silent sigh and she shook her head slowly.

“I don’t understand you,” she said. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to get me to hate you. Like you’re trying to convince me you’re the monster you claim to be.”

Enigma flinched and looked away from her, staring down the white slope of the hill.

“If you’re trying to provoke me into killing you, it’s not going to work Enigma,” Faith went on. “It’s not my place to take someone’s life.”

“I don’t want you to kill me, Faith.”

“Then what are you trying to tell me?” Faith asked. “You said ‘on the one paw’, so are you trying to seek forgiveness?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Enigma scoffed. “Even if I wanted it I’m way too far gone for that.”

“That’s not true,” said Faith. “No one is too far gone! Sure, you might have pokemon who feel unable to forgive you. But what matters most is Xerneas’ forgiveness.”

Enigma tutted, avoiding her gaze. He felt he was incredibly undeserving of that. He was too far gone… and now Rio had made it a whole lot worse. Enigma could almost feel the pokerus worming its way through his brain, demanding control of his body. As he closed his eyes he could see the deranged face of that whimsicott. Only it warped into his until he was staring back at himself. Bodies littered the floor around him. Faces of pokemon he knew. And among them, Harlequin’s lifeless gaze stared back at him. He raised a paw to his chest and took in a trembling breath. He forced his eyes open, but he was no longer seeing the snowy landscape.

“You might think I’m not beyond saving, but I know full well what I’m capable of.” Years of practice of keeping his emotions tucked away helped him to hide the waver in his voice. “Mark my words, Faith. If someone doesn’t kill me, then a lot more pokemon are going to die.”

“Is that a threat?” Faith’s voice was still soft despite the warning note behind her question.

When Enigma looked back at her, her usually gentle gaze was almost scolding. But it softened as she read the fear Enigma was trying to hide.

Faith closed her eyes briefly. “You’re infected, aren’t you?” She pushed herself to her feet, her paws crunching in the soft snow. “Why didn’t you tell me when I asked?”

“Because it didn’t matter.” He waved her off, but she advanced anyway.

“Of course it matters.” She stopped before him and reached up to place a paw on his shoulder, which he promptly swatted away. If it bothered her she didn’t show it. “We can help you.”

“Really? Like you’ve helped your whimsicott friend?”

Faith’s mouth turned down in a frown but she didn’t break eye contact.

“Just as I thought,” Enigma scoffed. “You haven’t a clue how to help me,” he waved a paw to the snowy landscape, “or any of the other experiments you’ve unleashed on Estellis. Once that pokerus takes over there’s going to be a massacre. Deaths caused by unwilling pokemon warped under the control of a microscopic parasite.”

Faith blinked with bewilderment. “Are you blaming me?”

Enigma groaned and rubbed a paw down his face. “I’m not blaming you, Faith. You did what you thought was right.” He turned away from her and strutted a few paces over the snow. “It’s just Estellis has enough problems without this pokerus adding to it.”

Faith plodded after him and spoke quietly, “We do plan to look for a cure.”

He looked back at her over his shoulder. “And how exactly do you plan to find one? Each and every one of those infected pokemon is a bomb just waiting to explode.”

“Harlequin suggested poison.”

Enigma laughed at that and shook his head. “Of course he did.”

“There is hope, Enigma.” Faith’s voice drew his attention back to her. “The way Mischief is managing it is to avoid fighting. If that’s an option for you then I suggest you try it.”

Enigma grunted and folded his arms. “That’s not an option for me.”

“Couldn’t you at least try?”

Enigma scratched his claws over his fur and looked away from her. “I don’t think the pokerus is going to stop spreading just because I’m not fighting.”

“But it reduces the risk of you losing control. Mischief has proved that already.”

“Really?” Enigma tutted again and dragged his claws through his mane. “I’m not promising anything. If anyone gives me a hard time I’m fighting back.”

“Of course!” Faith agreed.

Enigma shifted, glancing away from the mawile. He was beginning to feel incredibly uncomfortable. What was it about her that made him so talkative?

“So is that why you wanted to speak to me?” Faith asked.

“I told you, I didn’t come here to seek you out.”

Faith chuckled and tucked her paws behind her back. “I was just in the right place at the right time, then?” Another chuckle. “I think I know who arranged that.”

Enigma frowned at her, then let out a sigh. “You’re unbelievable.”

Faith shrugged and, still smiling, trotted back to her spot outside the bush.

“You believe I can change,” Enigma told her, “but you’re wrong. A zebstrika can’t change its stripes.”

Faith stopped and looked back at him. “Not on its own, but it can with the right help.”

Enigma opened his mouth to retort then closed it again. He actually had no argument for that. Faith continued to watch him for a moment as soft flakes of snow fell around her.

“Fine,” he scoffed. “Let’s say for now you’re right. How would someone hated by all of Estellis manage to…” He waved a paw as he sought the right word, then sighed, “change?”

“It won’t be easy.” She trotted back to him until she was standing before him again. “You have to keep pressing on, fighting through the rough spots until you come out the other side stronger.”

“And when pokemon try to kill me?”

Faith sighed and shook her head. “It’s a war, Enigma. You just have to not harm those you’re trying to help. Fight alongside them. Prove to them you’re trustworthy.” Faith smiled up at him. “Like you have to me already.”

Really? Enigma closed his eyes and stifled a groan. How could she believe him trustworthy? She’d seen what he’d done to Rio. She’d undoubtedly heard about his attack on her friends. Yet she was calling him trustworthy? All he could do was hurt others. He clenched his right paw, and for a fleeting moment he thought it was sticky with blood once again.

“How?” He hadn’t intended to ask the question. It had just come out.

Faith took his right paw in both of hers and his eyes snapped open, locking onto her violet gaze.

A warm smile spread over her face and she gave his paw a gentle squeeze. “Baby steps.”
 
Chapter 47

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
47 - Wagons​

A loud yawn cut through the grey dawn as Spark emerged from the bush. Her tiny form sank in the snow and she hopped up onto the crusty surface, catching Cleo’s eye.

“S’dawn already?” said the dedenne, yawning again. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

Cleo said nothing, staring off over the barren, white landscape. She’d taken over from Faith and, unable to sleep, had decided to leave Spark dozing in Harlequin’s warm fur.

“I was thinking,” Cleo explained.

“Wow, that’s a dangerous game.”

Cleo let out a sigh.

“Whoa. Not even a twitch of a smile?” Spark sat down beside her, sinking in the soft snow up to her chest. “You’re thinkin’ about Mischief, aren’t you?”

Cleo sighed again and raised her paws in a weak shrug. “He’s out there all alone, Spark. Should we… should we look for him? I mean, where do we even start?”

“That honchkrow was takin’ him back to Hydreigon, Cleo. There’s no way we can catch up with them now.”

“That’s not necessarily true.” Harlequin stood in the mouth of the bush, her ears trained on the two pokemon.

Cleo looked back at the zorua who sensed her unvoiced question.

Harlequin sat down beside Spark, with Faith in tow. “Those murkrow couldn’t have flown far in that blizzard. They were too weak for one thing. Even a strong flier would have struggled in that storm.”

“So Mischief might not be too far?” Spark asked.

Cleo grimaced and looked away. Mischief might have been stronger than those murkrow, but he was still a grass-type. The dire thought had been tumbling around in Cleo’s head all night. If he had managed to escape the murkrow and find shelter he would have survived, but he might be weak from the cold. If the entire flock had managed to shelter, then they’d be on their way to the Shadow Lands again.

“I don’t even know where to begin looking,” said Cleo.

“Yeah,” said Harlequin. “It would be like searching for a trevenant in a forest.”

Spark fired a glare at the zorua, electricity sparking over her orange fur. Harlequin flinched back from it and raised a paw.

“What?” she scoffed. “If you’d said it, it would have been funny.”

“Sense the mood,” Spark scolded.

“No, Harlequin’s right,” said Cleo. “It would be impossible. We have to find this fire-type as well. Would it really be right to delay that by looking for Mischief? He’s… he’s probably…” A lump formed in her throat, choking off her words.

Faith placed a paw on her shoulder. “Mischief wouldn’t want you to sacrifice Xerneas’ request to go looking for him, Cleo. We need to find this fire-type, you’re right. And maybe we’ll find Mischief on the way. Who knows?”

Cleo took in a trembling breath and nodded. “You’re right. We need to get a move on.”

As Cleo pushed herself to her feet, Spark fired another glare at Harlequin.

“See?” said the dedenne. “That’s how you sense the mood.”

Harlequin rolled her eyes and stood up. “Yeah, whatever.” She shook the snow from her fur and adjusted her bag over her back. “While you guys go looking for that fire-type, I’m gonna go look for Harbinger.”

Cleo jerked her head around, ready to reel the zorua in. Her wrist felt light and she absently rubbed where the bracelet had once been. She met the zorua’s cool gaze, no longer icy and unyielding. It suddenly struck Cleo that she was no longer looking at an enemy. She was meeting the eyes of a friend.

A friend who had just declared she was about to leave them.

Cleo swallowed around the lump in her throat. “You’re leaving?”

Harlequin nodded. “I need to get this mega stone to Harbinger.”

“But… I thought you were helpin’ us,” said Spark.

“I am,” Harlequin explained. “We’re still fighting on the same side, right? If Harbinger’s going to join us in this battle then I can’t be side-tracked. We’d just be slowing each other down otherwise, and it’s valuable time we can’t waste.”

The group stood in silence, and Harlequin shifted with unease.

“You guys have done a lot for me.” Harlequin lowered her eyes and trailed a paw through the snow. “This isn’t as easy as you might think.”

“It’s not easy for us either,” said Cleo. “But you do have a point. You’re… you’re free to go.”

Harlequin looked up at the meowstic and Cleo bit her tongue. The way she’d worded it had made it sound like Harlequin was still a prisoner.

“Thank you.” The zorua’s words took Cleo by surprise.

A smile formed on the meowstic’s face which Harlequin returned.

“We’re really going to miss you, Harlequin,” said Faith. She placed a paw between the zorua’s ears. Harlequin flinched slightly, but her fur fell flat as she relaxed. “You take care out there, okay? And once you’ve found Harbinger, try to find us too.”

Harlequin nodded and Faith stood back, tucking her paws behind her back. The zorua made to leave, but froze and looked back over her shoulder.

“I’ll keep an eye open for Mischief, too,” she said. “You never know, our paths might cross.”

Cleo’s shoulders relaxed so much she almost slumped into the snow. “That would be a huge relief, thank you, Harlequin.”

The zorua nodded. “If I find him, I’ll help him find a poison to kill that parasite. He’s not the only one suffering with it after all.”

Before Cleo could say anything more, Harlequin skipped off over the snow. Cleo watched her small, dark form vanish over the side of the hill.

“And then there were three,” said Spark sadly.

Cleo tried to swallow away the stubborn lump then turned to head in the opposite direction.

Spark clambered over her fur to land on her shoulder. “Does anyone even know where we’re goin’?”

“East,” said Cleo, catching Faith’s eye. “Right?”

Faith nodded and looked to the sky. “Although it’s easy to lose our way in this snow. I can barely see the sun. But I think we’re going the right way.”

Without the blizzard they could see further. The spiny ridge of the mountain rose up on their right, while far to their left they could make out the forest, the bare branches of the trees weighed down under heaps of snow. Cleo’s map was useless, however. Once again they were in territory she’d not mapped. The mountain gave her a vague idea of which way to go, but it was still a treacherous endeavour.

The three pokemon fought their way through the snow, climbing up and down over the hilly landscape. Without Mischief’s springy gait at her side, or Harlequin trudging along behind them, things just didn’t feel the same. It left a heavy weight hanging around Cleo’s heart, and she did her best to try to take her mind off it. Spark joked on her shoulder, trying to lighten the mood. Before long, the sun began to poke from the clouds, reflecting off the snow with a blinding intensity.

At least with the sun they could find their way onto the right path. But even with the sun behind them the snow was blindingly white. Cleo ventured a glance back to see how far they’d come. A trail of paw prints lead back over the hills, vanishing into the whiteness.

With a shudder, Cleo pressed on. Faith rubbed at her arms with her paws.

“Do you know if there are any towns nearby?” she asked. “I think we could do with warming up a bit.”

Cleo shook her head. “I’m sorry. This place is as alien to me as it is to you.”

“Hang on.” Spark stood up straight on Cleo’s shoulder and pointed a claw. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Cleo squinted in the direction Spark was pointing.

“That there, movin’ over the hills.” Spark looked between Cleo and Faith. “Can either of you see it?”

Faith narrowed her eyes and raised a paw to shield them from the sun. “I… I can! What on earth is that?”

Cleo strained her eyes to try to spot what had caught her friends’ attention. Something was moving over the hills in a line, almost serpentine. But the longer she looked the more clear it became. It wasn’t a single entity. It was a group of pokemon, towing wagons.

“Travelling Outcasts,” she said, her heart beginning to rise. “Travelling Outcasts!”

Faith clapped her paws. “Oh my! Do you think they’ll let us join them for a bit?”

“Possibly.” Cleo moved over the snow with a renewed vigour. “We can only ask!”

...​

The storm had been merciless. Mischief had spent hours searching for somewhere warm, only to find it once the blizzard had settled. He stood in the middle of the white landscape, rubbing at his arms with such vigour he feared he might rub the fur clean away. The shelter had been little more than a shrub dangling over him, keeping the worst of the snow at bay. He’d not expected the world to look as white as it did once he’d woken from a fitful sleep.

Everything was so white. He’d never seen anything like it. Or had he? He couldn’t remember.

One thing was for sure though. He couldn’t see Cleo or his other friends anywhere. Were they okay? Or had they been buried under the cold wet stuff soaking through his feet?

He fought the urge to go digging for them. Cleo was strong. She’d be okay, and so would Spark. All he needed was a better vantage point to try and spot them. Cleo would be harder to spot, being so white. But Harlequin would be easy.

The whimsicott pushed himself through the snow, gritting his teeth against its biting fury. Soon his paws found rocks as he carried himself up a steep slope. Trees hugged the incline, huddling together as if for warmth. Mischief gravitated towards them, finding relief as his paws found ground free from snow. After what felt like an eternity, the grass-type stood on a precipice looking out over the vast landscape.

So white. Everything was so white.

A tremble ran through his frozen body. He took in a deep breath and cupped his paws around his mouth.

“Cleo!” he cried. “Spark!”

All that came back was a faint echo of his own voice.

Empty.

White.

Mischief hugged his arms around himself as an unusual feeling washed over him. Alone. Alone and cold. He closed his eyes, fighting back tears.

He had to find them.

No. He would find them.

He turned from the precipice to follow the rocky path along the white landscape.

...​

The rattling of wheels and marching feet were muffled by the snow, but the noise was like a blessing to Cleo’s ears. The sun symbol emblazoned on the carts felt like a beacon inspiring hope in her chest. The carts were teeming with pokemon huddled together for warmth. What supplies they carried were hidden from view under heavy grey sheets smattered with snow. Cleo kept her eyes on the oncoming pokemon as she raced as fast as she could over the soft snow, her breath burning with cold in her lungs. Faith kept pace at her side, waving a paw to catch the lead pokemon’s attention.

It didn’t take long for the Outcasts to see them. The tauros leading the group slowed to a halt and stamped his hoof. His breath puffed from his nostrils in twin clouds of mist and he lowered his horns.

“Stop right there.” His deep voice rumbled in the air with an unmistakable authority that forced Cleo to skid to a stop.

The other carts rattled to a halt as pokemon of all shapes and colours leapt from them to intersect Cleo and her friends. The snow melted away around a heatmor as he landed among them, a long tongue of flame flicking from his narrow mouth as he stared down the meowstic.

Cleo obliged and raised her paws. “Don’t worry.” She motioned to the badge pinned to her bag strap. “We’re with the Guild.”

The travellers relaxed, all but the tauros who kept his horns lowered.

“Well I’ll be!” The voice came from the cart above the bull’s head. An old kecleon leaned on a gnarled cane as he peered over the front of the cart. “So you are! And a psychic-type too! I thought you were all gone!”

Cleo smiled up at him. “Not all of us. Where are you heading in this weather?”

“Anywhere,” said the kecleon. “We keep on the move to avoid detection from the Darkness, stopping at whatever towns we can find every now and then. Although there is better weather to travel in, I won’t deny.”

“Exactly.” The tauros looked back at the pokemon still gathered in the snow. “So are you gettin’ back on board so we can move, or what?”

The travellers clambered back onto the cart as the kecleon chuckled.

“Now now, Rido,” he told the tauros. “Let’s have some patience! We’ve not seen a friendly face in days.” He turned his attention back onto Cleo, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled in a smile. “My name is Old Red. I’m the leader of this rabble.” He chortled and waved to the carts gathered around them. Cleo counted five in total, each towed by a pokemon.

“Red?” Spark asked, her eyes widening. “But… you’re green!”

The kecleon spotted Spark for the first time and his eyes widened. “Well I’ll be! There’s three of ya!” A fond chuckle left his throat. “Aren’t you tiny!”

Spark’s whiskers crackled, making Cleo’s fur tingle. “Oi! I might be small, but I’m mighty!”

The kecleon laughed and waved a paw. “I didn’t mean bad by it, my dear. My, I myself am a foot smaller than your average kecleon! They say the best things come in the smallest packages. That makes you a gem among dedenne.”

Spark’s electricity fizzled out and she sank slightly in Cleo’s fur. “Well… yeah, I guess I am pretty awesome.” The tone of her voice suggested her entire face had turned red.

Cleo shook her head, stifling a laugh. “I’m Cleo,” she said. “And this is Spark and Faith.”

“Why are you called Red if you don’t mind me asking?” Faith asked.

The tauros rolled his eyes and snorted loudly.

“Because I used to be!” Old Red flashed her a grin. “When I hatched I was bright red! But as you can see, I’ve taken the normal kecleon colour over the years.” He paused as he looked at each in turn. “Where are you girls heading? We can offer you a ride if you’d like.”

“We’re actually heading in the opposite way to you,” Cleo explained. “We’re going east to Fire Island.”

“Fire Island?” The kecleon’s gasp was echoed across the carts. “That sounds like a dangerous journey, friends. What takes a trio of Outcasts like yourselves in that direction? There’s no Guild Hall there.”

Cleo opened her mouth to reply, but Faith beat her to it.

“We’re not sent by the Guild,” Faith explained. “Cleo and Spark here are with the Guild, but I’m from the Fairy Garden. We’re on a quest from Xerneas to find someone to help us defeat the Wildfires.”

A ripple of voices spread across the wagons, and many more eyes were sent Cleo’s way. Another cart pulled up beside the kecleon’s as a rampardos moved forwards, his eyes fixed on Faith.

“Defeat the Wildfires, huh?” The kecleon scratched his cheek with a claw. “That sounds like a frightful mission.”

A cold chill ran through Cleo, and not from the cold. She hugged her arms around herself and felt Spark tremble on her shoulder.

“We’re not really lookin’ forward to it ourselves,” said the dedenne.

“I can imagine. A journey across that nightmare of a sea, and a battle with Hydreigon’s pack of blazing hounds?” The kecleon shook his head sadly. “I don’t envy you that at all!”

“Sounds like a suicide mission,” said the rampardos. “But I can’t imagine you’ve been sent on that mission to die. Xerneas must know what he’s talking about.”

Faith looked up at the large dinosaur with a start. “You’ve heard of Xerneas?”

“I’ve heard stories,” he said. “I never believed them to be true however. You’re actually from the Fairy Garden?”

“I am,” said Faith, almost speechless.

Old Red looked back at Faith. “You mentioned this Fairy Garden earlier. But I can’t say I’ve heard of that myself.”

Faith huddled into her fur. “Sadly I’m finding that’s a common statement these days. If you’d like I can tell you about it?”

The rampardos’ eyes lit up with glee and he looked up at Old Red. “I don’t mind changing course for a bit if you’re happy to offer them a lift?”

“That’s a great idea, Stompy,” said Old Red. “It’s not like we have a destination in mind!”

“Oh good.” Rido rolled his eyes. “Can we hurry it up before we all turn to ice?”

The kecleon flushed and stood back from his perch. “Oh of course! Of course! Friends, would you like to join us? We’re happy to head east and cut some time off your journey, how does that sound?”

The tauros snorted and thrashed his three tails. “Do any of us actually have a say in that?”

“Be nice, Rido.” The kecleon motioned for Cleo and her friends to climb aboard. “Join us! You’re more than welcome.”

Cleo cast a wary glance at Rido as she passed him. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Ignore Rido, he’s a grump.” Old Red offered a paw to help Cleo onto the cart. “But a heart of gold once you get to know him!”

The tauros snorted and diverted his gaze.

Once on board, the trio settled themselves down against the tarp. The heatmor she’d spotted earlier was settled against the wood with most of the cart’s occupants sitting close to him to absorb his warmth. Despite his heat, two snivy twins huddled against him trembling. They were surprisingly young, and there was no mother in sight. An old meowth shifted to allow Cleo and her frozen friends to sit closer to the fire-type.

“All right, Rido!” Old Red instructed. “Head east!”

With a grunt the tauros turned and dragged the cart off its course towards the mountains. The rampardos kept pace beside them, while the other three carts followed behind. They were towed by a pair of rapidash and a gogoat who seemed unfazed by the cold. Cleo couldn’t get over how many pokemon filled the carts. It was nothing compared to New City, which she guessed Old Red and his group had not yet heard of. But there was certainly a lot to have survived travelling out in the open with the Darkness hunting them down. Pokemon of all ages gathered around them, trying to get close from their respective carts. Cleo spotted a little skidoo peering over the edge of Stompy’s cart.

Cleo found herself wondering if they’d need to head east after all. There was every chance one of the fire-types in this group was the one they were looking for. Her eye wandered to the heatmor who was entertaining the snivy hatchlings with his flames, creating patterns in the frozen air.

“So!” Old Red settled down with Cleo beside the heatmor. “Would you mind, Faith, telling us some stories about the Fairy Garden?”

“Yeah, what’s it like there?” Stompy called over the side of the cart.

“Watch where you’re going!” Rido warned, keeping the rampardos on track.

Stompy apologised and steadied his cart before it collided with Rido’s, gaining a ‘whoop!’ from the skidoo.

Faith chuckled behind her paw. “Oh, where do I start!” She thought for a moment, then her face lit up. “Well, it’s very bright! There are so many colours and flowers. And there’s no division, like you have here. Pokemon aren’t split into groups. But sadly there were no dark-types, until recently…”

...​

Gentle flakes of snow drifted down as soft as feathers, dotting Harlequin’s shaggy black coat. The wind whipped up, stirring the fresh snowfall into tiny blizzards. Harlequin skipped through them, barely feeling the cold. Her footsteps were muffled as she followed the rocky winding path towards the mountain peaks, keeping the Glen behind her.

The climb was steep, and the thick snow hid the ground beneath. Thankfully it wasn’t hiding a slippery trap. The ground was untrodden, making the climb easier than it had been to wade over the flat ground. Harlequin spotted an outcrop a few feet away. She made it in three bounds, but her hind paws slipped over it. Scrabbling, she pulled herself up and stopped to catch her breath. It misted before her face and she shook her head, trying to see past it.

The landscape unfolded before her in a lumpy ocean of white. From this height they almost resembled clouds. She knew she wouldn’t be able to spot her friends this high up, but she found herself looking for them anyway. She shook her head again and muttered to herself. She couldn’t afford a delay. She had a job to do. She pulled herself away from the scene and pressed on, following the incline along the mountain slope. She pulled her ears back as the wind picked up and lowered her head so it wouldn’t slow her down. She hugged the rocky face as the path narrowed out, and after a while she was pushed from it to leap over a crevice onto a wider path. It remained flat for a good while before narrowing out as it winded up the mountain. It was a gentle incline that lead the way towards the top. The snow hid rugged steps and Harlequin wondered if there had been pokemon living in these mountains at one point. If there had been, there was no other sign of them. Her heart sank as she realised her search for Harbinger would not be an easy one.

The snow became thicker and thicker the higher Harlequin climbed, almost coming up to her chest. Each leap was exhausting. Her sapphire gaze fell on a precipice on her left, its rocky mass rising from the snow. It still held its own coating, but the rocks were more visible. She could climb that to reach the peak faster and try to gather her bearings.

She leapt towards it, grabbing the slippery rocks in her claws. With a grunt she dragged herself up the steep slope, taking care to place her paws on steady footholds. The climb was hard but the top was in sight. She reached for it with her right fore-paw, stretching as far as she could reach. Her claws brushed the sharp top and she moved her hind paws forwards. Her left slipped as she missed the foothold and her breath was snatched from her throat. She dug her claws into the rocks, finding soft mud between them. She clung on as her left foot found a secure perch and she sucked in freezing air. Her heart was racing. With a deep breath she pulled herself up onto the peak and lay flat on her stomach, head spinning.

She pushed herself back to her feet and took in a deep, steadying breath. The wind snatched at her fur, stirring the branches of a mountain ash beside her. Flurries of snow drifted down from it and she turned her head towards them. A familiar scent tickled her nose but it was snatched away in an instant. Occa berries? She shrugged it off and turned her back on the tree, plodding along the mountain’s peak. She found a path that wound along it, offering a fantastic view of the hills. She picked up her pace and trotted towards an outcrop. The snow lay smooth upon it, as undisturbed as the rest of the mountain. She stepped onto it carefully, her gaze wandering to the drop below her. She jerked her head back up, trying not to focus on how far down the world seemed. Instead, she gazed out at the rolling hills. Cutting through them was a river, winding its way like a streak of blue in a cloudy sky. It was lost beyond the mountains, following its course out to the ocean.

Cleo and her friends would be heading that way.

Far in the distance stood the Shadow Lands, unseen even from this height. It made her realise just how big the world was. Just how small and insignificant she was in comparison.

The wind whipped past her muzzle, snatching her breath away. She pulled back from it, adjusting her footing so her face wasn’t in the wind’s direct path. There was a sound like crumbling earth. Then the ground gave way beneath her paws. Loose snow cascaded down towards the mountain, taking the zorua with it. Her cry was silenced before it could leave her throat. Pain shot through her neck and she cried out again as her body jerked to a halt.

She looked up, following a grey arm towards a pair of crimson eyes.

“Enigma!” she gasped.

The banette’s face softened slightly as his mouth curled in a smile. “I don’t think you’re quite cut out for mountain travel.”

Enigma perched on a branch that stuck out several feet beneath the outcrop. Snow still rained down from it in small flurries, smattering Harlequin’s face. Her eyes slowly widened as she realised how much smaller her chosen platform had been than she’d first perceived. Enigma steadied himself against it with his free paw while Harlequin swung by the scruff from his other one. Enigma eyed her for a moment, his expression calculating.

“I’m gonna pull you up,” he explained. “You grab this branch and we’ll take it from there.”

He waited for Harlequin to give a small nod before dragging her up towards him. The branch bent beneath their combined weight, but it was rooted well beneath the mountain’s stony carapace. Harlequin reached out with her fore-paws and grabbed hold of the branch. Enigma didn’t release her until she’d got a secure hold. Then he vanished into thin air to appear on the outcrop above her.

Harlequin clung to the branch for dear life, her entire body trembling so much what little snow remained on the branch trickled away. She screwed her eyes shut, hugging the branch against her chest.

“You’re safe,” Enigma told her. “I won’t let you fall. Just climb up here.”

Harlequin looked up at him, her eyes wide. Their gazes met for a moment, and despite his calm demeanour Harlequin noticed his fear. His pupils had dilated so much each eye looked like an eclipse of a red moon.

“You can do it. Just climb up the wall, there’s enough foot-holds.” He reached a paw down towards her. It seemed miles away. “Come on.”

Harlequin looked from Enigma to the wall and back. Sure, the cliff face was rough with enough cracks to dig her paws in. But she was a quadruped. She wasn’t built for climbing a wall.

“Harlequin, come on!” Enigma growled. “That branch probably won’t hold your weight for much longer.”

That was enough to get her tail in gear. She placed one paw on the wall, then another. Then she hoisted her back legs off the branch. One paw after the next she dragged herself towards Enigma’s helping paw.

His claws fastened once again in her scruff and with a grunt he dragged her over the edge of the outcrop. Harlequin slumped to her stomach in the snow, gasping for breath. Enigma’s heavy breathing joined her own and they sat in silence for a while as they both recovered from the shock.

“Thank you,” Harlequin finally gasped out.

Enigma shook his head and avoided her gaze. “Don’t mention it. You’ve saved my hide enough times.” He laughed and dragged a paw over his face. “Good grief, Harle. You do get into some scrapes.”

Harlequin snorted, sending a flurry of snow into the air. She pushed herself up and shook her fur dry.

“What are you doing up here anyway?” Enigma asked. “You look like you’re searching for something.”

“I’m looking for Harbinger,” she explained. “I need to give him something.”

“That absol?” Enigma scoffed.

“Yes.”

“But… didn’t you think he was dead?”

“’Was’?” Harlequin narrowed her eyes at the banette.

Enigma pushed himself to his feet and dusted snow from his fur and scarf. “Yeah. I mean, if you’re looking for him then you obviously know he’s alive.”

Harlequin followed him with her eyes. “Did you know he’s alive?”

“Only recently.” Enigma shrugged. He met Harlequin’s cold gaze and chuckled. “I would’ve told you, Harle. But you were busy with them Outcasts.”

Harlequin shook her head and leapt to her feet, trotting past him.

“Did they let you go then?” Enigma asked as he followed her. “Or did you escape?”

“If you’ve been following me then you’ll already know.” Harlequin looked back at him over her shoulder. Her ears drooped slightly and she sighed. “I know you’ve been following me.”

Enigma gave a dramatic shrug and closed his eyes. “Can’t fool your nose, can I?”

“Or my ears,” said Harlequin. “You’ve been showing up at night to talk to Faith.”

Enigma’s expression became unreadable. He stared back at Harlequin for a moment, then turned his back to walk past her.

“Let’s find this absol friend of yours then,” he said, folding his paws behind his head.

Harlequin didn’t follow. “Were you ever going to tell me you have pokerus?”

Enigma froze, keeping his back to her.

“I know how stubborn you can be, Enigma.” Harlequin sighed and padded towards him. “I’m helping Mischief find a cure, so if you want to help, you can. You’re not the only two who-”

“Forget it, Harle,” he said. “You have more important things to do. I can find a cure on my own.”

Harlequin’s ears drooped and she flinched at his words. Was this because she’d befriended Outcasts and turned her back on Hydreigon? Did Enigma feel betrayed?

Then why save her?

Whatever it was, she’d never been able to read him. Enigma was a closed book.

With a sigh she shook her head and walked past him. “Fine. Do what you want.”

The snow crunched behind her as Enigma trailed after her. She stifled a sigh and twitched an ear his way.

“I guess that means you want to follow me?” she asked.

“I said I’d help you find your friend didn’t I?”

A smile tugged at Harlequin’s mouth and she cast a glance back at the banette. “Either that or you’re lonely.”

Enigma scoffed and glanced away from her. “No. I’m just bored.”

...​

Harbinger crouched beyond the rocky crag, keeping downwind to avoid detection from the two assassins. He watched the zorua skip on ahead of the banette, their voices fading as they vanished down the mountain slope.

Harbinger’s heart was pounding. He’d been so close. He’d watched Harlequin fall. He’d been timing his attack. One razor wind and the rock would have crumbled. But the snow had done all the work for him.

Then Enigma showed up.

That banette. The thorn in his side.

“What do we do now?” Scratch asked.

Harbinger glanced at the two pawniard crouching beside him. Their wide eyes were on the spot the two assassins had vanished. Claw shuffled, rubbing his blades over his shell as if the cold bothered him.

“We follow them,” said Harbinger. A smirk tugged at his muzzle and he felt his racing heart slow as an idea crept into his mind. “If they pass through the woods, then it will be too perfect.”

...​

Reshiram neatly popped the returned books onto the bookshelf. The library was empty as the pokemon flocked to the dining halls for their evening meal. Reshiram wouldn’t be long behind them, but first he had to make sure the library was in tip top shape for the following day.

NyukNyuk scurried back and forth, tidying the smaller shelves with as much care as Reshiram showed. Occasionally the little ghost-type would vanish into the floor and pop up somewhere else out of sight, but his chattering voice never faltered.

Reshiram chuckled and shook his head. “Is that so? Well, perhaps you should ask for extra honey next time?”

“Nyuk!” Another stream of chatter followed that was incomprehensible to most pokemon, but not Reshiram.

The feathered dragon rumbled laughter and shook his head. He beat his wing-claws together out of habit, since the library was spotless, and rolled the trolley towards the back of the room.

NyukNyuk suddenly fell silent, and Reshiram’s ear feathers twitched at the gentle sound of hooves echoing over the wooden floor. The white dragon craned his head back, spotting Xerneas’ elegant form strolling towards him. The stag’s antlers radiated light that scattered rainbows across the walls like stained glass.

Reshiram ducked his head in respect and looked back up at Xerneas. “I thought you’d be at Heart Abbey! What brings you here at this hour?”

“I need to speak to you, Reshiram,” Xerneas answered.

NyukNyuk popped up at Reshiram’s feet and gurgled with delight. Xerneas smiled down at the mimikyu then turned his gaze back onto the dragon.

“Cleo and her friends have encountered a group of pokemon in the Rolling Hills,” Xerneas explained. “They have been very welcoming to our friends. Faith has told them about me, and they’ve accepted her stories quite warmly.”

“That’s fantastic news,” said Reshiram.

Xerneas gave a slight nod. “I expect them to be joining us in the future. They are also due to lead Cleo towards Fire Island.”

Reshiram blinked. “Just… just Cleo?”

“This is why I am here,” said Xerneas. “The seas between the mainland and Fire Island are treacherous. In them lies a dead coral bed filled with vengeful pokemon.”

“The Sinister Seas!” Reshiram gasped, clapping a wing to his face. “Of course!”

“If our friends attempt to cross the sea alone, reaching the fire-type will be left to Cleo, and she will not make it back from Fire Island. I would like you to carry them across the sea to save them encountering those that dwell within it.”

Reshiram stared back at Xerneas, almost rendered speechless. “Of course I can do this, Xerneas. But don’t those pokemon need someone to tell them of the Fairy Garden? Of you?”

“Yes,” said Xerneas. “But Cleo’s party is not the one for that duty.”

Reshiram nodded again. “Very well. I shall take them.” He looked down at NyukNyuk. “I trust you to look after the library while I’m gone, little friend.”

NyukNyuk gave a chatter of protest and huddled closer to Reshiram’s leg.

Reshiram placed a wing talon on the mimikyu’s stuffed head. “I know you want to come on an adventure, but someone needs to look after the library while I’m away. You’re the perfect pokemon for that task.”

NyukNyuk’s tiny eyes sparkled in the torso of his disguise and he closed them with a squeak of glee.

“So you’ll do this for me?” Reshiram asked.

“Nyuk! Nyuk-nyuk!” The mimikyu raised a spectral arm in salute.

Xerneas looked between the two then turned to pace towards the window. Reshiram watched the stag for a moment as he gazed out at the meadows of the Fairy Garden. Joyful voices came from outside as a group of pokemon flocked past on their way back from Heart Abbey.

“Forgive me, Xerneas,” said Reshiram. “But you seem troubled.”

“Yveltal has awoken.”

Those words sent an arrow of dread through Reshiram’s heart. A strangled gasp left his throat and he grunted to try and clear it.

“Already?” he choked out.

Xerneas glanced back at him over his shoulder. “I knew this was coming, but even so it is still dreadful. The world groans, and I can feel it.”

Reshiram’s head feathers drooped and he exchanged a worried glance with NyukNyuk. He looked up at Xerneas who had returned to gazing out of the window.

“Then I shall make haste,” said the dragon. “Once the Wildfires are dealt with, we’ll be one step closer to victory.”

“Thank you, Reshiram.” Xerneas turned to face him. “I want to limit the lives lost. If Yveltal is given so much as an inch, he will strive to consume the entire world. This cannot be allowed.” He took in a deep breath. “The war is now reaching its climax. All that is left for us is to win it.”
 
Chapter 48

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
48 - A Surprise Visit​

The wagons rattled to a halt and Old Red tapped his cane on the wooden frame.

“All right,” he said. “We’ll camp here tonight. If anyone wants to stretch their legs, I suggest we hop off. And quietly.”

It surprised Cleo how many voluntarily left the wagons. The snow muffled any sound from their feet, and a few pokemon stopped to help those towing the carts from their harnesses. Cleo followed the pokemon from the wagons. Cold ice shocked her paw pads and she sucked in a sharp breath. Faith landed beside her, hugging her arms. The mawile’s violet eyes reflected the moonlight as she looked around at the other pokemon. It wasn’t long before the friendly fairy-type had found someone to help. Much to Cleo’s surprise, the pokemon were setting up tents. The two rapidash spewed flames to melt away the snow, uncovering bare ground for the tents.

Old Red joined Cleo’s side. “Pretty useful having a group of fire-types, isn’t it?”

“Can I help with anything?” Cleo asked, puzzling over the method the pokemon were using.

The tents were nothing like hers. Pokemon threaded long flexible poles through loops in the blue fabric. A split ran up the front of the tent providing an entrance, which was laced shut to keep out the worst of the weather.

Old Red shook his head. “We’ve got all the help we need. You find somewhere to rest a while. You’ve been on your feet much longer than we have. You deserve a rest.”

As thankful as Cleo was, she couldn’t help feeling like a burden. She moved through the pokemon until she spotted the heatmor. Long tongues of flame snaked from his mouth, lapping away the snow before one of the tents. His warm body did a good job of thawing the ice and warming the ground. Grateful pokemon flocked to it, snuggling beside each other as they unfolded pouches of rations.

Cleo joined them, settling down near the gogoat. She was sitting a fair distance from one of the rapidash who had taken the position of a radiator. The little skiddo skipped towards the fiery horse, and his mother raised her head in alarm.

“Don’t get too close!” said the gogoat. “Her flames might burn your leaves off!”

The skiddo skidded to a halt and fixed his mother with wide, terrified eyes.

The rapidash chuckled and shook her fiery mane. It flickered in the dark, sending erratic shadows over the other pokemon’s faces. “You have nothing to worry about. We can control our flames. We won’t burn you at all.”

“Oh good.” Spark bailed from Cleo’s shoulder, clutching a berry in her paws. “Can I sit on you then?”

The rapidash laughed and nodded towards one of her hooves. Spark scurried towards her and huddled into the horse’s warm chest. Cleo joined her small friend, leaning against the rapidash’s side.

“Thank you,” said Cleo.

“Don’t mention it,” said the rapidash.

“I can’t deny I feel a little useless, though.” Cleo rubbed the back of her head. “Like I should be doing something.”

“Your stories have entertained us all,” said the heatmor.

Cleo looked up with a start as the anteater settled down near the gogoat. He leaned his back against a tree stump he’d uncovered.

“It can get pretty dull travelling around all the time,” he said. “Your stories have been valuable to everyone here. So relax, get warm and wait out the night.”

Cleo gave him a warm smile. “What can we call you?”

“Torch,” he said with a small blush.

Names echoed around the camp too many for Cleo to remember. The ones that stuck were the two rapidash - Flicker and Blaze - and the gogoat and her son - Clover and Dinkle.

Once the tents were all set up, Faith returned to them, drying her paws on her fur. She was followed by the rampardos, Stompy. Faith settled down gratefully beside Cleo and huddled into Flicker’s warm fur. A soft snore came from the rapidash’s hoof where Spark had dozed off clutching a half-eaten oran. Faith laughed, echoed by the rapidash and Cleo.

“So,” said Stompy as he hunkered down beside Torch. “You’re definitely set on heading to Fire Island? You don’t wanna stay with us?”

“Oh, as lovely as that would be, we need to find this fire-type,” said Faith before Cleo could answer.

Stompy cast Torch a sideways glance. “Sure it’s not one of the pokemon here?”

Cleo met Torch’s eyes. Flicker gave a nicker beside her and Blaze shifted uncomfortably a few feet away.

“No,” said Cleo. “I believe it would be obvious when we find them.”

“A likely story,” grunted Rido.

Cleo hadn’t even seen the tauros join them. He sat out of her line of sight near a few other pokemon Cleo hadn’t caught the names of.

“You sure you’ll find them on Fire Island?” Torch asked. There was a warning note to his voice that caught Cleo’s interest.

“We don’t know,” said Cleo. “But if it’s an island full of fire-types then our chances are high, right?”

Torch snorted and a tongue of flame left his mouth to fizzle in the air. “I don’t know about ‘full’. All the fire-types left that island years ago, back when my great-grandfather was alive. Rumour has it one remained, but if he’s still there he’ll be ancient by now.”

Cleo’s heart sank like a lead rock. “So… so there’s no one left?”

“No idea.” Torch shrugged. “Legends are just that, aren’t they? But if you’re set on going there, you might want to find a way to safely cross the sea first.”

“So we need a boat?” Cleo looked at Faith. She’d not even considered how they’d get across.

“Either that or a strong, brave water-type,” said Torch.

Faith looked over at the heatmor. “Why ‘brave’? Is there something wrong with the water?”

“You could say that.” Torch leaned forwards on his knees. “When Fire Island fell under attack, the pokemon fled to the mainland, by sky and by sea. Many of those that travelled over the water didn’t make it. They say hundreds of years ago, long before Hydreigon’s reign, the ocean fell under attack from a sinister being who drained the life from the coral bed. All that remains are the vengeful husks of corsola. If anyone tries to cross, their souls are snatched away by spectral claws.”

A shudder ran through Cleo’s body. Part of her wondered if the story was even true. No… part of her hoped it wasn’t true.

“Yveltal,” Faith gasped.

The heatmor fixed one eye on Faith.

Stompy raised his head, his face full of excitement. “That makes so much sense! The story you told us earlier ties in with that legend perfectly!”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” said Torch. “It could have been anything that killed the coral bed.”

Old Red tottered over from his spot beside Rido. He leaned his shivering body on his cane and beamed Cleo and her friends.

“I did enjoy that tale, Faith,” he said. “Perhaps some more stories would warm us all up a bit before we tuck in for the night?”

“I’d like that very much!” The mawile tapped the grass beside her. “Sit with us. You’re freezing.”

The old kecleon chuckled and huddled into Flicker’s side. “So how did you come to meet Cleo and Spark, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Faith exchanged a glance with Cleo, and Cleo took the hint Faith wanted her to tell them of their journey. Cleo looked down at the sleeping dedenne nestled in the crook of Flicker’s leg.

“Well, it’s a bit of a long story,” Cleo explained. “I might need to trim it down.”

“There’s no rush,” said Old Red.

Cleo was suddenly aware of all the eyes fixed upon her. Many of the other pokemon had moved in around the camp, sticking close to the three fire-types.

Cleo cleared her throat. “Very well. It all started one day in the market, when a cheeky little grass-type mugged me.”

...​

Yurlik huddled into his body, fluffing his feathers out against the cold. Snow whipped up around him and he shook his body to remove it - a fruitless endeavour. The chilling wind bit through to the bone and he clenched his beak tight against it. He’d lost sight of the black cloud heading towards him, but he could still hear the cawing voices muffled by the oncoming storm. They grew louder, encouraging him to remain on his perch. Before long, he was surrounded by loud caws and beating wings as mukrow landed in the branches around him in an ungainly mass.

Yurlik tutted as he glanced around at them, his eyes falling on the lean form of Ilana.

The females.

He ruffled his feathers in agitation. He’d waited in the cold for this mob? He’d thought it was his own returning.

“This had better be good,” he growled.

Ilana held her beak open as she caught her breath, sucking in the chilling air. Her feathers were fluffed out, hiding her scrawny body beneath a ragged, tatty cape.

“Oh, it’s not you I’m meant to report to,” she said. “I need to get this message straight to Lord Hydreigon.”

“If it’s for Lord Hydreigon then you go through me,” he told her. “He wont see any females and you know it.”

Ilana tutted and narrowed her ruby eyes. “Fine. Then you can deliver this rotten nugget to him yourself.” The corners of her beak turned up in a smirk. “I’m sure you’re used to delivering bad news anyway.”

Yurlik stiffened. The note in her voice chilled him worse than the storm. “What is it? Did you lose that whimsicott?”

“The storm made me lose it,” Ilana told him. “I had him in my claws.” She tucked her wings in at her sides and raised her head. “The news I have doesn’t concern him. It’s about Harlequin and Enigma.”

Yurlik glared up at her. “What about them?”

“They’ve deviated.” She smirked at his gobsmacked expression. “I suppose you already feared as much, and I’m just confirming it? But Harlequin is with a group of Outcasts, helping them. As for Enigma, he also leapt to their aid more than once.”

Yurlik’s beak fell wide open and a strangled noise left his throat. How was he meant to tell Hydreigon he’d lost two more aces? Perhaps he should have allowed Ilana an audience with him after all.

Yurlik cleared his throat and smoothed out his feathers. “Very well. I’ll show you to the throne room-”

“No need. I’ve delivered our message.” Ilana spread her wings and let out a caw, mustering her flock into gear. “We’ve got a job to do. Come on, girls. Let’s join the rest of the flock in the hunt for that whimsicott.”

“Wait!” Yurlik barked, rising into the air as Ilana and her flock formed a black cloud above the trees. “I demand you to get back here and deliver your message!”

Ilana fired a smirk back at him then turned, leading her flock back over the Border Woods. The birds moved around each other, forming a shield against the storm. The cold tore through Yurlik’s feathers, forcing him to land back in his tree. With a defeated sigh, he turned his back and headed towards the castle.

He landed neatly on the stairs and shook snow from his wings. Muttering under his breath he tapped the door with his talons. The face of a scrafty peered out around it and looked him up and down.

“Snowing?” the fighting-type asked.

Yurlik pushed the door open and shoved the scrafty aside with his beak. The reptilian pokemon yelped and rubbed his shoulder.

“What, are ya made of ice or somethin’?” he squeaked.

Yurlik ignored him, marching through the corridor and leaving behind trails of water as the snow melted from his feathers. Torches adorned the walls, radiating a delicious warmth through the castle that thawed Yurlik’s frozen bones. It almost made the dread of delivering Ilana’s message a little more bearable.

He stopped at the doors to the throne room and a thick lump formed in his throat. He cleared it with a dry caw and tapped on the door.

“Enter!” Hydreigon’s voice boomed out.

Yurlik pushed the door open and froze. Hydreigon sat in his usual spot near the back of the room. Beside him sat Yveltal amid several stone statues, each one with its face trapped in a silent scream. His black feathers were streaked with red. A white ruff had formed around the bird’s neck. But it was the hunger radiating from his blue eyes that froze Yurlik to the spot.

“What is it, Yurlik?” Hydreigon asked, tearing the honchkrow’s eyes from the draconic bird.

Hydregion sat with his head on one pincer while the other one stared blindly at Yurlik.

“I’ve received a message from the female flock, my lord,” said Yurlik. “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

Hydreigon raised an eyebrow and motioned for Yurlik to continue.

Feeling a lot more placated that he hadn’t been dodging a dragon pulse, Yurlik quickly relayed the message in a bid to get it all out before the dragon’s mood darkened.

Once he’d finished, Hydreigon continued to stare at Yurlik, holding him in place with sheer fear.

“So you are telling me,” Hydreigon began slowly, “that I have lost two more of my aces?”

“I am afraid so, my lord.” Yurlik dipped his head in a bow.

“So that leaves me with… the Wildfires?”

Yurlik looked up and swallowed. Hydreigon was no longer looking at him, instead exchanging some silent conversation with his pincer.

“This news upsets me, Yurlik.” The dragon looked back at him. “I want both Harlequin and Enigma dead. Arrange it.”

Yurlik opened his beak to confirm, desperate to leave. But Yveltal shifted, turning his icy gaze onto Hydreigon.

“You should bring them back alive,” he said. “Let me deal with them.”

“They have no right to meet you,” said Hydreigon. “Why give traitors that honour?”

“It’s not an honour,” said Yveltal. “I want them to see what they’ve lost. They were fighting for my revival, so betraying you means they die at my claws.”

Hydreigon grunted. “Very well.” He fixed one eye on Yurlik. “Release the Wildfires. Allow them to torch the Outcasts, but I want Harlequin and Enigma back here alive.”

Yurlik gulped. “Howlinger takes no prisoners, my lord.”

“That is an order, Yurlik.”

Yurlik bowed and ducked from the room, closing the door swiftly. He flinched, expecting an attack to slam it shut.

“Oh, and Yurlik?”

The honchkrow raised his head from his ruffled feathers and peered back around the door. “Yes my lord?”

“Search Harlequin’s and Enigma’s rooms,” said the black dragon. “I want you to find any sign that might point to their treachery.”

“Understood. I’ll get on that at once.”

Still no attack came to slam the door.

The honchkrow smoothed out his feathers and turned from the castle, walking briskly back out into the cold. Something had changed in Hydreigon that he couldn’t put his claw on.

No… he could. Hydreigon believed he’d won. He’d found his prize, revived Yveltal. Everything else now was an inconvenience. If he was releasing the Wildfires to finish off his job then he had no plans to bring back either traitor alive. His words had been a ruse to placate Yveltal.

Yurlik clenched his beak and shook his head. He spread his wings, making a beeline for the caves near the back of the Shadow Lands. Smoke curled from the small holes that dotted the rocky surface. Deep within the yawning entrance, Yurlik could make out the flicker of red and orange flames. Beyond them a pair of red eyes opened and a canine raised its shadowy head.

“I bring orders from Lord Hydreigon,” Yurlik told it, trying to hide the waver in his voice. “He is sending you out to finish the job. You are to destroy the Outcasts and bring back the traitors Harlequin and Enigma alive.”

“He knows full well we don’t bring back prisoners.” The voice was smooth and deep, like the distant rumble of thunder warning of an oncoming storm.

“I’m just repeating his orders,” said Yurlik. “Do what you do best.”

The red eyes flashed and flames leaked out from the canine’s mouth, flashing orange against his sharp teeth. Yurlik stood aside as a loud howl shook the cavern.

Howlinger leapt from its mouth, his sleek black form bounding over the rocky terrain. The houndoom raised his pointed tail and threw his head back. Another howl left his throat, followed by a stream of flames. The smaller houndour copied him, their voices rending the skies of the Shadow Lands. Then they took off. Black howling shadows streaking through the night ready to leave a trail of flames in their wake.

...​

Cleo brushed aside the door to her tent only to be assaulted by blinding light. She let it go again and the dark blue sheet leapt to her aid. She rubbed her eyes to try and remove the dancing spots that remained then tried again, more gingerly. The sky was devoid of clouds, letting the low sun shine its rays down onto the white landscape. It made the snow glow with blinding intensity. Cleo raised her paw to shield her eyes as she stepped out, the cold beneath her paws contrasting with the sun’s warm caress.

A loud yawn came from her feet and Spark rubbed her little face with her paws. “Wow, that’s enough to give someone snow blindness.”

“I think that’s just a myth, Spark,” said Cleo.

“No, no. My grandpa had it once. I remember my Dad telling me one snowy day. ‘Don’t stare at the snow too long’ he said.” Spark blinked her black eyes and let out a sad sigh. “My memory of it is pretty vague now.”

Cleo placed a paw on her chest and bit her lip. Her memories of home were also growing faint. She shook her head, trying to find a happy note to latch onto. Just a few feet away, Old Red sat with Torch and one of the rapidash - Flicker or Blaze, Cleo struggled to tell the two apart. Rido sat beside them tucking into a meal of berries and hay.

Old Red waved a paw. “Good morning! Did you all sleep well?”

“Like a log.” Cleo joined them and sat down in a dry patch beside the rapidash. “Thank you so much. But we could have kept watch.”

“Nonsense, there’s enough of us here to give you a break,” said the kecleon. “We all take turns, and no one here goes without a couple of nights of solid sleep.”

“It must be nice travelling in such large numbers,” said Spark, reaching into Cleo’s bag for a berry. “I do like my sleep.”

“You don’t need to dip into your own rations.” Old Red motioned to the heap of rations and berries beside them. “Help yourself, we’ve plenty.”

“You don’t mind?” Cleo asked.

“Not at all! You’ve got a long journey ahead of you. Hold onto what you’ve got and share with us a while.”

Cleo thanked him profusely and helped herself to a juicy oran and a strip of dried fish. When she returned to her seat she spotted Faith emerging from the tent, her arms stretched above her head in a wide yawn.

“Wow, what a beautiful morning!” she said as she squinted out at the landscape.

“You’ve obviously cheered up the weather with your stories!” Old Red chuckled. “Help yourself to breakfast, my dear.”

Faith thanked him and gathered a couple of berries. Torch waved her over and cleared a patch of snow with a flick of his flaming tongue.

As they tucked into their breakfast, Cleo, now adjusted to the brightness, cast a glance around the camp. Most of the pokemon were still asleep, and a couple emerged from their tents, squinting and ducking their heads against the brightness. A huge mound of white snow caught Cleo’s eye and she swallowed her mouthful of fish.

“Wow, there must have been some wind!” she gasped. “Look at all the snow piled up over there.”

“There wasn’t any wind,” said Torch. “Not while I was on watch, anyway.”

Faith followed Cleo’s stare and let out a gasp as her violet eyes widened. “That’s not snow!”

The mawile leapt to her feet, sending her berries tumbling to the ground. She took off towards the mound and Cleo rushed to catch up with her. The crunching snow behind her told her she wasn’t alone.

As she drew closer, the mound looked less like snow and more like fur and feather. Even lying down his shoulder reached above Cleo’s ears, and a huge mammalian head lay resting on large claws attached to feathery forelegs. The dragon’s back rose and fell gently and a soft snore came from his nose, stirring up what remained of the snow around his warm body.

Rido skidded to a halt, cutting Old Red and Torch off before they could reach the dragon.

“Reshiram?” Cleo gasped. “What’s he doing all the way out here?”

“And in this weather?” Spark clambered onto Cleo’s shoulder and shook snow from her paws.

Faith shook her head, speechless.

“Wait a minute.” Torch pointed towards the massive white beast. “You know this dragon?”

“Yes,” said Faith. “He’s a friend from the Fairy Garden. Xerneas must have asked him to join us, but why?”

“Why don’t we ask him?” Old Red lifted his cane and poked Reshiram in the nose. “Wake up, old boy! What are you doing out in the open in all this cold?”

Reshiram’s nose twitched and he snorted, sending a flurry of steam and snow towards Old Red.

“Don’t do that!” Torch swiped the cane aside, almost toppling the old kecleon. Torch grabbed his arm to steady him and gave him an apologetic look. “What if he attacks us? We’d never survive an attack from something so big!”

Rido pawed the snow with a hoof and puffed air from his nostrils. “If he attacks us, I’ll give him what for!”

“He’d never do that!” Faith gasped. “He’s one of the most gentle pokemon I know.”

Rido only snorted in response, his eyes fixed on the sleeping dragon.

Faith crouched beside Reshiram and placed a paw on his wing. “Reshiram? Are you okay?”

The white dragon’s blue eyes fluttered open and he blinked a couple of times. He poked out a large tongue to lick his lips, then stretched his jaws wide open in a huge yawn. A few other pokemon had gathered out of curiosity and they scattered with squeals of fright back towards the camp.

Reshiram’s gaze fell on Old Red and the others and he beamed. “You’re awake! Wow, what a morning.” He rose to his full height, towering over the other pokemon. Torch stood trembling before Old Red who gazed up at Reshiram in awe.

“You look as bright as a daisy!” Old Red called up to him. “Faith here assures us you are a friend?”

“I sure am!” Reshiram lowered his head towards them. “I’m sorry, I appear to have spooked your friends.”

“Of course you’ve spooked them! You’re a dragon!” Rido lowered his horns and huffed steam from his nose.

Reshiram looked down at himself and laughter rumbled from his chest. “So I am! But I can assure you I mean you no harm.”

“And we’re meant to just believe you?”

Old Red placed a paw on Rido’s shoulder and took a step towards Reshiram. “I believe you. But what brings you all the way to our camp?”

Reshiram motioned with a wing towards Cleo and her friends. “Xerneas asked me to help these lovely ladies across the Sinister Sea to Fire Island.”

Cleo blinked at that. “You’re going to help us?”

“We’re gonna fly?” Spark squeaked.

Reshiram laughed again. “It’s the best way to travel! Those corsola won’t be able to reach us up in the sky.”

“Corsola?” Cleo raised an eyebrow. “So it’s not just a legend?”

“Ahh so you’ve heard about them? No, it’s no mere legend, Cleo.” Reshiram turned his attention back onto Old Red. “I’m really sorry to drop in like this. By the time I arrived, you were all asleep and I didn’t want to startle your look-out, so I just crept into the snow and hunkered down!”

“I don’t mind at all,” said Old Red. “Any friend of these three is a friend of ours.” He slapped Rido on the shoulder.

The tauros grunted and raised his head. “I suppose. But if you turn out to be a threat…”

Reshiram raised a wing to his chest. “I promise you I shall be on my very best behaviour.”

“You heard him Rido!” said Old Red. “A promise is a promise! Now, will you be joining us for breakfast? We have berries and dried meats, and I think I’ve got a skin of berry wine somewhere in the back of my cart.”

“Oh no, no. I shall have to refuse the wine,” said Reshiram. “But some breakfast would be lovely if they don’t mind my presence.”

Reshiram’s gaze went towards the camp. Everyone was awake and fixing the white dragon with a mix of fear and curiosity.

“Oh, don’t mind that lot,” said Old Red. “I’m sure they’ll calm down once they see you’re no threat! It’s not every day one gets to entertain a dragon.”

“I do hope so,” said Reshiram. “I’m not used to this kind of reaction. I very rarely leave the Fairy Garden.”

“It’s certainly a surprise,” said Faith. “Not that I’m not happy to see you. It must be dire if Xerneas has sent you to help us.”

Reshiram nodded and steered Faith alongside him. “What he told me was worrying, but I shan’t burden you with it. We’ll have a spot of breakfast then be on our way.”

“We need to make haste then?” Faith asked.

Reshiram didn’t answer, but his expression told them enough. A sense of dread washed over Cleo. What did Reshiram know that they didn’t? She exchanged a puzzled glance with Spark.

The other pokemon scattered as Reshiram approached the camp. Old Red went ahead of him and tapped his cane on the bare ground.

“Come on, you lot!” he shouted. “Reshiram here is a friend! He won’t hurt any of you.”

The gogoat, Clover, poked her head out of one of the tents. “Are you sure?”

“Can you really take the word of a dragon?” asked a herdier.

Faith cut in front of him and raised her paws. “I promise you Reshiram is a friend. He’s from the Fairy Garden.”

“Then how come you didn’t mention him in any of your stories?” Flicker asked.

“That’s very simple,” said Reshiram. “Those stories aren’t about me. They’re about Xerneas.”

The other pokemon seemed to calm, and the herdier and gogoat emerged from their tents. The skiddo followed behind his mother and looked up at Reshiram in awe.

“Wow!” he gasped. “You’re so big!”

“Big enough to step on you!” said Clover. “Come here, don’t get too close.”

Dinkle let out an ‘eep!’ and skittered over to his mother.

“Oh, yes.” Reshiram rubbed the back of his head. “I’m a little worried about stepping on any of you. I’m used to dodging around other pokemon, but they are also used to me. So please try to avoid my rather large feet.”

He settled down beside Old Red and flicked his tail into his side. The other pokemon gathered around the food pile, keeping a wary distance from the dragon. Many of them trembled slightly, despite the sun’s rays. It was still bitterly cold. With all the pokemon huddling around the three fire-types there just wasn’t enough heat between them.

Reshiram made a thoughtful noise as he looked over them, and a strange rumble came from his tail.

“It’s rather cold, isn’t it?” he said. “Maybe I can help a little?”

“Are you a fire-type, old boy?” Old Red asked him.

“I most certainly am.” Orange flames erupted from Reshiram’s tail, startling the pokemon back to their feet. Even Cleo had jumped up, her eyes on Reshiram’s blazing tail.

“There,” he said. “Some extra heat for you all.”

Cleo scolded herself and sat back down. The heat from Reshiram’s tail washed over her, thawing her chilled bones. Spark huddled into her fur and purred out ‘toasty!’

Gradually the other pokemon returned to what Cleo guessed was a normal routine. They chatted, some growing confident enough to settle beside Reshiram and listen to him tell Old Red about his work in the Fairy Garden’s library. Soon the conversation turned to his training, drawing Cleo and Spark into the mix.

“Those moves have certainly come in useful,” said Cleo. “We’ve been attacked by murkrow twice since we left.”

“We showed them what for!” Spark added.

Much to Cleo’s surprise, Reshiram didn’t question their loss of Mischief, or of Harlequin. She was both glad and saddened by it. Either he already knew, or he didn’t want to ask while they were surrounded by so many pokemon. She wouldn’t be surprised if it were the former. Xerneas had known enough to tell Reshiram where to find them, so he must know Mischief and Harlequin had left them too.

“So how did you find your way into the Fairy Garden?” Old Red asked. “Were you born there like Faith?”

“Oh no, I found my way there many years ago,” Reshiram explained. “It’s actually a long story. You see, I have a sibling, a pokemon named Zekrom. We were both fascinated by stories of legend, and Xerneas wowed us both. We would often read of Yveltal’s Fall and other stories about Xerneas and the origins of Estellis. But we both had very different outlooks. Zekrom wanted to learn more about them to apply his teachings and laws to Estellis. She was very distressed at the state of the world. She called the Shadow Lands a festering wound in the beauty of the world. While she liked the stories and wanted to learn about them she much more preferred the ideology behind it, where I wanted to discover more and learn the truth. Where had these stories come from? And had they been changed or altered over the years? We’d often lock horns in debates, much to my shame. After a while we parted ways and I set out to find out more.

“I spent a lot of time in Gleamgrove Abbey. It was very new when I came across it. I learned a lot from the gardevoir teacher there, and spent a long time in the library. I helped them to extend it as the pokemon added to the books, writing down all they knew of Xerneas. After a few years I left in search of more, with the hopes to bring it back to my friends at the abbey. Much to my surprise I stumbled across the Fairy Garden and - wow - I near fainted. In fact, I think I did faint. And I tell you, friends, I never left.”

“That’s amazing,” said Cleo. “I never would have guessed.”

“But what happened to Zekrom?” Spark asked. “Is she still alive? Did she find the Fairy Garden?”

“Zekrom wanted to heal the Shadow Lands,” said Reshiram. “She went up that way and I never heard from her again.”

Faith stared down at her paws.

Cleo looked from the mawile to Reshiram. “That’s sad. So she never found her way to the Fairy Garden?”

Reshiram shook his head. “Sometimes, I wonder if she ever truly believed in it. It makes me think she only saw the stories as ideals to live by.”

“And she took the news to the Shadow Lands,” said Faith.

Spark looked up at the mawile. “Does that upset you?”

“No.” Faith gave Spark a small smile. “It’s great, just… how many don’t believe it? The only dark-type who I’ve seen enter the Fairy Garden is Harlequin. If the stories were delivered there, then what happened to them?”

“It makes one wonder,” said Reshiram.

“Look, Mum!” Dinkle’s cheerful head rose up from the edge of one of Reshiram’s footprints. “There’s enough room to run around in here!”

The little skiddo ran in circles over the flattened snow.

Clover rolled her eyes and sighed as the other pokemon chuckled at the hatchling’s antics.

“Well,” said Old Red. “I think it’s nearly time to pack up the carts and move on.” He looked up at Reshiram. “Would you like to travel with us a little longer?”

Reshiram’s smile fell and he shook his head. “That is a very kind offer, friend, but I’m afraid we really must make haste.”

Old Red nodded sadly. “I understand.”

“Please let us help you pack up?” said Faith. “It’s the least we can do after your hospitality.”

“Very well.” Old Red chuckled. “I give in. But it will be sad to part ways.” The kecleon took her paw in both of his and smiled. “Thank you so much, all of you.” He looked over the rest of her friends, ending on Reshiram. “Perhaps we will meet again in the Fairy Garden.”

“Oh I do hope so,” said Faith.

“You remember how to get there?” Cleo asked.

Old Red nodded. “I know where the Endless Woods are. We’re going to head that way, and all of us who truly want to go will find it. Is that right?”

Faith nodded, her eyes glistening with tears.

...​

Yurlik cursed under his breath as he flicked dust from his feathers. Harlequin’s room had been oddly barren. All he’d found was an empty vial tucked away beneath their bed. Enigma’s however, was a different kettle of fish. Old books ‘borrowed’ from the barrack’s store cupboard lay in a haphazard pile beside his bed. Empty food wrappers were tossed into the corners, spilling over the trash can. The hay seemed like it hadn’t been changed in seasons. As for under the bed…

Yurlik clicked his beak as he flicked open dusty rags of black fabric. What on earth had that been? A vague memory flashed in his mind of a hooded cloak. This, however, looked like it had been hacked to pieces.

He tossed it aside and peered under the bed, narrowing his red eyes as dust tickled his nostrils. Something large and brick-like caught his eye and he reached his talons beneath the bed. It was out of reach.

Swearing audibly, the large raven pressed himself to the floor and wriggled beneath the stone bed. He nudged the item with his beak towards the opening and sneezed, sending up a cloud of dust. With a jerk of his head, the item he’d confirmed to be yet another book went skittering over the compact earth.

Yurlik flailed his wings as he reversed, sneezing, from beneath the bed. His entire body was caked with dust. He beat at it fruitlessly and turned his wicked eyes onto the book, then cursed again loudly. ‘Assassination 101’. Yurlik kicked the book, sending it sprawling across the floor in a flurry of pages.

He marched towards the door with one last disdainful look around the room. His gaze fell on the book as he strutted past it and his beak fell open.

A huge illustration greeted him of a rainbow stag leading an army into battle against a huge black bird. That was no book on assassination. The honchkrow grabbed the cover of the book and tore away the dust jacket.

‘Yveltal’s fall’.

Something churned inside his chest. Excitement.

Hydreigon had instructed him to find evidence of their treachery.

He’d definitely confirmed one. Whether Enigma had shared this with Harlequin remained to be seen. But the book Hydreigon had believed had burned with the library had definitely survived.

A deep chuckle rose in Yurlik’s throat. Not only had the information Hydreigon had been seeking been under their noses the whole time, Enigma had hidden it away.

Yurlik picked up the book in his talons as a grin split his beak. Hydreigon was going to love this.
 
Chapter 49

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
49 - A Toxic Nightmare​

Enigma sprang down the mountain slope, picking out large rocks where the wind had whipped the snow away. He paused to wait for Harlequin to catch up, glancing back at the zorua as they scrambled down the slope. Harlequin’s paws shot out from beneath them and they yelped as they slid on their bottom. The rock Enigma perched on stopped the zorua’s descent before Enigma could leap into action.

Harlequin shook snow from their ears and looked up at him. “Coming back down the mountain is a lot harder than climbing it.” A scolding tone was laced in the zorua’s words, directed at their self rather than Enigma.

Harlequin stood and shook out their pelt.

“You just need to watch where you put your feet.” Enigma glanced over at the mountain, the rocks buried deep beneath the snow.

Harlequin snorted and pawed at the snow. “Easy for you to say. You can just warp your way down. At this rate you might have to save me again.”

Enigma turned and warped a few feet away, stopping on a branch jutting from the mountain to wait for his friend. “Sorry, Harle. But I’m not exactly in the life-saving business. It was just luck that I found you.”

Harlequin scrambled towards him and puffed a few flakes from their nose. “You were following me. Besides.” The zorua flashed him a grin. “I think you secretly enjoyed that you were able to save a life for once.”

Enigma’s jaw tightened and Harlequin raised a paw to take a step back. The zorua’s striking sapphire eyes dimmed and they glanced away. Enigma became painfully aware he was glaring. He turned towards the evergreens ahead of them and sighed.

“I’m really sorry, Enigma.” Harlequin plodded behind him as he warped further down the slope. “I worded that badly.”

“Don’t worry about it, Harle, because I’m not.”

Enigma took the silence that followed to mean Harlequin was in fact deeply worried about it but choosing not to say anything. He shrugged it off and warped on ahead, landing on a rocky outcrop that overlooked the trees.

Tall mountain pines grew close together, the evergreen canopy sheltering the ground beneath from the snow. Boulders and soil were piled up around the outermost trees, joined by heaps of snow. A few trees strained beneath the weight, their roots pushed up from the ground in a knot of snaking coils. Yet they still stood firm, sheltering the base of the mountain from deadly landslides. For that reason, the pokemon that had lived in the village at the bottom had called the trees The Guardian Woods.

That was until the village fell victim to a nasty landslide several years ago. The trees could only take so much. All it had taken was a well-timed attack and the ancient tree holding back the soil crumpled.

Enigma’s claws dug into his pads as he tried to clear the filthy memory from his mind.

Harlequin joined his side, their breath misting in the cold air. “It looks so quiet now, huh?”

“That’s because it is.”

Harlequin’s claws scuffed over the rocky ground as they looked over the trees. Wood creaked in the breeze as they strained against the fresh landfall. The zorua shook their head and moved past Enigma. “Come on.”

Enigma followed after Harlequin into the woods. The blanket of pine needles was a welcome change after the biting cold, wet snow. The woodland floor was almost warm in comparison, and muffled their footsteps. Enigma noticed Harlequin was veering off the path, away from the former Outcast town.

“There’s nothing we can do about the memories,” he told the zorua. “All we can do now is try to put things right.”

Harlequin flicked up pine needles as they came to an abrupt stop. “’We’?”

Enigma shrugged and tucked his paws behind his head. “It wont bring back those we’ve killed. But at least pokemon will feel safe enough to spread out across Estellis again, rather than congregating in tiny, scattered towns.”

Harlequin moved on, choosing not to press Enigma about skirting around their question. The zorua’s blue gaze wandered around the quiet woods. “I half-expected to see Harbinger in the mountains.”

“If he’s moving about, our paths might cross,” said Enigma. “But it’s unlikely. He could be anywhere.”

“Then I’ll keep looking until I find him,” said Harlequin.

“That could take days.”

“Or longer.” Harlequin cast a glance at Enigma over their shoulder. “It’s up to you if you want to stick with me.”

Enigma puffed air between his lips. “So I guess I’m out for an endless stroll then, huh?”

Harlequin laughed and Enigma nudged the zorua in the tail with his foot. They continued on, engaging in idle banter into the heart of the woods. The canopy grew so close together it blocked out most of the light.

Harlequin stopped, nose twitching. “Can you smell that?”

“All I can smell is decaying leaves,” said Enigma.

Harlequin lowered their head, ears forward, sniffing over the ground until they reached an exceptionally large pine. The bark was deeply grooved half way up it and a sticky, pink goo trailed from them to congeal around the tree’s knotted roots.

“This is fresh,” Harlequin gasped. “There’s a pokemon living around here.”

“I’m guessing one with claws?” Enigma eyed the deep grooves above their heads.

Harlequin followed his gaze and swallowed. “Or spines.”

“Well it doesn’t look like blood.” Enigma dropped into a crouch beside Harlequin and reached towards the slime. “So what-”

The wind left Enigma’s chest as Harlequin buffeted him aside. He stared up at Harlequin, his surprised stare matching their’s perfectly. Harlequin’s worry melted into anger and they bared their canines.

“What are you, a hatchling?!” Harlequin barked, jerking their head towards the tree. “This is nidoking poison!”

“How was I meant to know?” Enigma spluttered as he pushed himself back to his feet. “I’ve never seen one before. I thought they were extinct!”

“Clearly not!” Harlequin’s fur smoothed out and they sighed. “Just don’t go sticking your paws into random stuff! Have you learned nothing from me? Good grief, Enigma, you’d be the first pokemon at a mushroom party to stick a death cap into his mouth!”

Enigma rolled his eyes then muttered under his breath, “At least I know what a death cap looks like.”

If Harlequin heard him they didn’t say. Their attention was back on the pink slime. “I know this is nidoking poison from the smell. I’ve never seen this behaviour before, but I’ve heard about it. They mark their territory by rubbing up against trees and cliff surfaces. It’s a warning to other nidoking that one has claimed this land already, and also serves as a warning to other pokemon to stay away.”

“So they don’t like company?”

“It’s not so much that as they’re so toxic they could poison another pokemon just by brushing shoulders with them.” Harlequin cast him a sideways glance and turned from the tree to continue down the mountain. “So keep an eye open.”

“You’re not planning on looking for this guy, are you?” Enigma asked as he caught up.

“I’d like to, but I don’t know how he’d feel about a known assassin showing up on his doorstep.”

“Oh good.” Enigma’s voice came out squeakier than he’d intended and he cleared his throat. “Because I don’t quite fancy it myself, either.”

They continued on in silence, each keeping an ear and eye open for any sign of the nidoking. Enigma stuck to the trees, warping from branch to branch as he scouted the canopy. Only the roar of water broke the silence, growing louder as they drew closer to the tree line. By the time they reached the edge of the woods the sun had vanished beyond the mountain peaks, but the sky was still the deep blue of late afternoon.

The land opened out before them, revealing a wide river that shimmered in the waning daylight. It cleaved through the valley, whisking flurries of snow from the banks which broke up against sharp rocks. An old mountain pine lay across the river, its branches and roots cut away to create a bridge. Green algae clung to its underside while moss grew in clumps along the knotted bark.

Enigma warped back to the ground, landing in the snow with a soft ‘ploof’, then looked down the river. With two options open to them the most obvious choice was to move away from the Shadow Lands. But that was well beyond the mountains.

“Shall we follow the river?” Harlequin asked.

Enigma shrugged. “Do you have anywhere in mind?”

“Somewhere to rest,” said the zorua. “My feet are aching from the uneven ground. I could use a rest and something to eat.”

Enigma waved Harlequin along. “Then after you.”

Harlequin tutted playfully and skipped on ahead of the banette. The zorua’s limp was more pronounced as they waded through the snow. Their black fur clung to their slight frame, and their bushy tail hung in tangled clumps. Enigma felt he probably didn’t look much different. His mane could use a good brush. He idly dragged his claws through it, hissing as they found a tangle of knots.

Harlequin stopped a few yards down the river, sniffing at an opening in the cliff face. Enigma warped to their side and peered into the cave. It was dark and smelled like moss and earth. He strolled in ahead of Harlequin and gave a loud whistle that echoed around the vast cavern.

“It’s bigger in here than it looks from outside,” he called to Harlequin.

The zorua crept in beside him, keeping their head down. Ears swivelled left and right as Harlequin sniffed the air. “It’s definitely not lived in.”

“What do you think once lived here then?” Enigma asked. “Our nidoking friend?”

“No,” said Harlequin. “I’d guess an ursine pokemon. But they’re long gone now.”

Harlequin inspected the far side of the cave and dug their claws into the dry earth. Seeming content, they slumped into a bedraggled pile and tucked their tail over their paws.

Enigma settled down beside the zorua and leaned back against the wall with a loud yawn. He tucked his paws behind his head and shuffled against the floor. “I could probably sleep myself.”

“Go ahead,” said Harlequin. “I’ll wake you in a few hours. I want to sort through my bag anyway.”

Enigma chuckled and glanced at the zorua out of the corner of his eye. It felt good to be around Harlequin again. Although he’d never admit it.

...​

Too perfect. Much too perfect.

Harbinger perched on a ledge across the river. The wind whipped his fur, bringing with it the threat of snow. He was mere feet away from the cave Harlequin had chosen.

He turned aside to follow the river back upstream towards where he’d left Scratch and Claw. The two pawniard were the best pokemon for the job. Hopefully they’d have finished it by now.

Harbinger felt his heart pick up again, galloping like a rapidash through a field of wildflowers. If this worked - which he was convinced it would - his revenge plan would be complete.

And oh what a bittersweet irony it would be, too.

...​

Cleo clutched onto Faith’s waist as she gazed out at the land below them. They’d been flying for some time, and the sun was beginning to vanish beyond the Shadow Lands. The sky was turning a bloody orange ahead of them, smeared with grey clouds. More snow was threatening the travellers, and before long they’d need to seek shelter.

Cleo leaned around Faith’s shoulder, feeling Spark stir in her fur as the dedenne woke from a light doze. “I think we need to land soon, Reshiram. Night is drawing in.”

“Already?” Spark mumbled.

Reshiram cast a blue eye towards Cleo and made a thoughtful noise. “We’re making good time. If we land now, we’ll slow our journey.”

“But if it snows we might get caught in a blizzard.”

Faith looked back at Cleo. “Do you know where we are? Is there a village we can stay in?”

Cleo shook her head. “I don’t recognise anything this far out. The northern parts of Estellis are completely alien to me.”

She wanted to check her map to see if anything might be drawn on it that might promise shelter. But the wind was against them and she feared her map would be snatched from her paws.

“Most pokemon have fled south anyway,” said Spark. “We’d be lucky to find anyone friendly in this place.”

Cleo nodded at that. It would be very unlikely to find someone friendly so close to the Shadow Lands. She narrowed her eyes at it. The sky was growing darker, more red, and she thought she could see the thorny spire of Hydreigon’s castle. Something she’d only heard of in stories. Was it just her imagination? It was still many miles away, yet it was still foreboding.

She huddled into Faith as her teeth began to chatter. “I really do think we’re in for more snow.”

“Me too,” said Faith. “Reshiram, can you see anywhere that might make good shelter? It’s getting colder.”

Reshiram’s tail flared in response, or it seemed as such. Heat flooded through him, warming Cleo from the bottom up. The white dragon veered to the side, turning towards the smudge of forest beneath them.

“You make a good point, girls,” he said. “We’ll land and find shelter. I might not be tired yet but I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to some supper!” His laughter rumbled through his large body.

Faith smiled, hanging onto his feathers as he carefully turned towards the ground in a graceful arc. “I can second that!”

“I third it,” said Spark, yawning widely.

Cleo blinked at Reshiram’s comment. Not tired yet? They’d been flying most of the day! She held onto Faith for dear life, her yellow eyes wide as she watched the ground come up on her right. Reshiram levelled out, stiffening his wings as he gently glided towards the ground. His body jerked as his feet struck the snow and he tucked his wings in at his sides.

He looked back at his passengers and nodded. “All right! We’re on the ground.”

“It looks like a cloud,” said Spark as she dropped from Cleo’s shoulder.

The small dedenne vanished into the snow and Cleo’s heart hit her throat. She stooped to rescue the small rodent and dusted snow from her orange fur.

Spark twitched her whiskers and shook her large ears. “Yikes! That’s some deep snow!”

“Oh, Spark,” Faith sighed, a small smile playing at her lips. “You do go on some adventures.”

Cleo set her small companion back on her shoulder. “Look before you leap next time.”

“I did!” Spark squeaked.

The meowstic waded through the snow, searching the bare canopy of the forest. There was no sign of any murkrow, not that she expected to find any. Without much shelter, even the forest floor had fallen victim to the snow.

Reshiram strutted over it, his large tail melting the snow away to reveal flattened grass beneath it. “If we camp on the outskirts we’ll be able to make a quick getaway if any of Hydreigon’s soldiers find us.”

Cleo felt that was a polite way of him telling her there was little room for him in the forest. Not to mention the risk of a fire from his flaming tail. He’d undoubtedly offer it to keep them all warm.

Cleo reached into her bag for their tent. A new bundle of blue fabric and collapsible rods was squeezed between her old sheet and her restocked rations. She could still recall Old Red’s kind face as he offered it to them before they left. She’d tried to refuse but he’d insisted, bundling the tent into her paws.

‘It’s the least I can do after your wonderful company,’ he’d said. ‘And you’ve given us a new destination! I look forward to the day we meet again in the Fairy Garden.’

Cleo’s eyes welled up and she tugged the tent from her bag. The poles fell out around her where they stuck out of the snow. She stooped to grab them and Faith joined her.

“I helped them take down one of these,” she said. “I think I can work it out in reverse.”

Cleo thanked the mawile and together they managed to get the tent together. Its blue dome stood in the warmed grass beside Reshiram. In the white snow it would have been obvious, but the dragon had melted a huge stretch of snow away and from the sky the tent would be near invisible.

Yet Cleo still felt unsettled so out in the open. Even a large patch of ground free of snow would be suspicious to prying eyes from above.

Reshiram curled up near the tent, the warmth from his tail radiating off him and warming Cleo’s cold bones. He nodded to them and they huddled into his warm feathers.

Spark let out a squeal of delight and huddled down in the grass beside Cleo. “It’s so warm and toasty! Do we really need the tent?”

Cleo was beginning to re-think it. “As nice as it would be, if it snows again we’ll be buried in it.”

“It would melt right off us, surely?” Spark took a huge bite out of a sitrus berry.

“Then we’d be wet,” said Cleo.

Reshiram chuckled, his laughter vibrating through his body and shaking Cleo slightly. “The smell of wet fur and feathers would probably put off any attack from the Darkness!”

“You sayin’ I smell?” Spark joked, her voice muffled by her berry.

Reshiram chuckled again. He looked down at his friends and his expression turned somber. “I didn’t want to ask earlier around your new friends. But what happened to Harlequin and Mischief?”

“Harlequin has gone looking for her absol friend,” Cleo explained. “Mischief…” Her voice choked and she lowered her fish into her lap. “He was taken by murkrow.”

Reshiram’s eyes widened and a small ‘oh’ was his only response.

“We’d look for him,” said Spark. “But he could be anywhere now.”

“Yes, like the Shadow Lands,” said Cleo.

“I doubt that,” said Reshiram, drawing Cleo’s attention. She met his soft, blue eyes. “I think he might have got away.”

“What makes you think that?” Cleo asked drily as she took a bite of her fish. It now seemed tasteless.

“He’s strong. His dazzling gleam clean knocked me off my feet! I’m sure he can handle a few murkrow.”

“You didn’t see how many of them there were,” said Cleo. “He’s a grass-type, in the snow. He’d be at a disadvantage, surely?”

Reshiram’s warm gaze extinguished Cleo’s growing rage and anxiety. She sighed and let her paws flop into her lap.

“I hope you’re right,” she said.

“And he’s probably looking for you,” said Reshiram. “Perhaps he’ll find a friendly Outcast town? Or his way back home?”

Which home did Reshiram mean? New City or the Fairy Garden? Either way, the thought made Cleo feel just that little bit better. She felt a paw brush hers and she looked up at Faith.

“We’ll find him,” said the mawile. “We’ll look for him as soon as we’ve found this fire-type.”

“And I’ll help you if you like,” said Reshiram. His nose twitched as a flake of snow landed on it and he snuffed it away. “Now, you guys get snuggled in your tent. I’ll stay close to it and keep watch.”

Cleo swallowed her mouthful of fish. “Surely you need a rest? I can keep first watch.”

“Nonsense! You lot need your sleep. I’ll be fine.”

“I won’t hear it!” Faith cut in. “You’ve been flying all day and you’re carrying us tomorrow, too. Get some rest, Reshiram.”

“Okay.” He raised a wing talon in defeat. “But at least let me take first and last watch?”

Cleo exchanged glances with Faith. “Between four of us, that will cut our shifts short. We’d get more sleep.”

Faith let out a defeated sigh and cast Reshiram a sideways glance. “Okay. But you really are a stubborn dragon.”

Reshiram laughed, his hot breath misting in the twilight air and melting the gently falling snow.

Before long, the trio retired to the tent. For a moment, Cleo feared the fire from Reshiram’s tail would alert the Darkness to their location. But the warmth radiated through the tent’s walls, and it wasn’t long before Cleo was lulled into a deep, dreamless sleep.

...​

“Come in!”

Yurlik strutted into the throne room, the large book clutched under one wing. He glanced at both Hydreigon and Yveltal and dropped the dusty book in front of Hydreigon. The title ‘Yveltal’s Fall’ stood out clear from the cover, and the large black bird gave an irritated hiss as he took a step back.

Yurlik spread his wings in a bow. “I found this beneath Enigma’s bed, my lord.”

Hydreigon’s eyes narrowed and a low growl rose in his throat. “I thought I had all books contained in that library destroyed!”

Yurlik lowered his head and took a cautious step back. “Unfortunately it would appear that this particular book avoided destruction.”

“I can see that, Yurlik!” Hydreigon’s voice softened slightly and he reared back from the book, keeping a thoughtful eye on it. “Funny how this book fell into the paws of a wretched ghost. Yet he thought to hide it, and continue masquerading here under my instruction…”

“Cowardice?” Yveltal offered.

A long, thoughtful growl rumbled from Hydreigon and echoed off the walls.

Yveltal’s ebony feathers had bristled and he kept one eye on the book while the other watched Hydreigon. The dark bird’s expression was calculating and Yurlik had to fight the desire to flee from the room.

“I want that ghost brought back here,” Hydreigon told Yurlik. “I want to ask him what he thought he’d accomplish… and whether he believed the story in this book.”

‘You clearly did.’ Yurlik swallowed back the statement and nodded. “At once, my lord.”

“Hang on.” Yveltal spread a large wing and turned his blue eyes onto the honchkrow. “I want to find him. I could use the exercise anyway.”

Hydreigon fired him a sideways glance. “Would you bring him back alive?”

Yveltal chuckled and flashed a grin at Yurlik. “How about we make this a game? We both go looking for this… Enigma. Whoever finds him first gets to do with him as he pleases.”

“I want him back here alive!” Hydreigon roared.

Something burned behind Yveltal’s eyes that unsettled Yurlik. Even Hydreigon flinched slightly as the black bird fired him a glance.

“Okay,” said Hydreigon. “First bring him back here, then the winner gets to dispatch him. How does that sound?”

A sinister chuckle left Yveltal and he spread his wings. “Very well. How fast can you fly, honchkrow? Because we’re playing for keeps.” He paused and his eyes flashed with amusement. “It doesn’t look like your wings would hold you in the air for very long. How about I give you a head start?”

Yurlik bristled and backed from the throne room. A thousand retorts formed in his mind, but each one died on his tongue. So he let the slam of the door voice them for him.

...​

Light streaked through the cave mouth, washing over its occupants with a warm caress. It bit through the chill for a brief moment, its heat extinguished by a blast of cold wind. It stirred Harlequin’s fur, drawing the zorua from their daze. Harlequin sat up slowly, stretching their legs until their back arched and yawning so wide they let out a squeak.

“Sleep well?” Enigma asked.

Harlequin licked their lips and looked towards him. “Yeah. Didn’t you?”

Enigma shrugged. “If I did I don’t remember it.”

“I think you must have,” said Harlequin. “I hadn’t the heart to wake you.”

Enigma’s fur bristled. “You should have.”

Harlequin shrugged and yawned again. “I’m gonna get a quick drink. I’ve got some rations in my bag if you’re hungry.”

Enigma fired a glance at Harlequin’s satchel. It was still strapped over the zorua’s back. “I dunno…”

“I’m careful. I don’t pack them with my poisons. Here.” Harlequin whipped a brown packet from their bag with expert accuracy. It landed with a flop beside the banette. “Help yourself. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Enigma grunted and watched Harlequin’s black tail vanish from the cave. He stretched his arms over his head until his spine popped, then ventured to inspect the packet. It contained dried meats of unknown origin. Whatever it was, it was dark. Harlequin never questioned where it came from. Neither did Enigma. He pulled a slice out and bit into it. He couldn’t remember when he’d last had a decent meal. Before he knew it, he’d devoured two slices. It was very dry and salty, making him realise just how thirsty he was. He wrapped it up again, more to stop himself from grabbing another piece, then set it against the wall.

What was taking Harlequin so long?

It wasn’t the worst thing. Perhaps this was where Enigma should leave his friend. Harlequin had managed to find out he had pokerus, but even if Enigma explained his fears Harlequin would only insist he stay. They’d only offer to help. He couldn’t hear any movement outside. Had Harlequin left him anyway?

The thought tangled knots in Enigma’s stomach and he swallowed as a wave of nausea flooded through him. The thought made him feel more sick and empty than leaving Harlequin of his own decision.

He pushed himself to his feet, steadying himself against the wall with one paw. He suddenly felt very dizzy. He took a few deep breaths until it subsided then straightened.

A strange retching noise made him freeze and he trained his ears on the world outside. It sounded again. Then a third time. Enigma squinted into the light. Something wasn’t right… what was going on?

“Enigma!”

Enigma’s eyes snapped wide open. Harlequin! In an instant, Enigma was knee deep in snow. He spotted the zorua sprawled out on their side, their blue eyes so wide he could see the whites. The zorua’s flank rose and fell rapidly as they sucked in deep, frantic breaths.

Enigma dropped to Harlequin’s side and placed a paw on their shoulder. They didn’t flinch, instead staring at the rushing water.

“What happened?” Enigma demanded, rage bubbling in his chest. “Did someone attack you?”

Harlequin stretched out a trembling paw, directing Enigma up the river. He turned his head towards it. A few yards upstream lay that fallen tree. Beyond it lay a mound of jagged spikes poking from a violet carapace.

A nidoking…

Enigma’s gaze drifted to the water as he felt his heart speed up. Blood clung to the tree’s slimy underside, dying the water a muddy pink. It whipped up in a pink froth as the water smashed against the rocks, carrying the nidoking’s toxins downstream.

“Tell me you didn’t drink any…” Enigma’s voice cracked and he turned back to Harlequin.

Harlequin met his gaze for a moment, then closed their eyes. A tear leaked from it, trailing over their cheek and into the wet fur around their chin. Enigma’s claws flexed and he snatched Harlequin’s satchel, tearing it open.

“I don’t have one.”

Enigma jerked his head towards them. “You don’t have an antidote?!”

Harlequin’s voice was a strangled whisper. “No…”

“You idiot!”

Silent tears flooded from Harlequin’s eyes.

Enigma’s heart twisted painfully and he wound his claws into Harlequin’s shaggy fur. There was nothing he could do. Once again a life dear to him was slipping from his paws and there was nothing he could do.

He clenched his fist and beat it into the snow. Who had done this?! He took in a ragged breath and screwed his eyes shut, trying to hold back tears.

“You can’t leave me.” His voice trembled and his body shook as he held tighter to Harlequin’s ruff. “I can’t lose you too!”

Harlequin’s warm paw fastened over his, melting away the snow. Enigma raised his head. Harlequin watched him with one eye for a heartbeat, then it closed again. Foam flecked the zorua’s lips as they sucked in deep breaths.

Enigma’s throat thickened as a wave of despair washed over him. He felt helpless. Powerless. He couldn’t do anything!

No… he had to do something. He couldn’t just leave Harlequin like this. He couldn’t watch them die.

He stood and looked back up the river, following its course downstream. It vanished around a bend. That nidoking wasn’t there by coincidence. Someone had killed him and thrown his body in the river. There was a clear target. Enigma’s only guess was that there was a settlement further down the river.

A settlement… one that might provide help…

“I won’t lose you.” Enigma scooped Harlequin up in his arms. He’d always been amazed at how small they were, hidden behind all that fur. “I’ll find you help.”

Enigma took a step forward and faltered. Wildflowers filled the patch where Harlequin had been lay. They weren’t flattened, but waving in the breeze. As Enigma looked up, more were growing along the riverbank like a rainbow path towards the bend.

He shook his head to organise himself and raced along the river, following its path downstream. Harlequin needed him. There was no time to puzzle over flowers blooming in the cold season. Yet they grew thick around his feet, speckling the white snow with delicate blooms, almost as if they were leading him.

Enigma held Harlequin close to his chest, ignoring the fire burning in his lungs. He desperately hoped whoever he ran into would listen to him. He eyed the river warily, carrying its invisible threat along with it.

Enigma just hoped whoever it was would still be alive.
 
Chapter 50

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
50 - A Village of Petals​

Snowflakes drifted gently down, joining the thick white blanket only to be trampled under Enigma’s feet. His breath came in heavy bursts, misting in the air. Snow clung to his mane and eyelashes, and frosted his black scarf. It peppered Harlequin’s fur only to melt away as their small body burned with a rising fever. Enigma had to find help and fast.

He followed the bend of the river, slowing as the path narrowed. Enigma cursed as he was pushed against the cliff face, forced to walk slowly to avoid plunging himself and Harlequin into the river’s icy grasp. The path widened again and he broke into a sprint, following the trail of wildflowers. They grew thicker along the river, poking from the crisp snow as though the cold didn’t bother them. The trail of flowers veered away from the river, curving towards the mountain. Enigma kept to the river and faltered. Hoof prints followed the flowers, stepping around them as though the pokemon that had left them dare not crush the delicate blooms.

Hoof prints…

There was a pokemon here! Enigma just hoped they were still nearby and could help.

He followed the trail which wound around a narrow mountain path. It curved up a gentle slope and dropped again into a small village. Enigma’s heart swelled. He didn’t slow, racing towards the gate. He skidded to a halt as a large machamp stepped out from the gate post.

“What are you doing here, ghost?!” he roared.

Enigma clenched his teeth. If it weren’t for Harlequin he could just march straight through the burly fighting-type. Two zangoose and a gliscor joined the machamp, eyeing Enigma with hatred and suspicion. The machamp clenched his four fists and glared at the smaller ghost.

“I’m not here to cause trouble,” Enigma told him. “I’m looking for help! My friend-”

“Help?” the machamp spat. “A likely story.”

“Don’t think we can’t spot a trap when it’s right beneath our noses,” said one of the zangoose.

“Please!” Enigma pleaded. “Harlequin has been poisoned! And it’s not just him, you’re all at risk! There’s a nidoking carcass lying in the river!” He nodded upstream.

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Regardless, the machamp nodded his head for the gliscor to go and investigate.

The large flying scorpion trotted out of the village but not without one worried glance back at Enigma.

“If you’re telling the truth,” said the machamp, “then we can only assume you put it there.”

“Why would I…” Enigma trailed off. Harlequin was in his arms. These pokemon had every reason to believe they were responsible for the nidoking.

“You know what I think?” said a female zangoose. “I think you two were setting a trap and your little plan backfired.” She nodded to harlequin.

The zorua’s breaths were coming in frantic bursts, and their fur was slick with sweat.

“Look, believe what you want,” Enigma told them. “Kill me if you will! Just help him!” He didn’t hide the desperation in his voice. The machamp flinched at it and his face clouded with doubt. “Harlequin doesn’t work for Hydreigon anymore, okay? He’s joined the Outcasts! He’s friends with one of their warriors, a meowstic named Cleo!”

“Never heard of her,” said the male zangoose. “What else you got?”

“Get out of here, ghost.” The female zangoose raised her claws. Black energy swirled around it. “Or you’ll be tasting my night slash.”

Her brother copied her, raising his claws above his head.

The machamp opened his mouth to speak.

“Stop! Lower your claws.”

Feet crunched over the snow and the three guards looked back. A lilligant walked towards them, her eyes on the sick zorua. The two zangoose lowered their claws but the dark energy didn’t fade.

“I’ll take a look at him,” said the lilligant.

“Elsa?” The machamp folded two of his arms. “You’re seriously gonna help this assassin? I’ll never understand you peace enthusiasts.”

“Peace enthusiast has little to do with it. I can tell a desperate pokemon when I see one,” she explained. “As for this ‘Cleo’, that name rings a bell. Think I’ve heard Tinker mention her once or twice.” She lowered her head to examine Harlequin and placed a delicate yellowing leaf on their shoulder. “Hmm… this is serious. Bring him to my home and I’ll see what I can do.” She turned to lead Enigma into the village, but the machamp and one of the zangoose barred her path.

“Step aside!” She waved the machamp aside with a leaf, and he complied immediately. “What are you standing around for? Help Thorn remove the nidoking.”

The two zangoose saluted, and the male glanced at his shadowy claws. The mist vanished and a glimmer of embarrassment shone on his face.

The three guards watched Enigma and Elsa go, silently.

Elsa called over her shoulder, “And so you are aware, so long as these two pokemon are in this village they are under my protection! Understood?”

“Y-yes, of course,” the machamp stuttered.

Enigma thought he heard the two zangoose mutter something, but he didn’t try to work it out. His priority lay in his arms, fighting for life.

He caught up with Elsa and cast a glance back at the guards. They were leaving the village. “I take it you’re the boss around here.”

“I’d hardly call myself a boss,” said Elsa. “But the pokemon here do look up to me as one of their elders. If I was younger I’d be the laughing stock of the village.”

Enigma’s eyes trailed over the lilligant’s body. He’d noticed the yellowing leaves and the croak in her voice, but he hadn’t considered her to be old enough to be a village elder.

“This is me.” She opened the door at the base of a tree. “Follow! Come on!”

Enigma complied, joining the lilligant inside the hollow of the tree. She closed the door behind them and lead him up a winding set of wooden stairs. Luminous algae and mushrooms clung to the walls, casting an eerie light that was just enough to see by. Elsa nudged open a door at the top, allowing bright daylight to flood into the stairwell. Enigma found himself standing in the middle of a tree house high up in the branches of an ancient mountain ash.

“Lay your friend down here.” Elsa dragged some cushions onto the floor against the wall. “I’ll go and see if I have any antidote. Has he been sick yet?”

Enigma set Harlequin down gently. The cushions rustled under the zorua’s weight. Dread knotted inside Enigma’s chest as he remembered that horrid retching sound. “No, not yet. I think he’s tried.”

“Then that will be our first priority.” Elsa motioned for Enigma to sit down. “Make yourself comfortable. I won’t be a moment, but if he takes a turn for the worse you call for me straight away!” She vanished into the back room, leaving Enigma standing beside Harlequin.

He let out a sigh and settled down on the cushions beside the zorua. They rustled and crunched as if they were filled with leaves. A gentle fragrance wafted up from them, almost calming. He leaned his head against the wall and let out a long, groaning sigh. The reactions he’d received were swirling around in his head. Normally his appearance would be met with fear. Pokemon can’t fight what they can’t see. But seeing how desperate he was, seeing his ally fighting for breath in his arms, they’d treated him like dirt.

A justified response, too. He was dirt. He’d taken lives left, right and centre. And there he’d stood, begging them to save the one in his arms. He was fortunate enough to meet only one pokemon willing to answer his cry for help.

Elsa came back in clutching a bowl under one arm. She set it down before Harlequin and removed from it a small bottle wrapped with a leaf. Enigma’s nose twitched at the bitter scent as she unwrapped the leaf. She gently prised Harlequin’s mouth open and forced the herb inside. Immediately Harlequin’s small body lurched and they vomited into the bowl. Enigma looked away. His insides felt like lead. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Harlequin so distressed. It wasn’t the first time things could have been so easily avoided.

After a moment that felt like an eternity, Harlequin flopped back onto the cushions, gasping for breath. Elsa didn’t give the zorua any time to rest. She rolled them onto their back and uncorked the small glass bottle. A trickle of pink liquid dripped from it into Harlequin’s gaping jaws. The zorua gagged, their blue eyes opening wide. Enigma leapt to his feet, clenching his paws at his sides.

“Don’t worry,” said Elsa as she rolled Harlequin back onto their side. The zorua’s breathing was frantic, but their eyes were closed again. “It just doesn’t taste very nice.”

“What is it?” he demanded.

“The anti-venom.”

“I thought that stuff was rare. How do you have it?”

“My husband, bless his soul, did a favour for the nidoking that lives nearby,” she said. “He was given this anti-venom as a thank you. The nidoking told him he’d never know when it might come in handy. And what do you know.” She flashed the seething banette a smile. “He was right.”

“So he’ll be okay?” Enigma’s words were laced with a warning.

“It’s hard to say at this stage.” That wasn’t what Enigma had wanted to hear. “The anti-venom is actually from a nidoqueen so it is very toxic, but if taken while the body is fighting off nidoking venom it works as an antidote.”

“So… what does that mean?” Enigma prompted.

“It means time is of the essence. How long ago did he drink the water?”

“I don’t know.” Enigma sat down again, dragging his paws over his face. “Everything is a blur.”

“Then I’m afraid it’s just a waiting game.” Elsa stood up and wiped her paws together. “I can’t promise you your friend will survive. But I can assure you I’ve done what I can. You are welcome to stay here and keep an eye on him.”

Enigma nodded. He watched the lilligant gather up the bowl and move from the room. “Thanks.”

She paused in the doorway and smiled at him. “You’re welcome. I’ll bring you some water and a bite to eat.”

Enigma wasn’t hungry but he didn’t want to offend the lilligant. He leaned back against the wall and sighed, letting his gaze wander to Harlequin. The zorua was still panting, their flanks heaving as they sucked in air. The whole ordeal felt like a bitter irony. Harlequin had always been so careful not to get poisoned by that nidoking horn. Enigma groaned and dragged his claws through his mane.

“I’m sorry, Harle,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let myself sleep. If I’d been keeping watch then I would have heard all that going on outside the cave!” He lowered his face into his hands and bit back a sob. “It’s all my fault.”

He felt something brush his leg and looked down. Harlequin had stretched out a paw towards him, falling short as it lay on Enigma’s pillow. So small. Everything about Harlequin seemed so small. So fragile.

It was enough to make him wonder if he’d been playing the fool all these years.

‘You do know Harlequin’s a girl, right?’

A long, suffering sigh left Enigma and he slumped back against the wall. “Get out of my head, Faith.”

As he relaxed against the wall he became aware he was aching along his shoulders and back. Not to mention he was exhausted. But there was no way he was going to risk falling asleep. What if Harlequin needed him? Enigma moved towards the zorua and let his paw rest on their chest. Harlequin’s rapid pulse raced against his paw and Enigma let out a sigh. He would try to fight sleep, but if he failed he had to trust that if Harlequin stopped breathing, or their heart stopped beating, it would wake him.

“Please, Harle,” he muttered. “You have to get through this. You can’t leave me.”

...​

It had been a very long journey. The detour had wound well away from its original route thanks to the heavy rain and snow collapsing part of the underground tunnel system. Tinker shook dirt from his paws as he stepped through the door into New City. Sandpaw slumped behind him, carrying a sleeping Scout in her arms. She appeared to visibly deflate as she stared down the tunnel. Her face flickered with shadows cast from the torches hanging from the walls.

“Don’t worry,” Tinker assured her. “We’re home.”

Scout mumbled as he stirred, blinking bleary eyes at the passing walls. “Home?”

“That’s right, Scout,” said Sandpaw. “We’re at our new home now.”

The little sentret wriggled in his mother’s grip. “We’re living underground now?”

“Yes, along with many other pokemon.” Tinker didn’t look back. He picked up his pace as the voices from the market reached his ears. “You’ll see for yourselves soon enough.”

The tunnel turned, heading deeper underground. The walk felt deceptively long on weary feet. Tinker raised a paw to shield his eyes as the light from the market flooded into the dark tunnel. Sandpaw froze behind him, her breath halting in her throat.

“Wow!” Scout wriggled from her arms and landed on all-fours beside her. “It’s huge!”

“It really is…” A tremble gave away Sandpaw’s anxiety. “All this is going on underground… the Darkness really has no idea?”

“No, and we plan to keep it that way,” Tinker explained. He placed an arm around the furret to steer her along beside him. “As a rule, only our warriors are allowed outside New City. They take an oath to never even breathe its name in the open air.”

Sandpaw craned her head back to look at the massive roots knotted overhead.

“Wait!” Scout tugged at Tinker’s paw. “So we’re not allowed outside anymore?”

“Do you really want to go out there with Hydreigon’s soldiers patrolling the shadows?” Tinker asked him.

Scout closed his mouth and shook his head.

“I guess it is a lot safer here,” said Sandpaw a little breathlessly. “But it does feel a little claustrophobic.”

“Believe me, I know,” said Tinker. “But you get used to it.”

Sandpaw stepped into his side as a busy pikachu herded a trio of distracted pichu through the crowd. The pikachu paused for a moment as her wandering gaze fell on Sandpaw. The rodent’s eyes widened at the mark on Sandpaw’s shoulder and she looked at Tinker with a start.

“I think I have an announcement to make soon,” he muttered as the pikachu scurried away.

“Huh?” Sandpaw turned her head to look at him.

“Nothing.”

He lead her away from the market towards his office and paused. Bringing a pair of former Heretics into New City wasn’t the only announcement he’d need to make. He also had Starshine to consider, and he was about to introduce his two new friends to the soon-to-be dragon. Given Sandpaw’s highly-strung nature he wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea anymore.

“Tinker!” The loud voice made him groan inwardly and he turned his head towards Lily as she forced her way through a crowd outside the bakery stand. A paper bag swung from her arm. “Yer back! ‘Bout time n’all!”

“Lily!” Tinker dipped his head in a bow. “Good to see you! You don’t have Tad with you?”

“’Course I dinnae have ‘im wi’ me. Tyke’s playin’ wi’ your wee bairn.” She paused and folded her arms, her gaze taking in the two newcomers. “Tinker…” Her voice lowered, carrying a warning note. “Why ‘ave ye brought a pair o’ Heretics into New City?”

“Oh!” Sandpaw rubbed her paws together and stuttered a little. “We’re not Heretics, I can assure you. We just… lived with them for a while.”

“I’m Scout!” Scout rose up on his tail and stuck out a tiny paw. “We’re gonna live here now, like a pair of drilbur!”

Lily closed her eyes and laughed. She took Scout’s paw in her massive flipper and shook it gently. “Well ain’t you a lively wee nyaff!”

“A what?”

She laughed again and looked over the group, her gaze halting on Tinker. “So. Ye wanna come back t’mine? Skipper’s there, babysittin’. He’s probably run off his flippers. Ye wee one ‘as become a reet blether.”

“He’s talking then?” Skipper followed Lily, leading Sandpaw until she fell comfortably into step beside him.

“Aye!” Lily looked back at him briefly. “Picked it up real fast. Makes ye wonder what they hear inside their eggs.”

“You have a child?” Sandpaw asked Tinker, turning doe-eyed.

Tinker cleared his throat. “In a matter of sorts.”

“Ye ain’t told ‘er?” Lily’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “Well, yer in fer a reet surprise, hon.”

Lily lead them away from the market into one of the nest tunnels. They passed an underground spring where water gurgled from the mouth of a stone arcanine. Sandpaw watched it curiously, her eyes following an invisible trail through the soil. The tunnel took them away from the spring as it wound further underground and Sandpaw began to tremble.

“So you have water… but where does the air come from?” she asked.

“Trees,” Tinker told her, getting a glare in return. “I mean, we built vents into the trees. They are hard to see unless you’re looking for them. It travels from the top of the tree into New City, letting air flow freely back and forth. They need regular maintenance but it works for us.”

“But what if the Darkness were to find them?” she gasped.

“You could say the same for our doors, but there are security measures in place. No one can get through the vents, I can assure you.”

Sandpaw didn’t seem convinced. Her eyes wandered over the roots as if she was searching for a security breach. Tinker shrugged it off. Lily had stopped outside one of the nests and nudged the door open. Tinker followed the marshtomp into a large nest room, decorated with dried lily pads and flowers.

“Tinker!”

Two small bundles tackled him to the ground and he landed hard on his bottom. Sandpaw let out a surprised yelp and backed into the door, causing it to slam. Tinker shook his head, his ears flapping around, as he shifted Tad off his chest. Lily scooped up the mudkip before Tinker could place him on the floor.

“Come off it, both o’ ya!” the marshtomp scolded. “Give ‘im a wee sec t’get settled, aye?”

Skipper rumbled laughter as he plucked Starshine from Tinker’s lap and offered a flipper to help his friend to his feet.

“Good t’see ya back!” said Skipper. “So, who’s ye new friend?” The marshtomp punctuated it with a wink, receiving an eye-roll off his sister.

“This is Sandpaw.” Tinker motioned the furret forward. “And her son, Scout.”

Tad shuffled towards Sandpaw and craned his head back. “Hi! I’m Tad!”

Scout waved and wriggled from his mothers grip to land beside the mudkip. Sandpaw didn’t object. She crouched down with her paws on her knees.

“Hello! You and your family aren’t from around here, are you?”

“Dunno,” said Tad. “I ‘atched underground like th’rest o’ th’hatchlings.”

“And this…” Tinker took Starshine from Skipper and the little swablu gave a happy chirp, “is Starshine.”

Sandpaw looked up at the swablu as if seeing him for the first time. Her eyes widened and she took a step back. “You… you have a baby dragon?”

Tinker clenched his teeth. He’d been dreading Sandpaw’s reaction.

“Yes,” he replied. “I found his egg while investigating a crime scene and I couldn’t leave it there.”

Sandpaw looked from the swablu to Tinker, then the two marshtomp. “Well… what do the other pokemon think? I mean… you’re living underground. What if he decides to attack you all one day?”

Starshine wriggled restlessly and Tinker released him to the floor. He shuffled off to the back of the room with Tad and Scout in tow. Sandpaw stretched out a paw towards her son then retracted it, her face clouding with uncertainty.

“To be honest with you, Sandpaw, I’m hoping it never happens,” Tinker explained. “I’m raising him here with our morals and beliefs. He’s only a hatchling.”

“But he’ll learn what he is sooner or later,” said Sandpaw. “He might decide to side with…” Her voice trailed off and she placed a paw over her mouth.

Tinker was lost for words. He feared that day more than anyone.

Skipper placed a paw around his shoulders. “Aye, one day th’tyke’ll ‘ave t’make that choice, sure enough.”

Lily folded her flippers. “But if ye’ve raised ‘im well enough, th’wee nyaff won’t side wi’ that rotten dragon.” She paused and added in a growl, “If ‘e does I’ll be th’first t’give ‘im a reet good skelpin’.”

Tinker chuckled and turned to watch the three hatchlings. Scout had managed to find a screwdriver and Starshine was explaining to him how to use it. “How did my toolbox end up in your nest, Skipper?”

“Starshine wanted t’bring it.” Skipper shrugged. “I din’t see no ‘arm in it. Yer teachin’ ‘im these things, aye?”

“Well yes, but it’s hardly safe, Skipper.”

“And what does this do?” Scout held a bolt up to his eye to peer through the hole in the middle.

“It’s a bolt,” said Starshine. “Holds things together.”

“He’s a very good talker,” said Sandpaw. “How old is he?”

“About a week now I’d think,” said Tinker.

“A week?!” Sandpaw gasped. “But he’s talking so well!”

“Every species grows at its own rate,” said Tinker. “Like Lily said, it makes you wonder how much they learn inside their eggs.”

“Always list’nin’,” said Lily. “I was darn certain Tad understood everythin’ I said when ‘e ‘atched.”

Starshine set everything neatly back into the toolbox while Tad and Scout rolled the bolt back and forth between them. He seemed to consider taking the bolt, but instead joined in much to the delight of the little sentret.

“So what do you think?” Tinker asked Sandpaw. “Would Starshine be a good playmate for Scout?”

Sandpaw rubbed her mouth with her claws. “I… I’m not sure. Maybe? I mean, I can’t very well grumble can I.” She rubbed the tattoo on her shoulder. “Okay. I want him to be accepted here, and if those two are happy to be his friend-”

“Ma!” Tad shouted, turning towards Lily. “C’n Scout stay ‘n’ ‘ave dinner? Please?”

Lily chuckled and turned back to Sandpaw. “Well there’s yer answer, hon.” Turning back to Tad, she added, “Sure ‘e can, if ‘is ma approves.”

“I’d love him to,” said Sandpaw.

“You two are welcome ‘n’all.”

Tinker flashed the motherly marshtomp a grateful smile. “Thank you. And thank you for looking after Starshine while I was away.”

“Was nothin’.” Lily waved a paw and unwrapped the contents of her paper bag. She set various pastries and fruit on the table.

Skipper struck Tinker in the back. “Great t’ave ye back, Tink.”

“It’s great to be back. It was a long journey with the tunnels collapsing.”

“Aye, I ‘eard o’that.” He motioned towards Sandpaw who had joined the three hatchlings. “Mebbe ye can fill us in on what ye’ve been up t’while ye were away?”

“It’s a long story. I’ll explain over dinner.”

“Sure enough.” Skipper nodded. “It’s great ye’ve brought back a wee friend for Starshine. I guess t’won’t be long afore ye introduce ‘im t’New City, aye?”

“Most likely.” The thought left a bad taste in Tinker’s mouth. As he watched the little swablu play with his two friends, both as innocent as he was, he seemed just like any other child. But would New City see it the same way? A great sense of dread washed through Tinker, and he found himself wishing he could just keep the hatchling hidden. But he knew that wasn’t possible. The swablu was growing up fast, and sooner or later he’d be wanting the same freedom his friends would undoubtedly have.
 
Chapter 51 New

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
51 - Fire Island​

“So it’s really not much farther?” Cleo asked Reshiram as she folded the blue tent into a neat square.

Reshiram nodded. “If the wind is in our favour we should be there before nightfall!”

Cleo took the collapsible poles off Faith. “And if not?”

“Then we’ll be camping in the ocean!” Reshiram rumbled good-naturedly.

Spark shuddered. “Oh no! There’s water there!”

Faith and Reshiram chuckled at the dedenne’s little outburst.

“There sure is, Spark.” Reshiram flashed her a toothy grin. “Don’t you worry, little one. If it looks like we won’t make it then we’ll just camp on the beach.”

“So long as I don’t get any sand in my supper then I’m cool with that.” Spark took a huge bite out of her berry and fixed one eye on the white dragon. “And don’t call me ‘little’.”

Reshiram chuckled again and winked at Spark.

Cleo finished tucking the tent into her bag and turned to address Reshiram. “If we’re so close then can’t we just keep flying in the dark? We’d reach the island much faster.”

“We might, but there’s one problem, Cleo.” Reshiram lifted his wings in a shrug. “My tail would be like a beacon in the dark. It would be much too risky.”

Cleo wanted to remind him that the murkrow and dragons didn’t fly in the cold, but her mind swam with the memory of Mischief being snatched away by that honchkrow’s flock. She bit her lip and adjusted her bag over her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Cleo,” said Faith. “We’ll get there.”

“You certainly will!” said Reshiram. “You were making good progress before I found you.”

It hadn’t felt like it. That blizzard and the white landscape had made navigating almost impossible. If it hadn’t been for Reshiram, Cleo feared they’d still be wandering in all that white, travelling with Old Red in a desperate bid to find this forgotten island.

She looked up at Reshiram again. “I don’t think any of us have thanked you yet. Really, Reshiram. You’ve been such a huge help. Thank you.”

“Oh yeah, a huge help!” Spark licked juice off her whiskers. “You’re awesome!”

Reshiram’s shoulders shook as he laughed, and a faint flush spread across his cheeks. “Oh, I don’t know if I’d go that far. It was Xerneas who sent me to you after all. But I’m glad to be a help to you lovely girls.”

A small smile spread across Cleo’s muzzle. “Okay. Well, if we’re all ready then we’d better get a move on.”

“All right then! Last one on board is a rotten egg!” Spark stuffed her berry in her cheek pouch and hopped over the grass into the snow. She vanished into it with a shrill ‘eek!’

“Oh, Spark.” Faith plucked the dedenne from the snow and Spark shook her ears clean.

“Yep!” Spark removed her berry so she could speak. “Definitely prefer flying in this weather.”

Reshiram lowered himself to the ground so his friends could climb onto his warm, feathery back. Spark settled herself in Cleo’s lap, still munching away at her oran berry. Cleo felt she’d never get used to flying. As the large dragon leapt into the air with a beat of his powerful wings, Cleo’s stomach seemed to take a moment to catch up. His tail erupted in flames with a deep, rumbling roar and he took off across the white landscape. The trees blurred beside them and Cleo felt her breath torn away from her lungs. She sucked in air and smoothed back her fur from her eyes.

Just like the night before, the land seemed barren of any pokemon life. It had been an oddly quiet night. Reshiram had curled around the tent, keeping them warm with the occasional blaze from his tail. When Cleo had kept watch, it had felt so eerie. Reshiram had snored softly beside her as she huddled into his wings, relishing his warmth. She’d marvelled at how he managed to stay so warm even in the bitter cold. Snow had fallen, melting no sooner had it touched his fur. She’d put it down to his fire-typing, but dragons were known to resent the cold. There must be something going on inside him that allowed him to tolerate it as much as a pure fire-type.

When they’d all woken that morning, the snow had melted where Reshiram had been lying, and the grass beneath his tail had been dry enough to sit on. The white dragon’s fur and feathers were also completely dry, and he’d woken as bright-eyed and cheerful as he always was. Cleo had heard stories about pokemon that slept throughout the cold season, waking when the flowers began to poke through the earth. She wasn’t one of them, and she found when she woke during the cold she was as grumpy as an ursaring woken from a deep nap, and almost as ravenous as a snorlax. Reshiram was like the chalk to her cheese, and he soon had everyone feeling better with his positive attitude and friendly jokes.

Faith’s paw brushed Cleo’s shoulder, drawing her out of her thoughts. “Look! There’s Fire Island just on the horizon!”

Cleo followed her claw over the glassy ocean. She had to squint against the biting cold air, but she could just make out an island smudged beneath the blue sky. Two narrow points rose into the air. She assumed they were the volcanoes, which were hopefully dormant.

“How’s the wind?” Spark called over the roar of Reshiram’s tail.

He glanced back at them. “It’s in our favour so far! If it keeps pushing us forwards then we won’t need to camp before we get there!”

Spark threw her paws in the air with a cheer. “Keep it up, wind! Don’t change on us now!”

...​

Harlequin’s blue paws beat the ground as she raced through the brittle undergrowth. Heavy footsteps thudded behind her over her pursuer’s snarling breaths. The zorua turned sharply, forced aside by the bend of a river that wound between wicked thorns. The moon hung red in the sky, turning the water into blood. Another snarl came from behind her, far away yet filling the air with the sharp tang of poison.

Harlequin lowered her head and stifled a whimper as she forced her aching feet over the decaying ground.

“Over here.”

Harlequin’s ears flicked towards a tangle of brown thorns draping over a cliff face. Red eyes peered at her from the shadows. Harbinger? She turned and dived among them, glancing back to check she hadn’t been spotted. Warm paws grabbed her and pulled her through the prickly curtain until she was sheltered against the wall. Each movement was accompanied by a soft jingle and her heart lurched. Her blue eyes were fixed on the decaying world, her ears trained on those snarling breaths.

“He won’t find us in here.”

Harlequin looked up into the other pokemon’s crimson gaze. She shifted against the cold stone wall and placed her paws on Enigma’s shoulders, trying to make herself as small as she could in that tight space. Enigma wrapped his arms around her trembling body, holding her against him as she kept one eye on the world outside.

“How can you be so sure?” she whispered.

“Because I won’t let him,” Enigma spoke close to her ear.

“He never leaves me alone.” Her voice thickened with tears. “I killed him once, but he still comes after me.”

“When will you learn to trust me?” Enigma’s breath tickled her fur, and the tears she’d been fighting back blurred her vision into a smudge of red and black. “You’re safe now.”

The grunts and rasping grew louder. Heavy paws crunched over the rotting leaves. Harlequin’s blue eyes widened and she dug her claws into Enigma’s scarf. A dark shadow passed before the thorns and she buried her face into Enigma’s chest, daring not to breathe.

“Harlequin?!” the shadow howled. “Harlequin!”

He sniffed the air and red claws flashed in the moonlight. Then he marched on, away from the thorn barrier.

Harlequin let out her breath, along with the tension in her body. She relaxed into Enigma, releasing his scarf from her death grip. “Has he gone?”

Her words were barely audible. Just a breathy whisper, fearing that the shadow was still lurking outside. Enigma’s paw brushed her cheek, turning her face to meet his warm gaze. Her breath caught in her throat as her chest fluttered, stirring with it unwanted feelings that tore her mind into two voices. The loudest one screamed at her to run. Enigma brushed tears from her cheek with a soft sweep of his thumb, melting the confusion from her mind and silencing that insistent voice. She relaxed into him until her nose brushed his. He trailed his claws through the fur of her neck and she faltered for a moment as that voice began to nag her again. She forced it back with a ragged breath. Enigma pulled her into him, meeting her kiss with his own. With a sigh he pulled her closer and she sank into him as he leant back against the wall.

His claws combed through her fur, softly at first. Then they fiercely tore into her ruff. Harlequin yelped, yanking her head back. Blazing red eyes locked onto hers from a mane of red and black. Her heart galloped with fear as she fought back from the zoroark, tearing herself from his grip, but he kept a firm hold on her scruff.

“You can’t escape me now, you disgusting wench!”

“No! Let me go!” Harlequin screamed. Her jaws snapped at his arms, falling short as her teeth found nothing but fur.

The zoroark leaned into her and purred malicious words. “This time, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”

...​

“Get off me!”

Harlequin snapped their jaws around Enigma’s paw and he yanked it back, clutching it against his chest. His heart raced as he watched Harlequin thrash around on their pillow, their fur slick with sweat. The zorua’s sapphire eyes were wide open, blazing with fear as she screamed and howled. Their paws flailed at the air and pillows, scattering them.

Elsa rushed into the room and Enigma leapt to his feet.

“Get off me!” Harlequin screeched. “Let me go!”

“What’s wrong with her?! Do something!” Enigma snapped.

Elsa remained oddly calm, crouching beside the frantic zorua. “It’s the nidoqueen venom,” she explained. “Your friend is reacting to it. It’s perfectly normal.”

“Normal my tail!” Enigma growled. His claws swarmed with shadowy mist and he flashed a canine. “You’d better be able to save her, or-”

Before he could finish his threat, Elsa shook her leaves, scattering Harlequin with spores. The zorua’s frantic yelps silenced into murmurs as they relaxed back into their makeshift nest.

“It’s brought about a fever, that’s all.” Elsa looked up at Enigma. Not even the faintest hint of fear clouded her eyes.

“A fever,” Enigma snorted, berating himself rather than Elsa. He shook his head, still feeling unconvinced. “So you can save her-” He bit his lip. “Him?”

“Of course. We just need to break it.” Elsa rose to her feet. “I’ll get some cold water and a cloth. If anything changes, you let me know.”

Enigma watched Elsa leave the room and his gaze wandered to Harlequin. The shadowy energy shrouding his claws dropped and he sank onto the pillows. He lowered his head into his paws, letting out a long, frustrated groan. His mind was a fog of confusion. He was feeling vulnerable and pathetic, and he was letting it show. He took a few deep breaths to gather himself, failing miserably. He leaned back against the wall, rolling his head back. The slosh of water snapped his eyes open. He hadn’t even heard the lilligant return.

Elsa rung a cloth of its excess water and plastered it across Harlequin’s forehead. The zorua was lying on their back, their paws folded over their chest. Elsa wiped her leaves on a towel and stood up. She looked Enigma up and down and her face melted with pity.

“You could use some spore yourself,” she said. “You look absolutely ragged.”

Enigma snorted and glanced aside. Elsa plodded towards him and he found a cloth dangled before his face.

“Give me your paw,” she said.

His paw? He opened his mouth to retort and clenched his fist, met with a throbbing resistance that silenced any words before he could voice them. He uncurled his paw with a hiss, suddenly aware of the warm blood soaking into his fur. It gathered in sticky pools around his paw pads, marred his scarf and clung to his face in congealed patches. He reluctantly held out his paw to Elsa and she bound the cloth around it.

“I know you’re worried,” she said. “But you really need to get some sleep. You’re not doing yourself or Harlequin any favours.”

“Well I can’t sleep at the best of times,” Enigma told her. “Let alone now.”

“Insomnia?” Elsa sighed and shook her head as she stood up. “Then I guess my spore won’t work on you. My aromatherapy might, though. Anxiety doesn’t help insomnia at all.”

“I don’t suffer with anxiety,” Enigma scoffed.

“But you’re worried for your friend? One of my children broke his leg and I didn’t sleep for two days worrying over him.”

A soft smell wafted around the room with Elsa’s movements. Enigma’s nose twitched and he looked over at the lilligant. She didn’t say anything, instead fussing over Harlequin. She removed the soaked cloth to douse it with more cold water, sending up more of the lavender-esque smell.

Harlequin’s chest rose and fell gently. Occasionally their paw or ear twitched, no longer trapped in a frantic fever-dream. That was a relief. But what on earth had Harlequin seen that had thrown them into such a panic?

“You didn’t touch your berries.” Elsa’s statement was both an observation and a question.

Enigma looked over at the plate sat beside a bucket of spring water. Two glasses sat beside it. One contained water he’d tried to get Harlequin to drink, to no avail. The other was bone dry.

“I’m not hungry,” Enigma said flatly.

“You need to eat something,” said Elsa. “You need your strength, and not just for yourself. If you’re not careful you’ll drop and then you’ll be no use to anybody.”

“I’ll be fine,” Enigma growled.

“Don’t give me that tosh, Enigma.” Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “You’re skin and bone under that fur. Mark my words, boy, you aren’t leaving here until you’ve eaten something. And get some water down you, too. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Enigma snorted and rolled his eyes. He glanced towards the plate once more, and his paw wandered towards it and plucked up an oran berry.

“Do excuse me,” said Elsa. “I’ve raised three children. They all have families of their own now, but the mothering instinct never fully goes away. I still cluck around them like a mother ducklett.”

Enigma chuckled as he took a bite of the overripe berry. “You’re excused.”

He watched Elsa for a while, listening to her ramble on about her family. Her words became senseless murmurs in his mind as he fought to keep his eyes open. He found himself sinking down against the wall, and his head clouded with a brief confusion that gave way to a strange, dreamless state interrupted by the movements and voices around him. For a brief moment he thought he was in a meadow as the scent of lavender washed over him with a cool breeze. Then he heard a voice that snapped him back into that small room and he found Elsa watching him from beside Harlequin. He had no idea how much time had passed, but he hadn’t noticed her pick up the glasses and fill them with water. One sat by his paw, the other by Harlequin.

“Did you say something?” he asked Elsa.

“I did, but I assumed you’d drifted off.” Elsa trailed a leaf-like paw over Harlequin’s ruff. “I just said your friend seems to have settled now. The fever has gone, but I’ll leave you this bowl of water in case another wave hits. I doubt it’ll be a problem though.”

Enigma nodded to the glass beside Elsa. “Has he drank anything? I tried earlier, but…”

“A little,” said Elsa.

Enigma let his head flop back against the wall. “That’s a relief.”

“Enigma…” Elsa’s soft voice drew his attention back to her. She motioned towards Harlequin. “You keep calling her a ‘he’…”

Enigma sighed and closed his eyes, rolling his head back against the wall.

“Is there a reason?” Elsa asked. “You do know-”

“Hydreigon doesn’t allow female assassins.”

“It’s confused me as well,” said Elsa. “I was under the impression all of Hydreigon’s soldiers and assassins were male. But Harlequin here… her dainty muzzle and tiny paws suggest she’s female.”

“Female zorua are ridiculously rare.”

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The species would die out otherwise.”

“Let’s say she is.” Enigma fixed one eye on the lilligant. “Why wouldn’t she tell me?”

“Zorua do have a notorious reputation for being deceitful. Don’t look at me like that, Enigma, I’m not suggesting she’s lied to you out of malice. You are friends, so there must be a reason.” Elsa paused. “What happens to the females in the Shadow Lands?”

Enigma clenched his jaw. He’d never visited the breeding pens, but he’d heard stories. The stink, the crying, the abusive living conditions. The mortality rate was ridiculously high. There were reasons the soldiers never questioned where their meat came from. It was obvious. But he didn’t need to inflict Elsa with such traumatic imagery.

He glanced away from Elsa, digging his claws into his paws. “They’re not treated well, let’s leave it at that.”

Elsa nodded her understanding and rose to her feet. “I’ll leave you two to get some rest. Try to get her to drink again if you can.”

Enigma watched her go then looked back down at Harlequin. The zorua was curled in a tight ball with their tail over their nose. If Elsa was right, then why wouldn’t Harlequin be honest with him? He wouldn’t have told anyone. No one deserved to be locked in a pen, forced to choose between producing soldiers for the rest of their life or die a painful death. Enigma’s mind swam with confusion and he tore his eyes off Harlequin to stare blankly at the intricate flower pattern painted up the wooden wall. He didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want to believe the only friend he had left had deceived him for all the years they’d been together.

He refused to believe it.

He dragged himself to his feet, expecting his back to complain but the pain was completely gone.

Pokerus.

Now Harlequin was no longer in danger, Enigma needed to take his mind off the zorua and that horrid parasite. To do that, he was going to find whatever pokemon had butchered that nidoking. He lowered his density into a fine mist and slipped from the treehouse with barely a jingle. The only evidence he left behind was the makeshift bandage, which drifted with barely a sound to the wooden floor.

...​

Yurlik stood trembling in the branches of a tall tree, its sparse leaves providing little shelter from the biting cold. He was further out of the Shadow Lands than he’d been in a long time. He’d not seen Yveltal leave, and deep down Yurlik hoped he hadn’t. The shadow of a small murkrow flitted back and forth through the trees, its raucous caw splitting the air. A small wave of relief flowed through Yurlik, trailed by a thick, heavy wave of embarrassment. His scout was back, and he wasn’t alone. A scrawny murkrow zipped through the branches behind him with a mocking grace that sent a shudder of rage through Yurlik.

The female landed in the branches above him and inclined her head on one side.

“I asked for Ilana,” Yurlik snapped.

“Ilana is busy,” said the murkrow. “You can speak to me.”

“Fine.” Yurlik huffed and tucked in his wings. “I need to ask her to do something for me.”

The female let out a surprised caw, followed by dry, rasping laughter. “You want a favour?”

“I said no such thing!” Yurlik’s feathers fluffed out. He sucked in a sharp breath. No. He had to shrug off his pride. If he wanted to be the one to finish off Enigma, he needed to win this little bet. “Fine. Call it a favour if you want. I need Enigma bringing back to the Shadow Lands alive.”

“Enigma?” The murkrow gasped his name then recomposed herself. “Aren’t you all looking for that traitor anyway?”

“The importance of finding him has shot up,” Yurlik explained. “My murkrow are already spread out trying to find him. If Ilana’s flock helps it will greatly increase our odds of finding him.”

“Then we’ll keep an eye open.” The murkrow spread her wings.

“I need you to do more than that!”

The murkrow narrowed an eye then inclined her head on one side. “Have you made a bet with someone?”

Yurlik closed his beak and breathed in steadily through his nose. His feathers ruffled under her probing gaze.

“You have, haven’t you?” The murkrow grinned. “Oh, Ilana’s gonna love this. You’re begging her for help so you can win some bet? Where’s your pride, Yurlik?”

“Don’t sass me, you-!” Yurlik’s eyes blazed and he pulled his head back as the murkrow made to fly off. “Wait!”

The murkrow turned in the air to face him. “You want our help, you pay for it.”

“Fine! What does she want?”

“More murkrow in her flock.”

Yurlik clicked his beak in frustration. “I can’t spare any of mine.”

“She doesn’t want your mangy cast-offs.” The murkrow landed again, high above him, drawing a sharp glare from the other murkrow. The thin branch barely bent beneath her weight. “She wants more females from the breeding pens.

“Preposterous!” Yurlik scoffed. “Their numbers are already too low as it is!”

The murkrow shrugged. “Then it’s no deal. Looks like you lose, fatso.”

She spread her wings then rose into the sky. Yurlik shuddered with rage. He was not going to lose this bet. Enigma would be his.

“Fine!” he barked, drawing the female’s eye. “She can have some more from the pens! Just bring me Enigma!”

The murkrow cawed and turned in the sky to fly back towards Ilana, wherever she was.

The male murkrow still sat in the branches near Yurlik. He watched the female vanish then turned his head towards Yurlik. A question lit up his eyes. Or was it amusement?

Yurlik didn’t look at him. He was still flushed under his feathers. “Don’t you say a word.”

...​

Reshiram dipped his wings, letting himself and his passengers drop steadily from the sky. He beat his wings at regular intervals, slowing their decent towards the ground. Ashen and unwelcoming, the surface of the island was eroded into a pattern of blackened rocks. A large volcano stood at the far end of the island, the slope considerably steeper where the rock met the water. The rest of the volcano formed the main part of the island, creating a gentle slope that rose again into a steep pinnacle, sandwiching the land between it. Glossy rock mounded up against the smaller slope. What Cleo had thought was a second volcano turned out to be some kind of natural gathering of molten rock that had cooled rapidly in the water, creating a buildup over many, many years.

Cleo looked towards the volcano as Reshiram landed gently on the flat space between the two slopes. “I wonder if it’s still alive?”

“I think it is,” said Reshiram. “There’s no snow here. The ground is too warm.”

Spark twitched her nose in the air. “I can’t smell smoke. Let’s just hope it doesn’t decide to erupt while we’re here, huh?”

That wasn’t a thought Cleo wanted. She climbed off Reshiram’s back and caught Spark as she dived from his shoulder. Faith landed beside her and turned to take in the island.

Cleo dragged her feet over the warm, smooth rock. She couldn’t see any fresh soil. Plants jutted from the cracks, their roots tracing the patterns in a desperate bid to find sustenance. Haggard trees stood at awkward angles, their trunks blackened and their branches bare of leaves. It was hard to say whether they were still alive or waiting out the winter, refusing to let the volcano destroy them. Those less fortunate had been reduced to black, jagged stumps.

Spark inspected a razz bush that fought its way over the ground, strangling out the weaker plants. Lumpy red berries weighed down its thorny branches, hovering over those that had rotted on the hostile ground.

Faith stretched up to her full height, squinting at the volcano. “It’s hard to believe anyone could ever live here.”

“That’s probably why Hydreigon doesn’t want it,” said Cleo. “His disinterest in it makes it a haven. Come on, let’s see if we can find anyone.”

“You go on ahead,” said Reshiram. “I’ll wait right here for you to return.”

Cleo jerked her head back towards him. “You’re not coming?”

The white dragon spread his wings wide and nodded towards the volcano. “A pokemon of my size won’t be able to climb around all those rocks.”

Cleo followed his gaze. The slope of the volcano was far from even. Rocky outcrops jutted out in a chaotic fashion, and the flow of molten rock had built up shiny, black ravines towards the volcano’s surface. The paths were too narrow for Reshiram, with the awkward rocks that would be too treacherous for him yet provided helpful footholds for smaller pokemon. Cleo and her friends would have no problem climbing up them.

“Okay. Well, do you mind keeping a lookout?” Cleo turned back to him. “If someone shows up who we’ve missed? I’ve no idea where to even begin looking.”

“I don’t wanna look into the mouth of the volcano,” said Spark, with a dramatic shudder.

Reshiram chuckled and nodded his mammalian head. “Of course! And if you need me…” He reached into the feathers around his neck and plucked one free. He jabbed it with a claw and held it out to Cleo. “Just blow on that. I’ll hear it and try to find you.”

Cleo ran a paw along the smooth feather. It was one of Reshiram’s smaller ones, yet was the length of her forearm. “Are you sure you’ll hear it?”

“In this barren island? Of course!” Reshiram smiled. “Not that the noise is a problem. I have fantastic hearing.”

Cleo returned his smile. “Thank you, Reshiram. You’ve been a massive help.”

“You really have!” said Spark. “I’ve never flown before! We got here so fast!”

“Like I said, if the wind is in our favour,” Reshiram looked out across the ocean, “we’ll be here before sunset.”

Cleo followed his gaze. The sky was dyed blood red, the trees rendered to a black smudge across the horizon. For a fleeting moment Cleo thought she spotted a black shape soaring above them. A chill trickled along her spine, setting her fur on end. She tore her eyes from it and motioned to Faith and Spark.

“Come on. We need to get a move on before it gets dark. We should at least find somewhere to rest.”

Faith nodded and waved to Reshiram. “You might want to find somewhere yourself. You stand out a lot more in all this black rock.”

Reshiram turned to look at it as if seeing the contrast for the first time. “Oh my. You’re right! Don’t worry. I’ll find somewhere to hunker down. You girls take care now.”

“You too.” Faith joined Cleo’s side, giving Reshiram one last glance.

“He’ll be okay,” Cleo reassured her. Although she wasn’t entirely certain herself. If Hydreigon had no interest in the island then that certainly increased their odds of safety. But what about the denizens? Were there any, and if so, would they welcome strangers?

As they climbed over the glossy rock, the sun rapidly set, plunging the island into shadow. The volcano stood vibrant against the red sky, with black clouds smudged over it like thick smoke. Cleo faltered, huddling against a large, porous mound of stone. The night was drawing in fast. They’d need to camp. In this darkness, they could set up their blue tent and look like nothing more than another rock on this barren island.

Cleo’s mind went back to Reshiram. He wouldn’t camouflage as well as they could. As much as she’d been reassured that they’d be safe on Fire Island, the deep shadows that stretched out from the rocky outcrops set her fur on end. She expected to see eyes glinting from them, or claws to lash out as they passed.

Cleo stopped her friends and dragged out her tent. She didn’t speak, but they got the message as clear as if she had. They set the tent up swiftly and huddled inside, their ears trained on the world outside.

Silence.

As Cleo divided up their meals she seemed to relax. Yet they ate quietly, speaking in whispers. Even Faith seemed a little unsettled by how empty and quiet the island seemed. Cleo feared none of them would sleep well. Agreeing on shifts to take watch felt both pointless and necessary. At one point they thought someone was moving outside their tent, but it was only the wind stirring the dry leaves of a wiry plant.

Then there was the looming threat of the volcano, its wide mouth yawning at the sky, towering above them. Should it erupt, no one would find them. They’d be lost forever on this dying island. Cleo desperately didn’t want to be around should that happen.
 
Chapter 52 New

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
52 - Cave-In​

The two zangoose and gliscor were still working by the river, trying to clear out as much poison as they could. The nidoking had been shifted onto the opposite bank, its spiky bulk causing jagged shadows to stretch across the ground. Even in the waning light Enigma could see the snow beneath it was dyed a pale red. The water had melted the snow and it had frozen again quickly in the bitter air, creating a slick crust that cracked under Enigma’s feet. The trio of pokemon looked up at the sound, but Enigma was more interested in the pink poison oozing from deep gashes at the base of the nidoking’s horn. It still trickled free, trailing through the snow in an oddly pretty, toxic pattern.

The zangoose exchanged surprised glances and the female one took off up the river. Enigma guessed she’d gone to make sure Elsa was still alive. He tutted and trailed his gaze over the nidoking.

“Oi!” The gliscor was across the river in an instant, his pincers leaking shadow that seemed to suck in the light around him. “What are you doing here?”

Deep lacerations covered the nidoking’s body. Some deeper than others. At first glance there was no pattern to the attack, but it was pretty clear that the slash across his neck was the killing blow.

“I’m just here to work out who killed the nidoking,” Enigma said, his voice bored. “Go about your business. I won’t be long.”

The gliscor snorted. “Why would you care who killed him?”

“Because whoever did it also poisoned my friend.” Enigma flinched slightly and averted his gaze. Friend? He shook his head sharply and narrowed his eyes at the gliscor. “And once I track this murderer down it would be in your best interest as well.”

The gliscor’s eyes flashed. He swung a claw, cleaving through the air. Enigma warped up into the branches over the tree behind him, letting his assailant’s night slash strike the ground where he’d been standing in a flurry of snow.

“Cut it out, Kale!” the zangoose shouted. “Elsa said he’s under her protection.”

“Only so long as he remains in the village.” The gliscor turned his head back and forth, searching for the banette. “But he ain’t there right now.”

“I’m done here anyway.” Enigma’s voice drew the gliscor’s eye up to the low hanging branch. “I’ve already worked out who the murderer is.”

The remaining zangoose stared dumbfounded at Enigma, and the shadowy energy vanished from the gliscor’s claws.

“That’s impossible,” said the zangoose. “None of us have been able to work it out.”

“I always assumed it was you,” the gliscor spat. “So how do we know you ain’t lying?”

“Hold it, Kale.” The zangoose drew his friend’s eye. “I suppose it takes a murderer to find a murderer.”

Enigma’s eyes narrowed but he tried to hide it behind a nonchalant yawn.

“Let’s hear him out,” the zangoose finished.

Kale gave a stiff nod, reluctantly lowering his pincers. “Fine. Go on then. Amuse us.”

Enigma raised his paws, flashing his claws. “Those slashes are much too neat, and I don’t leave external injuries if I can help it.” He slipped from the branch, landing before the gliscor and causing him to take a step back. Enigma tucked his paws behind his head and nodded to the nidoking with a jingle. “Whoever did this used blades. And very sharp ones at that.”

Only the soft gurgle of the river answered him. The two pokemon exchanged confused glances.

“There ain’t no pokemon around here like that.” The gliscor bared his canines. “Unless you used a blade?”

“Why would I poison the river? What would it gain me?” Enigma was beginning to lose his patience. “It’s a messy, convoluted job. Whoever did this had one target, and that was Harlequin. Perhaps me by happenstance. They weren’t interested in your town, you were just an unfortunate casualty. An innocent village suffering the aftereffects once they’d finished their job. Are you following me?”

Kale just stared at him.

The zangoose waved a paw at Enigma. “Go on. What pokemon do you suspect did this then?”

Enigma smirked at the gliscor. “Let’s see if you can work it out. What pokemon has blades on its body?”

Kale spat. “A scyther? But it would end up poisoned itself!”

“Then think more broadly. A steel-type wouldn’t be poisoned.”

“A scizor?”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Enigma rolled his eyes and motioned to the nidoking. “Look at the damage. You can see where the assassin landed their killing blow. The rest of the body is maimed from being carried. What pokemon could do that damage? What pokemon has a steel exoskeleton formed of uniform blades?”

“Pawniard and bisharp,” said the zangoose. “But they were wiped out years ago.” Doubt clouded his features. “Right?”

“Yes, but obviously some survived.” Enigma looked over the pair of stunned pokemon. “I happened to see two myself only recently. They were in the company of an absol.”

“Hang on!” Kale’s fury wasn’t aimed at Enigma anymore. He waved a pincer towards the nidoking’s carcass. “Are you suggesting an absol did this?”

“They bring disaster, don’t they?” Enigma raised his paws in a shrug.

Kale took a step towards Enigma, his pincers radiating dark energy. “Do you seriously expect us to believe-”

“You don’t have to believe me,” Enigma scoffed. “But if you want to know how I came to this theory, then fine. Harlequin knew an absol once, before they were declared extinct. Apparently he’s survived, and this is my proof.” He waved to the nidoking. “Absol are outlaws. Harlequin used to work for the Darkness. Are you putting the pieces together now? Because the evidence speaks for itself. This attack was personal, and your village wasn’t the target.” He tucked his paws back behind his head and spun on his heel towards the trees. “I’d suggest you keep an eye open for this absol. Although once I’m through with him, you won’t have to.”

The banette strode through the trees, leaving the two pokemon to muse over what he had said. Enigma was done with them now. He had bigger priorities. He was going to find Harbinger even if he had to search every night for the next moon. Any good assassin would want to make sure their job was completed to satisfaction, so there was every possibility he was still hanging around the river. There was also the possibility that he’d tracked Enigma during his frantic race for help. That meant, if Harbinger had any suspicion that Harlequin was still alive, he’d be lurking around to finish the job.

Harlequin… that zorua believed Harbinger was their friend. But Enigma was beginning to believe the feeling was not mutual.

He leapt up into an evergreen tree, scrambling his way to the top until he was perched on its spindly branches. They bowed beneath him and he clutched on to steady himself, gazing out across the mountain forest. He squinted into the shadows, trying to spot any sign of life. It was oddly barren after his time in the village. Trying to spot an absol in the snow would be nigh impossible. The pawniard, however…

Enigma leapt to the next tree, landing on its point. Then he made his way to the next, covering ground with ease. Each tree bent and flicked back up again as he left it, scattering flurries of snow into the air where they shimmered like stars in the moonlight.

After what felt like an eternity, Enigma spotted something. He dropped into the lower branches, perching like a gargoyle as he trailed his eyes over a set of paw prints. Three of them. Large, flat, clawed prints walked at a brisk pace between twin sets of two-toed sharp ones. A grin split Enigma’s face and he followed them, sticking to the trees. He didn’t make any efforts to silence his bell. Enigma had shown no fear of him when he’d stared him in the eye. But whatever the outcome, he wanted that absol to know he was coming for him.

The trail wound through the forest, curving back towards the mountain. Back towards the fallen tree across the river. Then Enigma spotted Harbinger’s lithe form, sprinting through the snow, kicking up flurries behind him. He barked at the pawniard to hurry, letting them overtake him. Enigma chuckled drily. So he was a coward after all?

In two warps, Enigma landed on the absol’s back and bowled him over. Harbinger lashed out with his claws, catching Enigma across the shoulder. Enigma winced but didn’t let go. He phased his claws through Harbinger’s chest and the absol stiffened, his ruby eyes widening with terror.

The two pawniard rushed back towards their companion. Enigma froze them with a look.

“Stay where you are!” Engima growled. “I’m holding one of his ribs. I could kill him in a heartbeat. And you don’t want to be the reason I kill him, do you?” He smirked, and the two pawniard fell back a step. One of them ran its blades against each other, creating a mournful grating that pushed Enigma’s fur on end.

“You’d threaten kids?” Harbinger’s sneer drew Enigma’s gaze back onto his. The absol bared his canines. “What sort of coward are you?”

“You were the one running for your life,” Enigma crooned. “Now… tell me why you poisoned Harlequin?”

Harbinger raised his head slightly and leered at Enigma. “I don’t have to tell you anything.”

Enigma tugged his paw sharply and Harbinger fell back into the snow with a yowl that split the air. The two pawniard stiffened, one of them holding his blades at the ready. Their eyes were fearful. Neither of them wanted to risk making a move.

Enigma lowered his muzzle towards the absol’s. “I think it’s in your best interest to co-operate, Harbinger. Now answer my question.”

Harbinger spoke through gasps. “Because he’s a traitor!”

“A traitor? That’s funny, because he’s always maintained you were friends.”

“Friends?!” Harbinger’s eyes flashed with fury. “He betrayed me! He led that murderous honchkrow to me!” He bared his teeth and spoke in a growl, “But I got away. As far as that traitor is concerned, I’m dead!”

Enigma was speechless. He stared back at Harbinger as his mind whirred over what he’d said.

The absol took a few deep breaths, not breaking eye contact. “I should never have trusted him. I should have known he was working for you scum in the first place.”

No. Enigma didn’t believe it. He narrowed his gaze and tightened his grip, causing Harbinger to hiss. “You said he led a honchkrow to you. Let me guess. Fat thing, can barely fly?” He didn’t need an answer, and Harbinger didn’t offer one. “Did you even see Harlequin?”

“I didn’t need to.”

“Harlequin was in pieces when he arrived in the Shadow Lands,” Enigma told him. “I remember it clearly. He believed you had been murdered by murkrow.”

“Then he lied,” Harbinger hissed. “He lied! He’s a liar!”

“Oh, he didn’t lie to me-”

“He’s a zorua! They lie! They deceive!”

Enigma shook his head, more to dismiss the fog of confusion that swirled around his mind. But Harbinger took it as dismissal.

“You don’t believe me? Fine,” Harbinger spat. “But he’s clearly lied to you since the day you met! That’s all zorua do! Spout lies!”

“This coming from an absol?” Enigma laughed and shook his head slowly. “The most persecuted of dark-types?”

Harbinger’s white fur was bristling. Murder flashed in his eyes. Despite that, he spoke more calmly. “He lied to you, Enigma. And you’re a fool to believe him.”

They were both silent for a moment. Enigma digesting what he’d said, Harbinger too afraid to move. The silence was broken by the occasional shrill scrape of metal from the pawniard.

Finally, Enigma sat back, but he didn’t release his grip. “Believe it or not, Harle is actually looking for you, Harbinger. But after this little stunt of yours, I’m loathe to let that happen.” Fear flashed in Harbinger’s eyes as Enigma loomed closer to his face. Enigma lowered his voice to a purr. “I don’t take kindly to those who try to murder my colleagues.”

A look of defiance flashed across Harbinger’s face, but it contorted with pain as Enigma tugged on his rib. Harbinger’s feline yowl shook the trees and he flailed his paws. One struck Enigma across the shoulder and he had to drop his density to avoid a blow to the head. But he didn’t relinquish his hold on Harbinger.

“I’ll make you pay for what you’ve done!” Enigma roared. “I’ll make sure you suffer as much as he has!”

“Stop!” One of the pawinard rushed to Enigma’s side and placed his arm against Enigma’s. “Stop, please!”

Enigma swung his free arm at the pawniard. “Back off! Or I’ll kill you as well!”

The pawniard fell back, staring down at the blood coating his blades. Enigma hadn’t even felt it, but he turned his attention back on Harbinger. His eyes were screwed shut, his yowls fading into frantic, fearful gasps.

“Listen to me, please!” the first pawniard approached Enigma again. “Let Harbinger go!”

“D-don’t hurt him!” The other one joined his brother’s side, his yellow eyes like disks.

Enigma looked at the twins as Harbinger fell limp, breathing heavily. They stood an arm’s length away, desperation on their faces. Enigma found himself faltering as the anger ebbed in his chest.

“Please!” Tears glistened in the bolder pawniard’s eyes and he took a nervous step closer. He looked down at Harbinger and closed his eyes. “He’s all we’ve got.”

Enigma stared at him, his grip on the absol loosening. Once again he was back beside Harlequin, begging them not to leave him. Clutching Kera in a burning clearing. Watching his parents crumple before his eyes at the mercy of a murderous hydreigon.

Enigma screwed his eyes shut for a moment and took in a long breath. “You’re just as responsible, kid.”

“I know.” Tears leaked from the pawniard’s eyes and he wiped them on the back of his arm. “I’m sorry. We both are. Please… please don’t kill him. If we’d known… if Harbinger had known… then we wouldn’t…”

Enigma looked back down at Harbinger. The absol watched him through one open eye. His breaths were erratic and his claws twitched with repressed anger. He was no longer fearing his own life, but the lives of the two hatchlings standing beside him, and Enigma knew if he made any moves to hurt them then Harbinger would find his second wind.

This wasn’t an evil pokemon. This was one who’d been abused by the world, much like himself. The only difference was that Harbinger hadn’t sided with anyone. He wasn’t beyond help.

Enigma sighed and retracted his paw. A small trickle of blood marred Harbinger’s snowy fur. Enigma hadn’t even stood from him when he was buffeted by a blade of air. Enigma flew back from the absol and his back struck a tree hard, knocking the wind from his lungs.

Harbinger stood, legs splayed, glaring at him. His entire body trembled, but defiance flashed in his eyes along with something else. With a snort that misted in the air, Harbinger turned and galloped into the trees with the twins behind him. Their yellow gaze glanced behind them at intervals, making sure Enigma wasn’t on their tail.

He wasn’t. He had no intention to pursue them any further. He had his answers.

But they raised yet more questions.

Enigma bit his lip and he stood, groaning. Red blood marred his chest, congealing into a sticky mess. It wasn’t a deep cut. Harbinger had not intended to kill him.

That ‘something else’. It hit Enigma like a landslide. It had been pity.

His bell had landed in the snow a couple of feet away and he picked it up, smoothing flakes from its shiny surface. His own warped reflection looked back at him. Tired. Weary. He tucked it away with a sleight of hand and ran his claws through his mane.

‘Then he lied. He lied! He’s a liar!’

Enigma sank back against the tree and took in a ragged breath. He really didn’t want Harbinger’s words to be true. But it had left him with no desire to return to Harlequin.

His head spun until he began to feel dizzy. An odd buzz resonated at the back of his mind and his heart began to race. He’d been lied to. How many lies had Harlequin told him? Or was Harbinger the one who was lying? He raised his head to stare off after Harbinger. He had a sudden urge to race after him and beat him until he resembled that nidoking.

Sharp, needle-like pains spread through Enigma’s right paw and he looked down with a start. He uncurled his fist and watched blood well up from where his claws had dug into his pads. He immediately shoved it into the snow and bit back a hiss of pain.

The buzz had stopped. His head cleared, along with that burning anger.

No, it hadn’t been anger. It had been madness.

He removed his paw. The bleeding had stopped, as had the gash on his chest. Even the deep slice on his arm had begun to heal over.

Pokerus.

Images of that whimsicott and tyranitar filled his mind. Deranged. Twisted. Was this what that wretched parasite did? He took a few deep breaths but that dizziness began to rise again. Enigma lowered his head into his paws and sank back down against the tree. If one thing was certain, it wasn’t safe for him to return to Harlequin.

Confusion flooded his mind again at the thought of the zorua, intensifying that strange buzz that made him want to get up and walk back towards the village. A desire to force answers out of Harlequin, painfully if he had to. Had they fed him endless lies? Had they betrayed Harbinger?

No.

Enigma sucked in a sharp breath. He was shaking. He felt disgusted at himself. He stared at his paws which trembled not from the cold. Fear? Repressed rage?

No. There was no way he was going to go back to Harlequin. Not like this.

He pushed himself to his feet with a new goal in mind. He was going back to the Moorland’s Forest to find those scientists. He needed to put an end to their experiments before they went too far.

He let out a small growl and kicked the tree. The frightening question was ‘what was too far’?

...​

The volcano’s slope was treacherous. It was riddled with promising footholds that crumbled no sooner than Cleo set her foot on it. She had never liked climbing up or down mountain paths, or trees for that matter. But there was no other option. The ground around the volcano was buried beneath the sea, its waves thrashing up against the sheer cliff threatening to drag unwary travellers into its deathly grip.

“There has to be some sign of life,” Cleo spoke breathlessly. “Pokemon lived here once. So where?”

Neither of her friends replied. They’d already discussed the possibilities, and they’d all agreed it was likely the island’s inhabitants had lived underneath or near to the volcano. Fire-types would have enjoyed its warmth, and the ground-types among them would have enjoyed the dryness. But there was no sign of any tunnel system. No sign of any former dwellings. No matter what they’d be made out of, there would be some evidence unless it had all been washed away by the sea. Cleo felt the former was very unlikely, if only because she and her friends were still on the island.

Unless there had been a tsunami.

Cleo’s heart sank at the thought. She bit her lip, holding onto an outcrop to peer back the way they’d come. The dizzying drop almost made her lose her grip and she jerked her head back to gaze out at the sea. Faith joined her side, and Spark bounded atop a low rock to gaze up at Cleo.

“I’m starting to lose my confidence that anyone still lives here,” Cleo explained.

It was a half-truth. She’d entirely lost her confidence. She wanted nothing more than to leave and try somewhere else.

But where?

Faith shook her head and forced a smile. “We haven’t searched the whole island yet. Come on, let’s keep going.”

The mawile placed a paw on Cleo’s back, but Cleo dug her claws into the porous rock and thrashed her tails. She soon regretted the motion, as her feet almost gave way beneath her. She let out a yell and Faith wrapped her arms around her middle, steadying her. The mawile’s feet kept a firm hold on the steep slope. She was as immovable as one of the boulders.

“Thank you.” Cleo relaxed a little and took hold of the outcrop again, keeping her side against Faith.

“I take it you’re not familiar with mountain travel?” Faith stifled a chuckle.

Cleo shook her head slowly. “You’d think so, but no. Meowstic lost their knack for climbing many, many years before I was born. I’ve never enjoyed it.”

“Then you’re not gonna like this.” Spark peered past the mound of rock jutting up beside them.

Cleo followed her gaze, holding steady to the rock face. They had followed a vague path up around the side of the volcano. They were still far from the top, but beyond it was a dizzying drop. It was as if something had cleaved a large gash into the island, forming a valley that rose sharply on the other side. It tapered off into the ocean, forming a narrow beach that the water licked at hungrily. The valley looked as if it had at one point had water flowing through it. But Cleo guessed it was much more likely to have been lava. Now, as if in defiance, a bubbling spring leaked out of the rock a few feet from Cleo’s head, trickling down to vanish into the empty valley. It was too little to form a river.

Across the valley swung a rope bridge. Many of the wooden slats had fallen loose to vanish into the rocky depths below. Cleo’s eyes widened. It was something. But it didn’t so much instill hope as it did extinguish it.

“No one’s here,” said Spark. “If there were, then…” She waved a paw in defeat and turned her back. “Let’s head back to Reshiram.”

“Hang on.” Faith stopped the little dedenne’s path with a foot. “We haven’t checked everywhere yet.”

“What is there to check?” Spark asked. “That bridge speaks words! No one’s here.” She paused with a glance back towards the bridge and visibly deflated. “They’ve all gone.”

The trio were silent for a moment. Faith’s face fell and she let out a defeated sigh.

“Maybe you’re right, Spark,” she said. “But we can’t give up just yet. Just because that bridge is in disrepair doesn’t mean no one is here. Perhaps they don’t use it anymore because they don’t need to.”

“Because they can fly.” Cleo’s eyes widened and her ears pricked up. “What if… what if we’re looking for a fire-type flying pokemon? Like talonflame?”

Spark shook her head and flicked her long tail with derision. “You’ll be tellin’ us we’re lookin’ for a moltres next. Cleo, no one’s here. Those berries were left to rot, and it’s the only food we’ve seen! If pokemon lived here there’d be signs. But no. We’ve found a bush heaving with overripe berries and a rotting bridge!”

Spark’s voice echoed through the mountain. A few rocks crumbled overhead and Cleo ducked back as a few tiny shards pelted her head. They all stood still for a moment, then let out a long shared breath.

“Cleo, we were told they’d left this island,” said Spark. “Even if the story was right and one stayed behind, they might not be here anymore.”

“Okay,” Cleo said slowly. “How about this? We’ll work our way around this volcano. If we can’t see anything, then we’ll call it quits and head back.”

Spark gave a stiff nod and scampered on ahead, leaping across rocks that were too brittle to hold Cleo’s weight. The meowstic followed after her friend, with Faith close behind her. Cleo’s gaze kept wandering to the valley. Something didn’t quite add up, but she couldn’t put her paw on it. Something just seemed… off. As her gaze wandered across the deadly drop, Cleo lost her footing. She stifled a yowl and dug her claws in, but they scraped over soft stone. Her paws flailed as she rolled herself onto her back. The ground rose up towards her as she was dragged towards the valley’s gaping jaws. Cleo lashed out with all four paws until she finally snagged a springy sapling jutting out of the mountain’s side. Water pooled around her, soaking into her fur, and she realised much too late that she’d been walking past the volcanic spring.

The sapling bent as Spark landed on it, her whiskers twitching frantically. “Are you okay?!” She looked from Cleo to the valley, then turned her large eyes towards Faith as the mawile skidded down beside them.

Cleo sucked in a few deep breaths as she struggled to her feet. “I’m fine.”

The slope was covered in shiny black rock that trailed down the volcano to vanish over the edge of the valley. It gathered around the narrow poles that held the bridge in place. On closer inspection, the ropes and wooden slats were black and tinted grey with volcanic ash. Several feet away from it stood a large tree, burned black to the tips of its branches which reached over the edge of the crevice like wicked claws. Cleo stepped gingerly over the wet ground to stand somewhere a little less precarious. Now she looked out at the valley, something clicked.

“I almost got a personal close-up of that valley,” she said. “I’m beginning to think it’s not natural.”

Spark and Faith both watched her, waiting for her to elaborate.

“Some pokemon are capable of sculpting the ground,” Cleo explained. “They can cause earthquakes, or bring up rocks to sling at their enemies. There’s a possibility that one, or maybe many, caused this crevice.”

Faith nodded as she gazed out at it, but Spark just looked confused.

“I think you have a point,” said Faith. “There’s no water running through it. If it was a natural break, then the sea water would be filling it in.”

Cleo’s ears pricked with surprise and she followed Faith’s gaze. She hadn’t considered that, but now that Faith mentioned it, it was obvious. The sea had reached its highest point, stopping at a dome-shaped rise that ended before the valley formed. If the sea rose higher, it would fill the crevice like some kind of moat. Perhaps, at one point, it had been.

“I think,” said Cleo, “that this might have been created to protect the other side of the island.”

“Or this side,” said Faith. “If land pokemon are going to attack this island they’d come at it from the flattest, and most unguarded, point.”

“Perhaps it’s not a deterrent at all,” Spark offered. “Maybe it runs all the way around the island, but we just can’t see it.”

Cleo started at that. She could hear the hidden words in Spark’s comment - ‘Just like New City’. Cleo swallowed dryly and paced towards the valley. She detoured towards the tree, wanting something solid to hold onto, seeking out ground that was devoid of water and that glossy rock. Faith joined her, with Spark hopping lightly over the slick stone. Cleo sought out a patch of ground much more welcoming to her paw pads. The rough, porous rock felt as welcoming as a warm nest.

She reached out a paw towards the tree and faltered. There was something nailed to it, almost as black as the dead bark. She swept a paw across it, dusting away a thick covering of ash.

“Something is engraved on here,” she said.

Faith drew closer to her, with Spark perched on her shoulder. They watched as Cleo rubbed the blackened sign. The soot gathered in deep grooves, forming the pattern of the grain along with letters that sent a shiver through Cleo’s spine.

“Stay away,” Spark read. She snorted and rose to her full height. “Fine. I know when I’m not welcome.”

Cleo hesitated, looking from the sign to the valley. “I’m beginning to think this island isn’t as unoccupied as we thought.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Spark asked. “’Cos if you say we’re gonna climb down that valley-”

“I was, actually, yes.” Cleo motioned to the bridge and took a step towards it. “We can use the-”

Her words cut off with a yell as, with a loud crack, the ground splintered beneath her feet. She was sucked down under the earth among a shower of rocks and splintered wood. The wind flew from her lungs as she landed hard on a mound of stale hay. Faith dropped down beside her and sat up with a groan, rubbing the base of her horn. She coughed a few times, along with Cleo, as the dust fogged the air, stirred up as brittle stone rained down around them and stung Cleo’s ears and shoulders. She raised her paws in a feeble effort to shield herself.

The rain of rubble finally began to slow, and above the pattering of rocks Cleo could make out a distant clanging of metal. She blinked the dust from her eyes, trying to work out where they were.

“Are we all okay?” she wheezed between breaths.

“I think so.” Faith glanced up at the hole above them. Rubble trickled down in uneven flows of tiny shards and soil as the ground tried to settle itself. She opened her massive jaw-like horns and Spark tumbled out with a gasp.

“Nice save,” Spark groaned, rolling onto her back. Her black eyes blinked up at the light leaking in from the massive hole in the ceiling. “What… just happened?”

A few shards of rock pelted the ground in a second wave as more of it retreated back from the edge of the hole. Through the dust Cleo could see the knotted roots of the blackened tree, old and withered, trailing down towards them like vines. They tangled over the earth above them, forming a web that strained to hold the ground together. Cleo watched with bated breath as the ground sagged beneath the tree.

“We need to get out of here.” She struggled to her feet, coughing in the dust and warm, dry air.

She turned to take in their new surroundings. Huge, rocky walls rose up on all sides. Save for one. Thick, iron beams boxed them in. Cleo looked down at the hay, now mostly buried beneath dust, rocks and earth.

“I… I think this is a cell,” she said weakly.

Cleo approached the bars, touching them gingerly. Her ears twitched. The clanging sound had faded but she could still detect it deep in the cavern. She stared off towards it, gazing down a dark tunnel. Spark had been right. There were underground tunnels beneath Fire Island.

Faith made a thoughtful sound beside her. She placed her paws on the bars and followed them towards the ceiling. “They look a bit thick but they’re old. Step back.”

Cleo complied, nudging Spark back with her foot. Faith turned so her horn was facing the bars. She grabbed them in her jaws and gave them a hefty tug. That strange clanging sound echoed again but it didn’t perturb Faith. Loose debris trickled down on them, peppering Cleo’s fur. She raised her paws and glanced up at the gaping hole above them as her heart leapt into her throat.

“Faith, stop!” Cleo hissed.

But the mawile had already ceased her attack on the bars. The trio braced themselves, waiting for the ceiling to collapse further. Once the rain of soil and rock had ceased hey let out a joined breath.

“I might try fire fang,” said Faith. “See if I can melt them.”

“But what if they’re holding up the ceiling?” Spark offered.

Cleo gave the dedenne a sad look. “Spark, we’re stuck. How else are we meant to get out? We need to try something.”

Spark raised her paws in a weak shrug. “I could go?” She nodded to the bars. “I can squeeze through there and find someone.”

Cleo was hesitant. “We’ve landed in a cell. This was probably a trap, Spark. If anyone is here, then they might not be happy to see you.”

“Like you said, we need to get out somehow.”

Faith looked between Spark and Cleo. “I’m worried too, but it’s worth a shot. Spark can handle herself.”

Spark’s whiskers crackled in response. “You’ve seen me handle Hydreigon’s goons. I think I can handle a fire-type.”

Cleo wanted to add that there was every possibility of her encountering a ground-type. But Spark was probably their only chance at getting out.

“Okay,” she said. “You get out, Spark, and see if you can find help.”

“All right.” Spark leapt to her feet and rushed to towards the bars. She froze, her ears swivelling. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Erm… Cleo?”

But Cleo had already heard it. Lurching footsteps slapped over the floor, getting gradually louder. Flames flickered deep in the corridor, surrounding the hulking shadow of a large pokemon which swayed from side to side. Red eyes reflected the light of the flames, narrowed in a head that towered above Cleo.

Someone had come to them. And Cleo had the deep, burning dread that they were not coming to welcome them.
 
Chapter 53 New

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
53 - Tyrix​

Shadows flickered up the walls and shrank away as the orange flames swayed towards Cleo and her friends. Red eyes glared at them, and beneath those eyes a pair of canines glistened. Cleo took a step back and raised her paws. Psychic energy hummed in her ears. Spark crackled beside her with her tail raised. Only Faith didn’t look ready to attack.

“Outsiders?” the large pokemon’s masculine voice barked. “On my island?” Flames flickered out between his teeth, lighting up his pointed muzzle. “What are you even doing here?”

Cleo’s heart raced. A typhlosion? She’d never seen one in person before. He towered over them, his body hunched as his shoulders blazed in a threatening display.

“We were-” Cleo’s words cut out as the typhlosion’s terrifying glare snapped onto her. She cleared her throat and tried to hide her fear by straightening her posture. “We came here looking for help.”

The typhlosion narrowed his eyes, prompting her to elaborate.

“We need a fire-type pokemon to help us,” she explained. “We were suggested to try Fire Island.”

“So you came here looking for help?” Flames flickered around his fangs and black smoke billowed from the sides of his mouth. “Not enough fire-types on the mainland?”

“It was fire-types who sent us here,” said Faith. “We’re looking for one fire-type pokemon who can help us to defeat the Wildfires.”

The typhlosion jerked his head towards her, his eyes flashing with anger. “The Wildfires?!” Flames trickled from his mouth with each word, and black smoke billowed around him making the flames and his eyes stand out like rubies. “You dare to come here spouting such tomfoolery with that glaring weakness of yours, mawile?!”

Faith didn’t flinch back but she clenched her fist at her side, meeting the typhlosion’s glare with an unshakable confidence. Cleo could almost hear the air crackling between them, yet Faith didn’t back down.

Cleo turned back to the typlosion and grabbed the iron bars. They felt warm beneath her paws. “Look, we’re really sorry we came here. If you let us out, we’ll leave. You won’t see us again.”

“No.” Faith placed a paw on her shoulder, still looking up at the typhlosion. “He might be the one we’re looking for.”

The large fire-type looked between the two. The anger in his eyes faltered with confusion.

“This guy?” Spark waved a paw towards him, drawing the typhlosion’s glare. “Mister Anger Management here? Really?”

The typhlosion snorted black smoke as a smirk tugged at his lips. “Wait, there’s three of you in there? You’ve got a large mouth for such a tiny rodent.”

“Excuse me?!” Electricity crackled around Spark’s whiskers and danced up the iron bars.

Cleo yanked her paws back with a hiss. “Spark, cut that out!”

“No.” Regardless, Spark reigned in her electricity until only her whiskers crackled with static. “I wanna know what else he’s got to say about me.”

The typlosion let out a burst of laughter that was cut off by a dry cough. He doubled over, spewing black smoke with each hacking cough. Cleo stood back from the bars, watching helplessly.

Faith released her hold on Cleo’s shoulder. “It’s just as I thought.” She stepped close to the bars. “You’re sick.”

The typhlosion jerked his head up scattering embers from his muzzle. “Back off!”

“Never!” Faith swiped stray embers from the fur around her face. “We can help you. We have berries.”

“I have all the help I need here! I don’t need pity from some outsiders like you!”

“Pity?” Faith gasped.

“I think you’re lyin’,” said Spark. “’Cos all we saw during our trek over this barren island was a bunch of overripe razz berries. And they aren’t gonna fix you up, pal.”

“Spark,” Faith warned with a whisper.

“What?” Spark gestured widely towards the large fire pokemon. “Unless he’s growin’ berries underground which I doubt-”

“I’ll let you out,” the typhlosion scoffed, rising. “And I want each one of you off this island by sunfall.”

Cleo blinked at the terminology.

“Understood?” he growled.

The trio stood silently, staring up at the typhlosion.

Finally, Cleo nodded once. “We understand.”

The typhlosion grunted acknowledgement and tugged a set of keys off his waist. Each movement made him wheeze in the dusty, hot silence. Finally, the bars swung open as a large, iron gate. As they stepped out he glanced up at the hole in the ceiling.

“Should’ve read the sign,” he grumbled. “It said to stay away.”

“What, that was a warning?” Spark asked.

The typhlosion nodded. “This half of the island is riddled with sink-holes. That’s what happens when pokemon burrow underground. This way.”

“And here I thought you were just really hostile or somethin’.” Spark waddled after him as he lead them back down the corridor.

Cleo fell into step beside Faith as they followed the typhlosion through the dark corridor. Each step he took was laborious, his large feet slapping on the dry floor. What Cleo had took to be the footsteps of a large, heavy pokemon stomping towards them had turned out to be the lurching gait of a sick, tired typlosion trudging along with what strength he had left in his body.

The tunnel turned sharply upwards in a flight of grey stones pockmarked with air holes. Even during the dampest season they wouldn’t be slippery. They were well worn in the middle from countless feet flocking up and down them, and Cleo found herself wondering if what they’d been trapped in wasn’t a cell after all. Or if it hadn’t been originally.

The typhlosion stopped and gestured towards another small flight of stairs leading to their right. “There. Go through that tunnel and you’re out.”

Spark squinted to see down it, and was about to voice her concerns when Faith stepped past her. The mawile grabbed the edge of a curtain of ivy and tugged it aside. The typhlosion recoiled with a hiss, and Faith glanced back at him. She gasped, letting go of the ivy as her paws flew to her mouth.

The dwindling rays of the setting sun leaked into the corridor, lighting up their acquaintance for the first time. The typhlosion hunched against the wall, breathing heavily. The fur around his eyes was moist, and his fur was heavily matted and thick with dust. Cleo could count each one of his ribs, and the rope belt he wore hung lose around his jutting hips. Her throat thickened and she fought back tears.

Spark’s whiskers drooped as she trailed her eyes over the typhlosion. “When did you last eat somethin’?”

The typhlosion pulled his lips back in a low growl.

“Cut that out!” Cleo snapped. She reached into her satchel and pulled out their rations. “I want you to help yourself. Take as much as you need.”

“I already told you I don’t need your pity!” he growled.

“It’s not pity,” Cleo told him. “Consider it a thank you for getting us out.”

“Yeah, and take some back to your friends too,” said Spark.

The typhlosion’s eyes blazed and his back erupted with flames. He opened his mouth in a loud roar that shook the walls. Spark leapt onto Cleo’s shoulder, her fur crackling with electricity. The typhlosion’s roar cut out with a spluttering cough and he collapsed against the wall. Dirt and dust clung to his fur as he sank down against it, landing in a crumpled heap in the waning light.

Faith dropped to his side and placed a paw on his chest. It rose faintly with ragged breaths. “He’s unconscious.” She looked up at Cleo. “Can you carry him? We need to get him somewhere comfortable.”

Cleo eyed the typhlosion warily. She hadn’t ever carried a pokemon much bigger than herself, but there was barely anything to him. “I can try.”

Faith stood back as Cleo trapped the typhlosion in a bubble of psychic energy. He rose as easily as if she’d lifted Tinker. Faith moved on ahead of her further down the tunnels. Spark scurried on ahead, using her electricity to light the way. Cleo hadn’t noticed the tunnel continued on ahead of them. She followed after her friends, the typhlosion bobbing along just in front of her.

“I don’t want to leave him,” Faith told Cleo over her shoulder. “Not while he’s in such a bad way.”

“I’m with you on that one,” said Cleo.

“It’s just such a shame,” said Spark. “He’s got too much pride to accept any help from ‘outsiders’, and it’s lead to this.” She swallowed as her voice wavered. “It makes me want to cry.”

Faith mumbled an agreement.

“We’ll get him somewhere safe,” said Cleo. “There has to be a nest room somewhere in this place. Then we’ll ask Reshiram if he can find some food.” She grimaced as her gaze wandered over the typhlosion’s ragged body. “I don’t think I’ve got enough sitrus berries to help him.”

...​

Flames swept through the village with the sound of snapping wood. Pokemon fled, screaming, as the dark, lithe shapes of the Wildfires chased after them. Those that were unfortunate enough to get caught in their jaws were tossed behind the houndour, back into the flames. The dogs left them behind, spewing fire over anything that wasn’t yet burning.

Howlinger towered over the cowering sandshrew. Mud splattered the houndoom’s fur from the ground-type’s feeble attempt to subdue him. Howlinger’s canines glinted orange in the flickering flames beneath a pair of glowing red eyes.

“Where are they?!” the houndoom barked.

“I t-told you! I don’t know who you’re looking for!” The sandshrew peeked up at the leering hound.

Howlinger lowered his muzzle until it was a mere whisker from the sandshrew’s face. The rodent flinched back, screwing his eyes shut.

“A meowstic,” Howlinger purred, “and a whimsicott. Perhaps dragging an unusual zorua with them? No? Not ringing any bells?”

The sandshrew shook his head sharply. “No. No, I’ve not seen them!”

“Well they work for you Outcasts!” Howlinger spat.

“Please!” the sandshrew begged, a sob choking his words. “I don’t know them! I honestly don’t! None of us do. Please! Just let us go!”

Howlinger raised his head back as a low growl vibrated in his throat. His muzzle split into a sneer of a grin. “Oh. I can’t take the word of outsiders like you.”

“Please-”

The sandshrew’s words broke off into a shriek as flames spewed from the houndoom’s mouth, engulfing the small ground-type. Flames licked up into the sky as Howlinger gave a tremendous howl. He turned and raced along the path, flames on either side of him. He launched another flamethrower behind him at the burning town, trapping his victims within it, then howled again, joined by the rest of his pack.

The canine army raced away from the anguished screams, onto their next target, leaving the sandshrew’s town a blazing smear against the darkening sky.

...​

The tunnels wound through the belly of the volcano. Cleo’s throat tickled with every breath of the warm, dry air. She’d been back to the exit Tyrix had shown them to call for Reshiram. He’d appeared in a heartbeat after hearing the tuneful whistle from his feather. He’d hovered in the air as she’d relayed what had happened, and the white dragon had wasted no time in taking off to find food for the starving typhlosion.

Every corridor she’d stumbled across had been empty. The whole island seemed barren. They’d not encountered a single pokemon to help them. It was Faith who’d spotted the little room off to the left, deep in the belly of the volcano. A torch flickered weakly on the wall, scattering shadows across a nest of dry hay. The typhlosion lay curled up on it, positioned as best as the trio could place him. His breathing was irregular and Cleo feared it would be a long time before he woke, if he even did. Just in case he woke before Reshiram returned, she set two sitrus berries and a scrap of fish from her own supplies near his nest and cast a wary glance towards the slowly guttering torch.

“We could be here a while,” she said. “Reshiram said he’d be as quick as he can. Hopefully he won’t be too long.”

“He’d need to leave this island,” said Spark. “There’s nothing here.”

“Spark’s right.” Faith shifted her weight against the wall, not taking her eyes off the typhlosion. “It’s not just berries this place is missing. There’s nothing here.”

Cleo looked up at her. “What do you mean?”

“You must have noticed it.” Faith’s voice was quiet as if she feared rousing their new acquaintance. “This place is empty. He’s alone here.”

Cleo had noticed it, but she’d not wanted to admit it. She looked back over at the typhlosion and her chest clenched. What Torch had told them must have been true. The fire pokemon had all left, leaving behind this lonely typhlosion.

“Do you reckon that’s why he’s so unwelcoming?” Spark asked. “He’s not used to the company? Bit of a lone wolf?”

“I think it runs a lot deeper than that, Spark,” said Faith. “He clearly doesn’t trust us.”

“He was kind enough to come and help us when we fell through that sink hole,” said Cleo.

“Yes. I believe he’s a kind pokemon deep down,” said Faith. “But he wants us off this island. I’m curious as to what’s happened here. Why he’s alone. Is it voluntary? I mean, surely he could leave as he pleased? Yet he’s staying here, starving to death, apparently by choice.”

“There’s obviously more to that story than one would think,” said Cleo. “Maybe there were problems with the mainland. A fall out or something?”

“Perhaps the war?” said Spark. “I mean, if Hydreigon ain’t interested in this place then that’s a pretty obvious reason to stay in my opinion.”

“Then why didn’t the others stay?” Cleo challenged.

A laugh came from the nest, cutting Spark off before she could give her answer. They all turned to look at the typhlosion. He pushed himself up slowly onto all-fours.

“You wanna know why?” he wheezed as he settled onto his haunches. He fixed one watery eye on Cleo and her friends. “You wanna know why they all left? Because I wanna know why you lot are still here.”

“We weren’t going to leave you in the state you’re in,” said Faith.

“Why not?” he growled, smoke leaking from between his bared teeth.

“Why?!” Spark almost screamed, drawing his glare. “Because we aren’t heartless, that’s why!” She picked up the sitrus berry, staggering under its weight. “Now eat this before I force it down your neck!”

The room fell into silence. Faith stood with both paws clasped over her mouth, her violet gaze going from Spark to the seething typhlosion and back. Cleo readied herself to leap to her friend’s aid. But instead, the typhlosion chuckled and took the berry. He bit into it, its juices trickling over his chin and claws.

“Quite a feisty little pipsqueak, aren’t ya?” he said.

Spark’s whiskers crackled and she flicked her tail. “If you weren’t in such a pathetic state I’d give you a good shocking for that remark.”

He laughed again and winked. “Not afraid to stand up to someone bigger? I like that. You’ve got a lot of guts in such a tiny package.”

Spark stuttered, conflicted.

The typhlosion ignored her, his gaze wandering over Cleo and Faith. “And what about you two? Either you’re really brave to go against my orders or just plain stupid.”

“I’m not scared of you at all,” said Faith. “Even if you were in top condition I would have been reluctant to leave. We’ve been sent to look for a fire-type and I want to be certain it’s not you before we leave. But that’s not my priority right now. You’re sick and in need of help.”

“And why are you so insistent on helping me? Can’t you let an old pokemon die in peace?”

Faith diverted her gaze, lost for words. The typhlosion didn’t seem to care. He turned his head slowly, looking at each of them in turn.

“A mawile, meowstic and dedenne… The past just can’t stop haunting me, can it?”

Cleo’s ears pricked up. “What are you getting at?”

“Don’t play dumb!” he spat, scattering sitrus juices. “Surely you three must blame me?”

“For what?” Cleo spat back. “For hiding out on this island during the war? Anyone would want to hide away. And it’s not as if Hydreigon’s armies can’t fly.”

“What, you think I’m avoiding fighting in this war?” he growled. “I raised an army here. We’d travel over to the mainland to offer help. Our strength, medicine, rations. No, I’ve not been hiding, meowstic. Not from that.” He paused to lick the juices off his claws. “I’m talking about the Wildfires.”

A chill ran through Cleo. She exchanged glances with her friends. “What have you got to do with the Wildfires?”

“What, so you’re not here for revenge?” The typhlosion straightened. “’Cos I thought you three would bare the biggest grudge of all! ‘Oh, old Tyrix did it! He raised an army of houndour and let them loose on the mainland! Run for your lives!’”

Cleo’s claws dug into her pads. She was speechless. All she could do was stare at him, but she wasn’t seeing him anymore. All she saw was fire.

“I know you two are from the Sparkling Forest.” He pointed at Cleo and Spark. “I know what Howlinger and his dogs did to your home. And you, mawile. They torched the Iron Canyon. My army pointed their claws at me for all that massacre, all because I raised that pup.”

Repressed psychic energy hummed in Cleo’s ears. She was speechless. Was she actually hearing all this?

“I’m not from the Iron Canyon,” said Faith. “I’m from the Fairy Garden.”

Tyrix sat up straight, his eyes widening. He picked up the other sitrus berry and absently started peeling it. “Fairy Garden? That old tale? Pull the other one. It’s more believable three survivors from that rotten mutt have turned up here for revenge!”

“We’re not here for revenge.” Faith placed a paw on Cleo’s shoulder and took a step towards Tyrix.

Cleo felt shame heat up her face and she relaxed, uncurling her paws. Her pads stung. She closed her eyes briefly and took a steadying breath. “No, we’re not.”

“Then why are you here?” Tyrix asked.

Cleo met the typhlosion’s gaze. “Xerneas sent us to look for a fire-type who can help us defeat the Wildfires.” She paused, giving Tyrix the chance to speak but he didn’t take it. He simply stared at her, seeming conflicted. “We’ve met a few fire-types, and on more than one occasion we were suggested to try Fire Island.”

“I didn’t expect to find a fire-type here, I’ll be honest,” said Faith. “But what I definitely didn’t expect was that we’d encounter a fire-type who knows the Wildfires as well as you do. I always thought that when we found the pokemon we are looking for it would be as clear as day.”

“Wait a minute, mawile.” Tyrix blinked a few times and turned the half-peeled sitrus in his paws. “Are you suggesting that this fire-type you’re looking for is me?”

“You know Howlinger,” said Faith. “From what you’ve said, you raised him. Do you think you could stop the Wildfires?”

Tyrix threw his head back and roared laughter. His body shook as he was suddenly racked with coughs, spewing black smoke into the room. Cleo had to waft her paw before her face to avoid breathing it in. After a long moment, Tyrix gathered himself and wiped tears from his eyes.

“You think I can stop them?” he wheezed, waving a paw at his frail body. “Have you seen me?!”

Cleo couldn’t deny that it seemed unlikely Tyrix would be able to take on the Wildfires. He barely looked like he could handle a bulbasaur in a drought.

Tyrix looked at each of them. “Did Xerneas really send you?”

“Yes,” said Faith, and Cleo and Spark nodded.

The typhlosion stared at them for a moment. “So all those stories are real? Wow.” He closed his eyes. “Either I’m going crazy in my old age, or I’ve died or something.”

“It’s none of those things,” said Faith. “And even if it isn’t you, good has come from our visit here. We won’t leave until you’ve got your strength back. We can help you get off this island if you want to.”

He looked up at her and grunted. “I dunno. Let me think about that one.” He shifted in his nest. “You really think I can help you defeat the Wildfires?”

Cleo sighed and sat down against the wall. “I really don’t know. We were told to fight fire with fire. Would that even work?”

“And if not,” said Spark, “does Howlinger have any weaknesses you know of?”

“Weaknesses?” Tyrix scratched his head and took a bite from his sitrus. “Aye. Yeah, he’s got one. A big one.” He paused as he swallowed his mouthful. “It’s his ego.”

“Ego?” Spark echoed.

“Aye. He’s got a big ego.” Tyrix took another bite of his fruit.

Spark grunted a ‘huh’. “I thought you were gonna say ‘water’ or somethin’.”

“Water puts out fire, sure,” said Tyrix. “But fire also dries up water. You ain’t gonna put the Wildfires down with that alone, little mouse. Pokemon have tried and failed.”

Spark deflated into the hay. “Well I’m confused.”

“You’re not alone there, Spark.” Cleo met Tyrix’s eye. “Could you elaborate? How is his ego his weakness?”

Tyrix licked his paws clean before answering. “Growin’ up, he was a real piece of work.” The typhlosion sat back in his nest until he was comfortable. “Howlinger always challenged those bigger than him, and he had a sneer that could put another pokemon off their berries. To be honest, looking back I should have seen it coming. Howlinger always wanted his own army, so he rounded up a pack of houndour. He was to be the only one to evolve, and any that challenged him were swiftly dealt with. He killed his own brother, Wailwolf, in a test of strength. He claimed it was an accident but he never seemed remorseful. After that, none of his pack dared challenge him again.

“He was careful about who entered his pack as well. They all had to be like him. The same skills, the same attacks - long range fire, and close range dark. Those who didn’t fit the bill were exiled. One of my soldiers claimed he’d seen Howlinger toss them into the sea, but I didn’t want to believe it. You see, Howlinger was the runt of his litter. His mother died shortly after childbirth, and his father couldn’t cope with raising two pups on his own. He mysteriously vanished, leaving two orphaned hatchlings. I was soft on ‘em, so I raised them both myself.”

Tyrix trailed off and his eyes glazed over. For a moment, Cleo feared he was going to faint again. But the typhlosion took in a ragged breath and shook his head sharply.

“You couldn’t have known,” said Faith.

“I should have though,” Tyrix growled. “The signs were there! That mutt was obsessed with training his army. I always thought it was for the greater good. He trained separately from us. Me and my army, we’d fight back with fire and wade right through it. But Howlinger couldn’t handle the flames. Neither could any of his army. It would hurt them, so they’d race on ahead torching things as they passed, and any of their targets that escaped would be flung right back into the flames.”

“So that’s why they leave a trail of fire!” Spark gasped. “They can’t run through it!”

“Exactly,” Tyrix grunted. “But fire is a devastating thing. You’ve seen it yourselves. Howlinger saw it as power. As a tool for destruction. That cur was corrupted from birth. The houndour were the only dark-types on Fire Island. It had always been the case. We prefer the heat here, the mainland is too cold. I always assumed he’d fight alongside us, but I was wrong. He was swayed by the Darkness, wanting to join something he saw as superior. The next thing I know, he’s tearing across the mainland torching down villages to win his way into Hydreigon’s ranks.

“Since I raised that pup, Fire Island got the blame. Even some of my own soldiers turned against me. Everyone fled to the mainland in a desperate bid to make up for what they felt was their responsibility. But me, I couldn’t face anyone. I stayed here, moping in my own guilt.”

Everyone was silent for a moment as they digested all that. The psychic hum in Cleo’s ears had died down. She felt humbled. She’d been blaming Tyrix for the Wildfires just like many others had, but it wasn’t his fault. He’d tried to raise the houndoom just like Tinker was doing with Starshine. As far as the old typhlosion was concerned, Howlinger was going to be a member of his army, fighting against the Darkness. How was Tyrix meant to know the entire pack would turn against him?

Cleo cleared her throat, breaking through the silence. Tyrix fixed one eye on her.

“I still don’t understand,” she said. “You said his ego is his weakness. But how is that meant to defeat him?”

“Simple, kitten,” said Tyrix. “He sculpted his army to be like him. None of them can stand in their own flames. Very little can stand against fire. Even water-types have a hard time. They burn, like everyone else. Except those who can stand in the thick of a blaze. An ability Howlinger shunned in favour of his own intimidating countenance.” He paused, looking at each of them in turn. “You see, I don’t burn like they do.”

Cleo blinked, but it was Spark who spoke up. “What on earth does that mean?”

Cleo’s heart was racing. She had an odd feeling Tyrix was about to drop something huge on them. There was a glint in his eye, a fire that wasn’t there earlier. Even his ragged form seemed transformed with an uncanny energy.

“Oh, very simple, little dedenne.” Tyrix chuckled and flashed his canines in a grin. “Fire gives me strength.”
 
Chapter 54 New

DeliriousAbsol

*Crazy Absol Noises*
Location
Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. mawile
54 - Frozen Honey​

The group of pokemon nattered quietly as they weaved through the meadow. It was wide open and overgrown, the grass buried under heaps of snow. They didn’t know where they were going. They’d meandered as far away from the Moorlands Forest as they could, putting the lab behind them. The ruined abbey stood over them, watching their progress as they strolled out in the wide open. Every so often the moon would peek out from behind thick, black clouds turning the snow a beautiful silver.

A heap of ferns weighed down by the snow shifted ahead of them and they froze, their hushed voices cutting off sharply. A large shadow rose from the tangle of bracken, standing tall and almost avian. Blue eyes fixed on the group, blinking once.

“Are you lost?” The pokemon spoke with a smooth, deep voice.

An azumarill broke from the group, shuffling forwards with an air of confidence. “Not really. We just don’t know where we’re going.”

“Blossom!” hissed one of her friends.

“Relax!” the azumarill said over her shoulder. “Not everyone’s an enemy.”

The shadow blinked again. Amusement glinted in his eyes like moonlight off a frozen lake. “To not know where you’re going, yet to not feel lost. That must be a rather content feeling.”

“Kinda,” said Blossom. “I just feel like something’s pullin’ us in this direction, yanno?”

The shadow turned his head to look over his shoulder. The motion was almost owl-like. His icy gaze turned back onto them and he shrugged.

“All that lies that way,” he said slowly, “is a maze of disorienting trees. One walks in, but never walks out again.”

“Huh. That doesn’t sound good,” said Blossom.

The other pokemon shifted around her, their unsettled voices rising into harsh whispers.

“Then we should turn back,” said one. “If we keep going-”

“Nah.” Blossom waved a dismissive paw. “Somethin’ is telling me we need to go into those woods. We’ll find our way through.” She smiled at the shadow. “Thanks anyway though, friend!”

The shadow blinked again. Slowly.

“You can join us if you want?” Blossom spread her arms and shuffled forwards.

A few of the pokemon accompanying her broke away from the uncertain crowd. Then a few more trickled away. Many kept their gazes locked on the tall, avian shadow.

“I won’t be stepping claw in those woods,” he said quietly. “And you shouldn’t either.”

Blossom shrugged and strode past him. “Very well.”

A large wing swept across the azumarill’s path. She stopped and turned to look up into the shadow’s ice blue eyes. Canines glinted in his beak, and the moonlight swept across his black feathers, revealing streams of red that snaked across his wings. Blossom’s breath caught in her throat and she took a step back. The other pokemon yelled and stumbled, making way for the large azumarill.

“You-” Blossom gulped. “You’re from that abbey! That bird-thing!”

Yveltal tutted. He cut before the azumarill with his entire body, barring her path. He cast a glance towards the ruined abbey, still standing tall at the edge of the meadow.

The distraction was all Blossom needed. Water surrounded her body and she shouted to her allies. “Attack!”

The water-type launched herself at the imposing bird. He yelled, swatting her aside with a large wing. He rounded on those bold enough to rush him, scattering them across the snow. Sharp leaves and electricity peppered his feathers. He hissed and opened his beak wide, flashing his sharp canines. A huge, crimson beam fired from his mouth, sweeping over the pokemon.

Blossom watched with eyes widened with terror as her companions had the colour sucked out of them. They stood as statues, their faces frozen in fear and defiance.

Those still standing faltered, their attacks cutting off. Blossom pushed herself to her feet, her mouth curling into a frown.

“No one hurts my friends,” she growled.

Her expression twisted with anger and she leapt at Yveltal with a loud roar. His red beam struck her head on and she fell like a rock into the snow. He ended his attack only after it had claimed the rest of the group.

Yveltal shook out his feathers and flicked his tongue over his beak with an air of disgust. “That wasn’t the most palatable life I’ve taken.” He looked up at the moon and a deep chuckle resonated in his throat. “But that’s one group who won’t be finding their way to the Fairy Garden.”

Yveltal spread his wings and, with one beat, took off into the night sky.

Below him, small flowers spread out over the snow, congregating around the stone statues. The moon broke free of the cloud, lighting up the snow like diamond dust. The spray of flowers weaved around the frozen pokemon, then trailed off into the Endless Woods like a colourful carpet.

...​

The young mothim climbed up the rough bark of the evergreen tree. Lightning had struck it at some point in its life, knocking off the top of the tree, giving it a squared-off appearance. Blackened branches spiked off from the trunk at dramatic angles with green leaves still clinging to it in a desperate attempt to survive.

What the mothim was after lay in the tree’s hollowed-out top. A hive of combee had once inhabited it, and had often let the mothim have access to their honey. But they had been driven away by the Darkness two seasons ago. Despite that, some honey still remained.

The mothim leaned over the hole until his upper body was hidden behind it. His body sank with a sigh and he closed his eyes. What little remained of the honey had been crystallised by the blizzard. He would have to chisel it out. He looked at his bucket hanging from one paw, then glanced up at the sky. The sun was still rising. It should be safe enough to climb inside and hack away at the honey.

He turned so he could reverse into the hole and froze. His eyes widened slowly and his heart hit his throat. A black, jagged cloud of murkrow swept towards him, lead by a honchkrow. The honchkrow opened its beak, hunger blazing in its eyes, and let out a long, shrill caw. Its flock responded in kind and parted to surround the mothim.

He closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable. Lights danced across them, penetrating his closed lids in a flurry of purple splashes. He opened them again and watched as several murkrow dropped to the snowy ground with a series of soft thuds.

“Go!”

The mothim turned at the voice. A whimsicott rushed towards him, raising his arms. The murkrow had turned their attention onto the grass-type, their wicked red eyes flashing with anger and hatred. The whimsicott’s paws lit up with a bright pink light.

“Go!” he cried again. “Get out of here!”

Dazzling light swept across the murkrow flock. The mothim didn’t need telling a third time. He fluttered into the air, carrying his empty bucket in his paws. He gave one last glance back at the pokemon who had saved his life. Murkrow lashed out at him with their talons and wings as the whimsicott dodged with dainty leaps. The honchkrow, no longer interested in the little mothim, barked commands to her flock as she sought to find an opening in her new prey’s defences. Pink light lit up the orange sky yet again, causing the birds to shriek with pain and fury. The mothim turned away and silently hoped his rescuer would make it out of that battle alive.

...​

Harlequin checked through her bag one last time. Everything was intact. Her selection of poisons, the mounted nidoking horn, herbs, berries and dried meats. She was all set to go. Satisfied, she tossed the bag over her shoulder.

“Are you sure you feel okay?” Elsa fussed. “You don’t need anymore rest?”

“I’m fine.” Harlequin met the lilligant’s concerned gaze. “Thank you so much for your help. I can’t repay you enough.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” said Elsa. “Helping you was the right thing to do.” She paused and smoothed down her leafy skirt. “I guess you’re going to try to find Enigma?”

Harlequin followed Elsa’s gaze towards the window. When Harlequin had woken up, Enigma had gone. Elsa hadn’t heard him leave. His absence stabbed at Harlequin’s chest. Why had he just abandoned her like that? She bit her lip. There was every possibility he’d gone on a mad revenge spree. She hoped desperately that wasn’t the case, but the presence of a nidoking in the river felt too convenient to be a coincidence. Someone had deliberately done that to target her.

But who?

Elsa’s voice cut through her thoughts, dragging her back to the present. “Before you leave, I want to give you something. Here.”

Harlequin turned her head towards the lilligant’s outstretched paw. Her leaf curled around a small vial of pink liquid. The black silhouette of a nidoqueen’s head stood out from its white label.

Harlequin’s jaw dropped a little. “I can’t take that. What if you need it? The river-”

“I’ve already told you, we use the springs close to the village,” Elsa explained. “As for the river, the pokemon clearing it are immune to poison. So you’ve nothing to worry about. You need this more than we do.”

Harlequin looked back down at the vial, speechless.

“Go on. Take it,” said Elsa. “If you don’t, I’ll just pop it in your bag anyway when you’re not looking.”

Harlequin closed her eyes as she gave a small chuckle. She took the vial carefully in her teeth and popped it into her bag with her poisons.

“Thank you,” she said, looking back up at Elsa.

Elsa folded her leafy paws in front of her and smiled down at Harlequin. “It’s my pleasure. Besides, you do carry a nidoking horn. If you were to be unfortunate enough to hurt yourself on it, you’d need the anti-venom.”

Harlequin laughed again. “I’ve been careful so far, but you never know.” She trotted towards the stairs and glanced back over her shoulder. “I hope our paths cross again sometime.”

“As do I. You be careful now, and not just with your poisons.”

Harlequin faltered at the top of the stairs. “Huh?”

“The pokemon in this village won’t hurt you so long as you’re under my protection,” Elsa explained. “But as soon as you leave, they might not take kindly to you. So please keep your wits about you as you go. They’re not bad pokemon, but they’re very fearful of dark-types. I believe you’ve changed your ways, but they’ll need a little more convincing.”

Harlequin nodded her understanding. “Very well. I’ve got my illusion, so I’ll use that. Where are the zangoose?”

“They’re both by the river. They left this morning.”

“Okay. I’ll borrow his disguise.” Harlequin’s form twisted and rose up into the form of a male zangoose. She chuckled at Elsa’s gasp of surprise. “I know. It can be a bit alarming. The first time I used it around Enigma is one of very few times I’ve seen him taken off guard.”

Elsa lowered her paw from her mouth and gave a small smile. “It’s very convincing. Just make sure you don’t walk right in front of either of them. You might give them a bit of a scare.”

“I’ll be careful.” Harlequin stepped onto the stairs. “Good bye!”

“Take care, Harlequin!”

Harlequin trotted down the stairs and slipped out of Elsa’s door. She paused in the shade of the tree, looking over the village. Pokemon busied about, their voices rising as mist in the cold air. Despite her disguise, Harlequin’s heart raced as she strolled with a false air of confidence towards the town’s exit. Illusion was more than image alone. She had to act like the pokemon she was disguised as, otherwise it wouldn’t be convincing at all. She fought the urge to look back at Elsa’s house. As much as she wanted to, just to see if the lilligant was watching her, it was too risky. Harlequin had no idea if the zangoose even visited Elsa. A strange sense of sadness washed over Harlequin as she left the kind lilligant behind.

No one stopped her, although a few raised their paws in greeting which she returned. Once she was out of the village, she lowered her head to the snow until she found Enigma’s scent trail. The snow was packed down into an icy slick where the pokemon had come and gone from the river. She followed the trail a little way, keeping her disguise as she followed the path upstream. It wasn’t long before she spotted the zangoose standing up to his waist in the water. A gliscor had his back to her, and a small number of breloom and shroomish hovered about, sucking up the water and filtering it through their mushroom-like bodies.

Harlequin couldn’t exactly walk past them disguised as the zangoose, nor could she waltz past without her disguise. So she deviated from the path up into the mountain where she dropped her illusion. It was an exhausting ability. The smallest distraction could cause her to drop it. She sat down for a moment, panting, her breath fogging in the air. Moving off the path had caused her to lose Enigma’s trail. She stared back down at the river, following the path up to the log bridge that had hidden the nidoking. The carcass was nowhere to be seen. All that remained was a pink smear on the white snow where his body had been lying.

It was clear to her that Enigma had gone to investigate it. If he’d found it before it had been moved, he might have picked up some clue as to who had put it there. If that was the case, he’d still be on the other side of the river looking for the culprit. Harlequin would have to find another way across. She stifled a groan and her ears drooped. By the time she found another way to cross, it could be too late. No. She shook herself and raised her head. She’d find another way. She had to.

She rose to her feet and with a small skip she leapt further up the mountain. She kept a wide berth from the pokemon working in the river, keeping to the shade of the evergreens. The path pushed her further and further up the mountain. From higher up, she’d have a better vantage point to find another way across the river.

Her muscles burned with the steep climb, and before long her lungs felt fit to burst. Finally, the trees thinned out and the ground became more level. The cold wind whipped at her fur, biting through to her skin. She grit her teeth and turned into it, squinting back down at the river. It looked like a fine thread winding its way through the white snow. The pokemon were only just visible now. She raised her head to look upstream. No sign of another path. With a defeated sigh, Harlequin pressed on, lowering her head as the wind whipped up fresh snow.

The zorua walked for what felt like hours. Her paw prints left a long trail over the snow that capped the mountain. The wind grew stronger, chilling her to the bone. Her breath fogged heavily before her as she fought her way through the snow. When progress seemed lacking, the zorua was forced down the mountain, choosing an easy path that led even further from the river. It wound down the opposite side of the mountain, curling back slightly towards the village. The wind became less as it was slowed by the mountain’s towering peaks and the tall trunks of the evergreens. The shelter was a welcome, albeit brief, respite from the biting cold. The trees thinned out onto a craggy outcrop that stood before a cave. Harlequin’s ears pricked and she stopped, panting. A cave promised shelter.

She broke into a trot, finding her second wind at the promise of rest. But her aching paws froze as her gaze danced over the black shapes scattered at the base of a ragged tree. What had once been a towering evergreen looked as if it had been struck by lightning. Its bark was blackened and the trunk split about half way up. Murkrow lay broken and beaten around its base. The black feathers splattered over the white snow were telling of a recent battle. Harlequin’s heart clenched. It was much too close to the village for her liking. But whatever the murkrow had encountered, they’d been on the losing end.

Harlequin nudged one of the scrawny bodies. Its feminine head flopped lifelessly. Harlequin licked her dry lips and raised her head, sniffing at the air. All she could smell was murkrow. Murkow… and honey.

She turned her head to look back at the cave and froze. A pair of orange eyes peered out at her. A large pair of yellow wings trembled around a small, grey body.

Harlequin turned fully to face the mothim. “Excuse me? Do you know-”

The mothim took off back into the cave, whipping up snow with his wings.

“Wait!” Harlequin dashed after him and stopped just outside the entrance. The mothim stared back at her, his eyes wide and fearful. “Please. I’m not your enemy. I’m just looking for a friend.”

“F-friend?” the mothim stuttered.

“Yes.” Harlequin nodded and motioned towards the murkrow. “Do you know what happened here? Did you see anything?”

The mothim peered past her and wound his little paws together. “Y-yes. Are… are the murkrow… your friends?”

“No.” Harlequin shook her head slowly and looked back down at the mothim. “Did they hurt you?”

The mothim diverted his gaze back into the cave. “No. They didn’t hurt me. Because… because… someone… killed them.”

Harlequin’s heart leapt into her throat. Enigma? She took a step into the cave and the mothim jumped, his orange eyes locking onto hers.

“Who?” she gasped. “Is he in here? Is he hurt?”

The mothim nodded stiffly but didn’t move.

“Please let me see him,” she begged. “I can help.”

“I… I can’t.” The mothim trembled and screwed his eyes shut. “I’ll fight you! I won’t let you hurt him!”

“I’m not going to fight you! Please.” She sighed and shook her head. “Look. I’m not your enemy, okay?”

“But you work for Hydreigon,” said the mothim. “I know you! You’re that poison assassin, and you’re here to finish off what the murkrow started.”

“No I’m not.” Harlequin met the mothim’s stare. “Yes, I’m Harlequin. But I don’t work for Hydreigon anymore. You want proof? Okay. The river near here is poisoned. Someone murdered the local nidoking and threw his body in the river. Enigma warned the village and they’re now clearing the water.”

The mothim trembled but defiance flashed in his eyes. “How is that proof?”

“If I were your enemy, would I tell you?” Harlequin inclined her head on one side, prompting a response.

The mothim lowered his gaze and sighed. “Okay. I suppose you wouldn’t.”

They stood in silence for a moment as Harlequin let the mothim process the situation. After a tense pause, he looked back up at her.

“You can really help him?” he asked.

Harlequin nodded briskly. “Of course!” Her heart was racing. Doubt was clouding her mind. It couldn’t be Enigma. The mothim’s reaction to her suggested that much. Was it Harbinger? She glanced past him but she couldn’t see a thing in the dark. All she could smell was honey, detritus and pollen.

“I have healing berries,” she told the mothim. “And herbs.”

“That’s good.” The mothim wound his paws together, his expression calculating. “All I have is honey.”

He was silent again, but Harlequin didn’t press him any further. She didn’t want to spook him, but her paws itched. It took all her self control not to push past him.

Finally the mothim nodded and stood aside, although he still seemed hesitant.

“Okay. I’ll let you inside.” His voice trembled and he sucked in a sharp breath. “If you can help him, then please… I can’t wake him up.”

Harlequin padded past, and he pressed against the wall, watching her every move. Someone lay deep in the cave, sprawled out over a bed of dried grass and leaves. Leaves were scattered over their fur like a sparse blanket. Harlequin plodded slowly towards them, her eyes trailing over the fuzzy body. White wisps clung to the leaves and dew soaked the pokemon’s brown fur, crystallised from the cold.

Harlequin let out a strangled gasp as she froze with one paw in the air. “Mischief?”
 

StolenMadWolf

Loony Moony
Pronouns
He/Him
Righto, as promised, I've read through the first part of The End, so now I can get together a review about those first thirteen chapters. To very briefly summarise my initial thoughts, I've very much been enjoying this and consider it one of the best fan-fics I've read so far, and has actually been pretty inspirational to boot! I'm not going to go into detail about grammar and spelling due to the time taken with RL getting in the way, but I will putting time aside for the worldbuilding, characters and overarching story which tends to be my kind of ball park. So, here we go!

First of all, the setting and the worldbuilding itself. I see you not only took the original setting route for PMD, but went full force with it by using a setting with a great deal of conflict between multiple factions. I'm always a sucker for settings that follow the lines of war like this, but I particularly like this particular take on it. Namely the fact that there is one extremely large power advancing across the world, and what is left is torn into those who are trying to fight back, and those who are 'allied' with the larger power. And I do make a point of putting allied into quotation marks due to the very nature of that faction. I like the fact that how some parts of the world are increasingly in ruins, and how divisive the conflict actually is. I mean, we are talking about specieism or rather 'typism' in this case to the point that some species are on the brink or are gone for a lack of a better word. It makes me deeply wonder about the motivations of the villains, and why they have set themselves on this path.

Which rolls me over the characters. Each one is unique in their own way, at least very much by personality and interests. The partnership between Cleo and Spark is really nice to watch. Most PMD teams proper I know off tend to meet each other very early in the story (or at least haven't worked together for a while), so it made a nice change of pace to have a more established team in play here. Tinker is quickly becoming a favourite for being both intellegent enough to make his own devices whilst still being dark and pragmatic. We still get a newer face in the form of Mischief, who has a pretty adorable personality with him being clueless, yet innocent at the same time. Which makes the twist involving him work even better. I love the fact you are using a specific type in this kind of way, namely with how that particular reveal changes the whole dynamic of the conflict, leaving everyone to scramble to get to the bottom of it. Characters from the other side of the conflict being perspective characters also further helps with the development of the setting. All the dialogue looks good to me and natural, with each conversation feeling pretty natural in some form or another.

Of course, having good characters and a facinating world is great, but then you need to pair them with a great story too to help in exploring it, and the story here so far succeeds. This is especially good given that whilst we have Cleo as the main POV character, you can still squeeze in other characters without detracting from the story. There are parts where I feel like a chapter or two seems to be not going anywhere plotwise or seems to deviate a bit from what I expect, but I generally have a rule of thumb that a chapter is still great if it serves a purpose, and all the chapters serve a purpose and link together. Even if it doesn't advance the plot and leaves additional questions, it's done in such a way that it can still be linked to in another chapter, or it helps establish another character or concept more firmly. So all in all, no faults with the story there.

The only issue I have story wise at the moment is towards the end of the first part, I feel like the inital confrontion between the heroes and Harliquin was a bit anticlimatic. Even considering the type plot element, the build up for them [Harliquin] being a fearsome assassin kinda falls flat in that way. Of course, there is said plot element in play, but it still makes me wonder about it a bit.

All in all, just based on that alone, I'm impressed with this fic so far! I'm not kidding when I said it was pretty inspirational too. Keep up the good effort and I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes next.
 
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