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Pokémon The End: Rekindled

Chapter 2
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    Whoa, this story was well worth the wait. I'm glad I haven't read the original version so I can get into this blindly and enjoy it more since it'd be an entirely new experience for me
    Thank you so much! =D I'm hoping I've added enough changes and plot smoothing so that older readers can enjoy, too. Some have already returned on FFNet and I am super stoked about that!

    I really like our protagonists so far. Cleo and Spark have a very good synergy between them and you can tell easily from their interactions that they've been partners for a long time at the very least.
    Fantastic, thank you =D Cleo and Spark's relationship is pretty heart-warming, and I love writing the pair. They even have their own backstory I plan to share at some point further down the line, as the original has its own collection of back-story one-shots which need some serious fine-tuning. This is so much fun work for me, I love it!

    Cleo's interaction with Tinker in the office does show the contrast between the two in that Cleo would prioritize saving anyone at arm's length while Tinker kinda only looks at the big picture while fully willing to make sacrifices along the way.
    I'm really glad to read this. Tinker and Cleo's relationship is one of the aspects I've altered in this re-write. They weren't as conflicting originally, and Tinker was rather fond of Cleo.

    That Absol seems a bit like a dick if not outright petty. He goes around foretelling disasters he himself causes which ain't cool. I wonder, or hope rather, that not all dark types in this world are evil and racist/typist(?) towards other pokemon. After all there are still a few nice peeps in oppressive regimes irl as most just want to live their lives comfortably.
    You'll have to wait and see about Harbinger ;) you've only had one perspective on all of this so far.

    This story was pretty well done, barring a few typos I spotted here and there. I'm excited to see where this goes, and it's great that it's basically a soft rewrite of an already finished fic, so updates may very well be regular.
    Thanks for pointing that out. I think it was down to me using the American spell-check which was defaulted on Scrivener. There are spelling differences between some UK and American words. I've switched this to UK now, given I use a lot of British idioms and spellings by default. Hopefully this will fix things, but I apologise to my American readers if anything looks odd from here on out!
    2 - Mischief​

    The dining hall was bustling as it always was first thing in the morning. Cleo slid through a group of nattering pokemon to join Spark at the table. The small dedenne was sat beside a snubbul who, despite being too involved in his breakfast, took the time to look up and smile warmly at the meowstic. Cleo returned his greeting, then flopped down beside Spark.

    “Great spread today!” said Spark just before taking a bite out of an oran berry.

    Cleo couldn’t agree more. To look at it, one wouldn’t think the cold season was drawing in. It looked like the Guild had just had a fresh harvest.

    She reached for a plate and grabbed a few slices of dried fish to add to it. Coupled with a savory root gravy, it went down a treat.

    Spark wiped her whiskers and looked up at Cleo. “So what’s the plan for today?”

    “I thought we’d finally head out,” said Cleo. “I think five days is a suitable enough rest.”

    “Yeah, I’m starting to get itchy feet.” Spark reached for another berry. “I’d better fill up though if we’re gonna be travelling a while.”

    “It’s a two day walk to New City,” said Cleo. “You won’t be struggling. I’ll restock our supplies before we leave.”

    “Fantastic!” Spark punctuated that by stuffing an entire cheri into her mouth.

    It was little wonder the dedenne didn’t choke. Cleo stifled a laugh and tucked into her own breakfast.

    “Oh, I should let Tinker know we’re heading off, too,” said Cleo.

    “Can’t,” said Spark. “He’s apparently already left.”

    Cleo let out a small sigh of relief. She hadn’t really spoken to him since they’d arrived. In fact, she’d actively tried to avoid him. The only other contact they’d had was small-talk over dinner two evenings prior, when they’d found themselves sitting next to each other. Things had seemed a little tense.

    “Did he say where he was going?” Cleo ventured.

    Spark shrugged her shoulders and swallowed her mouthful. “Nope. He didn’t speak to me. I heard it off JuneBerry.”

    Cleo didn’t know who JuneBerry was, but Spark’s answer didn’t exactly solve anything. If Cleo was to guess, Tinker had probably headed back to New City. Cleo hadn’t heard any news about locals in trouble, and Tinker didn’t often venture outside. He just sent out his own Warriors while handling affairs from his desk.

    Cleo wiped her paw across her mouth and scooped up her empty plate. “I’ll meet you back here after I’ve grabbed supplies, okay?”

    Spark gave her a thumbs-up then returned to re-stocking her plate. Cleo had long since stopped questioning where Spark put it all. She left the dining hall, pausing only to place her plate on the shelf beside the door.

    The store room wasn’t far away. A wooden elevator box hung inside the wall, and she lowered herself using its creaky pulley system. The sides of the box scraped along the chute, occasionally snagging in place. It was somewhat unsettling, and a clear sign that the Guild Hall, despite appearances, was as hastily built as the rest of the town.

    It finally opened up into a dark room. She could already smell the ripe berries, guiding her nose towards the wooden boxes at the back of the room. Dim light flickered from torches high above her by the elevator, but yet more danced around amid the boxes, casting erratic shadows across the walls. A charmander poked his head up and staggered beneath the weight of an overflowing basket. He set it inside another pulley system, smaller than the elevator, then poked his head inside.

    “Sending them up!”

    The dumb waiter creaked, lifting the basket out of sight. The charmander returned to his task, gathering berries one by one and examining them, before deciding which ones to put into another basket for the kitchen. He looked up when Cleo made her way towards the supplies.

    “Oh hi!” he said. “Are you here for supplies?”

    “Yes,” she replied. “Just stocking up for a two day journey.”

    “Going to New City, huh?” He smiled warmly and lowered what he was holding into the basket. “I can help you pick things out if you like?”

    Cleo eyed him curiously, assessing him. Her claws twitched at her sides and she bit her lip absently.

    “No thanks,” she said. “I know what I’m looking for. I won’t disturb you.”

    “It’s no problem, honest!” He straightened to look at her, and his eyes widened briefly. His face fell slightly, but he tried to mask it with a smile. “Oh. Right, I understand. Sure, help yourself.”

    Cleo nodded stiffly and clambered amid the boxes. Trusting others was always something she’d struggled with. Sure, she could put her life on the line for innocent pokemon, but would turn down help for a simple task like this… She shook her head at herself and began sorting through the varied selection of berries.

    Pokemon often used berries, not just for food but medicinal reasons too. Oran and sitrus berries were a frequent go-to, although both Cleo and Spark preferred oran to the bitter tang of sitrus. She made sure to stock up on enough oran berries to see them though more than two days. On top of that, she made sure to grab a couple of cheri berries for Spark. A personal favourite of the dedenne’s.

    As well as a couple of pecha berries, and rawst perchance they needed them, Cleo also restocked her dried fish. Spark didn’t touch the stuff, but Cleo had been raised on it. It was packaged in brown paper, and slotted in nicely at the back of Cleo’s satchel, behind her map. That way, it wouldn’t turn the berries salty.

    Satisfied, Cleo headed back towards the elevator.

    The charmander gave her a friendly ‘bye!’ as she entered it. She returned it with a polite wave, and dragged herself back out of the storage room.

    Spark was waiting by the dining hall door, and her long whiskers twitched in a happy smile. She bounded across the floor and scrambled up Cleo’s leg to her shoulder.

    “So what didja get?” she asked.

    “Now that would be telling,” Cleo teased as they left the Guild.

    “Aw! Come on!”

    The sun beamed down on the little town, baking the dirt streets until they were almost too hot to walk on. The town was bustling with pokemon, most of them keeping close to the walls. Cleo followed the path through the buildings towards a small market. She quirked an eyebrow at it, then looked down at her bag.

    She’d managed to amass some items during her last job that she’d successfully buried beneath all the berries, but unloading them off on the market might not be a bad idea. She didn’t use items in battle herself. Iron thorns were a simple means to peg her tent into the ground, as opposed to something to throw at her foes. She was clumsy with them, and had never mastered the art of throwing them straight.

    She passed by a table that specialised in such items, but the seller was deep in debate with a skarmory. The metal bird had recently shed some feathers and was trying to get a good price for the material, which the graveller who owned the stall was desperate to underpay for.

    Cleo decided to take her wares elsewhere, following the stalls around to another filled with battle items. Normal and water gems were the main focus, and to no surprise of Cleo’s, there wasn’t a psychic gem in sight. Typical. That was one item she might have actually considered.

    “Can I help you?” The seller was a cinccino.

    “Yes, actually.” Cleo fumbled through her bag for the small paw-full of iron thorns. “I was wondering if you were interested in these?”

    The cinccino gathered them up and examined them with intense scrutiny. “I think two gold coins would be enough?”

    Cleo shrugged. “I’ll take-”

    She staggered forwards as someone bashed into her, her words cutting off as she reached out to steady herself on the table. Two of the gems fell off to the floor, rolling away beneath the feet of a passing ursaring. She turned her head towards the sound of scampering feet, but whoever it was had slipped away unseen.

    “Little toe-rag,” Spark scoffed.

    Cleo muttered an apology to the cinccino and stooped to grab one of the gems. The other had been picked up by the ursaring. Cleo’s heart sank when she noted the crack in the surface of the water gem in her paws.

    The cinccino’s lips turned down in a sad frown. “I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you for that.”

    “Will the thorns be enough?” Cleo asked.

    The cinccino shook her head. “They’re three gold each.”

    Cleo sighed and reached into her bag for her coin pouch, but her claws closed around something hard and round. She pulled it out and her eyes widened. A rock?

    “What are you doing with a rock?” Spark asked.

    Cleo’s heart sank even further and she dropped her paw, searching the crowd of busy pokemon. “I think whoever bumped me robbed me…”

    “We were robbed?!” Spark twisted on her shoulder and shook her fist at the air. “Get back here, you thief!”

    “It’s a little late now.” Cleo turned back to the cinccino. “I’m really sorry, I-”

    The cinccino lifted her paws and shook her head. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. It’s just one coin. I’ll keep the iron thorns, though.” She closed her eyes in a smile. “Just… catch that thief before he robs anyone else?”

    “Thank you so much.” Cleo turned from the table and dashed through the crowd.

    It didn’t surprise her. Even amid the Outcasts there were dishonest pokemon. Yet another reason not to trust so blindly. She cut hastily through the crowd, trying to spot anyone who looked remotely suspicious.

    Spark tapped Cleo’s ear and pointed straight ahead. “Is that the thief?”

    Cleo narrowed her eyes at the retreating fluffy back of a whimsicott. His running gait was almost as if he were in slow-motion, rising daintily into the air as the breeze carried him further along.

    “Oi!” Spark shouted. “Stop right there, you thief!”

    The whimsicott looked back at her, and his orange eyes widened. He turned and picked up his pace, galloping towards the edge of town.

    Spark bailed off Cleo’s shoulder and took off after him, screeching at him to stop.

    Cleo shook her head sharply and raced after him. Spark was alarmingly fast, outrunning Cleo and almost snapping at the whimsicott’s heels. He gave another glance back and let out a ‘yikes!’ before desperately trying to speed up. The wind was no longer in his favour, having dropped and leaving him to outrun the speedy dedenne alone.

    Spark’s whiskers lit up with electricity and she fired a thunderbolt at the whimsicott. It staggered him, slowing him down enough for Cleo to come within striking distance.

    The meowstic unfurled her ears, and a blast of purple light struck the thief. He yelped and stumbled forwards, but he didn’t hit the floor. Instead, Cleo lifted him in her psychic attack and turned the fluffy pokemon around to face her.

    She came to a stop beside Spark, panting to catch her breath. “You’re fast, I’ll give you that.”

    The whimsicott touched a thumb-claw to his chest. “Are you talking to me?”

    “Do you see any other thieves in bubbles?” Cleo scoffed.

    The whimsicott turned his head left and right, straining to see behind him. Then he turned back to Cleo and shook his head. “Nope.”

    Cleo and Spark exchanged glances. It had been a sarcastic and rhetorical question, and Cleo wasn’t sure if the whimsicott was returning the jest or being serious.

    She turned back to him and held out her paw. “Now. Give back what you stole from me, and I’ll let you go without any fuss.”

    “Oh darn it!” His face fell and his arms flopped at his sides. “I can’t! I need it. At least… I think I do.”

    “What kind of answer is that?!” Spark squeaked, rising to her hind legs. “You can’t just go around stealing things because you need them!” She paused and her nose crinkled. “Especially if you aren’t even certain you need them!”

    “Exactly,” said Cleo. “And replacing it with a rock? It’s not as if I didn’t notice you’d bumped into me.”

    “I switcheroo’d!” he explained. “It’s all I know for pick-pocketing.”

    Spark looked up at Cleo. “He’s rather honest for a thief.”

    Cleo stared up at the levitating whimsicott. Spark wasn’t wrong. He was being oddly honest. Something didn’t smell right.

    “Spark’s got a point,” she said. “Why would you explain yourself? Most criminals I pump for information are so unwilling to give it up that I have beat it out of them.”

    The whimsicott paled. “That sounds rather unnecessarily violent.”

    Cleo and Spark both turned slack-jawed.

    The whimsicott raised his paws in a shrug. “What can I say? You caught me.”

    “But…” Spark stuttered. “But you’re the bad guy!” She lowered her head into her paws and groaned. “What a cheesy line…”

    “Hey, I’m not a bad guy!” said the whimsicott. “I’m just lost!”

    “Then you’re in the same situation as all of us,” said Cleo. “Most pokemon these days are lost.”

    “Are they?” He glanced back at the town and made a thoughtful noise, before returning to Cleo. “You two don’t look very lost. You seem to know where you’re going.”

    Cleo blinked a couple of times, then sighed. “I give up. You’re not making any sense. Just give back what you stole from me, and we’ll be on our way.”

    The whimsicott scratched his fluffy head. “Okay. I’ll give it back, but… can you please help me?”

    “That depends,” said Cleo. “You said you need that money pouch, so I’m going to hazard a guess you don’t have anything on you?”

    “Nope!” He shook his head sadly. “Just fluffy little me.”

    He reached into his cottony down and pulled out Cleo’s brown money pouch. He tossed it towards her, sending it straight through the bubble and into her waiting paws. Immediately, Cleo dropped her psychic and the whimsicott dropped onto his bottom with a grunt.

    He stood up and dusted down his behind. “So… are you going to help me?”

    “Sorry.” Cleo stuffed her pouch back into her bag and marched past him with Spark on her shoulder. “I don’t help strange pokemon, especially not if they’ve just robbed me. You don’t know who to trust in this day and age.”

    “But you can trust me.” He trotted to keep up with her. “I just want you to keep me company for a while.”

    “Company?” Cleo twirled on the spot to look back at him.

    “Yes!” he said with a smile.

    “I’m afraid I don’t do that either.” She turned and marched away, picking up pace to try and lose him.

    “Why not?” he asked.

    “Because you never know who’s going to turn around and stab you in the back.”

    “Or steal from you,” Spark added. “Or ‘switcheroo’.”

    “Oh.” The whimsicott looked downcast. “But I gave it back, right?”

    “Sure,” said Cleo. “But you wouldn’t have needed to if you hadn’t stolen it in the first place.”

    “Well you have my full trust that I won’t do it again!” he said, rushing to keep up with them. “And I won’t stab you in the back either. My claws aren’t even that sharp!” When Cleo didn’t respond, he went on, “I’ll just follow you. You won’t even know I’m here! My name’s Mischief by the way. What’s yours?”

    Cleo grit her teeth together, biting back the urge to retaliate. Spark sank down on her shoulder so far she couldn’t even make out the bump under her fur. If he was going to insist on following them, the best thing they could do would be to remain silent in the hopes he’d grow bored and go away?

    ...​

    The Outcast town was well behind them now, and the sun was high in the sky, baking the ground and scorching the dry plants. Tough weeds and young trees rose around them, casting shadows that provided some temporary relief from the sun. The ground had grown much more hostile, hard and rocky with large jagged crags that rose up around them, shoved out of place by trees and brambles that had exploded through once-small cracks. Tufts of grass sprouted along stretches of the rugged landscape, dotted by delicate wildflowers that struggled against thorny brambles.

    Spark poked her head out of Cleo’s fur and twisted to look behind them. “We’re still being followed…”

    “I’m aware.” Cleo didn’t look back, not wanting to prompt conversation with their tag-a-long thief.

    “Yes, but I’m getting hungry,” said Spark, “and I’d really like to stop soon for lunch.”

    Cleo sighed and slowed to a stop beside a young berry tree. Its sparse branches were rapidly losing their leaves, and overripe berries lay scattered along the floor, many of them dried up from the heatwave. Cleo flopped against its trunk and began rummaging through her satchel.

    Spark dropped beside her, glaring at Mischief as he approached them.

    “Is it lunch time already?” he asked with a friendly smile. “Time sure flies with company, doesn’t it?” He skipped over with the typical whimsicott gait and examined the canopy.

    Cleo and Spark remained silent, cautiously tucking into their berries and deeply wishing the whimsicott would just leave them alone.

    He gave a little hop and drifted up towards the branches, scrambling around above their heads. A few yellow leaves drifted down, almost blanketing Spark. They were soon followed by a wrinkly oran berry that hadn’t decided to vacate its home yet. Within moments, Mischief was beside them again, clutching another overripe berry in his paw.

    “Argh!” Spark abandoned her lunch and leapt to her feet, sparking vehemently. “I can’t take it anymore! I’m gonna have to say something!”

    Cleo watched Spark out of the corner of her eye. Mischief took a wary step back, more-so to avoid the electricity that was dancing over the dry ground.

    “Why are you following us around like a growlithe pup?” Spark demanded. “What do you want?!”

    Mischief glanced up at the sky then shrugged. “Company.”

    Spark placed her paws on her hips. “Seriously?!”

    “I think what Spark is trying to say,” said Cleo slowly, “is that first you rob us, and then you follow us around claiming to be lonely. It doesn’t make any sense.”

    “Well…” Mischief scratched his fluffy head and leant back against the slender trunk of a young tree. “You see… thieving isn’t really my style. At least, I don’t think it is. I didn’t like it, anyway. It felt wrong, and you two are really unhappy about it so… I’m gonna guess it’s bad?”

    “Of course it’s bad!” Spark snapped. “A hatchling could’ve told you that much!”

    Mischief just nodded and juggled his berry between both paws.

    Cleo inclined her head on one side. “So you’ve never stolen anything before today?”

    “I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean… you see, I don’t really know why I am, to be honest. I just woke up outside this morning. Around here, actually.” He waved a paw at their immediate surroundings. “I think… I’m lost. I dunno…”

    Cleo and Spark stared at him, dumbfounded. Something was very off about this whimsicott. A lot of pokemon slept outside (although it wasn’t recommended given the state of the world) but the more he said, the more strange he seemed.

    “Where are you from?” Cleo ventured.

    “Oh that I know!” Mischief’s face lit up with a smile. “I’m from the Clean Place!”

    Cleo and Spark blinked.

    “The what?” Spark asked.

    “The Clean Place!” he repeated. “They were really nice there! Those I remember, anyway. Although I only remember being surrounded by other pokemon, and called Mischief. Then I woke up here.” He waved at the ground again.

    “You woke up here?” Cleo pointed at the floor between her feet. “This spot, right here?”

    “Kind of.” Mischief extended his arm towards the surrounding rugged ground. “I woke up, then headed towards the town because there were pokemon there and I was hungry. Although this tree has berries.” He looked up at the branches above Cleo’s head then took a bite out of his oran berry, sending tangy juices over his chin.

    “So where is this Clean Place?” Cleo asked.

    “I don’t know,” he answered. “I’d never been outside. At least… I don’t think I did. I really can’t remember.”

    A brief silence washed over them, broken only by Mischief slurping berry juices off his paws.

    Spark looked up at Cleo and said in a hushed whisper, “I think he’s had his memory wiped.”

    Cleo shook her head. “He remembers too much for that.” She turned back to the whimsicott. “Mischief… your story doesn’t settle well with me. But I’m starting to think you’re telling the truth.”

    “Of course I am,” he said. “Why would I lie?” He then inclined his head on one side and his eyes became distant. “At least… I don’t think I’m lying.”

    “Your memories seem to have been tampered with. Can you remember any pokemon from this Clean Place?”

    He shook his head. “Sorry. All their faces are blurry. But I remember they were nice to me! And excited, although I can’t remember why.”

    “This just cements my fears,” said Cleo. “Why would someone want to tamper with your memories?”

    Mischief finished licking his paws clean then gave another shrug. He then dropped to all fours and began examining the berries on the floor.

    Spark sighed into her lunch and looked up at Cleo. “You’re thinking of helping him, aren’t you?”

    “Not so much ‘helping’,” Cleo replied quietly as she watched Mischief sample one of the dried and rotten berries with some level of disgust. “But I think it would be a good idea to have him with us.”

    Spark crinkled her nose in a frown. “Why?”

    “So we know where he is,” said Cleo. “I have a funny feeling…” She scratched her head and sighed. “Mischief, if you really want company, then you can tag along with us for a while.”

    He stood up and beamed at them. “Really? You’re going to be my friends?”

    Spark scoffed a little too loud.

    “That’s stretching it a bit.” Cleo gathered up her bag and lowered an arm for Spark to climb back onto her shoulder. The dedenne stuffed the rest of her oran into her cheek pouches before scampering up onto her usual perch. Cleo then turned back to Mischief. “Let’s just say ‘companion’ for now, okay?”

    “Okay, Companion For Now!” He bounced lightly on his feet. “So where are we going?”

    “Spark and I are on Guild Business,” said Cleo.

    “Important Guild Business,” Spark said, puffing out her chest.

    “You can follow us for a bit,” said Cleo, “but we’ll part ways when we reach the moors. Maybe you’ll regain your memories before then and can return home.”

    “That would be nice,” he said. “But if we’re going to be Companions For Now, I need to know your names. You know mine, I’m Mischief. You are Spark and…” He pointed from Spark then to Cleo.

    Cleo grimaced. She hadn’t been planning on giving out their names. “It’s Cleo.” She moved past Mischief to follow the dirt track towards the moors. “If you’re going to tag along, then you’ll need to keep up. We’re on a tight schedule, and we won’t be slowing down for you.”

    “You already know I’m quick on my feet!” he said as he skipped lightly after them. “I mean, you had trouble catching me before, right? Wow, I think this is gonna be fun!”

    Spark tensed and swished her long tail. “I’m beginning to think Mischief is less his name and something the Clean Place called him for being a nuisance.”

    “Ooh look! There’s more berries over here!” Mischief skipped away from them to gather up some fallen berries from beneath a razz bush. Each one had clearly seen better days, and left a purple residue on his paws. “Would you like me to gather some for you?”

    “No, no…” Spark’s nose crinkled with distaste. “We’re really fine.”

    Cleo grimaced and lowered her head into her collar. If Tinker could see her now, the meowstic who refused to take on an extra companion, he’d roll onto his back laughing.
     
    Last edited:
    Chapter 3
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    Mischief is honestly such a lovable riot. When it was revealed he was the thief, I was expecting him to be well... mischievous, but he turned out to be a fluffy goofball who just kinda clung to Cleo and Spark.

    I wonder how he lost his memories and where the clean place really is and whether it even exists to begin with. I look forward to learning more about this enigmatic fella and what kind of adventure he's probably going to end up pulling Cleo and Spark into.
    I'm glad you like Mischief! =D I love his naivety and goofyness XD Answers will come in time, and I hope you enjoy his antics as the story unfolds.


    3 - Noivern at Noon​

    A soft breeze rustled the trees, whipping up the dry leaves and whisking them through the canopy. Cleo’s ear twitched towards them, and she sniffed the air cautiously. An impulse. She gave a huge, loud yawn and continued tucking away her tent. It was nothing more than a blue sheet coated with combee wax for weatherproofing, but, with the help of a low tree branch to toss it over, it did the job.

    As she lifted it off the floor, she spotted Spark lying on her back in the debris. Cleo gave the dedenne a nudge with her foot, eliciting a disgruntled grunt.

    Spark swatted with her paw and cracked one eye open. “Cut it out, Cleo.” She promptly rolled over and tugged a leaf over herself.

    “Come on, Spark.” Cleo yawned again. “We have to move.”

    “Urgh, why? I didn’t sleep a wink.”

    “Neither did I.” Cleo cast a glance over her shoulder.

    Mischief was crouched beside a brook, scooping up water to throw over his head, and scrubbing his face with his paws. They hadn’t managed to lose the whimsicott. The small group had been forced to camp out, taking turns to keep watch. But with a suspicious pokemon tagging along, neither Cleo nor Spark had got a wink of sleep. A surprise, given Spark usually conked out like a light. Mischief had offered to keep first watch, allowing the two girls to sleep before taking over. But Cleo had been unwilling, feigning sleep to keep an eye on him. Even after she and Spark took their turns, neither could rest thinking he might be plotting something. His ‘damaged memories’ could easily be a ruse.

    Cleo tossed her satchel over her shoulders and joined the whimsicott by the brook. She dropped to her knees and took a good long drink before copying him and giving her tired eyes a rinse. A loud, squeaky yawn beside her indicated Spark had decided it was a good idea, and the way she flopped onto the bank gave Cleo a start, bracing herself to whisk the dedenne out of the brook. But Spark didn’t fall in. She wrapped her tail around a tough reed stem and gulped noisily, her head almost entirely submerged in the shallow water.

    Mischief let out a satisfied sigh and stood up, drying his paws on his stomach. “Well I feel refreshed! How about you?”

    Cleo bristled. Would it really be bad Guild etiquette to blast Mischief to the other side of the brook with her psychic?

    She stood and flicked water off her paws before turning to address him. But she was cut off when he gasped.

    “Yikes!” he said. “You look older! What happened?!”

    Cleo’s ears hummed with repressed psychic energy and a canine poked from her lips. “We move. Now.”

    She turned sharply to march away, leaving him to follow behind.

    Spark scurried along beside her feet, casting a sharp glance back. “I can shock him if you want?”

    “No, leave it,” Cleo muttered. “If he really does have some level of amnesia, then I can let that comment slide.”

    Spark grunted at that and scrambled up onto Cleo’s shoulder. But not without another glare back at Mischief. If he noticed, he didn’t say anything.

    The pair pressed on, desperate to reach New City. They were almost at the Moorlands Forest, a huge spread of trees that went on for miles. Ordinarily, Cleo would want to move in silence, but it was impossible with Mischief’s ramblings. Random ‘knowledge’ about berries and bark, and whatever else caught his eye. Stuff that she’d expect a hatchling to come out with. At one point, she was pretty certain he’d wittered on about an oddly shaped cloud. Once they reached the forest, his constant ramblings would become a beacon to any waiting Darkness.

    Her eyes flit about the sky and she slowed, creeping towards the thick trees ahead of them. She paused, catching a raised eyebrow off Mischief.

    “This is the Moorlands Forest,” she said quietly. “We have to be very quiet in here.”

    He looked up at the dark trees and nodded, as if he’d completely understood. She hoped desperately he had. If any of Hydreigon’s troops were lurking inside, they’d have all ears and eyes open. And they’d hesitate at nothing to attack. Cleo was not in any shape or mood to fight.

    She shook her head and ducked into the trees. Darkness enveloped them as the canopy blocked out most of the sunlight. The forest was yet to shed all its leaves, but the floor was already blanketed with them. They crunched beneath their feet, and the occasional twig snapped. Each one put Cleo’s fur on end, and Spark tensed on her shoulder, poking her head out to twitch her nose at the air. Cleo trod lightly, trying to avoid making too much noise.

    Mischief, however, trampled along behind them, his usually light footwork sounding deceptively loud as the finest of twigs snapped beneath his feet. Cleo gave a glance back to berate him, but he stared at his feet, his expression calculating. Cleo’s lip twisted and she bit back her retort. It didn’t seem like he was deliberately trying to get them attacked, but…

    A branch ahead of them bucked and swayed and she tensed, fixing it with wide eyes. A flutter of wings broke the air, and a pair of pidgey took off to the east, their necks sporting matching blue scarves. Outcasts. Probably looking for New City.

    She let out a sigh of relief and forced herself on. Straight ahead. Keep heading north, and they should reach it by the time the sun was high above them.

    New City… what was she meant to do with Mischief when they got there? She grit her teeth and balled her paws into fists. She couldn’t take him inside, not without clearance. It was much too risky. Guild members couldn’t even breath the name ‘New City’ outside. Its very existence was kept secret to all except those who inhabited it. Mischief could easily be an infiltrator or a spy, sent by Heretics, or even Hydreigon, to fool the Outcasts and feed back their secrets. If the Outcasts’ top-secret safe-haven was leaked, their last swing at an attempt to recover, then that would spell disaster for all who were left.

    No, they’d need to find a way to lose Mischief before they got there. Make sure he was okay and send him on his way. All he’d wanted was company, or so he claimed. If his memories didn’t return, then he’d be left to deal with it on his own. She’d just have to hope he survived.

    The Clean Place… what was that? It didn’t sound like any location she knew of, although the name he’d given it was vague. ‘Clean’ could be anywhere, provided those who cared for the place put the effort in. Even New City, an underground location, was kept clean.

    An odd sound snapped her out of her thoughts. It wasn’t so much a sound as a sensation, pushing every single hair on end. It thrummed through her body, shaking her very bones. She froze, turning her eyes to the canopy. It was growing stronger, causing the very branches to tremble. Now she could hear it. A deep, pulsing noise. Rapid, like the frantic pecking of a pikipek.

    She knew that noise.

    “You have to be kidding me.” She threw her arms out to the side, stopping Mischief before he could overtake her. “Get to cover! Now!”

    His eyes widened and he stared at her as she ushered him off the path. “Cover?”

    “Yes! Hide!”

    “But-”

    She shoved him ahead of her, and he went sprawling into a thorn bush. He whined with protest and stood, dragging fine thorns from his shoulder. Cleo didn’t care. It was better to be pricked by a few thorns than face the nightmare that was descending on the forest.

    The pulsing noise pressed at her ears, causing her to squeeze them shut with both paws. Frantic cawing had joined it, just audible over the hum. She could make out the oily black wings of hundreds of murkrow as they shot over the canopy. Each one heading north, the same way they were.

    A dark shadow followed after them, drawing across the floor. Huge, wide wings that were held steady, occasionally flapping as their owner forced themselves on.

    Then they did what Cleo feared. They faltered.

    Beating steadily, whipping up debris as that awful noise passed over the forest floor. She could feel it beating down on her, taking in her size and posture and feeding that information back to the dragon hovering above them.

    She could see it now, just through the branches. The purple and black scaly body, long whip-like tail, and two huge disks that formed its ears.

    A noivern. What was one of those doing out during daylight? They usually stalked the night, picking off their targets. No one survived an encounter with a noivern. All that was passed back to the Outcasts were tales. Horrible tales, and she didn’t want her or Spark to become one.

    They’d just have to sit still and hope it passed. Hope that it hadn’t spotted them.

    That hope was rapidly failing the longer it hovered there, surrounded by a growing army of curious murkrow flocking into the trees. Their heads twitched side to side as they aimed their beady eyes towards the forest floor, searching the foliage for whatever had piqued the noivern’s interest.

    A deep chuckle left the dragon’s throat, and he lowered himself onto one of the large branches. “I’m right.” Steadying himself with his wing-claws, he leaned forwards, aiming his echolocation into the bramble. “There’s some little pokemon down here.”

    The murkrow broke out into excited caws, rustling their feathers and scurrying side to side along their perches. Yet more joined them, scrambling to fit amid their kin.

    Cleo’s blood turned to ice in her veins. Say nothing. Don’t make a sound. Don’t even move. She glanced Mischief beside her, but he was staring up at the dragon in transfixed awe. He was breathing heavily, his fine brown fur on end.

    The noivern squinted his yellow eyes as he strained to see in the sunlight. But he still found them, his pupils dilating with excitement. His pink tongue poked out and flicked across his lips, and Cleo could make out two rows of sharp teeth.

    “I thought this place was empty.” His voice came out as a purr, but it was amplified by his huge, dish-like ears. “But I guess I was wrong. We’ve found ourselves some stragglers.”

    One of the murkrow waved a wing towards Cleo. “This one has a Guild badge.”

    “Guild members?” The noiven threw his head back and laughed, causing the trees to shake. Once he’d regained himself, he sneered at the Outcasts. “I guess you’re out causing more trouble for Hydreigon, eh? Well, I think you two will make tasty little hostages.”

    Two? Cleo glanced between Mischief and the dedenne on her shoulder. Had he overlooked Spark? Unless… She edged away from Mischief.

    That was it. All the noivern needed. He shot from the branch and spread his claws, snatching at her. She rolled and uncurled her ears, firing a blast of psychic at the dragon.

    It struck his underbelly, sending him crashing back into the canopy. Branches shattered, raining down splinters onto them. One bough smashed down from above him, but he slipped away, narrowly avoiding it. Several of the murkrow weren’t so fortunate, however. They lay crumpled and broken beneath it, their beaks open in a permanent silent scream.

    The flock was in a frenzy, circling above as they looked for a way in. Spark leapt around in the branches, discharging her electricity. Stunned, black bodies rained down onto the forest floor.

    Cleo leapt aside, bracing herself for the dragon to retaliate. He turned his head to the canopy, a look of surprise on his face. Then he turned his sneer back onto Cleo. Thick smoke curled from his nostrils and a low growl rumbled out between his teeth.

    “I’ll make you regret that, little kitty. You, and your friends!” He opened his mouth wide and sent out a purple spray of flames.

    Cleo dived out of the way, but stumbled as the hot flames skimmed her tail. She swiftly uncurled her ears, throwing a psybeam at the noivern’s head. He flicked his wings, knocking her attack away and rendering it useless. He lunged at her, his fangs glinting in his mouth. Cleo threw herself sideways, and his jaws snapped shut over thin air.

    She sent out another psybeam, striking him in the side of the head. He staggered, twisting on the spot to lash out at her. But his wing struck his own ear, knocking himself off balance.

    Mischief shot out from beneath the falling dragon, drifting lightly and twirling as he dodged the noivern’s flailing wings.

    Great. If he was just going to stand around, he was going to end up getting hurt. Cleo wasn’t willing to go easy on the noivern for his sake, otherwise they’d all be killed.

    She shook her head and rushed between him and the noivern, throwing Mischief aside.

    Crack!

    Spots danced across Cleo’s eyes as the noivern’s wing struck her across the face. She flew backwards, landing on something soft. Her heart froze and she looked back, expecting to see black feathers. But instead she saw brown and cream fur. Mischief lowered her to the floor and stepped over her, his claws twitching as he stared up at the bat-like dragon. The noivern clawed at its face where a soft, green shimmer faded away. Evidence it had been suddenly struck by an unexpected elemental attack.

    “You’re not being very nice,” said Mischief.

    The noivern jerked his head back as his eyes widened. He chuckled, lowering his wings. Then he threw his head back and laughed, causing what remained of the murkrow to join him.

    “Nice?!” He snapped a glare back onto Mischief. “I don’t do ‘nice’, CottonPuff. Not to you Outcasts.”

    “Well I’m not about to let you hurt my friends anymore!”

    Cleo stared at Mischief, dumbfounded. Spark stood in the branches above him, her body covered with red welts where the murkrow had got in some lucky shots. This could only end badly. What was he thinking?

    “I was gonna take you all as hostages,” said the noivern. “But now I think I’ll kill you all right here! Then… I’ll have a little feast.” He inclined his head on one side and grinned. “I quite like my grass-types roasted.”

    He opened his mouth wide, and a torrent of purple flames spewed out, engulfing the whimsicott. Cleo let out a yell, unable to close her eyes. This was her fault. She’d let him follow them, rather than sending him back to that town. If she hadn’t-

    The flames petered out, and a look of satisfaction crossed the noivern’s face. Then it fell as his jaw went slack.

    Mischief stood there, completely unharmed. He looked down at his body, then up at the dragon. He didn’t look surprised, or confident. Instead, he threw his paw and sent a glowing green energy ball at the noivern’s face. It struck him on the chin, dazing him for a fraction of a second.

    He shook his head and fixed his glare back onto Mischief. The whimsicott had adopted a battle stance, bouncing lightly from foot to foot.

    “Very well,” the noivern muttered. “We’ll do this the easy way.”

    A deep rumble left his throat, filling the entire forest. His ears began to vibrate, amplifying the sound even further. The air filled with flapping wings and frantic caws as what was left of the murkrow fled from the canopy.

    Cleo closed her eyes and retreated into the bramble. This was it. No one survived a fight with a noivern. All that would be left of them would be scattered throughout the forest.

    The noise pressed down on her ears, shaking her bones. She clenched her teeth and dug her claws into the soil.

    It stopped as suddenly as it had started.

    When she opened her eyes, the dragon was recoiling backwards. Spark let out an exclamation of surprise as she watched, standing on tiptoes on a high branch.

    The noivern righted himself, beating the air with his wings. He swooped towards Mischief for a counter attack, but the whimsicott leapt back, twirling in the air. A bright flash of purple and pink light washed over the dragon, blasting him back the way he’d come. He landed in a crumpled heap on the forest floor.

    Cleo’s amber eyes widened. What on earth was going on?

    The murkrow, seeing their leader had taken a nasty hit, shot back down through the canopy like oily darts. Their talons spread, and beaks wide open, they aimed their attacks right at Mischief. He twirled towards them, catching them in his dazzling light attack. Each one struck by it dropped like ripe berries. Those left rethought their actions and turned back towards the canopy.

    The murkrow gone, Mischief turned his attention back to the noivern. The dragon scrambled to his feet, his mouth opening and closing as he tried to work out how on earth the tables had turned so suddenly. A look of terror filled his eyes and he inched back from Mischief.

    Cleo crept from the bramble, watching intently. A quick glimpse of Mischief’s face answered her unasked question as to what had unnerved the dragon. A creepy grin had replaced the whimsicott’s usually docile smile. A chuckle shook his body, then he leapt straight at the noivern, striking him in the chest.

    The noivern fell backwards, flailing his wings. His teeth snapped at Mischief, falling short. The dragon was pinned beneath the whimsicott’s frantic paws. Each one struck the dragon repeatedly as Mischief laughed like something gone wrong. He was oblivious to the wings beating at him, trying to dislodge him. He struck the dragon on the chest, nose, neck, head, ears. Bloody welts rose where his claws scraped, and deep bruises appeared beneath the dragon’s scales.

    Orange flames spewed from the noivern’s mouth, singing Mischief’s fluffy fur and lighting the canopy aflame. He didn’t care. He just continued laughing. Shrill hysterical laughter that chilled Cleo to the core. Smoldering leaves fell down around them, and Cleo’s heart sank as she looked over at the burning branches. The dragon was trying to take them all with it.

    She rushed towards Mischief, barking at him to stop. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. His orange eyes were frenzied, and that sinister grin was still on his face. His paws were coated with blood, which spattered his entire body as he continued to pulverise the noivern.

    The dragon’s attacks grew weaker until his wings fell uselessly at his sides. His head flopped to the floor as his eyes rolled back, and blood trickled from his mouth as he gave one final breath.

    “Mischief… Enough.” Cleo reached out a trembling paw to the still-frenzied whimsicott. “Stop! It’s over…”

    Spark crept along the branches above her, cautiously dodging the smoldering leaves. They needed to get out of the forest, and alert the Guild before the entire place went up in flames. If it spread across the Moorlands, then the pokemon sheltered beneath it may be in trouble.

    The noivern was barely recognisable. Cleo couldn’t help but feel sorry for the dragon. Mischief refused to let up, lashing at the fallen noivern’s face.

    “Mischief!” she snapped. “Stop! Please!”

    He jerked his head towards her, fixing her in that sinister grin. Her heart froze and she took a step back. He shot from the dragon’s body like a furry cannonball, knocking her nose over tail into the ferns. All wind left her body as he bounced onto her chest, his paws raised to lash her face. There was that laughter again, his eyes blazing with blood-lust.

    “Cleo!”

    A jolt of electricity coursed through his body, and he spasmed, falling off her. Cleo leapt to her feet and stood, ears humming, ready to blast him.

    When his orange eyes met hers, she saw what she could only describe as madness. He tried to force himself up, but his body jerked as Spark’s thunderwave took over him. In a few moments, that madness melted away into confusion. He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something.

    It never came.

    All strength seemed to leave his body, and he collapsed into the undergrowth.
     
    Chapter 4
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    Past chapters gave me an impression that the path leading to New City was an uncharted territory that none of Hydras troops knew the way to, but it seems it's still possible to encounter his scouts on the path.
    Hydreigon's troops are - usually - pretty much everywhere. Particularly the more occupied areas, as he tries to spread his reign. New City is pretty hidden, as you'll soon find out ;)

    I admit when I read the summary I expected something super YA-dystopia and dark (which is honestly my guilty pleasure so i was still pretty excited), but I was surprised at how light-hearted this first chapter was!
    Oh, it gets dark. I try to keep some light-heartedness in my writing. I know from experience I struggle to write really dire, dark stuff as it emotionally affects me. Which is why, as of now, there is no third instalment to my cyberpunk-dystopian System universe. I had to set it aside, sadly.

    Sometimes I feel like some of your sentences could be combined to make things flow a little better -- take the first paragraph for example:
    Thanks for pointing this out. That opening paragraph received a lot of positive praise in the past, so I decided to keep it in. I'm a bit reluctant to change it, but I'll keep what you said in mind =)

    Really loved the dialogue here! Went a long way in setting up this duo very strong from the start.
    Thanks =D I love writing these two, and their friendship is very warm and sweet. Spark's comic relief is so much fun, too.

    I wasn't sure if this was on purpose, since the canon spelling is "jangmo-o"?
    Totally accidental. I often check Pokemon spellings, but this one slipped by me!

    A bit of tricky phrasing here as well -- "food scarcity is becoming a growing problem" made me think that Tinker was referring to food in general, instead of food out in the wilds, so when he mentions that they had a good harvest a few lines later I was a bit confused!
    They may have had a good harvest, but the next one will be a long time off. Wandering pokemon will struggle to find food, but the Guild has a good supply (which will most likely be rationed so it lasts!)

    I liked how you set this conflict up. Cleo and Tinker's reactions here felt very genuine.
    Thank you. Their relationship was re-worked for the re-write so I'm glad this came across. He was originally much warmer to her, and sang her praises a lot. I wanted to change that.

    Compare the grimness of "it was no longer a war / now it was just survival" with the relatively lighthearted way that Cleo/Spark treat the weavile earlier, since they're clearly not worried -- as a result, it was hard as a reader to understand how much tension you were trying to build here, how seriously screwed the setting was, etc. The summary made it sound very serious but the tone ended up being very warm.
    I had a think over this after reading this part of your review. When I first began writing this story, it was heavily influenced by JRPGs and the anime series 'Slayers'. (Which is why Spark, in my headcanon, is voiced by the same actress who does Lina Inverse XD ). Spark and Cleo are pretty confident, but throw them in a situation where they are overwhelmed our outmatched by a foe and things can take a dire turn. Cleo knew Spark could handle those weavile, even if she was at a type disadvantage. Never call Spark 'short'! XD It pays to be cautious, however.

    The second part with Harbinger was also really fun. I liked the twist you gave -- I thought this was going to be a another misunderstood absol (which I'm always here for tbh), but it wasn't at all! The interpretation that they warn about disasters and then, out of spite, cause them anyway when they aren't listened to was a really fun chicken-and-egg idea, and I really like how you set up that scene. We get the sense that something is going to go wrong, there's bad things happening, and then we realize! oh shit! the viewpoint character is going to cause it. Really fun.
    Ahh, I'm glad you liked this! Harbinger has a lot of backstory. His part isn't especially big in the beginning, but you'll learn a lot more about him as time goes on!

    Thanks for the reviews guys!

    4 - A Worrying Development​

    Flames crackled across the canopy and crept over the leaves, gradually encroaching on the fallen noivern. Cleo and Spark had swiftly moved away from it, dragging Mischief’s unconscious body with them. The pair were stunned, unable to form words. Unable to take their eyes off the dragon. Both of them weren’t entirely sure of what they’d just witnessed. A whimsicott taking down a noivern? It was impossible! Grass attacks were feeble against dragon-types at best. And what was that purple light? The closest thing Cleo could liken it to was her psychic, but it was much too dazzling for that.

    Spark stepped back from embers that had claimed the dry leaves a couple of feet away. “I think we need to get outta here. I don’t wanna be caught in another forest blaze.”

    “Agreed.” Cleo uncurled her ears and trapped Mischief in a purple bubble. “Hopefully the Guild will send some water-types to deal with this blaze before it gets out of control.”

    “Yeah, but uhm… wait a second.” Spark scratched her nose as she watched Mischief drift ahead of them. “Why are you bringing him?”

    “I don’t feel comfortable leaving him here,” Cleo replied. “What if those murkrow wake up before he does? It’s hardly fair.”

    “I get that, Cleo. But we can’t take him with us. It’s against regulations.”

    “You saw what he just did,” said Cleo. “I think Tinker will want to see him. In fact, scratch that. I think Tinker would be very excited to meet him.”

    Spark scoffed and scampered on ahead of her. “Hardly. Tinker doesn’t strike me as the social type. I mean, he stays holed up in his office most of the time, and rarely ventures outside. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on the road travelling from Hall to Hall. He just… shows up.”

    Cleo made a thoughtful noise and watched the whimsicott bob freely in her psychic bubble. Spark had a point, but Cleo couldn’t help but think Mischief would intrigue him. Any pokemon that could withstand a dragon pulse without even taking any damage? It was unheard of. Was there a possibility he was actually immune to such an attack, like the dark-types were immune to her psychic?

    No. No, it couldn’t be. How would that even be the case? New typings didn’t just crop up like that. Maybe whatever had taken over him had merely rendered him unable to feel pain.

    She shook her head and picked up her pace, almost taking over Spark. They needed to get back, before the noivern’s reinforcements showed up. Some of those murkrow had escaped, she was certain of it. Word would spread, and soon the Moorlands Forest would be teeming with the Darkness.

    Spark scampered over the grass beside Cleo’s heel. “What happened to him, anyway? Why did he turn on you like that?”

    “I don’t know,” Cleo answered. “Whatever it was, it didn’t last.”

    “Sure, cos he passed out,” Spark scoffed. “What if he wakes up and lashes out at us again, huh?”

    Now they were out in the open, Spark wasn’t willing to elaborate, but Cleo knew what she was getting at. If he turned hostile in New City, then so many pokemon would be at risk. Cleo considered just leaving him. Hiding him somewhere so he could come-to in safety. Then he’d be on his own, and they’d be rid of the weird pokemon. But it didn’t settle well with her. Not after what she’d seen. Something was screaming at her to take him to New City. That if she didn’t, they’d be losing something crucial.

    Besides, Spark clearly hadn’t seen what Cleo had. That look of confusion on Mischief’s face, right before he lost consciousness. It was as if he was two different pokemon trapped in one body. One that was wild and reckless, and the other some lost and confused drifter. Perhaps it had something to do with his memory loss?

    Despite the high sun, the grass spreading across the rocky Moorlands felt cool beneath her paws. She could still hear the crackle of flames from the forest over the hum in her ears, and the smell of smoldering bark made her nose crinkle. A few voices rose above the flames, and she ventured a glance back. She couldn’t see them, but New City’s aquatic soldiers had already noticed the blaze. Two spouts of water reached over the canopy, fighting back the flames. Relief flooded through her and she turned back the way they were heading.

    Cleo looked up to take in the landscape. It wasn’t long now. Brambles scrambled over the Moorlands, their branches picked clean by the harvesters. All that remained were jagged leaves. Not so much as a single rotten razz berry lay on the grass. Beyond them rose the rocky peaks of the Silent Mountains, stretching on for miles and obscuring the view beyond them. The very tips were usually coated with snow, but in the heatwave it had long since melted away.

    Cleo gave a quick glance around, making sure there were no lurking pokemon watching them. Then she made for the thickest of the brambles, shoving Mischief ahead of her through the prickles. She ducked in after him, leaving Spark to close the rear. From the outside, it looked like any old bramble bush. But inside was a small, rocky mound with a huge stone disk in the middle of it. It sported a groove shaped like a sun, the perfect fit for her Guild badge. She slotted it inside and turned it anti-clockwise. There was a faint click, then the door slid sideways, grating along its runners. She sent Mischief in first, slipping in after him. The door was on a timer, and didn’t remain open for long. It rolled shut behind her, and Spark let out a small squeak of surprise.

    “It almost claimed my tail!” she said, clutching her thin, black tail in both paws.

    “Then you should have ridden on my shoulder,” said Cleo.

    “I don’t like being so close to your ears when they’re open, Cleo, you know that.” Spark shuddered. “What if I get caught in a crossfire or something?”

    The dedenne scampered on ahead of her, bounding down the winding staircase towards the faint light below.

    Cleo rolled her eyes and followed after her, keeping Mischief between them. Torches adorned the walls, casting flickering shadows along the dry surface. Eventually the stairs levelled out into a wide tunnel. Voices filled the air, reverberating off the cold walls. Huge, stone arches arced above them every few meters until the tunnel finally opened out into a huge market place.

    The place was bustling with pokemon rushing back and forth, visiting the various stalls. Parents holding their hatchlings’ paws or carrying them on their backs, soldiers off-duty as they gathered their meals to take home or nattered with their friends. A few nods were cast in Cleo and Spark’s direction, which were swiftly followed by looks of confusion or curiosity towards the whimsicott bobbing before them. A fallen ally? Or a newcomer she’d been tasked to bring?

    “Get your pastries! Bluk berry pastries!”

    “This just in! Fire in the Moorlands’ Forest!”

    “Recruiting now! Warriors needed in Rock Quarry!”

    Cleo slipped past all of the vendors, keeping her focus on her task at paw. Spark couldn’t help but meander to the pastry stall, but when Cleo didn’t stop, she let out a groan of disappointment and followed her towards the tunnels leading off the market.

    Due to its confusing layout, each tunnel was clearly marked. The left and right ones lead to the nest rooms, and further along they forked off into two tunnels, one curling further underground. Cleo knew the left one well, given it lead to her and Spark’s home. The other tunnels lead to various locations - a training hall, nursery, school…

    The one she wanted lead to the Guild Headquarters. It was home to many facilities. Warrior Team base, item shop, the Guild food hall, the medical ward, and of course Tinker’s office. The latter stood before them at the very end of the tunnel in all its glory.

    The wooden door sported a sign that read ‘knock before entering’, so Cleo obliged.(In the past, she’d often ignored it, each time receiving a berating from a disgruntled riolu who was desperately trying to hide his inventions beneath a pile of papers.)

    After a brief pause, Tinker replied with a cheerful “Come in!”

    “See?” Spark said quietly. “He just… shows up.”

    Cleo chuckled at that and nudged the door open. It glided smoothly past Tinker’s ‘organised chaos’. Tinker gave them both a warm smile, but it was swiftly distorted as his eyes flashed with enraged confusion.

    “What is this?” He waved a hand at Mischief.

    “This-” Cleo dropped the whimsicott unceremoniously onto his untidy floor, “is a fuzzy nuisance.”

    Tinker shook his head as he rose to his feet. “I think more of an explanation is in order here, Cleo. You can’t just come dragging random strangers into New City!”

    “I’m aware of that,” Cleo retorted.

    Spark leapt up onto her shoulder and folded her arms, but she wasn’t sure if the dedenne was on her side or Tinker’s.

    “His name is Mischief,” Cleo explained. “He forced himself on us just after we left the other Outcast town to come here.”

    Tinker narrowed his eyes at her. “And you brought him here because…?”

    “We were attacked by a noivern in the Moorlands Forest,” Cleo explained. “Mischief fought him off. Killed him, actually.”

    Tinker’s eyes widened, and he placed a paw on his chair before he lost his footing. He scratched behind one of his ears and looked down at Mischief. “He… this whimsicott… killed a noivern?”

    “Not only that,” said Cleo. “He also took a dragon pulse head on and didn’t even flinch.” She met Tinker’s surprised look with a nod. “It just washed over him like water off a ducklett’s back.”

    Tinker flopped into his seat and ran his paws over his face. “You’re telling me that this whimsicott withstood a dragon attack? That he was immune to it?”

    “I don’t know about ‘immune’, but the possibility did cross my mind.”

    “And why is he unconscious?” Tinker asked.

    “I was hoping you could tell me that.” Cleo pulled up a stool beside Tinker’s desk. “He seemed to snap when fighting the dragon. He just lost it, and waled on the noivern repeatedly. I think it’s safe to say the noivern never stood a chance…”

    Tinker lowered his paws enough to see over them, but he wasn’t looking at Cleo or anyone else. “I’m guessing this is why the forest is ablaze?”

    Cleo nodded stiffly. “After he defeated the noivern, he fell unconscious.”

    “Nice little dodge there, Cleo,” said Spark. “You’ve completely missed out the part where he attacked you!”

    Cleo hissed at Spark, but Tinker leapt up so quickly his chair clattered to the floor.

    “He attacked you?!” he barked. “And you brought him here?!”

    Cleo sank in her seat and ran her claws between her ears. “He seemed friendly enough beforehand, Tinker. And I wouldn’t have brought him here without good reason!” She waved a paw towards Mischief and met Tinker’s glare with one of her own. “He withstood a dragon pulse! There’s something strange about that, Tinker! No one can! We’ve been looking for a way to recover from the Darkness for years! If he can take down a noivern-”

    “He can destroy New City,” Tinker finished.

    Cleo’s jaw snapped shut. She had nothing to add to that.

    Tinker flopped back into his seat and reached for a brass tube protruding from the wall. “Melody? Could you come in here please?”

    “Melody?” Cleo gasped. “You’re calling the nurse?”

    “If he’s wounded, he needs seeing to,” said Tinker. “Then after that, he’ll be thoroughly vetted and confined to cells if need be.” He leant back in his seat and shook his head slowly, catching Cleo’s eye. “You’re making some really questionable decisions lately, Cleo.”

    She stared down at the whimsicott, her mind replaying that battle and not for the first time. “If it weren’t for him, Spark and I would have both died in that forest.”

    Tinker inclined his head on one side.

    “It was a noivern,” Cleo went on. “In a way, Mischief actually saved our lives.”

    “Then attacked you,” said Tinker.

    “He’d lost it,” Cleo explained. “I don’t know what happened to him, but the pokemon that attacked us wasn’t the whimsicott who’d followed us all that way.”

    “How can you be so certain?”

    “I can’t,” said Cleo. “It’s just a feeling I have.”

    “Yeah, I can see that, too,” said Spark. “He was like some kind of wild animal. Not a civilised pokemon at all. He just went nuts.” She paused and huddled down into herself. “I’m still not sure about him, but… Cleo’s right. He did save our lives back there.”

    The door creaked open and an audino shuffled inside. She spotted Mischief and stopped beside him. “I assume this is my patient? What happened to him?”

    “Exhaustion, I assume,” said Tinker. “Please take him to a private ward and keep him away from others. We don’t know where he’s come from. Also, please don’t be alarmed when I assign guards.”

    Melody looked a little taken aback, but said nothing against him. Instead, she gave a curt nod and waved a paw. Mischief was engulfed in yet another purple bubble and carried from the room behind Melody.

    “Ahh,” said Spark. “It’s so nice when pokemon can use psychic abilities without risking blasting you with their ears.”

    Cleo gave the dedenne a playful shove.

    Tinker was still silent, only causing the tension in the air to feel even heavier. Cleo turned her head back towards him, catching his stare. He lowered his paws from his muzzle to absently toy with the everstone hanging around his neck.

    “I have a few concerns here, Cleo. I have to tell you.”

    “I’m aware,” she said. “I brought a strange pokemon here without first warning you.”

    “Not only that,” he said. “But what you’ve described has puzzled me. A pokemon that doesn’t take any damage from a dragon-type attack - at least, no damage we can see, anyway. Also a noivern, a nocturnal dragon, out during the day? Over the Moorlands Forest? Did you happen to notice where he was actually headed?”

    “North,” said Cleo. “I’m guessing back towards the Shadow Lands?”

    “During the day?” Tinker shook his head. “This doesn’t settle well with me, Cleo. None of our warriors have trouble with noivern during the day. Those who do travel at night take specific training to deal with them, and it usually involves a lot of running and hiding. No one survives an encounter with a noivern at night. During the day, you might stand more of a chance. But… I’m very unsettled by all of this. I want to investigate your friend further.”

    “Mischief is not a friend,” said Cleo. “He’s a fuzzy tag-a-long who tried to rob me at the market.”

    “So you know nothing about him?” Tinker asked. “No idea where he’s come from? Why he’s following you?”

    Cleo and Spark both shook their heads.

    “He claims to have no memories at all,” said Cleo. “When we asked him where he came from, all he said was ‘The Clean Place’.”

    “The Clean Place?” Tinker scratched his nose and lowered his head in thought. “That doesn’t ring any bells.”

    “As for what he wanted,” said Spark. “He just wanted ‘company’ apparently.”

    “This just gets more and more strange.” Tinker looked up at them and his expression softened. “Very well. We’ll keep your friend - I mean Mischief - here for the time being while I investigate him. I’ll ask Grey to probe his memories and see if he proves any risk.”

    “So we’re off the hook?” Spark asked.

    Tinker chuckled and folded his paws together. “Hardly. You two will stay here until we discern whether or not Mischief is a threat.”

    Cleo grimaced. Great. So she was really in trouble now.

    “You can tell me more about him and your encounter with the noivern later, over dinner.” Tinker turned away from them and reached for a blank sheet of paper. “For now, go and get some rest. The pair of you look positively exhausted.”

    Cleo’s eyes widened and she pawed at her face. It wasn’t that obvious, was it?

    Spark yawned widely and hopped up onto her shoulder. “Food and sleep. There’s a plan I can get on board with.”

    ...​

    Cleo’s dreams were filled with frightful images - dragons spewing flames over villages, the shadows of other pokemon scattering as screams filled the crimson sky. The faces of pokemon she knew were filled with panic as they fell to the ground, maimed beneath the rending claws of the Darkness. Cleo cowered in a bramble bush as she watched the chaos unfold. Hundreds of dragon pokemon of various species flocked before her, scrambling over the fallen bodies of her comrades. Druddigon, zweilos, garchomp, fraxure… too many to count.

    Then something else caught her attention, drawing her eye from the massacre. A scream… no, not a scream. A laugh. Then in the distance she could make out the form of a whimsicott bouncing from dragon to dragon, scattering them like they had the Outcasts. Each dragon was reduced to a blooded mess of shattered flesh and bones, turning the landscape a dreaded scarlet. It snaked and coiled down the rocky hillside like a river, and Cleo staggered back from the bush to avoid it.

    “You need to be careful.”

    Her head snapped around, and she spotted Mischief leaning against a tree. A lush green thing that looked wildly out of place in the war-torn landscape. Yet she could still hear that hysterical laughter, and the frightful screams as the victims desperately tried to flee to safety.

    He nodded back towards it and gave her an unnerving smile. “It might be you next.”

    Cleo sat bolt upright, sending her sheet cascading off her body. She could still hear that hysterical laughing, but it faded away into soft snores as the nest-room came into focus. Cleo’s breath came in fitful bursts, and she fought to steady them as she ran her paws over her damp face.

    She lay back down on her hay with a flop, and her arm fell over her eyes. Nightmares… She should be used to those by now.

    She turned her head towards Spark, who was sleeping on her back with her arms splayed out at her sides. Loud snores unfitting for her small size filled the room, causing a smile to tease the corner of Cleo’s mouth. Regardless, the room felt wildly unwelcome now. Each shadow flickering over the wall from the torchlight outside her door seemed to resemble a dragon or some other pokemon of the Darkness.

    And only a short walk away, lying in the medical ward, was the core element of her nightmare.

    Someone who she felt should be fighting against the Darkness could well threaten the safety of her friends in New City.

    She turned to find a window to give her some idea of what time it was, but the walls were just bare stone. Of course, they were underground. No such thing existed here. She let out another sigh and rubbed her paws over her face. There was no way she wanted to sleep after that nightmare. She knew from experience they just kept coming, repeating themselves unless she took her mind off it. A walk was what she needed.

    She clambered from her nest and plodded towards the door.

    “Where you goin’?” Spark sat up in her nest, groggily rubbing a paw over her black eyes.

    “Just for a walk,” Cleo explained. “You go back to sleep.”

    “Iss mornin’?”

    Cleo shrugged at that and glanced back into the hallway. “No idea.”

    “I’m comin’.” Spark waddled from her nest to join her.

    Oh well. The company was welcome. Cleo stooped to scoop up the dedenne in her paws and set her on her shoulder. Spark snuggled into her fur, and almost instantly, soft snores could be heard from Cleo’s ruff. She rolled her eyes and strolled out into the corridor.

    As expected, the corridors were void of any other life. Pokemon dozed in their nest-rooms, snoring softly or muttering to themselves. Cleo took comfort from it, assured that they were safe and comfortable. A shadow crossed the wall before her and she froze for a moment until the familiar form of a breloom shuffled by. One of the guards stationed to watch over New City perchance the unspeakable happened. He gave her a friendly nod and continued on his way, not venturing to ask why she was up. Maybe it was later than she thought?

    She didn’t know where she was going. She had no destination planned. Just a stroll to clear her head, maybe venture into the market and find one of the news articles to read. Perhaps find the baker setting up stall and take the chance to buy a pastry fresh out of her oven.

    So why had she stopped at the elevator to the medical ward?

    She let out a sigh of frustration and leant her forehead against the wall. That nightmare had really struck a nerve. It was almost as if she’d made her way here for some level of reassurance.

    Reassurance that Mischief was still held securely behind doors, guarded so he couldn’t wreck havoc on the pokemon here. Or was it something else?

    “Cleo?”

    She looked up to see Tinker strolling towards her, a look of concern on his face.

    “You’re awake?” he asked quietly.

    She nodded and pushed herself back from the wall. “I needed a walk.”

    “A walk? Or are you visiting your friend in the dead of night?” He cut before her and leant his shoulder against the wall as if to block her entry to the elevator.

    Cleo groaned inwardly. So it was still night?

    “No,” she said. “I… just happened to stop here.”

    Tinker grunted and glanced back at the elevator. “Well, you can rest assured. He’s still out. Melody gave him a sedative, he’ll be out cold until morning.” He stepped inside the wooden box and, much to Cleo’s surprise, gave her a smile. “Would you care to join me? Since you’re awake, I’d like to tell you what I’ve found out about your friend.”

    Cleo shifted from foot to foot, and glanced back the way she’d come. She warred with the idea of going back to bed and abandoning her walk, or shrugging off Tinker’s offer to continue her stroll. But curiosity got the better of her and she found herself joining Tinker in the wooden elevator.

    He gave her a friendly nod and lowered the box on its pulley system. It didn’t so much as squeak, well oiled to preserve the rest of those who might be recovering in the ward. The tart smell of medicinal berries flowed into the box and it opened up into a wide room. Several nests raised on wooden tables stretched across the room, all empty which was a nice surprise. Two pokemon sat in the far corner by a door, their eyes glinting in the dim light. A pikachu and a growlithe.

    Cleo nodded at them, receiving one in return. They must be the guards, although she was surprised Tinker hadn’t assigned more than two.

    “I smell berries.” Spark poked her head out of Cleo’s fur and twitched her nose at the air. “Hang on, this isn’t the dinner hall…” She rubbed her eyes and yawned. “What are we doing in here?”

    Cleo didn’t answer. She followed Tinker to the back of the room where there were two doors that lead into the private wards. When he opened the one beside the guards, the first thing Cleo noticed was a raised bed where Mischief lay, covered up to his chest with a thin sheet.

    Tinker moved to stand beside the bed and motioned Cleo to join him. “You told me of him mentioning a ‘Clean Place’?”

    “Yes.” Cleo shifted uneasily beside him, trailing her eyes over the whimsicott. “It puzzled us.”

    “Well I think I might have solved that mystery.”

    Cleo looked up at Tinker with a start. “How?”

    “Simple. Look at this.” The riolu brushed aside the creamy fluff over Mischief’s right shoulder.

    Cleo let out a gasp, and Spark had to cover her mouth to stop herself from shouting. There, emblazoned beneath his tan fur, was the black outline of a crescent moon, surrounded by tapering spikes. A crude contradiction to the Outcasts’ sun symbol.

    “That’s the Heretic mark,” said Cleo. “So that means-”

    “He’s a Heretic?” Tinker nodded slowly. “Yes, it would seem so.”

    “But he seemed to have no memories of it,” said Cleo.

    “I’m curious about that, too,” said Tinker. “But we won’t know much until Grey probes his mind to find out whether or not he’s telling the truth. As for the Clean Place, that may well refer to one of their many laboratories throughout Estellis.” He let Mischief’s fur fall back into place and turned fully to Cleo. “You recall that pink liquid you took from those weavile?”

    Cleo’s eyes widened. “Oh yes! I’d almost forgotten about that.”

    “Come to my office.” Tinker placed a paw on Cleo’s back to steer her from the room. “I’ll explain everything there.”

    They returned to his office in silence, leaving Cleo and Spark’s minds to reel over what he might have discovered. Was the pink liquid related to Mischief in some way, or was he simply taking out two birds with one stone?

    He went into his office first, if only to clear his sketches and notes off the only other stool beside his desk. He fell into his chair and motioned for Cleo to sit.

    She obliged, and Spark bailed from her shoulder to perch on the desk.

    “That pink liquid,” he began, “has turned out to be pokerus.”

    Cleo’s eyes widened again.

    “What?!” Spark squeaked. “Isn’t that, like, super rare?!” She turned to Cleo and waved her arms. “Imagine how much we woulda got for that if we’d known?!”

    “Unadvised.” Tinker raised a paw to silence the dedenne. “As it turns out, this form of pokerus is a mutated strain.”

    “Oh great.” Spark flopped onto her belly. “Way to take the wind outta my sails.”

    “What do you mean mutated?” Cleo asked. “Does it only affect dragon and dark-type pokemon?”

    “No, it’s worse than that,” Tinker explained. “Whereas pokerus would be a beneficial condition that could help a pokemon to grow stronger, this particular strain pushes a pokemon’s abilities far beyond what it would normally.”

    “So why on earth did the weavile have it?” Cleo asked.

    “Man, I hope Hydreigon isn’t amassing an overpowered army,” said Spark.

    “Let me get a word in?” Tinker shook his head and swivelled his chair towards them. “I had the same concerns as you at first. But Melody ran some tests on Mischief per my request. She found that he is actually infected by this form of pokerus, although it’s not contagious. It would seem that this form of pokerus isn’t contagious at all, actually, which makes me think that this isn’t a final result, and Mischief may be nothing more than a beta-test for this virus. If my theory is right, and going off the evidence I am ninety-five percent certain it is, then this pokerus is being created in a Heretic Laboratory somewhere. Most likely the one your friend has come from - this ‘Clean Place’.”

    Cleo was speechless. She stared down at her paws, running Tinker’s words through her mind. Tinker was silent, giving Cleo the chance to find her voice.

    “So… that explains why he managed to defeat the noivern?” She looked up at the riolu. “And withstand the dragon pulse?”

    “That’s a possibility,” said Tinker. “One I am still musing over. But what this has really told us is that the Heretics may be involved with the Darkness in some way. Maybe they’re testing this pokerus to perfect it, in order to boost the strength of Hydreigon’s army? Or perhaps some of his followers have deviated and are working against him? What, I do not know. But something is going on, and I don’t like it.” He paused and sat back in his seat, idly toying with a quill he’d plucked from the chaos of his desk. “It is a good thing this information has fallen into our laps. It means we can research it, and prepare for the worst should it come to light. I just hope Grey can find something in Mischief’s memories that would point us in the right direction.”

    Cleo nodded her head as she let this all sink in. It didn’t settle well with her at all. That nightmare roared to the front of her mind, blinding her for a moment.

    Tinker’s voice snapped her out of it. “Can you tell me exactly what happened to Mischief during that fight, Cleo?”

    She gave a weak shrug. “I’ve already told you about it.”

    “In more detail,” said Tinker. “Did Mischief transform in any way?”

    She lifted her paws and shook her head. “Not exactly. He just… well, he looked… deranged.”

    Tinker nodded slowly and twirled the quill in his claws. “I am starting to wonder if this strain of pokerus can actually drive a pokemon to madness.”

    Cleo looked up at him, meeting his eyes.

    “Although I could be wrong,” he said. “His reactions during that battle could have been some kind of external influence. A fight or flight response, perhaps. I’d quite like to know what he remembers of that attack, and quiz him on it.”

    “You haven’t had the chance yet?” Cleo asked.

    “No. He did come to when Melody was treating him, and he seemed as placid and as friendly, even as innocent, as you described. He never even mentioned the fight in the forest. He didn’t even say anything about the fire, and any pokemon who would have been there would have wanted to know if the blaze had been dealt with. This is what makes me believe it is a triggered response. I’d like to run some tests, but I don’t wish to endanger anyone here in New City.” He paused to take in a long breath, and stared down at his quill. “But what I fear is that what we have in our paws is in fact a biological weapon.”

    Cleo stiffened and exchanged glances with Spark.

    “I don’t like that,” said Spark. “I don’t like that one bit! What are they doing?”

    “I’ve no idea at present.” Tinker tossed the quill back onto his desk. “But I’m avoiding relaying any of this to him until I know fully what it is we are dealing with.” He paused and took in a breath. “Melody did, however, find something on your friend’s fur.”

    The tone in Tinker’s voice turned Cleo’s blood to ice. “What was it?”

    “A tracking device.” Tinker watched her face turn pale, and steepled his paws together. “Don’t worry. It was destroyed, and it wouldn’t have worked underground anyway. It does mean, though, that whoever sent him has been following his every movement. Until he disappeared off their radar, that is.”

    “But…” Cleo’s voice wavered. “If it just vanished here in the Moorlands, wouldn’t they assume there was some underground hideout?”

    “You brought him here, Cleo.” Tinker sighed and shook his head. “Besides, this place is inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t possess a Guild badge. With so few pokemon freely coming and going, it won’t be immediately obvious that we’re even here. However, as a precaution, I’ll be increasing guards at every gate.”

    Cleo lowered her head into her paws. Did Mischief even know he had pokerus, or was being tracked? Was his innocent act nothing more than a ruse? Urgh, how could she have been so foolish?

    No… no one would have left a pokemon in his state in the open like that. He’d have been slaughtered.

    “For now, Cleo, I don’t want you to speak to Mischief,” said Tinker. “Not until Grey has investigated him. At the moment, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

    “And if he proves to be a risk?” Cleo didn’t look up.

    “Then he’ll be dealt with the same way we deal with anyone who works with the Darkness.”

    Cleo nodded her understanding. Part of her didn’t like it. He’d fought off a noivern. Surely he wasn’t working for the Darkness? Suddenly, she felt very tired.

    “What time is it?” she ventured.

    “The sun hasn’t risen yet,” said Tinker.

    “Then I think I’ll head back to bed.” She rose and lowered her arm for Spark. “Thank you for explaining all this to me. It was… playing on my mind.”

    “I can understand that.” Tinker looked up at her, but there was no anger in his eyes. Instead, he looked concerned. “I just want you to know, Cleo, despite what I said, if I was in your situation, I’d have wanted to do the same thing.”

    “Wanted to, or would have done?” she asked.

    He shrugged and swivelled towards his table. “That’s a tough question, but I think, without any knowledge of who I believed I was saving, I’d have actually done the same. You wanted to rescue another pokemon, and I understand that completely.” He paused and looked away from her. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

    Cleo slipped from the room, bidding Tinker ‘goodnight’ as she closed the door.

    “That was rather humbling,” said Spark quietly. “But I think he’s still annoyed with you.”

    “I can’t say I’m surprised.” Cleo gave one glance back at the closed door and made her way back towards their nest-room. “I’m annoyed with myself.”
     
    Chapter 5
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    5 - A Lesson in Evolution​

    Cleo and Spark were both feeling groggy from a bad night’s sleep, but the breakfast alarm had rang out loud and clear, summoning New City to breakfast. Cleo’s nightmares had been wrought with bloody images of dragons, fire and biological weapons, mixed in with Tinker’s words which warped and twisted until they accused her of bringing disaster on the remaining Outcasts, and the world at large.

    By morning, her dreams had become so mixed in with reality, for a moment she wasn’t even sure what was real anymore. The fog of sleep had lifted, but she still felt very unsettled.

    She needed to speak with Tinker again and gain some clarity on the situation. Hopefully Grey had already had the chance to speak with Mischief and uncover the whimsicott’s true motives. At least then, if he turned out to be innocent, she’d be off the hook… right?

    “Hey. Hey.” A soft paw nudged her arm and she looked down into Spark’s wide eyes. “You’ve put sweet berry sauce on your fish.”

    Cleo followed Spark’s nod to her plate. The fish she’d picked out were barely noticeable beneath a sea of pink berry sauce. She let out a small sigh and set the jug back beside a heaped stack of berry pancakes, which were swiftly snatched up by a rather perky-looking slakoth.

    Cleo resigned herself to her unfortunate mistake, flicking as much sauce as she could off a piece of fish before taking a bite out of it.

    “That looks about as appetising as swamp muck,” said Spark. “Are you feeling okay?”

    The combination of sweet and salty that filled Cleo’s mouth did wake her up a bit. Rather too abruptly. She took a swig of her sitrus juice to wash it down and sat back on her stool.

    “Not really, no,” she said. “I’m still a little confused.”

    “Tell me about it.” Spark picked up a plump oran berry and took a bite out of it. “I’m so confuzzled I can’t stop eating!”

    Cleo ventured another of her pecha-coated fish. “That’s the norm for you.”

    “Oi!” Spark dropped her berry and placed her paws on her hips. “Are you callin’ me fat?”

    “No, I’m calling you a bottomless pit.”

    “Oh.” Spark nodded and returned to her breakfast. “That’s okay then.”

    Cleo cringed as she took another bite of fish, swiftly washing it away with a few swigs of her juice. She considered shoving the plate aside, but her gut told her not to waste a decent meal. So instead she forced herself to swallow down another slice of dried fish before calling it quits.

    “I don’t really wanna discuss last night in here,” Spark said quietly. “But do you think Tinker wants to see us again this morning?”

    “I don’t care what he wants, I was planning on going to see him anyway.”

    “Eh. I don’t think he’ll mind too much if you just show up.” Spark clambered onto the table and rummaged amid the berry platter.

    Cleo’s nose crinkled and she lowered her paw from her mouth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “Well, he usually seems so happy to see you. I’ve often wondered if he treats all Guild Warriors the same way, or if it’s just favoritism.”

    “Not recently,” said Cleo. “And after the mess I’ve caused recently, I highly doubt he’ll be too happy to see me at all.”

    Spark’s eyes twinkled and she stumbled back from the berry pile with a cheri clasped in both paws. “Jackpot!”

    “Spark,” said Cleo, bristling.

    “Oh. Right, yeah. Dilemma.” The dedenne plopped down on the table and tucked into her prize. “I hardly think he’s gonna shun you. I mean, your rash actions may actually have given the Guild a jump-start on what could have become a dire situation. If anything, Tinker should be giving you a pat on the back.”

    Cleo snorted and stared down at her plate. A jump-start… sure, her black cloud may have a silver lining. But it was still a black cloud. If Mischief proved to be a risk, if anything went wrong then it was on her head for bringing him into New City. But if it did give the Guild a jump-start on whatever crazy thing the Heretics were doing, then was it actually a blessing in disguise?

    She didn’t want to finish her breakfast.

    She scooped up her plate and motioned for Spark to follow her. The dedenne returned briefly to the berry stack, popping an entire oran berry into her mouth. She scurried after Cleo with her little cheeks bulging.

    The riolu’s office door was ajar, a clear indication he was at least expecting somebody. Maybe he had been expecting Cleo and Spark? The meowstic lifted her paw to knock, but the door opened wide. A tall pokemon stood over them, obscuring the view of the office. Cleo lifted her head back until she was looking into the wizened eyes of an alakazam with long grey whiskers that trailed to the ground. He didn’t need to introduce himself. Everyone in New City knew of Grey, the oldest and most reliable Warrior in the Guild, long since retired from combat duties. Now he spent his time probing the minds of the reluctant dark pokemon in their custody.

    ‘His attacks may not damage them, but a brain is still a brain,’ Tinker had told her when she’d enquired about this, many years ago when she was new to the Guild.

    Grey gave them a nod and strolled past, leaving the door open for them. Cleo slipped inside, closing it behind her.

    “Oh, good timing.” Tinker didn’t look up from whatever notes he was reading. “Grey was just here, as you know. He’s managed to probe the mind of your whimsicott companion.”

    When he didn’t elaborate, Cleo tipped her head on one side. “And?”

    “He does indeed have a damaged memory, so he was being truthful about that.” Tinker lowered the sheet of paper and turned to face them. “Confound it, Cleo, why are you standing by the door like some unwanted stranger? Sit down.”

    “Sorry, I wasn’t sure if I was welcome or not.” Cleo relocated to a stool, and was swiftly joined as Spark hopped up onto the table.

    “Despite the problems brining Mischief here may have caused, you are still one of the Guild’s elite Warriors.” Tinker swivelled back towards his desk and retrieved Grey’s notes. “Now. Grey has confirmed one of my speculations. This ‘Clean Place’ is indeed a laboratory. It wasn’t especially clear. There were other pokemon in this memory, but their faces were all blurred out, and their voices distorted. But the scenery had every essence of a lab about it, which solidifies my theory that Mischief is in fact a biological weapon.”

    Cleo felt her heart sink. “Does that mean-?”

    “He’s a risk?” Tinker shrugged. “That remains to be seen. The full effects of the pokerus, such as whether or not it can cause madness, is still as much a mystery as ever. Mischief’s memories contained no knowledge of this virus. He also has no memories of his assault on the noivern. All we have to go on there is what you’ve told me. All memories surrounding the laboratory are so severely fragmented that he has clearly had them tampered with. Not just tampered with… removed. All that remains are the hazy image of the laboratory, then it all leaps to his encounter with you. Then… blinks back out again after he leaps into battle with the noivern.”

    Cleo scratched her head as she tried to take all this in. “He’s had his memories… removed? Is that even possible?”

    “If a powerful enough psychic-type did it, then it is entirely possible,” said Tinker. “Grey would be capable of such a feat, but it’s not easy.” Before Cleo could pry as to how he knew this, he waved a paw. “I’ve had the same questions myself. Grey didn’t go into the grisly details. Either way, the fact remains that Mischief has no idea of where he’s come from. There are no memories of his birth place, his parents, or even of the pokemon that did this to him. One thing we can rest assured with here is that he couldn’t even make his way back to the Heretic lab if he tried. It’s as if they didn’t want him to come back to them, and went to great extremes to ensure that he wouldn’t. Cast off, left to go berserk like some ticking time-bomb of disaster.”

    “So they abandoned him?” Spark huffed.

    “I believe ‘discarded’ would be the more appropriate term in this scenario.”

    “Dude, that’s harsh,” said Spark.

    “So it’s like he’s become too problematic for them?” asked Cleo.

    “Or a failure.” Tinker shrugged. “My first thought was that they left him there to target a settlement. But… what target? That little unnamed temporary town? It’s hardly worth it even for a test-run. It would just ring out that the Heretics had some plan up their sleeve. No… those scientists are too crafty to pull a stunt like that. It’s safe to say that Mischief has been shrugged off by the Heretics.”

    “Then why tag him with a tracking chip?” Cleo asked.

    “I’m beginning to think leaving it was an oversight,” said Tinker. “They likely tag all their experiments, and just forgot to remove his. Melody says it was hidden well in his fur. Either way, on the off-chance he has been unleashed as some sort of deadly weapon to target the Outcasts, guards are being stationed at every town in the surrounding vicinity, as well as New City. I really want to know what the actual situation is, but the Heretics have covered their tracks efficiently with this one. I believe they didn’t even want to leave any hint of his location intact at all, and that little blurry image - one that is enough to answer the question to this virus’ origin - was a mistake.”

    “Huh!” Spark stood up straight. “Maybe it’s because he attacked them?”

    “That’s a possibility.” Tinker set Grey’s notes aside and reached for another rather crumpled sheet from beneath his juice glass. “This now leads me into the other little puzzle Mischief has created. I’m still rather perplexed about your fight with that noivern. How, exactly, did he manage to take a dragon pulse without taking any damage at all?” He looked up at them both. “Melody has confirmed this, by the way. There wasn’t so much as a scuff on his fur. The only singes were from the embers in the forest. No trace of dragonfire at all.”

    Cleo’s jaw went slack. So he actually had taken no damage? Or was Melody mistaken?

    Tinker turned back to his notes and pawed his right ear. His muzzle crinkled slightly and he let out a flustered sigh. “Cleo… you know about evolution?”

    Cleo started slightly and exchanged puzzled glances with Spark. “This might come as some surprise to you, Tinker, but I used to be an espurr once. And you yourself wear an everstone around your neck.”

    He scoffed at that and waved her off. “Not that kind of evolution! No, I’m talking about the other kind. The one pokemon use to adapt to changes in their environment.”

    Cleo shook her head slowly. “You’ve lost me.”

    “Well.” Tinker twirled his chair around to face them. “This might surprise you, then. Take magnemite, for example. Many years ago, it used to be a pure electric type, but its defences were weak. It could be taken out by so many different moves, making it an easy target. Pokemon would drive it out of its habitat, pushing it to the far corners of Estellis until it was on the brink of extinction. There were so few places left for it, and it struggled to spread out over the surrounding swamps, which were chock full of poison-type pokemon. But over time, survival kicked in. Magnemite began to adapt, taking on a new type, making it part steel-type. Not only did this increase its defences, giving it more resistance to other pokemon’s attacks, it also developed an immunity to poison-type attacks. This allowed it to more freely spread out over the swamps, and over time increase its numbers, bouncing back from the brink of extinction.”

    Spark’s eyes widened. “Amazing! I’d never heard of that before. What a little fighter!”

    Cleo made a thoughtful noise and scratched behind her ear. “It’s not something I’ve ever really thought about, if I’m honest.”

    “It was well before our time,” said Tinker. “But as a scientist, I like to think about stuff like this. It’s made me wonder if it’s happening again, before our very eyes.”

    Spark’s jaw went slack, and Cleo narrowed her eyes slowly.

    “Hang on,” said Cleo. “You’re not suggesting…”

    “That Mischief has adapted a new typing?” Tinker nodded his head. “That is exactly what I’m suggesting.”

    “But it’s crazy!” Cleo snapped.

    “Is it?” Tinker jabbed his claw into his notes. “Was it crazy back then, when magnemite bounced back? Not only that, but also gained a new evolution in its line in the form of magnezone? Around the same time onix began to evolve into steelix? The world is constantly changing, Cleo. For years, we’ve been persecuted by the Darkness, driven across Estellis until our numbers are dramatically falling. Dark and dragon-type pokemon are reigning, and we are falling. Is it really crazy for a new pokemon type to arise? One that can actually help us stand a fighting chance?”

    Cleo sighed and ran her paws through the fur between her ears. “It sounds more like wishful thinking to me.”

    Tinker was silent, only occasionally rustling his paper as he rifled through his notes. But she could feel his eyes on her, waiting for her to add something, anything.

    Spark shifted in her spot. “I like it. It doesn’t sound… too crazy. More like hope?”

    Tinker scoffed and tossed his notes back onto the table. “Hope indeed? This is science, Spark. Recently, stuff has been happening here in New City. Something I think will back my theory. New moves have been demonstrated in the training room, ones that we’ve never come across before. Pink and purple flashes that sparkle.”

    Cleo raised her head to look at him, but he was flicking through his notes as if he wasn’t really seeing them.

    “They do a number on the fighting type Warriors,” he went on. “At first we thought it was a new psychic-type move, especially since it barely dents our steel-type Warriors. But it also doesn’t do much to the fire-type pokemon here either. This, to me, suggests it might be something new entirely. And with Mischief now in our care…” A huge smile spread across Tinker’s face and he spread his paws wide. “This is big, Cleo! Can’t you see it?”

    She nodded stiffly, her mouth open as she tried to process what he’d just said. A new move… she’d seen that move. Mischief had used it. It was how he’d fought off the noivern.

    She cleared her throat and folded her paws in her lap. “Did I tell you Mischief had used a similar attack?”

    Tinker blinked a few times. “No, I don’t believe you did.”

    “No… I was more distracted by how he pulverised that… Never mind.” She shook her head and met Tinker’s eyes. “He did use some strange sparkly attack that sounds like the one you described.”

    Tinker’s mouth opened and closed a few times and he retrieved his notes and quill, jotting something down. “These new attacks haven’t been tested to their fullest. As you know, we don’t have the full spread of pokemon typings in New City. In the Guild at all, actually. I’m yet to thoroughly see what this means to us.” He sat back in his seat and set the quill neatly on his desk. “I’ve been working on a new machine that I was tweaking last night. A battle simulator. I actually intend to use it to test Mischief’s resistances. Hopefully this will tell us exactly where this new type stands in the battle against the Darkness.”

    “You’re going to put him in one of your crazy experiments?!” Spark gasped.

    “It’s not crazy!” Tinker barked. “It’s science!”

    Spark huffed and flopped onto her bottom. “Still! It’s a bit extreme just to see if he resists dragon-type attacks.”

    Tinker was back at his notes again. “I’m not suggesting he resists it, I’m suggesting he’s immune to it.”

    Cleo felt her fur prickle. Immune? She’d wondered that herself, but hearing it so potentially cemented in reality brought a whole new meaning to the word. If Tinker was right, and there was a new pokemon type, then this was huge.

    “But it must be a slow process,” she said. “If it does turn out he’s immune to dragon-type attacks, then how are we going to find more like him? It won’t have just exploded across Estellis overnight, right?”

    “Let’s not be too hasty, Cleo,” said Tinker. “I’ve not had the chance to test him yet.”

    “When do you plan to run these tests?” Cleo ventured.

    “Why, right now, of course.” Tinker shoved his chair back from his desk and stood up. “Wait right here. I’m going to fetch your friend.”

    Cleo and Spark watched him leave, the pair of them wearing matching expressions of surprise.

    “I really don’t know how to take all this,” said Spark.

    “Me neither.” Cleo rubbed her paws over her face. “I’m beginning to think I’m still stuck in one of my crazy dreams.”

    Something sharp stabbed her arm and she yanked it into her body. “Ow!”

    Spark stared up at her from her lap. “Sorry. Just wanted to check.”

    Cleo rubbed her forearm. “So you bit me?”

    Spark raised her paws in a shrug.

    Cleo smirked and gave her friend a playful nudge. “You know that hurts, right?”

    “Yeah, well.” Spark puffed herself up to her full height. “Us little mice had to evolve some way to defend ourselves against you psychic cats.”

    Voices reached their ears before Tinker’s door opened again. The riolu strolled in with a rather talkative Mischief in tow, his eyes scanning over everything he saw. When his eyes fell on Cleo, they lit up with glee.

    “Cleo! Hi!”

    Cleo gave him a small smile. “Good to see you back on your feet.”

    He looked like he was about to respond, but he spotted the dedenne perched on the edge of Tinker’s desk.

    “And Spark! Hi!” Mischief continued gazing around the office, then tilted his head back towards the thick roots knotted across the ceiling. “Are we underground?”

    “You sound surprised,” said Spark. “How’ve you not noticed?”

    Mischief shrugged. “I’ve been asleep a lot. I’ve not really had the chance to look around.”

    “And that chance may be a long time coming.” Tinker tapped his desk impatiently with a claw. “You three can have your jovial reunion later. Right now, I have some questions to ask you.”

    Cleo’s ears turned back and she dug her claws into her knee. Jovial? Sometimes she felt like Tinker deliberately said such things to mock her.

    “Now, Mischief.” Tinker gestured to a stool buried in the corner of his chaos. “I’m of the understanding you have very little of your memories left? Namely no idea where you came from, how to get back there, or even what your birth name is?”

    Mischief finished dragging the stool back towards Cleo, leaving a trail of papers and doodles behind him. Once he’d sat himself upon it, he shook his head quickly.

    “Nothing leading up to your meeting with Cleo and Spark?” Tinker went on. “No idea why you woke up outside that Outcast town, out in the open where anyone could find you?”

    Mischief shook his head again. “Nope!”

    Tinker spread his paws. “And this doesn’t bother you, even in the slightest?”

    “Why, should it?” Mischief asked. “I mean, it’s not like I miss them or anything. Although I would like to know why I suddenly woke up here, when I last remember being in the forest with… what was it…?”

    “A noivern,” Cleo said bluntly.

    “Yes, Cleo said it attacked you on your way here.” Tinker leant back in his seat and twirled his quill between his claws. “Can you tell me exactly what happened there, Mischief? Namely how many attacks you used, and what?”

    “Huh!” Mischief rocked back on his stool as he gazed at the ceiling. “I can’t remember how many. Maybe three or four? I did save Cleo with a glowing green ball, though!”

    “Energy ball.” Tinker scrawled on a notebook with his quill and ink. “Any other attacks?”

    Mischief shrugged. “There’s a nice, sparkly one. They’re the only two I know, I think.” When Tinker stared at him blankly, Mischief turned his head away and his voice came out oddly small. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what they’re called.”

    “Well, as useful as it would be, it doesn’t matter.” Tinker rose from his seat and set his pad on his desk. “I’d like to run some tests on you, if you don’t mind?”

    “Are they fun?”

    “They’re certainly interesting.” Tinker turned his back to head towards a little door at the back of his office. “Although I’ll probably find this much more fun than you.”

    Mischief turned to Cleo and Spark for some kind of reassurance.

    Spark stood on her tiptoes and said, in a loud whisper, “He likes science.”

    “Ohh!” Mischief nodded and pursed his lips. “What’s science?”

    Cleo groaned and lowered her face into her paws. That kind of question could set the riolu off on a ramble for hours, but fortunately he was too involved with dragging his contraption of a machine over the floor to have heard it.

    It was an imposing machine that seemed to make the office look a lot smaller. It had a wide platform at the front, fenced in by iron rails that formed a dome over it like some kind of enclosure. At the back sat a concave disk propped atop a metal box covered in switches and levers. Behind all that was a piston, that at the moment was still.

    “This is a combat simulator,” he explained. “It is programmed to recognise all known pokemon moves, and their effectiveness against a set number of pokemon. It’s very much in its beta testing stages, although I’m the only one who’s tested it.”

    “Question!” Spark raised a paw. “If it only knows all known pokemon moves, how is it going to help us exactly?”

    “It is also programmed to recognise the energy that makes up pokemon moves, giving them their type effectiveness,” Tinker explained. “And, as you know, I have had some samples to hand in order to test this.”

    Mischief couldn’t have looked more confused. He clutched the edge of the stool between his legs, eyeing the machine as if he expected it to leap to life. Although there was no hint of fear or apprehension in his eyes. Just curiosity.

    Tinker turned to address him and pulled open the gate to the platform. “Could you please step inside? Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you.”

    Mischief slipped from his stool and obediently climbed onto the platform. Tinker immediately set about strapping him in, fastening a harness over his shoulders. Each one was attached to the platform, and covered in flashing doohickeys that Cleo couldn’t even begin to identify. She found herself wondering if the whimsicott’s lack of memories made him much more naive than he should be.

    Satisfied, Tinker made his way to the back of the machine and pulled on one of the levers. The machine let out a hiss as the piston pumped to life, and a small blue light inside the disk lit up.

    A smile spread across Tinker’s muzzle and he tapped on a small screen Cleo hadn’t seen straight away. “Well, it’s identified you. Whimsicott, type: grass!”

    “Huh.” Cleo folded her arms. “Then I guess it’s blown you theory that he possesses a new type out of the water?”

    Tinker didn’t look up from the array of buttons and levers. “Not exactly. I said this is programmed to identify the energy of moves, I haven’t extracted any DNA samples from a living specimen.” Then he added under his breath, “Yet.”

    The light inside the disk flared, and before it appeared a poochyena. The black dog-like creature lowered its head, and the fur along its hackles rose. It bared its teeth, letting out a low growl. Mischief took a step back, and Cleo leapt from her seat with her claws out.

    “Calm yourselves,” said Tinker. “It’s only an image, it isn’t real. Now, Mischief. You mentioned knowing an attack you described as ‘sparkly’?”

    “Oh yes!” Mischief beamed. “You want to see it?”

    “I do, but not just yet.” Tinker waved a paw. “Allow me to explain what I’m doing here. I’m conducting research, and I wish to know how your… sparkly attack… affects dragon and dark-type pokemon. Having none in the Guild, I’ve had to come up with other means to test different attacks on such pokemon. So, I constructed this battle simulator.” He gave the machine a fond pat. “It projects an image that is also capable of firing its own attacks, although they have a much lower damage output to avoid harming those I am testing on it. It’s enough to log a pokemon’s endurance against such attacks, however, which is recorded in the harness you are wearing. Have no fear, it won’t hurt at all. But you will still feel it.

    “When an attack is fired at the image, this huge disk records the damage output and the effectiveness on the pokemon it’s simulating. It can also detect whether the attack was fired with vehemence, so don’t be worried about confusing the machine with a critical hit.”

    Cleo exchanged worried glances with Spark.

    “Hang on, Tinker,” said Cleo. “Are you really sure this is such a good idea?” She gave him a look that prompted him to remember what they’d been discussing the previous night.

    “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve given this plenty of thought. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

    As if on cue, a loud snap came from the gate as the lock fired into place.

    Mischief glanced back at it and scratched his fluffy head. “What’s that for?”

    “Security reasons. Now! Shall we start? The simulation will attack you. When it does, you hit it back with your sparkly attack.” Tinker hit a button and stood back from the machine so he could see inside the cage.

    The poochyena opened its jaws and spat out a black, pulsing beam. It struck Mischief in the stomach and he chuckled.

    “That tickled.”

    “Hit it back, Mischief,” said Tinker with some level of impatience.

    Mischief obliged, spreading his arms and sending out that pink and purple light, shimmering with stars. It struck the poochyena head on. A look of surprise crossed its face and it blinked out of existence.

    Tinker rushed back to the machine and doubled over the screen with his paws either side of it. “It’s registered as incredibly effective! And as for you, Mischief, the dark pulse has registered at half its expected rate.”

    “So he resists it?” asked Cleo.

    “Yes… Which is not normal for a pure grass type.” Tinker stood up straight and jabbed at one of the buttons. His eyes widened and he rubbed his snout in thought. “It’s… updated his information. Given him a second typing, although of course it’s got no identification.”

    Cleo rose from her seat and went to join him. She didn’t know what she was looking at, she knew nothing about machines, that was Tinker’s forte. But she just had to see it for herself. A silhouette of a whimsicott graced the black and white screen, and beside it were the words ‘grass’ and something she couldn’t make out.

    Spark appeared on Tinker’s shoulder and frowned at the monitor. “What am I looking at?”

    “That… is just error code.” Tinker shooed the dedenne onto her partner so he could work the machine. “Now to test it against a dragon.”

    Cleo placed a paw on his shoulder. “Tinker. We need to be careful. We don’t-”

    “This test is going ahead,” he said in hushed tones. “If you’re worried, then you’re welcome to leave. But I actually want you here for this. If things work out as I’m expecting them to…” He looked up at Mischief, who was waiting patiently. “The same again! Okay?”

    “Okay!”

    Tinker stood back and a fraxure manifested before Mischief. It threw its arms out to the sides and opened its jaws wide, baring its sharp fangs. A pulse of purple energy sped towards the whimsicott, striking him in the chest. It washed over him like water, not even eliciting a chuckle like the previous attack.

    Mischief raised his paws and sent out another flurry of sparkling light. It struck the fraxure, and it fell back with a grunt before blinking out just like the poochyena.

    Tinker raced back to the machine with such enthusiasm he stumbled over his own feet. He clutched onto the monitor and stared down at it, unblinking.

    “It… it’s registered as extremely effective!” He took a few breaths to steady himself and ran a paw between his ears. “And it’s had absolutely no effect on Mischief.” He shook his head, stuttering slightly. “It… could be an error. Did it…” He looked up at the whimsicott. “Did you really not feel it?”

    Mischief shook his head.

    Tinker looked back down at the monitor. “I… I want to check how it works against a hydreigon.”

    Cleo grabbed his paw before he could bring up the simulation. “We’ve seen enough. We know it works now.”

    “But the simulation-”

    “It’s a simple case of maths,” said Cleo. “If it’s effective against both dark and dragon types, we already know what the result will be!”

    Tinker flexed his claws then sighed, relaxing his arm. He knew she was right. If they kept pushing Mischief, there was a possibility he might lose control again. Sure, confined to a cage, he posed less of a risk. They could even hide from his elemental attacks. But was it really fair on him?

    “I don’t mind fighting something else if it’s for research!” he said, rather too keenly. “But I do want to know why you’re all so excited about this. What’s it for, exactly? Am I being trained for something?”

    Tinker looked up at him slowly as though seeing him for the first time. Cleo and Spark followed his gaze, and it became increasingly obvious what it was that had struck the riolu.

    That question…

    Mischief had no memories.

    That meant he had absolutely no idea of the state of the world he was living in.
     
    Chapter 6
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    6 - The Quest​

    Yurlik strutted across the courtyard towards Hydreigon’s castle, his talons scraping over the dry earth. The honchkrow’s entire body ached as he struggled to drag the mangled carcass with him. He occasionally clicked his beak in frustration, beneath the odd mutter as he silently cursed whoever had done this to the dragon. More-so because the body was rapidly rendering his glossy black feathers into a sticky mess. He’d need a jolly good bath and a preen after this…

    The patter of stampeding feet rumbled through the air, and he looked up just in time to see two deino rushing towards him, snapping at each other with their jaws. The one in front jerked its head up, sniffing at the air.

    “I smell blood!”

    “Huh?!” The one chasing it seemed to have difficulty getting the message to ‘stop’ from its brain to its feet, and instead crashed right into its brethren.

    The pair rolled towards Yurlik in a bundle of fangs and claws and angry snarls, rapidly encroaching on the honchkrow and his ‘bad news’.

    Yurlik let out a startled caw and the carcass slipped from his back onto the dusty floor. He lashed out with his wings, sending the two deino away from him towards the lake. After a few moments, there was a satisfying splash, followed by the startled cries of the two dragons.

    Being blind was one thing, but being stupid was another entirely. It was baffling to thing that Hydreigon had evolved from such a creature. Yurlik shook his head and lowered himself to drag the mangled carcass onto his back once more. A struggle when one doesn’t have four sets of claws.

    The castle was only a few feet away. A huge stone building that towered over the Shadow Lands. Jagged, ebony spines jutted out of it from various angles, arcing up towards the sky like a twisted thorn bush. A herd of deino flocked before it, bumping into and snapping at one another, and stumbling over their dozing siblings. Yurlik marched through them, trying his best not to pay them any heed. Each one he passed lifted its head to sniff the air, and he soon had an entourage of curious, wingless dragons marching after him.

    He snapped his head around towards them and barked, “Will you lot leave me alone and go about your day!?”

    The dragons muttered to one another and turned, although some bumped their snouts on tails, causing a whole other ruckus that left the smell of blood abandoned for the sake of drawing more. Thankfully the herd moved away from the burdened honchkrow.

    When Yurlik reached the first of the stone steps, he lifted his head towards the door and sighed. One clawed foot after the other, carefully. Otherwise he’d send both himself and his unfortunate charge tumbling back down the stairs towards the deino.

    “You look like you’re having problems, fatso!”

    Yurlik’s red eyes shot up towards the roof of the castle. Grinning down at him was the shadowy form of a banette, sporting a heavy black scarf around his neck. Yurlik had to steady the carcass with his wings before it slipped off his back again.

    “You know, Enigma…” Yurlik said through a clenched beak. “Rather than sitting there smirking at me, you could help me carry it?”

    Enigma laughed and flopped forward, leaning his head in one paw. Each small movement created a jingle from some unseen bell. “I don’t think so. I’d get my claws dirty.”

    Yurlik muttered something incoherent under his breath, and hoisted himself up another few stairs. He could feel the banette’s crimson gaze burning into his feathers as the ghost sat there, clearly mocking him. Yurlik feared if it kept on like this, he’d put a foot wrong and go tumbling back down the stone steps, carcass and all. Right into the deino herd. That would give the stupid banette something to laugh about.

    Yurlik clenched his beak shut and kept on going. Just a little further… there. He stopped before the door and shifted his weight left and right as he fixed the iron door with each eye. With both his wings holding his ‘bad news’ in place, he had no other choice than to strike the door with his beak.

    “Yes?” Enigma’s grinning face appeared over the edge of the roof.

    Yurlik tutted and rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You’re the one on door duty?”

    Enigma nodded rapidly, creating a series of jingles.

    “You’re forgetting I have a type advantage, ghost! Get down here and let me in!”

    Enigma chuckled and leapt from the roof, vanishing into thin air. He reappeared beside Yurlik and slipped through the door like a grey mist. There was a loud click, and the double doors opened inward.

    Yurlik fired Enigma a glare and strode into the hall, the body’s claws scraping over the tiles and leaving an unsightly trail behind it.

    “You know…” Enigma fell into step beside Yurlik, his bell echoing off the bare stone walls. “The boss isn’t going to be very happy when you march into his throne room carrying that.”

    “I’m aware.”

    Enigma chuckled and tucked his paws behind his head. “It would seriously suck to be you right now.”

    Yurlik said nothing, marching silently down the hallway listening to that irritating jingle. Where did Enigma even hide that bell? His tail? Yurlik made a mental note to bite it off later and see.

    A pair of ebony doors stood at the end of the corner, with an intricate design carved into them. Dragon and dark-type pokemon flew around the image of a hydreigon, posed to resemble a trident.

    Enigma cut before Yurlik and threw the double doors wide open, striding in with a phenomenal amount of confidence.

    “Boss! The fat bird’s back with a delivery for you!”

    “Don’t you dare address me like that, you insolent ghost!” The voice rumbled off the walls. “If you dare do that again, I’ll grind you down into dust!”

    Enigma bust into fits of hysterical laughter and shot off towards the far corner of the room, where he blended seamlessly into the shadows. The only sign he was even still there was that irritating jingle.

    Yurlik glared into the far corner, wondering how someone could have such pompous confidence to remain in Hydreigon’s throne room. He then looked up at the huge hulking dragon lying by the far wall.

    “Come in, Yurlik.” Hydreigon’s voice was softer this time, but carried the warning that this had better be worth his time. “What is it you’re wanting to show me?”

    Two candles burned above the door, leaving most of the room in darkness. Hydreigon’s shadow flickered across the back wall, making him look a lot larger than he was (which was already large enough.) Yurlik crept warily into the middle of the room and shed the carcass, where it landed with an unsatisfying splat. He then cleared his throat and spread his wings in a bow as he stepped back from it.

    “What is this?” Hydreigon spat.

    “This is Boomer, my lord.”

    Hydreigon lurched forward, the jaws of his two smaller heads snapping. Yurlik leapt back in a flurry of feathers, letting out an embarrassing caw. Hydreigon paid no notice. He stared down at the body, his nostrils flaring as he sniffed around it, just to be certain what he was seeing.

    “This is my top ace?!” he roared. “I thought no pokemon could beat a noivern!”

    “I thought I was your top ace!” Enigma whined from the shadows.

    Hydreigon’s right pincer-like limb turned towards the banette and fired off a dark pulse. It hit the wall with a splat, followed by a surprised jingle that suggested Enigma had done the wise thing and leapt out of the way.

    Yurlik cowered by the door, his sticky feathers puffed up entirely against his will. He watched as Hydreigon took in Boomer’s mangled form before settling back against the far wall.

    “So tell me,” Hydreigon began. “Where did you find him? What exactly happened for him to be reduced to…” He waved a pincer at the body, “this.”

    Yurlik cleared his throat and strutted back into the room. “I didn’t, my lord. Two murkrow arrived back here in a shocking state. They told me Boomer had been killed just inside the Moorlands Forest, a two day’s flight from here.”

    “Two day’s flight?” Hydreigon asked, eerily softly. “He’d been missing for two seasons!” The final sentence was spoken with such ferocity, Yurlik keeled backwards, almost stepping through the door.

    “Yes, they… a flock of murkrow found him. He’d been… kept by the Heretics, my lord.”

    “The Heretics?” Hydreigon paused, rubbing one of the smaller heads beneath his chin. “What would they want with him?”

    “I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” said Yurlik. “We don’t know for certain. He was apparently being held there, but not out of malice. Once they were done with him, they asked the murkrow to accompany him back to the Shadow Lands and be his eyes during the day. It would seem he was sent back here with some haste. Apparently he had some information to give you, which wasn’t disclosed to my flock. But of course…” Yurlik waved a wing at the noivern’s body, “he cannot do that now.”

    Hydreigon was silent, his red eyes no longer on the noivern but fixed on some vague point across the room as they glazed over with thought.

    “If you’re looking for a plan of action, we may be able to track down who did this to him,” Yurlik suggested. “You see, the murkrow stopped by the outskirts for help, since they couldn’t carry Boomer back by themselves. It was Ripwing who brought him back here.” He paused an gave a nervous chuckle as Hydreigon’s eyes flashed. “You know how fast salamence can fly-”

    The large dragon lurched towards him, bowling the honchkrow onto his back. He let out a loud caw, which was cut short as his head struck the tiles. Hydreigon’s nose pressed against his beak and he could feel his hot breath on his face.

    “Don’t you ever mention that name in my presence!”

    Yurlik’s heart hit his throat and he swallowed audibly. He tried to apologise, but all that came out was a strangled squeak.

    Hydreigon gestured to the fallen noivern with one of his smaller heads. “Who did this to him?” His warm breath washed over Yurlik, and sent cold shivers of fear through his hollow bones.

    “Th-that I can answer,” Yurlik stuttered. “It was three pokemon. A meowstic, dedenne and whimsicott. The… the latter is the one who reduced Boomer to such a state, my lord.”

    Hydreigon’s body stiffened and he met the honchkrow’s eyes. Something seemed to pass over his face that Yurlik wasn’t able to place. Recognition? Fear? Whatever it was, it was fleeting. The dragon fell back from him, allowing Yurlik to struggle back to his feet.

    “I need to have those three eradicated,” Hydreigon said quietly, almost to himself. Then he looked up at Yurlik again. “I shall send out my next trump card.”

    “Ooh!” Enigma jingled excitedly in the corner. “What do you want me to do?”

    “Not you!” Hydreigon roared. “I have another tool in mind for this task.” He leant his head on one of his pincers and fixed the corner of the room with one eye. “Enigma, remove this mess and fetch me Harlequin.”

    Enigma stepped out of the corner, a disappointed frown replacing his former grin. “You want me to clean this up? Me?”

    “Do you have a problem?” Hydreigon’s voice was coated with a deadly layer of ice.

    Enigma faltered and his shoulders sagged. “No. Leave it to me.” The banette grabbed Boomer’s body by the legs and lugged it after him. “I’ll find a mop and bucket or something.”

    Hydreigon watched him leave then turned back to Yurlik.

    “Close the door.”

    Yurlik obeyed, bowing before throwing both heavy doors closed with his wings, silencing the rhythmic chime of Enigma’s bell. He turned back to Hydreigon and cleared his throat before saying, “Please pardon me for saying this, my lord, but I don’t understand why you won’t just kill the wretched creature.”

    “Enigma is the best at gathering intel,” Hydreigon said through a growl. “You know that.”

    “But he’s neither dark nor-”

    “Don’t question my motives, Yurlik.”

    Yurlik lowered his head and muttered, “Sorry, my lord.”

    “Now.” Hydreigon leant his head on one of his pincers, and eyed the other like a child with a sock puppet. “After this little event, I think this is a wake-up call to pick up pace with my plan.”

    Yurlik looked back up at him, trembling. “You don’t mean-”

    “I want every pokemon with wings in my army to spread out across Estellis.” Hydreigon fixed one eye on Yurlik. “That includes your flying mob. Double up on their duties if you have to. We’re going to find that cocoon before this… incident… expands into a much bigger problem.”

    ...​

    Cleo slept much better that night. The previous day had been exhausting, explaining to Mischief about the state of Estellis. They’d covered everything - Hydreigon’s fierce rule, how only dark, dragon and ghost-type pokemon were part of his vision for Estellis and if you didn’t fall into any of those typings you were wiped out. They’d explained how the world was divided into three: Outcasts, Heretics and Darkness, and what each of them did; how the Heretics were foolish, trying to win over forces that would exploit them, and how they were swiftly disposed of once their use had run out; the gradual spread of the Darkness across Estellis; and the formation of the Guild to protect the vulnerable members of the Outcasts from being eradicated by the Darkness.

    By the time they’d finished covering everything, dinner had long since passed and each one of them was exhausted. Mischief had turned a pale colour, staring at the floor between his feet silently for a long, painful moment until Tinker finally dismissed him. He was taken by Melody back to the medical ward for a rest and another check over (although Cleo knew it was to keep a watch on him perchance he decided which of those factions he wanted to belong in, and rejected the Outcasts). Cleo, being too tired to eat, went straight to her nest, while Spark declared ‘explaining stuff was hungry work’ and took a detour by the kitchen to see if she could rustle up something to eat.

    It was now morning, and Cleo lay on her back on her nest, staring at the ceiling as she recapped the previous day. She wasn’t prepared to go downstairs to see what happened next. She was too afraid to discover Mischief had turned to the Heretics and was threatening New City. But after hunger gnawed at her stomach for the umpteenth time, she gave in and followed her appetite down to the dining hall.

    Spark was already there, tucking into an overflowing plate of berries. Cleo had fallen asleep no sooner had her head hit the hay, and she found herself wondering if Spark had been in the dining hall all night. She took a perch beside the dedenne, receiving a warm smile.

    “Good mornin’!” said Spark. “Sorry I scooted off, I didn’t want to wake you. You were snoring like an ursaring during the cold season.”

    A large bear-like pokemon looked up, startled, from opposite them, shrugged then returned to his meal.

    Spark returned to her plate with all the intensity of a half-starved tyranitar.

    “It’s good to see you have an appetite,” said Cleo.

    “Well, yeah!” Spark swallowed her mouthful and wiped her paw across her whiskers. “Don’t you?”

    “Yes, actually.” Cleo heaped her plate with dried fish and berry toast, coating the latter with cheri jam.

    She ate in silence, savouring her meal and trying desperately not to re-live the previous day yet again. She tuned in to the conversations around her, instead, picking up various exploits of the Darkness and what the other Guild Warriors had been up to.

    Murkrow sighted in the Moorlands Forest, along with strange noises reported from deep within.

    A pair of sneasel apprehended on the other side of the Silent Mountains.

    No sign of rain any time soon.

    “Good morning!”

    She looked up with a start as Tinker flopped down beside her and began piling up his own plate.

    Cleo swallowed her mouthful and licked jam off her claws. “You seem cheerful!”

    “I have reason to be,” he said. “I was actually hoping to find you both in here, actually.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes.” He met her curious gaze and smiled. “Would you both mind joining me in my office again?”

    “What for this time?” Cleo returned to her plate. “More experiments? Found out something else new? Or did we forget something yesterday?”

    “I actually have a request of you,” he said. “But it’s not something I wish to discuss here. If you don’t mind?” He stood and lifted his plate in one paw.

    Cleo watched him for a moment, realising she didn’t actually have any say in the matter. She let out a small sigh and licked her paw clean.

    “Sure,” she said. “I’ve finished here anyway. Spark?”

    Spark clutched a berry in both paws and her eyes widened so much they took up most of her face. “But… but I’m not finished!”

    “Bring it with you.” Cleo picked up Spark’s plate, much to her protests, and turned to leave the dining hall.

    “Actually, if you don’t mind…” Tinker lifted a paw to stop her. “I don’t allow food in my office. Berry juice makes an awful mess, and I have important documents everywhere.”

    Cleo gave Spark an apologetic look and shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry, Spark.”

    Spark threw her arms in the air and wailed. “Aww, you’re slayin’ me!”

    Mumbling incoherently under her breath, the dedenne followed them through the corridors towards Tinker’s office.

    The riolu nudged his office door open and faltered in the doorway. “Oh…”

    Mischief looked up from Tinker’s desk, clutching a few sheets of paperwork in his paws. “Hi there!”

    “What are you doing in here?” Tinker swiftly abandoned his plate on his desk to take the papers from Mischief.

    “Melody let me in,” he explained. “She said you wanted to see me?”

    Tinker muttered something about ‘rules’ and ‘boundaries’ that went mostly unheard by Mischief as he turned to address Cleo and Spark.

    “Are you feeling any better?” Cleo asked, somewhat relieved her fears had been nothing more than just that.

    “Oh yes!” Mischief closed his eyes and nodded. “I think I’ve understood it all.”

    “Good,” said Tinker before Cleo could respond. “Now sit.”

    Mischief flopped onto the nearest stool, while Tinker nudged over his seat beside Cleo, sitting - she thought - unnecessarily close to her. He rifled through the papers he’d managed to rustle off his desk and relaxed back in his seat.

    “I have a small request for you,” he explained. “All three of you, actually.”

    Cleo looked over at a rather curious Mischief.

    “Yes, I’m sending him out with you,” said Tinker. “But I’ll get to that in a moment. You see, I need you to do some investigating for me. I’m very curious, and concerned, as to what a noivern was doing hovering around here during the day. As you both well know, noivern are nocturnal by nature and cannot see very well during daylight. Which would explain why you all came off better than expected in that fight.”

    Cleo grimaced at that, and decided to push the horrible thought aside. She deeply felt, if not for Mischief, neither her nor Spark would have come out of that battle alive.

    “I’m wondering if it was sent to snoop around,” Tinker went on. “My biggest fear is it was seeking out New City, that perhaps a Guild Warrior didn’t keep his vow of secrecy, as you well know that each Warrior in the Guild are sworn to secrecy even to death. This is unlikely, but not impossible. However, I want to make sure this isn’t the case. If word gets back to Hydreigon about New City, then it could spell trouble for each and every one of us.”

    “And you need us to take Mischief for this?” Cleo scoffed.

    “Yes. I wish to test his skills in this area. If any more of the Darkness are hovering around here, then his ability to combat them is second to none.”

    “Does this mean I’m a Guild member?” Mischief asked, a little too happily.

    “No, just a tool I am using,” Tinker said bluntly. “You’ll be leaving here blindfolded, and once you are far away from New City only then is Cleo permitted to remove it. And, like everyone here, you must swear never to even breath the name ‘New City’ above the surface. Understood?”

    Mischief nodded so quickly little white tufts fluttered from his fur.

    “Now,” Tinker went on. “I sent out a search party to recover the noivern’s body. I wanted to be sure of the dragon’s identity, since… well, Hydreigon does have a noivern ace in his team.”

    “Boomer,” said Spark.

    “Precisely. Of course, no one has fought him and survived, so it would be difficult to discern who he is without the aide of any of the Darkness to confirm. We do have some in custody who would be more than willing to tell us the noivern’s identity given the right incentive. However, once the search party reached the area you gave me, the noivern’s body was gone.”

    Cleo felt a chill travel down her spine. Gone?

    “I doubt they were in the wrong place, since the floor was a mess of blood and feathers,” Tinker went on. “So either the noivern survived and recovered enough to crawl away, or someone has been to collect it. This deeply worries me, as it may confirm my fears. So I want you to investigate the surrounding area to see if you can find any reason as to what a noivern was doing flying over the Moorlands, and if possible, where it came from.”

    Cleo nodded. “Sure. We can do that.”

    “I have a question.” Mischief raised a paw. “Who killed the noivern?”

    Tinker looked over at the whimsicott, and Cleo braced herself for Tinker to bluntly tell Mischief exactly who killed the noivern.

    “It was killed in battle,” Tinker told him. “As you are now aware, this world is a live or die one at the moment. These things, sadly, do happen.” He turned back to his notes, and Cleo stared at him dumbfounded, prompting an explanation. But she didn’t get one. “Now, I would like you three to set off as soon as possible, if you don’t mind?”

    It wasn’t a question, it was an instruction.

    “Sure.” Cleo rose from her seat. “I’ll just go and grab some extra supplies.”

    “No need.” Tinker waved a paw. “All of that has been dealt with for you.” He leant across his desk and pushed a button on the wall that triggered a faint chime in the room.

    Within moments, the two guards who had been assigned to Mischief - the growlithe and pikachu - strolled through the door. The pikachu handed Cleo a paper bag.

    “You will find everything you need in there,” said Tinker. “Now boys, could you please escort this fine fellow from New City? Don’t forget the blindfold.”

    The guards motioned for Mischief to follow them, leading him from the room. Cleo got up to follow them and stopped at the door, closing it silently. She turned her head towards Tinker and bared her fangs.

    “Would you mind explaining why you didn’t tell him he killed that noivern?” she hissed. “And why you’re still holding from him the fact he has pokerus?!”

    “Simple,” said Tinker. “We told him in great detail what the world is like only last night. That’s a lot of information for him to take in. If we were to tell him now that not only has he contracted a mutated strain of pokerus, but that he also killed another pokemon with no memory of it, how do you think he’d react?”

    Cleo blinked a few times and leant back against the wall.

    Spark looked up at her sadly then turned back to Tinker. “It would break him.”

    “Precisely,” said Tinker. “He may also decide to abstain from any mission I wish to send him on, and despite his condition, he is a very capable fighter and one of very few chances - if not the only chance - we have of turning this war in our favour. Perhaps even going so far as to defeat Hydreigon! I want Mischief to find his feet before I tell him any of this.”

    Cleo made a thoughtful noise, but she wasn’t convinced. “And what of him being a Heretic? No one has told him that yet, and I think it’s within his right to know.”

    “You really think it’s wise to impart that?” Tinker scoffed. “What if he decides to return to them in a bid to discover more about himself, and turn on us?”

    “Yeah!” Spark snapped. “What if he does turn on us, Tinker? Like when he attacked Cleo? And you’re sending us off on some quest with him!”

    Tinker smiled at that and leant against his desk. “Spark, my friend, if he does happen to lose control again, I think you two are more than capable of handling him. Just like you did the last time.”

    Cleo and Spark exchanged glances and sighed.

    “Fine,” said Cleo. “We’ll comply with you this time. But I think you’re being cruel not to tell him everything, Tinker.” She turned to leave the room.

    “There’s such a thing as being cruel to be kind, Cleo.”

    She faltered with her claws on the doorknob, and her fur bristled along her back.

    “He’ll find out in due time,” Tinker went on. “I won’t keep it from him forever. Now take care, and I’ll see you all back here soon.”

    She glanced back at him, but he’d returned to his desk, scratching away with his quill and ink. Dismissed. She motioned for Spark to get onto her shoulder, then she closed the door behind her and followed the corridor towards the exit.

    The two guards were stood waiting with Mischief at the end of the corridor. Mischief was sporting a red blindfold which he appeared to be willing his paws to keep away from. The pikachu clutched his arm firmly and nodded when he saw them.

    “This way,” he said.

    The guards didn’t lead them towards the market hall. Instead, they followed a winding tunnel that was only used as an exit. It was narrow, forcing them into single file, and was lit up every few feet by a candle held in an iron beam. They walked in silence, to Cleo’s surprise. She’d expected at least some questions from Mischief.

    The tunnel wasn’t alien to Cleo. She’d used it once before. It led to one of New City’s many exit hatches that was set up in such a way it could never be used as an entrance. Only two of New City’s gates could be used as both, and the general rule was that you never left the same way you came in. If one of Hydreigon’s soldiers saw you vanish and reappear again in the same place, then they’d likely assume that something was hidden there and New City may be found. So leaving by a different point greatly reduced that risk.

    The pikachu stopped at the end of the tunnel and reached up to unlock the stone slab in the ceiling with his badge. It rotated to the side on its timed mechanism, and they helped Mischief through onto the surface. Cleo followed behind, setting Spark on the ground before clambering out just in time. The slab slid back into place, almost invisible in the stone floor.

    Cleo stood and dusted herself down. They were now in a cave lit up by a trickle of daylight ahead of them. A faint drip echoed from deep within, the only sound save for the odd rustle of dry leaves from the wind outside. She took Mischief’s paw and led him out of the cave onto a mountain path.

    She stopped to take in her surroundings, squinting against the dazzling sunlight. It was a lot brighter than initially lead to believe. She strained her ears, listening for any sounds on the wind, but as she expected there was nothing. They were called the Silent Mountains for a reason. The pokemon that had inhabited them had long since left, save for those who inhabited New City well beneath the surface. Even the wind made very little noise, and no pokemon had been sighted in the mountains for many years, save for the very occasional Guild Warrior. Cleo hadn’t marked it as a red cross on her map, since it was still safe for the Outcasts to step foot on. None of the Darkness had been sighted there… yet.

    She moved them along until the cave mouth was well behind them. The mountain path was treacherous, littered with loose rocks that threatened to throw off their footing. A few slid away to clatter down the mountain side, making more noise than Cleo felt was necessary. Once the ground had widened out onto flatter land, they could finally spread out, and Cleo stopped to remove Mischief’s blindfold.

    “Wow!” he exclaimed, rubbing his eyes with both paws. “It’s so bright!”

    Cleo stiffened, glancing around them. Mischief’s voice echoed through the emptiness and she snapped back towards him, shushing him harshly.

    “Keep it down!” she hissed. “We don’t want any unwelcome visitors.”

    He nodded his understanding and placed a claw over his lips.

    Cleo sighed and shook her head, continuing to lead the way along the path to the forest. He barely made any sound behind her, treading lightly… and a little slowly.

    Cleo groaned inwardly and balled her paws into fists. This was going to be a long mission, if not a potentially fatal one.
     
    Chapter 7
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    This chapter gets a little gruesome towards the end

    7 - Disaster in the Mountains​

    Hydreigon watched the throne room door close behind Harlequin’s black tail, and leant his head on one of his pincers. A long moment passed, but it was pretty evident the large dragon was listening from the way his head inclined on one side.

    Finally, he said, “Enigma?”

    The banette smirked from his corner. He leant back against the wall, trailing his fingers through the end of his long mane.

    “I know you’re still here,” Hydreigon said. “It’s been a long time since I heard your bell.”

    “Of course,” Enigma replied. “You usually send me out with Harlequin. I wanted to know what was so important that you had to send him out on his own.”

    Hydreigon turned his head slightly to fix one red eye on Enigma. “Few pokemon would have such audacity to lurk in my throne room and eavesdrop.”

    His voice sent a chill through the banette, and for a brief moment Enigma considered reducing his density enough to slip through the stone wall to safety. But Hyreigon turned away again and exchanged a silent conversation with his left pincer. Enigma thought he saw him make it nod.

    “I want you to put that audacity of yours to good use, Enigma,” the dragon went on. “I have a special assignment for you.”

    “Ooh?” Enigma pushed himself back from the wall to follow it around towards the door. “And what might that be?”

    “As you well know, due to the incessant need you have to listen in on the conversations I have with your superiors,” Hydreigon said slowly, “Boomer was sent back here with information from the Heretics. However, that information never reached me.” He finished whatever silent conversation he’d been having with his pincer and rested his head on it, while the other traced the tiles on the floor. “Apparently it was from some Heretics deep in the Moorlands Forest. I want you to seek out those Heretics and retrieve that information for me.”

    “By any means necessary.” Enigma nodded and turned towards the door. “Got it.”

    “No!” Hydreigon’s roar shook the walls, freezing Enigma to the spot. “This is an intelligence mission, not an assassination! You gather the information and bring it back to me. That is all.”

    “But what if they don’t speak?” Enigma feigned a pathetic expression that caused Hydreigon’s lip to curl. “They’re so much more willing to talk when I scare them a bit.”

    Hydreigon’s voice rumbled through the air. “If you leave a trail of blood, Enigma, then I’ll leave a trail of yours all the way back to the Shadow Mountains! I want this information, and the dead don’t talk.”

    Enigma raised his paws in defeat. “Okay, okay. I’ll do it the hard way.”

    He grabbed one of the door handles to yank it open.

    “Oh, and Enigma…”

    A chill ran down the banette’s spine, and he fixed one eye back on the dragon. “Yes, boss?”

    “Don’t mess this up.”

    The warning note in that statement turned Enigma’s blood to ice. He swallowed around a lump in his throat and slipped through the door, closing it behind him.

    Out in the hall, the air felt a lot lighter. He straightened out his scarf and let out a small chuckle as he headed for the main doors. So he got to play with the Heretics. This should be fun. He couldn’t deny that he was curious what information they were so desperate to get back to Hydreigon.

    Maybe he’d even run into the three pokemon Harlequin had been sent out to assassinate.

    He paused at the top of the castle stairs, high enough to see over the treetops of the Border Woods. He could just make out the vivid blue markings he was so familiar with just before they vanished into the trees. A chuckle escaped his throat and he leapt from the steps, vanishing in mid air. He reappeared at the edge of the courtyard, landing neatly on the stone wall. Another leap and he materialised on a sturdy bough of an ancient tree. He couldn’t teleport like psychic pokemon could. This method allowed ghost-type pokemon to cover ground more quickly, from one point to another provided they could see it from where they stood. It was efficient, but tiring.

    He came to a stop in the canopy just inside the Border Woods and settled back against its trunk. He toyed with the tattered hem of his scarf, smirking to himself as he listened to the crunch of fallen leaves as Harlequin drew closer.

    “If you’re thinking of pranking me, you’ve got another thing coming.”

    A small, shaggy zorua rounded the bend in the path and fixed a pair of blue eyes on him briefly. Enigma tutted and rolled his eyes.

    “That bell of yours might unnerve your targets,” Harlequin went on as they passed by beneath him. “But to me it’s like a siren. That’s why you’re so terrible at hide and seek.”

    “You ruin all my fun.” Enigma stood and leapt across the treetops to keep up with the zorua. “Can’t you just play along?”

    “What, you want me to act surprised?” Harlequin grinned up at him. “You’re an idiot.”

    Enigma gave the zorua a playful glare. “The last pokemon to call me that didn’t even get the chance to apologise, Harle.”

    Harlequin laughed and shook their head. “So… I guess Hydreigon has sent us out together again?”

    “Not this time.”

    “Really? Then why are you following me?”

    “Argh!” Enigma clasped a paw to his chest and stumbled back into the trunk of a tree. “You seem unhappy to see me!”

    Harlequin shook their head again, leaving Enigma to his melodramatic whimpering. Enigma warped two trees ahead and kept pace with the zorua.

    “Hydreigon has sent me on an intel mission,” he explained. “So you’ll have to do without me this time.”

    “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” said Harlequin. “It’s not the first time I’ve gone without your help.”

    “Then hopefully you won’t mess up.”

    “You have that little faith in me?” Harlequin gave him a playful grin.

    “No, no!” Enigma tucked his paws behind his head, moving along the narrow branches with impeccable balance. “You’re a pro.”

    “Sarcasm?” Harlequin raised an eyebrow. “Who bailed you out when we had to take out those outlaws?”

    “I wasn’t expecting them to have an obstagoon in their ranks!” Enigma scoffed. “Any other day, I’d have fared just fine.”

    Harlequin didn’t laugh at that, instead diverting their gaze to the shadows beyond the path. There was nothing there, it was just a means to hide their face.

    Enigma decided it was probably best to change the subject. “So, are you heading to the Moorlands, or do you have another trick under your collar?”

    “I plan to head to the Moorlands, unless I get wind of something else,” Harlequin answered. “That’s where those three pokemon were spotted last. I’m hoping I can pick up their trail, since it’s not rained in a few days.”

    “So we’re going the same way?” Enigma chuckled. “That’s convenient.”

    “Well, you might not want to stick with me,” said Harlequin, drawing a confused look from the banette. “I’m taking the river.”

    Enigma’s heart sank. “The river?”

    “I’m hiring a boat,” Harlequin explained. “It’ll get me there much faster, and I don’t want the trail to run cold.”

    Enigma dragged his paws over his face and groaned.

    “Like I said.” Harlequin grinned up at him. “You might not want to stick with me.”

    “I hate boats!”

    “Then you’re on your own!” Harlequin skipped on ahead, casting a sapphire glance back in the banette’s direction.

    Enigma shook his head as he mused over his options. Travelling alone was so frightfully dull, and it was a long way to the Moorlands Forest. He watched after Harlequin for a little while, then resigning himself to his options, he kicked off the branch to land in the canopy just above Harlequin.

    “I’ll stick with you as far as the river,” he said. “After that, we part ways.”

    Harlequin tipped their head back and laughed. “Oh, you shadowy mess. We all know you’re going to get on that boat.”

    Enigma mumbled under his breath, “We’ll see about that.”

    ...​

    “I don’t like this!” Spark squeaked. “I don’t like this one bit!”

    Cleo couldn’t agree more. The mountain river had been reduced to a dry gorge. It wound its silent way down through the mountain slope, through the edge of the forest. The trees alongside it were almost entirely bare of their leaves. Not unusual at this time of year, but what was left of the leaves were shockingly dry. The low-growing plants and shrubs that surrounded them, along with every bulrush, drooped sadly, brown and withered. The further away from the river they plants grew, the greener they looked, while those in between were a sickly yellow.

    “How on earth does an entire river just dry up like that?” Spark shook her head. “I don’t get it.”

    “Neither do I,” said Cleo. “It’s unsettling. I can think of a couple of reasons, but the emptiness of these mountains debunks them all.”

    “What? Like a snorlax fell asleep somewhere and blocked it?” asked Spark.

    Mischief gave the dedenne a confused look then returned to gazing at the river.

    “Kind of,” said Cleo. “But if that were the case, some water would still get by. A bibarel dam was my main guess, but… it doesn’t make any sense.”

    “It’s not rained in a while, has it?” Mischief asked. “Maybe that’s the case.”

    “No. If it was drought related, more damage would have happened inside the forest,” Cleo explained. “This looks almost deliberate.”

    “A fire, maybe?” Spark suggested. “Maybe… I don’t wanna say it, Cleo, but…” She lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “The Wildfires?”

    Cleo’s fur stood on end and she clutched her satchel strap, digging her claws into her fur. She didn’t want to think it could be Hydreigon’s ‘howling inferno’.

    “I don’t know. Could they have dried up an entire river?” Her voice wavered at the thought. She paused to clear her throat. “But wouldn’t there be blackening on the trees? We’d need to get closer to investigate.”

    “We’d need to find a way down first,” said Spark. “That slope is mighty steep.”

    Cleo took a step back from the outcrop and nodded. “I kind of want to go back and see if the Guild is still getting water. But… no.” She shook her head. “I think we’re best trying to find the river’s source. That way, we can find out if something’s blocking it. It’s not entirely impossible there’s been a land slide.”

    “How do we do that?” Spark asked. “It could be anywhere in this mountain. If we move too far away, then we’re gonna lose the river and have to back-track.”

    “Spark’s right,” said Mischief. “We’ll need to listen for a spring, and follow it.”

    Cleo gave the whimsicott a dumbfounded look. Listen for a spring? Well, the mountains were oddly silent, with only the odd breeze stirring through the foliage. But how would they listen for water?

    Wait…

    Cleo turned her head back towards the river. If it was fed by a spring, then…

    “It’s lower down,” she said.

    “Eh?” Spark inched forward on Cleo’s shoulder to see her face.

    “If it’s a spring that feeds it,” Cleo explained, “then the source would be lower down.”

    “You’re jumping to conclusions,” Spark scoffed. “First find one flowing spring, and then jump to conclusions!”

    “No,” said Mischief from behind them. “Water flows down! Not up!”

    “Huh.” Spark inclined her head on one side and scratched her chin. “Good point. Then… Urgh, then we need to climb higher, right?”

    “Not necessarily,” said Mischief.

    Cleo turned to look at Mischief, who was stood several feet away with his ear to the ground and his bottom in the air.

    “I hear water,” he said. “But it’s faint.”

    “Because something’s blocking it?” Cleo asked.

    Mischief stood and looked up at the slope beside them. Then he leapt into the air and drifted lightly up onto the loose rocks. Cleo braced herself, ready to scold the whimsicott for taking such a foolish risk, but his light footing didn’t dislodge a single one. He hopped over them like wind.

    She let out a breath she’d been holding and leant back against a slender fir trunk. If she’d attempted that climb, she’d have caused a mini-landslide, sending both her and Spark tumbling back down to their deaths. Maybe Mischief had more use to the Guild than a mere trump card for Tinker?

    She jolted back from the tree as Mischief vanished out of sight beyond a clump of ferns. Not wanting to lose him, she moved along the path until she caught sight of him again. He bobbed up and down as he pressed his ear to the ground, following the water source. After a while, he looked up at them and beamed, before skipping his way back down the slope.

    “I’ve found it!” he said cheerily.

    “Then shouldn’t you be following it?” Spark asked.

    “I am! It runs right beneath your feet.”

    Cleo looked down at her paws, then back up at Mischief. “How are you doing this?”

    “I might have no memories,” he said. “But I know what water sounds like. I think it’s what you call ‘instinct’.”

    Cleo blinked a few times. Of course. Many, many years ago, grass-type pokemon used to live around large bodies of water. Perhaps they were naturally drawn to it?

    A smile spread across her muzzle and she stood aside, gesturing a paw. “Then lead the way.”

    “Gladly!” he said. “We need to go down that slope.”

    Cleo clenched her teeth together and turned towards the steep incline. This wasn’t going to be easy. She crouched on all-fours to peer over the edge, searching for the best way down. Her eyes fell on a cave several feet away, the lip of it protruding slightly from the rock face, the remains of an outcrop that had been clipped by a few too many landslides. Her first thought was that it would provide a convenient foot-hold as they slid their way down, even if it was a little out of the way of the spring’s flow, and a rather dangerous trip, to boot. But then she noticed the deep crevice leading out of it, curling and twisting to join the river below.

    Mischief stood carefully behind Cleo, speaking in a low voice so as not to startle her over the edge. “Is everything okay?”

    “Not really.” She swallowed dryly and pushed herself back up. “The source seems to be that cave over there. It… runs all the way through the mountain.”

    “Is that a problem?” Mischief’s voice was thick with innocence.

    Cleo seethed. Did he have no idea at all? “Of course it’s a problem!” She twisted on the spot to face him, but before she could elaborate her foot landed on thin air and she stumbled backwards.

    Mischief grabbed her flailing paw and yanked her back from the edge, sending her sprawling onto her stomach. Spark rolled off her shoulder and sat up a couple of feet away. She shook her little head and fixed Mischief with wide, black eyes.

    “Watch what you’re doin’!” she gasped.

    Mischief’s face fell and he looked between the two of them. “I… I’m sorry.”

    “No, it was my fault.” Cleo stood up and brushed a few stray pine needles off her fur. “I was careless.” She took a breath and glanced back at the steep drop. “You just saved my life.”

    “Oh.” Mischief shrugged. “I guess I did.”

    “That’s twice now…” She trailed off as confusion washed over the whimsicott’s face. Of course, she couldn’t tell him.

    He tilted his head to the side. “Twice?”

    “Yes.” She crouched down so Spark could hop back onto her shoulder. “You distracted that noivern, remember?”

    “Nice save,” Spark mumbled in her ear.

    “Oh yes!” Mischief beamed. “With my glowing green ball!”

    “Energy ball,” Cleo corrected. “And I’m sorry, Mischief. I shouldn’t have snapped like that. Of course you’re not going to know where that cave leads.”

    He shook his head slowly. “No. Is it bad?”

    “It might be,” Cleo said quietly. “We’re going to have to find a way down, and fast. I have a horrible feeling in my stomach.”

    “So do I,” said Spark. “And it ain’t hunger. That spring, the cave… where do you think it all goes?”

    Cleo had her suspicions, but she didn’t want to admit it. Putting it into words would only solidify her fears. All she knew was that something was blocking off the water supply, and it could go one of two ways - a natural accident, or malicious intent.

    She deeply hoped it wasn’t the latter.

    ...​

    The path down to the cave was a precarious one. After trekking back and forth for most of the morning to try and find another way down, they’d given up and decided to try out Cleo’s first idea - working their way down to the lip of the cave.

    Mischief made it look easy, skipping over jagged rocks and splintered wood that jutted out at deadly angles. The remains of unfortunate trees that had received a pummelling from one too many avalanches. Cleo found herself noting each one while placing each paw carefully. One wrong move and she would soon find herself either impaled, or tumbling down the rest of the slope.

    Loose rocks slipped beneath her paws, threatening to roll away. The fear she might cause a landslide increased with each one, and she clutched onto anything that her paws found desperately. She’d never been good on mountains. She’d grown up in a forest, surrounded by rocky planes. Everything had been flat. No need to climb, unless it was a tree. Climbing over rocks was very different to climbing a tree.

    Spark scampered along beside Mischief with more ease than Cleo, yet she had her own problems. At one point, a small stone gave way and Spark slid down the slope on her belly, only coming to a stop when she was caught in some large leaves sprouting out of the rocky ground.

    Finally, they reached the cave opening and perched on it. Going down either side would be a potentially deadly endeavour. The cave was a lot wider than Cleo had first thought, and it was a pretty nasty drop from all angles. The dried river was dotted with debris that could cushion their fall, but it also hid the rocks that would inevitably be there.

    “So,” said Spark. “How do we get down?”

    “Easy!” With a little hop, Mischief leapt from his perch and vanished over the edge out of sight.

    Cleo strained to see over the edge, not wanting to shout for Mischief perchance there was someone lurking inside the cave. He poked his head out and looked up at them.

    “Just do what I did,” he said.

    “Are you kidding?” Cleo hissed. “I can’t float like you can.”

    “You don’t need to,” he said. “Just hold onto the edge and drop.”

    Cleo just stared at him, hoping he’d get the message.

    “It’s not too far,” he said. “And if you slip, I can catch you.”

    Spark shook her head slowly. “Having no memories has clearly left you oblivious to the fear of falling to your death, hasn’t it?”

    “I’d hardly say that’s a bad thing,” he said.

    Cleo tutted and moved so she had her back to the edge of the cave mouth. “Fearlessness leads to foolishness.”

    Despite that, she took Mischief’s advice. There really was no other way. She clutched the edge of the outcrop and lowered herself. Her feet waved high above the ground, and she had to repress a frightened yowl.

    Just drop.

    She screwed her eyes shut and opened her paws. The wind rushed past her ears as her stomach seemed to leave her body. Pain radiated through her legs and she stumbled back, landing in Mischief’s arms. He steadied her back to her feet, and she took a few breaths to try and still her racing heart.

    “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked.

    She restrained the desire to box his ears.

    A soft ‘oof!’ came from behind her, and she looked back as Mischief removed Spark from the fluff atop his head. He set the dedenne on the floor, and she turned to look into the cave mouth.

    This close up, Cleo confirmed one thing. The river was indeed dry. Not so much as a trickle flowed through it. An earthy smell rose up from the gorge where the debris, still damp since it didn’t get any sun, rotted away.

    “No sense in standing here staring into the dark.” Spark shuffled past them into the cave. “I suggest we go inside.”

    Cleo silently agreed and followed after her with Mischief in tow. The cave grew gradually darker until Spark decided it was too much and discharged electricity, causing her to glow brightly. The light reflected off the damp walls, making it seem colder than it was. The earthy smell grew stronger the further they ventured inside, but far ahead was the familiar gurgle of water.

    The river expanded in width, pushing them into single file as they tried to stick to the natural path beside it. Cleo didn’t want to walk in the gorge. It felt off. The smell of rotting leaves was growing more and more foetid, and she clasped her paw over her muzzle to try and stifle it. It was almost unnatural.

    “You said this cave leads through the mountain?” Mischief asked, causing a slight echo off the walls.

    “Yes.” Cleo’s voice was muffled by her paw. “Pokemon have used it to get from one side to the other quickly. Personally, I’ve never taken this route. But it’s good to know about it.”

    “Something doesn’t half stink,” said Spark. “I’m starting to think the water might be off. How long do you think it’s been stuck like this?”

    “Going off the damage,” said Cleo, “I’d say a long time. It would be unusual for something like this to happen quickly.”

    A breeze drifted through the cave towards them, drawing that horrible smell with it. Cleo almost gagged, stepping backwards into Mischief.

    Spark spluttered and clasped her tiny hands over her face. “What on earth is that? All right, I take back what I said. That doesn’t smell like stagnant water, that smells like somethin’ dead!”

    Joke or not, those words set Cleo’s fur on end. She stepped past Spark and scooted on ahead, treading carefully as the path narrowed out even more. The foetid smell grew stronger with every step, with the occasional intense whiff as the mountain breeze washed through the cave.

    She froze as Spark’s electricity lit up the wall ahead of them. The rocks smoothed out, forming a perfect disk, complete with the Guild’s sun symbol. She placed a paw on it as her heart skipped a beat, before picking up at a gallop.

    “Cleo,” Spark said quietly. “Did you know about this?”

    Cleo shook her head, not wanting to voice her concerns. If this was a deliberate attack, then there was the dreadful possibility whoever had done it was still lurking.

    Attack…

    She’d not wanted to believe this was deliberate. Just a landslide. A cave-in.

    But that smell? Something was horribly wrong.

    Spark scampered on ahead of her, leaving her and Mischief in brief darkness. As they moved on, that putrid smell grew stronger, and the darkness seemed to thicken so much so that Spark’s discharge barely seemed to penetrate it. An illusion, that’s all it was. Created by Cleo’s own fears that someone might be hiding in the shadows.

    Spark rushed on ahead on her hind legs with her paws over her nose. Desperate to get this over and done with. Cleo trotted to keep up with her, one paw over her nose while the other had been claimed by Mischief who was struggling to see the way.

    The gurgle of water grew louder, as if a large body of it was being fed by a waterfall. Cleo adjusted her paw over her muzzle as her stomach turned. That stench was incredibly intense. Spark’s light bounced across something just ahead of them, glistening with damp. Beyond it, several springs flushed out from the walls, pooling into the water below.

    “Urgh.” Mischief released Cleo to clamp both his paws over his face. “I picked a bad day to have a large breakfast.”

    “Then you might not want to look at this.” Spark was perched at the edge of the river, staring up at the glistening mound.

    Cleo had to squint to work out what she was seeing. It looked at first like a rocky dam, holding back a large body of water. But at second glance, it was something a lot worse. Thick lumps of black, purple, yellow and red poked out from between huge rocks and twigs. She had to blink a few times to process it. They weren’t just mounds… and what she’d thought were twigs were actually bones. The rocks glistened with something sticky and indescribable, and Cleo felt her stomach flip as it threatened to empty its contents.

    Mischief wasn’t so fortunate. He turned away from her as his breakfast made a swift exit.

    Cleo’s eyes watered and she staggered into the wall, unable to tear her eyes off the dam. The smell seemed a lot stronger now she knew what was causing it.

    One thing was for certain. This was very bad news. She had to inform Tinker.

    Spark’s voice seemed oddly small and feeble, as if she’d been struggling to find it. “Cleo… What were they?”
     
    Chapter 8
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    Thank you so, so much for such an encouraging and insightful review! It's really made me want to do my best re-writing this.

    You certainly know how to make good first impressions. The opening paragraph is superb!
    Thank you. I've had a lot of feedback from people who liked the opening paragraph in the original, so I kept it for the re-write. Both stories start exactly the same XD

    I was always able to tell what the scenery around the characters was, how far one place or object was from the next, all contributing to paint a wide and vivid picture of the land.
    This is great to hear. I strive to paint a picture. I have a descriptive style, and I'm so happy you're enjoying it =D

    I'm still curious to see what this place looks like. What would push dark and dragon types to band together and go on a genocidal spree through the continent? Surely there has to be a grand reason for it. It'll be even more fascinating to read how that impacts their culture.
    Oh you'll learn a lot about the Darkness and the Shadow Lands as the story goes on! Believe me!

    In short, your world feels concrete and alive. I'd go as far as to argue that so far it's your strongest point, even.
    Thank you so much ='D

    What does this Guild look like on the outside? Is it another wagon house? A larger building? Does it have a fence, pokémon outside, windows? It felt strange for them to see the flag in the distance and suddenly teleport to the door.)
    Thanks for pointing this out. I may look over this in the near future and see if I can fix it. I'd forgotten during my first-chapter tweaks this morning.

    Side note: Seeing Spark climb into the bag and pop out with an item was nothing short of adorable.
    Spark is an adorable ball of sass and I love writing her XD

    Cleo and Spark are already looking to be quite the dynamic pair. While they didn't get a chance for a heart-to-heart, the few interactions they've had make me yearn for more. Spark appears to be the small-yet-headstrong, sassy member of the team, while Cleo... I still don't have a good enough read on her. She's obviously been worn down by the war, and is fiercely loyal to her cause beyond pure survival. I hope we'll see more moments on her own, where she has time to reflect.
    Thank you =D Their interactions are great to write, and I feel they work really well together. They always have each other's backs. A majority of the story is written from Cleo's perspective so you will get a lot of insights as time ticks on!

    Odd for the leader of the Guild to be a Riolu. You'd expect it to be someone strong, with many years of exploring and combat experience behind them. Perhaps it's another reflection of the hard times this world is going through?
    Tinker is a lot older than he looks! I don't know if his everstone pendant came up in the first chapter? It should have. But yes, he's an odd one to lead the Guild. I wonder if there's a reason for that? ;)

    I'm... not quite sure how to feel about this. The story's summary, the opening sequence, and basically every other part of the chapter, make this world out to be dark and dangerous—one where death lies around every corner, and only the characters' wits can keep them safe. I expected more hiding and running away, you know?
    The opening chapter was inspired by Slayers, and in Episode One of the first season the main character Lina dispatches a band of bandits in one fell swoop. However, she does meet her fair share of difficulties in the series!

    Cleo and Spark are very competent, strong Guild Warriors with a lot of experience under their belt. Whereas they can dispatch some foes easily, however, there have been and will be times they have to run away. Their combined strength allows them to be sent on missions like dispatching the kommo-o which are part fighting, and as expressed in Cleo's reiteration of their encounter, were also children. So Cleo being able to dispatch them easily (we didn't see the fight so we don't know how easily) shouldn't be much of a surprise! But yes, this tone change is one that has been brought to my attention and I have tried to fix without losing the flavour I wanted in the opening chapter. I even added a little bit more today concerning the weavile =D

    If there's one complaint I have so far, it lies with how easily Cleo and Spark dispatched the Weavile assassins at the beginning.
    As the writer, I know a lot more about the weavile. But yes, readers should get a little bit of a clue in. So I added a little bit extra to that specific scene this morning!

    Lovely way to end a scene! It's a sentence that's built up to properly and feels powerful because of the tone you've created.
    Thank you =3 Tinker's terrible office management was an addition to the re-write XD

    The description here is utterly beautiful! You can almost feel your eyes flowing over this map, following the lines and curls that you're describing.

    Overall, fantastic job. I'll jump onto chapter two straight away.
    Thank you so much! This really means a lot to me =D I'm glad you're enjoying it and want to continue. I look forward to hearing more from you!


    8 - A Nefarious Plot​

    "Seviper," said Tinker. "Definitely seviper."

    The riolu leant over the dry gorge, using Spark like a torch. Her light reflected off the damp, decomposing remains crushed beneath the rocks, making the jagged red spikes and pointed fangs shimmer in an unsettling fashion. It made the scene feel a lot more real than it initially had.

    Spark's little face scrunched up, repulsed by the foetid smell that seemed somehow stronger. "Great. Can you put me down now?"

    Tinker seemed reluctant to comply as he raised Spark higher to see behind the dam.

    "I have one question," said Cleo. "Who did this to these pokemon? To build a dam out of their remains…" She shook her head and settled back against the wall, exchanging worried glances with a stout marshtomp. The aquatic pokemon gave Tinker a look that suggested the same question was on all their minds.

    "I agree, it's abhorrent," said Tinker. "It will also have severely polluted the water supply. I dread to think of the damage it could have caused."

    Could have? Cleo grimaced and looked back at the cave entrance. One of the first things she'd said during their trek back from New City's belly was that the plants along the river had died. But she'd never guessed it could have done more damage than that. The mountains were empty, save for New City.

    There was a chance Tinker hadn't fully taken it all in. He'd been more occupied with finding a water pokemon who could investigate the dam, and had immediately recruited Skipper. Although Cleo was baffled as to why, since surely, like Tinker had said, the water would be filled with poison?

    Skipper scratched his head fin, nudging aside a pair of swimming goggles. "No idea who done it then, Tink? 'Cos I'm outta ideas meseln."

    Tinker finally set Spark back on the bank, getting a quick 'thanks' from the dedenne before she scampered away from the rotting mound.

    "My first guess is an assassin," said Tinker. "Hydreigon does have a poison user in his ranks."

    "Och, aye, that Harlequin." Skipper nodded.

    "You think it's them?" Cleo gasped. First the noivern, and now Harlequin? "So it could be a direct attack from the Darkness?"

    "It could be. I'm not ruling that out, and the thought is very unsettling." Tinker rubbed behind his ear in thought. "I mean, all rivers run away from the Shadow Lands, so to get rid of the remaining Outcasts en-mass, poisoning a major water source would do a pretty efficient job. But it would also mean Hydreigon's own soldiers wouldn't be able to use it if they were in the area, and a take-over would be delayed while the poison was given time to fade away. So it's a pretty counterproductive strategy, and not one I think Hydreigon would resort to unless he was desperate."

    "So… you have doubts it might be Harlequin?" Cleo suggested.

    "Not entirely," said Tinker. "But it could just be someone who has a grudge against the pokemon that live in this area. Anyone could move in at any point, and these snakes had to come from somewhere, so I won't rule that out either. But pretty much, whoever did it is clearly a vindictive soul." He gave the dam a sorry look and leant against the wall beside his friend. "I can only imagine the horror those poor seviper would have felt. I didn't even know such pokemon lived in these mountains. The poison-type pokemon are having a difficult time right now. They're being tracked and chased far away from their home in the Border Woods, and there are very few swamps to accommodate them this far south. If I'd known, I would have put some means in place to protect them."

    "Could it have been a zangoose?" Spark asked, with some hope in her voice.

    "While it's true the two species have some deep-rooted hatred for one another, I highly doubt it," Tinker explained, and Spark visibly deflated. "It's not like a zangoose to do this to another pokemon, no matter how they feel about them. Not to mention it could destroy an entire eco-system. No…" Tinker nibbled on a claw as his eyes turned distant. "This feels personal. Like whoever did it had a specific target in mind."

    "Not New City?" Cleo asked.

    "No." Tinker shook his head. "We've tapped into mountain springs and draw the water straight from them into an underground lake. It would be very difficult to taint those, although not impossible. And going off the state those bodies are in, I'd say this has been here for a few days at least."

    "Aye," said Skipper. "An' this water ain't even risin' any higher. I'd say it's bein' sent elsewhere."

    Tinker looked up at him with some surprise. "You believe it's being diverted?"

    "Aye, right enough." Skipper nodded. "If our mysterious assassin wanted t'poison someone, I think it's safe t'say it ain't us, nor anyone livin' along this river."

    "Then why poison it?" Cleo spat.

    "Collateral damage," Tinker said before Skipper could reply. "The water would still have been running while this dam was being built. Whoever did it clearly didn't care, otherwise why not block the water first then poison what was left?" He sighed and looked back at the dam. "I'd like to call it a sloppy job, but the damage has been done."

    "So how do we find out who the target is?" Cleo asked. "Mischief could follow the sound of the water, but…"

    She gave a glance back to the whimsicott. He was sat against the wall with his paws clasped in his lap, trying to look anywhere but at the dam. It had been an awful shock to him. He'd only just re-learnt about the world, but to see this… it was like a wake-up slap. Reality dumped on him. She tore herself away to come back into Tinker's explanation half-way through.

    "-someone into the water and have a look around." He stopped to tap his chin, but he had one eye fixed on Skipper. "This is where you come in."

    "Hang on!" Cleo raised her paws. "Won't he be poisoned? He's not exactly immune to seviper venom."

    "Sure enough, aye," said Skipper. "But I do resist it. Jus' keep a pecha berry handy, aye? Jus' in case I swallow any." The last part had been said with jest, but that didn't rule out the likelihood.

    The marshtomp tugged his swimming goggles down over his eyes and jigged them about until they were resting comfortably in place. It hit Cleo then that Tinker had clearly understood the situation before he even summoned Skipper. The goggles would help to keep any toxic water out of his eyes, one of his weak points to absorb any. However, that didn't mean he wouldn't be at risk of filtering it through his gills. She quickly checked her bag to make sure she had a pecha spare.

    "So I'm jus' lookin' fer where it drains off then, aye?" Skipper asked.

    "Yes," said Tinker. "And for any sign of who might have done this."

    "Alright, then stand back. I'll try not to splash, but ye cannae be too careful."

    Tinker joined Cleo, Spark and Mischief against the far wall. Skipper slipped head-first into the water, sending no more than a little surge of water over the rocks and dam. Cleo waited with baited breath, her heart racing. But the soft sounds of splashing reassured her that Skipper was still moving around nimbly beneath the surface.

    "It's good you found this," Tinker told Cleo. "Not only does it raise a potential member of the Darkness to our attention, but if there are pokemon living in these mountains then they may need our help."

    "Unless they're all poisoned," said Spark.

    "Try to be a little more optimistic," Tinker told her. "All it takes is one poisoned party to alert the rest to the danger. And there's a distinct possibility they will have been cured. But if they're out there, I want to find them."

    Skipper's blue head popped above the surface, cascading water over his face. He swiped it away with a clawed flipper and nodded to the far wall.

    "I can see where it's goin', sure enough, but th'hole's too small fer me."

    "Don't worry about that, Skipper," said Tinker. "Can you see what made the hole?"

    "Nay." Skipper shook his head. "It were made too long ago. Any claw marks've been washed away."

    Tinker sighed and ran a paw over his snout. "Oh well. We've enough evidence for now. We can find out where the water is being sent and see if anyone needs our help."

    "We should clear th'blockage n'all." Skipper clambered out onto the bank, careful not to splash as he was doing so. "That'll get th'river movin' again, an' away from where it's bein' drained out."

    "We can't do that!" said Spark. "If we get the river moving again, all the poison will just flow into the lake!"

    "While that's true, Spark, we do have pokemon fit for the job," said Tinker. "Skipper, I need you to recruit all breloom and shroomish living in New City. They can draw the poison out. I'll round up the excadrill and durant to dismantle the dam, and I'm sure Grey could lend a paw to hold back the water."

    "Can we do anything?" Cleo asked. "Maybe look for who the targets were? Any survivors? We might find clues."

    "You can continue your original assignment to find any evidence concerning that noivern," Tinker told her. "I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, but it's in my paws now. You don't need to concern yourself with this any longer."

    "What if this has something to do with the noivern?" said Cleo. "We could follow the drain while you busy yourselves down here. Mischief can-"

    "My orders are clear, Cleo," said Tinker. "That noivern poses more of a risk to us than this tainted water source, and I'm not going to have you deviating away from that to satisfy your curiosity. I have enough Warriors at my disposal to handle this particular task. You stick to your original assignment. Dismissed." He turned his back on her to head back into New City.

    Cleo sighed and pushed herself back from the wall. Sure, they needed to know more about that noivern, but countless innocent pokemon could have been affected by this poisoning. She tried to push it to the back of her mind and turned towards the exit, but it incessantly nagged at her. Noivern, poison, a blatant attack… the pieces fell into place like a complicated jigsaw, each one not quite fitting when they felt like they should.

    She paused beside Mischief, who was staring at his paws. He'd not made a peep since they'd found the dam. Not even when they'd gone to find Tinker.

    "Mischief?"

    He looked up at her, his orange eyes wide and fearful. Something inside her twanged, but she didn't let it show. If he was in her care, then he needed a strong leader who wasn't swayed so easily. But it was becoming increasingly obvious he wasn't cut out for this kind of work. Putting him through all this was just emotional torture.

    "Come on." She moved past him towards the cave mouth. "We need to investigate the forest."

    She didn't look behind her, but the soft shuffle of paws over stone told her he was following. And that the former spring in his step had been brutally beaten out of him.

    ...​

    Enigma could hear the rushing water long before he saw the river. He still continued along with Harlequin, enjoying the zorua's entertaining company before their path would part ways.

    The voices of the river pokemon rose over the rush of water as it smashed against rocks, careening its way long the treacherous, winding rapids. Away from the Shadow Lands, like every river in Estellis. A mob of black-furred rodents milled about the riverbank, hoisting cargo from a narrow ship and onto the wooden docks. Several feet away, a huge, fat raticate barked commands to his smaller kin. Nothing was going onto the boat, but it wouldn't be long before the rattata found themselves with an unexpected assassin on board.

    Above them, perched in the branches of an oak, a morpeko watched the oncoming pair. Taut as a tightly coiled spring, the rodent's cheeks began to spark. But he didn't need to say anything.

    Harlequin skipped over to the raticate, head held high. "Ahoy!"

    Several of the rattata looked up as the zorua approached, and the raticate raised an eyebrow. The mob turned slightly on the defencive, tails raised, and a couple of them freed their paws as subtly as they could manage. Harlequin noticed, obviously. They wouldn't have become one of Hydreigon's aces if things flew so frequently under their radar.

    "Nice boat," Harlequin went on.

    "Aye," said the raticate. "Riverclaw's one of me best." He paused and twitched his whiskers. "Took a long time to build after a bunch o' weavile sank me last one."

    Enigma chuckled under his breath. Oh, this was going to be good. He warped up into the branches of a tree, his bell just audible over the roar of the river. One of the rattata's ears twitched and he looked up into the branches, face pale. Then he pointed a claw and squeaked something the banette didn't catch.

    Hundreds of eyes followed, fixing on the ghost. The raticate bared his sharp incisors and lowered his head at Harlequin.

    "What are you two doin' over here?" he snapped. "We ain't done nothin'!"

    "I was actually hoping I could travel on your boat," Harlequin explained. They gave a nod towards Enigma. "Can't speak for him, but I can assure you he won't hurt you."

    Enigma examined his claws, saying nothing. The trembling rattata below him flocked around their boss, keeping their red eyes on the ghost in the tree. The morpeko looked ready to bound across to him at any moment, sparks sizzling over his patchwork fur. Enigma settled down with his back against the trunk, each jingle pushing the rat-mob's fur on end.

    The raticate fixed a glare back on the zorua. "You want to travel on my boat?" He spat each word with disgust.

    "I can pay?" said Harlequin. "I never expected a free trip. I need to get to the Moorlands quickly, and I know how fast and efficient your boats are. Being able to travel in this river? Most pokemon who tried to swim in it would end up dead."

    An attempt at flattery.

    The raticate's eyes narrowed. "Aye, that they would."

    A threat.

    Enigma tucked his paws behind his head and grinned. At this rate, Harlequin would need to steal that boat in order to ride it.

    Harlequin looked up at the boat and clicked their tongue. "How much? Ten gold?" They turned back to the raticate, who's glare had widened into a look of utter bewilderment. "Ten gold to ride this boat under the protection of your crew?"

    "Ten gold?!" the raticate wheezed. "I barely get one per crate!"

    "Okay, ten gold and my word," Harlequin went on. "I won't harm a single member of your crew or any other outlaw on board, nor relay your journey, plans or location back to Hydreigon."

    The raticate spat at that, but there was a glimmer in his eye. "Sparin' us outlaws surely means your own death?"

    "You'd be aiding me on my quest to avenge Boomer." Harlequin shook their head. "I hardly doubt Hydreigon would care?"

    The raticate puffed air from his nose and gave a curt nod. "Very well. Get on me ship. We set off as soon as every crate is unloaded."

    Harlequin looked up at Enigma and smiled. "I guess this is where we part ways?"

    Enigma waved a dismissive paw and settled back against the tree.

    The raticate nodded in his direction. "What about him? I've not exactly had his word he won't say nothin'."

    Harlequin looked up at Enigma again, meeting his eyes. It was only brief. The zorua tucked a small pouch of gold into the raticate's paws, then turned to head towards the ramp onto the ship.

    "I can't speak for him," Harlequin explained. "But I highly doubt he's going to betray me."

    The raticate muttered something inaudible and returned to stacking the crates on the docks. Money in paw, he was a lot more placated, yet still clearly disgruntled at giving a lift to one of Hydreigon's assassins.

    Enigma toyed with the hem of his scarf, watching the ship curiously. Harlequin stood on the deck, paws on the gunwale, as they looked over at the racing rapids. Rattata moseyed around the zorua, stepping carefully, as they unloaded the remaining crates.

    Already, Enigma could feel the boredom setting in. As soon as that ship left, he'd be travelling the rest of the way solo. Harlequin would most likely make it to the Moorlands before he did, and complete their mission, leaving Enigma to travel both ways alone.

    How boring that would be.

    He dragged his claws through his mane and groaned. Oh, he was going to regret what he was about to do. With a quick flourish, he manifested before the raticate.

    The large rat screeched, keeling backwards with his stubby paws flailing. Enigma stifled a chuckle, but he couldn't hide the smirk. He leant against one of the crates and wiped his claws on his scarf.

    "Room for one more?" he asked.

    The raticate smoothed out the fur between his ears with both paws as he regained his composure. "And what are you gonna pay me? Eh?"

    "How about I spare you and each and every one of your crew?" Enigma fixed the rat in a crimson glare. "You are traitors, after all."

    A tremor ran through the rat from his ears to the tip of his tail. "V-very well."

    Enigma nodded and kicked back from the crate, his scarf billowing around him. "That's what I like to hear."

    He warped onto the ship, landing neatly beside Harlequin. The zorua looked up, their eyes twinkling with amusement, and inclined their head on one side.

    "I thought you hated ships?"

    Enigma scoffed and folded his arms along the gunwale beside them. "It would be boring to travel alone."

    "When are you going to just admit you get lonely?"

    "I don't get lonely," Enigma said bluntly. "I get bored."

    Harlequin laughed and shook their head, turning back to the rushing rapids. Beads of water clung to the black fur of their face, sparkling in the noon sun.

    "Whatever," said the zorua. "It'll be nice to have a bit of company, anyway."

    "I don't know what company I'll be." Enigma eyed the water warily and turned his back on it, leaning against the cool, damp wood and glaring out at the outlaws. "But it'll get me there faster."

    "You never know," said Harlequin. "Maybe you'll find your river-legs."

    Engima felt there was a much bigger chance he'd suddenly sprout fins.

    ...​

    Hydreigon's library had been burned down a long time ago, taking any manuscripts with it. Yurlik didn't remember any of them. He wasn't a reader. But there'd been rumours of what it had contained. History. Folktales. Stories told to hatchlings. The library had been older than the Shadow Lands, but had been left to stand for years out of interest. Until Hydreigon had instructed the Wildfires to destroy it.

    Regardless, Hydreigon remained focused on finding something that he'd discovered in that library. There was no record of its location, just a vague description. Yurlik had lost count of how many times he'd had to explain this to the various troupes scattered around the Shadow Lands.

    "If we don't know where it is," said a noibat, "or what it looks like… then how can we find it?"

    Yurlik glared up at the army of upside-down faces peering at him. Every small bat in his swarm had clamoured around, blocking the entrance to their shared cave.

    "I told you, Echo," Yurlik spat. "It glows red. Hydreigon said you'll know it when you find it. That's all I can tell you."

    "It could be under the earth, and we don't dig," said the noibat. "Even worse, it could be under water!"

    "We have pokemon for that," said Yurlik. "You keep an eye open, and feed back to us if you need help uncovering it. Understood?"

    "We can't take anyone else with us?" Echo asked. "No ground forces?"

    "I need to spread them out as much as I can," Yurlik explained. "Estellis is huge, and this cocoon could be anywhere."

    "And what would stop the Outcasts finding it first?" one of the other noibat asked.

    Yurlik clicked his beak at that, and met the bat's large eyes. "I've been told if they find it, they'll die."

    The swarm rustled their wings, a faint buzz growing in intensity as the noibat grew excited.

    "Such power!" one of them said. "Does it really exist?"

    "Of course it exists!" Yurlik snapped, plunging the swarm back into silence. "Do you question Lord Hydreigon?!"

    Echo turned his head to glare at the smaller bat.

    The noibat who'd raised the question looked shrewed and cowered back behind his allies. "Of course not…"

    "Good," said Echo. "Watch your mouth, Rumble, or you'll find yourself cleaning the guano pit."

    Yurlik cleared his throat, drawing Echo back to him. "So I can trust you with this task?" It wasn't a question.

    "Well, if it will really help us take over all of Estellis…" Echo spread his wings and yawned. "Fine. We'll take off at sundown."

    "Split into four groups," said Yurlik. "Your army is big enough to spread out over Estellis without weakening your forces too much."

    Echo waved a wing, which Yurlik felt was meant to be a salute but seemed rather dismissive. The honchkrow's oily feathers stood on end along his back. He had to remind himself, despite the noibat's size, since Boomer was out of the picture the smaller bat had taken over the swarm. It wouldn't be long until he evolved. Yurlik might be his superior, but he didn't want to find himself on the receiving end of a boomburst just for riling up the noibat who was still adjusting to his new position of authority.

    Echo turned to head back into his cave, but paused as he let out a small 'oh!' He turned his head back towards Yurlik.

    "What about Boomer?" he asked. "Any news on his murderer?"

    "Lord Hydreigon has sent Harlequin to deal with those pokemon," said Yurlik.

    "Really?" Echo raised his eyebrows. "I heard it was a whimsicott who killed him?"

    Disgust laced the noibat's words, along with a hint of disbelief.

    Disbelief… it was safe to say that was the growing trend throughout the Shadow Lands. A whimsicott… one of those little grass-types couldn't fell a dragon, let alone a full-grown noivern. Not on their own. Even Yurlik was beginning to doubt the words of his own flock who claimed to have witnessed the massacre. Only two pairs of eyes, and two beaks to speak of it. The cowards had fled. Surely there could be some mistake?

    But the evidence was there. Blunt trauma wounds marred the noivern's body, reducing him to a bruised and sticky pulp. And then there were the tell-tail tufts of white fluff stuck to the dried blood that coated his body.

    "Yes," Yurlik told Echo. "It was a whimsicott."

    Echo's lip curled and he pulled his ears back. "Really? I wonder what it could do to the rest of us?"

    What, indeed?

    Echo ducked back into the cave, and the swarm closed in behind him before they were swallowed by the darkness within.

    His words lingered long after he'd gone. Yurlik stood there, shuddering.

    What on earth was wrong with that whimsicott, that it could take down a dragon? Hydreigon had his concerns, but he hadn't voiced them to Yurlik. But the large dragon was definitely afraid. Enough so to put emphasis on finding that cocoon.

    A cocoon that may or may not exist. Yurlik's own concern, one he dared not speak out loud.

    He deeply hoped Harlequin could make swift work of that whimsicott, before it became a huge problem.
     
    Chapter 9
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    The first half had a neat concept for how ghost types get around, and we got to see that Enigma is still scared shitless of Hydriegon despite his cocky nature.
    Trying to fit the more unusual pokemon into a flesh-and-blood setting is so much fun! I really let my imagination go wild writing Enigma's ghost-type powers. Expect to see more interesting things further down the line =D And yes, he's pretty intimidated by Hydreigon... The dragon could kill him pretty easily.

    I do like their personality and synergy, but not being able to really like remorseless killers is more of a preferential dislike for me than a criticism of the characters as a whole sorry.
    Their synergy is one of the things I love writing about them. I don't want to spew spoilers in my review replies, so I can't say anything more.

    On other things, I did enjoy seeing Mischief showing more usefulness to his peers outside of just being an anti dragon weapon. His borderline innocent outlook on most things is still charming, and I enjoy seeing his personality bounce off of Cleo's.
    Mischief's innocence is nothing short of adorable and I love him. However, he's received quite the shock. Only time will tell how this will effect him.

    The content warning had me worried there would be gore of characters getting mauled to death or something, but at least it was just a corpse of some kind.
    I really don't like posting trigger warnings. They're spoilery, but I feel it's needed since there are people who are very sensitive about certain topics. There's a lot in this story that might warrant warnings too, but I'll only raise them if I feel it's valid. The dam isn't too extreme, but it felt needed especially since I was much more descriptive about it this time around! But I will not go over the top with gore or mutilation of any kind. Yes it's a war, but I don't feel comfortable writing to such extremes 8D You won't get any higher than a 'Teen' rating from me!


    9 - Breaking Rules​

    “So we’re really ignoring orders?” Spark asked.

    Cleo hopped down the rocky path with careful steps, keeping both eyes on her footwork. The cave was now far enough behind them, leaving Tinker and Skipper well out of earshot. Cleo and her friends were amongst the leafless trees that stood on either side of the river, and the dry grass crunched beneath her paws as she plodded her way towards level ground.

    “Not ignoring them.” The caution in her voice was aimed more at her unsteady footwork. “Just bending them.”

    Spark stopped on the bough of a fallen tree and turned to look back at Cleo. “Isn’t that the same thing? I mean, he specifically told us to go looking for evidence of the noivern, not follow a dried up river.”

    “I can’t shake the feeling that this and the noivern’s appearance are linked,” Cleo explained. “What if he had something to do with this? The river clearly had a target. Someone wanted to poison someone else. If pokemon do indeed live in this mountain, then what if Tinker’s hunch is right and it was an attack from the Darkness?”

    “I’ve been thinkin’ that since I saw the river dried up.” Spark turned to scurry along the fallen branch. “I will admit, though, I don’t like this. And not because you’re going against orders, because I agree that this is vital. Pokemon could be suffering along this river, and be in need of help. But…”

    Cleo inclined her head on one side. “But…?”

    Spark ruffled her large ears and sighed. “You might be right. It might be linked to the noivern, which means we could be walking straight into danger. What if there’s more dragons? Or more noivern?”

    Cleo wanted to retort that they’d survived their last encounter, but doubt gnawed at her stomach. She looked back at Mischief, lolling behind them silently. Still spiritless. Looking anywhere but at the dried up river, searching the canopy for any sign of green life.

    Spark stopped abruptly and turned to look at him. “Second thoughts?”

    “That’s what I’m thinking.” Cleo turned to face him fully.

    Mischief raised his fluffy head and stared at her through his orange eyes, the playful sparkle now gone.

    “Listen,” said Cleo. “You don’t need to come with us if this is too much for you.”

    “Cleo!” Spark hissed. “What are you doing?”

    Cleo ignored her, watching Mischief intently. He shifted uneasily, glancing beyond the trees.

    “This has clearly unsettled you,” Cleo went on. “I can understand if this is all too much after what you’ve learned. So if you want to leave now, I support that. Now’s your chance.”

    Mischief closed his eyes and lowered his head, letting his paws hang limply at his side. Cleo could almost feel the dedenne seething behind her, and mentally prepared herself to take the brunt of her verbal abuse later. Right now, though, Mischief needed to hear all that. It wasn’t fair to expect him to continue, to feel obligated to stick by them.

    Mischief shifted, fidgeting his paws together as he turned to stare at the dried-up river.

    “Please understand that I’m not telling you to leave,” Cleo explained. “But you are welcome to. The same applies if you want to continue with us, but you are going to need a strong mind and a strong stomach in this line of work. I won’t lie, what you’ve seen today is bad. One of the worst things I’ve come across.”

    He looked up at her then, his mouth slightly open. Cleo thought she saw hope in his eyes. Hope at the wrong things. So she narrowed hers back at him.

    “One of the worst things,” she repeated. “So I can’t guarantee you won’t see anything else that will shock you. The choice is yours.”

    She turned to continue her way along the river. Spark frowned at her as she passed, then scurried along beside her to bounce up onto her shoulder.

    “What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed. “He’s a security risk! If Tinker finds out about this, he’s gonna tan your hide!”

    “I’m fully aware of the risks, Spark, but he’s clearly traumatised.” Cleo kept her voice low so Mischief couldn’t hear her, but given the state he was in, he likely wasn’t listening anyway.

    Spark let out a sigh and huddled into Cleo’s ruff. “I know your intentions are good, but I’m not entirely sure we can trust him, and it’s pretty clear Tinker doesn’t.”

    “Tinker wouldn’t trust his own nose if it wasn’t attached to his face.”

    Spark snorted laughter. “Oh yeah, I’m with you there! However, I can understand him on this one.”

    “Me too, but put yourself in Mischief’s position.”

    “I have,” said Spark. “And it would have made much more sense to take him back to Tinker.”

    Cleo glanced over at the mountains poking up beyond the river. Yes… it would have made more sense to take him back to New City. That way, Tinker could have kept tabs on him. Besides, many years ago, didn’t she and Spark once try to flee the evil around them? So shocked by the fire and screaming, they just… fled.

    That’s why Cleo found it hard to doubt Mischief’s attitude. That wasn’t all an act. He was terrified. But was sending him away really a good idea? At least New City was a sanctuary, even if he ended up locked behind bars until Tinker decided who’s side he was really on.

    The mountain trail finally levelled out, the rocky patches replaced by smooth grassland. But the grass was nothing more than a brown and brittle carpet, ending just beyond the tree-line that sprouted up on either side of the river. Withered, sad-looking flowers poked up here and there between a thick blanket of decaying leaves, once providing a splash of vibrant colour amongst the green. The smell of rotting foliage filled her nostrils and her nose crinkled, not just a the smell but the memory of what had caused the destruction of the land around them.

    Cleo slowed to take it in, searching for any sign of a former habitat. The steady crunch of leaves behind her signalled Mischief was still with them. She glanced back at him, but he didn’t seem to notice, watching where he put his feet as if he feared he might fall into some trap. Or step on something ominous. She shook her head sadly and looked over at their surroundings again.

    Standing in the thick of it was incredibly unsettling. She couldn’t believe it had only taken days to do so much damage. Not only that, but it had gone unnoticed for so long. How? Guild pokemon still came and went from New City. How had no one noticed this? The entire river had stopped, dried up, and everything around it had been shocked by the sudden mass of poison that had flowed through it.

    One question danced at the front of her mind. Did anything live here? And if they did, were they still around?

    “You’ve gone very quiet,” said Spark. “Although seeing all this could stun anyone into silence.”

    Cleo made a thoughtful noise. “I’m really beginning to wonder if anyone lives here. Or used to. Tinker might be right about the collateral damage.”

    “Aye,” said Spark. “An Outcast village wouldn’t survive here. It’s way too dangerous. Too many shadows. Too many places for dark pokemon to hide.”

    “Not to mention any Outcasts would have been found by the Guild,” Cleo explained. “But I feel it’s still worth checking for any witnesses. They might know who caused all this.”

    “We also might run into the pokemon who did cause all this,” said Spark. “That worries me a lot.”

    “It worries me too, but it’s our job. If we find them, we can turn them in to the Guild.” Cleo paused beside a fallen tree and narrowed her eyes at it. “This forms a bridge across the river…”

    The oak lay on its side, its spindly branches long bare of leaves. Some had been gnawed away, creating a smooth surface to walk upon so larger pokemon wouldn’t be snagged as they crossed. The branches that would often be submerged were coated with dried-up river weed and other debris, and a brown coat of algae covered its underside where the wood had begun to rot.

    “Looks like it’s been here a long time.” Spark hopped up onto it to get a better look. “Probably before Hydreigon took over.”

    “If you’re dismissing it as evidence, you’re wrong,” said Cleo. “Look, the bark is smooth and trodden down. There’s also no sign of any moss growing where pokemon would walk on it. That suggests it’s been used a lot recently.”

    “Argh!” Spark tugged her ears and glanced over her shoulder to the other side of the river. “I have a bad feeling, Cleo. If anyone is living around here, it isn’t Outcasts. It’s not safe.”

    “No, it could be Heretics.”

    The pair stared across at the far river, then exchanged glances.

    “I don’t really feel like running into Heretics today,” said Spark.

    “Me neither,” said Cleo. “But if someone needs our help-”

    “All right, fine.” Spark nodded. “But if this takes a bad turn…”

    “I’ll take full responsibility.”

    “You owe me the biggest plate of fat berries ever.” Spark scampered along the fallen oak and called back over her shoulder, “I’ll get into the trees, see if I can spot anything.”

    Cleo followed her along the bridge, and watched as the dedenne scaled the tallest tree she could find on the other side. A few stray leaves drifted down from the slender branches as Spark scrambled over them. It wasn’t easy to lose her, since there were barely any leaves to get lost in. Spark finally came to a stop near the top, curling her long tail around a slender twig while she shielded her eyes with a forepaw.

    Cleo stopped beneath the tree and craned her neck back. “See anything?”

    “Just lots of trees,” Spark called down. “Green ones.”

    Given the damage was contained to the river area, Cleo wasn’t sure if Spark was just being sarcastic. Either way, it ruled out any obvious habitats in that direction.

    “We’ll follow the river some more,” said Cleo. “You stay up there and see if you can spot anything I might miss.”

    “Roger!” Spark bounded along above them, moving on ahead, and sending down the occasional dry leaf.

    They hadn’t gone much further when a voice halted the meowstic in her tracks.

    “Uhm… Cleo?”

    She turned back.

    Mischief was crouching beside a pile of fallen leaves, dusting them aside slowly with his paw. A rustle sounded in the trees as Spark scurried back to join them.

    “What is it?” the dedenne asked.

    Cleo joined Mischief’s side and peered down at the fallen leaves. Blue and white fur stood out beneath them, shimmering in the sunlight. With Mischief, she swept the leaves aside carefully, revealing the motionless form of a very young pachirisu.

    “It’s a hatchling,” Cleo told Spark.

    Spark flopped to her bottom on her branch. “What? Were they…?”

    “Poisoned?” Cleo carefully turned the pachirisu over to check for any signs of external injury. “I’d say so, yes.”

    “Wow, you were right.” Spark scratched between her ears. “There really were pokemon living around here.”

    “And no Heretic mark.” Cleo lay the body back down in the bed of leaves. “There’s also no Guild badge, but… that doesn’t necessarily signal anything.” She turned to look at the woods. “What worries me… is the lack of any visible settlement.”

    Spark hopped around in the tree, nose twitching, as she tried to spot anything. “Torn down?”

    “No, there’d be evidence of that,” said Cleo. “If they were fleeing the poison, then why leave any sign they lived here? They might not even have had time.”

    Spark stopped her searching to look down at Cleo. Her large, black eyes were wide, and her whiskers twitched with both excitement and worry. “Cleo, do you know what this might mean?”

    Cleo nodded, catching Mischief’s eye as he covered the pachirisu over again.

    “Yes.” Cleo turned to look up at the tree canopy. “This means there might be some pokemon still living in this world who don’t belong to any faction.”

    “No faction?” Mischief stood and wiped his paws on his fur. “I… I don’t think I understand?”

    “It means they live peaceful lives,” Cleo explained. “They don’t fight with anyone. They just try to get on with things, while hoping the Darkness doesn’t consume them.” She paused as her eye wandered to the pachirisu, once again hidden in its bed of leaves. “I didn’t believe there were any left.”

    “So if there are still peaceful places in this world,” said Spark slowly, “then that means…”

    Cleo nodded again, her throat turning dry. “Whoever poisoned this river knows about it.”

    ...​

    “Are you sure it’s this way, Skipper?”

    Tinker scrambled over the rocks, following the marshstomp along the mountain path. Rocky terrain was little problem to Tinker, but Skipper’s graceful movements put the riolu to shame. Skipper almost glided over the rocks, occasionally dropping to all-fours to clamber over the more tricky areas, sending loose rocks clattering down the slope.

    “Aye, trust me on this one, Tink!” he said. “Us water-types can smell water from miles away.”

    “I’m not doubting you, but there isn’t so much as a trickle running over these rocks! How far away is it?”

    “Not far at all,” Skipper explained. “Right beneath yer feet if ye want an exact location! But it comes out a wee bit further down.”

    Tinker joined Skipper’s side as he perched atop a mossy outcrop.

    “Aye, there it is, sure enough!” Skipper pointed a webbed claw. “Comes out of that wall there. One of the mountain springs feeds right into it.”

    Tinker had to squint his good eye to see it, but Skipper wasn’t wrong. A small waterfall, small enough to easily climb up if one tried, crashed down into a narrow river. It moved with a gentle pace as it wound its way down the mountain, expanding in size and increasing in speed until it zipped off down a steep incline with a ferocity that would deter even the most adept of swimmers. It vanished around a bend, obscured by a rocky slope that lead into a hidden valley. Tinker wasn’t familiar with it, but Guild members had reported the location several times. Yet there had been no reports of life in it. From the reports he’d read, it wasn’t the easiest place to escape from should one find themselves in it. Steep slopes and narrow paths aside a roaring river, prone to landslides and flooding.

    “And the toxic water joins this river?” Tinker didn’t need an answer. It was an observation.

    Around the river, the grass was brown and trees bare. The latter wouldn’t have been unusual at this time of year, but they were mountain firs that kept their green all year round. Now their branches were barren, poking out of a blanket of needle-like leaves and pine cones that had yet to fully open.

    “Aye, such a shame.” Skipper shook his head sadly. “This damage’ll take a long time t’recover from, sure enough.”

    “Then we’d better tread with care.” Tinker gave the marshtomp a pat on the shoulder to urge him on. “Come on, Skip. Let’s see if we can find out who the target was.”

    “It’s entirely possible there ain’t a target,” said Skipper. “Some loony coulda just done all this because they can.”

    “A plausible idea,” said Tinker. “But not one that would give me peace of mind. If someone is just poisoning rivers for the fun of it, I’ll want to catch them before they do any more damage.”

    The soft gurgle of the waterfall grew louder as they approached it. It wasn’t much taller than Skipper, but they had to keep back as the water crashed down onto rocks below, sending up a fine mist. Skipper watched it intently and nodded.

    “If I’m right, th’water comes out here.”

    “Can you handle this river to check?” Tinker asked.

    “Aye, ain’t no problem. Th’river ain’t too strong here.” Skipper slowly approached the water, tugging his goggles down over his eyes. “Stand back, Tink. I dinnae wanna splash ye.”

    Tinker obliged, stepping back until his tail brushed a large rock. Skipper slipped into the river, barely letting any water breach the bank. After a fleeting moment, he poked his head back above the water and fixed Tinker with a worried expression.

    “I’ve found where it comes out, sure enough!” He scrambled back onto the bank, water cascading off his skin. “But I think we ‘ave a problem, Tinker.”

    Tinker moved towards him, glancing between the marshtomp and the waterfall. “What is it?”

    “Well, there’s a hole there, sure enough. But it looks like someone’s tried t’block it. And not wi’ much success.”

    “You’re sure someone’s tried to block it?”

    “Aye. There’s residue ‘n’ small rocks ‘n’ such. Even some plants. But it’s not worked, ye see. Th’water’s comin’ out too fast ‘n’ washin’ it all away. There’s also nary a scratch t’see who dug it in th’first place, nor any sign of who’s tried t’block it back up again.”

    “So it can’t be blocked?”

    “Oh it can, sure enough. But ye need th’right things. A large rock th’right size’d do the trick easy. But a botch job ‘n’ water’ll wash it all away, or leak around any cracks. Or safest bet is t’just clear up th’dam and let th’poison fade away wi’ time.”

    Tinker scratched behind his ear and sighed. “Well, if someone’s tried to block it then it must have been a desperate attempt.”

    “Aye. Problem is, if they dinnae have a pokemon small enough or immune t’poison, then they wouldn’t’ve been able to fit through th’hole to find out where it’s comin’ from.”

    “So the chances of them finding out what poison it is could be slim.” Tinker nodded his understanding. “And you say any water pokemon can follow this river through the ground?”

    “Aye. It’s instinct. Dinnae even need any trainin’.”

    “Then let’s follow this river and see where it takes us. We might find answers further down.”

    Skipper fell into place beside him, the water already drying off his body. “I think it’s safe t’say if they’re still alive then they’re nearby.”

    “That’s what I’m hoping, but it’s bleak.”

    “You dinnae have much faith in survivors then?”

    “I’ll be honest, Skip, I’m not sure.” Tinker looked over at the river. “If they sent someone down there to block the hole, then they must have been aware that it was poisoned. With no visible source, then you can only assume it’s under water. I mean, why block up a hole with no good reason? And if the pokemon who did it wasn’t immune or resistant in some way, then it would have been a suicide mission.”

    Skipper nodded sadly. “It woulda been a noble one.”

    “Perhaps. But it’s all just speculation at this point.”

    “Aye, we can’t do much else.”

    They reached the river bend, where it vanished down a steep slope. A huge mound of rocks rose up before them, obscuring their view ahead.

    “Might get a better vantage point from up ‘ere, eh, Tink?”

    Tinker nodded. “It might be helpful to see how far the damage goes. Although I think it’s safe to say it’ll go on for a while. Rumour has it this river ends at a lake miles from here.”

    “Glass half empty!” Skipper chortled.

    “The world is in a dire state and you make jokes?” Tinker scoffed.

    Skipper waved him off and scaled the mound, making short work of it. He stood aside for Tinker to scramble up beside him, but he didn’t offer a helping paw.

    It wasn’t an easy climb, either. Some of the rocks were a little loose, forcing Tinker to keep his focus on where he put his paws.

    He shook his head, fearing he’d upset his friend. “All I’m saying, Skipper, is that we must brace ourselves for a potentially unpleasant discovery.”

    Skipper’s only response was to nudge the riolu in the shoulder. Tinker looked up at him as he rose to his feet beside him. Skipper stared ahead at the sloping river, its roar almost deafening in the silence of the mountains. It didn’t take long for Tinker to spot what had stunned the marshtomp.

    On the other side of the river were two waggons, not dissimilar to those used as temporary homes for Outcasts. But there was no clear sun symbol emblazoned on their sides, nor any visible flags. A little way from the waggons was a group of pokemon, busily working around the water. Three breloom, a family of shroomish, and two zangoose.

    Zangoose…

    No. Tinker shook that thought away before it fully manifested. It wasn’t their style. Why poison two rivers?

    “Pretty surprised to find zangoose.” Skipper kept his voice quiet so as not to be heard, not that it would have been easy over the river. “T’ain’t them though, aye? What reason’ve they got?”

    “None whatsoever.” Tinker began to descend the slope towards the waggons. “But I do have questions. Come, let’s find a way across.”

    “Ye think they need sanctuary?” Skipper asked.

    “Possibly, but until I know what the situation is, I’m not offering it,” said Tinker. “I’m going in there as a concerned party and nothing more.”

    “They’ll probably wonder why y’ain’t poisoned yeself.”

    Tinker took a moment to look down at himself. His everstone thudded against his chest with every step. Something he’d become used to, but at that moment stood out to him like a siren. Of course, unlike his evolved kin, he wasn’t immune to poison. Unlike the pokemon on the other side of the river, who clearly were. He shook it off and pressed on, watching the pokemon curiously.

    As he drew closer, he spotted another waggon just beyond the trees. Once again, it was devoid of any sign it belonged to the Outcasts, or the Guild.

    The zangoose looked up as they drew closer, and straightened. “Don’t come any closer! The water’s tainted!”

    “I know!” Tinker stopped a couple of feet from the bank. Water sprayed up from it as the river raced towards the bottom of the

    mountain. “We’re looking for survivors!”

    “Survivors, eh?” The zangoose snorted and nodded behind him to the waggons. “What’s left of our village is back there.”

    “How long have you been living here?” Tinker asked.

    “We don’t! We live downstream, near the lake.” The zangoose pointed towards the base of the mountain before busying himself by the water again. “Poisoned. Every one of us who don’t resist it. We’re all that’s left.”

    Tinker’s heart turned to lead and he placed a paw on the tree behind him. An entire village… wiped out. Leaving only a few stragglers.

    “Have you any idea who did this?” he ventured.

    The zangoose twitched his ears and exchanged glances with his companion. She shrugged and returned to the water, placing her paws in it like the breloom twins.

    The male zangoose looked up at Tinker. “Eh? Speak up, riolu! River’s loud!”

    “I asked if you know who did this?!”

    The zangoose spat on the dry grass and narrowed his red eyes. “Absol!”

    Tinker’s heart lurched.

    “Seen one in the mountains,” the zangoose explained as he returned to drawing poison from the river. “Soon after that, the entire water were tainted!”

    An absol? Tinker exchanged worried glances with Skipper. It didn’t make any sense. Weren’t all absol wiped out years ago?

    “It’s hard to talk like this!” Tinker said. “Is there a way across?”

    “Not a safe one!” said the zangoose. “Don’t worry! We’ve got it covered here, we’re drawing the poison out! Pretty soon the water will be safe again!”

    Tinker shook his head sadly and caught the zangoose’s eye. “I’m afraid your efforts are in vain, friend! The poison is flowing in from a cave a good way back there!”

    This got the attention of the other pokemon, and one of the breloom stood up, her eyes frantic.

    “What do you mean?” Her voice was thick with distress, and it spread to her twin who matched her expression perfectly.

    “We blocked it!” her twin said. “We blocked up the hole it was coming from!”

    “Aye, it’s been washed away!” said Skipper.

    “Again?!” The first breloom covered her eyes with her stubby paws, while her twin visibly deflated.

    The zangoose fixed Tinker and Skipper with narrowed eyes. “You said it’s being diverted here from a cave?”

    “Yes!” said Tinker. “Someone, I am assuming this absol you spoke of, has… slaughtered several seviper and built a dam out of their remains!”

    The zangoose paled and fell back from the river, as if he was seeing it with new eyes.

    “It’s tainted another river a couple of miles from here!” Tinker explained. “That’s how it was raised to my attention!”

    “What kind of sadistic…” The zangoose shook his fur violently as if he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the information. “How’s an absol done that without killing himself?!”

    Tinker closed his eyes briefly and took a step closer to the river. “If you need any help at all, I’ll be glad to offer it! We’re Guild members! I can have a small army sent this way to assist you before sundown!”

    All the pokemon looked up at that, and the zangoose trailed his eyes down Tinker’s face towards the sun-shaped badge on his neckerchief.

    A smirk tugged at the zangoose’s lips. “Oh, so you are! Guild members… you do know we’re members of the Shining Moon, right?”

    Tinker blinked a couple of times and flexed his paws. “What?”

    “Oh, you know.” The zangoose chuckled, his voice barely audible over the roaring river. “What you call ‘Heretics’?”

    Tinker’s heart sank. He had no idea. The group of pokemon opposite him looked a lot different now. Wilder. Dangerous. Fire flared in their eyes. Not one of them was interested in the river anymore, instead watching the two Guild members like a hunter watching its prey. It set off a primal fear in the riolu, and he took a wary step back. A move he swiftly berated himself for.

    He forced a smile, hoping it would mask his deeper feelings. “It doesn’t matter! You’re still innocent in all this! No one deserves to have their village wiped out!”

    “That’s mighty humble of you!” The zangoose picked up a large rock and bounced it in one paw. “But we don’t need help off the Outcast Guild, little riolu!”

    “Yeah, you’re Outcasts for a reason!” the female zangoose spat.

    “Who’s to say you haven’t done this?” the breloom hissed. “Working with an absol to wipe us all out?!”

    “What utter nonsense ye spoutin’!” Skipper roared. “We dinnae even ken o’yer presence until moments ago!”

    The marshstomp was seething, flexing his clawed flippers as he marched towards the water. Tinker placed a paw on Skipper’s shoulder and dragged him back from the bank. The riolu gave one final look at the zangoose.

    “Regardless, I can assure you that dam will be cleared up!” he said. “After that, you can finish cleaning the river with success!” He dipped his head. “I offer you my condolences, and wish the rest of you well!”

    He steered Skipper away and the pair of them headed upstream, away from the Heretics.

    “I’ll show you where you can stick your condolences!” the zangoose roared, followed by a loud splash.

    Tinker was thrust aside, landing hard on his side. Skipper stood over him, throwing his flipper into the air. A wall of water rose up before him, deflecting several large droplets of toxic water. They landed with a soft patter on the dry ground around them.

    Tinker raised his head to look at the Heretics still standing on the other side of the river, sneering at them. The large rock had vanished from the zangoose’s paw, and he stooped to grope for another one.

    “Come on, Tink.” Skipper hoisted Tinker back to his feet. “I ken when we ain’t welcome.”

    The riolu shook his head and walked on ahead of his friend towards the large mound before the waterfall. Skipper kept a watchful eye on the heretics, but no other attacks came. None of them made any efforts to cross the river to give chase. But Tinker could feel their eyes on him, fierce, burning into the back of his head.

    Once they were over that rocky mound, Tinker ventured a glance back. But they weren’t visible anymore. Just the sound of the roaring river, drowning out any possible threats. He found himself wondering if he’d still had offered to help them had he known they were Heretics. His own words echoed in his mind:

    ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re still innocent in all this. No one deserves to have their village wiped out.’

    He knew deep down he probably would have. Like them, he also knew the plight of losing an entire village. He’d seen it too many times, experienced it more than once.

    An absol…

    The thought chilled him to the very core, and he instinctively wrapped his arms around himself as he followed Skipper back up the river.

    The Guild wouldn’t have poisoned the river. Let alone worked alongside an absol. Even the Darkness feared them.

    Something was happening. Something that flipped his stomach as his mind wandered back to that putrid cave. It was clear to anyone now that the Heretics were the target of that poisoning. It gave Tinker an unsettling feeling deep in his gut.

    Heretics or not, there was going to come a time when they were going to have to work together, and that time may very well be soon.
     
    Chapter 10 New
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    10 - Nocturnal Noises​

    The Riverclaw whizzed along the wide river, frothy spray licking her sides and clinging to Enigma’s fur. He hunched over the gunwale, groaning at every sudden lurch as the narrow boat dodged rocks and tore through river weed. His stomach had long since evacuated its contents over the side, but that didn’t stop it from trying again. He wound his claws in his mane and turned, before sinking down as far as he could against the port side.

    Harlequin chuckled from beside him, and he looked up to see the zorua shaking their head.

    “Really can’t handle a boat, huh?” Harlequin gazed out at the trees whizzing by, dark sentries against the fiery sunset sky. “The things you’ll do to ‘ease your boredom’.”

    Enigma scoffed and tipped his head back against the cool wood.

    “You’ve gone the colour of an oran berry,” said Harlequin.

    “Don’t mention berries,” Enigma groaned.

    He scrambled back to his feet and leant over the gunwale again. It was fruitless. He screwed his eyes shut and lowered his face into his paws.

    “You’d have been much better off travelling on foot,” said Harlequin.

    “It would have taken too long,” said Enigma. “You had a point. This is much faster.” Then he added under his breath, “Just a little longer now…”

    Harlequin had heard it, and let out a single laugh. But they didn’t say anything, instead watching the water whip up against the port. The evening breeze whirled through the zorua’s fur, and their muzzle relaxed in a contented smile. Enigma turned his own gaze to the water, and he caught a glimpse of a school of wishiwashi cleaving a path upstream through the froth before vanishing beyond the stern. The only other life he’d seen. The Outcasts and outlaws were all in hiding, the latter of which had been left far behind in the Border Woods.

    It hadn’t taken long for the crew to relax around the two assassins. They soon realised they weren’t their targets, and they busied about behind the pair, making sure the boxes were strapped down and the deck was free of hazards. The rodents nattered among themselves above the sound of the racing water and the sails whipping about in the fall breeze. The raticate hadn’t joined them, instead sticking back with a number of his mob to deal with the supplies the Riverclaw had brought back.

    If it wasn’t for the gnawing, churning sensation in his stomach, the journey would admittedly be quite peaceful. The air was cool, and the splash of the water was soothing enough to fall asleep to. Something he desperately wanted to do, and sleep didn’t come easily to the banette. Still, he found his eyes drifting shut as he leant over the gunwale, the cool froth soaking through his grey fur.

    He wasn’t sure how long he remained like that. Harlequin barely made a peep, save for the odd snuffle and the scrape of claws on the woodwork.

    Enigma’s heart lurched as a sudden yell shocked his eardrums. Both he and Harlequin leapt back from the gunwale. Rattata raced back and forth along the ship, steadying the cargo and unleashing the anchor. The chain clattered through its feed in the side of the ship before letting out a loud splash as it smashed its way through the water. At the helm, a morpeko barked orders while violently steering the ship towards the bank.

    The creak was deafening, drawing the to assassins’ eyes towards the woods ahead. A huge, ancient tree tilted sideways, picking up speed as it flopped across the river. A huge, knotted barrier of bark and rope-like ivy. The anchor was down, but the chain was still clattering away as the force of the rapids propelled the Riverclaw onward, towards the fallen sycamore.

    Harlequin stared, slack-jawed, their fur on end down their spine like a startled mighteyena.

    Enigma gave himself a mental shake and leapt towards the helm, shoving the morpeko aside. His claws radiated shadowy energy, and, with a graceful flourish, he sent a shadowball into the side of the tree. It shattered, raining down splinters into the water and across the deck. It had carved a jagged gap just big enough for the boat to squeeze through.

    Just.

    The splintered stumps scraped against the hull, creating a deafening hollow screech. A series of worrying cracks resounded above it, and, unable to get the wide tail end the rest of the way through, the ship finally came to a stop.

    The crew calmed, staring at the shattered tree aghast. Two of the rattata clambered over the gunwale to check on the damage, but Enigma was more interested in the tree. Something didn’t smell right. A tree that size? He hopped off the stern to walk along the thick, gnarled trunk.

    “That’s never happened before,” said one of the rattata. “But I guess like landslides and floods, these things can be pretty hard to predict?”

    Like landslides and floods? Sure, trees fell from time to time. Especially if they’d rotted, or been caught in a strong gale. But the winds had been minor, and they weren’t blowing in the right direction for the tree to have fallen across the river. There were no slopes nearby, either. The ground was flat.

    Enigma perched near the tree’s base and trailed his claws over the wound. Warm sap clung to his fur. No, the edge wasn’t jagged enough for it to have snapped. Smooth, as if it had been cleaved. Not a clean cleave, either. Part of the trunk had cracked beneath the tree’s weight, leaving a jagged splintered end on one side. The weight had snapped the ivy, leaving a ropey trail of green in the tree’s wake.

    “Is there a problem?” Harlequin perched beside him.

    Enigma rubbed the sap between his claws and stood back, gazing off into the trees. “This was no accident.”

    Harlequin glanced over the damage and hopped off the tree, landing softly in the grass. “No, I’d say not.”

    Then what? It didn’t leave many culprits. The Outcasts had been warring with the Darkness for years. A desperate cheap shot wouldn’t be against them. Unless the ship was their target?

    The Riverclaw crew were scrambling over the ship, examining the damage while several of them perched on the ship’s gunwale and the river bank, searching the woods with frantic eyes.

    A voice came from the other side of the boat, “We’ve got a breach! Water’s just flooding in!”

    At that, those still on the ship either leapt to help or bailed onto the bank in a panic.

    Enigma stood sharply to sound his bell. A few of the rattata froze, their fur bristling. It was the morpeko who turned to him, his eyes narrowed in a warning leer.

    Enigma was unfazed, examining the sap in his claws. “Do you have any enemies out here?”

    The crew exchanged baffled glances, and the morpeko snorted, meeting Enigma’s eyes.

    “Of course we’ve got enemies,” he said. “More than you do. But no one’s tried to crash our ship before. If I were to guess, I’d say you two planned this whole thing.”

    Enigma narrowed his eyes at the morpeko and twitched his claws. A soft tug at his scarf drew his eye back onto Harlequin.

    “Leave them.” Harlequin’s voice was muffled around the heavy fabric. The zorua dropped it and stepped aside. “They got us this far. It’s not much further now. We’ll just have to be on our guard.”

    That was fairly normal.

    Harlequin sniffed the air, and a funny look Enigma couldn’t decipher crossed their face. But it swiftly vanished. They jerked their head back towards the Riverclaw and gave the crew a nod. Not that the crew noticed. They were too busy trying to rescue their sinking boat and its cargo.

    “Thank you for getting us this far,” said Harlequin. “I hope you manage to recover Riverclaw.”

    If it was meant to placate the crew, it did very little. But a majority of them were too shaken to show any aggression, and several had already begun to prise the hull free from the fallen tree’s death grip. The boat jerked towards them with a groan, and one rodent unfortunate enough to be on board flopped against the port side before tumbling into the shallows.

    Keeping one eye on the outlaws, Enigma smoothed out his scarf and turned to follow Harlequin into the trees. If they weren’t the target for that tree, then that meant he and Harlequin likely were. A cheap shot to be rid of two of Hydreigon’s top assassins, and sink a group of dark-types, too. If the ship had been shattered by that huge tree, very few of them would have survived. His crimson eyes flitted over the shadows, trying to spot their assailant. But the woods were as barren as he’d expected them to be.

    ...​

    Harbinger cowered behind the knot of brambles, squinting at the two figures as they wound through the trees. Two assassins. Harlequin and Enigma, both on high alert, searching the shadows for their assailant. For him. He’d been right. They were aboard that boat, he’d not imagined it.

    The pawniard twins crouched beside Harbinger, their yellow eyes wide and fearful. Not so much as a scratch came from the pair, neither of them wanting to draw attention to themselves. They’d tried to talk Harbinger out of it. But he couldn’t have passed up a chance like that. He just hadn’t calculated the banette’s ability to destroy that tree. It was too thick. It shouldn’t have worked. The boat should have shattered against it, if not been crushed beneath the sycamore’s weight.

    Destruction. That was all the banette was good for. Everything he touched died. Why couldn’t he smash his way through a tree?

    No… it was a miscalculation. That was all. If Harbinger had thought things through, he could have felled the tree a few seconds later. Then both assassins would be out of the picture.

    He narrowed his eyes at Harlequin’s retreating tail, anger bubbling up inside him, threatening to overflow. No… he had to keep cool. One wrong move and he and his two friends would be dead.

    He’d have to think this through. No putting a paw wrong. No acting on the heat of rage. For now, he’d have to keep a close eye on the assassins and strike when the time was right.

    ...​

    The sun was rapidly setting, painting dramatic black clouds across a backdrop of orange and red. Normally, the dry river would be moving away from the crimson sky. Fleeing it. At sunset, the sky was always red over the Shadow Lands. A warning to any wandering Outcasts to go the other way.

    Cleo looked back at it over her shoulder, and a cold chill raced down her spine. They’d been out too long. Their minds lost in the search for pokemon that possibly no longer lived in the mountains. They’d either fled or been killed by the poison, leaving behind only one. An oversight? It was beginning to look like it.

    “Cleo, I really think we need to get back.” Spark’s voice was steady, but her twitching back and forth in Cleo’s ruff was enough of a sign she felt the same unsettling feeling.

    A feeling the sunset always brought. The fire before the storm of shadows and claws.

    Cleo gave a stiff nod as she stared along the river into the darkening trees. “You’re right. We can always come back out here tomorrow. Get an early start?”

    If there was any confidence in her voice, it didn’t show. They’d already searched. What were they even looking for anymore?

    “Cleo, we already found the pachirisu,” said Spark. “If there really were pokemon living here in peace, then it’s big news. It’s not a lost cause.”

    It was as if the dedenne had read her mind. Cleo nodded again and turned back to return to New City. “You’re right. The pachirisu is enough evidence, for now at least. Tomorrow, we can go and investigate the noivern site.”

    “Are you sure?” Spark asked. “You don’t want to come back here?”

    “My curiosity is kind of sated,” said Cleo. “And we really do need to finish what Tinker asked of us.”

    “I can help him.” Mischief’s voice stunned Cleo into silence.

    She looked up at the whimsicott. He’d been following them silently, and now stood facing her, trailing a foot-paw in the dried grass.

    “You want to help Tinker?” The surprise in her voice reflected on his face. She waved a paw at their surroundings. “After seeing all this?”

    “Yes.” He gave a single nod. “I was unsure at first. To be honest… after seeing those poor seviper, and all the damage it’s done, I just wanted to run. But we found that little pachirisu, and… Well, seeing what you guys do, looking for survivors… Sure, we haven’t found any. But I want to help you.” He looked up and met her eyes, all spirit returning in an instant. “I want to join the Guild, like you two.”

    Cleo’s jaw went slack and she stuttered for a moment as she processed all this. Earlier, this pokemon had been so shocked by everything that the wind had been taken out of his sails. Now it was back with a perseverance Cleo found both admirable and foolish.

    Shock could make someone do one of two things - fight or flee. Mischief had not fled. He’d been given the option to, but he’d stuck by them.

    Now he wanted to join them.

    “You want to join the Guild?” she finally managed to stutter out.

    “Yes. I’ve been thinking. I want to help other pokemon, like you do,” he said. “If there’s so much evil out there, then I want to help stop it. It’s not fair that so many pokemon have to suffer like this, and it’s not fair to run from it either! If I can help in any way at all, then I want to.” He closed his eyes and balled his paws into fists. “Please… let me help.”

    “I’m afraid it’s not up to me.”

    Mischief looked up and his face fell.

    Cleo gave him a small smile. “But I can talk to Tinker.”

    Mischief returned her smile. A somewhat more solemn one than the cheery one he’d worn just earlier that day.

    “Great,” he said. Then his smile melted away to be replaced by confusion. “So… I guess he’s in charge, then?”

    “By default,” Cleo explained. “The Guild’s leader went missing years ago, before we joined. No one has seen him since. Tinker never speaks about him either, so everyone else keeps it hush-hush.”

    “Yup!” Spark leant her head on one paw. “One of the Guild’s many mysteries.”

    They strolled back up the river with haste, desperate to get back before the sun finished setting. The sky had been dyed an angry red, turning the mountain peak into a black silhouette against it. To keep their spirits up, the trio chatted. Mostly about the Guild, since Mischief seemed to have thought up a million and one questions. But they kept their voices low to avoid attracting attention to themselves. The mountain might be silent and seemingly devoid of life, but the forest was a different matter entirely. They didn’t feel dangerous, but when night fell, dangers followed.

    They’d made good progress when a soft rustle reached their ears, freezing each one of them in their tracks.

    “Did you hear that?” Spark whispered.

    “You heard it, too?” Mischief responded.

    Cleo swallowed dryly and crept towards the source of the sound. The fall breeze stirred through a thick fern on the edge of the tree line, but it created a different sound to the one that she’d heard. The rustle had sounded more like someone moving over the dry leaves. Or had it been her imagination?

    She squinted through the shadows, urging her night vision to kick in and bracing herself for an attack.

    None came.

    Maybe it had just been the wind after all?

    “C-Cleo…?”

    Mischief was stood a little away from her, staring at the ground by his feet. She hadn’t even noticed Spark leave her shoulder, but the dedenne stood beside him, her long tail swishing through the air with agitation.

    “It’s gone,” said Mischief.

    Leaves lay scattered around the trees, recently disturbed as if the wind had whipped through them, revealing a spray of tiny, dainty little flowers. But there’d been no strong winds, not enough to cause that. Amid the leaves, the grass was flattened as if something heavy had been lying on it.

    Her eyes widened. Something had.

    “The pachirisu,” she said. “Someone took the body?”

    “Well he clearly didn’t get up and walk,” Spark quipped.

    “Why would…” Cleo swallowed around a lump in her throat. Her fur was standing on end down her spine, and her twin tails began to look like a pair of brushes. “Come on. We need to head back. I’m starting to feel very uneasy right now…”

    “Seconded.” Spark bounded back onto her shoulder.

    Mischief glanced back at the trees before falling into pace behind Cleo. The sun was nothing more than a red sliver tracing the mountain peak, plunging the valley swiftly into darkness. Time was definitely against them. Cleo feared they wouldn’t make it back before dark.

    And whatever was in those trees, whatever had taken the pachirisu, could very likely be watching them. Stalking them. She could almost feel their eyes burning into her back. Was it all in her head? A trick of the dark? A psychological response to the noise and the missing body?

    No… someone was there. Someone had moved the pachirisu.

    Was it really worth rushing back, potentially endangering all of New City?

    They needed to make a swift and drastic decision. Endangering three lives was certainly better than endangering the largest population of the remaining Outcasts.

    “I think,” she said quiet enough for only Spark and Mischief to hear her, “that it might be safer if we don’t head back at all.”

    Spark wound her claws into Cleo’s ruff. “I’m with you, but I dunno how I feel about this…”

    Exposed.

    They’d be incredibly exposed. There was no sense in setting up a tent. Sure, it was blue. A colour that would allow them to blend into the shadows. But if someone was following them, then it would be a beacon. Not to mention a burden if they had to suddenly flee, finding themselves tangled in its folds.

    No. They’d have to find somewhere to hide and hope they weren’t spotted.

    Cleo led them towards the tree line, searching for anything they could hide under or inside. A hollow in a tree, a shrubbery, a little igloo formed of leaves. They could cover themselves over like the pachirisu.

    None of those options stuck around in Cleo’s head for long.

    Mischief tugged at her paw and she looked up as he dragged her away from the fern she’d been investigating. He’d found a large pomeg bush a good few feet away from the river bank. Its leaves were yellow and sickly, but it hadn’t shed them. A sign it was probably recovering. He parted the leaves to reveal the bare branches within, enough space for two pokemon of their size to comfortably settle down inside.

    Well, it was the best option they had so far.

    He held the branches aside for her to climb into the bush, then followed her in, keeping his paws on the leaves to cushion them so they didn’t snap or rustle.

    Cleo’s heart was pounding against her ribs with such ferocity she could hear the blood whooshing in her ears. This was probably the single most foolish thing she’d done in a long while. If they survived, she would undoubtedly be on the receiving end of a scathing rant from Tinker.

    The three of them sat silently, trying to keep their breathing as quiet as possible as they watched through the gaps in the leaves. Nothing moved. Not so much as a rustle. Yet that feeling of being watched didn’t leave. If anything, it grew worse.

    Something shimmered to Cleo’s right, and she jerked her head around to spot it. Nothing. She was certain she’d seen something. The light reflecting in a pair of crimson eyes, or the fading light bouncing off a pokemon’s shiny hide.

    Scales?

    A dragon… no, not another one.

    She turned her head left and right slowly, searching the shadows for any other hint that something might be there. Anything to confirm that it was just her imagination. But that feeling of being watched was becoming too much to bare. Instinct was kicking in, and it was starting to win. A primal urge screaming at her to flee. To get away from whatever danger was encroaching upon her. Any urge to fight back had been sucked right out of her. If it were a dark pokemon then she had no attacks to take them out. Fighting back would be pointless. She should just run.

    But that was where her friends came in.

    She took a few deep breaths to steady herself and tuned in to Spark shifting around on her shoulder. Trusty Spark and her discharge. A small rodent who packed enough power to take down three weavile at once. Who can stun a flock of murkrow with one attack.

    And then there was Mischief.

    She had to remind herself that the whimsicott beside her had taken out a noivern, whether or not he remembered it.

    She let out a long breath, feeling her heart calm down a few paces. Whatever was out there, waiting to attack them, Cleo and her friends would give them the run for their money.

    The sun had well and truly set. Soft moonlight lit up the bare canopy, yet barely penetrated the thick shadows. Cleo couldn’t see much past the small patch of ground just outside the pomeg bush. The shadows were beginning to play tricks on her, causing her to think up various scenarios. But that wasn’t going to get them anywhere. She needed her wits about her if they were going to come out of any battle in one piece.

    Snap!

    All three of them tensed, and Spark leapt from Cleo’s shoulder to land between her and Mischief. Her whiskers fizzed with electricity as the dedenne tried to repress it. A sudden shock would be like a beacon, drawing in any lurking Darkness.

    The dead, dry grass rustled behind them, and Cleo twitched her ears towards it. Behind the bush? Her skin crawled and she turned her head slowly towards it.

    Crack!

    They jerked back towards the front, eyes wide, claws spread. Cleo’s ears unfurled slightly, and the energy hummed away as she braced herself to blast whoever it was with a powerful psychic surge.

    Then something rushed towards them, their feet shattering twigs and dried leaves. Cleo leapt sideways, narrowly missing a pair of cleaving claws. They reflected the moonlight briefly, slicing through the bush’s slender branches and snicking off a few hairs from Cleo’s tail. Spark discharged electricity, lighting up the pomeg bush and shimmering off the red and silver hide of their shadowy assailant. But they were gone before Cleo could get a good look at them.

    She blinked dazzle spots from her eyes, trying to spot their fleeing assailant. But they leapt out of nowhere, slicing through the bush once more. Mischief dived to the side as they zipped past, sending up a flurry of white downy cotton. It clung to their attacker’s gleaming body, the moon reflecting off jagged metal. But as quick as they had appeared, they were gone.

    The trio stood taut as coiled springs, bracing themselves for another attack. They desperately tried to calm their frantic breathing, straining their ears to listen for any movement. But it was deathly quiet.

    Whatever that pokemon was, it was gone.

    None of them dared move, but they were all likely wondering the same thing. Stay or go? It might be too dangerous to remain there. There was no saying their assailant had really left. Were they simply trying to lure Cleo and her friends out of hiding? If the latter was the case, then they were better of staying where they were.

    All of them were shaking. They huddled together, keeping a watchful eye open. None of them dared sleep, not that Cleo had planned to.

    It was much too dark to check for any injuries. She didn’t hurt anywhere, but whatever had attacked them had sharp claws. Too small for a weavile, however. A sneasel? She wasn’t ruling it out. Whatever it was, they were clearly adapted to hunting at night. Blending into the shadows, with incredibly quick, agile movements. It was a flawless strategy. One suited for any assassin.

    You can’t hit what you can’t see.
     
    Chapter 11 New
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    11 - Hunted​

    The sun warmed Cleo’s back as it beamed down through a clear blue sky, drying her dewy fur. The frosty leaves crunched under her paws, freezing her pads with their chilly bite while they still had the chance before the frost swiftly melted away. She rubbed her paws over her arms to try and warm them, but any lingering chill was slowly lifted by the caressing rays of the fall sun. It was deceptively colder than it looked to be at first glance. A stark reminder that the warmer days of the cooling season were soon coming to an end.

    “They didn’t come back,” said Spark.

    Cleo to let out a gasp as her heart did a flip, and Mischief’s feet actually left the floor. Spark hadn’t spoken loudly, but not one of them had said a word since nightfall. Better to not risk drawing the attention of that lurking assassin. But the feeling of being watched was no longer hovering over Cleo, leaving her to feel much more relaxed.

    All things considered…

    She smoothed out her bristling ruff, and Spark muttered a quick apology.

    “You’re right, they didn’t come back,” said Cleo. “But I’d really like to know what they were planning.”

    “I think they were just trying to draw us out,” said Spark.

    “Possibly. I also think they took that pachirisu’s body. But why?”

    “Clean up the evidence,” said Spark. “They were probably pretty ticked off we’d found it, too, and wanted to let us know.”

    “I think it was just a warning,” said Mischief. “Like ‘we know you’re there, so stay out of our business’. That kind of thing.”

    Cleo inclined her head on one side. “We?”

    “Yes, there were two of them,” said Mischief. “Didn’t you notice?”

    “How on earth do you know that? I could barely see a thing.”

    “Easy.” Mischief shrugged. “Both attacks came from different sides. No pokemon can move that fast, right?”

    “I dunno,” said Spark. “There are some pretty speedy pokemon out there.”

    “Whoever they were, they were clearly an assassin,” said Cleo. “And if they’d hit us, we’d be dead.”

    She glanced at her tails. The damage wasn’t clear to the naked eye, especially if you weren’t looking for it. But the tip of one of them had received a bit of a trim.

    “Regardless, I’m glad we waited that out,” she went on. “If we’d kept going we could have ended up leading them all the way back.”

    She kept her voice low to be on the safe side, but she was pretty convinced their stalker was gone. They were no longer under any immediate threat.

    Despite being tired and hungry, they covered ground pretty quickly. Before they knew it, they were traversing the rocky slope back up to the cave mouth where the dam had been built. Despite Cleo’s unsteady footwork, they made it in no time. Mischief made it to the top before she did, and grabbed Cleo’s paw to hoist her up the rest of the way. An unfortunate breeze wafted through the cave, carrying with it the stench of decay.

    Spark covered her muzzle with both paws. “Phew, I’d almost forgotten what that smelled like. Sure we can’t find another way in?”

    “It’ll take us a while,” said Cleo. “I say we just grin and bare it.”

    Mischief was already turning a little pale. Cleo gave him an encouraging nod and moved on ahead of him, letting Spark lead the way.

    Voices echoed from behind them, growing louder as they followed Cleo into the cave. She paused to look back over her shoulder, and Mischief visibly tensed. Moving towards them were three tall shapes, two of which were wearing bio-luminescent orbs around their heads. The light bounced along the damp walls, dazzling Cleo’s eyes.

    “Well whaddaya know, it’s Cleo!” Skipper stood between two breloom, clutching a huge boulder in his webbed claws.

    Both breloom were carrying their own rocks, and both sported the Guild’s sun on their scarves.

    “Oh!” Cleo gave them a warm smile. “I guess you’re clearing the river?”

    “Aye, that we are!” Skipper nodded. “It’ll take a wee while. First we gotta build a new dam to hold th’poison back, then we can clear th’mess! Afore ye know it, th’old river’ll be back t’flowin’ clean as ever!”

    “Oh good!” said Spark. “’Cos I’m pretty thirsty. I was licking frost off my paws this morning.”

    Skipper let out a deep, throaty laugh. “Ahh, right enough! Ye get in there! Tinker’s been worryin’ himself sick, he has. Wondered where ye all got off to. I take it ye dinnae go where he asked, aye?”

    “Not quite.” Cleo continued through the cave, following after Spark. “But I’m sure he’ll be satisfied with what we’ve found out.”

    “I think he’ll just be satisfied knowin’ ye still alive’n’well, Cleo.”

    Spark paused by the entrance and fixed Cleo with a huge grin.

    “Cut that out,” Cleo hissed.

    Spark just chuckled and turned to face the stone slab. “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m about to hit the dinner hall with the force of a typhoon!”

    Cleo turned her badge in the sun-shaped lock, and the stone slab rolled to the side with an echoing groan. She urged Mischief on ahead of her and stepped in behind him. The slab crunched back into place, dulling the voices of Skipper and his team, but the stench from the river wafted in behind them.

    Spark was already bounding on ahead, leaving her allies to follow behind. Mischief had once again turned silent, not glancing back over his shoulder at the entrance. Cleo found herself wondering if he was really cut out for Guild work.

    The tunnel was a long and winding one, that snaked down into the belly of New City. Candles flickered along the walls, providing what little light was needed. It eventually widened out into one of the occupied corridors, and the odd yell came from a room on their right. The door was shut, obscuring the events from view, but Mischief slowed briefly to give it a curious glance.

    “What’s in that room?” he asked.

    “The training hall,” said Cleo.

    “So pokemon fight in there?” Mischief caught up with her, and she noticed the colour had returned to his face.

    She nodded and urged him on when he slowed again to glance back towards it. “It’s an overflow room, not used very often. I guess the main hall must be fully occupied, which means they must be training heavily right now.”

    If that was the case, then the seviper dam must have truly unsettled Tinker. That made her only want to relay their findings to him faster. Spark, on the other paw, was focused intently on reaching the dinner hall and was well ahead of them, humming to herself.

    Cleo picked up her pace to keep up with the dedenne. The corridor ended at the main hall, filled with the hustle and bustle of the market and the excited voices of hatchlings at play. Cleo managed to catch up with Spark, but as she rounded the corner into the market hall she skidded to a halt as someone else turned to head into the tunnel.

    Two warm paws grabbed her shoulders, steadying her. “Whoa, Cleo!”

    She looked up into Tinker’s red eyes and took a step back from him. “Sorry. We were actually on our way to your office.”

    “I wasn’t,” said Spark from behind him. She jammed a thumb-claw towards the tunnel to the Guild Hall. “I’m headed to the dinner hall.”

    “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” said Tinker. “Dinner isn’t served for another two hours.”

    Spark’s jaw dropped and any words she tried to form came out as a long whine.

    Tinker gave the dedenne a small smile. “I do have some berries left over from breakfast in my office, if you promise not to make a mess?”

    Spark perked up at that and beamed. “Promise made! I might move you higher up my list of favourite pokemon.”

    “I actually hope I’m pretty high up that list already,” Tinker joked.

    Cleo gave him a nudge. “Tinker… We have urgent news for you. Can we please head to your office?”

    “Urgent news?” Tinker placed a paw on her shoulder and steered her away from the market. “I guess you found something related to that noivern?”

    “Not exactly,” said Cleo.

    Tinker’s brow furrowed and he fixed his good eye on Cleo. “I did think it was strange you would enter through that tunnel. It’s rather far from the Moorlands Forest to be convenient.” He paused briefly, and Cleo half-expected silence until they reached his office, followed by a thorough lecture. “I imagine you passed Skipper?”

    She started slightly at that and nodded. “Yes, they told me what they were doing.”

    “Good. Saves me the job.”

    Tinker stopped at his office and unlocked it, letting Cleo in ahead of him. Spark managed to scurry past, making a beeline for the little breakfast trolley beside Tinker’s desk. Once they were all inside, Tinker shut the door and settled into his usual seat.

    “Go on.” He waved a paw at her and crossed his legs. “Tell me exactly where your deviation from your assigned task lead you? What ‘urgent news’ do you have to relay to me?”

    Cleo didn’t appreciate the air quotes.

    Before she could reply, Tinker looked up at the whimsicott beside her. He wagged a claw at him and met Cleo’s eyes. “I trust he was suitably blindfolded?”

    Cleo grimaced and glanced aside. “Ahh…”

    “Cleo…” Tinker lowered his muzzle into a paw and sighed.

    “What does it matter? He knew about that entrance anyway.” Cleo spread her paws in exasperation. “I mean, you and Skipper came and went through it while he was right there!”

    “He was hardly with us at the time, was he?”

    “Seriously?” Cleo spat. “You can’t fault your own oversight on this?”

    “Irrelevant.” Tinker waved a paw and reached for a notepad. “He’ll just have to remain here until we can be certain who’s side he’s on.”

    “I’m on your side.”

    Mischief’s voice came out oddly firm, drawing all eyes onto him. Spark even lowered her berry, looking between each other pokemon in the room.

    “Really?” Tinker tapped his quill into an open paw. “How can you be so sure? You have no memories. Your life is a total mystery. You’re an outsider to the Guild, even to the Outcasts. You have no badge to show you belong here. So how can you so brazenly state your allegiance lies with us?”

    “Because I’ve seen what goes on in this world and I want to help stop it,” Mischief replied. “So what if I don’t have any memories? It doesn’t change how I feel about all this.”

    Tinker made a thoughtful noise and lowered his head slightly, keeping his good eye on Mischief. “The Heretics also don’t like what goes on in this world. That’s why they live in fear, trying to appease the Darkness. As such, they are our enemies. What evidence can you give me that states you won’t go and join them, revealing the location of this city?”

    Mischief stared back at him, unshaken. “My word should be enough.”

    Tinker chuckled. “If words could sway me, then we’d have a lot of trouble with the enemies we hold in our cells.”

    “Look.” Mischief took a step towards Tinker. “If Grey couldn’t find any clue as to where I belong in my memories, then I clearly don’t have them, do I? None. Nothing. It’s where I am now that counts. And that’s here, in New City, on your side.”

    Tinker merely stared at him.

    “I’ve seen too much out there, and I don’t like it,” Mischief went on. “I’ve seen enough to know I want to fight against it. Sure, I’m terrified, but pokemon out there are suffering. I want to help Cleo and Spark, and I want to help you. If you don’t trust me, then that’s your decision. But you have my word that I will never, no matter what happens to me, reveal New City to any other pokemon who doesn’t belong here.”

    “Not even to other Outcasts?” Tinker narrowed his eyes at Mischief.

    “No. I won’t even breathe its name outside these walls.”

    Tinker’s demeanour didn’t change. He fixed Mischief with such a cold stare that Cleo almost felt ice forming over her fur.

    “Come on, Tinker,” she said. “He even told us he wants to be a Guild member. After all he’s seen, he’s still willing to help.”

    Tinker turned his cold stare onto her. “This coming from the meowstic who refuses to take an extra partner?”

    Mischief looked at her then and she sank slightly in her seat. She hadn’t considered that. But now he mentioned it, she wondered why she’d said anything at all. Was she willing to travel with Mischief? Yes, but what had changed?

    She gave a weak shrug. “I’m happy to train him if you see it as ‘fitting punishment’ or something.”

    Mischief’s orange eyes widened. “Punishment?”

    Spark spluttered, choking on berry pulp. Tinker reached across to the trolley and gave her a pat on the back, which she waved off when she managed to regain her composure.

    “Cleo.” Tinker steepled his paws together and sat back again. “If you really see potential in this whimsicott… you, of all pokemon, who refuses to take on anyone you fear you have to carry, then surely there is something about him that intrigues you? What is it? The fact he can take down a dragon, or even Hydreigon himself?”

    The room fell into silence and she stared down at her paws, unblinking.

    Mischief shifted uneasily and rubbed a paw over his fluffy head. “I don’t know if I can take down-”

    Tinker shushed him harshly and returned to watching Cleo, waiting for her reply.

    She finally looked up at him. “You’re right.”

    A look of satisfaction crossed Tinker’s face. The look he wore when he knew he’d won an argument.

    “It’s because I don’t have to carry him,” Cleo explained. “He’s shown he can watch my back, and I’ll watch his. He’s certainly capable, and he won’t drag down our team. I can’t speak for Spark, but if she’s happy to have him-”

    The dedenne wiped her lips on the back of a paw. “Sure. Whatever. Guy can fight, I ain’t gonna deny that.”

    Tinker gave an affirmative nod and looked up at Mischief with a smile. “All right, Mischief. It goes slightly against my usual method, but you have two high-ranking Guild members vouching for you. So, if you are certain you wish to join us, I can make you a probationary Guild Warrior.” He reached into his desk drawer and handed Mischief a sun-shaped badge. “Wear it where others can see it. This badge will tell others where you belong, which is important should you enter any other Outcast settlements.”

    Mischief’s eyes sparkled as he stared down at the badge in his paws. “Wow! Then I guess I should find a scarf like Spark?”

    “The market is open. Swing by after our meeting.” Tinker settled back into his seat and motioned for Mischief to sit back down. “Now. Onto business. You claimed to have important news. What is it?”

    Cleo had been mildly dreading this. She licked her lips and clasped her paws in her lap. “We followed the river to see if we could find any evidence of who the targets might be.”

    Tinker didn’t give any scathing remarks, and when she faltered he urged her on.

    So between them, the trio ran through their investigation, not missing any key points from the moment they found the pachirisu and what it might mean, to the assailant who’d tried to attack them.

    Once they’d finished, Tinker was silent for a moment as he processed it all, jotting down notes in his pad.

    “I won’t say what you discovered lacks importance.” He set his quill down on the desk. “If that pachirisu wasn’t an Outcast - and I won’t rule that out, since its badge could simply have been removed by its parents or looted from it - then there may be some pokemon living out here who don’t fall under any faction. This is something I would like to investigate further. But!” He raised a paw to silence Cleo before she could add to that. “I want you three to investigate that noivern. Time is of the essence, Cleo. If it rains, there will be no evidence left! Not to mention the Darkness could have cleared any up by now. If you hadn’t come back to me with some vital news, I would be locking you up for a week until you learned a valuable lesson.”

    Cleo bit her lip and sank further into her seat.

    “That is your assignment for the day,” he told them. “Do not fail me. Now. To make sure you actually do your job this time, you will be taking this with you.”

    He pulled a white oblong device out of his drawer and handed it to Cleo. She frowned down at it, turning it in her paws. It was made from plastic and sported a large red button in the middle of it. A long, black antenna poked out of its top right corner.

    “What is this?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

    “It’s one of my gadgets,” Tinker explained. “A communicator. It will allow us to maintain contact.”

    “So your keeping tabs on me.” Cleo spoke around exposed fangs.

    “You’ve given me reason to,” he said. “This will allow us to maintain contact so long as you are within New City’s boundaries. The signal can travel underground, but the further you move away the weaker it will become, until inevitably it can’t connect to mine at all.” He waved a paw, showcasing a similar and much smaller device around his left wrist. “What you have there is the original model. A prototype. I trust you won’t destroy it?”

    Cleo frowned at the communicator, then with a resigned sigh, she tucked it into her satchel.

    “I feel obligated to warn you that we’ve discovered Heretics in the mountain, so tread carefully,” Tinker explained.

    Cleo stiffened, and stared at him, aghast. “Heretics?”

    “Yes. They appear to be the targets for the poisoned river,” Tinker explained. “Apparently they had a run-in with an absol and fear that may be the culprit. So please keep your wits about you?”

    “I feel you’re brushing over this somewhat, Tinker,” Cleo said.

    “I’ve given you ample information,” Tinker told her. “Please take care, and if you run into an absol, I would like to know immediately. I can’t have a troublemaker running amok in these mountains.”

    “I thought all absol were extinct!” Cleo said. “Hydreigon wiped them out due to sheer fear that they’d bring disaster on his rule!”

    “I always dismissed that as a rumour,” said Tinker. “And now we have evidence that one is running free here, unless those who told me about it were deluded? Either way, keep your wits about you.” He turned his chair towards his desk and picked up his quill. “Dismissed.”

    Cleo wanted to press him for more information, but she’d already put a paw out of line already. More than once. So she stood and nodded for her friends to follow her, then turned from his office.

    As they made their way down the corridor towards the market, Mischief joined her side. “What does it mean by ‘probationary Guild Warrior’?”

    Spark turned to walk backwards so she could look up at him. “It means if you put a paw wrong then you’ll be stripped of your rank and put in the cells with the rest of the bad guys.”

    Mischief’s eyes widened. “But… I’m not a bad guy!”

    Spark grinned and turned away, waving a paw. “Then you’ve nothing to worry about, have you?”

    ...​

    It took less time to reach the Moorlands Forest than Cleo anticipated. She put it down to having to lug Mischief back to New City with her the last time they’d been there. The forest was deathly quiet, and it was oddly unsettling. Finding the spot the noivern had fallen wasn’t a difficult task, either, given the huge blood stain marring the foliage. It confirmed Tinker’s words, too. The body was gone.

    “I don’t like this at all, Cleo.” Spark spoke in a hoarse whisper by Cleo’s ear. “Do you think he just… got up and left?”

    Cleo shook her head slowly as she looked around at the trees. “I doubt it.”

    She didn’t elaborate on that. Given the state the noivern had been left in, it would have been nothing short of a miracle for him to just get up and fly away. If he’d survived at all, then he’d probably still be lurking in the forest. But there wasn’t so much as a rustle. No murkrow in the trees. It was odd, to say the least. She’d expected some level of disruption to their task. After a member of the Darkness had been slaughtered like that, surely Hydreigon would put up more of a defence in the area?

    Cleo moved away from the site, retracing the noivern’s flight path. He’d come from somewhere, and for a noivern to be out during the day was an anomaly.

    “Uhm, hang on.” Spark tapped Cleo’s whiskers, causing the feline to shake her head sharply. “Wouldn’t any clues generally be back there?”

    “Perhaps, but I didn’t see any,” said Cleo. “If he dropped anything, then it’s obviously been taken.”

    “I’ll have a look.” Mischief turned to head back to the bloody patch.

    Cleo watched him curiously. He’d shown no averse reaction to the scene. No sign he remembered it. He was as unsettled as they were. She didn’t really want to leave him on his own, either. Not when he was still learning about the world. A sudden murkrow swoop from the canopy and he’d be reduced to ribbons.

    Cleo bit her lip and forced her back on the whimsicott. She had to learn to trust he could look after himself. He’d proved himself to be a worthy fighter already. So she pressed on, retracing the noivern’s flight path.

    Where was he coming from? No… where was he going? And why be out during the day?

    She paused, perched on the thick, snaking root of a mountain ash. She couldn’t see the crash site anymore, but she could see it in her mind. She could hear Mischief rustling through the leaves, and caught the odd glimpse of his fluffy back shimmering in the daylight. The noivern had flown right over it. He’d been heading… north.

    “He was going home,” she said as the idea formed in her mind.

    “Huh?” Spark twisted to look at her.

    “He’d been heading home,” Cleo repeated. “The noivern. He came from this way.” She pointed a paw behind her. “He’d been heading back towards the Shadow Lands. He just happened to spot us and target us. He wasn’t looking for anything.”

    “All right,” said Spark. “Let’s say you’re right. Then why was he out during the day? Heading back with some haste, maybe?”

    “Exactly.” Cleo tapped her chin with a claw. “That would explain why he was flying about during the day with escorts. A noivern’s sight isn’t as good during the daylight. They’re better at twilight. So he must have been heading back home in a hurry. Maybe he found something and desperately had to deliver that information to Hydreigon, but he got sidetracked. He thought he’d pick off three Outcasts, not realising one of them could… well…” She trailed off, her eye wandering to Mischief as he picked up her trail to rejoin them.

    “And with good reason,” Spark added in a whisper. “I think you might be right, Cleo. But what did he find? Maybe it’s important.”

    “It might be. I say we keep retracing his path until we find it.”

    Mischief rejoined them and spread his paws in a shrug. “I didn’t find anything. Just a few feathers.” He paused and inclined his head on one side. “Noivern don’t have feathers, right?”

    “I dunno,” said Spark. “What colour were they?”

    “Spark!” Cleo hissed, jerking her shoulder and almost upending the dedenne.

    Spark clung onto her ruff and scrambled back into it, a cheeky grin on her face.

    “I think we’re on the right track,” Cleo explained to Mischief. “We’ve worked out that the noivern might have been heading home. So if we follow the way he came, we might discover the reason he was here in the first place.”

    They turned to head further into the forest, and Cleo swatted aside some over-sized ferns to clear the path for them.

    “You know what’s funny?” said Spark. “If this were a salamence, no one would even be questioning it.”

    “Agreed,” said Cleo.

    “Because salamence are less dangerous?” Mischief asked.

    “No, because salamence are diurnal,” said Cleo. “The noivern’s mistake here was to be out during the day, when anyone could have… spotted him…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “If we hadn’t spotted him, he probably wouldn’t have attacked us.”

    “Because he didn’t want to be seen,” Spark added.

    “Mischief, you’re a genius!” Cleo scrambled through the foliage, a renewed vigour in her step.

    “Erm… thanks?” Mischief skipped after them. “What did I do?”

    “You gave me an epiphany,” said Cleo. “This makes me almost certain he found something of importance.”

    “Like, maybe, more peaceful pokemon?” Spark offered.

    “Possibly.” Cleo had to speak through gasps she was scampering so quickly. “If so, he might be linked to the absol somehow. They might have been working together and poisoned the river.”

    “You might be leaping to too many conclusions there, but I’m not disputing it,” said Spark. “But maybe-”

    A deep rumble cut through the air, and the canopy above them rustled. Cleo froze in her tracks, and Spark went tumbling from her shoulder with the momentum.

    The dedenne rolled over the foliage and sat up, shaking her tiny head. “What the-?”

    Another rumble, deeper this time. Not unlike the wailing of some large, aquatic pokemon sounding out to its pod. Cleo’s heart hammered in her chest like a piston. She placed a paw on the trunk of a tree to steady herself and exchanged worried glances with her companions.

    “What pokemon makes a noise like that?” Mischief whispered.

    “A big one,” Spark replied.

    “It’s coming from deeper in the forest,” said Cleo. “It sounds big, but I think it might be much further inside than we are.”

    “Oh, good.” Spark nodded and scrambled to her feet. “That means we’re safe.”

    Cleo adjusted her satchel and strolled past her.

    “Hey, hang on!” Spark squeaked. “You’re going towards it?”

    “It might be what we’re looking for.” Cleo turned her head to look back at her friends. “Let’s go?”

    Mischief toyed with the badge on his new orange scarf, while Spark stood at his feet twitching her whiskers at the air. The noise sounded again, further away this time, but Cleo could feel it rumbling in her chest. A deep, primal urge to move as far away from it as possible screamed inside her.

    “You’re not coming, are you?” she asked her friends. “Come on, we’re Guild Warriors. This is what we do.”

    “All right, fine.” Spark scurried back up onto Cleo’s shoulder. “But I have you know I’m from a long line of pokemon that were hunted before they saw their third summer. I don’t like this one bit.”

    “Neither do I,” said Cleo.

    She fell into step beside Mischief and they pushed through the foliage towards the strange noise. It didn’t sound again, but every leaf that rustled in the breeze set her fur on end. One rustle after another.

    Wait… there wasn’t any breeze.

    Cleo’s tails stiffened and she turned her head towards a tangled knot of shrubs. She could have sworn she’d seen the leaves twitching, the remaining heavy red berries jiggling. But all she could see inside it was a thick shadow.

    Too black a shadow.

    She leapt backwards with a cry, and Mischief parted from her, twirling in the air as light as a seed. A cannonball of black fur sliced between them, and something purple glinted in its jaws, narrowly skimming Mischief’s hip. They vanished like smoke into the brambles.

    Cleo strained her ears to listen for any rustling. Their assailant barely made any noise, the rustles difficult to tell from the breeze that had decided to sweep through the trees. The black pokemon kept themselves downwind, too, making it impossible to pinpoint them. Cleo kept her ears tightly curled and flexed her claws, bracing for them to swipe again. Spark had bailed her shoulder, climbing into the nearest tree with amazing agility. The dedenne perched on a bough, her nose twitching as she gazed into the brambles.

    “Move it!” she squeaked.

    Cleo dashed towards the bush their assailant had previously leapt from. But the black blur wasn’t aiming for her. They lunged at Mischief who leapt aside once more, scattering white cotton spores at his attacker. The pokemon staggered and landed in a squat, shaking their head to remove the irritating spores.

    A zorua. And not just any zorua. The blue markings and sapphire eyes were a real give-away.

    Harlequin. A feared assassin that Hydreigon reserved only for his more critical targets. They were famous for using poisons, and were often not seen. That is to say, few had survived to tell the tale.

    The zorua sneered at Mischief around the lumpy, purple horn clasped in their jaws. “Well aren’t you a nuisance?”

    Mischief didn’t get the time to reply. He found himself twisting to dodge another slice with that horn. There was nothing Cleo could do to get close and assist him. If that horn was what Cleo feared it was, then to put oneself in the way of it would be suicide.

    Mischief tried to counter with an energy ball, but Harlequin dodged backwards, kicking themselves off the ground with their forepaws. Then they lunged straight at Mischief as he readied another attack. He stumbled forwards, the green energy fizzing out like static, and a clump of white cotton was torn from his back.

    Cleo let out a yell, but Mischief didn’t appear wounded. He pushed himself back up and darted to the side as Harlequin struck again. Electricity bounced off the floor at the zorua’s feet and their blue eyes widened. They jerked their head up towards the canopy, searching for Spark. It was all the distraction Mischief needed.

    A blast of sparkling light engulfed Harlequin, sending them ears over tail across the forest floor. The horn fell from their jaws as they let out a bark of surprise.

    Cleo rushed to grab it, careful to pick it up by the handle. She stood over Harlequin and pointed the tip of the horn at their shaggy throat.

    The zorua stared back up at her, sapphire eyes sparkling. “Do you think you’ve got me?”

    Without the horn muffling it, their voice was unexpectedly high. It threw Cleo for a moment. Enough for Harlequin to widen their jaws and fire a spray of black energy right into her face.

    Mischief shoulder-barged Cleo to the side, and the blast caught her right ear. Cleo yowled, more from the pain of landing hard on her shoulder in a tangle of lumpy roots. Thankfully the purple horn had fallen from her grip, landing a paw’s stretch away.

    Before she could grab it, Harlequin snatched it up in their jaws and stood over her. The point of the horn was mere millimetres from her muzzle.

    Harlequin fired a glare at Mischief and Spark. The latter spluttered with electricity, her tail swishing side to side over her head.

    Harlequin sneered. “Try anything and she’s dead.”

    Spark’s demeanour didn’t change, but her electricity fizzled out.

    “I’m not here for her.” Harlequin fixed their sapphire glare on Mischief. “I’m here for him.”

    “Why me?” Mischief asked. “What have I done?”

    Harlequin gave a mocking laugh. “Don’t act like you don’t know! Hydreigon wants you dead. I was told to take you out with priority. But…” They lowered the horn back towards Cleo’s snout. “Since you got in my way…”

    A soft sizzle came from the canopy and Harlequin’s body locked up. A few sparks of electricity danced over the zorua’s fur and they slumped to the ground before Cleo. The assassin was caught in a flurry of purple light, sending them rolling through the fallen leaves. The horn flew from their jaws, landing point down in the ground right before Cleo’s nose.

    Her breath froze in her throat as she stared cross-eyed at it. A beat of time passed before she shoved herself backwards with her forepaws. She yanked the horn from the ground and stood over Harlequin. The zorua fixed one eye on Cleo. The best they could do since they couldn’t turn their head. Their limbs jerked out of rhythm, and their lip trembled as they let out a low growl.

    “I’m assuming you can still speak?” said Cleo.

    Harlequin said nothing, instead baring their canines in a threat to bite. It left Cleo feeling very glad she hadn’t needed to prize the deadly horn from their jaws.

    “Maybe you can answer some questions?” Cleo asked. “In return for us sparing your life?”

    Harlequin managed a smirk and chuckled.

    No… it wasn’t Harlequin who chuckled.

    Cleo looked up warily. She leapt out of the way as Mischief let out a series of consecutive energy balls at the fallen zorua. Harlequin flew into the air in an explosion of earth and foliage. A broken howl left their throat, silenced as they struck the trunk of an ivy-cloaked oak.

    Mischief launched himself at the assassin, connecting a full-body tackle before they struck the ground. He landed astride the zorua and grabbed their ruff in one paw. Harlequin stared back up at him with a look of pure terror. One blue paw twitched helplessly as they fought against the paralysis in a bid to escape.

    It had all happened so fast. Cleo shook herself and dropped the horn. “Mischief, stop!”

    She rushed towards him, watching in horror as his flailing paws struck Harlequin repeatedly across the muzzle. Cleo uncurled her ears, and a purple bubble formed around him. She yanked him off Harlequin’s body, raising him above her head. Mischief screamed with fury, lashing out at the sides of the bubble. His flailing only made it all the more difficult to contain him. They had to do something, otherwise he’d break free before the madness had run its course.

    That was… if it would run its course. The previous time could have been a fluke.

    Cleo caught Spark’s eye above her head, and the dedenne nodded. Cleo dropped Mischief and he stood, flexing his paws. He leapt towards Cleo, meeting a thunderwave. He crumpled to the ground at her feet. The whimsicott looked up at her with blind fury, then all mania seemed to leave his eyes right before he went limp.

    Cleo let out a sigh and flopped back against rough bark. She ran a paw across her face and looked away from the two pokemon. She didn’t want to look. Not again. Not after the noivern.

    “Spark?” she asked. “Are they…?”

    “They’re both still breathing,” said Spark. “You caught him before he could do any real damage. Both of them are just paralysed.”

    Cleo let out a sigh of relief and joined the dedenne beside Harlequin. The zorua’s eyes were closed, and their chest rose and fell frantically. That didn’t give Cleo much information as to whether they were still conscious. And she didn’t really want to stand around in the forest pumping the assassin for questions, either. If Hydreigon had sent one after them because of the noivern, then if word got back they could have even more of the Darkness after them.

    She grit her teeth and reached into her bag to pull out Tinker’s communicator. She hadn’t wanted to use this so soon. She pressed the button and it let out a high buzz, causing her to drop it with surprise.

    “Cleo?” Tinker’s distorted voice rang out from it. “Is everything all right?”

    Cleo scooped it back up and spoke into the slats. “No. Not really. We… ran into some trouble.”

    “What kind of trouble?” He didn’t sound all that surprised.

    “Harlequin.” Cleo let a beat pass before she elaborated. “I can explain more, but-”

    “Are you serious?!” Tinker gasped. “Are you all okay?”

    “We’re fine. But Mischief… he lost it again. He’s taken Harlequin out. I don’t think I can carry them both back with me, and I really want to get some answers out of this zorua.”

    “I understand that. I imagine Mischief will wake up in due time. But you can’t bring Harlequin back here.” He paused. “We have cells, as you know. But you can’t use the main entrance to reach them.”

    “Then how are we meant to get inside?” Cleo asked through clenched teeth.

    “We have… a special gate just for that,” said Tinker. “A secure location, just west of where the noivern was defeated. When you see an ancient oak, you’re there.”

    “So a huge tree?” Cleo clicked her tongue. “You built it into a landmark? Hardly sounds secure to me.”

    “I think you’ll find it’s very secure,” said Tinker. “I’ll see you there shortly.”

    Cleo closed her eyes and sighed. A huge tree… and she imagined they’d get in the usual way, like all of New City’s stone gateways. She stuffed the communicator back into her satchel and looked down at the two fallen pokemon. Mischief she could carry back no problem. But Harlequin? A dark type couldn’t be lifted with her psychic.

    “Don’t look at me,” said Spark. “I can barely lift this horn.”

    The dedenne nudged the handle with a foot.

    Cleo shook her head and ran a paw between her ears. She didn’t have much choice. First things first, she wasn’t leaving that horn where anyone could find it. She examined the zorua’s satchel, finding a pocket on the inside of the flap that was clearly designed to safely hold it. She slotted it back in place and looped the satchel over her own shoulders. There was no chance she was risking Harlequin coming to and grabbing it. Once that was sorted, she stooped to drag Harlequin onto her back, and grunted. The fox-like pokemon wasn’t much bigger than her, and paralysed rendered them a dead weight.

    Cleo let out a low growl and muttered something incoherent.

    This wasn’t going to be easy.
     
    Chapter 12 New
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    I really enjoyed this one! Lots of fun little details and it flowed well. The physicality of the pickpocketing scene was nice.
    Thank you =D I'm glad you enjoyed Chapter 2!

    Oh interesting! I like how you’re getting interesting new use from these and also making it a character moment.
    I like to try and fit PMD tools into this universe. It's fun =D

    I feel bad for Mischief because this must've been quite the shock for him to witness. Let's hope it won't suck away all of his bubbly and innocent personality.
    Mischief's naivety is one of his main character quirks, but this is a bit of a growth moment for him.

    I still don't like Harlequin and Enigma as individuals for reasons I mentioned in a previous review, though I do enjoy them somewhat. They seem to have a lot of synergy bouncing off one another, at the expense of everyone else though lol.
    As unpleasant as they are, they're fun to write especially due to the synergy. Enigma can unsettle me sometimes, but he wouldn't be an intimidating enemy if he was a likeable goof XD

    Thanks for reading! =D



    12 - Fire and Poison​

    Mischief bobbed along ahead of Cleo and Spark. Harlequin’s satchel swung from his neck like a pendulum, encased in a bubble of purple energy. Cleo trudged after him, her ears unfurled and humming away like a swarm of beedrill. Harlequin’s bag wasn’t light. After jigging things around several times, hanging it from the unconscious whimsicott had seemed the best decision. Sure, if the zorua awakened and found enough strength to retrieve it, Cleo’s psychic wouldn’t exactly be a formidable barrier, and Mischief in his current state wasn’t exactly much of a formidable guardian. But none of them really had much choice.

    Spark skipped along beside Cleo, acting as Cleo’s ears. With her psychic humming away, she was at a disadvantage to listen for any small noises that could signal a further threat. Harlequin wasn’t known to work alone very often. They were famous for travelling with another assassin. One who was often heard before he was seen. The thought alone made Cleo’s heart race, and she found herself checking every small shadow - the flutter of a leaf, a small wispy cloud passing the sun… anything.

    They’d long since passed where the noivern had fallen, turning west and heading deep into the forest. Tinker hadn’t been clear about how far west they needed to head. Just that somewhere in the forest was a large tree. A large tree that would get them into New City’s cells.

    Cleo was beginning to grow impatient. All she could see around them were your standard trees, with no opening into New City at all, save for the occasional vent hidden away near the top, unseen to the untrained eye. This deep in the forest, the canopy grew close together, branches intertwining and knotting together, blocking out most of the light. It left them with a very uncertain sense of time. It could easily be evening, bringing with it more threats.

    Cleo forced her way through a thick sea of stinging nettles, wincing as her paws crunched over the prickly stems. Spark had no trouble, slipping between each one as if she did it every day. Thorny bushes and prickly ferns grew among them, each plant trying to strangle the other out to no avail, forming an unpleasant barrier across the unused path.

    A low growl resonated by her right ear, and Spark looked up from amid the leaves of a razz bush.

    “Cleo?” The dedenne’s voice wavered.

    Cleo glanced to her side, catching the glint of sharp canines as Harlequin struggled to raise their head. Great. They’d regained consciousness. A bite at this range would be wildly unwelcome. The zorua was still sluggish, fighting off the effects of the paralysis. Their claws twitched against Cleo’s shoulder as they strove to do as much damage as possible in an attempt to break free. They weren’t much of a threat in their current condition, but a risk was still a risk. It was also not feasible to render them unconscious again, either. Not without potentially dealing fatal damage. They needed the zorua alive. They had to know what was going on, and Harlequin may very likely have that information.

    Cleo turned and pressed onward, and Harlequin hissed as they were dragged through the stinging plants.

    “Cleo!” Spark squeaked. “What are you doing?”

    “I’m asking myself that same question.”

    “Put her down!” Spark scampered ahead of her and waved her paws. “We can ask for help, and-!”

    The foliage thinned, and Cleo stepped through it with Spark at her heels. Whatever she’d said had either faded or been cut off as the pair of them stared out at the burning forest. Thick black smoke curled up from the blazing foliage, stinging Cleo’s eyes. She slapped a paw over her muzzle to block out its bitter suffocating smog. Houndour swarmed through the inferno, torching everything in sight. Just beyond them was a huge tree, guarded by a formidable houndoom. The sleek, black dog threw his head back and let out a blood-curdling howl that made Cleo’s heart freeze.

    Harlequin lifted their head and their claws tightened around Cleo’s shoulders. The zorua’s breath came out as a low, pathetic whine.

    Cleo trembled from ear to tail as she took a step back into the nettles. The houndour zipped past her, and the lead one sent a flamethrower right over her head into the canopy. Harlequin slipped from Cleo’s shoulders, landing in a crumpled heap behind her. Harlequin let out a scream of protest which fell on deaf ears. Cleo stared at the desolation for a fleeting heartbeat before her senses kicked in and she twisted away and bolted, dropping to all-fours. She didn’t even feel the nettles. Spark scampered on ahead of her, pausing to check the feline was following. The small dedenne lead the way through the tangle of prickly stems. On the wind, Cleo heard Harlequin’s frantic cries as they pleaded desperately for their life.

    Cleo ran until her lungs were fit to burst, burning with a cold fire. It wasn’t until the pair finally came to a stop inside the thorny branches of a razz bush that she realised she’d made a fatal error.

    She’d dropped Mischief in all the chaos.

    ...​

    The grovyle milled around the office, dwarfed by the expansive shelves that swarmed over the walls in a chaos of organised paperwork. Loose papers littered the lone desk that she filed into various colourful binders in a methodical fashion that bordered on the obsessive. She muttered to herself incoherently, the odd word coming out louder than the rest, although she seemed oblivious to it. ‘Wrong!’ and ‘Nonsense!’ were frequently voiced as she placed the files back on the shelves, or glanced between the one she was holding and the one that had clearly offended her before violently switching them. If she noticed her own variating volume she didn’t show it.

    Her mutterings only ceased when a soft jingle emanated from the corner of the room. Her entire body stiffened and her eyes became impossibly wide. Just like many other pokemon before her, she wished she’d only imagined that sound. The fear spread across her face as a shadowy figure emerged from beside the potted palm.

    Her reaction elicited a chuckle from the assassin and he sank back against the door, grinning at the quaking grovyle.

    “Enigma?” she stuttered. “What… what are you doing here?”

    The banette tutted and shook his head slowly. “Oh my. You don’t seem too happy to see me?” He paused and inclined his head on one side. “Mint, right?”

    The grass-type’s jaw went slack and a brief silence passed between them. “How did you-”

    “The rockruff on watch duty told me.”

    “Oh.” Mint licked her dry lips and hugged the folder to her chest tightly. “Why are you… I mean… I’ve not… have I? I don’t understand.”

    Enigma stared at her coldly and she shrank back further against the desk. He almost expected her to start begging for her life. Instead she took a deep, steadying breath and ran a paw over the long leaf trailing down her back.

    “Why would Lord Hydreigon send you here?” she choked out. “To me?”

    “Hmm… why, exactly?” Enigma looked up at the ceiling and scratched his mane. “I’ve been sent to find out which Heretics were visited by a noivern. One passed by here recently.” He locked his crimson gaze on hers. “Were you visited by a noivern?”

    She shook her head sharply. “No. No, we’ve not been visited by a noivern.”

    He continued to stare at her and a sly grin tugged at his lips. “Are you lying to me, Mint?”

    “No!” She shook her head again, more violently, causing the long leaf to sweep some papers off the table. “No one has visited us from the Shadow Lands in months!”

    “Allow me to narrow it down for you, see if we can ring any bells.” He warped from the wall and appeared before her with a loud jingle.

    Mint squealed and stumbled back from the desk into the shelves. One of them came loose and rained its contents down upon her. She lifted her arms to shield herself and screwed her eyes shut tight as folders pelted her slender body. Enigma stretched out a paw and plucked one of the binders from the air before flopping down into the little desk chair. He idly flipped through the contents, barely taking it in.

    “It was Boomer,” he said flatly, looking up to meet her stunned expression. “Does that name clear away any fog?”

    “I know who Boomer is.” She gazed at the paper spewed over the floor, and with a defeated sigh she sank against the wall. “We’ve not been visited by any dragons. You have the wrong base, Enigma.”

    “Well isn’t that a pity.” He closed the folder and tossed it onto the desk. “I was hoping to finish this little task quickly. Searching for all of your hidden bases is rather dull.” He stood and approached her, taking her head leaf in his claws. “I was rather hoping to play with you a little longer.”

    He let the leaf trail through his claws, watching as she turned from a deep green to a sickly lime. She let out an audible gulp. He returned it with a sinister grin and twirled with a flourish to march back towards the door.

    “I can tell you where they are if that helps?”

    Enigma quirked an eyebrow and looked back at her. “Oh? You’re in contact with them?”

    “Of course…” She wasn’t looking at him, instead gazing from the small window.

    “Then maybe you can cut my quest short? He was sent back with a message to Hydreigon. One he was meant to deliver with some haste.”

    “I don’t know about any message.” She turned her head towards him. “Besides, if he had a message for Lord Hydreigon then why do you want it?”

    “Because it didn’t reach him.”

    The grovyle’s eyes widened and she looked away from him again. Silence. She hadn’t expected that. Maybe she did know something?

    “There were some… complications,” Enigma told her. “So the message never reached Hydreigon. If you know what it is, then it’s in your best interest to tell me.” He leant back against the door and examined his claws, feigning a somewhat bored expression.

    It had the desired effect. Mint trembled from head to foot until the feathery leaves adorning her arms rustled.

    “I can assure you, Enigma, I have no idea.”

    “Well the answer is believed to be in this vicinity.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “You said you’re in touch with the other bases. Are there any more around here I should know about?”

    “Not… a base.” She swallowed and glanced away from him. “Just a lab.”

    Enigma’s eyes widened. “A lab you say?”

    She nodded stiffly, as if giving away such knowledge pained her.

    “I’ll visit this lab. But if I find out you’ve been keeping any information from me…” He examined his claws again and a huge grin spread across his face, “then I’ll be back to deal with you.”

    She grimaced and placed a paw on the desk to steady herself. “Please… I’ve told you everything I know.”

    Enigma smirked. “I hope so, Mint.”

    “The lab isn’t far from here.” She looked up and fixed him with watery eyes. “You’ll hear it before you see it.”

    Well that was interesting.

    “Anything else?” he crooned.

    She screwed her eyes shut and shook her head, letting a lone tear leak over her scaly cheek.

    “Very well.” Enigma lowered his claws and wiped them on his scarf. “Then you’d best hope deeply you never meet me again.”

    He phased through the door, leaving the grovyle to sink, sobbing, to the floor.

    ...​

    Cleo barely breathed. She crouched, braced to run, peering through the thorny branches. No sign of Mischief. No sign of Harlequin. Not a single bark from the houndour. Had they gone? Had they really not noticed her? She’d expected them to give chase. Her heart hammered at her ribs, urging her to flee. But she couldn’t. She’d left Mischief to an unfortunate fate amid that inferno.

    She crept forwards, her nose twitching at the air as it rustled the bitter razz leaves. Not so much as a hint of smoke. What was going on?

    She exchanged puzzled glances with Spark, who shifted on the spot with unease. “We need to go back for him, Cleo.”

    “I know.” Cleo’s voice was barely a whisper. She strained her ears, but there was nothing. “I can’t see any smoke or fire.”

    “Maybe the Guild put them out already?”

    “You really think the Guild has seen off the Wildfires?” Cleo scoffed. “No… Something isn’t right. Why would Hydreigon send them this way?” She grimaced at that. He’d already sent Harlequin, hadn’t he? “Maybe… maybe there’s something here he wants after all.”

    “I really think we should go back and warn Tinker,” said Spark. “Sitting here isn’t helping.”

    Tinker!

    Cleo’s eyes widened and she reached into her bag. Her claws fastened around the cold plastic shell of Tinker’s communicator. They weren’t outside the boundaries of New City. If it really worked, then they could contact him from where they sat.

    She pushed the red button, and Spark hopped onto her shoulder for a better look. Almost immediately Tinker’s voice responded, crackling. A little too loud for Cleo’s liking. She gave a wary glance back towards the invisible inferno.

    “Cleo?” A trace of worry marred his voice and she realised she’d not responded yet. “Is everything okay?”

    “Ah… Tinker.” She fell to her haunches and clutched the communicator in both paws. “No… I… we found the tree. But… Oh, Tinker. The Wildfires are there!” Her voice tapered out into a strangled whisper and she stared wide-eyed back up the path of nettles. “I lost Mischief when I panicked. I couldn’t… we just ran!” She screwed her eyes shut. “I’m so sorry.”

    A throaty chuckle came from the speaker and she opened her eyes again to glare at it.

    “Are you laughing?” she growled.

    “I’m sorry, Cleo.” She could almost picture him wiping a paw across his eyes. “I should have warned you. What you saw is merely an illusion.”

    “An illusion?” she gasped.

    Spark shook her head slowly. “No. I’m afraid we’re gonna need a better explanation than that.”

    “Remember, girls. I told you that the entrance is secure,” Tinker explained. “What you encountered is a complex barrier Grey created. It plays on the fears of those that encounter it, playing it out as a vivid illusion in an attempt to drive them away.” He paused. “As you can see, it works quite well.”

    “So what we saw… was just an illusion?” Cleo hissed. “I find it rather convenient that you forgot to tell us that.”

    “I needed you to see it for yourselves, since you doubted me.”

    Cleo closed her eyes and sighed. “Tinker… not only did I drop Mischief, I also abandoned Harlequin.”

    “Pardon? You dropped Harlequin?!”

    “I wasn’t going to carry a pokemon that size while fleeing from the Wildfires, was I! She’d slow me down!”

    Tinker sighed, a static buzz filled with accusation. “Cleo… never mind. Just meet me at the tree. Maybe Harlequin is still there? In fact… I can almost count on it.”

    The communicator cut off and Cleo glared at it before stuffing it into her bag. “Come on, Spark. Mischief might have come to his senses by now and be looking for us.”

    She ducked from the razz bush and sniffed the air cautiously. Definitely no smoke. If it was an illusion like Tinker had said, it was incredibly life-like. She couldn’t even begin to hope to create something like that. Grey’s skills were incredible.

    She crept back through the nettles, keeping her wits about her perchance Harlequin was waiting in ambush. But the zorua lay just outside them in a sprawled heap, one paw stretched out as if they’d been scrambling to get away. Smoke curled up from the grass, and the chilling howl came from the houndoom once more. Cleo froze, fixing it with wide amber eyes. Her gut instinct told her to flee, and she ducked back into the nettles.

    “Come on, Cleo!” Spark dived from her shoulder. “He said it isn’t real!”

    Cleo watched Spark’s tail as it vanished beyond the nettles. She forced herself after the dedenne, finding her stood beside Harlequin, gazing up at the howling flames.

    “Whew boy, it’s really life-like.” Spark trembled slightly and forced herself to look away to examine Harlequin.

    Cleo crept into the blazing inferno, feeling the heat lick over her fur harmlessly. It gave her peace of mind that it definitely was nothing more than an illusion.

    “You see the same thing, right?” she asked Spark.

    “Of course I do,” said the dedenne. “Blazing fires… those dogs… all the screaming… you just have to close your eyes and tell yourself it ain’t real.” As if to demonstrate, Spark squeezed her eyes shut and lowered her head.

    Screaming? So it did play out differently for each pokemon. All Cleo could hear were the howls and the horrible crackle of burning wood.

    “Well… first things first,” said Cleo. “We’d better find Mischief. Maybe he’s hiding?”

    She searched around her, finding the whimsicott lying a little way away from Harlequin. Still out cold. It was an inconvenience she’d just have to deal with. She left him to return to Harlequin. Once the zorua was back on her shoulders then she could lift Mischief.

    Harlequin didn’t respond to her presence. Their ribs rose and fell quickly, almost as if they were gasping for breath.

    Spark twitched her nose at Cleo. “I think she’s fainted.”

    Cleo made a thoughtful noise and hoisted the zorua onto her back. “I wonder what she saw?”

    “Makes you wonder,” said Spark. “I often think the Darkness aren’t scared of anything. They wouldn’t cause all this suffering if they were scared, right?”

    The pair turned towards the flames, and Cleo’s blood turned cold. Spark gave her ankle a reassuring pat.

    “Just do what I do,” said Spark. “Close your eyes, lower your head and run. Don’t even look up!” With that, the dedenne sped towards the tree.

    Cleo swallowed bile and pushed herself on, staggering under Harlequin’s weight. When she was close enough to Mischief, she lifted him in a bubble and picked up pace, screwing her eyes shut like Spark. It did nothing to block out the noise swirling through her mind. She half-expected the houndoom to lunge at her at any moment, to feel his hot fangs fastening around her neck.

    A pair of paws fell on her shoulders and she screamed, dropping Harlequin and Mischief once more. Tinker flinched back from her and looked between her and the two unconscious pokemon.

    “Cleo!” he said, lifting his paws. “It’s just me.”

    Cleo suppressed a growl as it rose in her throat, and stooped to gather Harlequin. Tinker stopped her and took the zorua almost effortlessly, slinging them across his back like a shaggy cloak. Cleo, silently thankful for his aid, scooped up Mischief in another bubble.

    Tinker looked up at the big tree and let out a long whistle. “You almost forget it isn’t real, don’t you?”

    “Really?” Cleo glared at him. “Tell me… what do you see?”

    “I suppose we’d better get inside,” he said. “Harlequin might wake up soon, and I’d much rather not be on the receiving end of an assault.”

    He carried Harlequin with alarming ease towards the opening in the base of the tree. The houndoom reversed towards it, fixing Cleo with crimson eyes that seemed to burn right through her. Cleo gulped and screwed her eyes shut, moving Mischief ahead of her towards the tree.

    Tinker stood just inside the opening with Spark, patiently waiting for Cleo. Once she was safely inside, he popped his Guild badge into the stone slab and it rolled aside with a soft grating sound. He let Cleo in first, and the slab closed behind him.

    A dark staircase wound down into the shadows, and the smell of mildew wafted up on the cold air. Tinker took the lead, his paws slapping over the damp stone. It was a far contrast to the fresh and earthy smell she’d grown familiar with in New City.

    Candles dotted the walls, their orange light flickering and shimmering over the stairs. They seemed to grow more wet the further down they went, and Cleo had to watch her step for fear she might slip and send Mischief tumbling down the rest of the way. A move she was sure he wouldn’t appreciate.

    The stairs ended in a wide room with heavy iron doors barring their way. Muffled angry voices came from the other side, along with cries and sobs. The fur bristled along Cleo’s spine and she wasn’t sure why. The atmosphere? No… it was deeper than that. Some psychological response she struggled to analyse.

    Tinker pulled out a large iron key and unlocked the door, releasing the muffled sounds into the hollow room. Slurs and insults, shouts of profanity. Each one warring to be heard above the other. Cleo stepped into a tunnel lined with smaller iron doors, each one sporting a barred window with a view of its occupant. She was surprised at how many weren’t empty. Weavile, sneasel, scraggy, nuzleaf… so many faces looked back at her. She noted an umbreon curled up in the back of one of the cells, glaring at her with tired, red eyes. She hadn’t seen any eevee or its evolutions in years. Each cell was darkened with thick layers of mildew that spread up the stone walls and congregated on the ceiling. Other sharp smells mixed with it - fear, sweat and ones Cleo didn’t even want to think about.

    “This,” said Tinker as they filed through the noisy cells, “is where we keep the dark pokemon that are currently being interrogated for information. Some of the Guild’s best soldiers work here, so it’s a place of high security, as you’ve already seen.”

    Spark peered over the walls and her nose crinkled. “Wouldn’t hurt to brighten it up a bit, though, eh?”

    “That’s not necessary.” Tinker stopped at another door. Painted on it was a red triangle with an exclamation point. He fumbled the key-chain while juggling Harlequin about his shoulders.

    “Need a paw with that?” Spark asked.

    “I’m not sure you could reach,” said Tinker.

    “Oi!” Spark’s whiskers crackled. “If you weren’t my boss I’d give you a good shocking!”

    A smirk spread across Tinker’s muzzle, but he didn’t look up from the key chain.

    “What’s this room?” Cleo asked.

    “High security cell,” he explained. “I feel it’s more fitting for this one.”

    “She’s one small zorua.” Cleo stepped forward to steady the zorua on Tinker’s back.

    “Harlequin is notoriously known to be an escape artist.” Tinker swiftly unlocked the door and shoved it open with his foot. “Besides, this is a private room. I don’t really want the other prisoners listening in.”

    He led them inside, and Cleo was surprised to find the room was a lot wider and quieter than the corridor of cells. Once the door was closed behind them, most of the noise was nullified. A huge cell adorned the far left wall, a wall of iron bars set close enough together that the wiliest of sneasel couldn’t slip between them. They were also thick enough not to be bashed to smithereens by a tyranitar, or gnawed through by a persistent raticate.

    Tinker set Harlequin in the cell then, leaving the door open, left the zorua to rummage through the lone desk in the room. Cleo stared warily at the open cell door, but Tinker wasn’t long. He returned to Harelquin and snapped a strange white collar around their neck.

    “What’s that for?” Cleo asked.

    “Security reasons,” said Tinker. “Would you please join me for a moment? I can show you what I mean.”

    Cleo exchanged a shrug with Spark and set Mischief on the floor before joining Tinker’s side. In one fluid motion, the riolu twisted and swiped at Cleo’s ruff. She let out a shrill mewl and raised her paw to her neck. Tinker didn’t seem to care. He finished fussing with the collar and stood up.

    Cleo met his eyes and growled. “Would you mind telling me what that was for?”

    “I told you,” he said as he shooed her from the cell so he could lock it. “Security. I needed some of your hairs for your own protection.”

    Cleo leant back against one of the cell’s bars. “I think I need a bit more of an explanation.”

    “Later,” he said. “Right now, I want to see what this zorua has in his bag.”

    Tinker untangled the bag from around Mischief and set it on his desk.

    “And what about Mischief?” Cleo asked. “Are we just leaving him to come round on his own?”

    “No. I have a nurse on site,” Tinker explained. “I’ve asked her to collect him, but she appears to be running a little late.” He opened the bag and the first thing he removed was the large purple horn. “A nidoking horn?”

    “Yes,” said Cleo. “She attacked us with that.”

    Tinker turned it in his paws, examining the wooden handle it was mounted to, and the intricate tribal pattern painted along the horn’s surface.

    “So I guess when you picked it up you used the handle?” Tinker asked.

    “Yes, I’m not stupid, Tinker.”

    “That’s reassuring,” said Tinker. “Because if you were poisoned by this, you’d be in a lot of trouble. The anti-venom is as rare as the item itself.”

    Spark scratched behind her large ears. “You can’t just use pecha berries?”

    “While pechas are good for curing poison,” said Tinker, “they aren’t a fail-safe. Some poisons are too potent to be neutralised by a mere berry.”

    “Huh!” Spark blinked, dumbfounded. “The more you know.”

    “Then what would you use?” Cleo waved a paw at the weapon. “Say one of us did get nicked by this thing. How would we cure it?”

    “It needs a very specific anti-venom,” said Tinker. “One designed to counter that of a nidoking.”

    “So… the opposite?” asked Cleo.

    “Yes. And what is the opposite of a nidoking?”

    “A nidoqueen,” said Spark.

    “Precisely.”

    “Wha’?” Spark looked up at Cleo and shrugged. “I was joking.”

    “Well you are right on this account,” said Tinker. “Nidoqueen venom can counter that of a nidoking, and vice versa. It would at one time have been rather easy to come by, but when the poison-types rebelled against Hydreigon, they were wiped out. Nidoking and their evolutionary lines have been eradicated, and none have been sighted in years. They used to be quite populous in these mountains. It’s a wonder this assassin here has managed to acquire such an item.”

    “Does she have the anti-venom in there?” Cleo reached for the bag but Tinker swatted her paw away.

    “She wouldn’t be a very good assassin if she didn’t, Cleo. What if she accidentally poisoned herself?”

    Spark scoffed. “Wouldn’t be a very good assassin if she poisoned herself, either.”

    “Exactly.”

    The voice had come from the cell. A high voice that now, no longer muffled by the nidoking horn, had an aggressive undertone. It seemed to contrast with the zorua’s sparkling eyes and small, pointed features which were blanketed in an oddly shaggy coat that looked like it needed a good groom. Add to that the over-sized ears and Cleo found herself questioning the zorua’s age and gender. All of Hydreigon’s assassins were male, so Harlequin had taken Cleo by surprise at first. Now she was doubting herself. Was this zorua merely a cub? A formidable cub? No… that was impossible. The name ‘Harlequin’ had been circling for many seasons.

    “Oh. You’re awake.” Tinker turned back to the zorua’s bag. “That’s convenient. We have some questions for you.”

    Harlequin rolled over onto their stomach and pushed up into a sitting position. They lifted their right paw and flexed their claws. “Looks like the little squirt’s paralysis is wearing off.” They grinned at Cleo and her friends. “I’ll be out of here before you know it.”

    “Squirt!?” Spark spluttered electricity, sending a stray jolt into Tinker’s fur. “I have every right mind to shock you again!”

    “Don’t.” Tinker smoothed the fur around his shoulders and cast Harlequin a glare. “He can’t do anything. That collar represses all his special attacks, and the bars on that cage are designed to restrain a dragon-danced salamence.”

    “Oh really?” Harlequin opened their jaws wide, then a look of bewilderment crossed the zorua’s features. They snapped their jaw shut again and licked their lips, lowering their head.

    Tinker raised an eyebrow. “Trying a dark pulse? Try all you want. It’s pointless.”

    Harlequin pawed at the collar with a back leg, shoving it to force it past their ears to no avail. “What on earth is this?”

    “Science.” Tinker returned to rummaging through the zorua’s bag. “Now… am I right in assuming that one of these bottles is an antidote for the nidoking horn?”

    “I don’t carry an antidote.”

    “Really?” Tinker looked up at Harlequin with some surprise. “Seems rather foolish.”

    “What would be foolish is poisoning myself on my own weapon,” Harlequin explained. “A good assassin doesn’t make it to my level by poisoning themselves. And, if you know my reputation, you’ll know that I’m an elite.”

    “An elite who is now trapped behind bars.”

    Harlequin’s fur bristled along their back and their hackles rose. If Tinker noticed he didn’t react.

    He looked up at the door. “Where on earth is that nurse? Now…” He reached into the bag and pulled out a long string of black thong. A heavy golden ring swung from it, and inside it a strange orb twirled back and forth on a pin. “What is this? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

    Harlequin’s eyes widened, blazing with a sapphire fire. “Put that back!”

    “Here, Cleo. Have you ever seen one of these?” Tinker handed the necklace to Cleo.

    “Put it back!” With what strength they had left, Harlequin launched a full-body tackle at the bars. Their jaws fastened around it, snarling and snapping, scrabbling with their claws.

    Cleo feared for a moment that the zorua might slip through the bars, but that was impossible. She watched as Harlequin gnawed at the metal bars, leaving a streak of bloody saliva along the rough metal. She tore her eyes away to examine the strange item in her paws. It was heavy, and the orb appeared to be made from glass. A black and white shape coiled down the centre of it, which seemed to warp as the glass ball rotated in its golden prison.

    Cleo shook her head and handed it back to Tinker. “I’ve no idea what it is. But going off her reaction, I’d say it’s pretty important.”

    Tinker nodded, glancing a the zorua. “I’d say so. Harlequin! What is this?”

    Harlequin lay with their jaws still fastened around the bar, breathing heavily. Their eyes were wild and fierce, almost insane.

    Tinker nodded again and handed the item back to Cleo. “Keep hold of it. I want to make sure it’s well out of Harlequin’s reach, while we work out what it is.”

    “No!” Harlequin barked. “Put it back! Give it back, right now!”

    “Are you going to tell us what it is?” Tinker demanded.

    “Not yours! Now put! It! Back!” With each word, Harlequin thrashed their paws against the iron bars.

    The door to the room opened and an audino poked her head around it. “My. What a racket!” She stepped into the room and pointed a wary claw at Harlequin who was once again gnashing at the bars. “Is he the one you want me to treat?”

    “No, no.” Tinker waved a dismissive paw at the whimsicott, who was now starting to stir. “It’s him. He passed out with exhaustion.”

    The audino crouched down beside Mischief. “He seems to be waking up, but I’ll give him a check over. Can you stand?”

    Mischief sat up and rubbed his fluffy head. He grimaced and removed his paw, looking at it as if it had morally offended him. “Why do I hurt?”

    “Because Cleo dropped you,” said Spark with a grin. “Twice!”

    “What?” He looked up at Cleo, who flushed and diverted her gaze. “Why?”

    “Come on.” The audino looped her arm around him and helped him to his feet. “I’ll get you some fresh oran juice.”

    “Where am I? It smells funny.”

    The pair left the room, their voices soon drowned out by Harlequin’s frantic screams.

    “Cleo.” Tinker drew the meowstic’s eye. “Let’s finish this conversation in the staff room, where it’s quieter. No one will be in there right now, so we can go over what I want you to do.”

    Cleo pursed her lips. That didn’t sound reassuring. “But… we’ve not asked-”

    “Later.” Tinker waved a paw. “He’s not going to tell us anything in this state, is he?”

    Harlequin’s cries had finally come to a stop. They lay panting with one paw stretched through the bars of their cell. Their eyes lacked that fierce fire, now angry and wet with unshod tears.

    Tinker ushered Cleo from the room, and Spark hopped from the desk to Cleo’s shoulder as she turned to leave. Her mind was swirling with questions, and she was silently grateful that Tinker wanted to relocate them elsewhere. Without Harlequin as a distraction, nor listening in, Cleo could voice them without concern.

    The staff room was located a short distance from the private cells, two doors along. She assumed the other door lead to another private cell, and she briefly wondered if anyone was occupying it. The staff room was pleasantly less musty than the other rooms, with a sharp clean, clinical scent that stung her nose as she entered. The lack of mildew marring the walls suggested it had been scrubbed clean recently.

    Tinker closed the door behind them and Cleo turned to face him.

    “So what do you want to discuss?” She picked up a glass of hot berry juice from the table and warmed her paws with it. “Do you think Harlequin worked with that absol to poison the river?”

    “The thought crossed my mind, and I won’t rule it out.” Tinker leant back against the table and sipped his own drink. “But that’s not why I brought you here, Cleo. The absol situation is being dealt with by a different Warrior team. But I do have a request of you.”

    “Oh?” The note in his voice unsettled Cleo.

    “I’m a little concerned.” Tinker swirled the contents of his glass. “No. Make that very concerned. This turn of events has set off my alarm bells. Since that noivern showed up in the area, Harlequin’s appearance has… raised some flags. Either there is something huge that Hydreigon is after in the Moorlands, or you three have a price on your heads.”

    Spark mirrored Cleo’s wide-eyed expression and lowered a razz berry she’d harvested from the table. “Hang on! What are you suggesting?”

    “I didn’t see the noivern’s body,” said Tinker. “So I can’t say for certain. But I am beginning to wonder if it was Boomer, one of Hydreigon’s aces, as you know. That would be the easiest explanation. Did Harlequin have a particular target in mind during your fight?”

    “Yes.” Cleo’s mouth turned dry. “Mischief.”

    “Oh yeah!” Spark nodded and took a bite of her berry. “Didn’t pay much attention to us two.”

    “That cinches it then,” said Tinker. “If you’ve ticked off Hydreigon by killing one of his top aces, then this is huge. He is one ace down and will stop at nothing to exact revenge. This would be a prime opportunity to start thinking about moving in on Hydreigon and finally getting rid of him.”

    Cleo’s glass shattered to the floor, and she leapt back as hot, sticky liquid sloshed over her paws. She fixed Tinker with a livid stare. “Are you crazy?! Move in on Hydreigon?! His army is… fifteen times the size of ours!”

    “An over-exaggeration, Cleo.”

    “I’d say its an under-exaggeration,” said Spark. “He outnumbers us a lot!”

    Tinker waved a paw at the dedenne. “Allow me to continue, girls, please.”

    Cleo bit her lip, but her glare never left the riolu.

    “Since we’ve found Mischief, I’ve been doing some thinking,” Tinker explained. “If we found more of that new type, our armies would increase in strength significantly. We’d have a huge advantage and could turn things in our favour! Let’s face it, Cleo. Mischief’s glittering attack could likely take Hydreigon down in one hit! Imagine what an army could do?”

    Cleo let out a flustered sigh and leant her paws on the table. “Okay, Tinker. You have a point. But where do we even start?”

    “I haven’t a clue,” said Tinker. “But I’d start with seeking out where Mischief came from. If there are more of his type there, then you could find out where they originated. Perhaps even recruit them.”

    Cleo’s livid glare returned and she flashed her canines. Spark spluttered out her berry.

    “The Heretics?!” they snapped.

    “You seriously have some questionable ideas, Tinker,” Cleo growled.

    “This is only a suggestion,” said Tinker. “But given Mischief appears to have come from a Heretic laboratory, there’s no saying the bio-weapons they create are being turned into such voluntarily. Don’t rubbish it before you’ve uncovered anything. There’s every possibility Mischief is merely a victim. Now…” He gazed into his glass, choosing his words carefully. “This brings me to the next part of my request. I want the three of you to take Harlequin with you.”

    Cleo’s jaw fell open and she found herself at a total loss for words.

    “Yeah…” Spark frowned up at Tinker. “You’ve completely lost it.”

    “Harlequin?” Cleo spat. “You want us to take an assassin with us?! She should remain behind bars! It’s dangerous to drag her around with us! There’s no way she’ll co-operate!”

    “Yeah, she could kill us!” Spark squeaked. Then she paused, thought briefly and added, “She’ll definitely kill us!”

    “I’ve considered all that,” said Tinker.

    “What, in the five minutes you’ve had her here?” Cleo’s tails bristled like a pair of cacti. “Why on earth should we be expected to drag one of Hydreigon’s most dangerous murderers with us?”

    “As a hostage.” Tinker fixed Cleo with his good eye. “Let’s face it, Cleo. If Harlequin has been sent after you, and doesn’t report back, then it won’t be long until Hydreigon sends out his other aces to target you.”

    A chill ran through Cleo’s body, and she felt the blood leave her cheeks.

    “Exactly,” Tinker said, reading her perfectly. “That means Enigma, Ripwing… and Howlinger and the Wildfires.”

    “Howlinger…” Cleo put a paw to her head. Everything began to spin and turn fuzzy, replaced with the image of a blazing forest and hundreds of black, howling shadows racing through her mind. A blazing inferno of death and destruction.

    And it would be coming for her once more.

    “Cleo?” Tinker rose to his feet, but his voice sounded echoey. Disjointed from reality.

    The last thing Cleo remembered seeing was the room on its side.
     
    Chapter 13 New
  • DeliriousAbsol

    *Crazy Absol Noises*
    Staff
    Location
    Behind a laptop, most likely with tea
    Pronouns
    She/Her
    Hello hello hello! I've seen you around a lot, both here and on Serebii and I always thought you were cool and I enjoy talking to fellow Christians. I read some of Pokemon:Life when it was on Serebii and I like your writing style. I know this fic was finished there, but when I saw you were uploading a revised edition, I figured I might as well go ahead and take a gander at it.
    Hi there! =D I also enjoy a good chat with fellow Christians!

    I am so stoked you are reading this! Your review was really enjoyable to read! Thank you so much! =D Ah yes... I remember Pokemon:Life. Kinda sad I lost my groove for it =( Maybe I'll revive it in the future?

    And I really, really like it. A lot. Overall, it has a very strong Redwall vibe
    The breakfast scene at the beginning of chapter 2 feels like something straight out of the Redwall books! Those were wonderful about detailing food and feasts, and I think you did a wonderful job on setting the breakfast scene without going too far into every little detail about the food.
    Redwall is a huge inspiration for me! The vibe may be down to me re-reading some of them before I got stuck into re-writing this (although I've always enjoyed animal-centric stories, and Redwall is a major one there.) The food scenes were very much inspired by my re-reads. I didn't go into such detail, or have such variety, in the first write-up iirc.

    I don't normally go for those that have only Pokemon as characters, but with this, it just works. You make them a bit animalistic (Spark's size, her peference for berries, Cleo's preference for fish) and it gives a wonderful feel to it all.
    I like to remind readers that these are still animals, and make them act as such. I find it's a cute touch =3

    The worldbuilding here is very strong. New City feels like a tangible place, though I kept on wondering: what's the light source for New City if it's underground? Do they have torches in the walls or something?
    Thank you. I enjoy my world-building. As for the light source, they do indeed use torches. I think I mentioned them lighting up the stairwell, but didn't mention they also adorn the walls of the market ground and every tunnel.

    The Moorlands forest reminds me of the Mirkwood forest from the Hobbit: the darkness, the silence, and the importance of its location to the mountains and a subterranean location. Are you a Tolkein fan?
    I read The Hobbit years ago, so I'm not sure if that was a direct inspiration? I like the similarity though. And I do actually want to re-read The Hobbit.

    I'm looking forward to more interaction between the Outcasts and the Heretics.
    Then I think you might enjoy Part 2 ;)

    You also set up some real good, shocking and gut punching moments. One of my favorites was the dam made of Seviper remains. The buildup was strong, and it came as a creepy, scary shock to see the CORPSES piled on top of each other to stop the flow of water. It was another detail that reminded me, "Oh yeah, this world is scary and can be awful sometimes."
    Oh man, some disturbing things happen. Like you said, a reminder that it is a dark and scary world. I've questioned my sanity before now XD I don't ever want to go too far with the descriptions however, so this will never be rated any higher than an FFNet Teen Rating.

    Also, I dig the banner in your signature. It has an old-school Neopets feel to me, though I don't know if it was intentional or not. I think it's great!
    Thank you! I have a new one planned, which may not replace my signature given how hard it was to set up XD The Neopets vibe is not intentional!

    In the first chapter, I had a hard time wrapping my head around why exactly Cleo was in trouble. Tinker didn't strike me as a very strong leader for getting upset at her for prioritizing the well-being of Pokemon over the escape of dragons.
    It was more a case of the majority over the minority, and Cleo was focusing on a small number of wounded individuals as opposed to thoroughly driving out the dragons from the town.

    But when they came to New City with Mischief for the first time, did he still have the bloodstains from noivern on his paws and body?
    That's an oversight on my part, but yes, he would have. Cleo wouldn't have had the time to clean him up properly, if at all.

    Of the chapters I read, chapter 4 was so far my favorite. It was very quiet after an eventful few chapters and it explained a lot. Tinker asking Cloe to join him for a walk also felt a little more vulnerable than from what we've seen of him so far--even though he seems to be scolding her more than anything now, I get the idea that he genuinely enjoys her company. And from later chapters, it seems like he holds affection for her (and Spark was pointing out :P).
    Oh yes, he is definitely soft on her. I considered removing that, but decided to keep it in. I like showing he has a soft side.

    Character-wise, I think you've got a very strong sense set of characters. Spark and Cloe's friendship feels genuine, like they've known and worked closely together for a long time. You've got some cute banter in there
    Aww thank you =3 Cleo and Spark's banter is a joy to write. They're like sisters, and I love it.

    Skipper is also a cool Pokemon (I really like Marshtomp in general) and his accent makes him more memorable. What did you base it off of?
    Skipper's accent is based off the Scottish one. He's always had it, and I decided to build on it more this time. I even have a page of Scottish words in my Scrivener file to dip into from time to time XD

    I find it interesting to use a Zorua as one of the most feared Pokemon the Guild knows of. I know they have strong powers, though it is still unevolved. Are Zoroark not around?
    Zoroark are around... Harlequin should be the one named Enigma really, with all their little mysteries =P (This was originally the case when I first designed these characters well before working on The End, but for some reason their names ended up swapped and I cannot remember why.)

    It was a treat to see Harbinger come back in the later chapters, and he also brings up intriguing questions: why were Absols banished and driven to (attempted) extinction? How did he (or his parents) manage to escape? Why is he so set on stopping the Darkness? I think we have plenty to look forward to with him.
    Oh you do indeed have a lot to look forward to with Harbinger =P

    Wait but then why did he just fill his own plate up with food?
    Tinker being a hypocrite. He can eat in his office, because he won't make a mess. But he doesn't trust anyone else!

    Thanks again! =D

    After this chapter, there will be a short break of approximately 1-4 weeks! This is due to holiday, and the fact I want to wrap up Part 2 and do banner art for it. I'm almost done with Part 2 - I have half a chapter to write, and some tidying up of the new plot elements I've added in. Part 2 is where most of the changes from the first write-up will take place, and I want to make sure it's as smoothly integrated as possible. I don't want the break between updates to be too long, as weekly works for me. Just please be assured I have not abandoned this story! The wait will most likely be on the shorter end of my guess-timate!

    13 - The Hostage​

    The Moorlands Forest lay blanketed in night, the pale moonlight barely penetrating the sparse canopy. It was exactly how Enigma liked it.

    He perched on the thick bough of a tree with his head on one side, blending into the shadows that wrapped up the tree’s sturdy trunk. There it was again. A deep rumble like thunder, rolling overhead and fading out into silence. Unlike thunder, it wasn’t difficult to pinpoint. Enigma turned to his right and warped across the canopy towards it. Each time the noise broke the air it was louder. Good. That meant he was going the right way.

    The trees parted, and the air rippled over Enigma’s body. A soft tingle that froze him in the spot. He scrambled over spindly branches before his chosen tree turfed him onto the ground. Once he was steady, he gazed over at his surroundings. The trees had parted, giving way to a large clearing that housed a squat building. It glowed white as the moonlight poured down onto it, and above the door was the familiar crescent-shaped logo the Heretics had adopted.

    That rumble resounded again, thudding against Enigma’s eardrums. He snapped his head towards it, spotting a pair of lycanroc moseying around the corner of the building. Midday and midnight. The latter wheeled a wheelbarrow laden with something that glistened red when the light caught it. The sharp smell of blood wafted up on the wind, causing Enigma to rise slightly for a better look, but the pair vanished out of sight. The banette stealthily slipped into the shadows and warped himself across the canopy to land neatly in the trees on the opposite side of the building.

    He tipped his head on one side and let out a curious ‘oh?’

    Sitting beside the building was a large tyranitar, its limbs bound with heavy chains. The ground around it was scuffed bare of grass and any other foliage, and deep grooves spread out a foot in each direction. The side of the wall was coated with a heavy metal sheet, scratched and beaten out of shape. An afterthought to counteract a rampage, most likely. Enigma assumed as much from the tyranitar’s face alone. Its eyes were wild, and it bared its teeth as the two lycanroc rounded the building.

    A deep, resonating roar left the tyranitar’s throat, and the midday lycanroc bared her own teeth back at it.

    “Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I get it! You’re hungry. Well, here you go, big guy. Aunt Roxie’s here with your din-dins.”

    The tyranitar struggled to its feet, stooping as the chains fastened to its tiny arms reached their full length. It thrashed, bringing its tail into the metal sheet with a deafening clang. The midday lycanroc flinched back from the noise and snapped her ears against her skull.

    She turned her head towards her ally and bristled. “Lou!”

    The midnight lycanroc dropped the leg of meat he’d been chewing on and fixed the female with a wounded look.

    “That’s for B!” She nodded to the tyranitar. “Give it its dinner, you dumb lug!”

    The midnight lycanroc let out a low growl and tipped the wheelbarrow’s contents onto the floor by the tyranitar’s feet. He leapt back as the massive creature lunged, jaws snapping. The lycanroc yelped and dashed out of the way, clutching his bushy tail in both paws.

    Roxie shook her head slowly. “Never learn, do ya, you idiot?”

    The pair froze as the tinkle of a bell rang out over the gnashing, hungry jaws of the tyranitar. Enigma appeared before them, folding his arms as he looked over the ravenous creature. The tyranitar snapped up the pile of fresh meat, fixing one eye on the assassin. A wild eye filled with unreachable madness.

    Roxie was the first to recover, standing with her tail erect and ears pricked.

    “What are you doing here?!” she barked. “Thought this place was hidden.”

    Lou licked his bloody paw in a way Enigma felt was meant to be intimidating. It didn’t work.

    “I followed this guy’s cries.” Enigma nodded to the tyranitar which was now much more interested in demolishing the thick thigh bone it had found. “But… I’m actually here to speak to whoever is in charge.”

    “That would be Rio,” said Roxie. “But he’s busy. What’s Hydreigon sent you here for?”

    Enigma stared into her eyes, and her stoic demeanour melted away in a heartbeat. Her ears pulled back and her bushy tail lowered between her legs.

    “I can take a message, is what I’m sayin’,” she said.

    “I need to speak to him personally,” said Enigma. “I’m not one to give important messages to inferiors.”

    Lou let out a low growl at that, but he kept his distance. Nevertheless, Enigma found himself locked in the lycanroc’s crazed crimson gaze.

    “Take the front entrance,” Roxie told him. “You’ll find Rio in his office.”

    “And where’s his office?” Enigma asked.

    Roxie looked past the tyranitar towards the far corner of the building. “Right at the back.”

    “Perfect.” Enigma turned his back on her. “I appreciate the help.”

    Her protests fell on deaf ears as Enigma marched past the tyranitar, too busy with its meal to give Enigma the time of day. The banette cast a curious glance at it, straining against its chains to reach the meat that had fallen a little out of its reach.

    Enigma melted through the walls of the building, eliciting a yelp of surprise from a plusle and minun. They leapt to the side with their backs pressed against the wall, wearing twin expressions of terror. Enigma grinned at them and looked up at the pristine white walls on either side.

    “I appear to have miscalculated,” he purred. “Where can I find Rio?”

    The minun pointed a claw down the hallway. “Turn right.”

    Enigma nodded and marched past them, his claws clicking on the tiled floor.

    “But it’s authorised pokemon only,” said the plusle.

    Enigma didn’t look back as he continued along the narrow hallway. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll see me.”

    He wound through the corridor, his bell ringing with each step, drawing curious and fearful eyes from an open door. The corridor ended at a closed set of double doors. The right one wore a sign that said ‘authorised pokemon only’. Enigma grinned and phased through it into a cloud of medical stink. He tried not to cough, instead leaning against the door with a deliberate ring of his bell.

    A meowstic stood leaning over his desk, and he stiffened at the sound, one tightly curled ear flicking back towards the door. He looked up slowly at Enigma, but all the banette could see was his eyes. The bottom half of his face was hidden behind a medical mask Enigma assumed was more to block out the smell than for the pokemon’s own safety. If he was scared, he didn’t show it.

    “Rio, I assume?” said Enigma.

    “You shouldn’t be in here,” said Rio. “It’s dangerous.”

    Enigma looked over at the shelves that adorned the walls, filled with tubes, vials, and neatly organised folders and boxes.

    “I’m rather curious to know what you do here,” he said. “I just met your pet.”

    Rio lowered his mask from his face. “Pet?”

    “The tyranitar, outside, in chains.” Enigma folded his arms and smirked at him. “Quite a curious way to detain someone, wouldn’t you say?”

    “The tyranitar is sick,” said Rio. “It’s outside for the safety of itself and others.”

    “Sick how?”

    “Parasite,” Rio explained. “It’s taken over the poor creature’s brain. Why are you really here, Enigma? For more information?”

    Enigma clicked his tongue. “So you are the ones who sent Boomer with a message?”

    “Yes.” Rio sighed and ran a paw through the fur between his ears. “Then if Lord Hydreigon sent you back here, was the message not enough?”

    “You could say that.” Enigma smirked and folded his arms. “It never reached him.”

    The meowstic’s eyes darted around the room before finally settling back on Enigma’s. “How?”

    “He was killed,” Enigma said bluntly. “By a whimsicott, apparently.”

    “A whimsicott?” Rio popped a claw into his mouth and his eyes turned distant.

    Enigma tapped his claws along his arm as he watched Rio seemingly drift off into his own little world. Enigma had a lot of patience, but it was growing thin watching Rio idly nibbling his claw.

    The assassin chuckled and covered his face with a paw. “Starting to get a little bored, here, Rio.” He looked up sharply as Rio came back to his senses. “And when I’m bored, I like to find new ways to entertain myself.”

    Rio went rigid and he stuttered. “Sorry, Enigma. I was just thinking…”

    “Think on your own time,” Enigma growled. “I’m trying to gather important information here.”

    “Yes, certainly. It’s just… the whimsicott… I…” Rio cleared his throat. “The information I gave Boomer, it took a little while to explain. Do you have a while to spare?”

    “No.”

    “Ah.” Rio nodded and leant back on his desk. “Then I guess I’ll have to just show you. It’s ground-breaking, Enigma. Evolution is happening.”

    Enigma spat at that. “Evolution? That’s your ground-breaking discovery? Do you have berries for brains? Pokemon evolve every day.” Enigma jabbed a claw into his scarf. “I used to be a shuppet. Did you hatch a meowstic?”

    “Not that kind!” Rio snapped, then quickly back-pedalled at Enigma’s cold stare.

    Good choice. Getting short tempered with an assassin was never a good idea.

    Rio smoothed out his fur again and took a trembling breath. “This isn’t like your basic evolution from caterpie to butterfree, or onix to steelix. This is a rare phenomenon, evolution on a different scale. You might call it survival.” He paused as if for dramatic flair and gave an over-confident smile. “It’s a new type.”

    “A new type?” Well that was interesting. Enigma settled back against the door and waved a paw at Rio. “Go on.”

    “We’ve not named it yet, since we don’t know much about it,” Rio explained. “It’s just codenamed Type18. It cropped up randomly in our lab three seasons ago. One of our participants happened to have a child that possessed this new type. An azurill.”

    When Enigma didn’t respond, Rio took the cue to continue.

    “We discovered it quite by accident,” he said. “The azurill was at the age where he’d make quite a nuisance of himself. He angered two of the axew here and one of them retaliated with a dragon rage. It didn’t even phase the azurill. Washed right over him like water off a ducklett’s back.”

    Enigma’s crimson eyes widened. “He resisted a dragon attack?”

    “He didn’t resist it, Enigma, he was immune to it.”

    Enigma didn’t know what to say. This was huge news. He wasn’t even entirely sure he believed it.

    “This is why we requested Boomer,” said Rio. “So he could see it for himself.”

    Enigma nodded and gazed over at the window behind Rio. Of course, one could only believe such a thing if they saw it with their own eyes. No pokemon had ever been immune to a dragon-type attack. It was one of the reasons they were so feared. Few pokemon could stand up to them, and those that could had been driven to the brink of extinction, if not wiped out entirely. Other than the weavile that so loyally served Hydreigon, no one had seen an ice-type in years. If Hydreigon was suddenly told that there was a new type that didn’t quake at his dragon pulse there was a huge chance he would laugh it off, then sentence the messenger to death. Having one of his loyal aces experience it for himself… Boomer wouldn’t have outright lied to Hydreigon. Hydreigon would have no choice but to believe it.

    “We ran some tests while Boomer was here,” Rio went on. “He brought some murkrow with him, as requested. Aside from the tyranitar, who is completely untrustworthy due to its condition, we have no dark-types here in the laboratory. This meant we weren’t able to see how Type18 fared against every single type in Estellis.” Rio paused, reading Enigma’s expression. Satisfied the banette was clearly interested, he went on, “It turns out Type18 isn’t immune to dark-type moves, but it is resistant.”

    “And does this ‘Type18’ possess any attacks?” Enigma asked.

    “Not from the azurill,” said Rio. “But new moves had cropped up in our labs over the past few seasons. Ones we didn’t recognise. Going off their sparkly appearance and their ability to floor our fighting-type subj… participants, we just assumed they were new psychic-type moves.”

    Enigma folded his arms and tapped his claws along one, glaring at the meowstic.

    Rio sank further back against his desk and raised his paws. “You can’t fault us on that! We didn’t expect moves of a new type to crop up like this! No one was expecting it.”

    “I suppose.” Enigma’s voice was laced with danger that pushed Rio’s fur on end.

    Regardless, the meowstic continued, avoiding Enigma’s eyes as if he was looking for a quick way to escape. “When we explained this to Boomer, he wanted to see if these new moves were linked to Type18. We called out one of the pokemon who had demonstrated these moves, a cherrim. After seeing this ray of purple light knock out both axew in one hit, Boomer was angry. He accused the axew of being weaklings and stepped in to try it himself. When the attack hit him, it knocked him right off his feet. He was aghast.”

    “And what of the murkrow?” Enigma asked.

    “Wiped out instantly.”

    Enigma scratched his head as he took all this in, gazing once again towards the window. A deep, repetitive rumble came from outside. Snores from the slumbering tyranitar. So there was a new type… one that could fare rather well against both dragon and dark-type pokemon. Perhaps it was a good thing the news never reached Hydreigon? If he found out about it, he could cause an uproar. Or an all-out war… destroying the peace that had managed to settle over Estellis in a desperate bid to wipe out any pokemon that could use this type. Every single pokemon that was neither dragon- nor dark-type.

    Enigma smirked and wound his claws into his mane. And where would that leave him?

    “Has something amused you?” Rio asked.

    Enigma let out a sigh and turned back to Rio. “Have you considered the repercussions that giving this information to Hydreigon could raise?”

    “I thought it would leave us in his favour, actually.”

    Enigma shook his head and laughed. “Oh, you poor pathetic creature.”

    Rio shifted uneasily and wound his paws together. “How is this not beneficial to Lord Hydreigon? He gets a heads-up about it, it’s brought to his attention, and he learns to counter it! We continue our research here, finding their weak-”

    “Picture this.” Enigma looked up suddenly, cutting Rio off. “You sent Boomer back to the Shadow Lands to tell Hydreigon of this, but on his way Boomer was killed. A noivern, who is a formidable force in the dark and no easy feat to face in the day either. And he wasn’t taken down by an ice-type, or anything else you may think might get the upper paw. No, he is defeated by a whimsicott. You know… the little grass pompom that likes to pull pranks? Hardly a threat to a dragon, is it? And Boomer wasn’t just defeated, Rio. That whimsicott took a dragon pulse head on. From what the few murkrow that survived could tell us, he wasn’t even singed! As for Boomer, he was reduced to a bloody pulp.

    “This whimsicott could only have done that if he was exceptionally powerful. Ordinarily they’re not much of a threat to a dragon. So tell me how a whimsicott could easily take down a dragon, and not just any dragon but Hydreigon’s number one ace?”

    Rio stuttered for a moment and glanced at the floor. “I… I guess it must have possessed Type18.”

    “Exactly, and not just carried it but used its attacks.” Enigma gave him a wicked grin. “So knowing that, Hydreigon isn’t exactly going to be impressed to learn of this ‘Type18’ as you so proudly put it. No, this type hasn’t just manifested in your labs, Rio. It’s out there!” Enigma waved a paw towards the window. “It’s out there, and it’s real, and it’s posing a threat! Now, how do you think Hydreigon, your ruler who is both dark- and dragon-type, will react when he hears about this news?”

    Rio grimaced and steadied himself against his desk with both paws. “He’s… going to start a war…”

    Enigma nodded. “He’s going to start a war.”

    “But… we’re the Shining Moon. We’re on his side, so we’ll be okay.” Rio looked up to find Enigma smirking at him. “Right?”

    “What? A group of Heretics who’ve been nurturing this type in their labs for goodness knows how long?” Enigma’s smirk fell into a terrifying glare. “I wouldn’t count your blessings.”

    Rio visibly quaked, causing the quills on his desk to rattle in their pot.

    “I’m going to do some more sniffing around to see how big this threat really is before I report back to my boss.” Enigma turned with a flourish for the door and paused with his paw above the handle.

    “What if we capture this whimsicott for you?”

    Enigma looked back at Rio. “You want to capture him?”

    “Yes,” said Rio. “Yes. Anything! If we can catch him, then we can turn him over to Lord Hydreigon for execution.”

    “It’s already being dealt with,” said Enigma. “Harlequin was sent after that whimsicott and his two allies. If I know Harlequin like I think I do, he’ll have killed all three of them by now.”

    “But we know this forest,” Rio explained. “We know the nooks and crannies pokemon can hide. We might be able to find them before Harlequin does.”

    “You really think you can manage that?” Enigma couldn’t help but chuckle. “Fine. Do what you want. In fact!” He fixed Rio with a playful smirk. “If you do capture that whimsicott, find me. I’ll take them back to Hydreigon myself and put in a good word for you.”

    Rio blinked with surprise. “You’d do that?”

    “If you play your cards right.”

    Enigma shut the door behind him and marched down the corridor through the nearest wall. He gave one glance back at the squat white building. There was little chance Rio would beat Harlequin to his targets, but Enigma hoped he’d succeed. It would certainly spice things up more than they already were. A new type… Enigma was in no rush to head back to the Shadow Lands. Not now. He had a lot of research to do. He chuckled and warped into the canopy, leaving the lab behind.

    Things were starting to get very, very interesting.

    ...​

    Cleo groaned and rubbed a paw over her eyes. Her fur was clammy and damp, and cold bit through to her skin causing her to shudder. She burrowed beneath the thin blanket covering her, and her nose recoiled at the musty smell coming from it. It was like a wake-up slap, prompting her to shove it off and sit up on the bed of clean hay.

    “Spark?”

    Her voice came out as a strangled whisper and she licked her dry lips. It didn’t seem to help. It just made her more aware of the horrid taste filling her mouth. She swung herself off the bench and staggered, placing a paw to her head as the room began to spin. She muttered to herself, dragging her unwilling body towards the door. Perhaps some breakfast would help? Her stomach lurched at the thought and she clasped a paw over her mouth, pausing to lean against the door frame. Maybe not…

    Once her stomach settled again, she tugged the door open to be greeted by a fog of musty air. She closed her eyes and sighed. Of course. She was still in those cells. It was all coming back to her now. Tinker had been explaining their situation to her and Spark, then everything went… hazy.

    Where was he? Surely he wouldn’t leave her alone in the cells?

    She worked her way towards the staff room, and faint voices came from beyond the closed door. One stood out from the rest. She let out a sigh of relief and nudged the door open.

    Tinker sat around a table with Spark and two guards - a combusken and meinfoo. The group were enjoying a spread of dried meats and berries, which once gain turned Cleo’s stomach. She leant her head against the wall and closed her eyes.

    “Cleo!” Tinker exclaimed. “You shouldn’t be up! You look terrible!”

    Cleo bit her lip. “Thanks.”

    “Are you sick?” the meinfoo asked. “You shouldn’t keep pokemon down here if they’re sick, Tinker, the air isn’t good for them.”

    “She’s not sick, she merely fainted so I had her sent to the medical ward for a rest.” Tinker looked up at Cleo, catching her bleary gaze. “How are you? Rose said you were having feverish nightmares.”

    Well that explained the clammy fur. She pushed herself from the door to approach the table, where she found a cool glass placed in her paws.

    “Drink that,” said Tinker. “You’re probably dehydrated. It should help you feel better.”

    Cleo took a grateful sip, finding it to be spring water. With some delight, she found her nausea began to settle. She muttered a thanks and sank down into a chair beside Tinker.

    “So… have there been any developments with Harlequin?” Cleo asked.

    Spark rolled an oran berry towards Cleo, and she took a cautious nibble as Tinker replied.

    “Not yet,” he explained. “We left him be overnight. He seems to have tired himself out with hysteria.”

    Cleo took a more confident bite of her berry. “Should we go and see her… him?”

    “If you want to get things moving sooner rather than later?”

    Cleo closed her eyes in a grimace and clasped her paw around her glass. She just wanted to get out of these stagnant cells, but she knew Tinker wouldn’t allow them to leave without their new burden. She’d already taken on Mischief, and now she was expected to drag an assassin around with them? It certainly wasn’t a welcome situation.

    Her eyes snapped open and she looked around the room. “Wait… where’s Mischief?” She met Tinker’s eye. “I thought he’d be up by now.”

    “He is,” said Tinker. “He was so grateful to Rose that he’s insisting on helping her out, so he’s doing the rounds with her.”

    “Doing the rounds…?” Cleo asked.

    “Yes. Checking on the health of our inmates,” Tinker explained. “You can’t exactly get information out of someone if they’re on death’s door, can you?” Tinker paused and a funny look crossed his features that Cleo couldn’t quite place. “Rose is… rather well received among the pokemon held here.”

    The combusken seemed to frown at that and took a swig of his berry juice.

    Checking the health of the inmates? It hardly seemed like a safe job to task an amnesiac with. Or was Tinker merely testing Mischief, putting him in a potentially dangerous situation? Either way, Cleo wasn’t happy with it.

    “Well then.” She placed her paws on the table and pushed herself up. The room began to spin again, only with less ferocity than earlier. She masked it by leaning forward against the table. “I’m going to question Harlequin.”

    “Alone?” Tinker watched as she strolled past him.

    “Of course not, you dunce!” Spark scampered along the table and leapt up onto Cleo’s shoulder. She jabbed a thumb-claw into her chest. “She’s got me!”

    Cleo looked back at Tinker. “But you can come if you want? It is you who wants me to drag Harlequin around while looking for some pokemon that may or may not exist.”

    The two guards gasped and the combusken dropped his glass.

    Tinker hissed at Cleo and waved a frantic paw. He then turned to address the stunned guards and smiled.

    “This is a confidential Elite investigation,” he told them. “So if you could keep it secret, that would be appreciated?”

    The meinfoo narrowed his eyes. “Of course.”

    Tinker nodded and turned to leave, but the combusken’s voice froze him.

    “You are aware that pokemon will find out about this anyway?”

    Tinker looked back at him. “Yes. But if news gets out in less than two days, I’ll know it was one of you two, and you’ll both lose your rank.”

    The combusken licked his beak and looked away. “I won’t say a word.”

    The meinfoo shook his head rapidly and dragged a claw across his lips like a zipper.

    “Good,” said Tinker. “Now finish up your breakfast and get back to work.”

    He closed the door behind them and lead Cleo and Spark to Harlequin’s cell.

    “You’ve still not explained how I’m meant to be doing this,” Cleo told him. “Am I just meant to expect her to obediently follow along?”

    “I was going to explain things last night,” said Tinker. “But you made that rather difficult with your fainting spell.”

    Cleo swished her tails.

    “But never fret,” he went on. “I shall explain all in due time. Just… what?”

    His paw hovered over the lock to the cell and he frowned at it. The door was slightly ajar, and voices came from the other side. He shoved the door open, revealing Rose the audino and Mischief. The pair were crouching by the cell bars, and Rose was talking in soft tones.

    “What are you doing in here?” Tinker asked.

    “Health check,” said Rose without looking up.

    “Harlequin was the first one you checked this morning.” Tinker folded his arms. “The prisoners here only need one check. That was our agreement.

    “Of course. But he’s paralysed, so I wanted to give him a second check-over.” Rose looked up at Tinker. “He’s not touched his berries.”

    Cleo stepped further into the room to see into the cell. Harlequin was crouched against the far wall, their lips pulled back from their canines in a silent snarl.

    Tinker placed a paw on Rose’s shoulder and tried to steer her away from the cell. “If he won’t touch his berries then leave him. I have work to do, as I’m sure you have your own duties?”

    “I can’t just ignore a patient,” Rose protested. “If he won’t eat them then the paralysis won’t fully wear off.”

    “That’s his problem.”

    Rose dusted herself down and rose to her feet. “You need to have a little sympathy, Tinker.”

    She fixed the riolu with a glare then turned from the room. She paused in the doorway and smiled at Mischief. “Thank you for your help.”

    “Any time!” Mischief chirruped.

    Rose cast another glare at Tinker before closing the door behind her.

    Cleo watched after her. “Is she…?”

    “A peace maker?” Mischief beamed up at her from beside the cell. “Yup!”

    “It’s ‘peace enthusiast’,” Tinker spat. “And it’s entirely pointless. No one has ever made peace with a dark-type yet.”

    Spark smirked. “Yet?”

    Tinker lashed a paw in the air. “That audino can get under your skin! Drop it!”

    Spark snapped her mouth shut and ducked into Cleo’s fur.

    Tinker shook his head and moved over to the desk where he rummaged noisily in the drawers.

    Cleo turned her back on him and approached the cell, drawing a threatening growl from its lone occupant.

    “Are you ready to answer some questions?” Cleo asked.

    Harlequin glared back at her, their livid eyes lighting up with sapphire flames. The fur along the zorua’s back stood on end, and they tucked their bushy tail into their side.

    Cleo wasn’t sure what was worse. Harlequin’s silence, or the risk of another rampage. Getting information out of dark-types was never easy, but once behind bars with their comforts taken away, they were usually much more willing to speak. Not Harlequin. There was no bargaining for their freedom. No bargaining for their belongings back-

    Cleo’s eyes widened and she reached into her bag, whipping out the strange orb that had prompted Harlequin’s outburst only hours before. The zorua’s sapphire glare snapped to it, and their growl cut off abruptly. The glare melted away to something unreadable. Fear? Anger? Sadness? Maybe all of them? Whatever it was, a reaction was still a reaction.

    “What is this?” Cleo asked.

    Harlequin said nothing, but their eyes didn’t leave the strange sphere, following its pendulum swing as it hung from Cleo’s paw.

    “If you tell me,” Cleo said cautiously, “I just might give it back.”

    Harlequin’s eyes snapped to Cleo, hard and cold as ice. As uninviting as a frozen lake in the dead of the cold season. Harlequin pushed themselves up with their forepaws until they were sitting at a lopsided angle. They licked their lips a few times then cleared their throat.

    “I don’t know what it is.” The zorua’s voice came out hoarse and dry. “It belonged to a friend. It’s value is purely sentimental, and I want it back.”

    Cleo returned her stare, unfazed by the zorua’s intimidating glare. “Not just yet. I have more questions for you.”

    Harlequin’s lips curled back from their teeth, but there was no growl this time.

    “Why did you poison the river?” Cleo asked.

    “I didn’t poison any river!” Harlequin snapped.

    “Really? We heard an absol has been sighted in the mountains, and is believed to have poisoned the river.” Cleo inclined her head on one side, noting a fleeting look of surprise on the zorua’s face. “You weren’t working with an absol?”

    Harlequin lowered their head and licked their canines. “There aren’t any absol in the Shadow Lands. They’re enemies. They were driven out years ago. Killed. Each and every one of them.” A low growl rose in their throat. “Whoever told you they saw an absol is lying.”

    Spark looked up at Cleo and shrugged. “They were Heretics. Maybe she’s right?”

    “Okay, fine,” said Cleo. “Let’s say you aren’t responsible for the river then. What are you doing in the Moorlands? Why were you targeting us?”

    Harlequin’s snarl turned into a sinister grin and a dry chuckle left their throat. “Because it’s my mission. I was told to assassinate a whimsicott and his friends. What… you think I have some deep-seated personal grudge or something?” The zorua smirked and inclined their head on one side. “I do now.”

    Spark leapt from Cleo’s shoulder to land on her feet between Cleo and the iron bars. “You can’t intimidate us! Your threats will just be met with another jolt of electricity, zorua!”

    Harlequin let out a lone laugh and lowered their head, fur bristling. “Bring it on, pipsqueak!”

    “Enough!” Tinker barked. “This is not productive.”

    Cleo folded her arms and shook her head at her small companion. “It was until Spark cut in.”

    The dedenne’s ears drooped and she looked up at Cleo. “Hey!”

    “She’s behind bars, Spark,” Cleo waved a paw at the cell.

    Tinker grabbed her outstretched paw and placed a large white ring in it. Cleo blinked at the device. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Harlequin’s collar. In fact, it was very similar. The only difference was the size.

    “Put that on your wrist,” Tinker told her.

    “Why?” Cleo asked.

    “You’ll see soon enough.” Tinker approached the cell and turned a key in the lock. “Mischief? Don’t you lift a paw unless I tell you to.”

    Mischief nodded and took a step back.

    Harlequin stood and began pacing back and forth by the door, watching Tinker intently. Their movements were stiff and sluggish, and they walked with a slight limp on their right paw. It didn’t hinder them though. As soon as the door was open, Harlequin lunged, crashing into him with a full-body tackle. The pair rolled in a frenzy of blue and black fur across the room.

    “Tinker!” Cleo gasped.

    “Put it on!” he barked.

    The riolu, now abandoned, rose up against the wall, separated from Cleo by a snarling, crazed zorua. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. As Cleo fastened the bracelet around her wrist, Harlequin lunged towards her. Spark scattered, vanishing beyond the bars of the cell in a flurry of sparks. The electricity missed its target by a hair’s breadth. A loud click came from the bracelet as Cleo snapped it in place. Her heart was in her throat, eyes fixed on a set of snarling, glistening canines. They snapped shut mere millimetres from her muzzle. A surprised yelp came from the zorua as an invisible force shoved the pair apart. Cleo stood her ground, but Harlequin was slung across the room like a rag-doll. They landed hard on their side, skidding along the dirty floor in a shaggy heap.

    Harlequin raised their head and shook it. “What the-?”

    The assassin scrambled to their feet, fixing another livid glare on Cleo. “What did you do, meowstic? Your psychic shouldn’t affect me!”

    They launched another attack, jaws snapping, only to be met with the same result. This time they landed on their feet, skidding on their pads. Claws raked up dust as they brought themselves to a stop by the cell door.

    “What are you doing to me?” Harlequin hissed. Then they spotted the bracelet. “Is that some kind of shield?”

    “You could say that.” Tinker stood in the corner of the room with his arms folded, a good distance away from Cleo.

    Harlequin snapped their head around towards him and pounced. The zorua’s head snapped backwards with a yelp while their back feet continued on. They landed flat on their back with a sick thud. Harlequin groaned and flailed their paws before rolling over onto their stomach. Sapphire eyes fixed on the bracelet with a look of realisation, and a low growl left Harlequin’s throat.

    Tinker’s eyes were glittering with glee. He pushed back from the wall, following it to Cleo’s side.

    “You asked how you were meant to handle Harlequin,” he said. “This device is designed to keep its detained criminal locked in a two foot radius. Harlequin can’t move out of it, and, as you have discovered, he also can’t touch you.”

    Cleo stared aghast at the bracelet. “How does it work?”

    “It’s locked to your DNA,” Tinker explained. “This is why I took some of your hairs yesterday. The bracelet recognises you, and therefore repels the collar, resulting in repelling Harlequin.” Tinker grinned and rubbed his chin. “It’s nice to see that it actually works!”

    Cleo rounded on him. “You didn’t even test this thing?!”

    “Not extensively.” Tinker shrugged. “I tested it on a tree, a chair…”

    “But no living pokemon?” Cleo had to restrain herself from blasting him with her psychic. “You just put me at risk, Tinker!”

    “You were perfectly safe. I would have let no harm come to you or your friends.” Tinker smirked at the stunned zorua. “I’m fully capable of handling a dark-type in a one-on-one battle.”

    Cleo rolled her eyes and turned away from him.

    “So… if it repels Harlequin…” Spark hopped up onto Cleo’s shoulder. “That means I’m safe here, right?”

    “Of course,” said Tinker. “Not only are Harlequin’s special attacks restrained by that collar, you are safe from all of his physical attacks so long as you are perched up there, or outside of the two foot radius. Like Mischief.”

    Harlequin’s jaw dropped. “What?”

    Mischief blinked a few times and rubbed his fluffy head. “I’m confused.”

    Cleo stared at Tinker, aghast. “Tinker, I’ve not agreed to this!”

    “Agreed to what?” Mischief sighed and spread his paws. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on? Is this more of your science?”

    Tinker leant back against his desk and folded his arms. “I have requested you take Harlequin and go and look for more of this new type, like you have, Mischief.”

    Harlequin’s mouth flapped open wordlessly and they pushed themselves back up onto their feet.

    “I am not taking her!” Cleo snapped. “She’s dangerous! Not to mention she makes us a massive target to Hydriegon’s armies!”

    “Hang on!” Harlequin gasped. “I am not going anywhere with you! And what do you mean ‘new type’?!”

    “That is confidential to the Guild,” said Tinker. “And as for going with Cleo and her friends, I’m afraid you don’t have much choice.”

    “I do.” Harlequin closed their eyes and puffed out their chest. “I just don’t have to move. It’s not as if you can touch me to drag me along now, is it, since your little device won’t let me touch you.”

    “Cleo?” Tinker motioned for Cleo to follow him.

    She sighed and slumped after the riolu towards the door. There was a slight tug at her bracelet, followed by a despairing yelp. Harlequin lay on their side, scrabbling with their paws as they were dragged effortlessly behind.

    “Like I said.” Tinker placed a paw on Cleo’s shoulder to stop her. “You don’t have much choice.”

    Cleo grimaced and turned her head away. She couldn’t help but feel those words weren’t only aimed at Harlequin.

    ...​

    The sun warmed Harbinger’s back as he sat looking out over the mountain. The warm rays shimmered off the swiftly moving water as it snaked its way through the forest, coating the neighbouring skeletal trees with its frothy foam.

    Just like any other river, it flowed away from the Shadow Lands, as if the very water itself didn’t want to be there.

    “Looks like they’ve got it flowing again.”

    Harbinger looked down at the speaker.

    Claw stood next to him with Scratch, the latter less interested in the water than he was in his surroundings. He rubbed his claws together, gazing at the shadows as if they threatened him.

    Harbinger turned back to the flowing river and nodded. “Yes. It would seem they have.” He paused and lifted his head to follow the river as it vanished into the distance. “That’s the beauty of nature. Things know how to survive. That goes for pokemon, too.”

    “Pokemon like us?” asked Claw.

    Harbinger said nothing, keeping his mind fixed on the present.

    After a while, Claw spoke up again. “Do you think we won this one?”

    “Even if those Heretics survived, I think I made my point.” The absol rose and motioned for the twins to follow him. “Come. We have things to do in the Moorlands Forest.”
     
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