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Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rebirth

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Chapter I: Awakening


"The slumber of reason generates monsters."

-Francisco Goya


"It's useless. We lost them."

Two blurry figures made their way through the vast expanse of white that was the Spearhead Mountain Range. The snow melded under their feet as they walked. A brief gust of frigid wind accompanied his words of truth, but they went unnoticed by his companion.

"Alice, you know just as well as I do that they've reached the Wasteland by now. It's not worth the risk."

His companion kept striding forward, her eyes briefly meeting the ground in thought.

"But ... we can't give up. They have to be around here somewhere."

The Grovyle looked around them. Towering, snow-covered mountains surrounded them, keeping the world under a perennial veil of white. The chances of her statement being true were slim at best. Why did she insist when the danger was so painfully obvious?

"Why won't you understand? I told you already, it's no use! The portal storm covered their escape. We have to go back!" he growled, his voice carrying a considerable amount of urgency this time. Her childish denial would eventually get them killed if he didn't start doing something about it.

For the first time during their entire trip, the Dragonair stopped in her tracks. She turned her head around, looking him directly in the eye.

"Gaius, do you honestly think they'll take the news lightly? If we go back like this, we're done for."

He stopped for a second. She was right. Their failure would not go unnoticed.

"Look, I'll think of something, ok? If we don't turn around now, the—"

He was unable to finish his sentence, as the whole world seemed to shake under them. A deafening roar, accompanied by the rumble of distant avalanches, encompassed the entire valley, bouncing off the mountains and at the two pokémon like a gnarling hound. The storm was coming. They could feel it in their guts.

"W-what? Again? It can't be..." Alice stammered, looking at the sky above as if a meteorite was hurling towards them.

"You...!" he hissed, his claws curling into fists. "I knew this would happen! We have to move, there's bound to be shelter somewhere around here!"


...

What...

...

...

What is...

...

No...

...

...

Cold...


He felt cold.

Above the widespread numbness that ruled over his body, above the excruciating pain throbbing from his head, above all other sensations flowing in and around his body like a chaotic river, he felt cold. That was the only certainty he could hold on to.

With a strenuous gasp, he awoke abruptly. Thawing from their state of disuse, his nerves began reactivating. Slowly but surely, one by one, sending proper impulses through his body and to his cranium, restoring life to his withering consciousness. Suddenly, he could feel himself, his arms sprawled out haphazardly, his tail crushed beneath his weight, the tiny ice shards stabbing at his windpipe's fleshy walls at every breath he drew.

"G-G—... N-n ... no—!" he wheezed, his vocal cords cutting out suddenly.

The Charmeleon instinctively tried to bring a paw to his burning throat, but a sudden pain jolting through his arm kept it locked in place. His breathing was ragged and heavy as his mind scrambled to maintain a steady rhythm, trying to think of something, anything to stand against the nausea choking his throat.

Something was wrong. He shouldn't have been feeling this cold. Why was he so cold?

His efforts were soon rendered futile when he broke into a violent coughing fit. Muscles spasmed and twinged as he arched his back against whatever surface was beneath him. Ignoring the pain, his paw immediately clasped around his own neck. Although the external pressure on his trachea didn't really help him while on the verge of spilling his stomach's contents—if anything it accentuated the problem—it was a good enough placebo for his stomach to slowly quell its turmoil.

Only when the entire process stopped, did his foggy mind find enough grip on reality to realise that he had no idea what was going on. He could vaguely feel his back pressed against an icy surface, riding up and down the storm that was brewing inside his head.

"N-no ... asce— ... nsion..." he croaked in between pants. He threw his limp arm up, claws spasming ever so slightly as if trying to grasp an imaginary hand that would hoist him up, hug him dearly and reassure him that everything would be ok, that he wouldn't be cold any longer. He could hear his voice echo both around him and inside his head, sensation gradually returning to his broken body. That last word came out of his mouth without him even realising it. Where had he heard it before?

His eyes shot open, but immediately shut again when the freezing air that hung around threatened to freeze their weakened tissues solid. When he dared to open them again, all he could see was stone. Dull, featureless stone. He was in some sort of cavern. His muffled ears could just make out some dripping originating from somewhere around him, but other than that, nothing.

"Ugh... W-w-what...? Where...?" he coughed out roughly, questions invading his mind all at once like a ravenous flood. Cold sweat iced his back, and his heart was hammering. Where was he? What was happening to him? Was he dying?

The possibility of that alone called to arms a sense of urgency in his body, that desperate need to assess the situation at hand and figure out exactly what on earth was going on.

Slowly, he tried lifting himself up with his stiff arms, hissing at the immane strength it took him to carry out such a trivial task. Though his efforts were ultimately futile, as mere seconds later he fell back down with a grunt, his resolve to get up on his feet fading away along with the last remnants of energy in his muscles. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek.

How—? What is—? he struggled to even think. N-no. Calm down. Let's take one thing at a time. First, how did I get here?

He desperately tried to grasp for any memories of how he could have ended up in this hostile place. Much to his horror, he could only come at a blank. Blinking, he tried again, closing his eyes and trying to recall any recent event that had happened to him—he must have not tried hard enough, he thought. Once again, nothing. His entire body felt strange, almost hollow, but as the same time just as real as the sense of panic rising in his chest.

Determined to look further into what was causing him to feel so rot—and perhaps to try and find a speck of a logical explanation amongst the madness, he flipped himself on his back and raised his head to look down at himself. Even through his blurry eyes, it didn't take very long for him to notice that something was very wrong with his tail. Although he didn't have a visual memory of how it supposed to be, it was a fact deeply embedded in his primal instincts—there should have been a flame sparkling there.

My fire ... What's wrong with me? How did this happen?

No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts were swirling around too ferociously; he failed to grasp anything. His memories seemed to escape him the more he went looking for them. Where he was, how he got there, nothing. He could have been born in the world right then and there, and he never would have known. His head was utterly empty.

"No ... Oh god, no..." he whispered hoarsely, pressing his head against the hard floor, perhaps hoping in the back of his mind that it would somehow help him understand what was happening.

No! It—it can't be! This isn't possible ... Why can't I remember...? He grumbled mentally as his claws clutched the sides of his skull tightly, trying to squeeze the memories out of him. It was impossible. He refused to believe that he knew nothing. There had to be something he could remember.

Focus! Need ... to... A small whine escaped his throat, his instincts screaming in fear at the prospect of being ignorant. Something wasn't right. His head felt empty. It wasn't supposed to feel that way.

No! Let's start with the little things. My name is ... my name... his heart ceased beating for a second. It was as if time itself froze around him. He didn't know. He couldn't even remember his own name. For all he knew, he had no name. He was just the result of some sick joke. He was no one.

"N-no ... No. NO!" he shouted, squeezing his eyelids tighter, "I c-can't ... can't ... Why?"

This—this is all just a bad dream ... maybe I'll wake up soon, and everything will be alright, However, just as he was about to give in to that strange craving to just lay down, arms around his knees, and give himself up to the protective blanket of unconsciousness, something came up. "I'm sorry."

He almost jumped in delight at finding those two oh-so sweet words buried somewhere beneath the mess that was his mind. Somehow finding the strength to will himself in a sitting position, hope was starting to creep its way back into the realm of existance. He once again looked around himself, almost as a confirmation that there was no evil presence playing tricks on him, his eyes still blurry from sheer fatigue.

He leaned his back forward and shuffled his lower body to try and make himself as comfortable as possible against the cold rock.

Okay. Everything's going to be okay. I just need to think, he repeated himself with a deep breath. When his turbulent mind eventually settled down for a moment, just enough for him to make sense of its own contents, he shut his eyes in concentration before resting his chin lightly on his paw and diving back into the unknown abyss.

Memories. They came up, just as slowly as the rate at which he managed to stumble across them. For a moment, his focus wavered, his arms trembled from the freezing temperature around him, but he quickly regained his mental footing and delved deeper. He wanted to remember. He needed to remember.

There were fragments, scattered all over the deepest recesses of his consciousness, mostly a jumbled mess of information, but they were there. Slowly but surely, they began making a little more sense as he attempted to restore a chronological order. Pleads of mercy, a deafening roar, freightened screams, someone saying "I'm sorry", the feeling of air rushing past his scales; and there was also the cold eating him alive, that withering, merciless hand which slowly turned him into a part of the ice itself—

He broke out of his trance as soon as he realised his newly-formed fantasies were outnumbering the actual contents of his mind, only to find his body quivering madly, a numbing sensation attacking his nerve endings on all fronts. Even his breaths were trembling as he attempted to hug himself tightly, squeezing every ounce of warmth he could gather onto his needy body. It made no difference at all.

The calm that he had managed to instill into his body quickly evaporated into nothingness. He had convinced himself that he'd find the answer to his dilemma buried somewhere beneath the folds of his psyche, but those insignificant fragments were everything he could come up with. They didn't even provide him with any useful information to hint at what chain of events could have ended him up in such a horrible situation, if anything only spawned more questions. And to make matters worse, he was grimly aware of the fact that no matter how hard he tried to remember, that was as far as he'd ever be able to go, at least in the state he was currently in.

He knew nothing, and it scared him.

Suddenly, he was on his feet. He blinked to get the layer of frost out of his eyes, then blinked again to make sure.

With his arms still glued to his body protectively, he hesitantly put one foot forward. He stopped for a second. He wasn't sure why he was doing this, whether it was to seek refuge from the cold or it had something to do with his current mental situation. Maybe he was acting on the basis of some distant, irrational hope that just by wandering in the dark aimlessly his memories would suddenly come back to him, out of nowhere, offered on a silver platter – he was much more likely to knock his head against a wall. That would be sure to wake him up from this fever dream of his. But then again, he couldn't be sure of anything right now.

The Charmeleon, his mind still coping with the lack of a name to call his own, began doing just that: wandering aimlessly. His legs struggled to drag themselves across the cavern's icy pavement as he limped his way further into the dark corridor he was in. He kept his head hung low, didn't look forward, there was no need to.

"Okay ... going ... to be okay..." he mumbled to himself as he rubbed his arms together in his self-embrace for comfort. The waves of pain that shot through his legs every time his feet touched the ground were becoming unbearable. He wouldn't make it very far if he continued like this.

Eventually, he stopped in his tracks, leaning against the cavern wall to pant the exhaustion out of his system.

A couple of seconds later his legs gave out from under him and left him tumbling to the ground, barely able to catch himself with his arms. Another wave of nausea washed over him, his eyes squeezing shut in response and his features grimacing. No ... have to ... get out of the cold...

Raising his head to take another sweeping look at his surroundings, he saw nothing but stone, dimly lit stone passageways that branched out in seemingly random directions. However just as he was about to dismiss it, one corridor in particular caught his attention. He squinted his eyes to see past the blurriness that blinded his vision.

Right there, at the far end of the passageway, he could see a faint light dancing upon the walls. A type of light which he somehow knew at heart, as if he'd lived with its glare his entire life.

Fire!

His eyes lit up with joy. All the aches and pains deeply embedded in his legs suddenly vanished as he bolted to his feet and broke into a mad dash in a fraction of a second. The grim thoughts of freezing to death were suddenly replaced with a yearning to stand close to that fire, to embrace its heat, to feel alive again. To remember.

However, just as he was about to enter the room which housed his saving grace, two figures stood in his way, looking straight at him with wide eyes.

"What the— Who—?"

His sprint was interrupted so abruptly that he fell flat on his behind, earning more complaints from his crushed tail. Shooting upright, he dug his claws into the ground behind him and jerked his head back, attempting to react to the possible threat that befell him. His eyes, blinded by the sudden change in lighting intensity, could just make out the two figures, one made of different shades of green and one a deep blue hue, standing close to the fire.

"Stop right there! Identify yourself!" the green figure shouted, dropping into a menacing stance.

But his commands only resulted in his heartbeat fluttering wildly, as he frantically tried to claw his way backwards.

The green creature stepped forward. "I said don't move an inch!"

His back soon met the cavern's wall, and he could only stare as the green figure advanced towards him.

"N-no! Go ... away—!" his shaky voice suddenly cut. Right then, a strange feeling of heat came from his stomach, begging him to expell it if he wanted to escape with his life.

"No, Gaius, you don't have to—" the blue figure tried to argue as the green one raised its arm up high.

The Charmeleon tried to comply with the strange instinctual feeling brewing in his stomach, but only succeded in getting it caught up in his throat. Wide-eyed, his claws scrambled to his neck to try and stop the literal fire that was trapped there, to which his body reacted via a brutal coughing fit. Though the jets of fire that he involuntarily spat that way must have been considered an act of aggression, as the green figure suddenly sprung forward.

The last thing he felt was a blow to the side of his head, before his body was slammed against the cold stone floor and his consciousness descended back into the abyss.


He wasn't sure when he woke up, or whether he was in some sort of trance-like state, but one thing was certain: he felt warm.

The joyful crackling of a live fire welcomed him back into the real world. Sensations of much-needed warmth spread all over his body, thawing his nerves out of their state of perennial numbness and easing the tension out of his muscles.

He allowed a smile to form on his face, perfectly content with simply basking in his newfound comfort. However, there was one anomaly in this realm of apparent calm: a sharp object being pressed against his neck.

"Wake up," a voice above him spoke, its cold, authoritarian tone leaving no doubt in his mind. That wasn't an invite. It was an order.

When his eyes flickered open, they were met with the unfriendly face of some sort of green lizard glaring down at him, the leaf-like blade that protruded out of its arm ready to slice his head clean off his body.

"What's your name?" the Grovyle asked, unmovable in its hateful glare.

Jumbled, incoherent noises were all he managed to spew out, as his muscles suddenly locked in place in an attempt not to inadvertedly press his throat against the treacherous leaf-like dagger.

"Where are you from?"

"Huh? ... W-w-wha?" Apparently his answer wasn't good enough, as the blade pressed tighter against his neck. He gulped when he felt warm drops of blood running down his neck to his chest, which only resulted in his entire body shuddering in fright.

"You heard me. Answer."

His arms and legs began flailing erratically without his consent, as if trying to wriggle free of their trap. Just as he was about to give in to blind panic and scream to the heavens for help, a scorning, elegant feminine voice came from behind the Grovyle.

"Gaius, what are you doing? You're not going to get anything out of him like that. Don't you see he's just scared?"

After a long, drawn-out sigh, the Grovyle removed his leaf blade from the Charmeleon's throat and turned to face the dissenter.

"What now, you've started pitying them all of a sudden?" Gaius sneered. "I'm pretty sure that was you who almost got us killed because of them not too long ago."

The fire lizard leaned his head to the side to sneak a curious glance at the new arrival. His eyes were greeted to the sight of a long, serpentine creature with sky blue scales and a white underside coiled up on the other side of the pyre. Her head was adorned by two white, angel-like wings, while round, deep blue orbs were located under her snout and near the tip of her tail respectively.

"I can tell if someone's Scum from their face, and he's not one of them. Leave him alone," the Dragonair said, her eyes narrowed at the Grovyle.

"Fine," Gaius waved her off. "Whatever. Do with him as you please, I don't even care anymore. I'll go check on the outside."

The Grovyle proceeded to solemnly walk off into a pitch-black passageway that branched from the room they were in, only stopping briefly to add: "And try not to end up dead by the time I'm back, will you?"

The Dragonair mumbled something along the lines of "Idiot ..." before turning her head around to look at the newcomer.

"At least that's over with," she said, offering him a friendly smile, "How are you feeling?"

His hammering heart had settled down partially by the time the green reptile had left the room, but some uncertainty still lingered in his mind. Pushing himself with his arms, he carefully sat up, eyes locked with the Dragonair. It didn't take long for his brain to notice how his entire body felt different. There was no rotten black feeling churning at his stomach anymore. There was no lightheadedness, no numbness. He felt ... normal.

"Um ... f-fine. Thanks," he stammered, paws automatically rubbing his neck in the spot where his scales had been pierced. It genuinely marvelled him as to how kind she seemed towards him, especially when compared to how her less-than-friendly companion went fairly close to beheading him just a minute prior.

"I'm glad to hear that," she said calmly, slowly lowering her head onto her coils. They just sat there, quietly enjoying the fire's regenerative warmth.

He took the time to better examine the cavern room they were in. The room was quite small in his eyes—not enough to make him feel claustrophobic, but also just barely large enough to move around comfortably. The campfire they were sitting around was located in the very center, fueled by a small bundle of wooden sticks. As they burned, the flames didn't emit any smoke, a detail which struck him as odd at first, but he eventually gave up on trying to figure out. The only other detail that stood out was a seemingly half-full loot sack, which sat carelessly on the ground a short ways from its owner.

After a minute or so of relative quiet, the Charmeleon was half debating with himself whether he should strike up a conversation, when the corner of her eyes peered at him once again.

"You know, you're lucky you ran into us when you did," she stated, eyes studying his body up and down for a second. "You were in a really bad shape. With your tail fire out, I'm surprised hypothermia didn't get you earlier. Thank goodness you're alright now."

"Wait, you ... helped me?" he croaked in disbelief. He had to have heard something wrong. There was no way the two of them would care enough to look after a complete stranger, one who just so happened to stumble in their way and pass out.

The Dragonair nodded, before quickly adding "It's no big deal, really. We were simply carrying out our duty. In fact, we didn't even do all that much. Just kept you warm and gave you some Aspear berries to stop that nasty frostbite from spreading. Your tail eventually lit itself back."

Glancing behind him, he grabbed his tail and jerked it in front of him to inspect it. A small, sparkling flame licked away happily at its very tip, dancing in almost perfect syncrony with its bigger brethren. He realized: that was the reason why he felt so normal, so alive!

But with that last thought, an even bigger realization hit him.

An involuntary sigh escaped his mouth as he let his tail slide out of his grasp and return to its idle swaying motion behind his back.

I guess it wasn't a nightmare after all. This is actually happening. I really can't remember anything... he thought grimly, a frown spreading across his face. Hugging his knees, he buried his head in the empty space between them and retreated back in his own thoughts. Though he may have been feeling better physically, his mind was still an utter mess and even the most basic questions about his identity still went unanswered. At the very least, the fire was keeping him warm.

"How ... long have I been out?" he asked quitely after a long pause, his gaze stuck to the glimmering campfire.

"Oh, about an hour or so. Nothing too crazy, I assure you."

Not getting any sort of response from the fire lizard, she finally seemed to have caught onto the hint of uneasiness in his tone.

"Hey..." she frowned. "I'm sorry for Gaius' ... um ... 'behaviour'. I assure you he didn't mean anything by it, that's just how he is. You get used to it eventually."

She slithered her way around the campfire and stopped only when she was seated in the space next to him. Hearing her movements, his head remerged from its position and turned to her just as she spoke.

"Listen, Charmeleon," she explained, "I need to ask you a few things. It won't take long, I promise."

Instinctively, his paw moved to cover his neck, which was still scarred by his previous 'interrogation'. His sign of distrust didn't go unnoticed.

"Don't worry, we're Civil Protection. You can trust us," she reassured, an unspoken nudge for him to continue. He didn't know exactly what this 'Civil Protection' was, but a small voice in his mind suggested him to be wary, especially when looking back at his previous episode with Gaius.

"Uh ... I-I don't..." the Charmeleon stammered, before finally giving up his efforts to find an excuse with a grunt. "Fine. I'm not sure I'll be able to answer everything, though."

"Oh, that's fine, don't worry."

The Dragonair had opened her mouth to speak, when it looked like a new thought had crossed her mind. "You know, I forgot to introduce myself. My name's Alice, and yours is …?" she inquired.

He tensed at the question. Not that he wasn't expecting it, after all it was a perfectly reasonable request to make of him. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to hear it.

Claws began fiddling nervously against each other as his brain scrambled for an answer. What was he supposed to tell her? That he had no name, that he'd just magically appeared in that world for no reason at all? Would they think that he was some sort of wacko? After all, who in their right mind wouldn't know even the most basic information about themselves?

So many questions, but the answers are so few... he thought grimly, forcing the rising frustration back inside. Snapping back into reality, he couldn't help but notice that Alice was still staring at him blankly, waiting for an answer. In all likelihood, she was forcing herself to look patient, while internally puzzled as to why he was taking so long to answer such a trivial question.

He began thinking of something he could say to maneuver around the awkward explanation, but every lie he could come up with turned out to be so easy to see through, he might as well have told her that nothing was wrong and he'd just been taking a stroll. No, he couldn't afford to lie. For whatever reason, the Dragonair seemed to trust him enough not to beat the answers out of him, and at the very least he owed it to her to be truthful.

With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. "I don't have one."

Alice looked visibly surprised at his answer. "Wait, you—you don't have one? How can you not ... What do you mean?"

"I-I don't know!" he cried out, "I can't remember! I can't remember anything ... not even ... my own name..." he trailed off at the end, almost disbelieving his own words.

"Hey," she shushed him, "Ease up. Try to breathe deeply. There. Now, think. Can you remember anything at all? Did you happen to see anyone around here?"

The Charmeleon racked his thoughts for an answer as he cradled his head in his palms, trying his hardest not to lose his cool as he poured his mind out. "I ... No, I can't remember anything at all. All I know is that I woke up here, in this cave I've never seen before in my life, and ... it was cold ... then I stumbled across you two ... and ... ascension..."

Alice tilted her head at him. "Ascension?"

"I don't know," he grunted, "That damn word's been stuck in my head ever since I woke up. I'm not sure if it means anything or not."

"So," she pressed. "You didn't see anyone?"

"No!" he shouted, causing Alice to recoil backwards. "I did not! Ugh, just—just shut up!"

He regretted his words before he had even shut his mouth. The almost hateful glare he'd cast the Dragonair disappeared quickly, replaced instead by a forceful deadpan expression. He felt himself shrink in front of her pensive face, mentally kicking himself for his idiocy. What was he thinking, saying those things to the pokémon who had probably saved his life by keeping him warm in a time where he was defenseless, the one who'd been nice to him—a complete stranger—and even gave him the chance to explain himself? Alone as he was right now, he desperately needed someone to trust, not to turn them away when they spontaneously offered their help!

"N-no! I didn't mean to—sorry," he blurted out.

But instead of rightfully lashing out at him for his ungratefulness, her response was quite different.

"... So they got you too, huh?" Alice said with a slightly distant tone, her eyes staring forward into nothingness for a few seconds.

"Wait, who are you talking about?" he blinked in confusion. The implications of her message were picked up almost immediately: did she have a lead on what had happened to him?

The Dragonair shook her head to regain focus, eyeing him with newfound alarm. "I apologise. It's just ... if Scum have started making incursions inside the border..." she trailed off at the end.

Much to further his confusion, Alice's expression quickly reverted back to her friendly smile, although some traces of nervousness were still visible in her eyes. "You know what? It's nothing you have to worry about. If what you say is true, then you already have enough problems at hand."

That only left him more puzzled than before. Who were these 'Scum'? Did they have any connection to his amnesia? Why was she hesitant to give the information away? She knew, he was sure of it. His arms were almost shaking with anticipation. He needed to know!

"Well, first and foremost we need something to call you by," Alice carried onward, as if ignoring his body language. "We could simply call you 'Charmeleon', but that isn't very polite nowadays, is it?"

She's right. I need a name. I need to have an identity, at least until I can remember my old one, he mused, tapping a claw on his chin in contemplation. By now, all thoughts of pressing Alice to tell him about what she knew had been pushed to the back of his mind—which, unknowingly to him, was just as the Dragonair had hoped.

"I have a few ideas," said Alice. "How does 'Flame' sound to you?"

"... Flame..." he whispered half to himself, testing the name out with his own jaws. It wasn't anything too exciting, sure, nor was it very original, but he was in no position to be picky at the moment.

Flame. Flame. My name is Flame. He repeated mentally, his claws squeezing his tail for reassurance. The more he repeated that name, the more adamant he became in claiming it as his own. Something about it simply felt ... right. There was no other word for it.

"So?" Alice inquired, "Do you like it? I can think of a couple of others if you'd like."

A strange feeling of triumph invaded his body, as he repeated his soon-to-be name one last time in his own head. A giddy smile began to form on his face, and grew ever wider until it could grow no more.

"... I love it. Thank you." he whispered with an air of finality, straightening his back in a newfound rush of confidence. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off his back. Now, he had something to call himself. He was finally someone.

"I'm happy to have helped," Alice smiled sadly, "I can only imagine how horrible you must feel, unable to remember anything at all..."

Flame—he couldn't have chosen a more fitting name!, he thought—looked at her, that smile still plastered on his face. He struggled to resist the sudden impulse to tackle her to the ground in a hug—it would have spelled the end for him, acting so intimate with a person he'd technically just met— even though he knew that deep down she didn't believe half of what he had said, she was only playing along with his fever conviction for information. Despite that, he couldn't ignore the fact that there was something about the way she worded that which didn't sound right. Hang on a minute...

"No, wait! You know about—" Flame cried out, before he was interrupted abruptly when he heard footsteps drawing closer to the room. Both pokémon turned their heads just in time to witness a certain Grovyle walking into the room from the same passage he had previously used to leave.

"You're still alive, I see," Gaius scoffed while crossing his arms, "Maybe your suicidal tactics aren't working after all."

"Cut your blabbering," Alice said, holding her head up high with her eyes narrowed slightly, "Just tell me what the situation is outside."

"The storm has subsided," Gaius announced, copying the Dragonair's body language, "Let's pack up and leave this rathole before yet another one starts."

Noticing Flame's sudden silence, the Grovyle glanced at him while walking closer to the fire, an act which only sent shivers down the Charmeleon's spine.

Without words, both pokémon started dismantling their impromptu indoors encampment, with Gaius stomping the ghostly fire to mere embers—amazingly without showing the slightest sign of pain—and Alice picking up some small items scattered about the room. During the whole process, Flame just sat there awkwardly, his eyes darting between the two.

Now, the only source of light remaining was his tail, which flared slightly to make up for the absence of an outside source of warmth.

"W-where are you going?" he asked, unsure of what to do. Were they leaving him there?

"You?" Gaius chuckled as he slung his rucksack over his shoulder, "Oh, don't fret. We're not letting you off just yet. You're coming with us."

Much like the Charmeleon in question, Alice seemed to know something was up. "We're only going to escort him to town, I hope?" she asked, sounding like she herself knew that 'Yes' wouldn't be the answer.

"In part, yes, but there's more to it than that," Gaius leaned in near Alice and whispered something to her ear, all while keeping his distrustful gaze trained on Flame.

Alice seemed almost offended by what he had said, immediately recoiling backwards. "What?! But he isn't one of them, I already told you! You know he isn't!"

"Remember when I said I'd think of something to fix our little problem? This is it."

Alice looked ready to protest, when something that Gaius added silenced her for good. "Unless, you want us both to end up in the streets again. Go ahead, the choice is yours."

"But..." she hesitated, "I'm sure there's something else we can do instead. We don't have to be so drastic about this."

"It's the best option we have," Gaius crossed his arms again, "And there are only bad options."

The Dragonair's eyes darted nervously between Flame and Gaius for a full minute, before finally conceding with a sigh.

"Curse you..." she spat, turning away to avert her teammate's smug face.

What are they talking about? Are they going to do something to me? Damn it, this can't be good... Flame bit his lip, unsettled by the conversation.

"You, Charmeleon," Gaius pointed an accusing claw at Flame, "Get up. We're moving out."

Begrudgingly, he complied, earning more than one complaint from his aching muscles. Alice was looking at him, her eyes telling him that everything would be ok, that he didn't have to worry. But he was worried, he couldn't help it!

"Stay in between the two of us," Gaius ordered him, "And don't even think about trying anything sketchy." as he said that, Gaius drew his leaf blade menacingly to further reinforce his words, leaving no further doubt in the Charmeleon's mind as to whether he should leg it whenever he got the chance.

"Let's go. The surface is just a short ways from here."


Before he knew it, Flame was trekking down a gloomy, rocky passageway, his tail's flame lighting up the path ahead. As he walked, his mind attempted to let his current situation sink in: he was being led outside of that forsaken cave by the two pokémon who had helped him, and that was good.

But besides that, pretty much nothing was clear. Apparently, the two were part of this 'Civil Protection' organization, and while the title sounded like something official and trustworthy, for all he knew it was a violent criminal organization, or maybe a separatist rebel group who kidnapped unaware travellers to help support their fight against the state.

He stopped his monotonous march, eyes wide as the unwelcome question sprung to mind: what state was he even in? Was there even a state at all, or was he currently in some lawless land?

No, I can't stop and think about this too hard. I'll lose my mind if I do, Flame shook the plaguing dilemmas out of his head. Panting, he leaned his shoulder against the cavern's wall for support, taking advantage of the momentary pause to regain his breath.

"Hey!" Gaius barked as he turned around suddenly, "What are you doing? You'll have plenty of time to rest where we're going. Stop lazing around."

"I'm sorry," Flame said, "It's just... I'm not feeling too good."

"What," Gaius huffed, "You think I'm in top form after running four miles and almost getting caught up in a portal storm? I'm tired too, and that's why I'd like to get home before nightfall."

"... Where are you even taking me?" Flame blurted out, something that came out as more of a wimper.

"Flame," Alice spoke from behind him, "I promise that we're bringing you somewhere safe. We just need your cooperation for something. You trust us, right?"

If it wasn't for the fact that he could feel a painful lump form in his throat whenever the Grovyle spoke, Flame would have said that it was her kind words that kept him from running off right then and there.

I don't think I can even trust myself right now... he wanted to say. They'd helped him, sure, but her partner had threatened to kill him before, and she herself was skirting around all his questions.

"Honestly, no, not at all. I just want to get out of here."

"Then there's nothing to worry about," she emphasized. On the other hand, her eyes were telling a completely different story.

I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I? Flame thought as he gulped down his fears, I hope you two know what you're doing...

The next couple of minutes zoomed by Flame's eyes, time his brain barely even bothered to register as it only consisted in more dull, uninteresting walking through that cave system while trying at the same time not to trip on the occasional large pebble scattered about—something he failed to do miserably. He was sure he'd heard some stifled chuckles from behind him in more than one occasion.

"You should pay more attention to what's in front of you. Aren't you the one with the light?" Alice asked, trying hard to conceal an amused smile.

"Shut up..." Flame retorted, rubbing his pained snout as he pulled himself to his feet for what must have been the third time in a short space of time.

But, fortunately for him, his suffering didn't last very long.

Is that...? He squinted his eyes to see better. At last, at the end of the long, narrow tunnel they had entered at some point, was the exit. The gaping hole looked more like a burning star, the drastic difference in lighting giving the impression of a pure-white veil that concealed the world beyond from prying eyes.

As they drew closer, Flame raised his arm instinctively to shield himself from the painfully strong glare. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd last seen the sun, but, seeing as his scales were tingling with ever-increasing excitement, he figured it'd been far too long.

Holding his breath, he took his first few steps into the outside world.


Spearhead Valley

Flame couldn't help but gasp. Even with the iron curtains of amnesia currently hazing his mind, he was certain that he'd never seen such a sight before in his life. He slowly turned his head to look around himself, attempting to take in the scale of it all.

Rugged, craggy mountains towered all around them, their steep slopes coated by a thick layer of snow. The depth of the clouded sky entranced him, installing a small feeling of dread as the irrational part of his mind half worried that gravity would suddenly turn upside-down and drag him into the blue expanse. Hundreds of feet below, a stream of solid ice sheets followed along the valley's bottom. A quick glance to his right confirmed the presence of a small path leading down from the rocky ledge he was now standing on to the riverside.

Shutting his eyes for a second, he breathed in deeply through his nostrils, savouring the fresh mountain air mixed with traces of aroma coming from the few plants that had managed to survive the unfriendly temperatures.

"Keep moving," Gaius hissed as he pushed Flame roughly onto the narrow path, "My partner and I have a schedule to maintain, and we're already late as it is."

"... Oh, yeah. Right," he mumbled absentmindedly, before falling back in line between the two pokémon.

As the group started the journey downhill, Flame was still observing his surroundings wide-eyed, like a child witnessing the world outside his crib for the very first time. More than once he noticed Gaius looking back at him as he dragged his claws across the rocky wall to their side, stared intensely at the sky, or inspected the local plant life closely—even coming close to setting fire to what looked like some sort of half-frozen berry tree.

This all feels so ... new, Flame mused as the group reached the riverside, My body is telling me I've never seen this place before. But then, how did I end up in that cave?

"What, are you a southerner or something?"

Gaius' unwelcome question broke Flame out of the state of semi-calm he was beginning to enjoy.

The Grovyle was looking at him as if he'd suddenly sat down and started playing giddily in the snow. "You act like you've never seen snow or a mountain before. You're not from around here, are you?"

"Um..." Flame hesitated while he looked around him, somewhat hoping that the great colossi would provide him an answer. Southerner? South of what exactly? What am I even supposed to say? I can't tell him that I don't know, he wouldn't believe me...

"Y-Yeah. I'm from the South. I think," he said, smiling nervously and forcing his voice to sound as casual as possible. However, this answer only seemed to catch the Grovyle's attention more.

"From where, exactly?" Gaius pressed. It was clear he knew that wasn't the truth, though his voice strangely lacked aggression now.

You had to go ahead and ask that, didn't you? Flame cringed, kicking himself mentally yet again for uttering such a short-sighted lie. If there was any chance of him being seen as dangerous by whoever these two pokémon were working for, he was certainly not making life easier for himself right now.

"He's right," Alice interjected suddenly, "You do look like you're from the South. Things are surely much more peaceful over there. I mean, you don't see pokémon travelling up North anymore, since those guys have it so much easier than we do. Meeting you certainly is a welcome change," she smiled broadly.

"Well?" Gaius asked impatiently, cutting Alice off, "I'm still waiting for my answer. Don't expect me to believe every word that comes out of your mouth. If you are a southerner, then where exactly are you from?"

Flame bit his lip; he didn't answer, but the two still managed to get the message: he couldn't remember.

"Gaius!" Alice spoke to her partner in a whisper, though Flame heard anyways, "Cut him some slack, the poor guy can't even remember his own name!"

"You know what?" Gaius said after growing impatient of his uneasy silence, "Don't bother. Soon, you're not going to be my problem anymore. I've already got enough of those..." he muttered the last part mostly to himself.

A dead silence ensued as Flame's brain came to a verdict: it was best for his reputation—and quite possibly for his safety—to shut his mouth and keep walking.


Route 165

Hours later, Flame could barely keep himself upright. His abused legs had carried him through what felt like miles, and now they were ready to give up on him. The landscape around him had slowly mutated from tall, rugged mountains and frozen bodies of water to a lush, flourishing meadow, interrupted only by the dirt path they'd been following for quite a while now.

However, Flame had long since stopped caring about his surroundings. Instead, other thoughts floated around his mind.

So ... hungry... He grumbled mentally as another cramp shot through his rioting stomach. He laid a paw on it, trying his best to think about something else, although without much success.

It feels like I haven't eaten anything in months ... Just how far away is this place, anyways?

He glanced behind him to look at his escorts. The two had been lagging behind for quite some time—they must have wanted to make sure that he wouldn't run away all of a sudden—murmuring amongst themselves so that he couldn't be able to hear.

Flame's eyes couldn't help but churn at the rucksack slung over Gaius' shoulder. Fantasies played freely through his mind, picturing just how much sweet, juicy food could be in that bag. Granted, he wasn't quite sure what type of food these pokémon usually ate, but anything that could quell his roaring stomach would suffice.

Should I ask them? he pondered, looking at them both before quickly shaking the idea out of his head, What am I thinking?! I'm in no position to make requests of them, I might just make matters worse for myself. Besides, maybe they'll give me something to eat once we get to this town they were talking about.

He nearly cringed at his own naiveness. Yeah, keep telling yourself that...

As he swam in his own thoughts, he failed to notice that his march was getting slower and slower, and before he knew it he was within earshot of his two escorts.

"I don't see why we shouldn't tell Ariel," Alice said, "This is a matter of ours and everyone's safety, for Arceus' sake!"

Flame briefly wondered whether to continue listening or to hasten his pace in order to avoid being caught red-handed. If they were sharing some sort of secret information, he thought, he could risk getting himself into bigger trouble, or maybe they would simply kill him on the spot. But, eventually, curiosity got the best of him.

"And get her even more pissed off than she already is?" Gaius grunted, "No thank you. This is probably just an isolated incident, the kind that blows away after a couple of weeks. There's no need to get our commander worked up over nothing."

"What if it isn't an isolated incident, Gaius?" Alice pressed him, "What then? Before we know it, we'll have thousands of them at our doorstep! Who do you think is going to come save us at that point?"

"Bah," Gaius sighed forcefully, "Why do you believe that guy, anyway? He could be making everything up. I wouldn't be surprised if he's just some poor bastard trying to snatch some food off of us. I mean, just take a look yourself! Everything about him screams misery to me."

Well he's not entirely wrong... Flame thought, unsure whether to chuckle or to hang his head in shame.

"His situation isn't very different from ours, then," Alice pointed out, "And besides, think about it: who in their right mind goes to Spearhead Valley these days?"

"Well, we did," Gaius grinned.

"That's beside the point," Alice groaned in frustration, "We were acting under orders. Nobody goes to that place anymore, not since the storms have grown in number. Did you see how beat up he was? It's obvious that he'd been in there for a long time. The way I see it, Scum are advancing. There's no other explanation."

Flame was all ears by now, his interest peaking. Who were these 'Scum' they kept referring to? Could they have something to do with his past? If he kept listening, he thought, maybe he'd get the answer to those questions.

"Ugh..." Gaius buried his head into his paw, "Look, can't we talk about this some other time? I'm tired, and I'm sure you are too. Let's just call this off until tomorrow."

So much for answers... Flame rolled his eyes, a heave of frustration escaping him.

"Fine," Alice conceded, "Just don't get the idea that I might suddenly forget about this."

Sensing an end to the conversation, Flame quickly straightened his pose and hastened his pace, in hopes that the two wouldn't suspect him of anything.

As he refocused his sight on the path in front of him, two things happened in quick succession: the first being that his eyes were met with a wooden surface that spanned his entire vision. The second being that the rest of his face followed suit.

Next thing he knew, he was laying on his back, clutching his aching snout with one paw as he pushed himself up with his other one. A timid glance at his escorts confirmed that they were staring right at him.

A nervous half-smile crossed his face, quickly fading into aether. "Hehe... hehe... sorry..."

Flame glared at the culprit, a set of large double doors embedded into a stone wall where the path seemed to end abruptly. Unconvinced at the thought of such a structure popping up out of nowhere, he looked around. His eyes widened when he realized that the fortification actually stretched for miles on both sides, likely continuing where his eyes could no longer see. Maybe it had spawned into existence after all.

What the...? How? I can't be that bad at paying attention, can I? Flame thought as he scratched his head lightly.

Letting the embarassing situation slide, Gaius knocked vigorously on the wooden doors. A previously unnoticeable slit in the door opened, roughly a couple of feet above the Grovyle's eye level. A set of irises creeped into view, scanning the three of them thoroughly.

"Officers," a deep voice spoke from the other side, eyeing the badges pinned on two of the pokémon, "Welcome to Aesernia. Please clarify your identity and motives."

"We're Team Phalanx," Gaius said calmly, "Task Force Aegis. Tell Ariel that our mission has been accomplished."

The pair of eyes disappeared from view, the slit in the door flapping closed with a clang. For the next few minutes, Flame just stood there idly, waiting for something to happen as he fought off the unrest in his stomach. Just as he was about to fall asleep on the spot, the slit-like flap reopened.

"Only this one?" the voice asked, likely relaying the question.

Gaius seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing at Flame for a moment before speaking. "Yes, just this one."

Flame felt a sudden spike of discomfort when he realized that they were talking about him. Wait, they said their mission is complete? Was I part of their mission? But ... I thought—!

"Fine. You may enter," The heavy doors creaked open, revealing some sort of bipedal creature that seemed to be made almost entirely out of metal, its red armor and multiple blades—that protruded even from its elbows—making up most of its body.

Alice and Gaius entered through the door, the former looking back at him and motioning with her head to follow.

"You should watch out if you're going to report to Ariel," the Bisharp warned, "She seems to be in a particularly nasty mood today."

"Isn't she always?" Gaius rolled his eyes.

"Kinda," the armored guard said, "Should I take care of this now?" he motioned to Flame.

A lump formed in the Charmeleon's throat.

"Sure thing," Gaius turned back, "Have fun with him. He's not my problem anymore."

Alarmed, Flame's eyes darted to Alice. He saw that look of remorse in her eyes, that reflexive cringe, and that was all he needed to see; even before he felt the blunt side of an elbow-blade take his consciousness away, he knew.

Things were not looking well for him.


End of Chapter I

Chapter Text

Chapter II: Astray


" Semper Aequus  (Always just)"

-Official motto of Task Force Aegis.


The sun had just reached midway through the horizon as the members of Team Phalanx wandered the unusually empty streets of Aesernia.

"More budget cuts? With everything that's happening?"

Gaius raised his head from the news flier in his hands to look at Alice. His companion didn't answer however. Instead, she kept staring at the road ahead, the distant look on her face suggesting that she barely even registered his voice.

"Oh, come on Alice," Gaius rolled his eyes, "This is our day off. Can't you just relax for one moment?"

In reality, she wanted to answer, to have some small talk with him. But it wasn't the fact that that kind of news wasn't something uncommon at all, nor did she feel particularily angry towards her teammate. However, there was something nagging at her conscience, a moral issue implanted in her mind the day before and now begging to be answered.

"I still don't know why we did it."

"Did what?" Gaius asked as he threw the flyer aside carelessly.

"Arrest him like that," Alice said, "He shouldn't have to pay for the mess we created ourselves."

"Well," Gaius shrugged his shoulders, "It worked, didn't it? Ariel doesn't suspect a thing, and we're back on our feet for now."

"That's not the point!" Alice turned to glare at him, "Whether it worked or not, that doesn't make it right. Isn't it supposed to be our job, protecting others?"

"If you care so much for this guy," Gaius said in a mocking tone, "Then why don't you try paying the guards into releasing him? Oh, that's right. We don't have that kind of money. We never did."

You're avoiding the question ... Just like you always do, Alice thought, sending her companion a venomous look.

She half wanted to say that aloud, but decided to remain quiet. Although he did forward some valid points, she still didn't want to have anything to do with his personal philosophy. She'd find a way to get that poor Charmeleon out of the situation they'd forced him into. She owed him that much.

After a while, they reached the large bulletin board that sat right outside Camp Tempest. Not a soul was in sight, except of course for the occasional sentry patrolling the perimeter.

"Where is everyone?" Alice wondered aloud, looking around them.

With this being the only Civil Protection base in the entire province, the whole building would usually be bustling with activity. Even in the rare event that their commander decided to grant them a day of rest, it was mostly symbolical. In fact, most teams spent that free time just like they would any other day: completing missions and trying to gather up enough cash to make it to the end of the month—not that she could blame them. But there were always at least a fair number of pokémon at the bulletin board picking jobs for the day. Something wasn't right.

"Good question," Gaius admitted, "Now that you point that out, I'm not too sure why we've been given the day off in the first place. There aren't any patrols scheduled for today, are there?"

"I don't think so..." Alice mumbled uncertainly.

"Hey, you! Dewott!" Gaius shouted to a nearby sentry, who stopped its monotonous scouting to spare them a second.

"Mmmh?" the Dewott hummed, "Oh, Team Phalanx. What is it?"

Wait, Alice delivered the sentry a sideways look, How does he know our team name? I'm fairly sure we've never seen this guy before, and barely anyone around here knows about us...

"What's the deal with the roads? Where is everyone?" Gaius asked as he somehow failed to pick up the obvious anomaly in the otter's words.

"What, you haven't heard?" the Dewott commented, "Someone forgot to tell Ariel that the fifth legion would be stationed at her Villa for tonight. Now she's throwing some kind of hissy fit over there. It's a mess..."

Oh, that's right!, Alice suddenly remembered, the legionaries were being stationed in town from today onward! It would make sense then that the streets around Tempest were so empty: everybody was off at the main square to acclaim the arriving soldiers. It was, after all, a move to reassure the population that the central government had the situation under control, that they were still the ones in charge.

Alice sighed internally. No matter how many soldiers Urbe tried to send, they did not have the situation under control.

"Huh," Gaius scratched his chin, "You'd think the Imperial Army was actually competent or something."

The Dewott chuckled. "I wouldn't go that far."

Then, Alice heard the very words that she single-handedly most dreaded to hear.

"By the way, I heard she was looking for you two. Better be quick, you might just get to her office before her. You know how much she hates slowpokes."

Alice didn't need to glance at her partner's face to sense the utter horror stamped on it; without uttering their goodbyes, they rushed into Camp Tempest, praying to Arceus for the best.


Time lazed the haste of its flow as Team Phalanx awaited their destiny in their commander's personal office. Even the dust particles floating around seemed to remain suspended in mid-air, as if afraid to break the dead silence that had ensued ever since the two pokémon had entered.

The office wasn't quite as luxurious as everyone in the base usually fantasized it to be. There were no solid gold chairs, no servants standing beside the desk, no secret passageway leading to a hidden treasure—well, Alice couldn't be sure of that, but it was probably best if she didn't find out.

It was, however, much more impressive than any simpleton like them was used to. Seeing that wooden desk, carved out of only the finest of materials, decorated like that, almost made her crave to simply lie down on it and sleep soundly. A large painting hung on a wall, lit by the will o' wisp lamps dangling above them, its moody oil paint forming a portrait of an ancient battle.

Overall, she wasn't quite sure whether to feel flattered or scared to be in that room. Ariel rarely ever summoned someone to her office, and even then the look on the faces of those who came out didn't help her already meager hopes by much.

But maybe that wouldn't be the case this time, she attempted to reason, maybe their commander wanted to apologize to them for the past few months, or perhaps she wanted to congratulate them personally for—

And then the door opened, and a furious Haxorus walked in, and her reason flew out behind her.

"Well, well," Ariel smirked ominously, "If it isn't Team Phalanx. I thought you'd never get the message. Maybe those sentries aren't as deaf as I thought they were."

"M-ma'am," both pokémon said in unison, freezing into a salute.

"I'm guessing you already know why you're here?" Ariel asked impatiently as she started walking in circles around her subordinates.

"N-no, ma'am," they answered—truthfully for a change.

"No?" Ariel tilted her head in mock innocence, using a tone that one would normally use with an infant, "Well, a little Fletchling happened to tell me that the two of you took a mission yesterday. You were supposed to capture that fugitive group of Scum who'd been causing some problems with our food caravans. Instead, you came back with a single Charmeleon," the Haxorus' tusks snapped together, "Care to explain?"

Much explaining and shouting later, Team Phalanx exited their commander's office, shutting the door behind them. A blank look was stuck on their face as they stood there wordlessly, trying to process everything that had been said in the last few minutes.

Alice decided to break the silence. "I ... I can't believe it. She actually did it."

In that moment, she cursed her weakness for listening to her partner's senseless plan. She ought to have listened to that little voice in her mind, in that cave, she ought to have helped the Charmeleon and brought him back as a refugee instead of trying to pass him off as their objective! Now, it was all for naught.

"Well..." Gaius started uncomfortably, "Now what?"

Alice breathed in soothingly and arced her head at the will-o-wisp lamps above them, contemplating. Suddenly, something clicked. She knew what had to be done. "We take him in."

Gaius looked at her quizzically. "Huh? Who?"

"Flame. The Charmeleon, "Alice answered with a trace of rising confidence in her tone, "We add him to our team. It's the only way."

"What?!" Gaius growled, "Are you crazy? You can't—we—… no!"

Alice smiled, her resolve increasing exponentially by the second. "If we don't do this, Gaius, soon we won't even make enough money to feed the two of us. Besides, we owe him as much."

Gaius blinked, standing still for a second, as though she'd just gone on a psychopathic tangent. "We owe him? Has the cold gotten to your head? Why are you so fixated with that guy?"

"W-well, I…" Alice began, finding her stare moving downwards as she mulled over her exact words, "Did you see the condition he was in? I felt horrible all night long for what we did. Poor guy couldn't even remember his name; then, we throw him in prison unjustly?"

"For the love of—" Gaius mumbled, likely holding back a stream of curses, "The fact that he's amnesiac makes him a less attractive option! Listen, if you're so convinced that we need a new member, let's just ask 'mons off the street. There are bound to be plenty of decent candidates lying around."

Alice saw fit to cement her glare. "We've already tried. Don't tell me we haven't. Nobody cares about us—even then, a quick look at our record and we get laughed at."

But why would Flame react any differently? a voice in her head beckoned. In truth, she didn't know. The Charmeleon had every right to spit in her face, for she'd accepted Gaius' plan passively. Yet, to do nothing and sit idly would only eat away at her conscience.

"No," Gaius crossed his arms, "I don't want another member on my team. You're not the leader here. am."

"I'm sorry, but it's our best option," a smirk creeped on her face as she remembered her teammate's exact words, "And there are only bad options."


Flame lay slumped as his eyes stirred open.

The first thing he was greeted to was the loud, uninterrupted growling of his stomach, the vibrations from which reverberated throughout his entire body. The second one was a simple, yet important question.

Where am I?

Grudgingly sitting up, he slowly took in his surroundings as he waited for the drowsiness to wear out. He was in a stone walled chamber, the only source of light besides his tail being the small, window-like gap in the metal door—the only eye-catching feature in the entirety of the room. But ... why were there bars in the window?

As he shifted his body to get a better look at the strange sight, a sudden stinging sensation intruded his thigh.

Ouch! What the hell? Flame shot up on his feet, jerking his body away from his bed as if he'd just realized that a monster was hiding under it.

Only to find out that his 'bed' wasn't exactly what he thought it would be at all; rather, it looked like little more than a stiff wooden plank laying on the naked floor, covered only by a piece of cloth and a small stack of damp hay that was attempting to disguise itself as a pillow. The covers were currently dragged over to one side, exposing the brittle material underneath.

Is this supposed to be a bed? Who thought it would be a good idea to make a matress out of stupid splinters? Flame grumbled to himself as he removed the wooden blighter inserted in his thigh and threw it away into a corner. If he hadn't been dripping exhaustion out of every pore when he laid there the previous day, he probably would not have managed to get a single second of shut eye, he thought.

With that last thought, he froze. Eyes widening slightly, the memories of how he'd gotten there suddenly rushed back to him. He remembered being knocked to the verge of uncosciousness by the guard at the city gates, being dragged roughly through the streets and then thrown into that room, the door locked behind him with a cold clang. Looking around himself, his brain slowly added two to two; the bare, isolated room, the bars in the door, the bed so uncomfortable it might have well violated basic rights...

His heart skipped a beat as he finally understood: I'm in a prison.

But... why was he being held there in the first place?

It must have been a mistake, Flame told himself as he collapsed back onto the pitiful excuse for a bed, uncaring of any potential splinters he may accidentally find in his they were just checking something about him, making sure that he wasn't a callous bandit craving to go on a new killing spree; if then, he needed not fear—he'd be out of this cell in the blink of an eye. After all, he was fairly certain he'd never set foot in this city before. Yeah, that must have been it. He couldn't have possibly done anything wrong, right?

Alice had told him that he'd be alright, after all. There was absolutely no way he was in prison for some sort of crime he'd committed. As far back as he could remember—only about a day prior; he cursed his amnesia—he'd taken extra care to follow the instructions given to him by his escorts, complied with their every request.

However, all these reassuring thoughts did little to hold back the grimmer ones from rearing their ugly heads, like an angry swarm of Beedrills stalking his conscience. All materialising in the form of one question: What about before?

Flame gasped as his fallacy of innocence fell apart before his very eyes. How could he be sure that he'd never hurt a fly when he couldn't even remember what his true name was? What if he'd done something horrible at some point in time, and he simply couldn't remember it?

"Did I really…?" he whispered no one in particular, staring up at the ceiling in thought. Everything made so much more sense now! And truthfully, he wished it didn't.

The previous day's events played back in his mind. Every tiny, insignificant detail that his mind could rack up as a half-hearted excuse to deny the inevitable truth, only ended up turning against him treacherously: the guard's almost disgusted look as he locked the door to his holding cell, Gaius' nonchalance towards his well-being, or the pained look in Alice's eyes—oh, how she must have pitied him, he imagined, destined to receive his rightful punishment for some heinous crime he couldn't even recall committing!

For all he knew, the entire events of the previous days could have been an intricate, meticulously planned ruse to bring him to justice. Maybe he deserved to be here in this cell. Who knows how many lives he could have taken, families he could have shattered?

And I still didn't get to eat anything… he cursed mentally as rubbed his empty stomach.

The door groaned open. Flame jumped slightly as his head snapped in its direction, only to find some sort of winged green insect with blades for arms standing at the door's threshold, looking straight at him.

"Charmeleon," the guard said, "The results have just come in. You've been cleared of all charges. You may go now."

In response, Flame just stared back blankly, attempting to digest what he'd just heard. Wait, I'm free? Is this guy trying to play some sort of trick on me? It—it doesn't make any sense…

"Oh, great…" the Scyther grunted to himself, "Another psycho. They don't pay me enough for this…"

That statement helped Flame realize that he'd been staring at the guard for almost a full minute now, and that he was probably making him quite uncomfortable. Muttering a quick apology, he slowly got up and walked out of the door, the guard stepping aside to let him pass.

"So…" Flame looked back at the guard once he was in the corridor, "I'm free to go? I can just walk out of here?" he asked, as if seeking confirmation that his ears hadn't imagined anything.

"Yes," the Scyther said, pointing to the end of the corridor with his arm-blade, "I've just told you that. The exit is over there."

With that, the bug shut the cell's heavy door and walked off in the same direction he'd pointed to, leaving a very confused Charmeleon behind. Uh. Maybe they were only trying to test me for something after all, Flame thought as he rubbed the back of his neck, Maybe … maybe I just overreacted. Whichever the case, I'm free now, He smiled, starting his trek down the hallway.

With that, he made a mental note of trying not to be so melodramatic in the future.

The walls around him were made out of the same type of stone found inside his cell, but here it was notably better maintained—not to mention the fact that they didn't smell like a shipment of rotten fish had been stored there for months. From the corner of his eye he saw various guards eye him strangely as he passed by countless scores of holding cells. Admittedly, he was midly curious of who or what was inside, though not nearly enough to actually go ahead and check for himself.

Before long, Flame arrived at where the guard had pointed him to, a set of double doors at the far end of the long corridor. He pushed the left one half-way and peeked his head inside the lobby. The room was much brighter than the rest of the prison, largely thanks to the arced doorway leading outside. It looked semi-deserted, the only pokémon in sight being the same guard from before standing behind the information booth and a couple of other pokémon (whose species he couldn't name for the life of him) who had seemingly fallen asleep while waiting on their stone-carved seats. Other than a few potted plants and a single poster nailed on the wall, the room was pretty bare.

He then noticed that it wasn't just the visitors who were asleep; even the guard at the booth was heavy-eyed, resting his chin on the blunt side of his blades as he fought to stay awake. Flame briefly wondered where everyone was, but figured he'd probably find out on his own very soon. For now, all he wanted was to get something inside his belly.

Taking great care not to wake the room's occupants, his legs slowly crept their way across the tiled floor, cringing slightly at any abnormally loud step he took. But the pokémon kept snoring soundly, and he eventually reached the doorway, triumphant.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, one of these pokémon wouldn't be so lucky, as the shadowy plague of doubt once again decided to cast its influence on a certain Charmeleon's mind.

"Uhm... Excuse me?" Flame quietly asked the guard, his paws resting on the wooden desk.

The Scyther jumped slightly and blinked himself awake, before his eyes flew to the Charmeleon in front of him "Ah! Welcome to the— … Oh, it's you. What do you want now?" He did not sound very thrilled to see him again.

"I…" he hesitated, "I wasn't brought here because of any crimes I committed, was I?"

The guard looked at him as if he'd just heard the most idiotic question in his entire life, and already Flame wished he hadn't opened his mouth in the first place.

"Listen, Charmeleon," the Scyther groaned as he attempted to keep a professional attitude, "I'm not sure what you're trying to tell me right now. Are you confessing to a crime? If so, then I'd be glad to lock you back in for good. I'm just a few arrests away from that promotion, anyways."

"N-no!" Flame gulped, "That's not what I meant at all!"

"Then what did you mean?" the Scyther asked.

"I-I meant to ask … If I'm…" he stammered, his paws fidgeting behind his back, "If I'm not a criminal, why was I brought here?"

The Scyther shrugged. "I think I heard something about a mix-up. Don't expect me to know."

"O-oh. Thank you anyways, sir."

"You're welcome," the guard grumbled healf-heartedly, with an undertone that read 'just leave me be'.

Flame was about to turn to exit the building, when a sudden thought crossed his mind. "By the way, do you happen to have some leftover food you could spare me? I'm really hun—"

"Food?!" the Scyther exploded, causing all the other pokémon in the room to wake with a start, "What do you think we are, a charity? Get lost!"

Feeling himself shrink under the stares of all the newly-awakened visitors, Flame quickly left the room, emerging into the sunny day outside.

Why did I even ask him those things? Flame scorned himself as he walked down the set of steps leading out of the prison building.

It didn't matter all that much, he consoled himself. Hopefully he wouldn't have to set foot in that place ever again. He stopped mid-way to process his surroundings. The long stairs led to a large square, surrounded by many colourful stone and brick buildings. Each was at least a double storey, and decorated by reliefs that sometimes stretched around the entirety of the structure. He couldn't see over their tiled roofs, but the vastness of the urban settlement wasn't what immediately caught his attention: it was the crowd.

All around the square, crammed in every inch of space available, were hundreds upon hundreds of different creatures, of all size, shape and colour, like a sea of bustling life. They seemed chaotic in their movements, every individual going on with their daily life, with no common direction in mind. Some flew high above his head, some walked, some crawled or slithered around; none of those species could he attribute a proper name to.

There, another painful reminder of his amnesia. How could he possibly not remember a single one of those species? He had to have seen a handful of them at least once in his life, right? He looked down at himself. His species was named 'Charmeleon'. That was as far as his knowledge went.

Ugh … Where am I even supposed to go? Absent-mindedly, he walked down the remaining steps and into the thinner part of the crowd, slowly drawing circles with his head in a futile attempt to study every single detail around him.

The fountain in the centre of the square, depicting some sort of scaly sea serpent that spewed a jet of water to the basin below. The street vendors shouting at him, waving their arms in hopes of catching his attention (why him, he thought, with all the pokémon around?). Distracted as he was, it didn't take long for him to bump into someone, a four-legged, black fox-like creature with yellow rings drawn all over her body, who turned to glare at him.

"Oh! Sorry, miss..." he said meekly as he backed away, only to have his tail brush against someone else.

"Hey! Watch where you swing that thing!" someone cried out from behind him. He turned to find an angry kangaroo-like pokémon with a mushroom on its head, what he could only assume where its children cowering behind it in exaggerated fear at the sight of his tail's fire.

There's too much activity here, Flame thought as he scooped his tail up in his paws and headed for a random direction, I need to find some place quiet, so I can try and make sense of all this…

A particularily thick group of pokémon was congesting one of the many roads leading out of the square, forming a living barricade of sorts. They all seemed intent in watching something on the other side. With no other immediate priority barring his curiosity from getting the best of him, Flame trudged on over to see what all the commotion was about.

"Stand back! Imperial Army business," a voice warned from the other side of the crowd.

Balancing himself on the tip of his clawed feet, he tried to elevate himself enough to get a glimpse of what lay beyond, but the pokémon in front of him were too tall for that to work. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, he managed to squeeze his head in a small viewing space in between two smaller creatures. There, standing guard in front of the crowd was...

Gaius? Flame gasped.

He looked better. No, it wasn't Gaius. While that pokémon looked similar, it wasn't the same. It had a much bushier tail than the Grovyle, and its body was taller as well as a lighter shade of green. Behind the reptilian, there was a procession of sorts going on as he watched.

Dozens after dozens of pokémon marched in tight formation in front of his very eyes, their stance firm and warrior-like. At some point, a blue quadruped creature made entirely out of rock stomped into view. It was much, much bigger than any of the petty pokémon among the crowd—its head almost surpassed the roofs of the buildings around them—and various spiny, crystal-like features jutted out of its body. He could have sworn that the ground shook slightly at its every step.

What on earth is going on here? Flame wondered eventually as he backed away from the commotion and tried his luck with another path, More importantly, where do I go now?

Various options and scenarious ran through his mind, but none of them seemed feasible enough. What would happen to him now, stuck in a city he had no memory of ever being in? Would he have to beg on the side of the street to get by? Would he die of hunger under some bridge, forgotten by all who passed—

He stopped suddenly as the idea finally struck him. Alice and Gaius. I need to find them. They can help me figure out what to do with myself.

There was a small part of his brain that felt the need to object: after all, weren't they the very reason he had landed in prison in the first place? Without delay, he clenched his fists reflexively at the recent memories. Right after saving his life, they'd brought him here, to this town he knew nothing of, throwing him into prison for some unfathomable reason.

They used me, and I fell right into it like a sheep, he reprimanded his past self, Who's to say they won't do it again? Maybe they don't even feel one bit sorry.

Flame shook the dissenting thoughts out of his head. But they're the only pokémon I know here. They could point me to some place I can stay in the meantime. I have no other choice.

Then, he heard it.

"Flame!"

His eyes lit up as he turned around and saw a familiar Dragonair in the crowd making her way towards him.

"There you are," Alice said breathlessly, "I've been looking all over for you!"

"You … have?" he raised an eyebrow, fighting back against mounting resentment to keep his expression neutral.

"Yes, I've been meaning to ask you if—" she suddenly stopped, a frown slowly spreading across her face.

"Oh…" Alice cast a downwards gaze, "I … should probably apologize first for what happened yesterday."

"Damn right you should," he muttered without thought, arms crossed.

The Dragonair seemed to reel back at the bitterness soaking his voice.

"Y-you see, it's…" she hesitated, trailing off as she thought of every word carefully.

Flame wanted to interject, but decided to remain quiet. As much as he felt inclined to explode in a flurry of insults and venom, he needed to know.

"Let's just say that me and Gaius are in a … very difficult financial situation. If we were to fail another mission, we probably would have lost our job. And…"

She sighed. "I guess there's really no excuse, is there? Gaius got the idea of using you as a cover to save our month's pay. We were hoping it would hide the fact that we failed again. As you can see by being here, it didn't work very well," her eyes darted away from his.

"So you expect me to forgive you? Just like that?"

"What I'm trying to say is: you didn't need to get dragged into this. He won't admit it, but I know Gaius feels the same way. And for that, I hope you'll accept our sincerest apologies." Alice finished, biting her lip and looking straight him straight in the eye, awaiting an answer.

Flame raised his chin up high, attempting to collect his own thoughts. Sure, she sounded quite sincere in what she said, and judging by what he had seen the previous day he had very little reason to believe she was lying. He didn't hold nearly as much of a grudge against her as he did her teammate. In fact, he distinctly remembered how kind she'd been to him, if not in stark dissent with Gaius. So that begged the question, was he ready to forgive them? To be completely honest with himself, he did feel a little irritated at having been used as leverage for the two's own interests. More than a little. It did not feel right to just absolve them on a whim. Even then, however, he would have to play along at least this once.

"You threw me in prison," he directed an unmitigated glare in her direction, "You saved my life, then tried to screw me over. Now you expect me to forget everything? What exactly do you want from me?"

"I—I wasn't the one who came up with the idea," Alice spewed quickly, "… But in a way, I suppose it's also my fault for not objecting."

The rising alarm in her tone surprised even him, as though she had felt his forgiveness slip away. Any sembiance of formality briefly vanished. No, her sincerity could no longer be in doubt. Besides, he did not have the energy to hold such a heavy grudge. Sighing, he finally conceded.

"Fine, then. I forgive you."

Even after uttering that, he found himself mulling over whether those words had been wholly sincere.

Alice heaved in relief. "Thank you, Flame. You have no idea how good that is to hear."

"So … what did you mean to ask me?"

"Flame," Alice started, looking at him hopefully, "Would you like to work at Civil Protection with us?"

"Uh?" he blinked, "Sorry? I'm not sure I got that right…" Was she being serious?

"Me and Gaius can't keep going on our own," Alice explained, "We need a new team member to support us on our missions. I know we didn't start on the best of terms but … would you like to be that someone? We'll help you through it all, I promise. I'm sure it could help you find out about your past, too!"

Woah, Flame thought, This is all a little too sudden for me. Heck, I don't even know what accepting this job would entail! Is it dangerous? Can I even trust these two? She's right though, it could help me figure out just what happened to me. And I do need somewhere to stay in the meantime…I don't have much of a choice, do I?

It would be a gamble; a leap into the unknown. Joining their organisation—he did not even trust these two! Yet to do so would provide him with food and a bed to sleep in, and this chance could not afford to be dismissed.

"Fine, then," Flame half-grumbled, "I accept."

"Wonderful!" Alice beamed, "It might be a difficult profession at times, but I promise you won't regret it. Come on, let's go! Gaius must be waiting for us."

I sure hope I won't... Flame mused, before he noticed that Alice had already taken off into the crowd.

"Hey, wait up!" he called out as he ran after her, "I don't know my way around here!"


Flame stared in wonder at his surroundings as he followed Alice further away from the square he had found himself in. All the town's inhabitants, buildings, decorations... it was almost too much to take in at once.

"You know, I should probably show you around a bit when we find the time," Alice remarked him when he asked just how big the place was.

The road narrowed and the number of pokémon around them all but plummeted as it begun its uphill stretch towards their destination. Flame did his best to ignore the nigh irritating amount of dirt and grime that covered the paved road in layers, leading him to seriously question whether the town bothered employing cleaners in the first place.

The houses all around them slowly disappeared from view, and, eventually, a big wooden sign pitched on the side of the road announced their arrival.

Welcome to Camp Tempest

Imperial Civil Protection Corps

Home of Task Force Aegis

"Here we are," Alice said as she briefly stopped to grant Flame a good view, "Camp Tempest."

Sure enough, what stood in front of them looked like some sort of military encampment, spanning the entirety of the barren hilltop. As the camp stretched wider, the large stone buildings in the middle gradually shifted to smaller, patched up tents that, to Flame's eyes, looked in serious danger of being carried away at the first gust of wind.

"Woah … is this where you guys live?" Flame wondered.

"Well, sort of. We don't live right here at the main district, but there are barracks nearby. The camp really isn't as big as it may seem. Come on, follow me," Alice said, speeding ahead of the new recruit.

Flame hastened his step as to not fall behind the nimble Dragonair. "Wait, where are we going?"

"Gaius said he'd meet us at the bulletin board," Alice explained, "He kept insisting that he wanted to check you personally."

"Check me?" Flame repeated, "What do you mean?"

"In all likelihood, he just wants to make sure that you're fit for the job. If I had to guess, he's going to ask you some questions about your combat experience and the like, and possibly give you a boring lecture about the rules you must follow."

Flame's eyes widened. "C-combat experience? But I've never…"

"Oh, hush," Alice dismissed him with a flick of her tail, "You'll be fine. There is plenty of time for you to learn everything."

Flame wasn't quite convinced with that last phrase, but took her word that it would turn out true.

Not much time had passed when they finally reached the bulletin board, which was essentially a large wooden panel attached to the side of a building. Its surface was littered with paper sheets, all of them featuring a description and a picture of various pokémon. Such was the number of posters that some had been stacked right on top of older ones, while others were glued to the nearby wall.

Sure enough, Gaius was there waiting for them, his back leaned against the stacks of paper behind him. Flame took notice of the fact that the Grovyle eyed him the entire time, an unreadable expression on his face. But other than that, he only showed signs of acknowledging his presence when they stood face-to-face.

"So…" Gaius started, his eyes scanning him head to toe, "You're Flame. The pokémon from yesterday, I presume. There aren't very many Charmeleons around here, after all."

"Yes, that's me. Sir," Flame answered quietly, quickly adding that word to the end. He wasn't sure whether the formality was needed at all, and forcing himself to show such respect to this Grovyle—the one who had locked him away, all for selfish interests!— revolted his stomach in disgust. But he figured it would be better to play it safe with his soon-to-be leader.

Gaius perked an eyebrow at the appellative, but continued nonetheless. "I don't even know why Alice bothered giving you a name, but I guess that makes it easier for me," he remarked as he drew a circle around the Charmeleon, mumbling something to himself

Flame was already starting to feel overly scrutinized when Gaius spoke. "So, you want to join our team?"

"Yes," he answered simply, trying his luck by omitting the form of respect at the end. The Grovyle didn't seem to flip out at him, so he figured he was in the clear.

Good. At least I won't have to give up my dignity for this arsehole.

Gaius hummed in thought, shooting a disapproving glance at his chest. "You're really skinny. Your ribs are almost showing."

Flame cringed a bit as he looked down at himself, discovering that statement to be true. He hadn't paid much attention to it until now, but the effects of his malnutrition were starting to become evident. "I know…"

"How long has it been since you've last eaten?" Gaius asked.

Flame sighed; instinctively, he laid an ashamed paw on his chest to cover it. "A long time … I think from before you found me back there."

Gaius's face grimaced slightly as he spat half to himself. "Of course, just what we needed … another mouth to feed."

"That's not a problem, Gaius," Alice interjected, "I can take care of that."

"Are you sure?" Gaius asked, raising an eyebrow. Alice simply nodded back.

Gaius shrugged in indifference. "Bah, suit yourself…"

He turned back to Flame. "Tell me, Charmeleon, how well can you fight?"

That's the question Flame was worried about the most. Even with his amnesia blurring the lines of what he could have been good at in the past, there was an unwelcome feeling in his gut telling him that he did not use to be a very capable fighter. He began weighing the odds: would it be best to tell a lie, in the hopes that it would go unnoticed? No, he quickly convinced himself, the fact that he'd been asked that in the first place was a big red warning sign that this new job of his would require a great deal of fighting—his inexperience was destined to surface one way or another.

"Well … not really all that great … I mean, I'm not quite sure actually—"

Alice interrupted him unexpectedly. "Charmeleons are great fighters. I'm sure he can hold his own."

"Well, thank you for your kind help, Alice." Gaius sneered as he delivered her a glare, "But I sure as hell don't need your word on the matter."

"Actually, you do need my word on the matter. If you tried listening to me once in a while, then we wouldn't be in this whole mess."

"Oh, really?" Gaius said, his jaw tensing, "Well, I did listen to you for once. Just look at him!" He jerked a claw at Flame. "He's hungry, he's amnesiac, and barely even looks like he could last two minutes in a real fight. What good is taking him in going to bring us? He'd just be a hog on our resources."

Alice took a deep breath, before looking at her teammate with a dead serious expression. "Gaius. We already talked about this. It's what has to be done. The two of us can't do everything alone. Not after what Ariel said."

Gaius looked like he was ready to counter, but no words came out of his mouth. Instead, he stood still, his eyes shut in bitter thought.

Flame wasn't quite sure what to think. Would he really be a detriment to their team? Whatever the case, the fact that one of the two members didn't want him left a sour taste in his mouth. What if Alice was just acting out of pity, and in actuality he was just being a bother? An unwanted, unneeded addition that was trying to force itself down their throats?

The stream of questions in Flame's head was interrupted when he noticed Gaius stepping towards him; a claw jabbed at his chest. Immediately, he tensed.

Gaius closed the distance between their faces, his voice close to becoming a hiss. "Listen, Charmeleon, and listen well; I'm giving you a chance. You're on my team now. That means," He poked at him again. "You will follow my orders and do what I tell you to do. Until you prove yourself to be worth any more of my time and effort, you are nothing to me. Is that clear?"

Gulping, Flame nodded his head slowly, briefly holding his breath as if the action would enrage the Grovyle further.

"Good. Now Alice, since you were the one who came up with this brilliant idea, why don't you enlighten him on how our job works?" Gaius asked, extending his arm to point at the sea of posters behind him. With that, he went back to resting his back against it, uncaring of the material he may have been ruining.

"Fair enough." Alice commented, "Flame, do you see this bulletin board right here?" She pointed her head at the object in question. "Well, you're going to see it a lot here at Tempest. That's what most of our duties revolve around. To put it simply, every morning the board gets updated with a fresh list of tasks or errands for teams to carry out. Most of those you see right here, they're usually commissioned by worried citizens who seek help for their loved ones. Missing pokémon and the likes."

"Oh!" Flame hummed in realisation, "So you're like a rescue team?"

"Well … yes and no. While we do carry out tasks one would usually associate with a rescue team, that's only one half of the story. There are also … other kinds of jobs teams can choose that aren't pinned here. They're set up by Intelligence, and more often than not are a lot more dangerous than the standard ones. I've never done one personally, but I've heard some stories. Expeditions to the Wasteland, fighting off the strongest the Scum have to offer... That's where most of our casualties come from. But then again, those missions also pay very well."

Noticing Flame's look of alarm, she chuckled. "Don't worry. We don't intend on doing any of those things. Even if we wanted to, it's just not possible for us now."

"Really? Why?" Flame inquired.

Alice's face drooped at the question; Gaius grew noticeably more nervous too. The Dragonair was the one to answer. "After everything that happened yesterday, our team got … how shall I say this … deranked. Those kind of missions—the well paying ones—are now off-limits to us."

Flame decided to stop asking questions. Though Alice's friendly behaviour suggested otherwise, he knew all too well that his chances at landing a useful job were hanging on a very fragile thread, and the slew of curiosities going through his head would put him at risk. Everything would clear up in due time.

"Okay. I think I get it now." he nodded simply.

"Good." Gaius said, detaching his back from the wooden surface, "Now that that's out of the way, we should hurry to the registration office. It's getting late, I don't want it closing right when we need it."

Gaius began to walk off, and Alice was about to follow suit, when she noticed Flame wasn't moving. "Flame? What is it? It's time to go now."

"Alice…" he started after a few seconds of silence, "Do you think he's angry because of me?"

"Who? Gaius? Don't worry, I don't think he's mad at you personally. It's probably just everything that's been happening recently. It can get to you, sometimes."

Flame was relieved to hear that, but the vow he made to himself forbode him from pressing into further details.


Before long, they reached the registration office. The modest room wasn't unlike the lobby of the prison he'd been in earlier: barren, dusty and unwelcoming. The first hints of moonlight shone timidly through the high glazed window cut into the thick, stone wall, making sharp shadows of the torch brackets and sparse furniture.

"Here we are," Gaius said, "This is where all the magic happens. And by magic, I mean bureaucracy."

Behind a desk sat the only pokémon in the entire room, a goofy-looking frog creature with a slimy red sac under his chin—Flame couldn't help but feel a strange craving to poke it with his claws until it popped—and a red stinger on the back of each hand. It was handling stacks of paper by impaling them with his stingers, attempting to make some order.

"Hey Myco," Gaius said, "Got a few moments to spare us?"

"Hmm?" the Toxicroak raised his head from the stacks of paper, before giving them a large grin, "Oh, hello officers! Aren't you supposed to be down at the square with the legion?"

"Well, we … something came up." Gaius explained quickly, "Ariel's orders. Anywho, I need you to register a new member for my team. Name's Phalanx."

The Toxicroak nodded, before crouching under his desk to reach for something. Moments after, he re-emerged, a long sheet of paper in his hand. "Here's the form. Who's the lucky one?"

Flame raised his paw, and Myco handed him the contract. "Here you go," the Toxicroak said, "Just sign in the blank space at the bottom and you'll be golden. Unless you really, really want to read it. But no one does that anymore, right?"

Well, I do, Flame huffed mentally. Holding the form firmly with his claws, he started reading.

By signing this contract, the undersigned hereby takes charge of all responsabilities associated with his/her position as a public official…

His eyes gazed over the document, most of it proving to be little more than uninteresting legal blabber. However, one section towards the end managed to catch his attention.

… agrees that the Imperial Civil Protection Corps cannot be held accountable for any health complications the undersigned may suffer on duty, including (but not limited to): malnourishment, acute back pain, migrane, insomnia, dismemberment, death. Furthermore, …

Flame winced. It must have been written with a worst-case scenario in mind, he thought—and dared not imagine otherwise; after all, risk was likely a trait closely tied to the profession (the contract in his claws stated that very clearly), a necessary evil that came with saving innocents' lives, part of a rescue team's moral obligation. It was only natural, then, he accepted, that they would warn a new rookie like him of what he should be expecting.

But, after rereading the same lines for the fourth time, he felt some chills run up his spine as he slowly considered the implications of what those words truly meant. For a moment, he doubted the sagacity of his choice. He could only really remember a day's worth of his entire life; was he already willing to put it at risk like that?

With a shake of his head, he forced those fears away. Yes, it was the right choice, and the only viable one at that. If he was to sign, he'd have friends to talk to, an entire organization to bring him back to his feet as he attempted to make sense of his life now. He'd be a fool to refuse.

Forcing his eyes off that paragraph, he passed on to the last few lines. At the foot of the document, just below a big blank space where he assumed his signature was supposed to go, were four big stylized letters:

S P Q U

Huh. Probably means something important, but I have no idea what, he made a mental note to look into that.

However, just as he was done reading the paper, his brain finally took notice that there was one small issue that needed to be addressed.

"Uh..." Flame turned to Alice, whispering, "Alice? How do I sign this?"

"What do you mean? Ink your claw, how else?" she suggested, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Flame looked at the ink container and his claw, and then back at the ink. Did he really have to do this? Let's just get this over with...

He turned his head to the side as he submerged a good half of his claws into the ink, hating every moment of it. He let the excess liquid drip back into its container and stared at his paw in near disgust, almost as if it had been tainted by the gooey substance. Then, in a quick motion, he hovered his paw over the document, before pressing it on the paper to imprint his 'signature'.

"There," Flame mumbled with gritted teeth, "Is that good enough?"

Unfortunately, the ink gashes were grossly off-target, covering a good part of the few final paragraphs. Myco stared at the ruined paper for a few seconds, probably wondering if it was still valid in the condition it was in.

"Erhm..." the Toxicroak delivered him an incredulous look and placed the paper somewhere under his desk, "Y-yeah, that looks about right. We'll have your badge ready for tomorrow. Don't forget to come by and pick it up!"


The moon had gained almost complete reign over the sky as Flame walked around rows upon rows of analogous tents, led by his newfound teammates. More and more pokémon were returning to their respective quarters, the tired look on their faces the result of a day's work load.

Eventually, Team Phalanx stopped in front of one particular tent. The front was pentagonal in shape, a wooden pole cutting through the middle to support it. The cloth itself was tattered beyond whatever beauty it might have boasted, barely held together by patches of different colours. Gaius slid the fabric to the side, motioning for him to enter.

He bit his lip silently and glanced down at his tail. One wrong move, and he was certain to set fire to the entire structure as soon as he stepped in.

"Uhm ... I don't want to accidentally burn the whole thing down." Flame pointed out, not entirely sure what he was going to accomplish by saying that. Would they leave him to sleep outside?

"Don't fret," Alice reassured him, "Your species' etheral fire is much less dangerous than ordinary one. Though do try not to brush your tail around too much, okay?"

Flame was only partially reassured, but it was just enough to convince him. Holding his tail tip up to his stomach, carefully shielded by his paw, he set foot inside, noting that he was still stepping on fresh soil.

"It's late," Gaius said, "Now you're going to eat something, and then you go to sleep. Got it? We start our work early in the morning, so I don't want to hear any complaints."

Flame sat himself on a stack of damp hay, which—one thing he learned today—he knew was going to be his bed.

He scanned every inch of space around him, lit by his tail flame, taking in the earthly smell that hung around in the air. The fact that he'd have to get used to calling this place home almost seemed alien to his mind; in fact, deep down he still felt like a complete stranger, both to the camp and... honestly, everywhere.

Why am I here? The question buzzed vainly in his head, but brought him nothing more than bitterness. He didn't have an answer.

Even as Gaius handed him out a shiny red apple—he remembered to utter his thanks—his mind was elsewhere, barely able to focus on the food. He churned through it in a matter of seconds, and the light aftertaste brought a small smile to his face.

"Did you like it?" Alice asked with a smile.

Flame looked to the side at his new teammates. The Dragonair was coiled up in her bed, while Gaius had just finished the last bite of his meal.

"Yeah. I really needed that. Thanks," He smiled back, not even trying to hide the gratitude in his tone.

However, she wasn't done quite yet, having caught something other than gratitude in his voice. "What's the matter, Flame? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing," he replied without a second thought, "I'm fine."

"You don't sound like it. You know you can talk to me, if you want." Alice offered, raising her head in a friendly nudging motion.

"It's … I was thinking. About home," he eyed the interior of the tent as he spoke, "About the fact that I can't even remember what it looks like."

"Oh, that's right," she muttered quietly, "Your amnesia. I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have brought that up."

"It's fine," Flame shut his eyes for a moment, breathing deeply, "I don't blame you. None of this is your fault."

A few seconds of quiet ensued, before he turned to Alice suddenly. "Do... do you know what it looks like down there? Down South?" Those words almost struggled to come out of his mouth. It was the logical thing to do, to keep some form consistency with the lie he'd told them yesterday, that he originated from the South; that way, they wouldn't doubt the veracity of his words.

Despite that, deep inside, he still felt rotten as he stared into the Dragonair's eyes. Those pokémon he wanted to befriend; so why was he lying to them so shamelessly?

"Oh, I remember the South…" Alice grinned distantly, her gaze gradually travelling upwards.

Flame raised a curious eyebrow. "Really?"

"Yes. I used to live there, as a matter of fact. Last time I've been there was … what, two years ago? Three? I'm not sure. Still feels like yesterday…"

"The South is just a place full of fat pricks who think they're so much better than everybody else because of their wealth," Gaius grunted as he searched through the racksuck on his bedside, "That's about everything you need to know."

Alice was left wordless from the bluntness of his comment. "Well … That's not entirely accurate. Sure, the pokémon there aren't the kindest around, but it's still a beautiful place. The blistering deserts, lush fields full of flowers, the stillness of the seaside … Maybe one day we'll be able to go there. I'm sure you'd remember everything in the blink of an eye. The things you see there, the air you breathe, you just can't forget."

"Maybe … maybe," Flame thought aloud, smiling lightly at the mental image she'd implanted in his head.

Gaius rolled his eyes and laid down on his hay stack, sleepily uttering something about shutting their mouths and going to sleep, before he rolled his body facing away from them. As soon as Flame saw that Alice was about to follow suit, he interrupted her before it was too late.

"Alice."

She lifted her head to look staight at him.

"I … I just wanted to ask you something. Yesterday, in that cave, you sounded like you knew what happened to me. If that's true, can you tell me? I need to know. Please."

"Flame…" Alice drew back, pity blossoming on her face, "Look, I can't be sure exactly what caused you to lose your memories. That was just an hypothesis I thought of on the spot."

"It's good enough," Flame's insistance mounted, "Anything would be good enough. I just want some sort of clue, something to help me understand."

Alice hesitated for a few seconds. "I just thought that, since I constantly hear all these stories about Scum starting to employ Psychics to attack our scout teams … Who knows, maybe the same thing happened to you. Maybe you were ambushed, and had your memories wiped away. Again, I wasn't there to see it happen." she caught Flame's frown of disappointment. "I'm really sorry, I wish there was something more I could tell you."

"Oh..." Flame sat in silence. Alice's answer rang of truth, sure, but if that was so, if he really had been attacked by these 'Scum', then why did everything feel so new to him? It was as if he'd never been in this world before, never seen its inhabitants or witnessed its geography. His psyche didn't have any evidence to prove it—of course; why would he? - but all this felt … wrong. Horribly, unnaturally wrong.

"You should go to bed now," Alice suggested caringly as she rested her head on her coils, "Tomorrow is going to be a long day."

"Yes … good night." he said distantly, arms wrapped around his knees as silence soon enveloped the tent.

Truth be told, he wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, to feel at peace with himself even if for a short time. But he couldn't. There were still many questions haunting his mind. He had succeded in keeping them at bay during daytime, when his attention was being occupied by more immediate problems, but now they'd forced their way to the forefront of his thoughts, demanding an answer.

Who am I?

He was Flame.

No, that wasn't it. That was just a name, and not even his true one at that. The question meant something much deeper: who was he? What was his identity? His profession? Where did he come from? Was his family worried about his disappearance? Did he even have a family somewhere out there?

Flame threw his head back, sighing in frustration, his shaky paws dashing cover his face as if someone was in danger of spotting the tears that welled in his eyes. Every so often his limbs would twitch as he fought to hold them back.

Why me? He asked himself, letting a lone tear damp the straw he sat on. No answer came. It would never come. Without it, he felt purposeless.

And so, he surrendered himself to his meager bed, letting the high tide of sleep sweep him away to a better place.

Why me… ?

Why… why…


End of Chapter II

Chapter Text

Chapter III: Diagnosis


"Founded on the ashes of the old Republic, the Empire stands alone in the eternal fight against the most wicked enemy of allignorance. The world's only sturdy bastion of civilization and wisdom shall not be expunged by the likes of barbaric fleas. They come to our carefully sown lands, spreading terror and destruction, endangering our citizens with their witchcraft; for it is all their inferior minds can grasp. As we have done in the past, we must rise against this newfound threat. The pax will go on indefinitely, and we will not stop until the tenets of our knowledge have spread to every last inhabitant of this world.

Long live his highness Augustus Adrian. Long live the Empire." SPQU

– Recruitment poster for the Imperial Civil Protection Corps, issue #5.


He lay battered as the bombs fell. Though powerless to act, he could hear everything as if it were happening in front of him. Through the darkness, the rumble of falling debris, voices, crackling flames, then a small explosion. Bones cracked and the bodies of the fallen hit the ground as the world shook. He heard alarms and gunshots and felt the dust against his face.

Suddenly, a door opened. Footsteps. A pair of arms wrapped around him protectively.

A voice. "We'll get you out of here."

Those words blurred into the darkness.


Gasping for air, Flame jerked awake. His heart was pounding his chest. Clearing the grogginess out of his eyes, he looked around him. He was in a tent, sprawled on a stack of hay and with two other beds strewn by his side.

Quickly, he remembered. He lived here now. This was his new home.

Rays of warm sunlight filtering through the cloth caressed his scales gently, helping him regain his bearings after the confusing experience he'd just lived through. Though he did feel slightly hot, he figured that was the usual weather around here, something he'd have to become accustomed to as the days went by.

… But he wasn't quite sure he'd ever get accustomed to what he saw that night.

What was that? He asked himself, baffled beyond words. It was a dream, that much he knew, all the available evidence pointed to it; he could distinctly recall going to bed the night before, and he'd just woken up a few minutes ago. So it must have happened somewhere in between. Only a number of disjointed segments came to mind; noises, smells, a phrase uttered by a faint masculine voice.

Who was talking to me? Do I know him? Curious as he might have been to find out, those questions were immediately discarded in favour of another one: Did all that have something to do with my past?

Was that a flashback of sorts, portraying what had happened to him before he lost his memories? While the question was high on hopes, the answers fell flat on their face. No, he quickly concluded, it was much more reasonable that it had been simply the work of his scarred psyche, a fever dream hastily glued together to try to fill the gaping void left behind from his amnesia.

Claws ran absentmindedly through the single straws of hay as Flame frowned. He wished that the dream would have contained some sort of revelation about his past, he really did; but try as he might, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there was some kind of link and still keep a straight face.

"Flame?" Alice's voice reached his ears, drawing his attention away. The Dragonair's head was peeking curiously through the entrance of the tent. "You're up already? I was going to give you a little extra time to sleep for today, but it seems like you've already adapted to our schedule. That was much faster than I expected."

As Flame stood up lazily, she slid the rest of her body into the tent. The first thing he noticed was the loot sack slung half-way around her serpentine neck, the straps fastened in a way so it wouldn't fall back down.

"By the way," Alice started, "Gaius passed by the registration office earlier. He told me to give you this."

Then, looking down at her rucksack, she proceeded to reach its flap opening with her tail – a process simultaneously clumsy and slow.

It took her several minutes of teeth-gritting and meddling with the tip of her tail before she managed to lift the flap and actually keep it still. By then, her face was already tinted a noticeable shade of red, the uneasy expression suggesting that she felt everything but comfortable right now.

"It's in there somewhere. Take it," she said meekly, motioning to the bag with a jerk of her head.

Flame complied unquestioningly, leaning forward and putting a paw inside the bag to search its contents. He found the object of interest almost right away, buried underneath an apple and some sort of shiny blue orb. Grabbing it with his other paw, he held the badge in between his thumb and index claw to marvel at its details.

A stylized helmet complete with a decorative crest was drawn in the centre, with letters circling the drawing which read: ICPC – Task Force Aegis.

"What does Aegis mean?" Flame wondered aloud, twisting the badge on its back.

Alice, most of the embarrassment on her face now shaken off, was quick to fill his curiosity. "Good question. To put it simply, Civil Protection is not an organization that abides to a central leadership like many others. 'Tis a conglomerate of various regional task forces, each of which has its own sphere of influence where it operates. Task Force Aegis, as you might have already guessed, is tasked with defending the northern provinces of the empire."

'Defend' it? Defend from what? Flame thought as Alice carried out with her explanation. He felt tempted to ask her, but figured that they probably didn't have much time left to chat—the thought somehow left him disappointed—and his many questions would end up dragging the conversation on for too long.

"… As for the word itself, Aegis is an Oldspeak term that roughly translates to 'shield'," Alice finished.

Oldspeak? As in, an ancient tongue?

"Before you ask, Oldspeak used to be the spoken a long time ago, and many of its terms are still in use today," Alice added quickly, "Interesting how even though it's found in almost every aspect of our lives, barely anyone studies it anymore."

"And you did?" Flame questioned, unable to ignore that evident detail in her way of speaking.

It may have only been his brain playing tricks on him, but he could have sworn Alice's cordial smile quivered for a moment. "Yes. That was a long time ago, though," She paused a few seconds, before clearing her throat, "Anyways, we should probably get a move on. Our team usually aims to be outside town by eight. You have a couple more minutes to get ready."

Flame spent those few precious minutes sitting on his bed, working out the last knots out of his neck and attempting to set his brain straight for the day ahead.


"Wait, aren't we going to… you know, eat something first?" Flame asked as Alice led him out of the barrack complex, "We're just going to leave? Right away?"

"Exactly," Alice answered plainly, "Even if we did have the luxury of being able to pay for breakfast, the bulletin boards are updated at the break of dawn, so every other team in the entire base is going to try and snatch the most advantageous jobs from right under our noses. The sooner we settle for a job, the better."

"Oh … makes sense, I guess." Flame frowned as they entered the main area of the camp, more and more pokémon rushing past them the farther they walked. Maybe eating breakfast just wasn't a ritual upheld by everyone in this town.

"As soon as we're outside, we'll see if we can find something to fill our stomachs with. Does that sound good?" Alice compromised, an unspoken invitation not to feel bad for himself.

Flame didn't answer immediately. For some odd reason, he felt many gazes stuck on him, watching his every movement, and it was becoming hard to focus on conversing with that one bothersome thought in mind. Looking around, he noticed a small group of pokémon staring curiously, before all unanimously averted their eyes as soon as they noticed they'd been spotted, going back to murmuring something amongst themselves.

Flame was puzzled to say the least, but decided to let that slide, assuming they had simply noticed that his face was a new one. "Y-yeah. Sounds good."

"Oh, and please," Alice implored, "Try not to mention that topic around Gaius. He gets all iffy at the thought of it."

"Alright. Sorry for bringing that up…" he said sadly, bowing his head, She had already done so much to help him; who did he think he was, making such demands of them?

"It's fine," she reassured him, "I know how hard it is to adapt, especially considering what comforts you must have been used to before losing your memories. It sure was for me. Anyway, let's take one thing at a time."

That answer did more than its intended purpose: it sparked an internal debate within the Charmeleon. Was it plausible that he was actually from this South, as Alice kept bringing up? It would make sense if his habits matched with the geographic area he had falsly claimed to have been born in. What if, from uttering a lie, he had actually told the truth inadvertedly?

Of course, he had zero evidence available that could prove the arguments of either side or the other, no way of being absolutely certain that it was anything more than a far-fetched theory of his, but it was definitely something to consider.

It wasn't long before the two finally reached the bulletin board. The problem was, though, that Flame almost failed to recognize it, so thick was the pandemonium of pokémon clustered around it. He couldn't help but feel claustrophobic, with so many colours and smells filling his senses, almost as if they were applying an ever increasing amount of pressure on his body the more joined in the fray. Almost everyone was shouting something at their teammates, and discarded posters littered the ground in what seemed like an absolute mess.

Gee, she wasn't kidding when she said 'every team in the entire base'. Flame noted sourly, sweat beginning to form on his scales. Somehow, Alice was able to carve a path in the crowd and lead him through it—he did his best to ignore all the pokémon rushing and cutting off his step, almost causing him to trip backwards. Sure enough, somewhere at the front of the crowd was Gaius. The Grovyle's eyes looked all but cut off from reality as he scanned every poster individually, mumbling something in resentment.

"Gaius?" Alice bumped his shoulder with her nose, hoping to bring their presence to his attention.

"Uh?" Gaius blinked multiple times and turned around, his eyes darting quickly between his two teammates.

Flame's brain barely registered his slight flinch, possibly because of an acquired fear that Gaius would automatically be mad at him for whatever reason; but his team leader was too preoccupied with other matters to pay him much attention.

"There you are. What took you two so long?" Gaius raised his voice, more to be heard over the chatter all around them than from anger.

"I was just talking him through the process," Alice answered as rapidly as she could, "How about you? Any luck?"

"Nothing…" Gaius groaned in frustration, "Today's another one of those days. Everything I've looked through is either off-limits because of our rank or it pays so little that I wonder what those guys who commissioned it were expecting."

"You know there's not many who can offer large sums of money anymore," Alice pointed out with pity, "We can't blame them for trying to get by."

"Yeah, and how are we supposed to get by? Working for basically nothing?"

It was then, as the two discussed, that Flame noticed something tickling the underside of his foot. Curious, he lifted it off the ground, only to find an old, ragged poster laying there, partially covered by dirt that he must have kicked accidentally. Who knows, he thought, maybe it could help resolve his team's current issue.

He reached down and grabbed it with his claws, trying to shake the grainy material off the paper. The poster was all crumbled up, as if it'd been discarded without a thought, and the corners were full of rips and tears, but the text was still quite legible. Holding it in front of his face and squinting his eyes, he began to read.

Yesterday, a group of independent researchers (headed by Dr. Elmore Breloom) has been reported missing after failing to return from an expedition at Treehound Cove. They are believed to be trapped within the local spacial anomaly. A reward of 12000 Poké will be handed out to any team who successfully investigates the site.

Twelve thousand? Flame thought with increasing excitement, That sounds amazing!

"Hey, guys," Flame waved his paw in between his teammates to catch their attention, "I think you should take a look at this!"

Gaius snatched the poster from his grasp, with Alice leaning to her side to judge its significance.

"Twelve thousand?" Gaius said uncertainly, "That's barely enough to last us a week…"

Flame drooped. How could that be possible? Such a big number, how could it amount to so little value? To avoid plaguing himself with yet another unanswered question, he quickly settled for asking Alice about it later.

"Gaius, don't be such a downer!" Alice remarked, "This is perfect! It's simple enough that we can teach Flame comfortably, and the pay is pretty decent, too. Certainly better than anything you usually see, isn't it?"

After a few seconds of silence, realising the futility of opposition, Gaius heaved in defeat. "Ah, sod it. I guess it's settled. We're going to Treehound Cove," he snuck a look at Flame. "Good job on…" Gaius suddenly hesitated, his face quickly reverting back to its serious state.

Flame was left disappointed. The praise of his team leader was something that would have brought up his confidence—especially with the snobbed treatment he'd become accustomed to. Instead, nothing.

Gaius crumbled the poster and tossed it inside his rucksack. "Alright, now that we got that out of the way, all we need to do is claim this over at the registry and we'll be on our way."

With that, they walked off to the very same path they'd taken yesterday. Flame was about to follow along, when he noticed something wasn't right. The exact words to describe what he was feeling were as though suddenly condensating into vapour, right along with the ability to move his legs. Weary of something not being completely right, his eyes darted around his entire cone of vision in alarm. For a second or so, he could have sworn he saw someone spying him from a distance, some sort of one-eyed ghost… However, it was gone as quickly as he spotted it.

What the—? he rubbed his eyes to make sure that it wasn't just residual sleep playing tricks on him, and once again saw nothing. His legs were still mobile as well.

I must be seeing things… he scratched his head. Maybe I'm just paranoid about everything that's been going on. But right now, I need to catch up to Alice and Gaius before I lose them.


Route 167

Before he knew it, Flame was outside. After catching up with his teammates, the process of validating their job had been ridiculosly quick; the Toxicroak at the desk, Myco, carried evident signs of the dozens of pokémon that went there ahead of them, and signed the warrant in a flash—without even reading it, Flame mused.

From there, it was only a short walk through town until they reached the city walls, and got through the south-western entrance. The guard manning it was the same Bisharp whom he'd met the first day, and although he let them pass without complaint, this was not without its fair share of suspicious looks.

And now, there he was, strolling under the refreshing sunlight along a path leading in the opposite direction from the one he'd used to first enter town—warmth which didn't last very long, Alice warned him, so he ought to enjoy it while he could. Overgrown plants spilled over the pathway's confines, spreading like parasitic wildfire from the untamed prairie nearby.

As they marched on to what would effectively be his first concrete experience of his job's true nature, his fleeting thoughts could all but shy away from what would be expected of him on the field. Already he assumed he would likely have to engage in some form of combat or another, but how would he or his reputation manage to go through that unscathed? He would be crushed, annhilated! A quivering thing he imagined himself, unable to strike a single blow against the enemy! Sure, Alice did reassure him that her and Gaius would teach him through the process, but what meaningful use would they find in having to drag an inexperienced recruit like him around with them, needing so much precious time and resources and giving back none? They'd sooner abandon him on the side of the road and try their luck alone.

It would have helped to know an extra thing or two about what to expect, particularly this 'spacial anomaly' the poster referred to, but when he voiced his curiosity all she said was: "It's… complicated. Too complicated to explain like this. Wait until we get there."

With the awkward silence between the three broken, Gaius caught his chance to lecture him a fair bit. "… and make sure to keep note of everything you will see today, cause there's going to be a lot of things to take in at once." he stopped suddenly, eyeing something on the side of the road. "Wait here. There's something I need to check."

Under Flame's perplexed look, Gaius proceeded to walk off the path and towards one particular plant—a tall and stubby shrub with bright blue berries hanging from its stalks, as well as some splattered by gravity at its base. The gecko climbed the plant with ease, being naturally fit for that kind of activity. Hooking himself with one set of claws and causing the shrub to ondulate under his weight, he used his free paw to inspect the berries within his reach. Some Gaius approved of and held in his palm, others he dropped to join in on the sticky mess that was the terrain below. Before long, the entire shrub was stripped of its precious spoils.

After jumping down, Gaius returned to his team, keeping his paw open to show the meager amount of berries collected. There were only five or six at most. "This bunch was all I could find. Most of the others had been spoiled for a long time," he held out his arm. "Now, take one each and I'll store the rest for later; we're going to need them."

Flame looked down bewildered at the small berry in his palm, not much bigger than one of his teeth.

It was as though something mind-blowing had shattered his perception of the world around him. Yes, Alice did mention that they weren't able to afford a proper meal, but—this! This could barely even be considered a snack, and they all were supposed to accept it as a full-on meal!

Perhaps he didn't really take his teammates' words seriously when they kept bringing up just how much economic strain they were under, hadn't understood the full extent of the situation yet.

Only now, staring at the berry in his paw, did he realise just how bad it must have been.

Is … is this what they do every day? Try their luck with the wilderness? He thought shocked and looked at his companions, which had by now consumed their 'breakfast'. Nothing in their features hinted that this event was anything out of the ordinary, nor did they consider it as such.

That must be why they want my help so badly, why she managed to convince Gaius to take me in! Flame processed, feeling beyond stupid for not having understood this before.

Nonetheless, he gulped the berry down without a word. It was surprisingly tasty for such a small fruit, a sort of bitter-sweet flavour that leaked a strange feeling of vitality throught his body. It eventually faded away though, and the three soon returned to the path.

He almost felt ashamed at the thought of how, before now, his only real aim to set his life straight, to receive decent enough food and shelter to keep himself afloat as he tried to search for clues about his past. How selfish he was being! No, he couldn't reason with that frame of mind anymore. It was his rightful duty, he felt, as a member of Team Phalanx to repay those that had allowed him to even become such.

Flame breathed in deeply. He puffed his chest and clenched his fists, setting aside all worries and insecurities about his identity and past. Those would have to wait. Right now, his teammates needed help to turn their lives around, and he was not about to let them down.

He couldn't afford to.


"…Oh, come on!" Flame nudged Alice for the second time in a row, sincerely hoping that he wasn't beginning to bother her, "It can't be that hard. There must be something you can tell me about these 'mysterious dungeons' or whatever they're called."

"Alright," Alice sighed in defeat, "I would have preferred to let you see everything for yourself, but if you insist. Mystery dungeons are a place where the laws of reality are … distorted."

Flame tilted his head at that last sentence, giving her a strange look.

"See, this is why I wanted you to witness it with your own eyes!" Alice groaned in frustration.

"Oh, nononono! It's fine, really!" Flame shook his head furiously, "What I wanted to say is… it doesn't make any sense. How can reality be changed?"

"Dungeons don't make any sense, Flame," Alice pointed out duly, "You're just going to have to take my word for it. Do you still want me to continue? We're not very far from our destination; I can see the forest from here."

"Please do," Flame nodded softly, unsure why he was insisting in spite of the latter point. Maybe he was just enjoying talking to her.

"Alright. Basically, dungeons are like their own little universe. Once you're in, you can't just turn around and go out the same way. Even if you try running in a direction for a long time, you will still be trapped. The only way to escape is to find the exit. If you don't, if you can't find your way out, you will simply remain there. Forever. Some say you become a part of the dungeon itself."

"Oh," Flame blinked, a queasiness suddenly intruding upon his stomach, "Wow … o-okay. Is there … anything else I should know about?"

"Yeah," Alice remembered suddenly, "Most of these places are bustling with feral activity, so we must keep an eye out for that."

"Uhm…" he gulped, "Don't mean to be such a downer, but this sounds like a place I would not want to be in. Why are we going there, again?"

Gaius thought it would be a good time to interject. "Because the two of us have already gone through dozens of these, and as such have some idea of what we're doing. Just follow our lead, and you'll be f—"

Then, out of nowhere, a gelid wind threatened to knock Flame off his feet, chilling him to the bone for the time it licked at his scales. His vision faltered, and everything went dark for a few seconds. But, faster than his brain could process, all light came back and the wind cut abruptly. Now he was confused and dizzy.

"There!" whispered Alice hurriedly, "Did you feel that?"

"The wind? Yeah, I did…" Flame answered slowly, "Why, does that mean something?"

He couldn't quite get his head around it, but he felt this ominous sensation that something around him had changed. Did it become dark all of a sudden?

Drawing a circle with his head, he immediately noticed that the trees weren't the same anymore. They rose much higher now, their sharp branches interlocking to create what was effectively a frail ceiling of leaves hanging above their heads. Some sunlight managed to seep in through small gaps, but the rest was suffocated outside, leaving the creatures below in a state of partial darkness.

Wary, he quickly came to the conclusion that this was not the same place he was in before the wind hit.

Gaius could only confirm his theory. "Yes. It means we've just entered the mystery dungeon. There's no way back now. Stay sharp."


Treehound Cove - 1F

Not ten seconds into the dungeon, Flame already wished he was outside.

The stench of decomposing plants loitered in the air, summoning forth an unpleasant feeling of nausea in the back of his throat. Even walking managed to feel like a chore, with the ground sporting large patches of this almost gooey substance that latched onto his feet.

This place gives me the creeps, He was tempted to say openly, trying his best to pinch his nostrils shut.

Gaius had spontaneously decided to lead the group ahead—he was the team leader, after all—and Flame didn't utter a word of complaint; his navigation skills must have certainly been superior to his.

"Alright, listen up," Gaius turned to Flame specifically, "We are currently trying to find a path to the next section of the dungeon. There is no way of knowing where that is, so we'll have to rely on blind luck to get there. Until then, stay behind me and keep your eyes and ears open. And for the love of Arceus, do not stray off the main path."

And so, Flame heeded the advice. Just like he'd been told, he took the time to inspect every minute detail of these novel surroundings.

Distant chirps and buzzes echoed throught the forest, accompanied by the occasional crack of dried leaves, and crisp-like roots sprung out of the ground. A branch tore off from the trunk of a nearby tree just as he peered up, narrowly missing his face and forwarding more than a couple of questions about the forest's health status.

"I get the feeling a tree could fall on top of me at any moment…" Flame remarked openly, keeping a small amount of attention upwards as to safeguard against any further incoming objects.

"It won't," Alice said, "Trust me, I've traversed lots of dungeons, some in even more deplorable condition than here, and nothing major ever happened. Well, there was that one time though … Actually, never mind. I'm sure that doesn't count."

Just as she said that, they turned onto a small clearing—one that actually allowed sunlight in for a change. But the feature that immediately caught the eye, sitting right in the middle, was a set of pure-white marble stairs that jugged out of the layer of dried mud and leaves, and extended all the way to a thick aggregatation of the local flora, whereupon it blurred out of sight.

Not very far from it was a quadruped, purple pokémon covered with spikes with its back turned to them, seemingly too preoccupied with feasting lavishly upon the bloody carcass at its feet to notice the intruders.

Flame turned his head away from the sickly display, and Gaius slowly led them to the stairway, a claw held before his nose to call for silence.

As she started ascending, Alice turned when she noticed that Flame was still on the ground, not entirely convinced at what they were about to do.

"What are you doing?" Alice lowered her voice to a whisper, "We mustn't get separated. Hurry up here!"

"But … why are there stairs in the middle of a forest?" Flame asked doubtfully, "Where do they even—"

At this point, the Nidorino lapsed out of its savage lust just enough to discern that it was not quite alone anymore. It turned sharply, flashing its blood-dripping teeth and emitting a soft growl.

Seeing little point in objecting, Flame rushed up the steps.


Treehound Cove - 2F

His brain didn't really have the time to process what exactly had happened, but next thing he knew, he was in another clearing, finding it difficult to sustain himself with both legs, and the stairway had puffed out of existance.

"What?! H-how did we…" Flame stammered and racked up his thoughts, trying to make actual sense of what he just saw, "I'm honestly confused. We went up the stairs, and yet … this is still the same level? We went up … and at the same time we didn't…"

"Don't know," Alice answered with a shrug of her tail, "Nobody knows. It's like I told you: mystery dungeons don't make any sense. You just have to deal with whatever they throw at you."

He scratched his chin lightly; to be honest, the whole deal with the stairs was a little too ridiculous to digest, though her words echoed of truth after what he'd witnessed just now.

Gaius coughed forcibly to catch their attention. A sly grin was burned on his face, giving him an air of smugness. "Hey Flame, since I'm curious as to how well you'd fare with navigation, why don't you lead us through the floor?"

Flame's pupils dilated in surprise, taken aback by the offer. This was it, he realised, this was the way he was going to be judged!

"Wait, I don't think I should—"

"Come on, I'm sure you can handle that! Hell, I'll even let you choose the way. Left or right?" Gaius asked, alluding to the two only paths leading out of the muddy clearing.

I can't opt out. Otherwise he's going to think I'm a coward. Flame's head snapped alternatingly between the two exits. Considering he didn't have the slightest idea of which way the stairs were, he figured following his gut instinct was the best option he had.

"Uhhh … Left?"

"Left it is, then! Onwards!" Gaius echoed, uncharacteristically cheerful.

It might have been his imagination, it might not have been true, but Flame sensed a tone of ridicule in the way he said that. Not letting that thought torment him for too long, he took the path back into the forest, with his teammates now in tow. It was with pleasure that he noted how the terrain was generally dried and less muddy on this floor, and that rendered walking a more bearable activity. Despite that however, the smell of ongoing decay still tortured his nostrils, and the general sense of nervousness brought by the dungeon still persisted relentlessly.

How on earth am I supposed to lead them through here? He groaned mentally, All I know about this place is that it's dangerous and it makes no sense. Making me guide them around almost feels like a way for him to make a fool of me. That's exactly what this is all about, isn't it? He knows I won't be able to do it, and he's trying to find a reason to justify kicking me out. So my permanence on this team depends on this, too!

Still, it could have been worse, he supposed. For a starter, he was simultaneously puzzled and relieved that they hadn't encountered a single wild pokémon yet. Was it a stroke of luck, or was it conceivable that in truth they were being followed, and the enemy was patiently lingering for the right time to strike?

If he had to guess, it was probably the latter.

Eventually, they found themselves at a crossroads, two smaller paths branching off the main one. Flame looked down each passage, but could not find any distinguishing features that suggested going one way instead of the other. He was about to take a step towards the one to his right, when Alice stopped him.

"Hang on. See those vines?" Alice said, using her snout to point at a plant he hadn't really assigned any importance to. It was a mash of green and orange tendrils jutting out of the ground, almost like an out-of-water algae. With its relevance in his brain scaled up, he began to notice that there were many others as the path advanced.

"Carnivine. They pass themselves off as plants, and as soon as you get close you'll be swallowed whole. There are too many to sneak around. I suggest we go the other way."

Flame nodded in understanding. "All right. Thanks for the heads up."

Alice shook her head as if to say 'Why thank me? It's a pleasure to help you out."

Although she didn't say that aloud, Flame was at a loss for words. Instead, he merely smiled back and proceeded onwards.

Now more than ever he felt the nagging worry that something would go wrong; he could already picture the scenario: he would do something idiotic, an action or lack thereof that defied all reasonable logic. What if his teammates were to be put in danger by his ineptitude, or even worse, the entire mission would end up a big, epic fiasco?

That fear would soon be put to the test; not long after they headed deeper into the forest, a high-pitched battle cry sounded from behind them.

"Get down!" Flame shouted and ducked instinctively, just in time to feel something something feathered whizzing past his head. Alert, he rose back immediately and looked around to try and get a visual on the attacker, with the help of Gaius' directions.

"Pidgeotto! Twelve o' clock!"

By the time he spotted it, the bird was already turning back around, its wing coated by a sharp whiteish glow. It took Flame a second to realise something: it was diving right at him!

Suddenly finding himself deep in terror, his first instinctual response was to run, but he found his legs sluggish and unresponsive. Then, as the distance between them shrunk, the strategic portion of his brain imploded spontaneously. His heartbeat was already fluttering wildly when he reacted in the only way he could think of—raising his arms weakly to shield his face somewhat.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Alice draw her head and summon a small sphere of electricity between her jaws, but he ignored that and squeezed his eyes shut; the feral would strike his body any second now!

An audible buzz of static filled the air, followed by a loud squawking. No pain came.

Flame uncovered his eyes to see the Pidgeotto flapping its wings like a madman, veering to the side ungracefully—it almost crashed to the ground—and just barely avoiding the second net of electricity coming its way. Staying aloft solely on its forward momentum, the bird retreated into the narrow space between the thick vegetation, disappearing from sight.

"Stupid feral," Alice spat to no one in particular, "How did it shake my thunder wave off like that?"

"Is-is it gone?" Flame asked breathlessly, feeling his body tremble.

"No," Gaius claimed with an air of knowing, "Ferals don't just give up so easily. Watch your back, it might try and attack us from a better spot."

"O-okay…" Flame muttered uncertainly, suddenly becoming aware of the kind of message his body language must have been sending. He straightened his posture and hardened the expression on his face, but it was far too late.

"And don't think I didn't see that," Gaius hissed in barely contained anger, "You weren't even trying to strike back! Listen, I think it's coming back around; one flamethrower and you can bring this fight to an end … Gosh, do I need to be the one to tell you?"

Swallowing his pride, Flame drove his feet further into the ground to try and gain a better footing. His eyes wandered to every opening between the trees large enough for something to pass through. The Pidgeotto would storm back into battle at any moment, and he knew it.

Okay, Flame attempted to soothe his spirit, I can do this. I remember breathing fire back in the cave, so there's no reason for me not to do it again … Yeah, blast that thing right out of the sky!

Summoning all his mental strength, he closed his eyes and pictured a small tongue of fire crackling happily in his stomach, swaying left and right erratically. He imagined the flame growing bigger and bigger, his eagerness to impress his companions serving as imaginary fuel. The fire had grown enough to fill his belly, and then—!

"Khwaaahhhh!"

His eyes snapped open. For a second, fear corroded his concentration, but he barred it from taking control. Facing the direction of the battle cry, he saw the feral launching itself at him with all its stength, its beak enveloped in white light. This was it! His snout parted, he drew his breath deeply, imagined the fire growing and raging out of control, until…!

… Nothing happened.

If possible, Flame was even more frozen with fear than before. My fire breath! W-where?! Why can't I…? Oh, fu—

A heavy weight slammed into his chest, and just like that all the air was forcibly sucked out of his lungs. His body was pushed back a couple of feet and was well on its way to performing a backflip when he slammed his back painfully onto the ground.

Dazed, he lay there for ten seconds or so, before sitting up as soon as he regained his mental bearings—what was he doing, only lazing about while his teammates were still fighting!

However, they didn't seem to necessitate his help. Even though a second Pidgeotto seemed to have joined the fray, his companions managed to dispose of them with only marginal difficulty; the first flew straight into Alice's short but concentrated burst of cobalt flames and consequently spiralled out of control, before plummeting into a nearby bush. Its shrieks of pain from being set alight didn't stop even after it hit the ground. Shortly afterwards Gaius managed to leap up and deliver the second bird a sharp cut with his leaf blade, slicing through wing tissue and bones and causing it to crash-land a short distance away. It scurried away in a trail of blood, nursing its disabled wing.

Team Phalanx was only granted peace when the first Pidgeotto's screeching met an abrupt halt; then, silence befell.

Sluggishly, Flame alternated looks between his teammates, and then looked back at himself. The wild pokémon's attack hadn't actually hurt him that much; the damage was confined to a shallow cut running along his upper chest, where his protected layers of scales seemed to have held strong for the most part. The gravest blow, however, had been dealt to something else.

"You useless piece of…" Gaius stopped short of insulting him, clenched fists seething with resentment, "What the hell is wrong with you? Why stand there like an idiot instead of using your fire breath?"

Flame felt himself shrink before his grievousness. "I-I tried … I swear I did, but the fire w-wouldn't come!"

"Why, I must have forgotten that you South dwellers are kept so sheltered that your parents don't even bother teaching you the most basic moves!"

"Gaius, cut him some slack," Alice said in an annoyed tone, "It's probably his first time in combat, so stop making such a fuss about everything. We haven't even cleared the second floor yet!"

Gaius' jaw tensed so earnestly that Flame thought he was forcefully denying exit to the stream of colourful insults stacked in his mind.

"Fine, you win. Let's just go."

Much to Flame's thankfulness, the stairs leading to the next section of the dungeon only required ten or so minutes of walking, rousing the hope that Gaius would transfer focus back to the mission and away from his actions during the battle. Yet, he felt the Grovyle's burning gaze char the back of his skull at alternating intervals, and couldn't help but wonder whether his judgment was already set in stone.


Treehound Cove - 4F

The next two floors went by relatively smoothly, a fact that seemed to surprise even his teammates. Only a handful of wild pokémon stumbled across Team Phalanx's path, and all of them were dispatched of in an orderly fashion by either Alice's ranged attacks or Gaius' leaf blade slashes. Flame would have readily been eager to throw himself into battle, even in the line of fire should such a risky tactic have been deemed necessary, anything to clear himself of his now-blackened slate.

Except he couldn't. Shortly after they gained entry to the third floor, Alice had addressed him personally. Regrettably, she advised him to try and keep a distance from any sort of fighting for now, and to instead remain safe in the sidelines while he slowly assimilated tactics and behaviours to mimic from watching the two of them—combat experience, she had called it.

He preferred 'nuisance control'.

It was clear that she meant all the good in the world, that her intentions were unquestionably benign. Yet he still couldn't help but feel like a purposeless fixture whenever a wild pokémon showed up, doing nothing but sit there collecting dust.

"So…" Flame started, munching half-heartedly on the half-rotting apple he'd picked as they climbed up a steep hillside, "How much longer do we have to go? Just how big is this place?"

"I'm not sure, actually," Alice confessed, "Dungeons are always shifting, so the number of floors never stays consistent. It shouldn't be much longer before we get to where those researchers disappeared. If we're lucky, the next floor might just be the last."

Flame grimaced in revulsion and let the barely edible apple fall out of his hold. He'd chewed on the parts that were still somewhat safe to eat, but the rest of the fruit was just too abhorring to even touch—the flies certainly didn't help with that feeling.

Why have I become so hungry ever since entering this place? Flame cursed the mystery dungeon and all its oddities, It would help if all the food around here wasn't already in a state of decay…

"Hey!" Alice exclaimed suddenly, "Look over there! Is that a Sitrus Berry?"

Sure enough, dangling from a poking tree branch, were about a dozen yellow, pear-shaped berries. Most of them were rotten beyond edibility, as testified by the colony of insects swarming around them and the mold that was beginning to form, but Alice had her eyes settled on a ripe one that sat on the ground.

"Holy Arceus…" Gaius said excitedly and picked the fruit up, "I thought these things went extinct! I could make a good buck from selling this. Or maybe save somebody from near death," he chuckled, as if not taking that last part seriously himself.

Flame stood quiet and didn't make any attempt to talk, and soon they were back on their course, with one extra fruit in their sacks.


Treehound Cove - 5F

"Uhhh… Alice? Gaius?"

Something was wrong. Just a moment ago he'd been climbing up the newest set of stairs right behind his teammates. Now, he saw that he was standing in yet another clearing, alone.

"Guys? Are you there?" he raised his voice, looking around in growing uneasiness. The only lifeforms acknowledging his yell were a pair of Pidgey that fluttered away rapidly fom their tree branch.

Oh, great, now I'm lost. How did this happen? They must be around here somewhere. They must be…

An audible stirring rattled a nearby bush, and the unfriendly face of a Nidorino peeked out, locking eyes with him.

Not intending to stick around to find out what it wanted from him, Flame turned around and took the nearest path, kickstarting his plans to rendezvous with his teammates. Just to play it safe, he made sure his pace was moderated to a sort of hasty walking, in the likely event that the Nidorino would interpret running away as an open invite to give chase and maim him.

Everything seems to be okay, Flame reasoned as he kept striding on the dark, muddy path, Alice and Gaius can't be very far. I just have to keep looking.

For a split second, he thought he'd heard a subtle rustling from somewhere behind him, but a jerk of his head revealed absolutely nothing. He shut his eyes briefly and forced himself to march ahead, repeating reassuring phrases in his mind and ignoring the lurking shadow that his brain was already creating of its own accord.

There's nothing there. It's not following me. It's not following m—

"Grrrrrr…"

It is following me, isn't it?

Not looking back, he sprinted ahead into the shrubbery that flanked the path, completely discarding Gaius' warning from the first floor. Crashing through all types of plants, Flame never slowed down for a good five minutes or so.

By the time he stopped, his scales were dotted with scratches and livids. Panting, he briefly cut off his breathing to listen for any possible sign that he was still being stalked. He drew a sigh of relief after a full thirty seconds passed without a Nidorino lunging at his throat. Wow … I ran really far. Somehow didn't start a forest fire, too. Now, where was I?

Paws on hips, he quickly noted that the intricate vegetation cocooned him entirely now. He couldn't have spotted a pathway even if he wanted to. Just how far had he ran? Alice's distressing words suddenly came back to him; would he end up lost forever, eventually becoming one of the primitive ferals that roamed the dungeon in the thousands?

Fortunately though, some of aimless wandering revealed that the land under his feet bulged gradually upwards, and it kept doing so the more he advanced. An idea crossed his mind: if there was a hill somewhere up ahead, maybe he could climb to the top and scout the landscape for his companions!

Flame harboured sincere doubts that the dungeon would lend him such an easy way out of his problem, but there wasn't much else he could do as of right now.

With a deep breath, he carefully peered into the rough path ahead. Crouching under yet another spiny branch, he noticed that there was a roughly circular hole cut out on the sloping hillside, almost resembling a small cavern. The ceiling could barely accomodate the horn on the back of his head.

What is this doing here? Looks like it's been dug out by someone. Flame thought as he stopped at the tunnel's threshold, holding his tail ahead of him to provide illumination, I guess there's no harm in giving a quick peek…

When he got half-way through the tunnel, a sharp gasp escaped his jaws. There, under the wavering light of his tail flame, was a Breloom. Or at least, what used to be a Breloom.

Its whole body—carcass, rather—was tainted by a greyish hue from head to toe, and patches of some kind of fungal growth were starting to form in various places. The eyes, almost too dry to be called so, lacked a distinguishable pupil. Strewn beside the Breloom was a rucksack not unlike the one his teammates wore, and a booklet laying cover-up with its pages open.

Dear goodness… Flame flinched his head away from the crude sight, Poor guy. I wonder if this was one of the researchers we're looking for…

Unwilling to fact-check that theory personally, he instead squatted down and grabbed the strap of the bag, before slinging it over his shoulder. If his current situation could truly be classified as being lost, he figured having a bag with possibly helpful supplies would grant him better odds than having none.

A quick inspection concluded that the bag contained some strange orbs and some kind of map, but the lid was sealed once again. He'd investigate the exact nature of its contents later, right now they didn't matter much.

Next, he reached down for the booklet. Actually, it was more of a diary—at least judging by the title imprinted on its cover: Foundation Record Log, Dr Elmore.

Twisting the journal around with one paw and bringing the tip of his tail closer with the other, Flame began reading. The most recent entry was writen in a confused, shaky writing, as if the author had been seized by a brief state of hysteria. Though mostly smeared, the untidy scrawl that could still be read wasn't any more encouraging.

theyll kill me I cant run theyll latch onto my head ascension I cant run they always latch onto the head ascension theyll––

After that, the entry was unreadable. Right away, a choking knot formed in Flame's throat. He needed to get out of there this very instant. All the psycho babble scrabbled down by the diary's former owner pointed overwhelmingly to there being something that threatened his (or her—Flame couldn't really tell) life, and a quick glance at the decomposing corpse equated to a compelling scream for him to throw everything away and leg it; he might be in critical danger right now!

Just as he was about to turn around and rush out of the tunnel, the light deriving from his tail briefly illuminated something of interest standing hidden deeper in the tunnel. It was an orange, insectoid creature, just barely within reach of his feeble light source to distinguish from the dirt walls. The foremost of its six legs were larger in size, almost scythe-like, and lumps of fungal growths seemed to have taken residence all over its carapace, especially near the two mushrooms that grew out of it. The creature didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that its cover had been blown; it just stood there, watching.

Flame stood still in uncertainty. The Paras, unsettling as it was just spying on him with its little eyes, didn't look like much of a threat, nor was it making any active attempts to assault him. However, despite that, the foremost thought in his mind was to get out of this forest alive and successful in his task, and he was not willing to offer his life up for grab, most certainly not to a disgusting arthropod.

Flame half-threw the journal away in his new bag and turned on his heel, hurriedly walking away in the same fashion that worked oh-so-well not fifteen minutes prior. Sure enough, the clicking of bug-like legs reached his ears from behind soon after, and already cold sweat started leaking from his scales. He almost felt pathetic for being scared of a bug so much smaller than him. But with his fire breath essentially a non-option, how was he supposed to defend himself?

Flame flung his body around. "S-stand back! Don't get any closer!"

That warning was little more than a vestigial action, of course. His words must have been little more than strangely articulated sounds to the Paras, of whom the chances of having any sort of meaningful intelligence were abysmal. Still, he hoped that showing some sort of dominance over the situation would scare it enough to let him get away.

Just as Flame held his tail up to grant him better sight, he saw that the Paras had leaped towards him and was already in mid-air, shrilling in a primal show of intimidation. Before he could figure out what was happening, the Paras had already slammed its weight on top of his cranium and covered his eyes, ears and just about the entirety of his head.

Flame cried out in fright and stumbled backwards as the Paras' foreclaws tried to dig into his shoulders for better grip, and some hidden appendage on its belly pressed against his cranium in an attempt to drill a hole in it.

Having lost basically all perception of balance to fear, Flame tripped on his own legs and fell to the ground, never stopping with his attempts to scratch or dislodge the Paras from his head. He began thrashing violently and rolling on the floor left and right,the pain from his cranium only increasing every second that passed.

At last, in a feat of desperation, the primal portion of his psyche had the good sense to slam his head against the wall. He heard the carapace crack open and its insides splatter crudely against the wall, squeezing one last screech from the drying bug. It subsequently lost grip on his body and fell to the ground, oozing a greenish liquid.

Flame rubbed off as much of that substance as he could from his head, but the strong scent remained nonetheless. He already knew, as he'd mused before entering this tunnel, that the dungeon would leave him naught time to recuperate; plenty of shrills answered the call to arms from the tunnel's depths, and an army of little legs tickling noisily edged ever closer. The entire tunnel must have been a nest to the blighters!

Wasting no time, he strapped his bag tighter and rushed out of the cave and into the forest, never looking back. Even in the thick shrubbery, the Paras were appearing in ever increasing numbers. They came out of every hollow tree trunk, every little hole in the ground. There might have hundreds, thousands! For all he knew, the whole floor was a Paras nest!

After what must have been ten minutes, but felt like hours, Flame entered a clearing, and a sweet sight embraced his eyes: his friends were there!

"Flame!" Alice noticed him first, her face alleviating in a smile, "Thank gosh you're safe! What happened? Are you okay?"

Not even the Paras back there could have ripped the smile off his face at the sight of them. "I-I'm okay. I think…"

"What's with that bag?" Gaius asked him, denying the monologue of how thankful he was that wished to stream out of his mouth on its own accord.

"Oh. This? I found it on somebody's corpse. I think it may have been one of the reaserchers we were sent to look for. The guy's journal said something about a doctor…"

Alice's eyes lit up. "A diary? That's perfect! Finally, we can get out of this place!"

"Yes, but did you have to wake every Paras under the goddamn sun in the process?" Gaius scowled, "And what did I tell you about veering off the main paths?"

Flame's answer was cut off by the sight of multiple Paras peering their heads out of the shrubbery, clicking their little teeth together in quasi-mocking.

"Hang on—you led them straight to us!" Gaius realised angrily.

"Oh, shut it! There's no time to bicker; the exit is nearby!" Alice hushed both of them, "Move!"

Flame couldn't have thought of a better plan. He didn't need to turn his head, as they ran, to figure out that there were at least a couple dozen Paras swarming the clearing and converging to their location. But the impending doom did nothing to erode their pace; safety was within an arm's length!

They dashed into a new, bigger clearing. The entire wall of shrubbery on one appeared to be distorted, shaky, almost like a waterfall with no discernible source above. It must have been the exit! Flame sent more energy to his legs to double his speed. Only a little longer, and he'd be—!

Green tendrils wrapped around his leg.

The sudden halt caused him to tumble backwards from the loss of momentum, but the brief second his eyes connected with the creature was more than enough for him to realise what had him immobilised.

A Carnivine.

The predatory plant 's head emerged from the earth suddenly while he tried his best to scuttle away, completely erasing from his mind the hordes of Paras behind that would rejoice at the chance to take a bite out of him.

Flame let out a cutting shriek when he felt the Carnivine dig into his leg, sharp teeth tearing through his scales as though they were paper and lacerating muscle tissue.

That was when he lost all control of his own body. Without even thinking, his throat muscles clamped much in the same fashion as when one is about to vomit, and a bright, scorching jet of fire streamed out of his mouth and toward the Carnivine's ample head.

For thirty seconds straight it kept up, until his breathing reflex forced him to stop due to the lack of oxygen in his system. Finally, he collapsed on the spot panting; the insides of his mouth burnt horribly and his head felt as if it were spinning wildly on its axis.

"Flame! Flame! Are you alright!?" Alice's voice appeared to be far away, yet she was standing right above him, trying to stop the warm blood that streamed from the tear in his leg.

Through his hazy vision, he could see that the Carnivine had been utterly pulverised from his relentless attack, and the Paras mob was nowhere to be seen, presumably—at least to what extent his limited mental capacity allowed him to guess—frightened away by the boiling rise in temperature and the scorching flames.

Alice soon abandoned her attempts to stop the bleeding, and quickly slung his arm over her neck to act as a support to hold him upright.

"Don't worry, Flame. You're going to be alright. Gaius, help me out over here! Before they come back!"

Flame felt an arm gripping his other side, and could do nothing further than press his head against the Dragonair's body for relief while they limped him through the last few metres to safety. He barely even felt the wave of gelid cold gripping his body as his consciousness slowly faltered.


End of Chapter III

Chapter Text

Chapter IV: Disclosure


"… Thanks to our increasing understanding of the world, this great nation has made a giant leap forward in the last few decades alone: life expectancy has skyrocketed, food is abundant for all, and poverty has essentially vanished. Key to propelling our mighty Empire is the enlightenment, whose seeds They claim the merit of planting in our previously unsophisticated brains.

With this powerful alliance, our nation can accomplish many great things. Soon, even the last remnants of brute barbarians that dwell outside our borders shall be eradicated. "

— Excerpt from the book "Our Benefactors", written by Royal Scribe Eli Kadabra. Sources of all reported statistics remain undisclosed.


The sky was tinted a soft shade of orange, which invaded even the top of those distant clouds, as if highlighting a portion of heaven itself. The waning sunlight brought some relief to an exhausted Flame, who sat with his back rested against the rocky facade of the imposing cliff side on which he and his teammates were resting.

"Hold still. I'm trying to be quick."

A cloth band tightened its choke around Flame's injured thigh, eliciting light hisses of displeasure through his teeth. Thankfully, the pain was fairly light when compared to the one he felt prior when his leg was being eaten by a rabid Carnivine. It had been like that ever since the Sitrus Berry they'd found back in the dungeon had been basically stuffed down his throat.

Alice soon finished applying the bandage, and smiled reassuringly. "There. See? I told you there was nothing to worry about."

Flame tested his leg, careful not to bend it too much. "Much better. Thank y—"

A grunt escaped him and he clutched his bandaged leg, a throb briefly reigniting his healing wound.

"Ahh-ahh! T-thanks…" Flame croaked, gritting his teeth, "But … will I be able to walk again? What if I can't walk anymore?"

"Of course you will! That's why we gave you the berry. The wound isn't as deep as you think; just give it a night's rest and you will be alright."

Suddenly, Gaius, who was a short distance away digging out a burrow for the night, yelled something to catch their attention, and then motioned Alice over.

"Hang on," she said, "I'll go see what that blockhead over there is doing."

Flame took advantage of the time alone to relax, something he was in dire need of doing. His eyes were glued to the dying sunset. It was a sight that differed radically from the oppressive darkness choking the mystery dungeon, one which brought peace and tranquillity to his weary heart. He noticed that his entire body was one big knot of tension; he granted himself a liberatory breath.

Finally, he was outside. He'd officially made it through his first trip in a dungeon, he'd helped his—

His smile crumbled all at once. Even with the many lessons learnt from the experience, there was one thing he'd utterly failed to do: help his teammates out. After all, wasn't that the whole reason they were giving him a chance, to prove himself a valuable hand in mitigating the burden of their labour?

During the entirety of their endeavour—from the moment he set foot in the place—he'd proven to be nothing more than a useless weight, demanding to have his hand held through each step only to cower in terror at the first sign of danger. Already his reputation was scarred when he nearly got himself killed.

He glanced back at his companions. They were chatting away happily, obviously celebrating their mission's success—no thanks to him. With the initial relief of exiting the dungeon gone, there was little for him to celebrate. In fact, he felt a sense of shame looking at the two of them like that, as though he was failing them, all that blind trust put into him for nothing.

As he watched, Alice and Gaius broke their conversation and approached him purposely. The team leader gave Flame a strange, almost conflicted look, letting out no emotion.

"I've dug out the burrow," Gaius informed him, "If we go to sleep now, we may be able to get back to town early enough to claim the reward. Can you walk?"

Flame bit his lip and sighed deeply, uninterested in answering that specific question. To avoid the subject would only be dancing around the problem, and that would do him no good, just as a time bomb being delayed by a minute would explode regardless.

"Guys," Flame started, his eyes sliding downwards, "Look, about what happened before. I know you were expecting something … more than a good-for-nothing like me, and I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about?" Alice asked incredulously, "You did wonderfully! In fact, I think we wouldn't have been able to complete the mission if you weren't there."

"Uh?" blurted Flame, caught off guard by the praise, "But … I barely did anything to help! I even managed to get myself hurt on my first day, somehow! How can you—"

"Oh, hush," Alice silenced him, though her voice carried no malice, "Accidents happen to everybody. No one is perfect their first time around, and we didn't expect you to be. Isn't that right, Gaius?"

Gaius remained silent for a few seconds, picking his words carefully. The tiniest of smiles escaped from its steel cage. "Our mission was a success. That's all that matters right now."

Flame was dumbfounded. "… Do you really mean it?"

"Of course! Think about it; the bag you brought back," she pointed to the object in question, "Wasn't it really far into the forest?"

He nodded in reply.

"Well, the fact is, all pokémon who want to explore a dungeon are taught to never venture off the main pathways, seeing how dangerous it can be. So in a way, if you hadn't broken that rule, we would be going home empty-handed right now. In that sense, yeah, I'd say you did good."

Flame was flattered by that comment, but at the same time found himself deeply dissatisfied with those mere words. The bag was found by complete accident. If it wasn't for his unfanthomable spur of luck, he probably would have died back there, inept as he was in battle. How could that possibly count as good work?

Besides, he could sense that their encouragements were a sugarcoating of reality, a way not to make him feel too bad—the tone gave it away. He could almost hear them say: 'Don't worry, you still have another try!' (or was it all his imagination?).

"So, can you walk?" Gaius asked, tapping his foot on the ground impatiently.

"I … think so," Flame said, placing his arms behind him for support and slowly rising to his feet. His right leg still hurt tremendously whenever he shifted his weight on it, but he could somewhat complement that.

How did it become so late, anyway? Flame rambled mentally as he half-limped his way to the burrow, We entered the dungeon at around … what, midday? I can't possibly believe that we spent so long inside there…

Truth be told, it really didn't matter to him all that much. If he had to guess, having witnessed just how much dungeons strived to differentiate themselves from normality, they probably had their own quirky time zone and physics.

Resting a paw on either side of the wall for support, Flame entered the burrow, his teammates already inside. The thing that struck him was just how far down Gaius had dug; he'd expected it to be small and temporary, perhaps ten feet at best. Instead, he found at least twice that amount.

"Uhm … Gaius? I mean, I'm not going to complain about the extra breathing space, but why make the burrow so big? We're only going to stay here for tonight, aren't we?"

Gaius seemed to distance himself from the question. "I know what I'm doing, Flame. Trust me, it's for the best. Go to bed now."

With a defeated sigh, Flame plopped himself down in the roughly elliptically-shaped room, pressing his back against the wall and tucking his legs close together as to avoid hindering the personal space of his teammates.

Driven by the physical and mental exhaustion that dripped out of his body like a wrung sponge, he curled down on his side, cheek nuzzling the dry earth and eyelids threatening to defy his commands to stay wide.

That's because he wasn't bent on dozing off just yet. His claws travelled to the bag that was still strapped to his shoulder, intending to rummage through its contents, something he had found no time for with bloodthirsty Paras hounding his tail.

However, his intentions were cut short when Gaius reached out with his arm and rudely ripped the bag straight off his shoulder, just as he was about to take the journal out.

"I'll be taking this, thank you." Gaius imposed, hiding the bag behind his form.

"Hey! I just wanted to take a look!" Flame protested.

"No way," Gaius scoffed, "I don't want to have you fiddling with our evidence. It's the only thing we have to prove that we actually carried out the mission and found the guy, so I'd like it to be there when I wake up."

"Why? What do you think could happen if I give it a quick read?"

Gaius' scowl was driven even further. "I don't know, you might fall asleep and light it on fire with that damn tail! Just … just go to bed. We could have made a lot of money by selling that Sitrus Berry, just so you're aware."

With that reminder, Gaius laid back down and rolled in the other direction, leaving a disappointed Charmeleon to twiddle with his thumbs. Flame grunted in frustration, his bitterness rising steadily. Why was he being treated like that? Was it a form of punishment for his screw-ups in the dungeon? And, yet, not one minute earlier Gaius claimed that all that counted was their mission's success!

Flame let his eyes slide shut briefly as the bitter truth finally presented himself to him, as obvious as it was disheartening: Gaius simply didn't trust him yet. To the Grovyle's eyes, he was still little more than an inconvenient stranger tagging along with them because he had nowhere else to go. He wished he could do something to change that fact, utter the right words to mend every wrinkle and tear in their relationship. Then again, there were so many things wrong with the situation he was in…

"Hey, Flame. Are you still there?" Alice's whisper cut through the silence that had ensued. Averting his gaze from the wall, he saw her look at him from the corner of her eye. "Don't listen to what he says. He just needs time to get used to having someone else around."

"I guess…" Flame muttered quietly, unconvinced whether that was truly the case. Maybe he was just being too negative. After all, she likely knew Gaius much better than he did, and as a consolation she did seem to trust him somewhat. Hopefully. "How long have you known him for?"

"Gaius?" she raised her eyes to the ceiling, rummaging through her memory, "We've been in Civil Protection for … I don't know, six months? But yeah, he eventually got used to being around me."

"Did you know him before that?"

Her voice was becoming heavier the more she talked, and she was starting to stumble on her words a bit. "Hmm? No, not really. The guy is still a bit of a mystery to me even now. I think he—" her speech was cut suddenly by a deep yawn, followed by her eyes blinking rapidly in quick succession. "Ugh … Flame, I'd love to keep chatting with you, but I'm really tired. Might just fall asleep on you if we keep going. Let's just go to bed, okay?"

Flame frowned slightly, but couldn't hold her fatigue against her. "You're right. I'm pretty tired too, actually. Goodnight."

"Oh, before I forget," Alice suddenly mumbled back, "Don't go outside."

Flame raised an eyebrow. "Huh? Why not? What do you mean?"

"Even if you can't sleep, or … if you happen to hear or see anything, don't go outside. Under any circumstance."

Flame rolled on his side slightly to get a view of the entrance to their small burrow. The veils of darkness had long descended to cover the land, and the silence was absolute, save for the occasional gust of wind. He could even see—hang on, he could see! They were completely exposed! The entrance was wide open!

"Alice," he said in a distraught tone, almost forgetting to suppress his voice to a whisper, "Are you saying that there's somebody out there that could come for us?"

It took the Dragonair a few seconds to reply. "…What? No, no, there aren't any ferals around here. Not anymore. All I'm trying to say is, if you go outside now, it's … dangerous. Just don't do it."

Flame would have liked to ask for further clarification, but soon after she joined Gaius in sweet slumber, leaving him wondering what exactly she was warning him about. Not that he was planning to occupy himself with any activity other than resting, of course; perhaps it wasn't anything to be concerned about.

Regardless, he too closed his eyes and curled up in a more comfortable position, ready to mimic his teammates.


Steam lethargically erupted from the boiling waters of the thermae, creating a persistent layer of moisture on the sturdy columns that supported the structure around it. Waning moonlight trickled in through the richly decorated window panes, and torches spread further light to every floor tile in the room, each one made of pure marble.

A single pokémon was partially submerged in the steaming bath. It barely even showed any signs of being alive, so entranced it was in its state of pure bliss. Appeased, she let out a sigh of content and threw her head back, careful not to scrape anything with the lengthy tusks that extended from either side of her mouth.

"Mistress Ariel?"

A voice chimed in abruptly through the Haxorus' bubble of tranquillity. The aura of bliss around her dissipated all at once, blending in with the steam, and she turned to glare bullets at the culprit.

The offender turned out to be a young Flygon, the purple band fitted round his neck identifying him as the head servant. Her glare softened slightly, but it was still sharp enough to elicit a nervous gulp from the Flygon.

"This had better be important." Ariel grunted irritably, not bothering to move any part of her body other than the head.

"Mistress, we've just received a new assignment request for you to give out," the Flygon explained briefly, "It's coming straight from His Majesty himself."

Ariel's interest peaked. "An assignment? You mean it's for those two morons again?"

"Uhm … It's three now, mistress. They took a new guy in recently."

"As if two weren't already enough…" Ariel muttered bitterly, "I'll never be able to shake them off my back, will I? No matter how much I try to convince that bloody fool, he just won't give up."

With a relaxed heave, she lowered the rest of her upper body into the relieving water, leaving her head barely above the surface of the water. "Go tell Myco to prepare the paperwork. This is kind of sudden, so he'll probably need some help. After that, report back to me in the morning. I will inform those idiots … Ah, maybe tomorrow."

The Haxorus was about to drift back to bliss land, when she noticed that the head servant was still there, fiddling nervously with his claws as though she'd rip his head off at any second.

"M-mistress? Can't you p-please get someone else to do it?"

Ariel stood blank-faced, staring directly at the Flygon while attempting to process his request. She always had been a firm believer that a slave treated well would work better than one treated poorly, but—this!

"It's…" the young Flygon continued, "M-my mate's been sick recently … I haven't seen her in two weeks, so—"

"Watch. Your. Tongue." Ariel hissed, every syllable injected with venom, "Just because you have a few 'enhanced privileges' as the head servant doesn't mean that you get the right to disobey my orders. You still work for me, remember?"

"B-b-but … I still have to finish my cleaning duties, and at this rate—"

"Oh, what's that?" Ariel said in a child-like mocking tone, "You have work to do? Then get to it, dimwit! Don't go crying to me about such senseless things! You're lucky this bath feels too good to simply get out from, or I'd gladly show you your place. Now go, before I change my mind." she flicked her wrist toward the exit to add to her point.

However, the Flygon refused to move. Now she was starting to really become infuriated. "What? What is it? Why are you still here?"

"Mistress, that wasn't all I needed to inform you about. There's something else. Another portal storm is forming along the south-east border of the town. This one is huge, much bigger than anything we've ever seen before. And it's happening right now."


Flame couldn't sleep that night.

He figured it would only be a matter of time until he descended into slumber; after all, the journey in the dungeon had sapped a considerable amount of energy from his body, and almost getting his leg bitten off by a carnivorous plant certainly didn't help support any sort of eagerness to remain awake.

Yet, he was still there. Tired, wishing he could drop the last weight of awareness chained to his ankle and be able to get the rest he deserved, but never quite reaching the drowsiness he wanted. It was an interesting situation, he mused; stuck between sleep and wakefulness, hopelessly exhausted yet still unable to grant himself rest.

After minutes, hours of shifting position and rolling to the opposite side, he came to realise what exactly it was that was obstructing his sleep. There was an unnatural feeling inside him. A feeling that just about drove him mad the more he tried investigating its nature.

Was it the sensation of discomfort that went with sleeping on the cold soil, or maybe Gaius' loud snoring that kept bothering him so much? No, it was nothing of that sort. He wanted to go outside. The exact reason for that escaped him, but the unmistakable fact remained: whenever he looked at their shelter's entrance, he felt an almost magnetic attraction to suddenly get up and rush outside, to do something that defied all logic—not to mention Alice's recommendation.

Curse … err… Arceus! Flame thought in mounting frustration, using that name he'd heard his teammates mention various times, What is wrong with me? Why can't I fall asleep? I have work to do tomorrow, darn it!

Grudgingly, he lifted himself to a sitting position, adjusting his tail as to avoid crushing it against the wall—or burning one of his friends—and booted his mental processes to try to find a solution to this dilemma. Going outside was out of the question; it would be in gross disrespect of Alice's trust in him, and, if she decided to give him such specific advice, needless to say there was probably a good reason for it. On the other hand, the burrow was beginning to feel pretty cramped—his friends were within feet of colliding with his body, leaving him with very little breathing space.

I don't get why we had to stop here for the night. Flame grumbled mentally, We could have just gone back to camp and had a decent bed to lie on.

The reason, however, was quick to catch up to him. It's because of my leg, wasn't it? I was the reason they decided to stop here, and now I'm the one complaining that they shouldn't have. Great job, Flame. Way to be grateful…

In his idle wait, Flame's eyes eventually glazed over the bag he'd taken from the Breloom researcher. The rucksack lay partially hidden beneath Gaius' shielding body, the top just barely sticking out.

Seized by a revitalised spur of curiosity, he slowly began extending his paw, every inch of movement carefully thought out as to not awake any of his teammates.

At last, his claws clasped around the opening of the bag, and the length of his arm now hovered mere inches above Gaius' rising chest. Flame remained there for a few seconds, cutting his breath briefly as he stared down at the sleeping Grovyle. Nothing happened.

Letting his guard down for a second, he reached over with his other paw and shoved it in, feeling through whatever object of interest he could find. The leathery texture of a journal's cover greeted his claws.

Flame smirked.

Then, without warning, Gaius rolled to his side. Barely managing to suppress a yelp, Flame dropped the bag and stumbled backwards, nearly falling on top of his teammates when his back very quickly hit the other wall.

He crumbled back to the ground. Now, his team leader was essentially blockading any physical access to the rucksack, trapping it in between his body and the wall. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Ah, screw you then. Flame groaned mentally, gritting his teeth as he reassessed the situation. He still couldn't get any shut eye for some reason—wasn't he struggling to stay awake not long ago?—and now he couldn't even do that single thing to occupy his time.

Back to the starting point, essentially.

And it was because of that reason, he figured, that his attention mechanically shifted back to the entrance that connected their isolated chunk of safety to the outside world. The wind hissed tauntingly at him as it blew by, violently ripping branches and flowers from their rightful place in the landscape. A sound akin to muffled booms could be heard repeatedly in the distance, further stirring a mixture of curiosity and uneasiness in the Charmeleon.

Something is definitely going on out there. But what? A thunderstorm? No, it isn't raining, that can't be it. That doesn't exactly sound like thunder, either. Maybe I should…

Flame rapidly swatted the thought away, manning on even as the strange feeling subtly tightened its stranglehold around his subconscious. I can't go out there right now. Alice said it's too dangerous. The wind is growing stronger, too. I can't…

Every word he jumbled out to his mind only fuelled his desire to venture out even more. And it was then that the realisation hit him; whatever was happening outside, it had something to do with him. He couldn't quite understand why that thought entered his mind, nor could he gather substantial evidence to prove it was anything more than a product of some form of parasitic schizofrenia that had infected his brain. But it was there, and he would go mad if he didn't attempt to find out.

In a matter of seconds, the sickening temptation swept over Flame's body, overriding any trace of common sense left in its wake. Before he knew it, he was on his feet, taking hesitant steps toward the exit.

I … Why am I doing this? I can't … This is a bad idea. If his muscles had any sort of awareness of the resistance mounting up in his mind, they were surely ignoring it, for his legs carried him outside of the safety of their shelter.

The entire world seemed to shift to a more somber mood the second he stepped on the grassy plain. Bristling cold soaked his scales and a flurry of leaves collided with his body as the stormy winds whipped his body savagely. Shivers ramified from the tip of his tail, where the ember was crying out in distress, overwhelmed from the sudden onslaught of air threatening to extinguish it.

But the hostile weather didn't scathe his vague resolution in the slightest; for whatever reason, he still felt adamant to find out what was happening. Anything that had even the tiniest sliver of a chance of being related to his past was worth investigating, he figured.

The first things that met the eye were the titanic storm clouds brewing dangerously close, as though a haze of tar-black poison that suffocated all lights but the one coming off his tail. With that in mind, it was fairly difficult to make out any detail with clarity, yet the shadows failed to hide the obvious fact that something was very wrong.

A tingling sensation began spreading through his guts as he stared at the carpet of storm clouds, not unlike the kind of euphoria one would feel when meeting a loved one again after a long time apart.

… What is this? What is my body trying to tell me?

As if boldly reaffirming his deficit of rational logic, he turned in the direction of the anomalous sounds, marched out of the small depression and on to higher ground, trying to get a better look at the scenery.

The moment Flame reached the top, he immediately regretted ever leaving the safety of his burrow.

The entire universe's fury clashed with his body head-on, and he was just on the verge of being picked up and swept away by the sudden gale.

Behind the tornado of leaves, tree trunks, and rocks being carried away by the weather's might, Flame could only make out darkness. But it wasn't the normal kind of darkness that ensues when there is little ambient light; rather, it was darkness in the shape of an enormous, spiralling blob hovering above the ravaged landscape.

Flame froze in a mix of shock and awe. On one hand he figured it would be best to turn around now and run like hell, but on the other hand he was tempted to get even closer to the strange phenomenon, perhaps—the thought crossed his mind briefly—touch it with his own claws.

Stuck between two conflicting ideas, his body unconsciously opted in favour of standing still. If possible, the wind was becoming even more ferocious each second that passed, and he could see the blob's 'shell' jerking outwards violently to expand, as if experiencing a painful seizure.

Is this that 'portal storm' thingy that Alice and Gaius were talking about the other day? Why is it here? What's it— Oh god, this is a bad idea…

He began panting out of sheer panic, but even with the gales raging around his weak frame, not a single molecule of oxygen seemed particularily inclined to fill the growing void in his lungs.

I … I should really head back… This is crazy.

Something stirred in the darkness. It was an almost imperceptible movement, like trying to spot a fly in a pitch-black room. But it was there. A red eye. There was something in the portal.

As Flame stared, one word emerged in his mind spontaneously. And it wasn't he who uttered it.

"Ascension."

That was the straw that broke his mind out of its stupor; without a second thought, Flame turned around and, aided by the favourable gusts, stumbled back to the burrow. Thankfully, his teammates were still sleeping. The last thing he needed was for them to find out that he'd ignored their warning.

Quickly, as if the storm was chasing after him, Flame dropped down in what little space there was left, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping that he hadn't touched or kicked any of his teammates in the process. To quell the uneasiness in his nerves, he reached an agreement with himself: for all he knew, tonight never happened. He didn't see anything.

This time, sleep was quick to arrive.


The next morning, when sunrise bestrew the land with its healing light, the trio awoke almost in unison—Flame being the last one to drowsily rise to his feet and leave their temporary shelter behind. Once on the road, the team nibbled down a few berries that had survived their last exploration, making sure to leave a few to spare. There weren't very many words exchanged as they hiked ahead, only some small talk between Gaius and Alice about something Flame didn't quite catch, and a few questions directed at him about his leg's current condition.

That last one brought his spirits up a bit. He was still a little unsure about this whole rescue team thing—not that he had any choice in the matter—so hearing that they still cared, in spite of his lapses the previous day, definitely encouraged a smile on his face (but did they actually mean it?).

As for the wound itself, his thigh had healed almost completely during the night, leaving behind only a small strip of scar tissue roughly where the Carnivine's teeth latched.

Traces of discomfort persisted in his gait, but he managed to bottle them up and ignore their existence as best as he could.

Roughly half an hour of walking later, the three entered a portion of the land that deviated so dramatically from its surroundings that Flame would have thought this was another one of those dungeon places. Looking around, he found the most accurate comparison to describe the forest's state to be that of a war zone.

Debris was strewn all around, as though a divine being suddenly got bored and decided to make of that particular spot his playground: chunks of wood, rocks; mounds of dirt and mud. Only a few lucky trees were left standing, most stripped to a mere naked pole. One could make out the almost circular-shape of the affected area, where virtually everything was devastated.

Looks like this is where that storm took place last night. Must be the epicentre… He assumed, and drew circles with his head to witness the aftermath of the storm. So much for dismissing the previous night's events from his mind.

From the corner of his eye, Alice and Gaius were reacting much the same, a twinge of perturbation lingering in their faces.

Nonetheless, the team kept trudging ahead wordlessly.

Although the path they'd been following was smeared by the remains of its former ecosystem which littered its length, that turned out not to be much of a problem, seeing as they soon reached the gate leading into Aesernia.

Or at least, what was left of it. Once the team drew closer, they realised that there was no south-eastern entrance anymore; the storm had butchered an entire section of the walls, leaving behind a heap of shattered stones lying on top of the dust from the smaller fragments.

"I think this is the closest one's ever gotten to the town…" Gaius muttered to Alice, exchanging a preoccupied glance with her.

"What on earth happened here?" asked Flame, even though perfectly aware of what the answer would be.

"There was a portal storm last night," Gaius said gravely, "You may or may not have heard it after I fell asleep."

"And that's what caused all this? Back in the forest, too?" He'd witnessed it with his own eyes! Why was he even asking!?

"Yes," Alice confirmed, "That's exactly the reason I told you to stay inside. Fortunately, I think we were just outside its range. Otherwise, we might have been gobbled up by it. Arceus knows what would happen to us then."

Flame bit his lip, unsettled at learning the dangers he'd run the previous night. That only spurred more questions though. Why did he feel so compelled to get so close to the storm, even start thinking that it might be connected to his past? Maybe it just was the paranoia messing with his head—the one that came with forgetting who you are and in what world you are in.

He made a mental note not to follow any strange gut feeling blindly.

Gaius resumed walking and motioned them to follow. "Well, let's see what shape the town is in. Hope it didn't get any farther than this."

"Oh, by the way," Alice turned to Flame as both walked behind the Grovyle, "Hope you didn't take any offense from that warning I gave you last night. I wasn't trying to imply that you're stupid enough to do it or untrustworthy or … something. Just wanted to make sure nothing happened to you."

Oh, come on! Do you have to shove it in my face like that!? Flame clenched his eyelids and breathed deeply through his nostrils. His lie was starting to come back to him. Now he was at, what, two lies he'd told his companions in the space of a day since joining? First, his birthplace, now his encounter with the portal storm. One hell of a teammate he was being…

Quickly though, he calmed himself, and uttered an answer.

"What? I don't see how that was rude in any way. Don't worry about it." It was true, however. That warning sounded perfectly logical in his head considering what he knew now. He really did fail to pick up on any possibly offensive tone to it. What was she apologising for, again?

The trio entered the town through a breach that cut through the mountain of rubble. Fortunately, their fears settled down somewhat at the view of what awaited them on the other side. The town hadn't been obliterated to a sorry heap of rubble by the storm—at least, judging by what they could see. Whilst part of the district closest to the wall carried considerable structural scars, and a few of the weaker buildings were standing no more, it seemed that this amounted to everything as far as material damage went.

"Oh, Arceus…" Alice muttered as she beheld the scenery, "This is bad. These walls aren't going to be rebuilt in a day. What if we come under attack right now? Are we supposed to set up a welcoming banquet?"

"Hey…" Flame tried to hearten their spirits, "Relax. I'm sure … um … Ariel is going to do something about this."

Gaius seemed more amused by his encouragement than anything. "Ariel giving a damn about what happens in town? Good luck with that. If I had to guess, she's probably in her villa, enjoying a steaming bath."

"Hey! You three!"

Team Phalanx turned collectively towards the voice, a large, mole-like creature with blade-like appendages for hands and on its head. Behind it, a multitude of tough-looking pokémon were working assiduously to clear the debris from the collapsed stonework.

Flame also took notice of a group of bystanders that had gathered nearby, watching the officers at work. The look on their faces was one of distress; they weren't really doing anything to help, but merely stood there apprehensively.

"Could you give us a hand?" Its voice was so gruff that it garbled some syllables together. "Those damn legionaries are taking their sweet time as usual."

The jumbled mess of sounds coming out of the creature's mouth barely made it to Flame's ears in the form of complete words, but even then it was easy to recognise what it was asking them.

Gaius held up his reply, eyes wandering around in thought. "Err … sorry, but … our buddy here was injured while traversing a dungeon." He pointed to the still-bloodied bandage wrapped round Flame's leg, "We need to take him to the infirmary right away."

Strangely, Flame felt a twinge of delight at being called 'buddy'.

The Excadrill perked a skeptical eyebrow, as though unconvinced at the veracity of the Grovyle's claims. However, it gave up with a frustrated grunt, and shifted its attention back to the task at hand—trying to shatter a massive boulder to bits.

Visibly relieved for managing to avoid the mole's request, Gaius seized the chance to slip away from the disaster site, his teammates in tow.

Flame rushed by his side as they swerved into the main road. "Infirmary? I thought you said the berry would heal everything!"

"It did," noted Gaius matter-of-factly, "I just can't be bothered to do all the monkey work."

Despite this being a very dishonourable way to win, Flame couldn't really find a reason to complain.


It was a short road back to Camp Tempest. After traversing the nigh deserted streets, Gaius decided to split off from the two of them to claim their reward. That left Alice and Flame the option to head back to their tent, which they gratefully accepted.

As soon as Flame entered their tent, he almost instantly collapsed onto his straw bed. After spending the night outside, it didn't seem so weird and uncomfortable anymore. His leg still felt unpleasantly sore, and the signs of his sleepless night were very evident in his posture.

"Whew…" Alice began, rolling on her back, "Tiring mission yesterday, wasn't it?"

"Yeah … I'd be happy to lie here all day, to be honest." A sudden thought crossed Flame's mind. "Wait, we aren't going to take another job right away, are we?"

"Hmm? No, we're not. The money from this one should last us a small while, so I think we can afford taking a day off."

A few moments passed in silence as the two recuperated their energies. Flame really wanted to say something else, but his mind was refusing to cooperate. Ask about his performance? No, no. Enough of worrying. Inquire something about herself or Gaius? That also seemed a little impolite…

Thankfully, Alice decided to continue the conversation herself. "So, how about the mission? What did you think of it?"

"It was … interesting, to say the least. Although to be honest, those dungeon places creep me out. Getting lost and almost having my leg chewed off didn't really help either."

"Flame, you must remain together within dungeons," Alice compelled him with a tone of urgency, "Fall behind even a little bit, and the stairway shall to send you off to a completely different place."

"Sorry … It's just that, I-I didn't realise…" Flame blurted out, his mouth curled into a frown.

"Hey, relax. I'm positive that with a bit of time and experience, you will glide through them like a breeze," she reassured with a warm smile, "Do you see yourself getting used to all this?"

Flame smiled back a little, calmed by her words. "Actually, I think I could. Can't say I enjoyed the endless trek to get there, though."

Alice grinned playfully. "You think that one hour walk and back was exhausting? Try doing eight. Treehound Cove is the closest dungeon to Aesernia you can get."

Flame rolled his eyes for dramatic effect, retaining his smile. "My goodness, I can't wait…"

As the two lay in calm, the Charmeleon's thoughts began floating back to the previous day's events. He remembered his encounters with that Pidgeotto and that Paras, and just how defenceless he felt through it all…

The only reason I made it out is because my friends were there to cover my back. Flame reflected. But … they can't afford to babysit me all the time, not after everything they've already done for me! If I am to be worth something, I need to learn to defend myself.

Flame shifted a paw and laid it on his own chest, as though feeling for his heartbeat. Gaius, Alice, I will work harder. I promise.

It was then that a certain Grovyle barged into the tent, holding his slung bag close. Judging from the triumphant smirk on his face, something was definitely going on.

"Oh, hi Gaius." Flame said, and sat up. His greeting went unheard, however.

"Hey, Alice. Guess what?" the gecko asked smugly.

Yeah, thanks for noticing me… Flame grunted quietly.

The Dragonair raised her head, staring at Gaius hopefully. "Did we get it?"

Expecting the question, Gaius smirked even wider, and pulled out a handful of coins from the bag, displaying them proudly. "Damn right we did."

Alice's eyes lit up at the sight of the currency. Gently, a joyful smile spread across her features. "I can't believe it … We actually succeeded! We got our reward!"

She then turned to address the Charmeleon, her voice overloaded with candour. "Flame, do you realise just how important this is? It's been so long since we completed an assignment, I almost forgot how relieving it felt!"

Flame shifted his gaze between the two pokémon. He only possessed a rough idea of which state the team was in before his arrival, but the look on their faces suggested that a huge weight had just been moved off their back.

Before long, Flame found himself sharing their joy, smiling broadly. At least something's going right for me…

The Dragonair then continued. "And a good part of the merit goes to you. I knew that letting you on the team was the best option for everyone. Not regretting the decision in the slightest."

Visibly irritated, Gaius's lip twitched briefly, but decided not to speak out.

That detail did not evade Alice's eye. "Come on, Gaius, you can't possibly deny it. We would have failed again had it not been for him. Maybe even worse."

Gaius rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. The jury is still out there, though." His expression stabilised, caught in the feeling of accomplishment that hung around in the tent. "Anyway, Myco asked that we pass by his office later on. So keep that in mind. Right now, I gotta go."

"Uh? To where?" Flame asked him, getting up on his feet.

"Err … I have a few … errands to take care of. Meanwhile, the two of you can go do something productive. As long as you don't spend all of our money, of course."

"Productive? Like…?" Alice inquired, confused at the vague terminology.

"Don't give me that face, Alice." Gaius said. "I'm sure you can come up with something decent. That's what that big brain of yours is good at, isn't it?"

With those last words, the Grovyle parted the exit with his claws and walked away, leaving the two alone once again.

Alice heaved a sigh. "… You'll never change, will you?"

She then turned her head toward Flame, shrugging. "Oh, well. No idea where he's going, but it's just us two now. Perhaps it's better that way." she joked, earning a few chuckles from Flame.

"So," she continued. "I'm not really sure where I could take you right now. Got any ideas?"

Flame laid a claw on his chin, deep in thought. Although the thought of just remaining with her in the tent didn't bother him at all, this was too good an opportunity to pass. There was an entire city out there which he knew next to nothing about, and had only really seen a few snippets of it. If he was to remain here for a foreseeably long amount of time, then he needed to learn a thing or two about Aesernia. Besides, who knows, maybe he'd find some hints about his past along the way.

Suddenly, a look of realisation came upon Alice's face. "Hang on. I just thought of a place that'd be perfect for you."


The building that stood before them was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous temple-like structure, its lacteous concrete deteriorated by years of exposure to rain and vandals. The sturdy columns that kept the whole structure from collapsing on itself looked worn and smelt of a variety of unpleasant odours. It was as though the building was desperate to keep its eye-pleasing facade up, even in spite of the obvious neglect.

From where Flame stood it was easy to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the caption that ran above the entrance:

COGNITIO EST VIGOR

KNOWLEDGE IS STRENGTH.

"Um … What is this place?" Flame asked bemusedly.

"This right here is Aesernia's very own Imperial Library." Alice explained with a pinch of pride in her voice. "As far as I've heard, it's one of the few scattered about the northern provinces. You're very lucky to have ended up in this town in particular, you know that?"

"Oh. Yeah, I guess so." Flame muttered, "Not meaning to sound rude, but what exactly are we here for? Something you need to look into?"

She looked at him as if he was missing the point entirely. "No, Flame. We're here for you." she jerked her tail in his direction for added effect.

"Wait, are you saying…"

"Exactly. See, the thought of your amnesia crossed my mind, and how horrible it must feel not knowing anything, so … you know, I figured this would be a good place to commence your recovery."

Of course! It was such an obvious solution! Instead of sitting around moping about his current state of mind, why not try to do something about it? And what better way to achieve that goal than via pre-existing written records?

Sadly, the chances of unearthing fragments of his past by doing such research were abysmal, he mused with a small sense of irritation. Yet, it would prove a great opportunity to learn about the world he was in, knowledge that he absolutely needed right now.

"Wow … You're right, I never thought of something like this! But…" A sense of unnerving discomfort took over him. Who was he to receive all this undeserved guidance? Perhaps it wasn't right to force Alice to pour so much time and energy into helping him—surely she had better things to do.

"Alice, you don't have to stay here if—"

"Come on, let's head inside." she shrugged his concerns effortlessly, finally convincing him to follow.

Inside, the library didn't look quite as run down as it did on the front; beyond the modest atrium, the only features present were the rows after rows of tall wooden bookshelves, most of which were only partially filled with books. Bright blue orbs were affixed to the ceiling to act as a lighting source. As Flame and Alice explored its many lanes, the wooden floor boards groaning under the strain of their weight, the occasional visitor could be seen wandering around, or sat at one of many tables.

Alice bore a concentrated look on her face. "Let's see, I think it was … there." she said after a small pause, pointing her snout at a particular bookshelf to their right.

Flame quietly walked over to it, and began scanning the titles impressed on each book's spine. The covers were discoloured and slightly torn, yet somehow managed to hold the yellowed paper together. What now? He asked himself. There must have been at least fifty books in that bookshelf alone!

Unsure of what to do, he peeked behind him for a moment, looking for Alice. However, the Dragonair was slithering off to another section of the library, delivering him a few last words before disappearing from sight.

"See if you can find anything that looks interesting, okay?" Alice suggested. "Just let me grab something, and I'll head right back to you."

Fine. Guess I'll just have to look through each one then… She must have chosen this shelf for a reason, after all. Flame supposed, extending his arm to buckle the dusty books out of place and judge their helpfulness. His eyes glazed over a few titles.

'Our Benefactors' sounded intriguing, but he didn't have the luxury to read for leisure, so he placed it back into its slot.

After a whole line of uninteresting titles, he caught another one. 'The Kingdom, the Republic, and the Empire: the history of our great nation.'

Flame's interest peaked: this actually looked informative! He attempted to extract the volume from its position, but then noticed with alarm that its pages were bloated so thick that it would have looked more proper at a construction site.

This is way too long, I can't possibly read it all. There must be something simpler… he thought with a sort of vague distaste, looking back at the twenty-something texts he'd already inspected. None of them looked remotely like what he was looking for.

Thankfully, fortune seemed to be on his side for once. After a bit of disoriented lingering, his digits came to rest on a particular book, its title inscribed on a slightly bleached cover.

'Encyclopedia of the species: a brief overview of every Pokémon.'

Curious, he slid it out of the bookshelf and held it in his paws to get a closer look at it. It certainly felt heavy, not a surprise considering its slight bulk. But his interest was too great to put it away; a compendium of all the world's species was something he fancied a lot right now.

Beside, he didn't have to read it all in one go. For right now, he could just take a look at the sections that mattered the most to his cause.

Taking a seat at the ruggedly carved table, he laid the heavy book down and opened its pages at a random point. What his eyes were greeted with was about three pages of text dedicated to a family of living rocks with arms and faces, and an image detailing each one of them.

Overlooking the sheer bizarreness of those creatures, he wondered what entry he should take a look at first. Maybe he could look at the Dragonair entry, or the Grovyle one, to find out what his teammates were capable of, or perhaps that creepy Paras bug…

… Or maybe he could use it to learn more about himself.

The idea emerged in Flame's head all of a sudden, one so glaringly obvious that he remained puzzled as to why it hadn't been the first one to cross his mind. He basically knew nothing about how his own anatomy worked. His body. The same one he'd supposedly been stuck with for the entire duration of his life. His ability to breathe fire, just about the only fact he knew about himself, only came to his attention entirely by accident.

Ever since I lost my memories, I don't know who I am, what I am, nor how my body functions. It's a miracle I remembered how to breathe… Flame huffed as he turned the pages toward the beginning of the book, hoping that the entries would be kept in an alphabetical order. Strangely, that was only partially the case. Much to complicate everything, pokémon were being ordered by both type and name.

After skimping past seemingly infinite pages in the fire type category, his mouth curled into an excited grin when he finally found the entry for Charmeleons. The account began with several images of individuals very much like him, hereupon depicted engaging in various activities and at different angles.

True to its title, the description for his species didn't quite go into molecular detail about everything. As such, Flame had an easier time taking in all its droning, eager to hold a certainty he could cling to.

Among other things, it stated how the fire on top of his tail was essentially his life force, and that he ought to be extremely careful not to extinguish it forcefully. Submerging it in water, for example, would lead to feelings of extreme pain, hypothermia, loss of consciousness, and eventually—a shiver ran up his spine—death.

Don't go swimming. Point taken.

He read and reread each word until he could be sure they'd been assimilated into his head—perhaps lingering a little too long in the 'Reproduction' segment—and just then, he heard Alice return behind him.

Flame turned around, a paw covering the pictures on the page he'd been reading. The Dragonair was holding a roll of paper in the corner of her mouth, but looked as though she'd already done it a thousand times.

"Hope I didn't take too long," she spoke fluently, passing next to the table, scrutinising the open book. "What are you reading?"

Flame elaborated an answer quickly and shut the encyclopedia. "Uh, nothing. I was just … reading about Charmeleons, and what they—well, I am able to do. Thought it would be useful to know."

"That's not a bad idea," Alice commented, shifting the roll of paper with her jaw to keep it in place. "Learning a bit about your own species should help you regain some sense of identity, not to mention battle prowess. Anything about fire attacks in there?"

"No, the book is kind of vague about that subject. It says here that my species is adept at breathing fire since birth, but that doesn't really help me much." He stared at her for a moment, reflecting. "Maybe I have a dysfunction of some kind… ?"

Alice laughed lightly, almost as to point out the absurdness of his fears. "Oh, don't be silly. The chances of that are minuscule. If I had to bet, you're just being too nervous for your own good. Now, check out what I got you here."

With that, Alice tilted her maw slightly and let the paper roll land on the table; then she unfurled it carefully with the tip of her tail.

Only for a second did Flame stare weirdly at her awkward movements, but it was more than enough for her eye to catch on.

"What?" she asked with a blend of irritation and annoyance in her voice, "I don't have paws, in case you didn't notice."

Realising his tactlessness, he nodded in apology and lowered his eyes to the table. Spread across its surface was a fair sized map, representing the outline of a rugged peninsula enclosed by the sea on all but one side. More or less small islands littered the southern coastline, while a tall mountain range, acting as a natural barrier of sorts, ran along the peninsula's only land border. The edges of the map were ripped and torn slightly from use.

"Alright, so," Alice drew a breath, foreboding a long speech, "Seeing as there is always a chance that our job may require us to travel far and wide, it would do you good to learn about the geography of the Empire. For a start, see if you can find Urbe on the map. Bet you can do it in under five seconds."

Indeed, it was not difficult to locate the settlement. Especially since it was the largest and most prominent on the map.

"This one?" Flame tapped a claw on the spot.

"Exactly. Urbe is the capital of the Empire, centre of knowledge and the fine arts. 'Tis the richest and most populated city in our lands, some say the world. Aesernia looks like a tiny hamlet in comparison; trust me, I lived there for most of my life."

"You lived in Urbe?" Flame asked, enchanted by her description of the city, "How was it? And why move over here?"

Alice sharply ignored those questions, acting as though she hadn't even heard him—though a strange glimmer in her eyes and a sudden rigidness in her stance suggested otherwise. Before he could start worrying about whether he said something wrong, her friendly expression came back within seconds.

"Anyway, memorise all the major cities and dungeons you see there. I want this map burnt into your brain by the end of the week." she added jokingly, her tone feigning severity.

Flame decided to let those questions hang, and did just as advised, starting in the south of the peninsula and moving upward. The major settlements of Portus, Urbe and Agia Marina met the eye among many others, as well as a few mystery dungeons scattered along the coast or on one of the many isles. The number of cities dwindled as one travelled north, instead replaced by a much higher concentration of mystery dungeons. And up there, sitting on a lonely stretch of plains, was Aesernia.

"Uh, Alice…" Flame started, having just noticed something odd. "Why is the land up there so hazy?"

His claw pointed to the stretch of earth extending beyond the northern mountains, where the map's author had seemingly drawn clouds to obscure the area. Yet confusingly it was part of a greater landmass, seeing as there quite clearly wasn't any ocean there.

Alice checked behind her before addressing his question. "Flame, that place is what we refer to as 'the wasteland'. The reason it's obscured is quite simple: no one knows what it looks like, or what territories lie beyond our border. Obviously, we know that there is something out there, but the hordes of Scum roaming the area make any attempt at exploration suicidal."

Flame turned in his seat, facing Alice directly. "What's with these Scum? You keep mentioning them, but I haven't the slightest idea of who or what they are."

Seeing as the Dragonair was staring at him pensively, he nervously added: "If … if you wouldn't mind explaining, of course."

Alice shook her head. "It's fine. You deserve to know, especially with all that's been going on lately. It all started a year ago. One day, we lost contact with some of our northernmost settlements. Messages and caravans of silver from the nearby mines stopped flowing all of a sudden, so Civil Protection assembled a rescue team to scour the towns and figure out what was wrong."

"And? What happened there?" Flame asked, curious to find out what kind of individuals might have been behind his amnesia.

"They never saw it coming. Turns out, a massive army had razed the towns to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants, and proceeded to do the same with the rescue team. A few survivors managed to turn back, and news spread of the incident. As you can imagine, it was quite a shock at the time, and although a legion quickly beat them back from the towns, ever since then … they just keep coming. Attacks are a daily occurrence now… But I'm sure things will get better."

Flame hummed quietly, soaking up all the information. Albeit the news were certainly unsettling, he still cracked a smile—chiefly in order to appreciate that he'd learnt something useful that day. For once, he felt as though he possessed some small amount of control over the overwhelming troubles plaguing him. It did naught to help him figure out his past, but it was something.

After a few moments of silence, Flame spoke up. "Hey, so, I was just thinking … Thanks for bringing me here." he said softly, fiddling with his claws as he looked at Alice, "I feel like this is really helping me out. Could … could we come back some other time?"

"Certainly. I'll try to bring you here whenever our mission schedule allows for it." A sudden grin crossed the Dragonair's face. "Oh, by the way, I think I remember seeing an image book about Urbe and the south in another section. Want to see what home looks like?"

Flame's expression faltered. Seconds passed in silence as the two exchanged blank stares.

"Uh? Did I say something wrong?" asked Alice, puzzled at his shift in behaviour, "Look, if you want to stay here some more, that's fine. I was just making a suggestion…"

"N-no! That's … that's not what…" Flame struggled to protest, leaving his paw hovering in mid air.

His eyes began looking everywhere but into hers, as though direct contact would betray the misgivings churning at his insides. With the mere mention of the word 'home', it suddenly occurred to him just how slickly the lie he'd fed his teammates was assimilated as truth. All because he'd been too scared of his leader that first day to answer honestly.

But now, regardless of how Flame felt about it, both she and Gaius seemed to genuinely believe that he was born in the south. For reasons he couldn't fathom, they trusted him enough to take his word for it. Dangerous connotations arose with that thought: could he mold an image to his favour simply by telling them lies? It would certainly make life much easier for him, especially now that he was learning bits and pieces about the world around him. That way, just maybe, he could avoid uttering the wrong thing at the wrong time, possibly infuriate his teammates, lose the only pokémon he could rely on…

Not one second after those thoughts wandered into his head, a tremendous guilt forced them back out. These were his friends! Why on earth were ideas of somehow manipulating his first and only friends even entering his brain? After everything the two had done to give him a chance at life, was this how he would pay them back?

It was madness, sure, but—the realisation suddenly sprouted in his mind—what else could he do? Walk up to them and confess that he'd actually lied about his birthplace? That would incinerate all of the precarious bridges that he was starting to form with his teammates, and he'd be back at square one.

My options are twofold. If I were to inform them of the truth almost exclusively, then I run the risk of doing something horribly wrong and lose them forever; but if I lie to keep them on my good side and they find out, then everything will fall apart just the same…

A few moments later, the Charmeleon regained just enough external awareness to notice that Alice was staring at him in alarm. Absorbed as he was in his morbid thoughts, this must have reflected on his expression of conflicted silence.

"Flame? Are you feeling alright?" she asked worriedly, glancing around her, "Want me to call someone for help?"

"What? Oh, uh … No, no, I'm fine. It's just…" he stammered, before taking in a deep breath and forcing a calm smile upon his face. He was probably going to regret this. "I was thinking about something. Let's go see these pictures you were talking about."

Alice still seemed to hold some confusion over his momentary zone-out, but nodded regardless. "All right. I'll bring the book over here, if you want."

Flame nodded back, and Alice departed to one of the many bookshelves in the vicinity. A small while later, she came back, holding a book in her maw.

The Dragonair dropped it on the table, peering at Flame cautiously from the corner of her eye. She must have felt his uneasiness. After all, he hadn't done very much to hide it: one moment he'd felt joyful about learning new information, and the next his whole body emanated visible amounts of distress.

"Could you turn the pages?" she asked meekly, looking down at herself, "It's … you know, difficult for me."

Flame slowly parted the first few pages, revealing an artist's representation of what appeared to be a majestic square with a fountain erected in its centre, rows of elegant plants donning the image with an aura of solemnity.

Alice smiled slightly at the sight. "Ah, look! The communal gardens in Urbe! I remember all the afternoons spent playing there as a cub… "

"It sure looks beautiful…" commented Flame kind of distantly.

"Hey, who knows, maybe you too went there in your youth. I mean, I can't really recall ever seeing any Charmander running about, but then again my memories are quite fuzzy. Does any of this feel familiar to you?" she gave him an optimistic smile. "Maybe if we keep looking, we might just unearth some memory from your past."

Flame hesitated again, only feeling himself falling further into the spiral of deceit.

Alice sighed and brought her focus off the pages, turning to face her teammate. "Something is on your mind, isn't it? Regarding the book. It's easy to tell from your eyes."

Flame froze. Just how much information was he unwittingly showing?

"Flame, I hate seeing you like this. Can you please tell me what's wrong? You seemed to be pretty happy about being here until this book was brought up."

"I'm fine, I swear. Just feeling a little nervous is all." the Charmeleon unconsciously went on the defensive, shifting in his seat.

Alice continued patiently. "Listen, I wouldn't dream of intruding upon your private matters, but if there is anything that's troubling you…"

"Nothing is—!"

Just as soon as Flame realised that he was beginning to raise his voice, he also discovered that Gaius was there, leaning onto a nearby bookshelf with his arms crossed. Both Alice and Flame stopped to give him a long stare.

"Hm. For some reason, I had a feeling I'd find you here," Gaius said, shifting his eyes around disinterestedly, "Guess you could call this 'productive.'"

"What is it? Finally decided to spend some actual time with your team?" Alice asked, traces of scorn present in her voice.

Gaius delivered her a dismissive glare. "Sorry, but I'm not interested in your little history lesson here. Ariel just contacted me. She wants us in Myco's office ten minutes from now."


End of Chapter IV

Chapter Text

Chapter V: Rearrangement


"Your Majesty, as you are surely aware I have always been one of your most faithful servants, and would never dare to cast doubt upon your genius. However, your recent decision to personally employ particular members of Task Force Aegis has stirred a great amount of controversy within my ranks.

The discovery of barbarian encampments so deep into our territory is certainly a cause for worry, make no mistake. I assure you that a full investigation is under way, as well as toughened security measures.

But that begs the question: is it wise to send out a group whose track record consists almost entirely of failures? Considering the delicacy of this mission's outcome, it is my obligation to remind you that are many other teams in this Task Force who would be just as willing to take their place.

You made your choice and I have followed through with it; just don't expect a positive outcome."


Flame was about to meet Ariel. He hadn't much of a clue who or what she was, but the air of quiet apprehension emanating from his teammates spilt over to him with little resistance.

It was through their mouth that the name had come to his attention. First, on the path back to Aesernia that day he woke up amnesiac, and then on various occasions at Camp Tempest when Alice recruited him. Each time he heard her name it was always being phrased in a way that implied submissiveness, so he could only make a wild guess at her being some sort of chief, one who held a degree of power over their team.

That thought did nothing to make him feel any less uneasy. It only made her more of a menacing figure to stand before.

Just as Gaius laid a paw on the door leading to the registry, he turned his head to deliver the Charmeleon one last reminder. "Keep in mind that occasions like this could affect our future. Ariel holds absolute power over the whole of Task Force Aegis, as well as our team; one moronic comment and we're all going down the drain."

Flame felt himself gulp under his leader's cautioning glare.

"That means: don't do anything, don't ask anything—heck, don't even open your mouth unless she directly addresses you. Got it?"

Flame nodded acquiescently, his lips glued shut.

"Good." Gaius mumbled, pushing the door open, "Let's get this over with."

It took Flame a second to follow suit, but a nod of encouragement from Alice convinced him to enter. The room wasn't any different from the last time he stood on its floor boards. A few pokémon chatted away in the back, while Myco the Toxicroak was still behind his desk, eyeing them with his signature goofy smile. Was Ariel late?

But no, he soon discovered, she was not. Just then, a sizable lizard-like creature stomped out of a side corridor and silence befell the room. The Haxorus surveyed her surroundings for a second, as though only to further entice order amidst the bystanders. No one even had to be told to squelch their voices.

When Ariel made her way to the trio, Flame's body refused to buckle from its position. She hadn't even spoken a word yet and already he felt intimidated: those plated yellow-green scales, that pair of tusks jutting out of her mouth like the blade of a sickle, all contributed directly to make him resent her bare presence.

And if that wasn't enough, her eyes did naught to alleviate that feeling, quietly scanning each one of each of them with an eerie look of disinterest.

"Team Phalanx, eh? I suppose fate has intertwined our paths once more. And as always, I'm the one that gets fucked over."

Not one soul made any attempts to speak.

Ariel was about to continue, when she suddenly locked gazes with Flame. For a moment, the Charmeleon felt his muscles tie up into a knot.

"Are you the new guy?" Ariel asked half-curiously, her eyes narrowed minutely.

"Y-yes, ma'am." Flame answered quietly, paws behind his back. A few of the onlookers started murmuring something amongst themselves, and one even jerked a claw towards him. Whatever it was they were saying, it did not make Flame feel any more comfortable—especially with him and his friends being the centre of attention.

The Haxorus grunted in some kind of acknowledgement and continued. "You know, it was quite a surprise this morning to find out that the three of you actually got through with your assignment. For a moment there I suspected having too many glasses to drink, but it seems like it is true after all. Any comment you'd like to leave?"

Now that he paid attention to it, Flame noticed that her body carried a heavy scent of wine, though her features did not suggest any major intoxication.

Just out of the corner of his eye, Flame caught an expression of pride take over Alice's face momentarily. "Just so you know, we made it through fair and square. No outside help. And we'll continue turning things around for ourselves."

"Well, congratulations,"Ariel said dryly, her tone imbued with sarcasm, "But that's not why I'm here squandering my time with you lot. As much as it pains me to tell you, your team has been drafted for a B-rank mission. Priority one. Departure is tomorrow."

Both Alice and Gaius looked as though they were nearly ready to pale at the mention of those words. The Grovyle, who just a moment prior seemed ready to defend their reputation with bared teeth, was now more bewildered than anything. "Woah, hang on! This isn't possible… You deranked us, didn't you? We aren't even allowed to take those kinds of missions!"

"Oh, shut up," Ariel gnarled, raising her head to show off her blade-like tusks, "By now you should be on your knees begging for forgiveness, after all the months of woeful performance on your part. Do you know how much money and tactical setbacks you've cost the Task Force? If it were up to me, you'd already be starving on the edges of the Wasteland for all I care!"

Flame took a few seconds to elaborate the meaning behind her exact wording. So … she doesn't get to decide whether to fire us or not? I think that's what she said…

The bladed dragoness continued, giving them a stare as though she saw filthy goo trickling off their bodies. "Believe me, you are among the last people I would ever willingly send on a mission like this—actually, you probably are the last ones. But I didn't get to make this decision: it's coming straight from the top." she spat on the floor.

"The top?" Alice inquired carefully, her interest spiking all of a sudden, "You mean…"

"Yes. His Majesty, the Senate. Don't ask me why they care." Ariel flicked her wrist at the Dragonair, "Now, there's other things that need to be dealt with. You have the rest of the day to prepare. We'll meet at the north-eastern gates tomorrow morning to discuss the details. Got it?"

The trio nodded unanimously, and a groan escaped Ariel's throat as she turned on her heel—almost smacking Flame in the cheek with a swoosh of her tail. "Finally, some time to relax. God I miss that wine…"

As soon as everybody could be certain that the Haxorus was out of sight and hearing, a few whispers and murmurs started to break through the initial envelope of incredulousness surrounding the onlookers. Now all eyes were upon Team Phalanx.

Flame leant over to his teammates. "Uh, guys? Can we … go somewhere else? I don't like the looks they're giving us."

"You're right," Alice conceded sort of distantly, "There's too many people here. Let's head someplace quiet."

It was certainly a relief for Flame to slip away from the dozens of eyes burning into his skull, but it became clear from the look on his team's faces that this topic would not simply be looked over. Team Phalanx exited the registry, taking a road that led deeper into the camp, stopping underneath the shade of a tree.

Gaius whirled his head round to uncover any snoop before addressing the two. "… They've got to be joking," he mumbled with gritted teeth, "B-rank job? What the hell is wrong with their brains? First our team gets squashed to essentially rookie level, then this!"

Alice looked no more content than the Grovyle was, but she barred any anger from taking charge. "Listen, I know this is all so sudden, but try to be reasonable: it's only a B-rank. Nothing we haven't done before."

Flame really wanted to halt the banter for a moment, clarify what that 'B' denomination meant and why they sounded so upset about it. But it seemed that as of lately the only thing he was good at was buzzing them with questions.

"Yeah, well, we've only ever attempted one," Gaius countered, "And there's a reason for that! What makes you think that we'll have a better chance now?"

Alice hardened her expression, half in indignation and half in a sort of hopeful pride. "Well, first of all, it's not just the two of us this time." she pointed the tip of her tail at Flame. "And secondly, how bad could it be? It's not like she can just send us off to the Wasteland on such a short notice."

"Bah," Gaius crossed his arms, "You seem to think that he is the solution to all our problems. An extra teammate isn't going to be of much help when confronting a pack of filthy Scum. Much less when he can't even knock a feral out."

Those words struck deep in Flame's conscience. Although they were ultimately truthful, he still would have preferred not to hear them be uttered. A feeling of hurt resonated inside him, but it was almost immediately replaced by one of indignation. An impetus to show Gaius just how wrong he was.

A veil of quiet surrounded Team Phalanx for a few minutes as a moderate breeze started chirping in their ears. There seemed to be nothing more to add.

Alice looked between the two of them, and interrupted their thoughts. "Uh … guys, do you remember where she said the instructions came from?"

"If memory serves me well, she mentioned it was His Majesty who sent the order," Gaius answered nonchalantly, as though not seeing why that point would be of any significance.

"… and something about a senate," Flame added, his voice a near mumble.

Alice glanced at him for a moment, and then back at Gaius. "Exactly. Doesn't it seem … weird that the Emperor would ask us of all people to do this?"

Gaius raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Frankly, no. It's not like he thought of us specifically. Probably part of some stupid morale boosting programme. Why does it matter?"

That question was left in the air for a good few moments as the Dragonair concocted an answer. "Uh, nothing. Nothing. Just a thought."

"So…" Flame said, sensing that the conversation had all but ebbed away, "What now? Are we going to get ready for tomorrow?"

"Get ready?" Gaius questioned back, "How so? We've barely racked up enough money to keep our mouths fed for a few days, so stocking up on orbs and seeds isn't really an option. Also, we still have those berries left over from our last mission."

"Oh, about that," Alice said, glancing up at the afternoon sun, "What's the plan for tonight's dinner? We have some cash in our pockets now, but I think we should try leaving it intact for now. Maybe we can look around as usual?"

Gaius smiled slyly. "That's what I was thinking. Leave the prole parts of town to me; you know how easy they are to mug. See you at sunset."

With that alarming message, and not even giving them the chance to talk back, the Grovyle turned around and walked out of Camp Tempest, leaving a perplexed Flame behind.

Mug… ?

"Huh. A tad eager to leave, I see," Alice commented, "Still had a few things to tell him. Oh well." she turned to Flame. "If I haven't made myself clear yet, we're going to be looking for food this afternoon, like any other day."

"Looking for food?" Flame tilted his head, "You mean, roam the shops to see where the cheapest stuff is?"

"No, not really. It's…" Alice hesitated, her eyes darting away from his for a moment. A sudden redness spread across her cheeks, "Oh god, I wish I didn't have to explain this … You see, we usually prefer foraging in the wilderness around town, but the guards won't let us out unless we're on a mission. So that means our only viable option is … leftovers."

Flame bore a deadpan expression as he processed her words carefully. His teammates were looking for food amidst garbage. Sure, the possibility of this being the case wasn't entirely foreign, but to hear it with his own ears was a completely different thing.

"Listen," Alice said, "I realise that we could in theory afford better food, and that this practice isn't exactly what you would call 'classy', but it has to be done. Besides, have you seen how much food prices have risen? With winter on the horizon things can only get worse, so it is imperative that we avoid spending money wherever possible. Especially if things start to get dire…"

Two reactions triggered in his brain simultaneously. The first was of absolute disgust and embarrassment at the methods his team employed simply to put something between their teeth. Yet, the other was a heightened sense of duty, a moral obligation to do more: this needed to change! It was preposterous that anyone be reduced to such level of desperation, much less his friends. They didn't deserve this. He needed to prove Gaius wrong, and he needed to prove Alice that all her trust in him was not in vain. It was the least he could do.

"Uh…" Flame said, growing more and more resolute, "… it's all right, I understand. Swear I'll do my best to help out. Where do we begin?"

The smile of gratitude Alice offered him nearly caused him to flush right then and there, his tail flaring a little bit too. "Thank you so much, Flame. For a moment there I was afraid you'd laugh in my face. Give me a moment to think."

She bit her outer lip in thought. "Mmmh. For a start, I think it'd best if you sweep the centre area of town, in and around the main square. Yes, that does sound like the best option for you."

"Wait, you mean we're splitting up? How am I supposed to find the path home? I don't know my way around here!"

But it seemed as though Alice was already aware of that. "Relax. You can probably remember what the square looks like since we've passed through it several times already. It's also quite easy to spot from up here; so should anything happen, or maybe you get lost, just look towards the hill and you'll find Camp Tempest. Everything clear? Please, do not hesitate to voice any concerns."

Flame nodded, appreciating that she kept his amnesia into consideration. "Actually, I do have a question. I think Gaius mentioned something about mugging people. Is that … a thing you do frequently?"

Alice did not look particularly moved by the question. "On some occasions, yes, it does happen. I don't enjoy thieving in the slightest, but believe me when I say that sometimes, during famines for example, it becomes a necessity—lest we end the day on an empty stomach. Gaius however seems to like it for some odd reason, maybe a little too much."

Flame frowned in distaste. Wasn't their job all about helping others? But then again, if conditions were truly that dire, then he couldn't blame his friends for trying to survive.

"Of course," continued Alice, "You don't have to do it by any stretch of the imagination. The payout from our recent victory serves as a backup, so if worst comes to worst, we still have something. But still, if the occasion presents itself, think about it."

Flame was a little unsettled at first, but then regained his smile. In all likelihood, he wouldn't even come close to needing to resort to thievery. "Okay, I think I'm ready. Where are you headed?"

She shuffled her long neck to fasten the loose bag wrapped round it. "First we're getting you to the square so that you can get familiar with the path, and then I'll go looking around the wealthier neighbourhoods. You wouldn't believe what those folks throw away at times."

And so, the two teammates set off to the town square, the constant chatter between them seemingly endless.


Of all the things I expected to be doing in Civil Protection, this was not one of them…

Flame grimaced as he felt another object come up amidst the pile of rotting garbage. Pinching the no doubt unsanitary object with the tip of his claws, he pulled it out of the metal bin; an old cloth, dusty and smeared with traces of blood.

Nigh visualising the colonies of germs and microbes travelling up his paw, he released the cloth without a thought, letting it flap to the ground. He couldn't suppress a groan of frustration from leaking through his gritted teeth. Sixty interminable minutes had galumphed by since Alice brought him to the central area of town, all the while failing to recover anything remotely fit for consumption.

The stench of decomposing waste was becoming intolerable, and it was solely the vow made to Alice that kept him from giving up on the effort altogether.

Why won't anything come up …?

Faint shadows danced at the light of his swinging tail flame, which proved to be just enough to light up the dark alleyway he was searching. Heaps of rubbish littered the poorly tiled floor, resembling a filthy minefield of plastics and organic matter.

There must be something I can bring back!

Every few moments, Flame's pupils dashed towards the streets with persisting frequency. Hundreds of pokémon were walking down the nearby road each minute, so at some point one of them was bound to take a peek into the dark alley. Although admittedly he didn't really know anyone in town besides his own team, the mere thought of being found out caused an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment and shame to arise.

He stopped a moment. Why was he lowering himself to this?

Food. I'm trying to help my team survive. To prove myself useful.

Suddenly, a spherical object made its presence known to Flame's digging paws. Its surface felt rough yet surprisingly soft underneath. Gripping the object firmly, he yanked it out of the garbage bin. His eyes lit up. It was a rosy-coloured peach, looking almost as fresh as the ones from the nearby food market. Rolling it around in his paw, he felt a small sense of accomplishment tingling his guts. The peach looked largely edible, and even alluring in some ways. He briefly wondered whether Alice or Gaius would enjoy its taste.

After carving off any suspicious dark stains with a claw, Flame smiled in gratification at the literal fruit of his labour, and chucked the peach into his bag. Certainly not itching to dwell in such dubious hygienic conditions for much longer, he quickly slipped out of the alley and emerged into the busy streets. The Charmeleon had to draw a deep breath to rid himself of the fetid stench trapped in his nostrils.

All right, Flame exhaled forcefully as he scrutinised the dimming sky, The sun is setting, and I doubt I'll be able to find anything else. Might as well call it quits for today. Hope this is going to be enough…

Never quite letting the accomplished smile on his face ebb away, he mixed himself into the crowd, mirroring the flow of passersby all around. At the moment, all he needed to do was head to one of those public water taps Alice had mentioned to get himself and the peach cleaned up.

Flame continued to follow the mass of creatures relentlessly. For reasons he did not fully comprehend, the sheer density of the mob unnerved him; there might have been dozens, if not hundreds of pokémon crammed into that street; each one pushing just a little tighter onto his body, stealing a glance at him, judging.

He detested crowds. It was a new thing he'd found out about himself just the day prior, a facet that in hindsight was quite obvious seeing how his breath shortened whenever he found himself outside. Actually, scratch that, the phenomenon largely seemed to manifest at times when neither Alice nor Gaius could be present his side. His mind began recollecting all the evidence it could to support that theory: on the very first day he'd been too scared and confused to feel anything, but after that the pattern seemed clear. Sleeping at Camp Tempest for the first time, the subsequent morning chat, marching to his first dungeon experience, and today's afternoon spent fraternising with Alice. On all those occasions he'd felt an undeniable sense of safety, even when other strangers were around. Now he felt uncomfortably exposed.

But Flame soon arrived at the nearest public water tap, and shifted his mind away from such thoughts. After a relatively lengthy line, he took the peach out of his bag and placed it directly underneath the water stream as to simultaneously cleanse his paws too. He tried his best to block out the impatient glares from behind him.

Hastily getting the job done and stopping the water flow, he barely found the time to chuck the peach back into his bag before he stormed off in a random direction, hoping to find a quiet road to think as he headed home.

But there was no such thing. What Flame failed realise was that around this time entire families were coming home from work. Frightened as they might have been of the recent portal storm, life had to continue as normal.

Just as a passing Mawile shoved Flame aside with little care, he started reflecting once again—an act that would render him mad one day (or was he already?). The initial optimism was giving way to a fair bit of frustration. In the sixty-plus minutes he'd spent outside scavenging, in the scores of alleys and back shops that had been explored, a single, measly peach was all he would turn up to his friends with.

He really prayed that it would be enough to meet their expectations.

They're going to be disappointed. She entrusted me with finding food for all of us, and this was the result. Did I not promise myself to work harder for the team? They're everything I have…

And then, perhaps for a moment, something reached his ears. It was a peculiar, almost chirping tune. He stopped and quickly found the source of the distraction. A stone building, barely distinguishable from the rest were it not for the large glass pane on the front that read:

Walnut Tree Café

Instinctively he knew that the anomalous sound was music, but he couldn't bring himself to resume his walk; this was the first time he could remember hearing music, quite possibly the first time in his life. The cracking, braying, jeering note left him wrapped in a blanket of awe. To be perfectly honest, he was willing to come home a tad later just to savour a little more of that melody.

Spending a few minutes there won't hurt, and there don't seem to be many people inside anyway. I'll just wait for the rush time to blow off.

Pushing the door to the café open, he was greeted with an old, dusty yet strangely alive ambiance. No more than a dozen pokémon in total were scattered between the various tables, and what he could have sworn was a cockroach rattled away into a crack in the wall. On the stage was a red insectoid creature with antennae, its arms crossed and grinding against each other to emit sounds. Behind the dimly lit counter he could see the barman, all kinds of weirdly coloured bottles, and—

Flame almost couldn't believe his eyes. There Gaius sat, on one of the many wooden stools, a full glass firmly in his grip. But he didn't have the time to wonder what liquid was in it since what he saw next outclassed it. The Grovyle reached into his bag and pulled out a handful of coins, before laying them on the table and mumbling something to the barman.

It took a few seconds for Flame to process what his leader was doing.

"Hey!" Flame yelled out suddenly, causing the unaware Grovyle to jump, "What do you think you're doing! Are you crazy?!"

The initial surprise on Gaius' face relaxed into a more annoyed one. A hazy redness tinted his eyes, and his voice held a strange inflection. "Oh, it's you. Quit shouting, this is none of your damn business. Tell me, rather, what the hell are you doing here? Weren't you out looking for food?"

Flame's brow furrowed even wider as he just barely stopped short of yelling on top of his lungs—so strong was the indignation flaring through his veins. In a way, such affront surprised even him, especially when considering that this was his superior he was talking down to.

He pointed an accusatory claw at Gaius. "Don't try to sidetrack the conversation. I want you to tell me right now just what you were doing with that money!"

Gaius' raised his head up high, giving his newest teammate a scornful glare. "You'd do well to refrain from threatening me."

"To hell with you! Alice is out there breaking her back to scrape together a meal, while you're in this rat hole drinking booze!"

Suddenly, Gaius propelled his arm forward, and wrapped his claws tightly around Flame's snout as though attempting to crush it. The Charmeleon squealed a bit in distress, scratching and pushing those claws off his face. Some people in the bar were starting to take notice of their dispute.

"Flame, I swear, once more and I'll drop you where you stand!" Gaius barked with gritted teeth, the stench of alcohol now impossible to ignore, "You haven't seen what the world out there is like. You don't know how hard it is. The stress, the constant worry for survival. A 'mon needs some time to get away every now and then."

Said Charmeleon backed off a few feet, rubbing the pain away from his snout. From here on, it would probably be wiser to settle down and play it safe. He was still very much infuriated with his leader, yes, but any aggressive response would doubtless cost him dearly.

Drawing one last deep breath, Flame spoke. "But why use up our money like this? It's already quite a small amount—we need it for the winter! To survive!" he empathised gravely, recalling Alice's earlier words.

Gaius did not seem to be very moved by that notion. "And? I don't see a problem. These drinks cost only…" He hesitated for a second, rubbing the back of his neck. "… Errrr, I can't remember. A few thousand poké, I think? But it's not much. We still have more than enough to go around."

Calculations began scaling in Flame's mind about Gaius' claim. That phrase was simply untrue. Even if he were to be generous—only assume he drank two or three glasses—the money spent still amounted to a quarter of their current funds, a bill of already catastrophic proportions.

"Gaius," Flame proclaimed with bold rashness, staring at the Grovyle right in the eyes, "This isn't right. I promised Alice that I would help get our team back afloat, and for the love of Arceus that is exactly what will happen." He extended a paw to the bemused grass type. "Give me your bag. Now."

The Grovyle raised an eyebrow in surprise, then chuckled lightly. "What? Are you being serious? It's best if you go home now, Flame. You must be really tired."

"No. Not until I can rest assured that we have enough funds to live decently. Give me your bag."

Gaius slit his pupils, and took another sip from his glass. "Make me."

Flame felt his anger flare up. Not only did his leader not realise the extent of his disservice to the team—the very one he led—but he even dared behave so nonchalant about the matter!

And so, he decided to act. In one swift movement, he took a hold of the strap on Gaius' shoulder, yanked it down and let it free of its owner. Folly, perhaps, reasoned a small voice in his head; but the damage was already done. Besides, that voice was overshadowed by the many who wanted to see his and Alice's effort not go to waste.

Gaius was left with a blank face. He blinked once; looked at his shoulder, the bag dangling from the Charmeleon's paws, down at himself again, and then at the glass that he'd just finished.

Flame sensed what was going through his brain: such action could only be interpreted as a big middle claw to his leader's authority. He held still a few seconds, expecting some kind of reaction from the grass type. Maybe he'd be pounced upon, or perhaps he'd simply be reprimanded and kicked out of the team for such shocking misbehaviour. Yet Gaius did nothing. He just sat there, staring at the alcohol droplets in his glass with unusual intensity.

At first he felt tempted to ask what was wrong, but decided against it and stepped away from the Grovyle. Walking off towards the exit, he began to think: what now? Was he going to rehearse the whole afternoon to Alice and possibly cause a rift in the team (he already had to worry about that, not two days in!) or pretend nothing happened? Lie to her face like he'd been doing for—

A glass hurled past his shoulder. It shattered on the ground just in front of him in a mighty crash, sending dozens of shards flying everywhere. Tiny slivers now littered the floor and just about the entire bar had turned their heads at the mess, yet the only thing that mattered was the shout coming from behind him.

"Fuck you! Give that back to me right goddamn now!"

Flame didn't even have the time to run as the gecko lunged at his meagre frame, crashing unto his body and to the ground. Now with his belly flat on the floor, he couldn't get up from under Gaius' weight. He attempted to force the assailant off by rolling over, but claws wrapped forcefully around his horn and ground his muzzle roughly on the floor to keep him still.

"G-g-gaaah! What are you… Stop!" Flame struggled against the Grovyle's attempts at restraining him.

In return, Gaius ripped his own bag from Flame's shoulder. "Taking back what's mine." he growled into his ear, only granting him a brief second of eye contact.

Flame raised his claws blindly to scratch the Grovyle, but to no avail. "No, get off me! We need that money! I won't let you—"

Gaius pressed tighter onto Flame's back. "Who the fuck do you think you are? Come in one day, thinking you can boss me around? Well, fuck you!"

"I said let go!"

"You southerners are all the same. Money-sucking, pompous twats that ruined my life!"

"Fucking let go!" Flame yelled, feeling his anger swell exponentially.

Yet Gaius continued unhindered. "You're nobody, you hear me? A goddamn—"

Tongues of fire were boiling through Flame's veins by now. In one smooth motion, he raised his tail abruptly and brushed its fiery tip violently on the Grovyle's back. The effect was imminent: Gaius yelped in the middle of his intoxicated rant and flinched back in pain, granting Flame just enough breathing space to shove him away at once.

Whereas before he only wanted to get out of there and return home, Flame's thoughts were obfuscated by a mantle of unrestrained ire. He wasted no time in raising both his paws and slashing down on the temporarily disoriented Grovyle. The attack was executed clumsily, but connected nonetheless.

Gaius was soon to recover. Barely even scathed by those attacks beyond temporary discomfort, he was not in a mood for chitchatting any longer. As soon as Flame carelessly charged forward to try and slam him to the ground, Gaius brought him to a halt by delivering a quick punch to the gut, followed up by an upwards cut with his leaf blade. The Charmeleon doubled over in pain and stumbled backwards, clutching his shallow gash.

Most of the bar was now in a state of dead silence as they assisted the brawl that was unfolding. Many stood up from their chairs, yet hesitated to intervene beyond shouts encouraging to de-escalate the situation—all of which fell on deaf ears. A few outliers even started cheering openly for one side or the other.

But Flame heard none of the voices around him. Instead, he mounted his assault once more, striking with a swipe of his claws again and again, even though Gaius managed to either block his weak attempts or return the damage every single time.

After a few minutes of his anger outburst Flame stopped, chiefly to regain his breath, ignoring the sore cuts in his scales and reserving the Grovyle a look of enmity. The object of his rancour still looked perfectly healthy, and he could only count two or three scratches that had actually breached the protective layer of scales. Despite that, he was still mad. Very mad.

Gaius grinned slowly, before letting out a few amused chuckles. "Is this all you've got? Just do me a favour and get out of here, before anything serious happens to you. We can have a little talk about this later."

On one hand Flame felt his dignity scarred and was tempted to give in out of pure shame. However, on the other hand, there were still many things to settle between them.

Flame narrowed his eyes, paws clasping into fists. "I'll show you what I can do…"

Just as he said that an odd, tingly sensation arose in his stomach, just like the one he'd felt back in the forest, as well as in the cavern prior to that. Before he could properly identify what was happening, Flame involuntarily cocked his head backwards and a small tongue of fire escaped his jaws.

Grovyle threw himself blindly to his side, nearly toppling an entire table to escape Flame's unexpected move. The fire set one of the nearby chairs alight—everything rigidly made out of wood, of course—but did not harm Gaius. What it did do was genuinely scare the Grovyle, and not only him.

To the rest of the bar, what was previously being treated as some form of gratuitous entertainment suddenly became a lot more serious the moment fire was brought into play. Immediately screams echoed among the spectators; two or three pokémon rushed forward to confront the troublemakers, while others cowered uncertainly, and some bolted for the door altogether.

But the problem was that Flame did not notice any of this. His full attention was still dedicated to Gaius, whose eyes were bulged as though he'd seen a ghost. Flame's heart raced, and, as he loomed over the fallen gecko, instinctively released another attack. A smirk slowly conquered his face. For the first time since he could remember, he actually felt in control. In control of his own destiny.

But before he could spew any more flamethrower attacks, many pairs of arms grabbed him from the back, pushing and pulling and effectively immoblising him. Over in front of him, Gaius was receiving the same treatment.

"Hey, hey, hey! Stop! Lay off each other!" someone shouted.

The crowd calmed down somewhat as soon as he stopped resisting, and a strange creature—a medium sized dragon with a fin on its back—stepped forward.

"Gee, I get that he hit you first, but there was no need to start using fire like that." the Gabite commented, "You're lucky the owner of the bar isn't here. Are you okay?"

Flame groaned in response, part in frustration, part for the remnants of his anger outburst. He was not hurt in any serious way. Now that he pondered on it actually, neither of the combatants were ever trying to seriously incapacitate the other; they were both merely conveying their internal stress onto somebody else.

The Gabite's eyes lit in understanding. "Wait, you're that civvie I saw this morning! The one getting a lecture from Ariel!" He chuckled heartily. "One hell of a bitch, isn't she?"

Flame tilted his head slightly as he readjusted his stance. "Uh… You mean you were there? At Camp Tempest?"

The Gabite nodded, smiling slyly. "Yeah, saw the whole thing." He turned his lower body and motioned Flame over with a claw, "C'mon, we can discuss it over at my table, without all these darn proles getting in the way."

Flame stood unsure for a few seconds, but then figured that having something to distract him from what just happened would be useful. Before complying, he spied behind him a brief moment. Gaius was no longer there, probably left as soon as the others intervened.

Oddly enough—as if talking to a complete stranger didn't already make him uncomfortable—there was someone else at the Gabite's table: a black, fox-like creature with golden rings drawn all over.

The Umbreon noticed him approach and furrowed its ears in interest. "Oh, greetings. You have finally stopped fighting. Was anybody hurt?" The voice sounded feminine, although it was hard to tell due to how unbelievably quiet it was.

Flame sat down kind of awkwardly where the Gabite instructed him to, and he suddenly regretted following a stranger so mindlessly. "Uh … no. Just a few scratches is all."

She looked as though she was about to add something, when the Gabite preceded her. "Yvaine, remember that whole scene at the CP encampment this morning? He was one of those 'mons getting hammered by Ariel!"

Yvaine stared at Flame for a good few seconds, both her expression and her eyes literally unreadable. "Huh. Interesting. So I presume that Grovyle from before is your teammate?"

Flame lingered with his mouth open for a bit, hastily assembling something with which to reply. "Y-yeah. He's my leader, actually."

"Your leader? If I may be allowed to ask, what was the reason for the two of you to brawl so viciously?"

Flame did not know what to say. Why were these strangers asking so many questions? Why did he willingly get involved with them? "Um, you see, I just got on the team recently, and we're still getting to know each other. You know, some things may not … work out immediately…" He started darting his eyes around rapidly and off the two sat at his table. "Let's just say we had a disagreement."

"A mere disagreement?" Yvaine inquired, although it was impossible to tell whether it was in a scornful fashion or out of innocent curiosity, "That does not sound like something that one would nearly torch the place down over. Nor endanger another's life. Perhaps you should consider seeking an anger counsellor."

After a few moments of consideration, Flame's brow furrowed indignantly. Who was she to make such choices in his stead? It was Gaius who had started the fight, damn it! If it weren't for him, he would have burnt the insinuating slug to a crisp.

But doesn't that make her right? he reflected. Damn, maybe I do need help…

An uneasy expression crept over his face. For many reasons. First off, he was talking about personal details to complete strangers—who as far as he knew had no ties to either Alice or Gaius. But then there was also the Umbreon in front of him who asked the question. Everything about her was a brick wall: her voice, her face, her eyes, her demeanour. She could have literally been plotting to assassinate him right this instant, and he wouldn't be able to tell.

"Listen," Flame sighed, his claws clasping together as to disguise the quivers running through them, "I would rather not talk about this, okay?"

The Gabite stepped in. "Yeah, let's get over this nonsense. We all do stupid things every now and then."

Yvaine merely sat there, silent. Watching.

"Oh, by the way," the Gabite chuckled eerily, "I forgot to introduce myself. Name's Virgo. Yours?"

He did not know whether it was even safe to give it away, but he'd gotten to this point now so might as well. "Errr … It's Flame. Not very original, I know, but it's not exactly mine either."

The two stared at him with a stupefied expression.

Flame bit his lip lightly. Damn him and his big mouth. "Um … It's … Y-you know what? Never mind. Long story…"

"So," Virgo started, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his claws, "New guy, eh? I heard you civvies are having trouble with your recruitment drive. That's probably the only reason why you haven't been beaten to a pulp yet, else any fresh meat would be dissuaded from joining. They can't allow that."

"Why do you keep calling me a 'civvie'?" Flame raised an inquisitive eyebrow, "If you're not from Civil Protection, then what are you?"

"See, we're part of His Majesty's Imperial Army," Virgo lay a paw on his chest and held his head up high in a somewhat deriding gesture, "Here to save your arses. Would have preferred a different kind of welcome than a portal storm, but oh well." he leant backwards, rambling on. "This isn't the first time we've been stationed in this town. To be honest, I kind of like it here. Especially when it rains and all the grime gets washed away…"

Yvaine chimed in suddenly, staring straight at Flame. "Hold still a second. Your dark aura. It is different from the rest. Abnormal… You are not from these lands, correct?"

The two stare at each other for a moment. What was he going to say? The truth? Repeat the same lie he kept stuffing into Alice's head? Or just remain quiet? He felt no more immediate impulse than to make up an excuse and leave.

"R-right. I'm not … anyways," he veered off track to a new subject, hoping that they wouldn't insist, "Do you know about someplace interesting in Aesernia? Haven't really seen much of the city at all, except for when Ali—err, my teammate brought me to the library earlier today."

"Library?" Virgo interrupted him, "I mostly go there to look for adult mags. They're the only place that sells that kind of stuff around here."

Flame raised a perplexed eyebrow at the Gabite's nonchalant frankness. "Uh… Okay? Fair enough. My friend brought me there to study some things I needed real badly. You know… rescue team related things."

"Ugh, hate that stuff," Virgo waved a dismissive claw, "Too boring. Surely you've looked at something more enticing, right? Care to tell me the title? I've been itching for something new to read for a while."

The only expression Flame could muster was a deadpan one. This conversation was getting far too weird. "… No? I mean, there were a few lying around, but Alice was there, so—"

"Oh, come on!" Virgo slapped him in the back in an overly friendly manner, "Don't tell me you're one of those southern prudish types! Maybe you just need some encouragement. Next time, I'll run along and point you to some of the good stuff. Chars, gabs, eons, you name it. Maybe you're into dudes? Just say the word, and I'll find the right material."

With that offer arose a very subtle temptation to accept, far in the back of his mind. Unfortunately it was far outweighed by the creepiness of Virgo's smile, stacked up with the fact that they'd only really met a couple minutes prior. And not just the offer; he knew deep down that he couldn't trust anybody on anything.

Regardless of what they said, they were neither Alice nor Gaius.

Flame got up from his chair abruptly. "Listen, I need to get going now. There's an important mission to take care of tomorrow, and I don't want to sleep in too long."

With that, he turned to leave, and heard their voices gradually fading out in the background.

"Damn it Virgo, you messed it up again. Can't you see why people feel uncomfortable around us?"

"What? I was just trying to help a brother out…"

That was … creepy. Flame thought as he hurried out of the bar and into the streets, Definitely won't talk to strangers again. Weirdos.

A rosy colour inundated the horizon. Sunset was nearing.

Then again, his idea wasn't all that bad…


End of Chapter V

Chapter Text

Chapter VI: Dauntless


"If, at the opening of another week of holy resistance, one were to take a general survey of the military activity of all combatants, one would search vainly for any traces of reviving vigour in the enemy. Everything, in fact, continues to support the view of those who regard the barbarian tribes as being close to collapse, and having little or nothing to match the determination and courage of His Majesty's Imperial Army. Reports from all along the front line speak of a depressed and scattered adversary; the mutiny of entire battalions is a near daily event. At this rate, victory seems not only within a measurable distance of its grasp—but a matter of weeks."

— Segment extrapolated from the newspaper 'Cogito', dated fourteen days prior to the fall of the major urban centre of Edessa.


"Where are you taking me?"

The voice would not let him leave. He had yearned so long for freedom, and now it was being denied to him.

"Settle down; we're almost there."

"Please let me go. I want to go home."

Yet the creature did not listen. Did it understand his words at all?

The ruins dragged on around them, the sky pitch black with smoke. Distant tremors reverberated through his bones, fire tendrils in the skies; his breath choked on itself.

But the voice insisted—Just a little longer!


"... Wake up."

Flame's brow furrowed, and he shifted to his side. "Just a little longer..." he mumbled absently to himself, squeezing his eyelids together.

Something nudged his shoulder. "Flame, wake up."

The Charmeleon's brain, reactivating crankily, finally gained enough awareness of time and space to take notice that he was awake. He opened his heavy, rusty eyes, and stopped blinking to witness Alice's nuzzle prodding him once more to awaken fully.

"Huh...?"

"We have to go now," Alice half-whispered, her features not any less drained than his, "It's getting late, Ariel will be expecting us soon."

"Wha? Okay..."

Flame sat up grudgingly, crossing his legs for balance. His muscles were sore all over, and his head felt as though it was looping circles around in the air. A shiver ran down his spine suddenly. Did they have to get up at this hour? What time was it, anyways?

After a quick scan of the tent, he noticed that the light seeping through the tent's cloth was in fact very feeble; the sun must have risen not long before. He nearly missed Gaius' figure out of sheer lightheadedness, crouched over a bag next to his bed, rummaging the contents.

It just occurred to Flame that he'd experienced another dream, the second one in only a couple of days. He couldn't quite point to any specific details, but there was no doubt about the event actually taking place. Maybe he was purely a frequent dreamer; an empty mind desperate to fill the void with artificial thoughts and images extrapolated from his few days into life.

It still amazed him as to how it ultimately made no difference whether or not he did have a life beforehand.

"Ready?" asked Alice, blinking rapidly as to mask her own fatigue, "We'll try to eat something along the way, so we actually have the energy to make it to our destination."

That subject brought the events of the previous night back to the forefront of his mind. With a frown, he hastily climbed to his feet, forcing his brain to ignore any protest from his muscles.

"Oh ... Yeah, t-that sounds good. Sorry..." The last word slipped out of his mouth only half-voluntarily.

Alice gave him a weird look. "What for?"

"Yesterday, at dinner." Flame explained kind of reluctantly, "I just feel that ... I don't know, maybe I should have put more effort searching. There was hardly anything to eat."

Alice relaxed a bit, as though expecting something much worse. "What, that's it? Flame, I know it may not have looked like much, but last night's meal was probably better than anything we've had in ages!"

"Yeah, I know, but..." Flame halted a few seconds, inwardly realising that really there was nothing much to say. What point was he trying to make? What was he feeling sorry over? After all, it objectively could not be his fault if there didn't seem to be enough food in circulation to throw away. He'd helped his team to the furthest extent possible; even volunteered to crunch up that tasteless bread in their stead. And yet...

Smiling sympathetically, Alice lowered her head to her bag, letting it slide down her neck into position. "Flame, you need to stop worrying about stupid things like this. Let's focus on the mission at hand for now, okay?"

Slowly, but encouraged by the sincerity of her words, he allowed himself to drop his uncertainties and pick up the mantle of optimism. Alice was right; he really was acting stupid. Perhaps all he needed was to get those negative thoughts out of his head.

"Hey!" Gaius shouted suddenly, jolting their attention to him. He stood by the tent's entrance, examining one of his leaf blades and only briefly spared them a look. "Done talking, or want me to bring you a recliner? It's nearly six, for the love of Celebi!"

With unexpected spontaneity, Flame rolled his eyes in mock exasperation when Gaius wasn't looking, earning a few amused chuckles from Alice. He tightened the straps to his bag, and quickly rushed outside.

"Did you pack that Escape Orb in case things go sour?" he could hear Alice ask Gaius.

Parting the cloth to their tent, his mind could not help but wander. The prospect of having to enter combat once more was certainly an uncomfortable one, yes, but he had to have learnt something from their last outing. To breathe and stay calm? Trust his instincts and stop thinking so damn much?

That last one in particular seemed to work for fire-breathing: when that Carnivine almost ate his leg and Gaius was threatening him in the bar, on both occasions he'd managed to use a flamethrower with little trouble. There had been no need to actively think about defending himself; it just happened.

Maybe this wouldn't turn out a catastrophe after all.

He took a deep breath, hopefully one that would set his jumbled mind straight, and caught up to his teammates.

Aesernia was oddly quiescent that morning, although it was probably due to the ridiculously early hours they worked in. Not long after, Team Phalanx passed by the Walnut Tree Café, which turned out to be closer to Camp Tempest than he remembered. The sight must have brought a few lingering memories back to mind, seeing that, from then on, Flame felt Gaius' eyes burning into the back of his skull, as though imagining it an ideal target for practising his leaf blades.

Why does he need to keep giving me those looks? Flame groaned internally, his irritation spiking, Not my fault he's an irresponsible bully. Just when I was starting to feel better...

This trivial game persevered for the majority of the way, until at last Gaius' harsh voice intruded from behind. "That could have killed me, you know."

Flame tried his best to swat aside those words aside, but it proved incredibly difficult given the death glare homed in on his body. It wasn't true. Even if his fire truly did have the intensity terminate a life, he never would have had the guts to do it. No, if anything, it was the other way around.

Alice narrowed her eyes in thought, and looked between the two of them. "Are you two going to disclose what happened last night? You've been acting all weird around each other."

"It's nothing important..." Flame hesitated and glanced behind him, checking instinctively for Gaius' reaction, "The two of us discussed a few things, and we had a disagreement. There was—"

He stopped, and turned his intentions around before it was too late. Telling her that Gaius was draining their finite, precious money on alcohol would almost certainly cause an argument, drive the two of them apart—possibly fracture the team!

Flame shuddered aghast at that scenario. Right now, the thing that mattered the most was to get through their current mission alive and successful; the fallout associated with speaking the truth was simply too daunting to envision. (Why did such responsibility have to lie on his shoulders?)

"Really, it's nothing to worry about," Flame insisted as casually as possible, "We simply ... aren't used to each other, that's all. I'll tell you later."

That was not easy to say without cringing internally. A vile, false being he felt, circumventing the question like that, lying to her face once more—this amounted to what, the fourth time since they met?

No, no, this wasn't a lie, Flame told himself, clenching his paw into a fist, will tell her when we get back. I will...

"Fine then," Alice resigned herself with a sigh, "Please, just remember to set those differences aside while we're on duty. Things are already bad enough as it is, and without teamwork there's basically no point in even trying. Okay?"

Flame nodded understandingly—and Gaius did too, although he could not discern the actual reconciliatory intent behind the gesture.

Soon, just when the buildings around them became scarcer and scarcer, the city walls and the battlements came into view. A single, relatively small wooden gate (he'd have to ask Alice how many entrances there were) separated them from the countryside, doubtless sprawling both in breadth and in hazards. Even from this distance, one could spot Ariel's bulky, unmistakeable form sticking out among the dreary stone.

Suddenly, after advancing a little more, the three stopped.

"Hold on..." Alice hummed, "Do you see that? Who are those pokémon talking to Ariel?"

Now that she mentioned, there was something he did not notice at first. Or rather, someone. He looked better; engaged in conversation with Ariel were a black, fox-like creature and a finned dragon, both of which looked strangely familiar to his eyes.

Wait, aren't those... Flame associated the faces, and quickly came to a conclusion. Yes, that voice, it had to have been the two weirdos from yesterday!

Team Phalanx held still awkwardly, gazing at the elephant in the room, when the two legionaries caught sight of the group. Immediately Yvaine stood to attention, once again eyeing Flame as though he smelt funny. Was it his mere presence that upset her? Perhaps it had something to do with that 'dark aura' thing she mentioned back in the café.

"Hah, would you look at that!" Virgo grinned broadly, yet in a matter that creeped Flame, "I wasn't expecting you of all people to end up under our escort. Fate's a funny thing, isn't it?"

Yes, it's a very funny thing... Flame groaned silently, his thoughts spilling sarcasm all over. In his head, he wished he could just tell them—Alice and Gaius keep me excellent company, thank you very much; could you please leave me alone? (Then again, more firepower on their side may not have been such a bad thing...)

"Uh ... Honestly, I wasn't expecting to see you either." Flame confessed, rubbing the back of his neck.

Alice shifted her view between the two of them. "Our escort? Who—Flame, do you know them?"

"Kind of..." Flame raised his eyebrows innocently, "We met yesterday, while I was out looking for food. But they didn't tell me about this!"

But now Ariel tapped her foot impatiently, seized their attention altogether. "Can we keep the introductions for later or what? I have a schedule to keep."

Immediately Flame stiffened his back and stood to attention—it was starting to become instict, almost. (See? You're getting the hang of this, Alice would say.)

With the onset of silence, Ariel began. "Right, the short story is this: some of our scouting teams have reported witnessing increased barbarian activity around Aesernia. Turns out, those fuckers set up an encampment just east of our position, along the Pelorithan Ridge. Your job is to boot them out of existence."

All three members of Team Phalanx unanimously turned their eyes to the elephant in the room, a sort of unspoken question in itself.

Ariel grunted in irritation, though oddly content. "As you can see, I procured myself these two—actual soldiers for a change—to ensure you don't mess it all up." A smirk even made its way onto her face. "Might want to learn something from them while you have the chance."

Gaius' face twitched slightly, his eyes not bothering to hide the underlying pique. How dare she utter such implicating words!

The Haxorus snickered. "What, you honestly think I was going to trust you so blindly? Bollocks. With the three of you running about on your own, there's a good chance you might never make it back."

Gaius looked fervent to come back with an insult perhaps worse than the one directed at them, but managed to maintain his posture. "And what are the rules of engagement, ma'am?"

Ariel didn't look scathed in the slightest. "Doesn't matter. Kill 'em, do whatever you want, as long as thy're not causing problems to our townsfolk. They're just Scum." She signalled the guard manning the gates. "Actually, try to bring one back alive if you can. I know exactly what will show them."

Just as Flame tightened the bag round his shoulders, the heavy gate creaked open, an ill-defined dirt pathway extending into the surrounding fields.

"Hey, isn't this awesome?" Virgo elbowed Flame roughly, that creepy smile of his only widening, "I've been aching to kick some barbarian Scum's arse—it's certainly been a while."

Oh, just great... Flame sighed inwardly, and tried his best to sustain an optimistic mindset.

Virgo then got close to his ear, eyeing Alice strangely. "Psst, could you introduce me to that gorgeous friend of yours?"

"No."

"Oh, come on—"

"Fuck. You."

Virgo rolled his eyes. "Geez, okay, okay. I get it. Grow a sense of humour one of these days."

Oh, I wish I could, he wanted to tell him, I really do.

This was going to be a long journey.


Route 164

Behind them, Flame slowly witnessed the town's thick walls disappear, and a run-down sign greeted them to Route 164. The path under his feet felt like a mixture of dirt and gravel, with a few stalks of grass or even the occasional flower sprouting from its midst. While the others might have disagreed, he sorely missed Aesernia's paved roads.

"So, Team Phalanx," Virgo spoke up after a few minutes of awkward silence, "Have you got any plans for which direction to take? We're just here to escort, after all."

Alice muttered a curse under her breath, stopping for a moment. "Right. There's a map in my bag. Gaius, could you...?"

Nodding, the Grovyle stuck a paw in her bag and pulled out a rolled sheet of paper, undoing it altogether.

Flame craned his head to the side to follow, along with the two legionaries.

"Let's see..." Gaius muttered, tracing the path with a claw, "Getting there shouldn't be that hard. We march east, circle round this mystery dungeon, and reach the Pelorithan ridge. From there, we can scout the place and hopefully find those bastards. But that's where the problems begin..."

Virgo lay a paw on Flame's shoulder and pushed him aside to see better. "The hell is wrong with this map? It's missing half the darn province! There's supposed to be a settlement halfway to the ridge, and you only have two imperial forts marked. And the bridges! Where did you find this thing, in the garbage?"

The three members of Team Phalanx glanced at each other sheepishly. Flame had a feeling that that rhetorical question inadvertently spoke the truth.

"Ah, whatever," Gaius conceived irritably, "Guess it's a bit outdated then. So what? Have you got anything better?"

"No," Yvaine answered matter-of-factly, the first word coming from her mouth in a day, "Our unit commander is the only one who is allowed to carry a strategic map. We were hoping to rely on your equipment and knowledge of the area for this task."

Virgo chuckled, holding a paw before his mouth. "I knew you civvies were having budget troubles, but an outdated map! What next, they don't feed you anymore?"

Flame looked away, bowing his head. That's ... pretty much true...

"Says the one who doesn't have a map at all." Gaius huffed, eyes narrowed.

"Guys, can we get a move on already?" Alice intervened, "I have a feeling you two are going to keep this up the whole way if you don't stop now."

Flame could not agree more.

Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, he figured he should have felt much more alarmed: what would be of him by the end of the day? Sacked, ridiculed, disgraced for being the culprit of his team's utter failure? This single mission's outcome, like the one before it, carried a whole slew of implications that his mind could only partly comprehend.

But now Alice prodded his side; there was a berry for him too, she said.


The difference between the wilderness and Aesernia, as he saw it, was that the town, for all the dirt and grime and beggars, flourished with variety: everywhere he went there were entirely new creatures, a sound, a pungent smell, buildings that decried their olden glory. Something nearly always kept his mind occupied, beyond the reach of any troublesome thoughts.

In a way, it helped him cope with the madness.

But out here, he thought with a hint of disgust, in the middle of nowhere, the entire world seemed to turn grey and dull. There was absolutely naught variety, in any place he looked. Suppose the trees varied minutely in size, thickness, colour, or in number of leaves, or a different bird settled its nest there; to his eyes, they were all the same. Just more forest, and more gravel to step on. Same, same, same.

And this—he thought with an air of finality—this only drew the focus of his intellect closer to trickier subjects. Dangerous ones. Such as the fact that he possessed no memories of who he was, no identity to speak of. The possibility that, in just a few hours, one mistake would end him on the street, alone. That his only defining characteristics were a bunch of delirious visions and an even more laughable social demeanour (a rare form of neurosis, perhaps?).

Oh! Already he felt the pent-up tension rise up like in a volcano—his arms were starting to tremble.

No. Flame squeezed his eyes and turned his head to the side, No, no, no. I shouldn't be doing this. Something else... Think about something else!

In a blind attempt to force his mind back into the real world, he turned towards his companions, hoping that their conversation would prove to be distracting enough.

"... and so I slashed its arm straight off, just like that!" Virgo recounted fervently, simulating the act by clawing the air.

"Bah," Gaius crossed his arms, "A Machoke? No way in hell it went down without a fight. To be honest, I have a feeling you're making all this up."

"Oh?" Virgo huffed with a cocky grin, "And how would you know anything on the matter, Team 'Scaredy Cat'?"

Alice let out a groan, growing impatient. "Listen, I already explained this to you: it was getting dark, and we were vastly outnumbered: retreat was the only logical option. Don't try to use that single occasion against us."

"I'm just saying, it's obvious that you've never had to get up close and personal with a Scum. Would you rather have them running around scot-free, killing and raping?"

"What? Of course not, but that isn't our job! We usually deal with lesser things; not everybody has some legionary title to show off."

"Then why are you here, on your way to fighting the same kind of pokémon?" Yvaine pointed out, "Should you not be out doing 'lesser things'? I am afraid your job may be shifting parameters."

"That much is true," Alice mumbled, staring ahead for a moment, "That much is true..."

Soon enough, Flame found it harder and harder to pay proper attention to what was actually being said. Virgo seemed a walking and breathing chatterbox, drawing from his seemingly endless reservoir of jokes and topics.

Ten more minutes, he thought, and he'd deliver the Gabite a much deserved knock on the head.


Sperantia Nova—25 kilometres east of Aesernia

A village!

Beyond the hill they were descending, snippets of buildings leaked through the thin foliage.

Flame was overjoyed. After hours of unbearable marching, saying that this was a welcome change in scenery would be a severe understatement.

His companions looked just as glad as he did; unlike them, however, this amounted to the first glimpse he'd ever get of the world outside Aesernia. Regardless of any actual sight to behold, that was a milestone in and of itself.

"Look, guys! There's the settlement I was telling you about!" Virgo exclaimed, wiping a drop of sweat off his forehead, "See how that map of yours is outdated?"

"Yeah, yeah," Alice heaved forcefully, "Does this give you an idea of how close we are to the area of operations?"

Virgo hummed pensively as he rummaged through his brain. "If my memory serves me correct, this means our objective is nearby. I think another fifteen minutes or so from here."

Let's hope you're right ... Flame thought, only now noticing just how worn out his legs were. The others didn't seem to be panting nearly as heavily as him. Was he that frail?

The expeditionary force turned a final bend in the path and beheld the first structures of Sperantia Nova. Overall, the settlement didn't look very impressive, Flame thought—one could likely walk from end to end in five or ten minutes. The buildings, built of wood, differed greatly from the sea of marble and stone that was Aesernia. Each was but a single storey, and mostly rudimentary.

Lack of aesthetics aside, it quickly became evident that the village was not exactly in top shape. Next to the closest building to him, ash lay on the thin grass stalks—the remnants of a recent fire. A house further ahead bore heavy chars, while another one just to the side displayed a broken window pane.

"... what on earth happened here?" Flame blinked confusedly, taking in every detail.

"Good question," Virgo lay a claw on his chin, "Maybe this is damage from yesterday's portal storm?"

I don't think storms can spark a fire... Flame thought grimly.

Nearby, a Quilava was trying to clear the mess in its garden—only to notice it was being watched, and scurry away in a heartbeat.

Then came the town centre. Had someone not pointed it out, he never would have distinguished it from some sort of park. It was unusually barren, and most alarmingly lacked any sort of paving, dots of tall grass sprouting like parasites.

"Come on, let's stop here for a bit," Virgo pointed to a nearby structure, "Something to drink would be lovely while we rest."

The building in question was just a tad bigger than the houses they had just passed. A sign swung in the breeze, but the writing was too faded to read.

"Uh ... Why here?" Flame raised an eyebrow.

Gaius answered promptly. "It's a tavern. At least, I think so—looks like one to me."

Oh, of course you would know... Flame bit his lip, rolling his eyes.

"I suppose it wouldn't be a bad idea. Could definitely use the breather." Alice shrugged, and followed Virgo inside.

The interior was very much akin to the Walnut Tree's back in Aesernia, if not a little rustic. One could taste the scent of wine drifting out the back room, and from barrels visible behind the counter.

Only a sparse few citizens hung around—perhaps five or six in total—but each was far too drooped in their seat to notice.

The group chose a table far from the entrance, just as a wild Pidgey swooped in from a window, pecking it as though trying to pry inside.

"Where is everyone?" Flame wondered aloud, "I get the feeling that we've been visiting a ghost town up until now."

"All dead."

Everyone sitting at his table turned to face the voice. It came from a gruff-looking Marowak working behind the counter, busy wiping the bar with a rag. Its Its skull helmet wore cracks all over, and a horn had been chipped off.

Noticing the extra presence, Alice bowed her head in greeting almost mechanically. "Excuse me, sir, would you mind going into the specifics?"

The Marowak raised its gaze only for a moment. Its voice was coarse and deep. "They're all dead. Either that, or they fled as soon as the raid ended."

"Hey, barista!" Virgo waved his arm to draw attention, "Bring us five of your best beers!" The legionary turned to Team Phalanx. "You three drink beer, right?"

"You bet," Gaius smiled, "I'll have a blo—"

"Guys, we're talking about something serious here!" Alice hissed, giving the two of them a death glare.

She then turned to the Marowak again, smiling sheepishly. "I apologise for that. If it isn't a problem, could you tell us more about what happened?"

The Marowak glanced at them with suspicion, but grunted affirmatively. "Around a week ago. In the middle of the night, those marauding Scum caught everyone by surprise. They looted all the houses and then set 'em on fire. Lost a lot of good blokes that night." The ground type stopped a moment, but kept rubbing the bar clean. "When we realised help wasn't coming, the rest fled someplace else. Doubt they'll be coming back."

Alice frowned in understanding, yet didn't lose focus. "That sounds terrible. Could you point us to which direction the raiders came from?"

The barkeeper laid down his rag, eyes slitted through his skull mask. "Why all these questions?"

Alice fell silent.

Judging from the hostility laid in the ground type's voice, as well as his previous words, Flame held doubts that their arrival would be greeted with open arms.

Taking a deep breath, Alice tried her luck. "You see sir, we're with Civil Protection, and the reason for our deployment here is to eliminate the—"

"Hah!" the Marowak clamoured, striking his fists on the bar, "Civil Protection?! And you'll have me believe that after what we've been through, five guys on a leisure stroll is all the help that we get?"

Flame was taken aback by the anger hidden beneath that dry helmet. For a moment, he found himself holding onto the table.

Taking a deep breath, Alice smiled sheepishly. "Well, sir, the empire apparently thinks that a few starving officers are somehow enough to beat the Scum."

"Just gimme a break..." the barkeeper groaned, turning away to fill a glass, "I knew I should have left with the others."

"All right, listen up you—sir," Gaius fumed, "If you wanna moan about help not arriving earlier, do it with someone else. The only reason we're here is to get those savages hanged, so it's in your interest to tell us everything. We're trying to help!"

"Yeah?!" a voice came from one of the few people besides them in the tavern, "And where were you when the Scum came?"

Other clients echoed their boos as well, throwing profanity after profanity in an air of fervour against the common enemy (them, the enemy of the people!).

"My sister died because of you arseholes!"

"We should hang you instead!"

Flame turned his head about, breath quickening. His paws searched for the table. They'd come here to help these citizens, and now those same pokémon were turning against them. Had everybody gone mad?

Some clients stood up from their seats. A Squirtle in the crowd pulled its head back and out came a jet of water, aimed towards Flame. But the Charmeleon ducked just in time, tail in his hands, and the attack splashed Virgo instead.

"Hey!" the legionary got up all of a sudden, near drenched, "Stop right there, or I'll have each and every one of you arrested! You hear me?"

In a few seconds, the tumult calmed down somewhat—though not without some slurs filtering in here and there. By no means, however, was the anger emanating from each one of the citizens' voices dissipating.

The three members of Team Phalanx looked at each other worriedly. Flame got up from his chair, and turned his head round. Good, there was still a clear exit route.

"Well? Is my beer coming or what?" Virgo turned to the counter, shaking off droplets of water.

The Marowak glared at them, then grunted audibly under his helmet."Wanna help us win some payback? Then get the hell out of my tavern and do your job." he pointed a claw towards the exit.

Flame needn't be told twice. Him and the rest of Team Phalanx were already on their way out by then.

"Fine." Virgo huffed, chin raised indignantly.

Just as the group was heading towards the exit, Virgo stopped at one of the occupied tables, ripping the drink out the client's hands, taking a long sip.

The Gabite made a disgusted face, and put the drink down. "Doesn't even taste that good."


Pelorithan Highlands

Flame sat quietly in an overgrown field, pinching and twisting the tail tip in his paws to pass the time. It had only been ten minutes or so since his team decided to leave Sperantia Nova; word spread very quickly among the survivors, and soon many started sending them ominous looks. Once they'd distanced themselves enough from the town, their legionary escort decided to stop here for the moment, whatever their reason.

Thinking back on what had happened in the tavern, Flame was still gripped in disbelief. To be frustrated at the sluggish arrival of relief, which the town badly needed, was only natural, justified even.

But to turn their anger on them, their saviours, flood them with such cruelties and violent accusations! How could it be their fault that nobody in the outside world heard about the raid? Those citizens were certainly ready to turn violent. He saw it in their eyes.

"Flame?"

The sudden interruption caused him to flinch. He turned his head round, but it was only Alice.

"Eh? Sorry, I was just ... thinking." he rubbed his forearm and looked away briefly.

"Oh, I didn't mean to interrupt," Alice lay next to him, lowering her head to his level, "I just wanted to check everything was all right. You've been awfully quiet today."

"Was I...?" Flame blinked, checking back on his memories. Yes, now that he paid some heed to it, he had kept to himself ever since leaving Aesernia.

He frowned, dropping his gaze."I'm sorry. A lot has been on my mind today..."

She paused for a moment, looking into his eyes. "Nervous?"

Flame held off before answering. How much detail was it safe to give away?

But her eyes were staring into his, and it would have been impolite not to answer. Besides, they looked full of empathy. Surely she would understand?

"About the mission? Yes, very..."

Alice smiled sympathetically, lowering her head, her neck orb touching the stalks of grass. "It's fine. To be perfectly honest, I'm nervous too. The enemies we're going to be facing are no pushovers, if what I've heard is correct."

Flame sighed, letting his tail swing back and forth, brushing against the grass.

It helped him remain at peace, in a sense, to know that she felt the same way; a confirmation that his fears were not wholly irrational. Yet, one part of him could not help but feel afraid regardless.

As if reading his thoughts, Alice nudged his shoulder lightly. "Hey, look at me. I know this will be challenging. But whatever happens, don't you dare think for one second that me and Gaius aren't covering your back. We'll make it through, I promise."

Speechless, a warm smile formed on Flame's face. "... Thanks."

He almost felt compelled to wrap her in an embrace, show just how much he was thankful for everything. Folly, he figured—and dismissed the idea entirely.

Still, there was something else nagging his mind. "Alice, why is it that no one else heard of the raid before us? I mean, we're supposed to protect those citizens, and to see those dead bodies, the burnt down houses, it ... it hurt."

The Dragonair bit her lip. "... I don't know, Flame. The papers always say that every town has its own garrison, ready to sound the alarm in case of attack. Maybe the empire doesn't deem this town valuable enough to protect." she sighed, eyes cast downwards. "I really have no idea what's going on, honestly, whether this may cause a rebellion in the future. All I know for certain is that this job keeps us fed. Most of the time."

As silence accumulated between them, both searched for the best subject to tackle that wasn't nearly as dreary.

"So..." Alice glanced to the side, "I just had a thought; this is your first time outside Aesernia, right? If you consider a pile of ashes a town, that is."

The phrase took him by surprise. He wouldn't have imagined that she cared nearly enough to remember that fact.

"Yeah. It's ... strange, when you think about it. Discovering the world for a second time. And even though my home is somewhere out there, I can't remember any of it."

Frowning, she opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out.

At first, he thought it was just Alice being Alice—tactful and aware of others' emotions. After all, silence could display more solidarity than words. But soon her eyes widened too.

"Flame," Alice gasped, "Behind you!"

The stench of smoke reached his nostrils.

"Huh?" Perplexed, he glanced behind his back.

Only to find a small, crackling tongue of fire licking away at a small fern, sparks lighting nearby vegetation too. It took him a second to process the situation, during which his tail had brushed against another shrub, igniting it too.

With a yelp, he leapt on his feet, heart racing frantically.

"Wah! Oh, no! No no no no!" he cried out while trying to claw and stomp the fire out, "No! Alice? How do I—"

Just as he said that, a wave of water crashed onto his scales, and a pervasive cold numbed his whole body for a few seconds. His knees gave way, and his chin dug into the ash-ridden soil, his whole body sprawled haphazardly.

Alice rushed over, mouth agape, panting slightly. "Oh my goodness—are you okay? Did I hit your tail? I'm so sorry, I tried to aim elsewhere but you were moving all over and..."

With a cough, Flame sat up again, legs crossed and holding a paw before her. The frigidness began dissipating slowly but surely; a second later, his tail flame lit spontaneously.

He and Alice exchanged blank stares for a few moments, and then burst into laughter.

"Wow ... That was..." Alice struggled to speak cohesively in between laughs, "Seriously though, are you feeling all right?"

Flame felt a twinge of heat at her concern. Even though he hated himself for baring his idiocy in front of her, it was all too funny to resist.

"Y-yeah," he snickered back, water drops trickling off his body, "Just feeling a little cold, that's all. What was that?"

Alice breathed in relief, glancing at the few cinders that remained in the grass. "Water Pulse. Comes in handy at times like this, though I should probably keep an eye out. That way I don't, you know, accidentally ice you."

Flame gave her an awkward smile, hiding his tail in his paws. "There's no need. I—Sorry... I should pay more attention to this damn thing..."

"What you need is to stop apologising for every little thing." Alice smiled and shook her head.

Flame kept smiling sheepishly as he looked away, away from her. At the very least she didn't seem to think much of his accident.

Bent on turning the discussion around (not to mention how much he enjoyed talking to her), he drew the first thing that came to mind. "I still wonder why Ariel felt the need to have those two boss our team around. Does she trust us that little? Having to sit here idly is starting to get on my nerves."

Alice sighed in resignation. "I know how you feel. That guy especially—what's his name, Virgo?—I can't stand listening his voice. Ariel's right, however. Their time in the Imperial Army means that we have a much better fighting chance."

She's right... I didn't think of it that way. Flame mused, They're likely far more experienced warriors than us. Certainly more than me.

Just then, a thought popped in his head. He looked at Alice, and realised that this could be the chance he'd been waiting for; she could teach him how to breathe fire!

Is it even sane to ask her? he thought, I don't want her to think I'm a wimp...

Yet, the time was right. The two of them were alone, no intruder listening in, and these were the last moments before they'd enter the area of operations.

Knowing that, he threw caution to the winds.

"Alice?" he inquired tentatively. She seemed completely attentive.

"I know this may sound weird, but could you possibly show me—"

He didn't get to finish his sentence, however, as rustled footsteps intruded in his ears. He twisted his body round, only to find himself face-to-face with an annoyed Gaius.

"What is taking you two so long? Didn't you hear the call?"

"Call?" Flame stole a glance at Alice, "Which call?"

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry to interrupt your daydream," Gaius sneered, "But we're moving out." he motioned them to follow, and both sprang to their feet, sprinting with him across the meadow.

Halfway there, Alice slithered closer to him. "So ... was there something you wished to tell me?"

Flame gulped; despite how much he was tempted to refuse, it was now or never.

"Uh... Yes, actually. You see, I've been having a problem lately. A big problem." His gaze wandered off as he spoke. The word 'big' did not nearly do him justice.

Alice kept her warm smile. "Oh? What is it?"

He took a deep breath. "O-okay. Where do I begin... You can breathe fire, right?"

"Of course. You saw me do it in the past, didn't you?"

Flame gulped, mustering up courage. "Well, because I can't. O-or, actually, I can use fire, only I have no control over it. Whenever I get worked up enough it just … happens. That's why I need someone to teach me."

Alice immediately caught the uneasiness shrouding his voice—he wasn't making much of an effort to conceal it—and laughed lightly. "Is this what's keeping you a bundle of nerves today? Of course I'll help you, you're my partner. Have to keep each other safe, right?"

Flame felt his cheeks heat up again—brighter than his crimson hued scales could cover. "... Right. Thank you. Again."

"Just, hold on a moment. Let's see what the legionaries want, and then I'll show you along the way."

Soon, they were back on the main road. The small settlement of Sperantia Nova could be spotted in the distance with some difficulty, while, ahead, treetops obscured the view. Sure enough, there was Virgo, paws on his hips, tapping the soil with his foot as he entertained himself to a whistle.

The Gabite seemed to notice them, but it was then that a sleek shadowy figure dashed by Flame's side, eliciting a yelp. The Umbreon glanced at him in a quizzical fashion, before bringing her eyes back to her partner.

"Finally!" Virgo grinned, "Thought you'd gotten caught in a pitfall along the way."

Woah, hang on a minute, Flame blinked, This whole time we were waiting for her? She's so quiet, I didn't even notice...

"You must excuse me," Yvaine said, referring mostly to Team Phalanx, "Our enemies being who they are, I had to exercise the utmost caution."

"Blah, blah," Virgo mocked with his tongue out and eyes rolling up, "Just cut to the chase. Did you find a path?"

Yvaine kept a neutral expression, and cleared her voice. "Yes. It shall only take us a few minutes; follow me."

The team soon resumed their march, Flame's eyes prodding at his teammate every other minute.

"Mhm? Oh, right, the flamethrower," Alice stopped and blinked to focus. "Stand back a little so we don't hurt the others. Now, watch me carefully."

Then, tilting her maw up high, she cocked her head, puffed her stomach and let forth a stream of blue flames. Flame watched bewildered at the facility with which the Dragonair was able to draw her element, how natural it all looked.

The draconic blaze spread up in the air and dissipated soon after. Gaius, Virgo and Yvaine had turned round to stare at them both wide-eyed.

"Uh ... n-nothing to see here," Alice shooed them meekly. "Just showing Flame a technique."

Now she turned to face him. "There. Think you can do the same?"

Flame nodded, planting his feet deep into the ground and taking a deep breath.

Man up, Flame, he told himself shakingly, his eyes shut. It can't be that hard. You just need to focus. Do what she did.

After preparing psychologically, he too drew his head back, puffed his chest and focused on his inner fire. He felt the pressure building up in his gut with each passing instant.

I'm not going to fail, Flame repeated to himself, I'm not going to embarrass myself. They're all counting on me to succeed, and I'll be damned if I let my team fail.

When the pressure in his stomach reached a boiling point, his throat muscles clenched tightly, and out came a small tongue of fire. His eyes nearly bulged at the sight, so he kept up the stream to see if he could summon more. In seconds, however, the fire turned into a cloud of smoke, pushing the Charmeleon into a brief coughing fit.

"Wait, did you just..." Virgo shifted his head between the two of them, finally catching on to what they were doing. A smile began to creep on his face, and quickly expanded to a grin, before he finally burst into all-out laughter. "Seriously? That's the best you can do? Oh my god, that's so pathetic!"

Why, you little... Flame's brow furrowed, suddenly finding it hard not to slug the legionary right there and then.

Alice tapped his side. "Ignore him, Flame. The fact that you spit fire on will is already a sign that you're improving."

Although he wasn't saying it, he appreciated her words of encouragement more than she would ever imagine. On the spot, he tried to summon more fire, prove the legionary wrong, but nothing happened.

He closed his eyes and smiled contently regardless. Oh well. One step at a time, I guess.

"Let's get going," he told Alice, though not before taking a protracted look into her pristine eyes.


The road went only steeper as they trekked forth, passing through small forested sections and eventually disappearing altogether. The expeditionary force cut through a field of tall grass, trekked to the tip of one of the lowest hills, and lo and behold, their destination revealed itself before their eyes.

There wasn't much to really be taken aback from, at least in Flame's view. The Pelorithan Ridge consisted of one long, even valley, flanked on each side by a range of rugged hilltops. Something about those hills didn't escape anybody's eyes however: erected on those slopes were tall structures of stone and wood; from them, barely visible ditches, led downhill to a part of the valley hidden by the hillsides.

"What are those?" Gaius wondered out loud. "Watch towers? You two know of any forts nearby?"

"No, it is a bizarre sight," Yvaine said. "Command has never spoken of Imperial positions being present in this area. It may be too early to make guesses, but, if there is indeed a fortress here, then it probably dates back to republican times, and the Great Conquest of the North."

"So ... are you suggesting it's abandoned?" Flame continued.

"Possibly. If you would excuse me for a second, I can find out for you," Yvaine said as she stopped. Eyes closed, she held still, head pointed gracefully towards the valley, and the rings on her body gradually began glowing brighter and brighter.

"Oh, come on, are you that naive?" Gaius spat in the Charmeleon's direction. "The Scum have obviously set up their nest here. Why else do you think the area is so busy?" the Grovyle crossed his arms, a hint of smugness in his voice. "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out."

Flame had to bite his lip to hold back an ugly response. He felt his paw contract into a fist, shaking for a second, but he held it back.

In the middle of a quirky ritual, Yvaine shifted her head uncomfortably, her pupils squeezing even tighter. "Huh? But... I thought..." she muttered.

The Umbreon reopened her eyes, and turned round to find everyone staring at her worriedly.

"It-it is nothing. Perhaps we simply need to move closer."

The stammering in her voice did little to reassure an already distraught Flame. Going by the looks of it, proceeding into the valley was not an attractive course of action. The sky was solid overcast, and it felt as though it would start raining soon.

Evidently, the rest of his squad did not have a tail flame to dissuade them—he cursed his own anatomy.

As the group drew further towards the fort, Flame couldn't help but feel that something was not off in his vicinities. Ripples, thin as webs of electricity, could be seen in the air wherever he turned his head. They sparked and popped noiselessly, one after another. At first he thought it had to have been his imagination, but then the anomalies grew in number so much that nobody could ignore.

"Guys?" Alice said, twisting her head round. "I don't like the look of this. Maybe we should head back.."

The wind howled and wailed in his ears, pushing back against his crimson scales. Flame had to wrap his arms round his own shoulders to keep himself in one piece.

"Nonsense!" Virgo huffed, unperturbed for some strange reason. "It's probably just a thunderstorm or something like that. Is bad weather what keeps you civvies awake at night?"

Flame attempted to rein in his own breathing, teeth grit. "I've never seen one in my two days of life, but I don't think that's how thunderstorms work..."

While that statement did draw a few weird stares, what happened next made all but verified it.

Suddenly, his body became as granite; each vein in his body bristled with cold. He couldn't even shift his lips in a gasp. Everything was contained in a coffin of darkness; then, a flash.

When the bright spots in his vision faded and the world once again took shape, Flame realised that something about his surroundings was wrong. Very wrong. A blanet of haze had suddenly befallen them, thick enough to deny vision of anything beyond a dozen metres. One thing he did see however was a strange grey creature. It looked like the promiscuous fusion between a cyclops and a ghost: a single blood-red eye and a wispy tail. The hollow eye socket injected chills down his spine.

It did not look particularly threatening, nor was it ripping his flesh apart; it just hovered there, staring.

Then, the creature smiled. It wasn't any ordinary smile for sure, especially seeing as the thing had no mouth to speak of. But it was smiling nonetheless. Sweat licked his forehead; fragmented and tangled whispers began playing in his head, over and over again.

Oh! Just as Flame was about to throw himself into a panic, time unfroze, and everything became normal again.

Alice made certain that nobody had disappeared, now on her toes. "Did—did everyone feel that?"

Flame barely took notice, gasping for air, wishing there was something for him to lean on ."Y-yeah... That thing looked..."

Alice stared at him as if he'd lost it completely. "What thing?"

Flame scanned the horizon beyond the fog, and found no ghost creature in sight. He stared back bemusedly, suddenly worried about his mental condition. Had he been the only one to see it?

"Y-you mean you didn't see that creepy ghost thing staring at us? Single eye, yellow mouth on its stomach, floating?

Her eyebrow furrowed in curiosity. "No, I didn't notice anything like that. Are you sure it wasn't some feral? Or perhaps entering the mystery dungeon played a trick on your mind. I suppose it was our fault for not expecting one here."

A breath of relief exited Flame's throat, but the problems were merely beginning for him.

"There wasn't supposed to be a fucking dungeon here!" Gaius muttered under his breath. " We didn't bring nearly enough equipment for one..."

"Fear not, me and my partner did," Yvaine said. "Split across the five of us, our food supplies should last us well over three days in the unlikely event that we do not complete the mission by the first."

"Yeah, whatever she just said," Virgo smiled and pat her on the back awkwardly. "Besides, who cares? It doesn't make any difference as long as I get to kill some baddies. If anything, the journey got a lot more interesting."

"Which also means more dangerous..." Alice added sourly.

Soon, the group came to an agreement and decided to keep moving in spite of the unpleasant surprise of being in a mystery dungeon. Before they resumed their trek, Flame double checked the spot he could remember seeing the ghastly cyclops in. Again, there was nothing. The question bestrode his thoughts like a colossus: what was that thing he saw? Was it even real, or signs of furthering schizophrenia? The fact that none of his squadmates seemed to notice pointed very much in one direction.

It was just a hallucination, Flame tried to rationalise. With time, they will go away. Hopefully. Or was that thing real? God, I better not be losing my mind...

He had a feeling it would not be the last time he'd see that creature.


End of Chapter VI

Chapter Text

Chapter VII: Invictus


"The invasions are a small price to pay. Urbe can be defended; Our Benefactors have already guaranteed their support to that end.

Unfortunately, for the time being, that can only happen if and when we get to the bottom of the disappearance. If our state is to preserve any dignity, then it is vital that their project is finalised. Two legions have already been diverted to investigate.

I expect the Foundation to deal with the issue at hand swiftly, as we all know what stalling would entail."

Emperor Adrian's Decree


Senate House, Urbe

A door flew open in the expansive palace hall, echoing faintly throughout its marble domes and arches. Imperial banners hung motionless from the upper levels, tinted of bright red and depicting a proud, heraldic eagle, with the letters SPQU stamped below its talons.

The Dragonite's lip twitched, and he nearly had to take a step back, so strong was the aura of grandeur. Although he'd entered this room more times than he could recall, on this particular day, it felt close to overwhelming. Rain drops flicked endlessly against the glass panes embedded in the roof—no way of telling how late he was.

Clutching the door handle with a soggy paw, he leaned his head inside, eyes darting around the hall.

"Sycorax! Where are you? Sycorax!" he called out tentatively. Only the echo of his own voice answered.

The dragon didn't bother to shut the door behind him. He brought a paw to clutch his throbbing cranium, and barely managed to hold back a grimace. For all he knew the Senate had already convened, yet he couldn't find the energy nor the will to hurry.

As he trudged forward, his eyes were glued to the intricate mosaic underneath his very feet. It depicted a gloomy and tempestuous sea: the Imperial fleet had just inflicted a decisive blow on the enemy ships, which now lay scattered in the treacherous waters. Scores of creatures plunged overboard as their vessels ripped apart, others desperately clinched whatever was at sea to remain afloat, others yet attempted vainly to grab on to the Imperial flagship. On its deck—

His heart nearly fluttered at the sight. There stood a Dragonite, tall and proud, arm held out in a salute. Light descended upon it from a breach in the clouds, akin to a hero receiving the blessing of the gods.

A volatile smile caught his face unprepared. Images swept through his head, fragments drawn from easier times: stories about his father, of the anarchy brought forth in the Year of the Seven Emperors, of the role he played in holding together the entire world...

It was only when a puddle of rainwater started to form over the delicate mosaic that he noticed just how soaked his scales really were. The Dragonite shook his wings and arms as vigorously as he could, and hurried down a hallway—the carpet would absorb the mess.

I don't understand; even after all I have tried, nothing seems to work. What is it that I don't have, but he did? He kept his chin down, his stare drilling a hole unto the rug.

Past the lavish gold decorations, dozens of paintings dotted the hallway's length. It was with a sort of vague distaste that he spotted the portrait of a different, younger Dragonite draped in his imperial robes, a fairly recent addition to the hall.

Flavius Hadrianus Augustus, the caption read.

Adrian didn't loiter around to gawk at it. In the end, it only made him feel more stupid than renowned (not to mention fat).

As the dragon contemplated the myriad of ways the hearing could go wrong, a soft voice seeped in through one of the doors on the side; he recognised it at once, and knocked vigorously.

The door opened to reveal a purple insectoid pokémon. Its metal carapace gleamed under the will-o-wisp lamps, and its glass red eyes flickered at the sight of him.

"Oh—my emperor!"

In one hasty motion the Genesect brought a knee to the ground and bowed, the burdensome cannon on its back in full display.

Adrian witnessed the handful of other pokémon behind it mimic their superior. While such a gesture would at times create a lump in his throat, he nevertheless couldn't help but wear a smug grin for a moment.

"At ease, Sycorax." he nodded to accompany his words.

The general rose back to full height, stopping just below his chin. "My emperor, may I ask your reason for being here? The sitting has already begun."

Adrian tried his best not to cringe at the sound. Sycorax's voice could be described as artificial, both introduced and ended by a tiny yet noticeable bout of static. Its small mouth never moved whilst speaking either, suggesting that the source was hidden somewhere just behind it.

"Figures. I was on my way there just now. What's going on?"

Sycorax glanced back inside the room, where a few dozen pokémon stood round a table. "We were ... discussing your recent proposals to widen our manpower pool. Mandatory draft in the affected provinces sounds like a feasible idea, though some of my colleagues insist that it would only ... deepen tensions between the north and southern portions of our realm."

Adrian's brow furrowed. "Nonsense. I am confident that common sense can surmount such petty rivalries." He turned to leave. "Anything else, general?"

Sycorax paused, dragging his foot along the carpet, his leg armour clanking. "Well, yes. I have been informed pertaining to the letter Ariel wrote. Which disciplinary action shall be taken?"

The emperor looked downwards, and sighed. "None. Not this time. I suppose her concern is justified in some ways, yet ... the reason why I'm doing this goes beyond her or Civil Protection."

"But, my lord, she has insulted your judgment!"

Adrian looked in Sycorax's glowing eyes sternly. He motioned it to follow, and so the Genesect did.

"General, I know what I'm doing," he hissed, turning a corner, "Whether she approves or not, I shall continue to personally select operatives to carry out missions as long as it proves necessary. My choice has not been taken lightly. Relay these exact words to her."

Sycorax nodded quietly. "Understood. Do you wish for me to attend the hearing with you?"

Adrian gathered a half-smile. While it felt wrong to constrain the only subject he could stand into attending the entirety of the session, having a presence by his side would definitely take some pressure off him.

"... Yes. Let's just get this over with."

Despite still being out of view, the clamour seeping through the walls suggested that their destination was close. Adrian shut his eyes and filled his lungs in a deep gasp of air. Much to his dismay, the noise only became louder and louder, until they finally reached the Senate Hall.

The instant he stepped inside the room, all sounds within it ceased. Adrian took a long but unenthusiastic look of his surroundings: levelled on three broad steps, the senators sat arranged in a semi-circle pattern which could feasibly seat three-hundred pokémon—only a hundred or so were present. A gargantuan dome towered far above, while his throne rested opposite the formation, flanked by burning braziers.

Adrian felt each and every single pair of eyes homed in on his body, following his every movement. Silence. Only fount of noise in the room were his footsteps. He both detested and revered this illusory peace, for while it allowed him to think straight, the silence would quickly turn nerve-wracking.

Slowly, he made himself comfortable behind his platform, eyes dashing among the seats. He aligned his back correctly, while trying his best to ignore his heart thumping in his chest—just remember the speech, he repeated mentally. Once Sycorax took position by his side, every creature's eyes turned away from them and to the newcomer.

A procession of Gardevoir, each wrapped in a silky vest covering their hair, slowly strode to the centre of the room, just in front of Adrian's throne.

This is it, he thought, The meeting is starting. Better brace myself while I can...

Slowly, yet with an elegant gait, the lead Gardevoir set her knee down on one of the lower steps leading up to his seat, and bowed her head parallel to the ground for well over a minute. The memory awoke in his head—it all served as a throwback to an ancient event, the (forced) marriage of hundreds of females early in Urbe's history, when the city represented naught but a spot in the landscape.

Then, she rose and faced the senators, hands cusped as she composed herself. "Good morning to all. Thus begins the weekly convention of the Imperial Senate of Urbe."

Adrian could only hold himself back from openly showing his impatience. There was no ruler in his bloodline who gleed ancient traditions greater than himself, yet right now he wished nothing more than to dismiss the session at once.

"As the honourable members might recall, His Majesty has decreed that any disturbance deemed obstructive to the course of this session shall be dealt with accordingly." She paused, not least to let the message sink in.

"Psst, my emperor," Sycorax buzzed into his ear, "Do you wish to go over your speech again?"

"Y-yes. Thanks." Adrian gulped, gracefully accepting the paper sheet offered to him.

"... Of course, considering the continued state of emergency, there will be much to discuss. Now, it is my greatest honour to cede the floor to our divine ruler, Emperor Adrian Augustus!" With that, the Gardevoir stepped aside.

It was then that he realised the whole room was waiting for him to speak. And he still hadn't read a single line. Suddenly the whole speech he'd so meticulously prepared hazed; he couldn't remember anything beyond the introduction!

Calm. They can see your shaking, Adrian said to himself, If you bare your weakness, they'll pounce like dogs. You've got this.

He snuck a glance downwards between the middle and end lines, hoping to catch key words that would help him remember. There! That's what he wanted to say. Taking a deep breath, Adrian rose to his feet for the added effect, and sent a sweeping, hardened look toward the aisles.

"My senators. My ... friends," Adrian said with some reluctance, "As you may already be aware, this day holds great significance to our state. For a hundred-and-ten years ago, on this very day ... barbarian armies stood at the gates of Urbe."

Silence once again took over as he paused to carefully observe the reaction in the room. While there were more than a few whispers and disinterested faces among the audience, the subject captured enough attention for him to continue.

"Many deemed the situation unsalvageable, even suggested our unconditional surrender. Yet the Eternal City survived. It was because my father, then sitting upon this same throne, rallied this body together for the common good, ended months of obstructionism and passed much-needed reforms."

Murmurs arose from the crowd, and faces contorted in indignation. Was he doing this all wrong?

Adrian chewed his lip, but kept going, his tone rising. "Now, as I stand before you on this day, I ask you to come together to preserve our great nation. I realise that we may not find agreement for every sticking issue, but action must be taken! For the Senate and people of Urbe!"

When his heart rate settled and the soreness in his throat forced him to stop, Adrian crashed down on his throne. In between pants, he quietly wondered whether any meaningful result would arise from this sitting. To more or less blame his audience for the current state of affairs risked being a suicidal move, yet it needed to be said.

Then, one of the senators on the right side of the aisle, a Servine, stood up from her seat.

Adrian nodded. "Yes, senator, you may—"

"'Tis most ironic that you mentioned your father," the noble said, "Seeing as it was he who decreed that all bread in Urbe come from the northern fields. Meanwhile, food shortages province-wide are becoming increasingly the norm!"

Cheers of endorsement erupted from her section, and whoever had paws began clapping fervently.

The emperor grit his teeth. "Senator, I will not tolerate slander directed at my father! Besides, your claims are absolutely unfounded."

"Your rule has seen a silent slaughter of my people!" the Servine shouted unhindered, turning heads, "Just two days ago, Sperantia Nova was burnt to the ground by barbarian Scum. Your army was nowhere to be seen!"

"Senator, stand down!"

Suddenly, an entire aisle rose to their feet and burst in a chorus of 'Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!'

Adrian felt a lump forming in his throat. His heartbeat escalated with each series of chants, just as disorder took over further sections of the room. Next thing he knew, a Golduck amongst the rebellious stopped chanting, and shot a small ice beam just above Adrian's shoulder.

The emperor gasped as the ice beam missed his throne by millimetres, instead creating a rough patina on a wall behind him.

Sycorax dashed to his feet, assuming a battle position. "Order! Order! Guards, take them away!"

Adrian could only watch as a platoon of Bisharps converged on the Golduck's position, shoved it roughly to the ground and dragged the culprit off, as well as all those still hurling insults.

His eyes swam from those senators to the patch of ice on the wall behind him. The chorus continued.

Gods be with us...


Castra Aeterna – Outskirts

After more than half an hour of aimless wandering, Team Phalanx and their legionary escort were still advancing through the mystery dungeon, the fortress nowhere in sight. The freezing fog suffocated their figures, cancelled their surroundings completely—Gaius had ordered them to huddle together in a spearhead formation to avoid being swallowed by the whiteness. Flame knew that to walk out of formation would equate to vanishing from existence, a dark stain upon the purity of the mist.

At some point, a sturdy-looking stone wall at least three times taller than each of them appeared within their cone of vision. Many individual stones bore a pale brownish discolouration, and patches of vegetation flourished in between.

"Okay, we've reached the perimeter now," Gaius felt the wall with his claws, motioning the others to follow, "The wall feels sturdy; no use trying to bring it down. If we keep circling, there should be some kind of breach or gate we can use to get in."

As they travelled along the ancient wall, Flame's arm rubbing uncomfortably against Virgo's, he saw Alice intensely studying the wall in front of him.

"It doesn't make any sense..." she muttered, "How is this structure still in one piece? It must date back to nearly a millennium ago! You would think that by now all those years of abandonment and exposure to the elements would have taken their toll."

Yvaine perked her ears. "Mystery dungeons do not abide by the rules of time. It is a basic principle of dungeoneering."

"Yes, I know very well. Two years of going through these places has taught me as much," Alice said, "What has me perplexed is how ... fresh it looks. Surely it couldn't have been engulfed just a few days into disuse?"

"There is a feasible explanation, in my view," Yvaine pointed out, "The anomaly may have forced the garrison to evacuate while it was still operational."

Alice didn't look convinced. "Didn't mystery dungeons start appearing less than a decade ago? Right around the first Scum raid?"

Yvaine's eyes widened in realisation, and she remained quiet for a few moments. "I suppose that is technically ... correct. We shall see."

The moment they stopped talking, Flame began reflecting on what had just been said.

So ... mystery dungeons didn't always exist? Odd. Might want to ask Alice if we can go to that library again, he thought, a small smile appearing on his face.

Right as he started musing about what he'd want to learn there, the order was given by Gaius to halt. What he didn't notice was the sudden, gaping void in the earth to await his next step, and suck him into free-fall.

Flame let out a high-pitched scream right before his maw smashed against a hard surface. Pain flared up through his face as the wood bent inward and shattered into splinters. He lay there aching for what felt like minutes, though probably amounted to less than that.

Gaius' voice echoed from above. "Damn it, I ordered you to stop, moron!"

With a considerable effort, Flame pushed himself up with his arms and clamped the side of his jaw—somehow not dislocated from the impact. Once his wobbly feet steadied, he surveyed his surroundings. A pair of unscalable walls flanked his sides, leaving little room to wiggle, while duckboards made of wood served as impromptu flooring. The passageway extended out of sight in both directions, strangely free of the fog that acted as a ceiling of sorts.

What is this place? he asked himself incredulously. Within seconds, blood rushed through his veins. The great barriers felt like they were going to crush him at any moment, and there was nowhere to move. Was it him, or did each breath suddenly become more laboured?

No. Calm down. There's no need to panic, he spun his head round, I'll climb out of here and get back to my friends.

Facing the wall to his right, he raised his paw tentatively and gripped the furthest brick he could reach. Moisture rested all over. It took some effort to stabilise his hold, as each embedded brick interlocked with the next almost perfectly, so minute was the space between them. Next came his foot, which, again, could barely prevent him from slipping under gravity's rule.

Flame's other paw trembled as he attempted to reach even higher up, but then he froze.

I can't. The gaps are too narrow. I'll hurt myself. I can't. he repeated in his head, and hopped back to the ground, back flattened against the opposite wall, defeated. There was nothing he could do; he truly was stuck in that cursed ditch.

It was then that he noticed his squadmates still calling out to him; keeping quiet would only make them worry more.

The voice of his team leader reached his ears once more. "Flame? Flame, can you even hear me?"

"Y-yeah, yeah, I can hear you. I'm here..." he trailed off, eyes wandering in both directions.

"About time! I was starting to think that you'd knocked your head a little too hard. Can you tell us what's down there?"

Flame picked his words carefully. "Looks like ... a trench, or a tunnel of sorts. I'm not sure."

Gaius hummed, his silhouette faintly discernible in the fog above. "Interesting. Must be part of the defence systems ... How steep is the fall?"

"Not too much; just make sure to brace yourselves beforehand." Flame said, and grasped his aching jaw.

The whole team stood quiet for a while, uncertainty reigning dominant. Flame could only turn his head in both directions in a nearly paranoid fashion while the others decided on a course of action.

"Listen, I don't think jumping down there is the best decision," Gaius spoke up, "What if the Scum are lurking in ambush? We'd be crammed in a single file, waiting to get slaughtered."

Flame's heart jumped a little when he heard that. No, they couldn't possibly do that to him, could they? He inhaled deeply. It was his fault, his fault.

"And what are we going to do, leave him behind?" said Alice, "You know that's preposterous."

"Yes, but maybe if he paid more attention to where he's going..."

Flame banged his fist against the wall, head tilted up to the Grovyle's silhouette. "N-no, wait! ... T-there's no fog down here! We're no less vulnerable here th-than inside all that fog!"

It was a fair point, he figured, especially considering that he came up with it on the spot—saying 'Please don't leave me alone' wouldn't have sounded very befitting.

"What difference does it make?" Gaius argued, "I don't want to jump into a ditch that can barely fit me!"

Just as Flame was about to counter his point with another plea, Yvaine's almost imperceptible voice could be heard. "I think your friend is correct. Splitting up would only render us more liable to being picked off one by one."

A moment of silence ensued, after which Gaius sighed audibly. "Ah, fine. We'll have it your way then."

Relief flooded Flame's body as his teammates jumped down one by one with a creaking thud. First among them was Gaius—he couldn't help but shrink back under that glare. To the best of their abilities, the five positioned themselves in a single file line. He prayed silently that nobody would make some witty remark, though considering the circumstances he probably deserved it.

"W-w-which way do we go?" asked Flame quietly, tail held forth like a torch.

Gaius pointed to the path leading away from the dungeon entrance.

They moved forward. The trench line snaked for what felt like an eternity, bending left and right and branching off in different directions at multiple points. In between the duckboard flooring, the ground was damp, and soft. There were puddles of mud in some places, which Flame took care to avoid: keeping his feet on the wood was already in itself a challenge.

He snuck a look behind his back. Alice and Virgo seemed quite comfortable, Yvaine as well. Were they still thinking of his mishap? Perhaps it wasn't the best moment to smother them with questions—nor, frankly, to lose himself in his thoughts.

No other form of life made their presence known, not even cockroaches, and deafening silence rumbled in his ears. Silence. A kind of quiet that bristled one's scales more than any sound could. There were only their footsteps, the creaking duckboards, and their every breath.

Flame bit his lip. He adjusted his pace ever so slightly to let Alice behind him catch up, and turned his head round.

"S-so ... Alice, what are we l-looking for?" he whispered to her, "The stairs, like last time?"

Alice sent him an encouraging smile. "Spot on. Admittedly though, I have yet to see a mystery dungeon tied to an artificial structure; only to landscape features. Not sure what to expect when we get there."

Flame nodded, and forced himself to stop playing with his tail. The path now led straight forward, with no turn in sight. He briefly wondered whether this meant they were getting somewhere.

"I believe I know how this system functions," Yvaine said, "Trenches serve as a secret passageway to bring in reinforcements and evacuate the wounded. In most designs, they are connected to an underground layer of the fort."

"That's promising," said Gaius with a noticeably flat voice, and glanced at Flame briefly, "Unless, of course, the dungeon's messed with its path."

Damn it, Flame cringed, I didn't think about that! It better not be the ca—

A sharp crack from underneath his feet derailed his train of thought completely and sent him tumbling in the mud, narrowly managing to catch himself before his face submerged. He squeezed his eyes shut and cringed as he slowly got up to his feet, the horrible liquid oozing down his scales. It coated his paws up to the wrists as well as his knees and feet. The sudden urge to vomit became quite appealing.

Audible chuckles sounded from behind Flame's back—he could bet his life it was Virgo.

"S-shut up!"

Yet that only led the Gabite to laugh harder. In front of him, Gaius merely shook his head.

"It-it's not f-funny!" he snapped, turning and hurling droplets of mud at the Gabite's face.

Borderline growling, he grabbed his tail again and signalled his leader to continue forth. Overt humiliation was about the last thing he desired right now.

Soon though, everyone's thoughts rose away from the scene when the path gradually began expanding outwards. A little further ahead, the path offered enough space for two fair-sized pokémon to stand side-by-side, though not at all comfortably. The wall too seemed to rise, when they understood that in fact it was the path which began sloping downwards.

"Flame, move ahead," Gaius ordered, "Looks like this is it."

For a moment, Flame cursed his tail flame for being so warm and fuzzy, and grudgingly took the lead of the expedition to light the road ahead. Only the path suddenly stopped. Within moments the object of the search became visible: a rough opening dug into a stone brick wall, coloured differently from the ones coating the trenches.

The group halted a small distance away. Flame leaned closer to peek inside the opening; pure blackness greeted him back.

"All right team," Gaius gave everyone a sweeping look, "Is everyone ready? Remember, we enter together and we stay together." he shot a brief glance at Flame.

The Charmeleon huffed silently, and crossed his arms. Rightfully worried or not, there was no need to cite him specifically. Even though his legs were visibly trembling.

"Hey, you pumped yet?" Virgo put an arm on his shoulder, clamped down firmly. It wouldn't budge when Flame tried to shake it off. The legionary kept grinning, and pushed even rougher.

"Yes," Flame grit his teeth, "I'm ready."

He wiggled out of the chokehold just when Gaius motioned them to follow. Tail in hand as always, he squeezed the tip for comfort, and stepped inside at once.


Castra Aeterna – B1F

The fortress' interior was larger than any structure he'd entered yet. If getting lost on the outside looked relatively easy, in here would be no different—the total absence of light meant that nobody could deviate too far from Flame for he served as a mobile torch.

The corridor they kept following would occasionally sneak into another direction or deviate abruptly, in such a way that no sane architect would ever plan. Moisture trickled down from the ceiling almost continuously. Every time his ember was hit, it flickered, and Flame shivered in response. Yet he preferred that to the humidity which would rush in his lungs after each breath. Sporadic rooms appeared erratically on the side of the corridor, with doors made of iron, wood, or merely absent.

At some point, curiosity overtook him; he opened a door and leaned his head inside to catch sight of the contents. A stack of ruined wooden crates, some no more than broken planks, rested in a corner, while a foul odour assaulted his nostrils at once. He yelped when a small bat-creature zoomed out of the room with a squeak.

"Hey! Keep up!" Gaius barked within three seconds of his straying away.

Flame fumbled with his tongue as he caught back up with his teammates, light flaring the path once again with its orange crackles. "Yes. S-sorry."

"There's nothing in there, you're wasting your time."

In that moment, Flame was tempted to dissent. Couldn't there be valuable items stashed inside somewhere? Then again, he grumbled mentally, perhaps there weren't. What with the dungeon seemingly distorting every norm of reason for its own purposes, it didn't take a leap of faith to believe.

Better not take unnecessary detours, he supposed.

"You know, there's a lot of stories circulating about mystery dungeons." Virgo began, "Not sure if you civvies heard them. There's one which says that dungeons are a gateway between our world and a parallel dimension, and that the two will eventually collide."

Alice shut her eyes, and heaved. "Yes, and there's also the bedtime stories about naughty children being taken here if they misbehave. Do you honestly believe such fiction?"

"Well, gee, sorry Ms. Smartass. If you have a better idea, feel free to share."

"I'm not insinuating I could possibly comprehend these anomalies; just that you're—"

Then, Yvaine suddenly halted, and perked her ears. "Hold on a moment."

Once again, as everyone turned to stare she held still, eyes shut and head pointed towards the ceiling, the rings on her body casting a warm glow upon the nearby shadows.

Each of them waited quietly for her curious ritual to come to fruition (whatever that might have been). Then, her face convulsed into a sharp grimace, almost as though in pain.

"Well? What do you see?" Virgo asked, bringing a claw to his chin.

Yvaine bit her lip, holding her breath. "There is ... something. But..." her legs quivered for a moment, and a strained groan sounded in her throat. "I ... cannot explain. Too hard. Too much interference."

The Umbreon's eyes flew open, and she brought her head down to catch her breath.

Virgo narrowed his eyes and creased his brow. "What, seriously? I thought your quirky dark 'powers' were infallible."

"It matters not," Yvaine lifted her chin and turned away, "We shan't need them anyway. Let us move along."

The group resumed their systematic exploration of the floor. Flame led the way for obvious reasons, but never strayed from Gaius' side just in case. The ceiling, walls and floor of the dungeon looked anything but pristine, yet he couldn't help but wonder how many years had gone by since any pokémon—well, a sane one—set foot inside.

Despite the barely perceptible noises in the distance, no wild pokémon jumped them by surprise. Though that didn't prevent Flame from feeling increasingly on edge. The humidity wasn't helping either.

Close to representing an omen for the future, a dust-showered skull from a horned creature jutted out of the ground, lying camouflaged amongst one of the many piles of dirt and debris (Virgo joked that they looked very much alike).

As the team explored the floor, the paths began to unwind. Or rather, the complementary corridors and rooms had all caved in, effectively leaving them no option but to march in one direction. Though this was only the first layer of the anomaly, things were surprisingly calm so far.

We didn't meet anything yet, Flame reflected, Maybe our numbers are what's keeping ferals away. Granted, I'd still prefer if we got out of here as quickly as possible...

It was then that they located the stairwell. It jutted out of the floor all of a sudden, leading up to the ceiling and digging a path upwards. One could have plausibly considered it part of the original structure if it weren't for the unnatural positioning in the middle of the room. Behind it, an opening led to somewhere deeper inside the dungeon's bowels.

Yeah, no thanks. Flame told himself sarcastically as he tried to keep his eyes away from the penetrating darkness.

Wasting no time, Team Phalanx unanimously ascended the steps.


Castra Aeterna - B2F

One thing became clear to Flame the moment he emerged on the next floor: his system had definitely not habituated to the motion sickness. He rested his shoulder to a surface while everybody made sense of the new surroundings.

Rather than yet another labyrinthine corridor, they found themselves inside a room wider than any prior. Dusty cabinets lined the wall, only some of them holding contents. There was even a desk covered with some sort of map and strewn papers, while a torn banner hung just above it. Beyond the rips and wear, the words 'Legio XI: Aeterna' could be read just below a figure representing a once majestic eagle.

"Hmm ... Looks like you were pretty much right," Virgo elbowed his partner's shoulder and pointed at the writing, "Imperial fortress. That number look familiar to you?"

Yvaine shook her head. "Disbanded. Quite some time ago."

Flame stared at the banner for a few seconds, then at the legionaries, then back at the banner. None of that made much sense to him—perhaps a secret military code? Oh well; someone would likely force him to learn it one of these days.

However, the inscription stopped holding much significance as soon as he examined the landscape more thoroughly. Something was off. He spun his head round again and again, trying to pinpoint which detail was getting under his scales.

"We're ... trapped." he realised.

"Trapped?" Alice replied, tilting her head at him.

"T-there's no—I can't see a door, or any kind of opening. No way out." he gulped, and let the others see for themselves.

Indeed, the walls looked smooth and well chiseled the entire length, almost as if an entrance had never even been considered in the planning phase.

"What? No ... That's impossible," Gaius mumbled as he paced around the room, "I've seen an anomaly play stupid tricks, but never like this. Check behind the cabinets. There has to be a way out."

Hearing that, Flame nodded vehemently, and faced the nearest cabinet. He paused for a moment. Inside were all in all about a dozen books and tomes, their covers irreversibly discoloured, and just as many singular documents. The thought entered his head that they may have been important, but the haste with which the rest of the team got to work nagged him to continue regardless.

With his feet anchored to the ground, Flame rested his shoulder upon the wood cabinet, inhaled sharply and channelled all the energy he could muster to his arm. The bookshelf creaked as it became subject to so much force after an ungodly long period of time.

It slid an arm's length, so he pushed again with a groan, trying not to lose his balance.

What did lose it instead was the cabinet itself, when a supporting shelf on the opposite side spontaneously collapsed. He wisely decided to take a step back as the whole cabinet began to slowly tip forward, before it crashed to the ground in a shower of dust and splinters.

Flame stood there awkwardly, eyeing the papers now scattered at his feet. Well, that's ... one way to do it...

Unfortunately for him, no gaping hole was to be seen in the spot previously concealed by the cabinet. Only more wall. Looking around the room, he noticed similar results from by his teammates.

"Any luck?" he asked, just as Gaius toppled the last piece of furniture big enough to hide an exit.

"Fuck! Just what we needed..." Gaius kicked a half book, scattering the pages all over. "It's like we ended up in a goddamned cage."

"Oh, stop making such a big fuss," Virgo said, "First time for everything, right?"

"Just shut your mouth and let me think." Gaius growled as he paced back and forth.

"Um ... What now? Isn't there an item, or something like that which could help?" Flame spoke the first thing that came to mind.

"Well ... we did pack an escape orb for emergencies," Alice tapped her bag with her tail, "So there's little risk of dying here, but ... jettisoning the mission like this? It'd spell the end for us. Ariel would ... we can't." she seemed to cringe for a moment, and shook her head.

The news that their fate wouldn't be that of starvation in some demented tomb alleviated his nerves, though only somewhat. An exit still needed to be found for there to be any chance of completing the mission.

"Would a blast seed help?" Yvaine offered, "A single one should be enough to open a breach."

Gaius stopped, mumbling to himself. "Perhaps ... I say we inspect the wall, try to find a weak spot where one can be detonated. No need to waste more items than necessary."

As the rest of the team made preparations for the plan, Flame drifted off to the other side of the room. Bored out of his wits, he approached the desk, rested his paws on its surface, leaned down to gaze at the plethora of documents and papers scattered all over. A faded map drew an overview of the surrounding area: the fortress system was detailed extensively—trenches, walls, and artillery positions all marked accordingly, built into the valley and surrounding forest.

He grabbed one of the many documents, holding it in his paws. The paper was so yellowed, so full of smears and crumbles that no angle helped it become more readable. He laid it back and grasped another; this one more or less comprehensible. With a glimmer of curiosity in his eyes, he began reading:

Leftenant Daedalus, Martius XVI, DCCVI AUC

New prisoner came in the other day. Guards saw someone trespassing, so they brought him in; didn't see it myself, but from what I heard nobody could recognise what it was.

Then the next day a praetorian Espeon barged in with an Imperial mandate. Warned us of another incident like this happening, and then she wiped the memories of any guards who'd seen the prisoner, and the cellkeepers too. Cell found empty after she left. No trace of the prisoner. Honorius won't say a word...

Just as he finished reading that paragraph, the sound of Yvaine's voice intruded upon his privacy.

"Everyone, hold still."

Flame raised an eyebrow, noting that never had her voice sounded so troubled. He turned round to face her, as did the other pokémon.

The Umbreon stood rigid as stone, gaze lost towards the ceiling. "No movement. We may have a problem here." she said in a whisper.

Everyone followed her judgment, and held still, eyes darting to where a threat may lie (he didn't understand—where could a feral possibly hide from them?)

"Sure it's not 'voices' again? We still need to talk 'bout that..." whispered Virgo.

"Quiet." Yvaine said, "I'm positive this time. There could be—"

The legionary never ended that sentence, as she quickly shot her head to the side, gathered a pulse of dark energy in her mouth and hurled it forth in a fraction of a second. It took Flame a second to realise something: it was aimed straight at him!

There was barely any time for his brain to react as the projectile—oh! But the pulse stopped short of him and exploded in mid-air. Only when a shriek rumbled his eardrums, and a dark, gaseous sphere took form did he understand that he had never been the target.

The ghastly shrill reverberated in every corner of the room for a moment longer, before the gases dissipated into thin air.

"What—what was that?" Flame gasped.

"Form on me," Yvaine ordered, "And get ready. There will be more."

No pokémon questioned her plan—not even Gaius, who would normally throw a tandrum about being ordered around as team leader. They stood in a pentagonal form in the middle of the room, eyes bolting around frantically. Nothing further had appeared after three interminable minutes, though Flame couldn't shake off some peculiar feeling, as though they were being watched. Shadows were dancing at the edge of his vision, and he heard, somewhat muffled as if far away, malicious cackles.

"Above us," Yvaine said, "They are idling. Observing."

"You haven't answered my question," Flame grit his teeth, "What is 'they'? The Scum?"

"Perhaps," Yvaine never moved a facial muscle, "Or, they could be ferals. It remains to be seen."

Wow, nearly thought you were going to be helpful for once. he was tempted to say aloud, before remembering that it would be extremely impolite.

Though he wasn't lost just yet, for Alice heard him. "That was a ghost-type ... Ghastly, I think. They can't do much so long as we're in a group; they prey on lone wanderers."

Flame nodded slowly, letting the information sink in. "Okay ... Then w-why are we just standing here?"

She acknowledged him with a glance, whispering. "Only problem is that ghosts are ... intangible. At least, until they choose to appear. So there's nothing we can do but wait."

He smiled politely at her as a sort of gratitude, even though curses ran in his head. Could he never catch a break? As if things weren't convoluted enough, now he had to worry about ghosts.

In a mere two seconds his own thoughts became unviable though, as the room suddenly turned into a massive echo chamber. Disgruntled sounds cascaded upon them from some source above, so close that it was kissing his horn; slowly but surely the screech took the form of a feminine screech, painting an image in his mind of a pokémon being slowly ripped apart limb by limb.

Flame had to cover his ears lest his head imploded. The cries reverberated through his bones—his knees were starting to feel weak.

"G-gaah ... Stay focused!" he could just barely hear Gaius' plea, "They're trying to lower our guard!"

How, he thought, how could he possibly keep his guard up when various points of his cranium felt close to rupturing?

"G-g-gaaaahh!" Flame squeezed his eyes shut, "Stop! Stop it! Enough! P-please!"

When he opened his eyes again, the last thing he would have expected was for a stubby, dark purple pokémon with a roundish body to be floating before him, wearing an exaggeratedly large grin.

Desparate for nothing but to halt the ghoulish screams, Flame dared uncover his ears as he lunged forward with his claws, teeth bared. Yet instead of running through tender flesh, the swipe felt more like submerging his claws into a pool of gelid water; they passed through like thin air. Eyes wide, he nearly tipped forward from the shock.

The Gengar only widened its smirk, stuck its tongue out, and proceeded to create a sphere of pitch-black matter in its hands. Before it could be cast—the infernal shrieks still lacerating his thoughts—a bolt of electricity arced through the air and intercepted the shadowy orb. Its owner had no time to react as it disintegrated, dazing the ghost-type.

Within a few seconds, the hellish barrage of noise ceased at once, though it took Flame some time to realise over the ongoing ringing in his head.

This finally enabled him to stand up properly, and turn round to assess the situation: Alice stared at him wide-eyed and panting, mimicking the expression on everyone else's face. Yvaine and Virgo were facing off with a small skull-faced phantom, while Gaius still clutched his head tightly.

However grateful for finally regaining awareness of space and time, no distraction could be afforded. He turned back just in time to witness the Gengar recover. Without thinking, he appealed to his inner ember, drew his head back and—

Oh! Now the phantom's eyes glew a pinkish hue, and a gust of invisible energy hit impacted his scales, them too glowing faintly. His jaw remained sealed, with flames still boiling in his throat.

"Flame! Someone give him support!" he heard Gaius's voice from behind, a mere buzz in his ears.

The Gengar crossed its arms in open mockery, then scowled momentarily. It floated closer and closer, till their faces essentially touched. A cold shiver ran down Flame's spine—he wasn't certain at which point he'd started holding his breath. Fire still raged inside his body, down his throat and stomach, boiling to no end, awaiting sweet release. Pain erupted from his chest the more it idled in place.

Just when he could have sworn the ghost uttered something, a dark pulse directly to its face caused it to recoil. The external pressure keeping Flame's body in place vanished instantaneously, and with that, his singed throat muscles could finally release their contents.

The ember attack caught the flinching Gengar off-guard, and evoked a primal shrill that just about shook the walls. Then, under everyone's stare, it flew up to the ceiling, and glanced at Team Phalanx one last time before dematerialising abruptly.

Flame merely stood there panting for a few moments, with a paw clutched to his throat. Albeit each intake of oxygen would only prompt the burnt tissues to sting more, nothing couldn't hold back a sigh of relief.

No. No time to rest, there's still more. He shook his head and turned round to where Gaius and Alice were exchanging attacks with a Ghastly. He stumbled into position, before drawing another large breath and vomiting whatever ember he could muster. The attack was thin and ineffective, yet what mattered was making his presence known.

And it worked. The Ghastly's wide eyes flew between its two opponents and the newcomer, mouth hanging open. One additional leaf blade to its eye convinced it once and for all to drift off to the opposite side of the room, where it disappeared in a flash of light.

A similar treatment awaited two distinct ghost pokémon challenging Yvaine and Virgo: however agile, their dodges proved futile under the Umbreon's constant barrage of dark pulses. Soon, they too vanished into thin air.

Still trembling, Flame plopped himself down on the cold stone pavement, waiting for the earth to stop its neckbraking. The bitter taste of his own fire still remained on his tongue. Within a few minutes, the ringing noise bouncing from ear to ear subsided too. When that happened, the first reaction that sprung was to twist his body and check on his teammates.

But they looked all right—relief hoisted a considerable weight off his chest. Alice and Gaius were already up on their feet, with the legionary duo soon to follow suit.

The Grovyle jerked his head around, while a bead of sweat licked down his forehead and cheek.

"Looks clear. What's your status?"

An affirmative echo followed, except for Yvaine, who nodded wordlessly.

"Copy that. Flame?" Gaius turned to face him, having noticed his lack of an answer.

Only unintelligible croaks came out when he attempted to reply, a reminder of the soreness permeating his trachea.

He cleared his throat, and spoke again. "Y-yes. No injuries."

Yvaine walked closer, inspecting his face. "Good. Sorry about that feral; I could barely think straight for a moment."

"It's okay..." he said earnestly, though sighing underneath, "I could handle it. T-thanks."

"Goddam bastards. I think I may have lost part of my hearing for good..."

"Hey, we held up quite well, r-right?" Flame smiled tentatively, "Even with those ungodly screams, we managed to send them running."

Suddenly, a loud curse by Alice made everybody's head turn, her eyes wide in realisation.

Flame turned to her and flinched backwards, unsure whether to say something. Did I ... say something wrong?

She shook her head to his unspoken question. "My apologies. It's ... ferals don't retreat. Never. Once they see you, it's a fight 'till one of you lays defeated." she stressed, letting the message sink in.

The implications of that statement didn't take very long for Flame to decipher. It had always been a possibility, he figured, running into the enemy at a moment's notice—did he truly expect to stumble upon a big bad lair in the last floor?

"... That's correct." Gaius conceded, "I doubt we have much of an element of surprise left after that."

"Fan-fucking-tastic. Guess they can throw us a welcoming party now." Virgo chuckled loudly to himself.

"What's so funny?" snapped Gaius, "Remember that we still have to blow our way out of this cage."

Alice stopped their bickering, mainly because of the bemused look on her face. "Hey, uh ... guys, I don't think that's a problem anymore—look."

Lo and behold, when everybody's gaze shifted to the wall opposite their shoulders, they did not find a cold, featureless surface. Now there were not one, but two exits to the chamber, both on opposite ends of the same wall.

"H-how?" Flame gasped, "Didn't we check the walls...?"

"Just as I suspected," Yvaine uttered with a twinge of pride in her voice, "This room didn't feel right. The phantoms must have broadcast an illusion to stall us here."

"Illusion?" he repeated, wrapping his head round the concept, "So, you're saying that everything we saw... " a groan exited his throat, "Ah, never mind. As if these places weren't already screwy enough..."

"Oh, you'll grow to love 'em," Virgo closed his eyes and chuckled, "Where else can the possibility of death feel so exciting?"


Castra Aeterna - B5F

Perhaps it was only his unabashed carelessness coming into play, he figured, a total disregard of common sense engrained unto his forehead.

That, or he was being overly fatalistic again, unable to think even for an instant outside himself. How else then could he explain the feelings flowing through his body? It had happened again just a while earlier, besides the stairway leading to the fifth floor—a particularly large rock-monstrosity (a Rhyhorn, or so they told him) took fancy as a nesting spot; then Gaius challenged him to defeat the beast by himself. Sure enough, he did so, albeit entirely by accident: the Ryhorn charged too harshly into a wall while pursuing him round the room. No congratulations followed, no cheers or pats on the back.

Nothing.

After all, with how things stood, this whole job with Civil Protection amounted to everything he possessed. Yes, even in his head it sounded almost too self-demeaning to say comfortably—but at the end of the day, wasn't fighting his only purpose?

You're overreacting, Alice would surely tell him. Maybe he truly was. Maybe he just needed to spend some time in a state of total lassitude, sprawled on his bed (they were right to call him lazy).

Granted, the last two floors of the dunegon proved exceptionally lenient; in both cases the dungeon unraveled relatively quickly, save for some isolated nests and tricky pathfinding. Any feral inhabitant which crossed their paths would end up getting demolished by a whole flurry of attacks, so much that in a way he started feeling sorry for them.

This floor felt different, however.

Ever since the first, he'd started noticing a pattern: though not starkly different one from another, with each passing staircase he felt as though there were always less and less labyrinthine rooms and corridors. Chambers felt wider and more distinct, while torches had started appearing every now and again in the hallways—still burning, eternally so. He was almost certain they were advancing further into the actual fortress.

Could this dungeon, he pondered, be following the original building's layout?

"No, no, you're thinking the wrong way," Gaius answered once he voiced his hypothesis, "Remember, this is a dungeon. Not a normal place. For all we know, the next up could lead down, and vice versa."

"I-I was just voicing my thoughts," Flame replied in a nearly defensive manner, "Haven't you noticed h-how at first we entered in a cold, dark basement, and now it's gotten brighter? Heck, look outside!"

Gaius' face contorted into a preemptive sneer. "You don't get it, do you? Mystery dungeons don't—hang on, outside?"

Sure enough, Flame's claw pointed to a breach in the wall, shield-like in form and overlooking the perimeter outside, only for a passage further down the hall to carve through the space that the window claimed as thin air.

Team Phalanx approached it cautiously. Gaius leaned his head forward. A barrier of fog denied them view of whatever outside world existed in such a twisted dimension, though it mattered little right now.

"I'll be damned, we really did get higher. Probably just a coincidence..." Gaius lost his serious expression for a moment, lip curving in a smile, "But still, wouldn't be surprised if this were a completely new type of mystery dungeon we just discovered."

"Congratulations!" Alice lauded in an obvious taunt, "Now what, you intend to name it after yourself?"

Gaius looked forward in a distant grin, snickering."Gaius-type mystery dungeons ... Doesn't sound half bad, if only it had a chance of passing through the registry."

It might have been his imagination, but this might have seen the first time Flame had seen Gaius exhibit anything close to a smile.

"Oh, you better not." Virgo crossed his arms, "Last thing we need is putting strange ideas into Ariel's head."

"Right. Still waiting for the day she renames the town into 'Aerelia'..." the Grovyle muttered.

"Hey, look at the bright side of things," Alice replied, halfway sarcastically, "If we're lucky, the Scum might take it before we ever see that day."

"Not if we can help it." Flame added without much thought.

Alice's face changed into one of mock smugness. "Let's hear you repeat that after two months under her rule."

Just that moment, a far-away groan, as though coming from a pained beast, boomed throughout the hallway—Flame's legs froze in place concurrently with his face.

"Oh fuck," Gaius mouthed, and jerked his glare at Flame. "You— ... don't get distracted. There's a time and place for that. Not here. From now on, nobody says a goddamn word. Move."

Flame hurried his pace and followed everybody else into the first available passageway, his ears leant behind him. Some garbled noises—possibly heavy footsteps—arose from far away, but eventually faded off once they got far enough away.

Nobody uttered a word for some time, now aware just how far its echo propagated.


End of Chapter VII

Chapter Text

Chapter VIII: Dissonance


"The Great Conquest of the North, also referred to as 'Bellum Honorii', was in fact a series of campaigns waged by consul Honorius Magnus for control of the present-day provinces of Illiria, Gaeta and Aesernia against their barbarian occupiers. Following a series of brilliant successes, Republican Legions forced the Scum to flee beyond the Spearhead Mountains, where the gods have kept them banished ever since."

— Entry from the Encyclopaedia Universalis


Castra Aeterna – B9F

Having pressed deeper into the fortress' bowels, Flame now knew what signing that contract entailed.

Not a moment after the action he had understood somewhat; now, however, dungeons bared their true nature to him. How his knees were still connected and managed to keep him afloat was beyond his understanding. His roaring stomach didn't provide much help either—didn't they stop to eat just a few floors ago?

"Can we at least rest for a moment? I'm starting to feel dizzy..."

"No. We'll eat when we locate our objective," Gaius scoffed and sent him a look, as the wooden step creaked and bent under his passing weight.

A passing torch lit the dust around Virgo's insistent smirk. "Oh, really? That's precious. Are we going to bash their skulls in with fruit?"

Heaving, Flame dared look to his side. The bridge-like passageway floated over a dark drop-down, only connected to reality by a rough stairway carved into the rock.

"Before engaging the enemy, idiot," Gaius hissed and flicked his wrist.

"Gaius, I do not think there would be enough time," Alice argued, "An ambush is best fought with a full belly, after all."

"Never heard that saying. Quiet, now. Let me think in peace."

Quiet reigned for a few minutes, minus the creaking floorboards and pillars running underneath them. Somewhere in the distance, a heavy grinding noise—almost that of a massive rock shifting—echoed to no end. Meanwhile, the bridge began feeling more and more suspended as it ran, but Flame tried not to delve too deep into such questions. Truth be told, however, that was not quite his biggest concern right now.

Gradually, he slowed his pace just enough to let Gaius take the lead, while he flanked the others. A quick glance revealed his team's weary faces, illuminated mostly by his tail fire and the occasional torch on the wall. He bit his tongue softly, and weighed his options.

"H-hey, um ... are you feeling the same?" he whispered to Alice.

"Yes, don't worry. The dungeon's taking a toll on everyone."

"Then why is he acting like that?"

"You know how he is. Besides, I believe it's a byproduct of grass-type slow metabolism, or something similar."

Flame shut his eyes, shaking for a second. "I just hope we can get back home soon. Even I am starting to feel cold."

"This ... passage has been continuing for hours," Gaius mumbled suddenly, peering over the edge, "There is no telling where it ends, nor if our objective is on this floor at all."

Virgo snickered for the umpteenth time. "Starting to think the 'intelligence' Ariel gave us was bogus. Maybe she just wanted you three away—ever thought of that?"

Nonsense. I remember Alice saying the emperor himself sanctioned this expedition... Flame frowned to himself. (He knew the Gabite was joking, yet still took everything so seriously!)

Alice seemed to share his feelings, for she turned to face Virgo. "You keep joking, yet this is a very urgent situation. If that filth doesn't show up soon, we may have to consider sleeping here."

"And?" Virgo shrugged, "Sounds doable."

"Why, have you any information on the matter? Personal experience?"

Yvaine shook her head. "Zero records about ever being attempted. I suspect there is a reason for it."

Good. Wouldn't dream of sleeping anywhere next to those ... weirdos. Flame gained a half smile and shot a glance at the legionaries. To be completely honest with himself, he could barely tolerate seeing them within five metres of his friends right now.

Then, however, Gaius turned round and delivered them all a sharp glare.

"Well? If you want to say something, tell it to my face."

"M-maybe we could, um..." Flame stammered, "We could stop as soon as there's solid land under our feet. Find our bearings again."

Gaius heaved an audible sigh "Listen, I'm sick and tired of hearing your whines every other turn. Didn't we stop a few floors ago?"

Whilst technically correct, the argument did little to solve the issue at hand. What was he supposed to do, merely rely upon the hope that this floor teemed with hidden Scum? If anything, such a thought only worsened his apprehension—perhaps they stood on this very bridge, ready to knock him into the abyss!

What he didn't predict, though, was for a wooden floorboard to unexpectedly crack under Gaius' next step. The Grovyle's momentum left him—only one foot firmly on the next board—while the other was sucked downwards. The grass-type fell belly-down and sunk his claws into one of the further boards, just about dislodging his leg from the treacherous void.

Nobody dared to breathe.

Flame silently stared at his team leader, at the bridge underneath his feet; out of nowhere his ears were picking up on a thousand different creaks and whines from the strained wooden planks—cracks, splinters, dents, all his eyes could see! The yearning for sunlight and rest must have desensitised him to the threat posed by the dungeon's sheer makeup at every moment, he supposed.

A distant crashing noise leaked from the void, just in time for Gaius to carefully stand upright.

"Fuck me, that was close..." Gaius uttered with a tone akin to aggression, "Let's just get off this death trap. Now."

Thankfully, the hard stone came soon thereafter: a rudimentary room, uneven by the fortress' standards, abruptly cut off the comparatively frail bridge. Each of them could do nothing but stop in relief, with Flame plopping himself on the floor, watching as the beads of sweat slid to the floor.

It certainly did feel pleasant not having a precarious footing (though could he truly be sure?—dungeons tended to arouse such doubts in him).

Still panting lightly, Gaius turned to Flame. "One minute. Then, we get moving again," he said in a flat tone, "I'm counting."

Flame could only nod courteously, before his paws snapped for his bag, finding it difficult to open. Hastily he yanked a small loaf of bread from there: its crust tainted an unappealing brown shade, he hesitated a second before sinking his teeth into it. A grimace took his face for a moment—it tasted of absolutely nothing, but he couldn't let so many crumbs spill about.

"Over. Form on me," Gaius uttered just as Flame and the others swallowed their last bites.

Lingering for an extra five seconds, Flame groaned as he stood up and fell back in line; perhaps it would have been better not to illude his body with the prospect of rest in the first place.

The next room which came up stood apart from anything witnessed before, a cramped space with walls and ceiling of unrefined stone, though the trace of simple patterns and shapes stained the harmony. The only way to exit seemed to be through a smaller than usual doorway, with large steps leading upwards.

And that was precisely the path the expeditionary force took, for one pokémon at a time could just about fit inside it. He kept his head low to avoid bumping into the ceiling. The stairway continued for a while, with sporadic barred windows and doors appearing on either wall.

"Faster, you slowpokes!" Gaius barked while sprinting , "No one's throwing a welcoming party."

Jumbled noises groaned in the distance again. An exhale of breath, rushing currents, almost like a brewing tempest.

"Guys, um, can you hear that noise? What is it?" Flame brought his mind to words, hoping to obtain a more accurate answer than his head could come up with.

"No idea," Alice shook her head, "It sounds vaguely like a current, that is all but a physical impossibility."

Gaius sneered. "Wouldn't surprise me one bit. It's not like dungeons try to make sense anymore..."

Soon, the noise only grew closer with each further step. It was then that Team Phalanx faced a barred doorway blocking the path forward; it did not look easy to break, and there was another, more immediate way out—a hatch of sorts carved into the structure, providing a clear view of...

...

Flame could not help but stare. There was something profoundly wrong with the way the sky looked. Had it gotten dark, or was something clouding the heavens? The only thing he could be sure of was that the sky could only be seen from outside—a place he had hoped would leave him alone.

"Looks like someone's going to have to sprout wings," Virgo cracked a joke.

Gaius scraped the wall with his leaf blade, and then heaved a sigh. "Guess I'll do it."

"Sprout wings?" Virgo jerked his head back, wide-eyed. More than one stare directed his way hinted at the answer.

"Aren't there other paths we could take?" Alice said, "The noises coming from above do little to reassure me."

"I'll admit it's a risk, but I doubt any of you could jump up there like me," Gaius explained, before he bent his knees and jerked his head up, "Wait for my signal. Here's hoping I don't smash into the wall..."

In a few seconds, the grass-type took a sharp breath, bent his knees and arms low and then sprung in the air; Flame raised his chin to witness his team leader awkwardly grabbing a hold of the ledge, hoisting himself up until his form disappeared into the darkness.

Taking note of Flame's expression, Alice shook her head. "Being a gecko confers him with astonishing agility. If only he possessed similar wit..." she added almost to herself.

The statement certainly aroused curiosity within Flame, but he figured this tunnel didn't provide a very comfortable talking space.

After waiting two or three more minutes (Flame already starting to doubt his return), Gaius' face peeked from the darkness: the sight proved unsettling, he had to admit. No. The thing that bothered him the most was the look in his eyes.

"What's wrong? Found anything?" Alice spoke up, noticing the subtle hints too.

Gaius' facial muscles remained unstirred. He didn't answer for a moment. "See for yourselves."

With that, the Grovyle laid on his stomach and dangled one of his arms from the hatch.

Flame, being first in line, glanced back for a moment and extended his own arms to meet his leader's. Just as he started to squeeze down on the wrist, a yelp escaped his mouth when he suddenly felt himself being yanked upwards. Beyond the momentary panic of being in mid-air, he landed with his stomach on the ledge when Gaius decided to release him; with a shaky breath, he wiggled his legs enough not to slip back down.

With some effort, he dragged himself to a solid footing, when he noticed that a gelid sensation permeated his scales all of a sudden. Not only that, he felt a sensation of pure misery pulse up from his tail—a lone groan escaped him.

He opened his eyes with some difficulties. Gaius stood near him and seemed to utter something—growls covering his voice—while the hatch remained there on the ground.

It took no more than a twist of his head to notice the discrepancy: the air itself jerked and folded into ripples, thin as cobwebs of electricity, while dark and purple smoke billowed overhead. The occasional puncture in the cloud revealed a pinkish sky, with a vague, white singularity the storm clouds seemed to originate from.

Gaius decided to walk closer to him, arms crossed as he raised his voice. "Bah. Cold is supposed to be one of my species' weaknesses, and even I find this tolerable. Get up."

"I ... What ... What's going on here?" he panted through his teeth, paws in a cup round his tail, "Why is there so much wind? I thought there could be no wind!"

The Grovyle's staunch expression told him nothing. "That's how it's supposed to be. On your feet, now. Help the others up while I check the perimeter."

Flame grinded his jaws together as he stood up. "Wait—do you have any idea of where we are right now?"

Gaius stopped. "The fog makes it hard to see. On top of a tower, I think. I'll need to investigate further."

Sensing the irritation in his voice, Flame decided to zip up any further questions and turned to the hatch. Having to uncover his tail to the elements made it troublesome to concentrate, yet he tried not to let the pain transpire.

He got down on his belly, and leant down with the upper portion of his body as his tail swung erratically behind. In the penumbra, he could make out Alice's outline and her shiny blue orbs.

"Flame? What's wrong up there?" she spoke up after seeing him peek, "You're both taking a really long time."

Flame bit his lip. "Uh ... It's hard t-to explain. Gaius said we all need to climb up; here, l-let me help you."

Carefully he extended both his arm the furthest down he could reach, at least without risking to budge the lower part of his body and plunge right on his teammate's cranium.

"Oh," the Dragonair shifted in the dark, "I ... suppose there isn't another way up, is there?"

The question caught Flame off-guard. Did she not trust his clumsiness to hoist her topside safely?

"N-no ...? Look, I'll just call Gaius and—"

"Oh, worry not, 'tis fine," Alice shook her head and slithered forward into the limelight, "Embarrassing or not, I'm just being stupid right now."

With that, she positioned her head under the hatch, and made her best attempt at stretching her serpentine body upwards.

Even then, Flame could not so much as touch her. A grunt marked his incapacity to follow a simple task. After suppressing his breath, he dug his feet further into the ground, before daring to stretch his upper body even further into the darkness. First thing he came into contact with were the small wings on both sides of her head—perhaps lingering there a bit too long, as he grasped and noted just how fluffy they felt. Milliseconds before it could possibly turn weird, he moved further down to beneath her snout, and clenched in a spot which he hoped would not deprive her of oxygen.

Although the contact with her silky scales roused a most peculiar sensation in his gut, he trembled as he forcefully drew her head closer towards him. He felt (and heard) Alice turn rigid, even gag a little; with a further groan on his part, her head surfaced, followed by the rest of her body. The moment he'd crawled back enough for her entire length to lie on solid ground, he loosened his grasp, and sat there, needy for air.

Alice too gasped for air, albeit for different reasons, and glanced down at herself for a moment. The slightest of frowns marred her cheeks.

"A-are you okay?" Flame started, "Did I—"

But the Dragonair drew in sharply, and composed herself. Her gaze wandered to the sky, then to the fog and the endless masses of air weaving together in thin strands.

"Is this...?" she raised her snout to the current, "No. That's impossible. Time itself wanes inside an anomaly—natural occurrences cannot exist here."

"Maybe ... we exited the dungeon?" Flame uttered tentatively.

Alice's eyes kept staring emptily at the white singularity in the clouds. "Impossible; otherwise we would have noticed. No. Something's very wrong here..."

Not knowing what to add, he remembered about the two pokémon still waiting for him below the hatch. Virgo turned out to be even heavier than Alice had felt, and he came very close to dropping him—twice. For revenge, he somehow convinced him to bring Yvaine up in his stead.

"Fascinating," the Umbreon commented as soon as she regained composure, "This ... most definitely throws out every rational norm that has been applied to mystery dungeons. Unless..."

Yvaine raised her chin to the sky, while the rings on her body began to glow. "There is a possibility we've entered an incongruity within the spell."

Everyone looked at her.

"A dissonance? How?" Alice narrowed her pupils, "Have you seen something like this?"

"Yes. A discrepancy in the dungeon's fabric, one where time can flow," Yvaine proclaimed as the storm clouds seemed to spiral round the singularity.

"Really? I think this whole 'dark aura' thing's getting to your head," Virgo reined in a laugh, "An anomaly within the anomaly?"

"Exactly," Yvaine said, before shutting her eyes. The golden rings all over her body began glowing in what was starting to become a habit.

In under two seconds, however, the Umbreon's eyes flickered open. "H-how? But that makes no sense."

"Yeah. Basically what I've been saying all along," Virgo smirked.

"No, not that," Yvaine sent her partner a glare, before her eyes wandered up to the hellish sky, "Why is it not working? Even outside..."

"I ... suppose we can only find the answer ourselves," Alice uttered slowly, scouring the landscape with her eyes, "Hang on—where's Gaius?"

Before he could reply that he'd gone away scouting, a voice came out of the fog.

"Right here."

Just then, Gaius strode over to the rest of the expeditionary force, the leaf-crest on his head flowing along with the breeze, setting eye on each one of them before speaking again.

"And before you ask me, I have no goddamn clue where we are."

Alice narrowed her eyelids concurrently with the wind blowing in her face. "Thought something might have kidnapped you in the shadows. Did you spot any path out of here?"

"You didn't kill any of them, I see. Good; I need everyone alive," Gaius sneaked a glance at Flame, though not overly condescending, "Follow me. Walk slowly; I can barely see what's under our feet."

With everyone's agreement, they began moving.

Flame took notice of the fact that Yvaine hadn't moved from her place, stern as a statue. Yet his mind didn't quite register that as a problem; she would return to formation within instants, more than likely. Before he could step outside the tower, he felt a drowsy sensation in his head, as though something tapped into it all of a sudden.

Stop.

The word resonated throughout his guts. Worse yet, it wasn't he who uttered it.

He gave a startled yelp. Gaius and Alice and Virgo just about disappeared into the tangible fog, yet he felt as though his limbs were tied together by an invisible force...

... It was Yvaine.

"Uh ... what are you doing?" Flame spun his head round to ask, brow furrowed in genuine bewilderment.

Utter silence. The Umbreon just sat there, her eyes drilling a hole into his skull.

Once again, he pretended that this was some kind of sick joke, and channelled energy to his legs to emulate a regular walking motion. The force only lashed back harder and with greater pressure.

Now he bared his teeth. "Hey! What's your damn problem?!"

"You."

The syllable caught Flame off-guard. "Me...?"

No answer once more. Instead, Yvaine slowly drifted towards him, before finally she stood opposite his eyes.

"You are different from the rest." the Umbreon stated in her flat voice.

"Different? What are you talking about?! Let me go!" he growled, baring his teeth instinctively, "They'll worry about us!"

"May I read your aura? Actually, don't answer, I'm going to do it regardless."

His pleas dissipated before they could reach her ears, for next Yvaine closed her eyes and lay a paw on his belly.

Flame found himself unable to do anything but to observe. He payed extra attention to any atypical sensations in his body, but he felt nothing out of the ordinary (minus the discomfort of being restrained psionically). Then, with no warning, her body lurched backwards, and her eyes flew open.

"Yes. Now it makes sense..." the legionary muttered half to herself, "That is what the Gengar noticed."

In that same moment, perhaps out of sheer surprise, the dark energy holding him stiff gradually dissipated, which left precious space for his limbs to move freely.

Finally. What now? Do I run? Flame thought. For some obscure reason, he too was compelled to hold his breath, awaiting the moment in which would start assembling a coherent exchange. The nagging image of his team edging farther and farther played in his head.

Not a centimetre of Yvaine's facial fur shifted as her eyes bored into him. "Normally I can see the whole dungeon, feel its spacial fabric shift. Not here. My aura vision is tarnished; the whole dungeon and its souls obfuscated, unreadable."

His lip twisted, genuinely clueless as to which course of action to take. Rise up and strike her? Countless aspects of the Umbreon had always instilled a feeling of general apprehension in him, but now it rose to whole new levels.

"You are the interference."

Flame's fists curled into paws. "Listen, I don't know what the hell got into your head—"

"Yesterday, when we first acquainted, you refused to answer. Tell me, where do you come from? What are your intentions?"

Albeit the mounting questions only further roused thoughts about clawing her face, on the other hand, he felt a parallel pressure build up in the back of his eyes.

"I-I don't know!" Flame suddenly burst, his voice trembling, "If I at least knew what the hell is going on, maybe everything wouldn't be so fucked! Just ... just stop asking!"

His anger dissipated with each passing word, until his tone resembled that of a lament. The legionary's face never shifted. After cupping his face behind his paws, Flame drew in again and again to calm his shaky nerves.

Yvaine huffed. "So be it."

There was an underlying tone of distrust in her otherwise stonewall voice, though he couldn't quite place a claw on it.

"I'll be keeping my eye on you, Charmeleon."

With that, the Umbreon turned on her heel and stepped away in the direction Gaius had taken. He could do nothing more than uncover his face, and reluctantly follow suit.

Eventually, his friends' voices graced his ears. He wished nothing more than to relish in their presence right now, regardless of Gaius' assured anger for becoming separated for a few minutes.

At the very least, his mind now had yet another thing to ponder on.


Castra Aeterna – Temporal Breach

Something was there.

Initially a mere hypothesis, surfaced in his head as a result of his paranoia, now there could be no further doubt: the noises in the distance stood as proof. Disgruntled, as though a mix of primordial groans and a boulder being ground across the stone.

Yet at the same time, their frequency began to instill a sense of worry: how could his companions not notice?

Maybe I'm trying too hard to make sense of everything, Flame mused as he crossed a concrete walkway, Nothing makes sense here. But, still...

The whole fortress had turned into a series of towers and ample rooftops, connected by bridges and staircases, walls and bastions. Flame knew for sure that it couldn't have been that gargantuan in reality.

As he stuck close to Gaius' back, he peeked down under the walkway. Fog filled it up like water in a pool.

"Listen up, all of you," Gaius began all of a sudden, "Before we press our luck any further, I want you to prepare for contact. I'd start right about now."

"W-wait, you expect the Scum to be here?" Flame asked, rubbing his forearm incessantly.

Gaius shrugged, yet didn't spare him a look. "Hell if I know. I just can't shake this feeling..."

"It would make sense," chimed in Alice, "If any place in this anomaly is suitable for life, we're inside it. Think about it: the regular flow of time indicates the spacial fabric here is also relatively stable. No risk of being swallowed by the anomaly."

Virgo huffed. "Whatever. Still not a place I'd call 'cozy'."

"That's essentially who they are," Gaius said, "Bastards, living in the mud and fog. I can't wait to slice their throat and hang them from a pole in Victory Square."

"If they truly call this place home," Yvaine argued, "How can they enter and exit it at will? And how can one reliably end up in the same place?"

"Heh, now you're crossing into uncharted territory," Alice smirked.

Just then, the staircase ended earlier than all previous ones, and their eyes revealed a most peculiar sight: an inner courtyard of sorts, undoubtedly built into the fortified walls. The relative depression to the rest of the rooftop, which meant ever so thinner fog, allowed Flame to see more or less clearly. Walking closer, he noticed a series of decorated wooden doors, each distanced equally from one another and flanked by a paned window.

These must all lead into different rooms, Flame deduced, Who knows whether they're all connected, or if they're ... currently occupied.

Above each and every window, a fresco ran symmetrical: they each depicted a different creature, often crude in detailing, represented in simple poses. One of them in particular, a blue bipedal figure, towered above all others.

Then, Alice's voice shifted his attention elsewhere. "Oh, Flame, check this out!"

He turned round and walked closer to her, morbidly curious. It didn't take long to notice why she'd called him—an octagonal fountain jutted out of the ground in the centre of the inner courtyard. Rising roughly to his hips, the now static water was overshadowed by a statue depicting a bipedal creature. Its traits looked canine, though it sported iron spikes on its stomach and wrists. The statue's colouration looked markedly black, corroded.

Stamped on the statue's podium lay a silver plaque, with the words elegantly picked out:

MARCUS HONORIUS CAESAR

CONSUL ET PONTIFEX MAXIMUS URBIS

"Didn't think I'd ever see water naturally inside a dungeon," Alice smiled, eyes glazing over the surface, "Think it's safe to drink?"

Flame couldn't help but adpot her same smile. "No clue. I'd rather not find out, though."

Alice chuckled lightly. "That's probably for the best." Her eyes shifted to the statue. "It's amazing that this fountain weathered the anomaly enough to still exist physically. Quite something, isn't it?"

Flame scanned the statue from head to toe. "Definitely. Sorry for ... y-you know, the ignorance, but who is this?"

"General Honorius, last republican consul," Alice explained with a pinch of pride in her voice, "He's the one who colonised these lands, including Aesernia. If memory serves me right, he's one of the only leaders of non-dragon descent."

Out of nowhere, Gaius pushed Flame aside, observing the statue himself. "If we somehow carry this home, we're poised to make a lot of money. I'm thinking Ariel might want this for her villa." he added with a wry grin.

Alice grinned widely. "And sell it? It would be a real shame—especially since we cannot possibly carry this thing out. I suppose this is its rightful place."

Gaius groaned, rolling his eyes. "With that mentality, I see why we're basically broke."

"Oh, well. Hopefully we can find something else to bring back," Flame proposed with a wavering smile.

"Exactly," Alice nodded, "I'll go see what else there is here. Maybe these doors will lead us somewhere."

With that, Alice slithered off in another direction, away from him. From the tail of his eye, he could see that Gaius had wandered off as well to inspect some wooden contraption, probably a catapult.

Something did not grant him distraction however—it was the gaping hole in his stomach, the tremor that pervaded his arms at each disgruntled noise arising in the distance. He nearly didn't take notice of the fact that all sounds had been drowned out by his thumping heartbeat.

Squeezing his eyelids closed, he grabbed a hold of the fountain's edge and leant forward. For what felt like minutes he breathed in, and out; in, and out.

It was only when he opened his eyes again, and stared at the sterile body of water that he pinpointed the issue.

He was scared.

Yet it made no sense, his brain went on.

There was no logical justification to be scared. He somewhat understood how dungeons functioned, how to avoid getting lost, how to fight Scum when need be. And he remembered Alice's vow that he would not be alone, backed up by four battle-ready teammates, who would never let him get hurt—so why, he thought, why should he suddenly feel like ice shards were sticking in his throat?

Why am I acting like this? Flame scowled to himself, I can fight, I can defend myself. Nothing's going to happen to me.

Perhaps this was purely a sign of his immaturity, he figured. By now he should have been above this, but apparently that was not the case.

"Geez, don't just vomit in the fountain. Look for a corner or something," Gaius commented from behind him.

Flame was thankful his leader couldn't spot his face heating up. "D-don't worry, don't worry, I'm not."

Slowly but surely, his heartbeat retreated back to his chest, yet he could not shake off the heaviness in his chest. With a dejected sigh, he turned his attention to the water once again, hoping to put his mind at ease while this brief pause consented.

Notwithstanding the normalised time flow in this section of the mystery dungeon, the water kept still, only wavering when he poked it with a digit. He looked down at his reflection. What stared back would have looked more proper in a mortuary: the numerous ribs poking out of his chest, plus his close to skeletal arms, gave the appearance of a brittle physique (one punch from the likes of Ariel could easily crush his every vertebrae!). Further down, there was a noticeable patch of swollen and yellowish scar tissue marking the spot where the Carnivine's teeth had sunk into his leg just two days prior.

A frown took over his face as he ran over his body with a paw. This constituted—admittedly—the first time he'd gathered up the courage to take a good look at himself, and now, he quite nearly regretted it.

I look like I've just come out of captivity. How can they not cringe every time they see me?

Then, something happened. The surface water trembled.

It had only lasted less than one second, and the movement itself was minor—almost imperceptible. He nearly dismissed it as an insignificant detail, until it happened again. And again. Every two seconds or so, just as the fluid stabilised, it would wobble once more. Bemused, he extended a paw up high—the depression they found themselves in shielded the courtyard from any air currents.

This constituted definitive proof, he thought, of his psychic derangement; assigning such importance to such banal happenings! He was quite willing to accept that as an explanation, yet his system now registered a new sensation. A small, close to inexistent vibration came from the stone beneath his feet. Then more came. Worse than that, he observed how they struck perfect synergy with the water's flickers.

Did all this even mean anything? Perhaps not, but by now, his mind had become far too intrigued to merely dismiss his suspicions as psychosis.

Shifting looks from the water, to the ground, and then to the water again, his brain finally managed to connect the dots.

"G-guys...?"

Gaius broke off his discussion with Alice to turn to him. "What is it now, Flame?"

"Come here a second—you need to see this!" he said with a trembling breath, unsure whether he found Gaius' reaction scarier than the possible danger.

"Why? Can't you just ... ugh, fine," Gaius growled, walking over to him, "I swear, if you're wasting my time again..."

In that very moment—almost as if to offer them a further hint—something akin to a deep groan could be heard somewhere in the vicinity, washed out by distance no more.

"I-I think something's coming," Flame blurted out with some difficulty.

As soon as the echoes of the roar wore off, Gaius' face wore a mesmerised look, staring into nothingness as the rhythmic tremors continued. His words had definitely been heard now.

"What the...?" the Grovyle took a step back, his pupils dilating gradually.

Within seconds, everyone's gaze dashed to a small stairway carved out of the fortified walls and leading upward. Any and all breaths were stifled by the mashing of footsteps on the floor, its direction now clearly identified.

Flame swept each companion of his for clues, silently praying that all this could be traced back to simple weariness: yet no doubt remained in their eyes. A mobile creature was not only present in their immediate vicinity, it was marching.

Right to their position.

"Oh my goodness. He's right," Alice mouthed, frozen in place.

A few seconds of chill passed as the reality of the situation sank in. By now, Flame could not hear much of anything beyond his own thumping heart, interrupted every so often by a suffocated breath. The speed at which it operated was dubiously safe for his health. Could it even throb that fast? Meanwhile, his legs seemed to take steps of their own, backing off until he was almost at the wall.

"Oh god. Oh god, no, " Flame mumbled rapidly, "What do we do? Gaius?"

"Stop crying for a fucking second," Gaius hissed back, his own voice visibly shaky. He could see a change in the warrior's demeanour: he was afraid. That certainly did wonders to help his confidence.

A quick glance to the side told him that the two legionaries stood tense, yet didn't come off as overtly nervous. In fact, he could almost make out a grin on Virgo's face (not that it was a rare sight at all).

The two seconds he drew his eyes away proved the perfect occasion for a hail of stones and dust to erupt from the top of the staircase and bounce to its bottom, the bigger pieces shattering on impact. A mighty crash mixed with the gradual ceding of the stone erupted, as a massive shadow, bigger than the actual tunnel allowed, forced its way through.

"Bloody hell! Everyone, get to cover!" the Grovyle hushered.

Flame did not even have time to register his teammates scattering, let alone think of a hiding spot for himself, before he felt Gaius' claws grip his shoulders and hurl him forward.

The next thing he heard was a splash of water, accompanied by the feeling of the liquid pervading all over his scales as his belly crashed onto a solid surface—taking his breath away. When his head surfaced to gasp for air and his eyes opened, he recognised the silver plaque basically kissing his snout, and the overhead statue, and the water going up to his neck. He was inside the fountain.

As more crashes shook the air and stones splashed into the water, a paw took a hold of his neck. It twisted his head to the right. There lay Gaius, a claw before his snout, body squeezing against his in an effort to disappear behind the base of the statue. With those eyes boring into him at such a close distance, he very gladly would have shrunk back under the water. Instead, he turned away sharply, and swallowed, before nodding.

"Don't. Move." the Grovyle hissed into his ears, advice which Flame was already following.

Neither of them dared twitch a muscle for what felt like eternity; Honorius himself weathered most of the bits of stone flying about, while the noise of rock grinding forcefully against the floor screeched on.

Then, everything stopped.

Flame's ears could only pick up on a few last chunks of concrete thump against the floor, followed by complete silence. Nothing.

Minutes passed inexorably, yet no further sound nor smell arose—past those customary to mystery dungeons.

He couldn't take it anymore. Unwilling to remain in this drenched and quivering state any longer (plus having to hold his tail flame so close to the water), he stirred his muscles ever so gently, as to begin a rolling motion of sorts, towards his left. Even then, droplets ticked as they rhythmically returned to the pool—he hoped whatever had arrived did not possess such sharp hearing.

The moment his eyes inched to beyond the statue's pedestal, Flame let out a muffled cry of terror. The tunnel housing the small stairway, once just marginally larger than Charmeleon-sized, now had its surface ripped apart, lying on the ground as debris.

In front of it, what he had nearly mistaken for a large boulder revealed itself to actually be the heinous beast forcing through the entrance.

In the back of his mind, Flame thought the fiend somehow knew it was being watched, for it suddenly stood up on its stubby legs. A mountain of dust and small pebbles cascaded off its body, allowing for better observation.

Albeit looking closer to a boulder sculpted in the shape of a living being than an actual one, it possessed a large horn, one—he imagined—especially adept at spearing into flesh. A deep, grumbling noise arose from its throat, and the creature stirred. The bright plates of orange enwrapping its stomach rendered the beast particularly visible even amongst the fog, perhaps the only positive side he could find in the whole situation. Its club-like tail commenced swinging back and forth, and sweeping the debris.

Immediately Flame drew his head safely behind cover, and rested his chin just on the waterline. He could hear the beast rumble some more, the ground and water around him vibrating again. The ruckus seemed to offer his leader a chance to make a little noise, for the Grovyle clasped his neck and forced Flame to make eye contact.

"What is it?" Gaius whispered at a nearly imperceptible volume, "The fuck is it?"

Flame simply kept exhaling shakily, no words uttered. He hadn't a clue what to say. In fact, the grinding noise resumed—any moment now, the beast would turn a corner and find two maggots flailing in the water, he thought.

He heard the Grovyle next to him growl briefly, and began pushing Flame's body against the fountain's floor—even climbing onto him, in a way. Vainly he put up resistance as the Grovyle attempted to take a look for himself, until they both heard a noise.

It had commenced moving again.

Within ten seconds (faster than he would have thought possible) the rocky beast had neared the fountain and now appeared over its edge. It wasn't looking—yet it was also moving vaguely in their direction. Flame refused to stare the thing directly, and squeezed his eyes shut as his muzzle stood below the water's level, instead breathing via his nostrils.

Nowhere in the midst of all that did he notice Gaius' foot press down near the tip of his tail. Within an instant, he was slammed with sensations of pure pain. Every nerve in his body seemed to either freeze over or flare in pain, if not a combination of the two. His brain very nearly reached overload and lost control of all bodily commands.

A green claw cupped against his mouth, as he felt the Grovyle's body constrict his own via sheer pressure. Flame could just about hold onto the sliver of rationale preventing him from setting a scream free. He supposed the paw keeping a hold of his snout helped too, in a way.

Minutes passed, and with each wild jerk of his muscles, aimed at clearing his tail flame away from perpetual suffocation, the next would manifest with less impetus, until they largely subsided under Gaius' body mass. Though he could not see, his head felt as though twisting round and round like a lightweight whirlwind.

Somehow, his brain retained enough functionality to recognise the odours entering his nostrils: there was a smell of dust, earth and faeces—nauseating, complained his stomach, but it did provide some small distraction away from the cold, boiling agony.

Then, after an amount of time he was unable to calculate, Gaius shifted away from him, paddling without a noise to reach the opposite face of the podium. Having yet to regain his bearings, Flame's entire body just about shot up out of the water, balanced on his forearms and knees.

Yet another cold fit ran over him, until he remembered to twirl his neck round, lest an unpleasant surprise awaited him. His eyes had little difficulty in spotting the fiend's massive frame, foggy as it may be.

Then, Gaius hissed something in his ear—he could not decipher his words, his brain swayed far too much for that. A pull on his wrist prompted him to crawl back to cover.

He finally sat down and rested his back on the podium, uncaring for his bigger profile. With a mild hiss, he watched attentively as the tip of his tail regained some colour again, before finally a tiny yet growing ember appeared.

Nothing would have convinced Flame to let go of his tail in that moment, not with the feelings of slow congelation more or less dissipating. When he opened his eyes, another crash shook the air, and jolted his system back to attention. Was the Rhyperior bumping into walls? Whichever the case, that exhorted him to drop back prone into the water (though not before ensuring his ethereal fire stood well behind the podium).

I-I'm okay. Everything's normal again, Flame reflected, mentally playing back the moment his appendage was suffocated, Bloody hell, I felt I was going to die here. Why would he—I almost died. I could have died...

Unfortunately, no answer came to him. Besides, he couldn't allocate that much time to that issue. Not right now. Not when a much more urgent threat was stomping about the courtyard right now.

Right, now focus. Flame commanded himself, pressing his nuzzle against the podium, It doesn't look like this ... thing will stop moving any time soon. Sure, I think we could technically hop out and rush up the stairs if we're quick, but...

He sighed, and a frustrated kind of frown ensued. What about the others? Where's Alice? Maybe they've gone back the way we came. Have they run back? He bit his lip. Damn it...

Feeling lost, Flame chose to spin his head to the side to investigate whether his team leader had better ideas. Strangely, he did not find the Grovyle semi-submerged just like him; Gaius was elevating himself to keep his head just above the edge, and making strange gestures with his hand.

Curiosity grew too strong to ignore. Peeking his head meant taking a gargantuan risk, yet laying dead indefinitely would achieve nothing. Keeping an ear keen on the Rhyperior's movements, he got on his knees, and craned his head forward in the same direction Gaius seemed to focus on.

At first, he didn't understand: there was only more fog, and the faint outline of some derelict catapult of sorts rotting in a corner. Then, his eyes caught a glimpse of a blue spot, peeking from a gap in between two wooden axles.

... Alice? Is that her? he felt his body tense up at once. But no, the figure communicated back with its own gestures; the presence of limbs suggested it was Virgo indeed.

His eyes swam all around the wooden war machine, trying to make out any other companion of his hiding behind its bulk. The fog hindered his ability to discern the veracity of one figure from the next, however, so he could only hope for the best.

With that, he lowered himself back into the water, holding his breath to pinpoint the fiend's current location. It was still roaming. What did this creature want? Was it feral? It must have been feral. Mustn't it...?

Oh! The vibrations felt stronger once again. He let out a bubble of air from his submerged muzzle (what should have been a yelp), then lined up his body against the statue's podium.

Much to his irritation, Gaius either hadn't noticed or did not care, for he continued to peek his head out into danger and give convoluted hand signals.

Flame yanked at his ankle, gritting his teeth and letting some water in his muzzle.

"Don't you touch me," the Grovyle turned round and hissed.

Flame rose his jaws from under the water, spewing the liquid already inside. "Are you mental? Get down!" he mouthed.

The lightning glare he received shut him up for good. When the Grovyle turned round again, Flame felt a cocktail of emotions boiling within his psyche—those eyes paralysed him into compliance, yet each time the animosity grew ever silently.

Bah, what are those two even saying? Flame looked up at his leader, And you'd think sign language would be simpler...

Upon further observation, he found out that part of those gestures did in fact make sense. For one, the Grovyle pointed a claw at the stairway the feral had broken in from, then a few seconds later tapped the—by now submerged—bag round his shoulder.

"... Gaius?" Flame surfaced his head, and stared right at the Grovyle.

Gaius only sent him an acknowledging glance. "Get ready to make a run for it."

"W-what are you—"

A grotesque gurgle reached his ears. He didn't want to look. He wouldn't look.

Flame turned his head round. There the Rhyperior stood, no more distant than a handful of metres, those crazed pupils meeting his. For a moment, he dared not stir a claw. Whatever rational portion of his mind remained barked at him to leg it, only he found his synapses unresponsive.

Not a second later, the beast raised its head in a primal howl, and dashed forward at a speed which seemed unnatural for such a cumbersome thing.

"Legionary! Quick!" Gaius shouted, before leaping out of the fountain and breaking into a mad dash.

Just as Flame got up on his feet, he spotted Virgo's form bolting out of cover. He saw something being hurled from the Gabite's paw—

A veil of ethereal light covered his vision. He felt his body lifted up and cast away by a massive shock wave; he hit the ground some distance away, water still dripping from his features, a sharp ring clouding his eardrums.

Somehow—almost mechanically—he pushed himself back up with his arms, and slit his eyes to regain some kind of bearings. Though the whole world wobbled to and fro akin to a boat, he still managed to recognise the shape of a stairway.

So Flame did the only thing he could do, and ran for his life in its direction.

The perpetual ringing trapped in his cranium muffled any and all outside noises—perhaps for the better—as he wobbly put one foot in front of the other. A thousand little pains and aches popped up all over his system, ones that had to be dismissed no matter what. He made an attempt to spot where his teammates had scattered to, but a mere twist of his head brought him to the verge of motion sickness, and that would do his running no good.

Flame saw the mount of rubble stacked from the previous devastation, some chunks of stone taller than him. After vaulting over the obstacle with some difficulty, there stood the staircase, which proved almost as challenging since entire chunks of marble had been chipped off from the Rhyperior's passage. The mental picture of his pursuer stomping at lighting speed primed his legs to surpass themselves.

It didn't exactly help when Virgo bumped into his body from behind, and essentially pushed him aside to surpass him up the steps. Flame felt his equilibrium teeter on the verge of collapse. Precious instants passed by whilst he held on to a piece of rubble for his dear life, before the last few steps disappeared behind him.

He stopped for a moment, clueless of where to go now. The new courtyard looked roughly identical in shape and size to the one below. Immobilised in a kind of dazed shock, he snapped out once he heard Gaius' voice calling him out from atop a ledge—the fortified wall presented a breach in that point, doubtless the rock beast's destructive hand—if only he climbed up to his friends!

Within seconds he was already at the breach, paw clutching on to loose bricks to make his way up. His tail swung frantically as he ascended with more impetus than was probably safe, cursing his species and his body in numerous ways. He had just reached the half-way mark, when words he wished he couldn't hear came from where he wished they didn't. Alice. From below.

"Nononono, wait, Flame!" she spewed out breathlessly, "Flame! I—I can't get up there!"

Flame stopped his climb, dread now weighing inside his chest. She was still down there. With the feral incoming. The sound of her panicked words turned his very bones into ice. Never had he remotely imagined it possible that it could crack like that, her, such rational and restrained being!

Once he looked down, making eye contact, his body refused to ascend any further. He had to help her. Whether or not the additional weight brought by her body permitted him to climb was irrelevant.

Descending a few bricks, he wrapped an arm round her neck, and tried to awkwardly hook onto her middle body with his leg. Vibrations hounded his tail flame. He climbed blindly. And so quickly. Like a ladder. If he could scale this wall so easily, couldn't the Rhyperior climb it too? Regardless, Gaius held out a paw, he felt his the blood squeezed out of his elbow until his arse fell onto the concrete.

Flame gasped whilst Alice rapidly uncoiled from round him—neither wasted any time in casting a fretful glance down at the courtyard. Just as quickly though did Virgo extract a tiny object from his bag, no larger than his single claw.

"Suck on this, you twat!" Virgo yelled as he drew back his arm, then chucked the seed forcefully in an arc. This time, Flame squeezed his eyes shut out of pure instinct. A bright light flashed through his eyelids for a second. Contemporarily the blast blew past his scales like one concentrated gust, even returning some ringing to his ears, though this time it faded away much more easily.

The cry that followed pained even Flame's heart, for it conveyed agony in its every note. Then it stopped. Rock shattering on the ground. Silence.

When he reopened his eyes, chunks of the creature's orange armour were scattered about, while a viscous substance oozed from its wounds.

"Whoo-hoo! Fuck yeah! Did you see that?" Virgo jeered, awkwardly hopping in place. His cheers echoed back from quite afar.

"Yes, and we have nearly consumed our blast seeds in the process," Yvaine quipped, holding her chin up high and tail straightened. Meanwhile, everyone else dusted themselves off.

Virgo shrugged with a dumb grin. "Ah, who cares? It was worth hearing that cocksucker scream!"

Flame was temporarily content with sitting there as he refilled his lungs. Any more chases like that, and it would not end merrily for him. Then, he turned his head to Alice, the fact that he hadn't asked nagging his thoughts.

"Hey, are you okay?" Flame said softly.

Alice recomposed herself, trying vainly to get the dust off her ear-wings. "... Cursed be whomever designed this fortress. And their children too. I thought I was going to be stuck down there with that ... rock."

She then rose her snout to look him in the eye. "Don't worry, I'm all right. No wounds or anything similar. Just a little shaken, that's all." She smiled at him, though her tone revealed bitterness. "That was incredible, what you just did. You took a big risk grabbing me—you could have fallen back down." Her eyes wandered in the blurry distance. "Perhaps it was selfish of me to ask. In any case ... thank you. I really I appreciate it..."

I'd rather have jumped down there to fight, Flame contemplated saying, but limited himself to a joyful nod. Nothing could peel off that Virgo-ish smirk off his face. Deep down, he couldn't deny to feeling vaguely smug, at least right now—he figured it was his mind patting itself on the back, gloating: congratulations, he finally did something right!

Maybe, he figured, he was just souring his own accomplishments needlessly; the thoughts came about on their own, however.

"I could have sworn I saw you right behind me," Gaius crossed his arms at Alice, "What took you so long?"

The Dragonair sent a brief but effective glare. "My body isn't exactly suited for climbing steps."

Gaius did not look impressed by the explanation. "Couldn't you have flown?"

Flame could have sworn that Alice's pupils had dilated for a moment, along with her body tensing up. It went away just as quickly, and she raised her head and looked away.

"I was panicking. Couldn't think straight."

Flame nodded in support. "It did catch us at a bad time."

"Exactly," Alice said, "Besides, what was that Rhyperior? I couldn't discern it being a feral or a Scum."

"Didn't look too bright to me," quipped Virgo.

Gaius seemed to think about it for a while, then sneered. "No idea. What difference does it make? As long as it's dead, that's fine by me."

"It does make a difference, you numskull," Alice uttered indignantly, "For in case we did just kill a Scum, its companions ... are ..." her train of thought remained uncompleted as her eyes became fixated on a point in the sky.

When they all followed her gaze, Flame too noticed what had captivated her attention: the bright spot round which the storm clouds revolved seemed to be pulsing and jerking erratically, as though something inside was stretching its shell to break free. Spurts of electricity surrounded it. Then, before their very eyes, a column of pinkish light shot up to the sky to collide with the singularity—it sliced through the fog, albeit from somewhere in the distance. The burst of energy only elicited a further frenzy of activity.

"What the fuck? Did everyone else just see that?" Gaius said aloud, his stern voice only partly able to conceal his disquiet.

"Y-yeah. Look, there it goes again!" Flame replied, pointing in the direction where another flash rose up to the heavens.

Gaius visibly tensed up, biting his lips. "Can any of you identify that? Legionaries, gimme a report!"

So the legionaries stood, watching the new flash of light rouse the storm's epicentre, only to disappear immediately thereafter. Virgo simply shrugged. His Umbreon partner, by contrast, stood wordless for a moment.

"I recognise that," she limited herself to say, observing.

"Well, speak up already!" Gaius fumed, "I'd rather know if this pocket of space is about to implode or something."

The Umbreon seemed to dismiss his words, entertained in her own world. "Teleportation. Something is drawing the psionic energy from the anomaly to teleport outside. I've seen our commanding officer emit the same light back at the Tiberis Delta."

That means we're not alone, Flame deduced, molding in his own head what creatures might lie beyond the fog.

Virgo's grin widened as he recalled the memory. "Oh, I remember now. The arsehole left us wading through a swamp, with Skorupis crawling all over. He got what was coming to him."

"We don't have time to listen to your bloody stories," Gaius shoved Virgo aside as he set out towards the light, "Those Scum know we're here; each flash means less prey to hunt. Expedite!"

Following the narrow path atop the wall, the rest of Team Phalanx struggled to keep up with their leader, his step nimbler and more adept at haste. As Flame followed, he began thinking. Only now did the fact that they were on the verge of encountering their foes fully sink in. That brought a shroud of dread unto his brain, though he did manage to maintain a half-decent running pace. He felt powerless but to watch as a fourth column of light transcended the sky; that meant more Scum escaping to safety.

Some parts of him, however, prayed for more lights to follow.


After a long run, they finally reached what presumably comprised the enemy encampment, which was basically a collection of canvas roof structures held up by metal poles, built into one of the many interior courtyards. When they entered the compound, it all looked like an inconspicuous attempt to conceal what hid underneath—without much effort put into it, either. No gates blocked their entrance. Inside, Flame witnessed heaps of rubbish and various items discarded on the ground with a certain nonchalance: he could make out filthy and dusty cloths, metal fragments, strange iron tools.

No element in sight suggested a scenario that deviated from a hasty withdrawal.

"So this is the kind of place they hide in," Alice commented as he brought her gaze to a full sweep.

"Oh, you haven't seen the half of it," Virgo said.

There was not very much time to discuss, however, as Gaius carelessly trudged upon the filth and beckoned them inside a narrow doorway. Flame refused categorically to let the smelly objects on the ground make contact with his body, so he sort of awkwardly hopped from clearance to clearance, arriving just behind the others.

Unlike the sight he'd expected to see, the inside of the camp was not pitch black. A handful of ethereal torches bounced a feeble purplish glow to the walls and the ceiling, though some appeared to have been knocked down. At least he didn't need to lead the way with his tail, he thought with relief.

The five tiptoed through the corridor in an unspoken agreement of silence. Noises came from somewhere within the camp, though none of them could pinpoint where. They would simply have to look around until luck sided with them.

Empty crates and busted-down grated doors marred the otherwise barren corridors. At some point, Flame decided to peek his head into a room: there stood nothing between the four walls but a stack of hay, much akin to the one he slept on, and some chunk of carved wood (he realised it was a toy—it had four legs, a crude head, and teeth and claw marks all over it).

Another surface further down the hall had been rendered smooth and light; all over it were inscribed markings of some kind. Flame squinted his eyes to make sense of them. Upon closer examination, he realised they looked like paw prints of diverse shapes and sizes. Three claws, then two, then again five; one identical to his own paw, the next closer in size to his head. He wondered why anybody would spend so much time stamping their paws onto a mural.

Probably means something, Flame observed, This is such an odd way to write, though. It must take so many pokémon at a time...

Before he could ponder on the subject any longer, a blinding flash coming out of the end of the corridor jolted them all to their feet. Under Gaius' command, they flattened against the nearest wall, with Flame covering their back. Rustling sounds, footsteps, then silence again.

"Damn it, that was another teleportation," Gaius cursed through his teeth, "We can't let any more get away! Double time!" he whispered, before breaking into a dash to the source of the flash.

Flame followed suit, along with the rest of the team, though a kind of panic gripped his muscles for a moment. Their running was starting to cause quite a ruckus, but Gaius made it very clear that surprise didn't matter anymore.

His heartbeat only escalated when they crossed the threshold to the room. He suspended his breathing. Although wider than he'd anticipated, not to mention well-lit, the chamber contained nothing more than dust and crates and humidity. Flame tiptoed round the containers with his claws drawn, trailing his leader's arm blades. Whilst he devoted his utmost focus on any possible hostiles, his eyes couldn't help but wander on the stacks of skulls and other bones crammed in the space between a pair of crates—he could have sworn Alice uttered something along the lines of 'by Arceus...'

There were also other containers with their lid wide open, exposing a messy mixture of foodstuffs and orbs and seemingly random everyday objects. A photo of a three-member family peeked from the pile.

Following what must have been the third full sweep, he stopped, and spun his head round dumbfounded. There was nobody present. Even after the flash, the footsteps, the place looked deserted.

Did ... did the Scum just evacuate completely? Via teleportation? Flame gulped, knowing that would doubtlessly mean a failed objective.

"Looks ... clear," Gaius uttered slowly, nearly unbelieving of his words, "Stay prepped for contact. They can't be very far."

"Where did those sons of bitches run off to?" Virgo growled under his breath while rubbing his claws together.

Then, as though a guiding light descending from the gods, a sound arose from within a wall: footsteps hurriedly mashing against the floor. In a knee-jerk reaction, Gaius seemed to spring out of his own will onto a pile of decaying boxes made of lumber, and gracefully brought down an arm-blade. The already brittle material shattered in a hundred tiny pieces shrouded by cloud of sawdust.

Concealed no more, Flame's eyes quite nearly failed to catch the opening in the wall, leading to a dark stairway aimed downwards.

"God-fucking-damn it! Double time!" Gaius barked as he leapt forth into the passage.

Flame could do nothing but follow suit, and avoid tumbling down the steps. It took Team Phalanx little time to safely reach the bottom of the stairway, where—

His heart jolted in his chest. A short distance from them stood the same ghost they'd fought earlier—Gengar, as Alice called it, suspended in mid-air and sporting an indifferent grin. There were other creatures too: bipeds, quadrupeds, a patchwork of colours that he couldn't properly describe numbering in the dozen.

The five of them instinctively froze on the spot. None of the hostiles seemed to judge them worthy of a glance, if they even noticed the intruders at all. Flame observed better: each pokémon stood thigh-to-thigh inside a strange square elevated from the pavement and circling the Gengar.

"What the ... hold on. Are they...?" Gaius mumbled half to himself, as Flame yelled at him in his head to give out an order.

Before long, the air surrounding the Scum started to distort into a sort of visual bubble as a faint pink aura outlined the ghost-type.

"Holy fuck—they're getting out!" Gaius exclaimed, yet refused to move out of their hiding spot.

Right as the Grovyle finished uttering the last syllable, Yvaine's head was already cocked back, and she spewed from within her fangs a pulse of dark energy—it smashed into the Gengar with brute force. A scream lacerated the air—the parts of Flame which weren't cringing from the sound recalled their previous encounter with content.

Before the purple phantom's body could hit the ground, the outline of pink energy gathered on its very body burst free, inundating the chamber under the guise of an all-encompassing light.

Flame could only find haven behind the cover of his paws, which likely saved his eyes from irreversible damage. Inside, even after the energy faltered, he hesitated in uncovering his face, for every step of this journey would have been rendered futile if the Scum did get away. Regardless of his absolute ignorance on the subject, the Gengar did look close to completing the procedure after all; close enough to warrant overlooking five intruders!

Then, possibly out of survival instinct more than discipline, he shook the numerous visions out of his eyelids and brought his focus to the Scum. There they stood! He couldn't have felt a tighter mix of excitement and dread altogether. Many of the pokémon lay sprawled on the ground in differing states of disorientation.

"N-now is the time! Engage!" Gaius yelled with as ferocious a voice he could muster.

That was all it took for Team Phalanx to snap out of their stupour. In few such elegant movements, Gaius sprung into the air to deliver a clean blow to a Servine who'd just gotten up. Alice, never one to lack grace, stuck the furthest from the principal mass and spewed lightning bolts to whomever crossed her sight, aiding a certain Umbreon to dash into the mosh pit. Virgo meanwhile leapt upon the nearest soul, sinking his claws through its neck in a gargle of blood. Then he switched victims and moved on to another.

All but Flame. Not him. He'd understood the order; his ears functioned just fine, despite recent abuse. Yet he stood there, looking at it all with sleepy shock. His body had rebelled, and wished to merely spectate the fighting.

That is, until the very moment he noticed a four-legged fox sprouting leaves all over charging directly at him. Something clicked in his head, and he gathered enough common sense to yank his body weight to the side, just in time for the Leafeon to swing its glowing tail and miss.

Flame let out a hiss when he felt his left arm crushed under his weight upon landing, but the grass-type Scum wasted no time in twisting round and jumping him in a moment of vunerability. Now it kept him pinned by the forearm.

An overpowering odour flushed into his nostrils at this distance: one of grime, sweat, but also of dew. No amount of squirming got rid of the figure towering over him. The Leafeon sniffed his face twice, then growled. It sounded distinctly feminine; her sharp fangs not so much. Without warning, he felt a set of teeth sink into his neck. He gagged and wheezed as his legs began kicking at the Leafeon's backside insistently, only his layer of scales acting as line of defence.

"Aaaargh! G-get ... off me!" Flame growled in panic-fueled exasperation.

At one point, he felt some pressure ease off his right forearm: no thought was required for his body to automatically channel all his energy there, and slip his paw away and on the back of her head. Simultaneously he curved his tail in such unnatural position that the tip pressed into her loins.

That seemed to do the trick: a watery patina could be seen in the Scum's eyes, and the grip of her bite felt looser as she panted for air. He seized the occasion and freed his other paw; then, he pushed her head to the side with all his might. Aided by both his paws, the Leafeon's head ended up thumping against the wall, where the pokémon remained, in disorientation.

For some ungodly reason, when he pushed himself back on his feet, Flame grinned. A strange new sensation flowed through his veins and arteries. It held little regard for the mark of a set of fangs visible on his scales, or the general chaos playing out all around: he'd won. He felt strong. Virile.

Was he overreacting? Perhaps, he thought. But he'd fought somebody, the quivering thing he was, and now they lay defeated behind him, beaten with those very claws. Nobody could possibly deny him bragging rights. Puffing his chest out, he gazed over the battlefield to identify any possible new challenger. And it came in the form of Gaius' voice.

"Flame! Enemy Gengar—right flank!"

The name sapped a chunk of his excitement away; sure enough, in that direction, the Gengar had by now reentered levitation, and with a displeased frown prepared a ball of ghastly energy to hurl directly at him. Midpath, a leaping Umbreon collided with the sphere and absorbed the subsequent blast, landing on the ground unscathed. Yvaine then rapidly fired one and then another dark pulse, one of which connected. Even as the ghost-type returned fire, she managed to turn and nod his way an implicit 'I'll take care of this'.

In the back and forth, Flame came quite close to not noticing the Leafeon behind him shakily regaining her footing. He failed to avoid a slash from the Scum's leafy tail, which left a stinging cut on his scales, but he managed to dodge a successive attack.

Unable to find a lull in his adversary's movements, and soaking up another slash on his arm, he chose to enact the first strategy which popped to mind: turn away and run.

One major problem presented itself right away: there was not nearly enough space in the chamber, what with the occasional corpse on the floor, plus his very companions all being entertained in some sort of stand-off. On top of that, his opponent seemed quite the natural runner, too.

The game of tag, however, came to an end soon—not even he knew the point, whether to tire out his pursuer or stall for time—since he soon came to notice the presence of an additional foe, a purple, four-winged bat thing flapping around at crazy speed.

Flame braced mentally for a frontal attack, all while keeping the Leafeon at bay, but the noise of scales breaking and the abrupt flare of pain came from in between his shoulder bones. He let out a small scream right along when two little fangs cut deeper into his flesh, leaving behind a searing mess of hurt.

Raising his chin to the sky, he stumbled backwards haphazardly as his paws scrambled to rip the thing off. Only to have a leaf blade scrape his knee whilst his guard lowered, slicing up his balance more than any tissue. By now all vision carried a distinctive reddish hue, and the whole world quivered to his eyes just as another flare of pain hit from where the Crobat had dug in.

Clawing and struggling was getting him nowhere. And now two enemies threatened to end his short-lived fight once and for all. So, when the Leafeon bared her claws and sprung forth to finish such pointless struggle, he surrendered bodily control to instinct.

The Scum never saw it coming; her sides licked by the jet of flames just as it exited his jaws and nostrils.

And she screamed.

Flame concentrated all his annoyance and frustration in that one breath, up to the very point his opponent's shrieks subsided.

Then, he turned his attention to the bat so stubbornly latched on to his back. The escalating pain flared into his thoughts. Unable to conjure a proper plan, he simply mashed his back against the stone wall, each crash eliciting cracking and splattering noises.

His legs eventually defied his commands due to a sour cocktail of pain and breathlessness. By then, he ripped that blighter off him with ease—even tearing a wing away in the process.

Flame sat there, catching his breath, watching the now tri-winged Crobat twitch erratically as it sat dying. The sight normally would have come out as pitiful, but there was no space for pity right now. No; in fact—

"AAAaaah, fuck ... me..." he hissed, trying to squeeze his eyelids further than physically achievable.

He breathed in some more, and waited for the inferno to subside before trying his mind any further. Even now, he felt the same emotions he'd briefly savoured just minutes ago: the battle left him a hurting, searing mess, yet he'd loved it. Notwithstanding adversity—two against one!—he'd fought with claws and teeth, and now the fruits of his labour lay charred at his feet.

One part of him experienced disgust in having executed two living beings, but the rest chuckled grimly and scattered those thoughts to the wind.

I did it, Flame gave a shaky grin, I finally did it. All by myself... I can fight...

The realisation brought along a numb kind of peace in his microcosm, if only for an instant. Then, he noticed how his comrades were still engaged in combat with the last couple of Scum left on their feet. Could he help? But the sheer thought of spouting more flames twisted his stomach in horrible knots, more than it should have.

In fact, with each second going by he felt the opposite of healthier.

That bat—it must have injected me with something, he gulped, taking in air sharply. This wasn't normal. Thoughts and scenarios ran through his head as he attempted to crawl off into an inconspicuous corner. Did the liquid contain venom? If so, action of some kind was needed immediately. Preferably not in between some combatants' legs.

But what could he possibly do? He needed to think. Oh! An object of some kind; maybe something in his bag could help.

He brought a paw down to feel his sides. Nothing. Only his naked scales.

Gritting his teeth, Flame felt ready to cry at the sheer mistreatment fate had reserved him. The leather container must have been torn to shreds during the fighting.

He felt both the pulse in his throat and the fuzziness enclouding his head. Multiple times he attempted to call out to his friends, but he couldn't even be sure they were still there.

Thankfully, the last clear emotion to float by his mind was one of accomplishment: the blood on his chest, Gaius' chirping voice, before the fuzziness took over completely.


End of Chapter VIII

Chapter Text

Chapter IX: Harbinger


 

"... The camp is on the brink of collapse. We truly cannot afford more refugees flowing in—already nearly half of those we house sleep on little more than naked grass. Meanwhile, food caravans have become fewer and far between.

 

That last batch from Sperantia Nova seemed to be the last straw: fights are breaking out over rations, and one of our security personnel succumbed of his injuries as a result. I do not break orders with a lightweight conscience, please do believe me.

 

But the situation is escaping my control. They wanted to get out, seek refuge in Aesernia, so I let them."

 

Piece of correspondence between Colonel Ariel and Director Varus of the Gratia Refugee Camp.


 

Pelorithan Highlands

 

The soft breeze felt cool on his scales.

 

When Flame regained consciousness at some point, he did not stir. Every muscle in his body sent confused signals of heat and cold, of ache and tiredness. Through his closed eyelids he could see something bright. For a few seconds, he cracked a gratified smile; it felt somewhat pleasant, almost as though he'd just laid down after a marathon.

 

Only this wasn't meant to last.

 

Soon thereafter, fatigue dissipated quickly, for piece by piece images entered his brain—his friends, a gloomy fortress, the ensuing struggle. He remembered burning one particular Scum to a crisp, some bat injecting him with venom, then nothing.

 

His psyche hesitated; on one hand, it simply wished to rest and shuffle those thoughts aside, but simultaneously a need to figure out where he was arose from within his chest.

 

Also, what was that barely perceptible tickle trickling up his paw? His brow tensed in disgust—ants, those horrible blighters. He took the first movement in a while and sat up, much to the chagrin of his vertebral column. A spell of dizziness hit his head for a moment as he let the blood flow adjust.

 

Eyes now open, his vision was bombarded with colours he'd started to miss. All around him spanned a grassy field, just short of the slope overlooking the valley they had recently spent much time in. From their position atop lonely trees, a couple of Pidgey eyed him curiously.

 

We were in the fortress. With the Scum, Flame recounted his time in the dungeon, This looks like outside...

 

"Aaaaah, my bloody head..." someone groaned from nearby. A quick twist of his body revealed that it belonged to Gaius; in fact, his whole team was there with him.

 

"Oh, Flame, you're awake," Alice noted, sleep still heavy in her eyes, "Are you feeling okay? I remember you collapsing to the ground at one point—had me worried to no end."

 

Flame allowed his muscles to relax. "Y-yeah. I'm okay now. How did we get here?"

 

"Good question. I honestly have no clue; the last thing I can recall is beating one of the last Scum still alive, then..." her face drew a blank. "I ... suppose I passed out, somehow? Even so, it would make no sense for us to be here. Guys?" she appealed to the rest of the team, cocking her head sideways.

 

Neither Gaius nor Virgo had much to say, with one clutching his head, and the other mumbling something unintelligible.

 

"The Gengar," uttered Yvaine, "It cast some sort of spell on the dungeon to flee. Couldn't kill it in time."

 

"Hang on a moment. All this means..." a wide grin spread across Alice's face, "We did it! We completed our mission! Even when facing the Scum, we triumphed," her voice shook with excitement.

 

A spark of joy lit inside him when he realised her words were true. Team Phalanx—the meager rags of a team they were, had cleared such a high-prestige assignment!

 

Virgo huffed, chest puffed out. "Guess you have us to thank for this. Those maggots were no problem to squash."

 

"B-but ... the Gengar," Yvaine drooped her ears, "It got away, along with those who teleported beforehand."

 

Alice raised her tail forth. "Hush. Ariel doesn't need to hear that. For all she knows, the barbarian encampment near Sperantia Nova no longer..." her voice froze. Her head jerked to some point in the nearby field, "... who is that?"

 

The moment Flame turned to the problem in question, it took but a second for him to recognise the shape. It was the Leafeon from the dungeon. There she lay, physique nearly unrecognisable between the charred fur and patches of grime and dirt soaking it. Of all queries buzzing in his head, Flame could not avoid feeling insulted more than anything—had he not killed that Scum in the depths of Castra Aeterna? Perhaps it was for the best, his psyche attempted to reason; having blood on his hands did not exactly suit his tastes.

 

For a few moments, Team Phalanx hesitated to take the initiative, right up until the Leafeon jerked her head up in alarm. Gaius descended upon the fellow grass-type within a blur, holding her throat in a chokehold, knee crushing her lungs and chest.

 

"You thought you could get away, didn't you?" Gaius spat with a tone that sent shivers down Flame's back, ignoring the writhes and yeeps below, "Bastards. You're all going to hell—you and the rest of your lot," he let out a wry smile.

 

Apparently deaf to his words, the Leafeon let out a noise halfway between a growl and a lament, and lit her tail a bright green. Only it lay crushed underneath Gaius' foot. The Grovyle only drew more blood from her throat. Scum or not, Flame was beginning to feel genuinely frightened: it felt painfully obvious that Gaius was holding back from ripping her into slabs of meat.

 

"I don't know how you managed to survive, but that's not a problem," he turned to the rest of his team, "Didn't Ariel ask us to bring one Scum back alive?"

 

"Yeah, s-she did," Flame spewed rapidly, knowing where this discussion was headed.

 

Gaius smirked. "Good. She ought to give us a bonus for this. Pass me some rope."

 

Instead of that, Yvaine walked closer, a faint blackish aura outlining the Leafeon's body. "No need. I'll make sure it comes along. We can depart on your order."

 


 

The gates of Aesernia came just as the sun reached the apex of its celestial arch.

 

After hours of forced marching, covered in all kinds of filth, there could be no sweeter sight to behold. Flame watched on toward the impressive walls, over which the very top of some structures peeked. The sight managed to evoke a merry feeling inside him.

 

Gaius led the way up to the great lumber doors. While the leader knocked, and then went through the formalities with whichever guard happened to be on duty, Flame spared a second to gaze at the Leafeon by his side. Their captive had kept silent throughout most of the voyage: after realising that growls and salivation did nothing except for earning her a smack in the head, she seemed to have accepted her fate. He began creating a mental list of all he knew about her kind. First of all, from what little information he'd siphoned off Gaius, it was unlikely the Scum could comprehend their language—far too crude brains for that, the grass-type had said. Secondly, nobody really minded inflicting gratuitous pain upon her, a fact which simultaneously fascinated and alarmed Flame. Maybe he shouldn't have felt so bad in her place, only he couldn't help it. He was surprised Virgo didn't force-feed the Leafeon a blast seed just to see what would happen.

 

His train of thought ground to a halt when he heard the sound of metal clacks, followed by the door opening to grant them passage. Team Phalanx made their way inside, taking care of explaining the 'addition' to the guards.

 

Not even fully inside, the figure of a certain Haxorus leaning on a nearby wall contemplating her claws became all too apparent. Not a single bit of time to prepare psychologically, Flame thought.

 

When the five of them (plus prisoner) closed in on the chief lizard, Ariel jerked her head, wearing a mask of mixed surprise and apathy.

 

"Oh, wow, you made it back. Only in a day, as well. Is it done?"

 

Alice stood tall and proud, smirking as she spoke. "Affirmative. Sperantia Nova can rest easy now."

 

Visibly unimpressed by the Dragonair's answer, Ariel grunted, turning her questioning gaze to the legionary duo. Both Virgo and Yvaine nodded.

 

"Acknowledged."

 

Their commander's face twitched into further disgust while still remaining apathetic. "And who's miss 'nature' over here?"

 

Flame joined into his team's common smugness. "A Scum we decided to spare. Brought her back on your orders."

 

Ariel's pupils dilated, as though told they'd just visited the moon. "What? Are you—are you trying to mess with me? I swear, if this ends up like the last time with your Charmeleon friend..."

 

Then Yvaine took a step forward. "Ma'am, I can assure you these officers are telling the truth. I myself helped in the capture."

 

Uttering no words, the Haxorus lowered her gaze—though never her head—while taking in her grip the Leafeon's immobile chin. The latter could only reply by seething venom from her eyes, and baring her sharp teeth.

 

"Wow. Not even Team Reformity could bring one back," Ariel said in a novel tone of appreciation, "Nice work, officers. It's going to be quite a show. Guards!"

 

Two Bisharp manning the gates approached them. By the time Yvaine undid the psionic restraints, the Scum received the blunt side of a blade on the back of her skull. She was knocked dead cold.

 

Flame followed the armour-clad soldiers with his head as they dragged their captive away; they laughed together and said they'd have fun with her during breaks, before wandering outside of hearing range.

 

"Oh, and your reward will be delivered to you later this afternoon. Dismissed."

 

At the words, a spark of pride lit in his chest—he could see the rest of his teammates reacting much the same way. Hearing his commander uttering words that didn't have some scornful double-sense definitely sounded alien to his ears.

 

Ariel turned to leave. "Also, take a bath. You all smell like a bunch of proles."

 

On that note, the Haxorus stomped away, leaving the five of them breathing in relief. He couldn't help but notice how grand and charming Aesernia looked from here.

 

"Well, it's been fun working with you," Virgo said proudly, "Never thought I'd find some civvies with a grain of competence. How about we stick around a little longer?"

 

Gaius took a moment to respond, exhaling a sigh. "I'm sorry, but no. We need a minute to rest at home camp."

 

Don't you even try, Flame thought, furrowing his brow. One entire mission spent by the side of those weirdos went well over his threshold for patience. To even imply that they should spend more time together sounded more like an affront than a friendly suggestion.

 

"Oh, come on!" Virgo crossed his arms, "Flame, surely you're with me on this one? We could go around town and show you some fun, celebrate the arse-kicking we gave 'em."

 

Yvaine shook her head vigorously. "Don't, unless you wish to experience what syphilis feels like."

 

"Geez, don't blow things out of proportion now. It's just a blister!"

 

Yvaine rolled her eyes. "Sure, keep telling yourself that..."

 

Flame swapped gazes between the two. "No thanks. I have ... other things to do."

 

"Aww," Virgo cooed, frowning, "Another time?"

 

No answer came from Team Phalanx.

 

Yvaine sent the three of them a courteous smile. "If you ever need anything, we will gladly help."

 

"Hopefully there will be no need," Alice bowed back, "Thanks for all you've done for us."

 

With all formalities over, Flame watched as the two legionaries got farther and farther, before his own group headed towards Camp Tempest. As he traversed the streets, he discovered a newfound appreciation for the town's features: sure, it smelt of urine and was dangerously overcrowded—but it was still his home, in a way.

 

Plus, he wouldn't have to bear the presence of those two snobs for a while. The thought spawned a gleeful smirk on his face. Granted, Aesernia wasn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, so chances were he'd meet them again. But having his friends by his side lulled any broody thoughts to rest.

 

"As much as they may have been of use, I'm glad it's just the three of us again," Flame commented, observing the impromptu market stalls nearby.

 

"Same. They started getting on my nerves after a while," Gaius said, "thinking they're the boss around here. Kinda hope Ariel stops pairing us with them on missions."

 

Ariel nodded in agreement. "About that—don't you think we acted too snobbish in front of Ariel? She already hates our guts as it is."

 

"Honestly, to hell with her," Gaius grinned, looking both of them in the eye, "I'm proud of what we did. Let's just hope the payout was worth it."

 

They turned a sharp corner, then followed the main road. There seemed to be some kind of commotion ahead.

 

"I mean, who else in Civil Protection can boast to have passed a B-rank job so easily?" Flame added to the pile.

 

Gaius looked up for a moment. "Probably some bigshot teams down south, but definitely nobody I've seen."

 

He wanted to add something, only there was a dense mass of pokémon blocking the entrance to Victory Square. The three of them stopped, staring bemusedly at the living barricade. Was there some public holiday he'd missed? With the overwhelming presence of taller creatures obstructing his vision, he couldn't quite tell. His teammates also mentioned there being no other way to Camp Tempest which didn't involve taking some ungodly contorted detour. The only option would be to make their way through the crowd, at least while some breathing space remained.

 

Contradicting his normal instinct to gravitate to the outer edge of any kind of scrimmage, Flame shoved, butted, squirmed his way through alongside his companions. Soon they reached a less densely-packed section of the crowd, from which they could better watch the centre of the square. An elevated wooden platform measuring double his height had been set up there, on top of which some scary-looking legionary droned on about traitorous Scum and the honour of the Empire (whatever that meant).

 

"For Mew's sake, another one?" Alice uttered dismally, "I thought they'd stopped..."

 

Before he could ask for further insight, a cordon of rock-type legionaries split the crowd in two, and gradually pushed it apart as to form a path of sorts to the platform. The speaker interrupted his monologue just in time for a pokémon to be dragged on stage—some kind of orange bipedal chicken, feathers ruffed and mixed with dirt and blood.

 

That sight stimulated the crowd. At the start there only had been a few boos and hisses, whereas at once everyone exploded in a frenzy of insults and profanities whizzing through the air like bullets.

 

Alice's face contorted in vague disgust, turning away. "Let's go. I have no desire to watch."

 

Flame found not a reason to disagree. It was painfully clear they were not tying the poor soul to a pole as a local tradition.

 

When the three of them gained some distance from the square, Flame could feel the general uneasiness scenting the air. More and more people bumped into them heading in the opposite direction, probably towards Victory Square—to gawk at the lynching, he figured.

 

"Be thankful we passed through when we did," Gaius said, "Any later and the whole darn square would have been packed with raging psychos."

 

"Is ... is this something that happens regularly?" Flame bit his lip, figuring he should have gotten over it by now.

 

Alice did not look pleased either. "A couple months back, they made you watch these things by law. Ariel says it's always good to remind proles who the enemy is," she sighed, curling her lip in disgust.

 

"Why?" Flame pressed on, eyes wandering all over, "Sure, they're Scum, but ... is all this really necessary?"

 

The Dragonair's reaction made him wish he could shove those words right back down his throat.

 

Alice's pupils dilated and she halted, frantically jerking her head round to make sure nobody had overheard.

 

When she concluded that that was precisely the case, her glare landed on him. "Flame, you mustn't say such things in public!" she whispered, "That—that is precisely what ends you up on stage."

 

Unsure what to say or do, Flame stood there, cringing internally. "O-oh. Uh ... sorry?"

 

"And who's going to report us, the proles?" Gaius crossed his arms, scoffing at her, "Come on, Alice, stop acting ridiculous."

 

Lowering her gaze, Alice scanned their surroundings once more before they started moving again. "I apologise; perhaps I am being slightly paranoid. Simply put it, I would rather not take the risk of a legionary overhearing us, lest we get branded as ... sympathisers."

 

"It's okay. That was stupid of me to ask," Flame shrugged off, wishing for this misunderstanding to wither away immediately. How was he supposed to know which thoughts one could or could not express? It had to have been that Leafeon Scum, surely. No matter how hard of an effort he made, the guilt and pity wouldn't unhook from his mind. Yet those very eyes had witnessed Sperantia Nova's plight by their hands!

 

Alice looked round briefly, visibly calmed, yet still wary to pause whenever someone walked within hearing range. "Don't worry about it. To answer your question, I just can't see the point—it doesn't help with defending our Empire, nor does it drive up recruitment numbers."

 

He nodded. Thoughts and images entered his mind, most of them concerning that same pokémon they'd brought back on their mission. One day or another, she would likely suffer the same fate. With time he would learn not to pay any heed; if for no other reason than his teammates did as such. With time, he would integrate, get accustomed to it all.

 

Speaking of that... Flame mused to himself, just as an idea sprung up onto the forefront of his mind. The sky told him it would take but a few hours before the sun fully disappeared. More than enough for his current intentions.

 

"Guys, would you mind if I headed to the library for a bit?" Flame stopped, eyes scanning the rooftops for a certain white marble, "If I'm not mistaken, it should be ... somewhere nearby, right?"

 

"Oh, good idea," Alice commented, "Too bad you'd have to cross that bloodthirsty crowd again to get there."

 

"... Oh. O-okay," his face fell into a deep frown, "That's a shame. I guess we can try another day."

 

Inwardly, he sighed. There fate went, obstructing his plans for the day. When would he get another chance to study with such workload awaiting them? Oh well, he thought, attempting to regain a smile, maybe it wasn't so bad. The three of them would probably find some constructive activity to indulge in. Even then, merely spending time with his friends did not exactly bother him either.

 

The road began to snake around the dwindling number of greasy residential buildings, following an upwards slope. On the side of the road, he spotted the same sign from his first day in Civil Protection, welcoming newcomers to Camp Tempest, home of Task Force Aegis.

 

Just as they entered the encampment's perimeter, Alice turned to face him, a thoughtful twinkle in her eyes.

 

"Hang on a second, Flame," Alice said, "The library is basically impossible to reach, but ... a thought just sprung to mind—would you mind following me? There is one place we could go."

 

Sensing a spike in curiosity, Flame answered with a smile and nodded. Last time she'd brought him along, it was to gather much-needed knowledge about himself; hopefully this time would prove just as fruitful.

 

"Whatever, do as you please," Gaius raised his shoulders in a shrug, then turned away, "I'll stay and wait for my reward. Just don't get lost."

 


 

Not fifteen minutes from the array of disorganised tents that was the barracks, the two of them trudged on to an empty patch of land, just in sight of the base's water well.

 

Initially, Flame stood there bemusedly, not knowing where he was supposed to look. He noticed two other officers nearby: a dark, feather-donned weasel trading slashes with some overgrown mantis (admittedly, those blades made him uneasy). The grassier hilltop location of Camp Tempest suddenly gave way to a roughly rectangular patch of dirt, only a few stalks sprouting here and there. It was as though some spiky-bodied being had rolled there merrily for hours on end.

 

"Come, let's wait for the arena to clear," Alice pointed him to a nearby file of neatly arranged rocks, each flattened on top, positioned as impromptu seating for spectators.

 

Flame welcomed her invite, laying his rear to rest on the cool stone. He watched the officers going at it, emitting grunts louder than normal with each dash. At first he had yet to fully process the implications of her words; when he did so seconds later, a blunt-sided blade to that Weavile's cranium added the missing piece to his puzzle.

 

He turned to the Dragonair, his brow furrowed in alarm. "Arena? This is an arena? Are you asking me to—"

 

"Yes, spar with you," her eyes betrayed excitement.

 

For a moment—he held no clue as to why—Flame lapsed into silence. His lips twitched, opened quickly, then mashed together at once. He could not wrap his skull round putting one word after another.

 

"Why?" Flame asked earnestly, trying his best not to inject a tone of hostility to such idea.

 

Alice turned her head round to the side, resting it onto her coils. "It's been on my mind today, ever since that discussion we had on the road to the fortress." her eyes wandered up to the sky momentarily. "Or was that yesterday? Dungeons never fail to confuse me. Either way, I saw you fighting those Scum down there. In all honesty, you kicked their arses."

 

Exactly when a warm fuzzy feeling arose in his gut he did not know, but any words which stroked his wavering ego were deemed most welcome. Besides, he felt deserving of the compliment—although he still hadn't expected one so abrupt from her.

 

"Really?" Flame asked rhetorically, leaning back on his paws, "Well, that ... means a lot to me. Thanks. But why exactly should the two of us spar?"

 

Alice hummed, pausing. "... You know what? Even I am not quite sure." she hesitated, eyes darting around. "Uh ... I think Gaius would start showing respect if you were to hold your own against either of us. Yeah, let's go with that."

 

She totally made that up on the spot, Flame cracked an amused smile, Even so, she's right. The only way I'll ever earn his respect is by proving him I can make our team better. And for that, I need practice.

 

Meanwhile, the overgrown mantis dashed out of an ice shard's way, then ended the confrontation with a clean slash to its opponent. The latter fell to the dirt, groaning and moaning about the unfairness of it all.

 

"Guess so. But ... what if I hurt you? Are you absolutely positive this is safe?"

 

"We're dragons, Flame—our scales are the envy of every other pokémon. So yes, we should be fine," Alice said with a confident smile, "Unless you suddenly decide my life isn't worth much, of course."

 

Flame chuckled along, gradually laying his anxieties to rest. "What, you mean I can't rip your throat open? Pity."

 

They watched as both officers left the arena, the weasel in particular walking with a mild limp, as its partner seemed impervious to any doubts thrown at the legitimacy of its victory.

 

"Guess it's our cue," Flame inhaled profoundly, before lifting himself from his seat. While he positioned himself on one end of the field, Alice drifted to the opposite side, with the sun kissing her back—and consequently his eyes. He found himself forced to squint his eyes a tad, even though, admittedly, the extra warmth felt quite pleasant on his scales.

 

Of course we had to choose the one time it's sunny in this stupid place, Flame thought. However, he decided not to voice his complaints; real battlefield opponents would grant him no privileges out of sheer compassion, thus his training should be no different.

 

"You know, this reminds me of similar events they would hold in Urbe," Alice started, "My father made me watch once. They had these absolutely humongous amphitheatres, bustling with spectators on all sides," she drew an imaginary circle with her snout, "Only, the Scum in the pit wouldn't hold back. It was ... troubling, to say the least."

 

As much as the story intrigued him, Flame's main concern was bracing himself psychologically for what was to come.

 

Alice blinked, as if too aware of his partial disinterest. "Oh. I apologise for ranting off there. Enough of that, now," she smirked, then bowed ceremoniously, "Let's begin."

 

Even after Flame's heartbeat spiked simultaneous with those words, the many voices in his head could not come to a consensus. It simply didn't feel right. Despite having just discussed the relatively few risks involved, a part of him stubbornly clung on to a sense of disgust at the mere thought of attacking his teammate and fr—

 

He never managed to finish that thought, what with the unexpected electric current slamming into his chest. Tiny Spinaraks trickled down his limbs, nested round his cranium, bit into his flesh with their toothy arcs. He fell to the ground as soon as the shock ended, only somewhat able to catch himself with his paws. Heat emanated out of his scales, as though he'd been cooked alive. A thin wire of smoke wafted from them even as the last twitches of electricity abandoned his body.

 

"Aaaugh..." Flame groaned through his teeth, breathing heavily, "What was that for?"

 

"The fight has started, hasn't it?" Alice said matter-of-factly, almost puzzled by his question.

 

Oh, right, Flame mentally slapped himself for his idiocy as he rose back up.

 

This time round, he caught wind of Alice drawing her head aback to prepare a further attack. Crouching preemptively, he flung his body out of the way just as the bolt of electricity buzzed straight past him. A grunt escaped his mouth while regaining composure—he made a mental note not to land on his shoulder again.

 

Realising he was trapping himself on the defensive, Flame exploited a lull in the Dragonair's long-range attacks to counter with one of his own, quickly spewing a sizable jet of fire from his maw. He hadn't quite planned any forward-thinking strategy—way ahead of himself, such impulsive being—yet, in a brief moment of clarity, an idea intruded upon his thoughts, for the flames had not quite fanned.

 

No preparation was required; he held back his arms and began to charge. There would be no doubt she expected such move—he would fail in moments, they both knew—but so long as he showed spirit of initiative, that he did not merely follow their shadows out of desperation, some parasite, could it be so terrible if he lost? Not a week had passed since Team Phalanx expanded!

 

The fire enveloped him, coated in his own element. That ought to excite his energies, he hoped. Claws drawn, he leapt off the ground, exited the plume of fire and—

 

Another jet of flames greeted him, this travelling in the other direction, tainted a draconic blue. It was unavoidable; his face felt the brunt of the breath, each tongue burrowing in between his scales, so compressed it quite nearly pushed him backwards.

 

He didn't feel himself impacting the ground, quite so much as his body emitting a sizzling noise that disgusted him profoundly. Had his orange scales not endowed him with prodigious resistance to heat, his skin would likely have melted off at once. (A pile of cooked flesh!)

 

Even through his pained groans, he knew there was no time to mope. Against all signals in his body, he dug his feet into the ground, curled his fists and—ah! Now Alice stood over him, her tail orb glowing a faint light. For a brief moment, he noticed her hesitate, biting her lip. No, he didn't want pity. If he was going to fail right then and there, it would end like they'd agreed to.

 

Alice must have sensed his unspoken message, for her expression hardened, and she drew back her tail. He understood her intentions at once. Faster than his mind could process, he mustered up whatever embers left in him and directed them all towards his opponent.

 

She lashed out, and a blinding pain seemed to rip through his back, like a whip cracking open his skin.

 

There were white spots in his vision. Flame felt himself knocked about, presumably rolling back from the knockback. Yet his last-ditch flamethrower had scored a direct hit: he heard Alice let out a cry, then backed off as she flinched her lower body away.

 

It was then that he realised his attacks were leaving behind a trail of cinders, scorching the earth whenever contact was made. And so it clicked. If Alice wished to steer clear of those searing patches of dirt, he'd make the entire battlefield burn—for was not fire the only element by his side?

 

Pure adrenaline pumped inside his blood vessels. Surmounting the shackles paining his limbs, Flame crouched on all fours. He could feel, underneath his tongue, a sore and rough mouth, decrying the recent abuse received by such blistering temperatures. Yet he smiled on, intoxicated by this new sensation—one he'd briefly felt whilst fighting the Scum.

 

His opponent must have been feeling the same way. Furrowing her brow, she began writhing her coils about to throw his aim off, countering with an ever-increasing barrage of lightning bolts.

 

Yet Flame was not quite aiming at her; rather, he directed each stream close to the ground, then forced his stomach to labour further and torch the area behind her retreat as well.

 

Seeing her breathing space diminish and her lightning attacks become less effective, Alice slithered backwards as the soil became too uncomfortably hot for even her draconic scales to bear. Eventually she exited the sparring field to evade his onslaught—something she didn't seem to take notice of, what with the dozen different emotions going through her face right then. Unperturbed by her own hyperventilating, she drew back and illuminated the orb situated under her neck, a sphere of blue energy gathering before her maw.

 

That was the opening Flame sought. It was spontaneous; his body dashed across the little space left between them, into the outbound grass, tackled the Dragonair with force. As she gasped, the water pulse slipped from her control; it fired off to the side harmlessly. Quickly he enwrapped her snout, wrestling as he vied for control. Alice thrashed violently, flipping over and jerking erratically to shake him off. When that visibly did not work, she growled in irritation, now using her tail to try to unhinge him—only now his paw grabbed her neck orb.

 

The moment his claws wrapped round it, Alice ceased her thrashing. She lay paralysed. No, not that—she was trembling, eyes fixated on him while her breathing grew tenfold.

 

Flame felt a pulse of guilt wash over him, as though he'd violated her personal space. Not even he had expected such belligerency to arise in his body. Against his friend, no less! Even right now, as the hostility between them all but evaporated, he was still keeping her pinned, head against the grass, pressing down on her mid-body with a knee.

 

It feels really warm though, he took notice, glancing at the smooth orb in his claws.

 

In mere seconds, he realised how awkwardness and how sheerly impolite he was being by prolonging that position they were in. As a mere formality, he quickly let her neck orb go, bringing a claw to her throat before he poked her scales there.

 

"Dead," he said with a sheepish grin.

 

With that, he quickly shifted off of her, and sat down. Which quickly changed into lying on the bare grass. Now that the endorphins had worn off, all kinds of pain and dull aches started to surface, starting with the fresh tail-mark on his outer thigh. That was ignoring the sizzling noise some patches of his skin still made upon contact.

 

He turned to Alice, eager to pour out a tiny bit of smugness, and ended up tensing at the sight of her troubled expression. Her eyes were downcast, yet bitter, as if furious at the grass. Had he struck her too violently? But she seemed just fine, he thought.

 

"Alice? Are ... are you okay?" he asked, biting his lip, "Look, I'm sorry for—"

 

All of a sudden she shook her head, as if to break out of her trance. Those pristine eyes rose to meet his momentarily, as she straightened her expression into a more friendly facade.

 

"Sorry? Why on earth are you sorry? You've won, for Mew's sake!" she shot back, forcing a playful grin, "Didn't I tell you not to use the word sorry with me again?"

 

"Yeah, but seeing you like that makes me uneasy..." Flame softened his voice. He wasn't quite sure how to react. Why was she acting so strangely? This was it, he thought; he'd broken some other moral code he had no clue of, probably by touching that orb of hers in battle, which gave him enough momentum to tumble over the line of moral acceptability.

 

Alice returned to glaring holes into the green stalks, exhaling a sigh. "If anything, I should be the one to apologise. There's no reason for me to start acting like a cub. It's just that..." she avoided meeting his gaze, "Damn it, I knew I should have used that water pulse earlier. They're just so hard to aim..."

 

Flame picked up on the tone vesselled by her voice. A heaviness now weighed inside his chest as he lay exhausted on the grass. A voice in his mind—surely the more arrogant side—felt justified to curse at such twisted irony: in a moment he should have sprouted elation from all pores, enjoying his hard-earned victory—Alice, such elegant warrior!—the first emotion he felt was one of guilt.

 

"Well, you p-packed one hell of a punch," Flame wheezed earnestly, cringing slightly from the various stings, "I didn't think a fire type could suffer heat this much."

 

Smiling softly, he playfully struck her side, eliciting a pained yelp from his teammate.

 

"Ow, stop it, that—that hurts!" she snickered back, "Scales or not, standing on cinder burns. Did—did you do that on purpose?"

 

"Somewhat," Flame breathed in deeply, enjoying the feeling of peace, "The idea just came to me."

 

Alice managed a clumsy nod, gazing distantly in his direction. "Wow. I ... to be perfectly honest, I did not expect you would win. O-of course, that's not meant to imply anything. I guess I panicked near the end there, let my guard down."

 

"N-no worries. I have no clue what happened either," he shifted on his side, gaze lost into the sky.

 

Maybe I do have it in me... he thought, the achievement still not fully synced into his brain. After all, his mind attempted to reason, there could have been a thousand and one factors in play: fatigue, bruises from their earlier expedition, foul play on his part, or...

 

A thought chilled his senses. Could she have feigned defeat just to appease his self-confidence?

 

But no, Alice was not one so malicious at heart; besides, he'd seen her heartfelt enthusiasm to challenge him, the effort she put in every movement or attack, the veiled sourness now in her eyes. That last detail still held his mouth shut. It must have been a form of psychosis, to read so thoroughly into every tiny detail; could a pokémon not simply feel disappointed after suffering defeat?

 

Slowly, he shifted to his side, attempting to rise on his feet. A throbbing pain met his efforts, binding his arms to the ground.

 

"These bruises better heal soon, or else I don't think I'll be sleeping tonight," Flame muttered in a quasi-groan.

 

Alice shifted her nuzzle to take a look at him. "Don't worry, a couple of mashed berries should do the trick. We'll just ask Gaius if—" she seemed to stop suddenly, eyes grown wider.

 

Flame furrowed his brow. "Hmm? What's wrong?"

 

"Oh, for the love of Mew," she squeezed her eyes together, pressing her nuzzle against her coils, "I'm an absolute dimwit—I forgot we consumed our last berries at the fortress. We don't have any."

 

"Yes we do," Flame rebutted with a smirk, awaiting her reaction.

 

Alice stared at him with a deadpan expression, prodding him to continue.

 

"Remember that legionary, Virgo?" he went on, crossing his arms, "I stole some from him. Hid them in Gaius' bag."

 

"You ... did?"

 

A nod followed on his part. He felt his cheeks flaring; ever since losing his own bag to the dungeon, he'd been meaning to make up for the supplies inside, although not quite saying it out loud. Those two didn't look like they'd miss a few berries, anyway.

 

Alice blinked a few times, lips parted as she held her breath. "Flame, normally I would loathe stealing from a colleague, but that was genius," she conceded.

 

"Really?" he beamed, his chin suddenly higher.

 

"Of course! With the free lunch legionaries are served daily, they probably won't even notice," a tiny smirk arose from her lips.

 

As a mass of clouds gradually drowned out the dying sun, he began trudging his way back to their tent. The camp seemed devoid of life, only a few night guards mechanically following patrol routes.

 

"Oh, and ... Alice?" Flame felt the need to add.

 

"Yes?" she turned her head to him.

 

"Thanks for bringing me here."

 

She said nothing; only smiled back and kept slithering.

 


 

 

"What the hell happened to you two? Got caught in a stampede?" Gaius alternated his gaze between them, sitting with his legs crossed.

 

Flame barely even paid attention. He clamped his paw onto the bluish berry, letting its juices drip on his other arm. After having helped Alice with her own sores—for she possessed no paws—he hoped this single berry would prove enough to let him sleep tonight.

 

"No, we never left Camp Tempest. Alice wanted to spar with me," Flame explained, dashing his eyes to the Grovyle. Ever since darkness ensued outside their tent, his tail carried the burden of illuminating both his wounds and his teammates.

 

"Wait, seriously?" Gaius raised his eyebrows, slowly developing a grin.

 

Alice raised her neck up high. "Yes, seriously. Doing something 'productive', as you always say. What about you?"

 

The Grovyle stretched his arms out, lips pursed. "Eh, I had a cozy nap. Nothing exciting. Well, except for this."

 

With that, he lifted a small sack from his bedside and dropped it in the middle of the tent. As it hit the ground, clangs of metallic objects rubbing against one another reached Flame's ears.

 

Alice seemed to spring to attention all of a sudden, her jaws parted, frozen mid-breath. "Wait, is that...?"

 

Gaius nodded. "A messenger brought it here—said it was from Ariel."

 

"Wow. It looks kind of ... heavy," Flame commented, pressing his claws round the soft fabric.

 

"Damn right it does," Gaius seized the sack at once, "Flame, would you please make some light?"

 

Flame halted for a second, his brow creased in bewilderment. What happened, Gaius? You actually said 'please' for once.

 

Overlooking that detail, he pinched a spot near the tip of his tail, and brought it in closer. Each of them leaned their heads forward as Gaius undid the rope knotted round the bag's mouth. Slowly the bag collapsed into a flat veil, revealing its hidden contents.

 

A collective gasp escaped their mouths. There, before their very eyes, sat a small stack of greyish coins. Flame's eyes counted a dozen, possibly more, gleaming of orange as his fire's reflection danced across their surface.

 

His teammates looked about ready to faint. It took roughly ten seconds of continuous staring before a word was spoken.

 

"Now, this is a what I call a payout!" Gaius' smirk grew ever wider, "Next time Ariel comes complaining about our team's performance, she can get bent."

 

"... How much is this?" Flame spewed out, mouth agape.

 

He took one in his claws; it was more oval than rounded in shape, ever so corroded, sporting the rough drawing of some sort of big-muzzled creature with antennae sprouting from its head.

 

"Quick, count them! How much? How much?" Alice hurried breathlessly.

 

Flame deduced that the task of counting their reward had fallen on his shoulders. Both his teammates were awaiting his verdict. He squinted his eyes to see better. The characters stamped looked nothing like regular numbers, but, thankfully, he remembered memorising what that 'M' meant while studying Oldspeak numerals at the library.

 

"Uh, let's see..." Flame took a deep breath, "Two, four, six, eight..." he mumbled, isolating each coin with a claw as to not count anything twice.

 

"Sixteen. All in all, it should be..." he tapped his chin in thought, "Fifty-thousand poké, I think."

 

"Goodness gracious," Alice wheezed, audibly incredulous of her own words, "I haven't seen so many coins all at once in years. How many weeks worth of supplies can they afford us? If we land more of these jobs, in a year we may even have the money to buy a flat. Our very own team base!"

 

Gaius chuckled, not attempting to hold back his amusement. "And then what? Share it with two families of dirty proles and getting to pay taxes?"

 

"Geez, Gaius, I was making a suggestion!" Alice shot back with a growl, "Shut it with your sarcasm, just this once. I actually feel like we accomplished something—not just for survival's sake."

 

Flame felt the need to chime in. "Well, I think it would be a good idea to keep scavenging food whenever possible. Just to be safe."

 

"You're right. At least until winterfall. Not tomorrow, though," Alice added, a smirk crawling up her face, "Tomorrow, we are going to have a darn good quality meal. If they still exist in this town..."

 

Flame felt a certain desire rise up in his stomach. The taste of stale bread and ripe fruit had numbed his taste buds for far too long; besides, they deserved some kind of self-assigned reward.

 

"Fine then," Gaius said, "I know of a few stands at the market square where Imperial Army officers buy their food from. There's bound to be something tasty there."

 

Just as it looked like everybody would utter their goodnight, and Flame shifted lazily in his straw bed, he noticed Gaius gazing towards him.

 

As he flipped on his back to make himself comfortable, his team leader spoke.

 

"Flame."

 

That voice carried a hint of discomfort, as if finding it hard to convey actual words. Flame froze. He did not respond right away, and, instead, rushed to the conclusion that Gaius had something important to tell him. Was this it? Was he going to be kicked out?

 

I'm over-thinking this, just keep it cool, Flame shook those silly fears out of his head, hoping it was nothing serious.

 

"Yes, Gaius?"

 

The Grovyle bit his lip, mulling over his words, then let out a sigh. "I must congratulate you for fighting well back in the dungeon. Maybe I judged you too quickly on that."

 

Flame knew not whether to feel honoured or pompous. All he knew was that such words were so unexpected coming from the Grovyle that a couple of seconds were necessary to let everything sink in.

 

"O-oh. Really?" he stammered, quickly conjuring what to say, "Thanks. I'm still sorry for the whole ordeal in the bar."

 

Gaius nodded, but said nothing further.

 

A warm fuzzy feeling interfered with his thoughts. His team leader, the same one who had endlessly scorned his incompetence and threatened to kick him out, had actually complimented his performance. It wasn't quite an apology, but surely that's what he meant! For the first time, as he looked at his Dragonair and Grovyle companions, he felt real kinship. These pokémon he shared a home with felt in no way strangers to him—he might as well have known them for years.

 

"By the way, why did you need to drown my tail flame back in the dungeon?" Flame asked, the thought popping up in his mind, "It ... didn't feel very pleasant."

 

Gaius crossed his arms. "Don't go too far over your head, now. The Rhyperior would have seen your light through the fog."

 

"Okay, fair enough," Flame nodded. One could not win all battles, he thought.

 

"Besides, you still need to train some more," Gaius said, sinking into his bed, "But I appreciate that you're willing to learn."

 

After a few minutes' conversation to decide what mission they would do upon sunrise, they decided to take up whatever would remain after the initial rush for the good-paying assignments. Then, everybody uttered their goodnights. Gaius was already snoring soundly, while Alice was curled up cutely in her own bed, showing no signs of being awake.

 

And so he was left alone, alone with his thoughts.

 

Only then did he notice just how much his body demanded rest. A heaviness weighed on his chest; after trekking back kilometres to Aesernia, plus sparring against Alice, not even berry juice could lull the ache in his muscles. He held his breath for a few moments, his tail flame shrinking in intensity. It was a trick he'd discovered just the night before. As much as he enjoyed being bathed in his fire's warmth, the light would oftentimes end up impeding his sleep.

 

Now that he gradually felt more relaxed, the events of his team's latest mission buzzed through his head: Sperantia Nova, that eerie ghost creature he saw, countless hours of trekking, then finally seeing the Scum with his own eyes. So much had happened within a short time frame!

 

Flame clutched his head with his claws, emitting a loud sigh. He listened. Now voices came from another tent, masculine, laughing like idiots and singing about some roses in a far-away town. The musicless melody seemed to synchronise with his tail's quiet crackling.

 

Yet it almost felt natural, he mused, looking at this straw bed and red-linen tent.

 

He wondered, still, if he'd ever truly get used to all this. He figured he ought to have adapted by now, yet something felt off. It always went back to one topic. Something that constantly weighed on his mind, whether he realised it or not.

 

The question rehearsed through his head once more.

 

What now?

 

With no concrete memory of how his life used to be, what path could possibly lay open to him? How could he be sure he'd left nothing behind—a family, a lover, a home?

 

It's all so ... convoluted. I need answers, yet I hear nothing.

 

It had long become clear to him that no supernatural deity would suddenly descend from heaven, and, out of sheer pity, solve his vexations at once.

 

He only had himself to count on.

 

...

 

For some reason, he smiled candidly. You know what? It's not so bad—maybe it doesn't even matter, who I used to be. Here, I feel like I have a purpose.

 

As of right now, Team Phalanx represented everything he had: his teammates had aided him and given him a home in a time of utmost need. And (their compliments still warmed him) it seemed he was here to stay, if his previous performance was anything to go by. Nothing felt more right than to dedicate himself wholly to the team for a while.

 

Besides, such lifestyle would not necessarily preclude his search for answers. Perhaps one of these days the papers would unearth an article concerning a kidnapped Charmeleon. Other than that, what other methods could he employ? Sure, there was that Leafeon Scum they'd captured whilst on duty, and Alice had suggested they may have been implicated in his situation, but ... did it even speak his language?

 

Maybe it was silly of him to even worry.

 

Flame observed his own breath.

 

Ah, I'll think about it tomorrow. Too tired...

 


 

Domus Aerelia

 

Will-O-Wisp torches cast an ebbing glow on a Haxorus as she stopped before a set of richly-decorated double doors. Eyes half-closed, she held back a yawn, noticing that she faintly smelt of pollen after passing through her garden.

 

Not a second afterwards, the doors creaked open at once, the stronger interior lighting casting a breach in the patio's state of penumbra.

 

Ariel entered her villa, blinking her eyes a couple of times to adjust. Holding the door open was one of her servants—a Gardevoir, bowing, face parallel to the ground.

 

"Greetings, mistress Ariel," the servant said in her soft-spoken voice.

 

The Haxorus barely emitted a grunt in acknowledgement. She hadn't the time to bother with these simpletons; her eyes were already set on the stairway leading to her quarters. Ah, yes. A comfy mattress was all her body craved for right now.

 

"Mistress?" the Gardevoir repeated, hands cupped before her in respect.

 

Ariel clenched her paws into fists. If she had the energy, she would have showed those insistent fools what respect meant.

 

"What?"

 

The servant seemed to flinch ever so slightly at the sharpness in her tone, then regained her composure. "We have a guest; they wish to speak with you."

 

"Tell him to get lost, then," Ariel flicked her wrist, making her way past the rich patterns and mosaics adorning the walls.

 

 

She saw the Gardevoir whisper something to the Flygon beside her, the head servant, both donning a worried look.

 

"You better have prepared that wine," Ariel muttered in a hiss, unsure and uncaring whether the two heard or not.

 

Letting her heavy tail slide on the floor out of pure laziness, she ascended to her quarters, passing by a multitude of guest rooms and side corridors. Her eyes became heavier with each step she took. More than once she nearly bumped into a framed painting, or a paned window, during moments of drowsiness.

 

Once she safely reached her room, she closed the door behind her, breathing a content sigh. She smirked at the sight of that mattress—a leather cover stuffed with Taillow feathers. The thought of taking a hot bath in her thermae only just entered her mind. It fancied her a lot, but that would mean travelling to the other side of the compound. Oh well, she would settle with her bed for tonight.

 

Now, where was that wine...?

 

"Ariel."

 

A raspy, metallic voice came from nowhere, giving the Haxorus such a start that she reeled for a few moments and nearly broke down her door by slamming her back against it. Claws drawn, she inhaled a shaky breath. Her gaze fell upon a figure to her bedside.

 

A purple, armour-clad pokémon stood there, a red glow emitting from its eyes. The large cannon weighing on the thing's back made her swallow her panic; she knew that creature all too well.

 

"Sycorax?" Ariel panted, gritting her teeth as she lowered her claws, "What—what the fuck are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be in Urbe? And why in my room?"

 

The Genesect did not move, if not for its eyes. "Quiet. I have journeyed far to speak to you." it strode forward, stopping face-to-face with her. "His Majesty has shown concern over your recent behaviour. Tell me, what was the meaning behind that letter?

 

She cringed at the Genesect's mechanical voice. "Exactly what I wrote in it. With the highest regards, I think His Majesty should leave the administration of Task Force Aegis to me. The corps are doing a fine job as it is."

 

Sycorax's glowing eyes bored a hole into her defences. "Need I remind you that imperial law technically does not allow females to hold such high-rank office? Thank our emperor's benevolence for that. Or would you rather betray his trust?"

 

Ariel crossed her arms, and grunted. "It's not like you're a male, either."

 

"... I shall pretend that was the wind I just heard," Sycorax said, its metal armour rattling at each step as it walked round her.

 

Ariel dared not follow the general with her eyes. This was a losing battle, and she knew it. "Fine. Send ... His Majesty my apologies."

 

The Genesect's mouth could not physically shift, but she imagined it in a grin right now. "Very well, then. Let us hope we shall not need to discuss this anymore."

 

Ariel bit her lip. Her superior had caught her totally unprepared, and her brain could not work well under a shroud of weariness. "Again, why is 'Sycorax the Godsgiven' here? Aren't you supposed to think up some grand plan to rout the barbarian Scum from our border?"

 

The Genesect nodded. "Yes. That is why I need your utmost cooperation. If this town were to fall, the enemy would spill onto the Aesernian Plains, and the path to Portus and to Urbe would lay open."

 

"And...?"

 

"And, that is another item of discussion which brought me here. Civil Protection has recently been suffering a loss in recruitment figures, has it not?"

 

Ariel crossed her arms again. She came here to sleep, not to be subjected to interrogation!

 

"It's better that way; less idiots burdening my resources. Already got enough of those."

 

"The emperor has just approved a new mandatory conscription law," Sycorax droned on matter-of-factly, ignoring her, "Every able-bodied citizen from adolescence onward shall be enrolled in Civil Protection for three months. Male and female. If any turn out to have a tiny grain of competence, you are ordered to transfer them to the Imperial Army, so they can serve in the front lines."

 

Ariel just stood there, jaw shut, mulling over what she'd just heard. "So I'm supposed to take these potential failures and just accept them? What about local trade? I bet my arse most of those merchants in Victory Square are no more than kids. What happens when they're forced to take up arms?"

 

Sycorax did the closest gesture to a shrug its armoured body allowed. "Harsh times call for harsh measures. That is for you to figure out."

 

The Genesect walked outside her room, into a corridor, stopping before an open balcony window. Those bright, red eyes looked in her direction again. "I shall remain in Aesernia for a few more days, to consult local officers on the war effort. Do not disappoint His Majesty."

 

With that, the insectoid creature bent its knees, and leapt forth into the darkness.

 

Everything that happened afterwards was a blur: all she remembered was herself cursing, before she collapsed onto her bed.


 

 

 

End of Chapter IX

Chapter Text

Chapter X: Entropy


 

"…And so the gods came, from beyond the stars, to assist us petty creature in our ascension to greatness. The Crown embraced Her divine role in leading this Empire in Their name, under Their aegis; and the Republic was no more."

 

Excerpt from the book “Our Benefactors”, written by Imperial Scribe Eli Kadabra.

 


 

Flame felt wonderful.

 

Albeit a mass of clouds obfuscated the morning sky, leaving the whole camp in a shade of penumbra, it strangely did not impact his mood in the slightest. He walked outside the barracks alongside his squadmates, smelling fresh dew and pokémon sweat through his nostrils. For what was possibly the first time in his life, the entirety of his body felt pleasantly untense; no knots tying his stomach, no dull aches in his head.

 

His enlarged tail fire seemed to agree, too.

 

"Are you sure that will be enough?" Alice asked as they departed their tent, dodging incoming officers scrambling to take a job for the day. The three of them had already agreed to do so after rush hour.

 

Gaius rummaged through his bag's contents one last time. "Looks like it. This is basically all the equipment we have, anyway."

 

"And what about the money? Remember our 'special' breakfast?"

 

Gaius rolled his eyes. "Ugh, don't worry, I remember. I honestly have zero clue what we'd buy, though."

 

Flame put a claw to his chin, humming aloud. "Good question. Definitely no berries. If I see another one of those, I'm going to vomit. Never tried fish, though."

 

"Fish? For breakfast?" Alice grinned. "You, sir, have some mighty fine tastes. Too bad a single Magikarp costs enough to bleed us dry."

 

He let out half a frown. "Well, there must be something we can afford that isn't leftovers."

 

"Eh, let's just buy some fresh bread," Gaius shrugged. "No need to go crazy on spending."

 

Flame's mind threw around some options, yet he didn't know what could be considered finesse in this town. "I guess, but that's a bit simple on its own. How about … I don't know, cheese?"

 

"Cheese…" Alice repeated, as if testing the suggestion with her own lips. "That's perfect! If we take the thinnest slice possible, we could probably afford three."

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Gaius' face contort into a grimace.

 

"Fine. We're splitting the loaves, then," the Grovyle said. "I'm not throwing away more than eight thousand poké on this."

 

Soon, they ventured out of Camp Tempest and into the vague, brown-coloured slums to the south and west of it. Flanking them were little three-storey houses with battered doorways—perhaps a quarter of the windows in the street were smashed or missing. He was amazed at how one could bare to live in such crumbling rat-holes—insulae, he recalled Alice saying. Yet the proles did so without complaint. Up and down the street, and through a particular doorway, a group of Riolu cubs laughed and giggled hysterically as they chased after one another, only to scatter at angry yells from their mothers.

 

The younglings paid no attention to Team Phalanx; most adults passing by eyed them with a sort of guarded contempt. Flame figured it must have been the badges pinned on their bags attracting so much scrutiny.

 

He strode forward wordlessly.

 

At one point, Gaius ordered them to take a shortcut down a dark alleyway—one of the only few not overflowing with rubbish. Once he saw Gaius keen on counting the coins in his bag, a thought streamed out of his mouth of its own accord.

 

"Uh, do you just … keep it all in there? The money, I mean."

 

After twisting his head round, to make sure there was no prole overhearing them, Gaius strapped his bag tighter, and turned to him.

 

"Of course not. What did you take me for, a fool?" Gaius said in a near-whisper. "I stash it all in a hole that's under my bed."

 

Upon hearing those words, Flame raised an eyebrow. "O-oh, okay. It doesn't make me feel any safer, to be honest. How can you be sure it'll stay there?"

 

Alice offered him a meek, sheepish grin. "Well, no one has found out yet, so I'd say our chances are good."

 

Flame rubbed the back of his head pensively. "But isn't there a bank, or someplace like that we could use?"

 

"Geez, you must be thinking we have public thermae up North too," Gaius snickered, though no traces of malice were present in his voice. "There used to be one a couple years back. The interest rates were really wicked though, so eventually it just closed down for a lack of clients."

 

"Huh. Strange," Flame muttered. "I wonder if others had our same idea."

 

Gaius looked behind them to make sure nobody was listening in. "Actually, I heard other officers have started digging secret stashes outside of town. Who knows, we could always go on a treasure hunt."

 

While Flame reflected on the hidden implications of that statement, the alleyway ended abruptly, and the three of them emerged into the town's market square. Vending stalls seemed to pop up all over, consisting of mere wooden poles holding up ragged cloths, atop which bird pokémon perched on and took off. The whole square was in commotion. Crowds numbering in the dozens stood huddled around a few stalls: there were yells of anger from all sides, and he noticed more than one physical confrontation developing to his right.

 

Is this normal? Flame could not help but ask himself. It didn't seem too far-fetched to be normality, yet something felt particularly off today. An air of discontent and mistrust, a pungent smell shooting up his nostrils—just like those glares they'd received beforehand.

 

His teammates' faces suggested that they felt uneasy just like him. Yet he followed them regardless through a less dense section of the market, eyes skirting over every object on sale. Amongst the few items visible behind the infesting proles were foodstuffs, like bread and fruit and berries, but also fortune amulets, claws, horns, small mementos with no apparent value.

 

It took a surprising amount of time to shove and charge their way through the suffocating mass pressing from all directions, before they finally took a breather in an empty corner behind the cobalt roof cover of one particular stall.

 

As he panted, Flame took one end of the cloth and wiped his forearm clean of all the sweat and grime he'd collected from colliding passersby.

 

"What in Mew's name is happening here?" Alice took a relieved breath. "I've never seen this much of a ruckus before—it's like they weren't even paying attention."

 

Gaius took the bag off his shoulders, opened it and rummaged inside."If you ask me, either Ariel increased the prices, or some item went out of stock."

 

The Grovyle fished a handful of coins from his bag—about five or seven—and dropped them into Flame's palm.

 

"Here you go. Shouldn't take more than five thousand," Gaius said, strapping his bag tightly round his shoulder. "Go buy that cheese now, it's right here. The two of us will go see if there's any bread left."

 

With that, his teammates departed for another direction, disappearing into the thick crowd within mere instants.

 

Flame just stood there, collecting his thoughts, shifting the coins in his own paw. He clasped his claws round them tightly: with no bag to hold them in, all it would take was a quick push from behind, and they'd slip out of his grasp.

 

Fair enough, Flame nodded to himself, breathing in. This shouldn't be too difficult. Hopefully I won't have to wait in line.

 

Taking great care to avoid making contact with passing pokémon, he walked round the other side of the stall. Indeed, there was no line there. He'd be able to get this over with right away.

 

He rested his arms from the elbow down on the wooden counter separating the various wares. Then, he raised his eyes to take a gander at the vendor. A most peculiar sight befell his eyes: it was a bipedal, blue-scaled behemoth, with orange gills jutting out of its cheeks and two black fins acting as crests of sorts.

 

The Swampert stood still for a few seconds, eyes lost into nothingness before peering its eyes down at the new arrival. It didn't even greet him; only grunted in a minimal form of acknowledgement.

 

Flame scanned his eyes across the wares in front of him, feeling a slight pressure from being observed while doing so. On the counter there were neatly aligned crates of fish, clams, wheels of cheese, slabs of meat bathed in salt, and some items he could not identify but whose colour satisfied the eye. Right after he was done inspecting, his attention darted back to the cheese. It was a half-way between yellow and orange, looking surprisingly pristine—especially considering what his taste buds were accustomed to. Had it been realistically possible, he would have devoured everything with a mere look.

 

"This one," said Flame, pointing with a claw. "How much is a slice?"

 

"Thirty-thousand poké," the vendor said.

 

Flame hoped he'd misheard that number. "What? T-that's preposterous! Maybe you didn't understand; I asked for the—"

 

"Miltank cheese. It's thirty-thousand. Take or leave."

 

For a couple of seconds, Flame was left with his maw hanging open much like a buffoon. No, he couldn't possibly afford that. There must have been a misunderstanding somewhere along the way. Had Gaius underestimated the price? Yet there was a substantial difference between eight thousand poké and more than thrice that amount; his leader's memory could not have been so grossly wrong.

 

"E-even the smallest slice?" Flame asked breathlessly.

 

"I'm not making discounts," the Swampert vendor repeated, as he set his three-digit paw on the counter. Those eyes were looking down at him, simultaneously puzzled and irritated at such obstinate persistence.

 

Biting his lower lip, Flame crossed his arms together. Right then, he decided that he would not walk away empty-handed from the stall. "I was told it costs less here. What the hell happened to cheese being eight-thousand?"

 

"You must have not gotten the memo, kid. Rules are rules. And if that bitch says prices go up, prices go up."

 

Feeling a nerve twitch in his neck, Flame grit his teeth and slammed his own paws on the counter. "I'm not leaving. The most I can give you is ten-thousand."

 

"Don't have the money?" the vendor hissed and hunched his face forward to meet his. "Stop wasting my time, then."

 

Alas, it was a lost cause. Flame had to restrain a sudden impulse to impale those white, fleshy orbs with his claws—yes, it would shut him up nicely. But he abandoned the idea immediately; the Swampert stood at almost twice his height, and would surely wash him away in any real fight.

 

For perhaps five seconds resentment made him careless, and he stepped away from the stall without so much as a preliminary glance to the crowd. However, something halted him just beside the stall, out of view from its owner. Breathing in furiously to stop himself from shaking, he clenched the coins in his fist further.

 

Perhaps he ought to relax. To any sane individual, getting so worked up over such trivial happening might have been considered deeply unhealthy. Perhaps it was. Yet, Team Phalanx deserved at least one day of comfort and tasty food!

 

Calm. Calm. There must be other stalls selling cheese, he twisted his head around. Nothing. Each stall attracted a crowd so dense as to block any view of its products, much less encourage him to stand in line.

 

Then it dawned on him: he did not have to necessarily pay for the cheese. After all, he'd come here well-intentioned, and if the vendor refused to be reasonable, then nothing would stop him from obtaining his goal via other means. A small portion of his mind attempted to call out the folly in stealing, but much of his psyche disagreed.

 

Alice and Gaius do this all the time, it can't be that bad, he thought.

 

Suppressing his breath, he approached the cyan-tinted stall again. Now a pair of pokémon approached the Swampert's stand—two Flygon. Perhaps Imperial Army officers, like Alice had mentioned. They asked for something.

 

In truth, he did not quite hear; his thumping heartbeat masked their exact words. The verbal exchange continued for a good ten seconds. At some point, one of them would surely turn and notice him staring eerily for—oh!

 

This was it: the Swampert turned round, leaned down, probably to sift through a crate's contents. Hastily Flame's eyes glossed over each ware; the fish looked tempting, but time did not favour his cause. He'd settle for those slices of already cut cheese lying nearby.

 

It was spontaneous; for a moment he lost his inhibition. He snatched the items and ran.

 

Exaltation boosted his legs as he missiled through the crowd with astonishing efficiency. He could not ascertain whether someone had shouted 'thief' from behind him just now, nor how many slices of cheese he was carrying in all. No mental energy could be diverted from pushing obstructing pokémon out of his path to gain however much distance possible from the Swampert.

 

When Flame reached the opposite side of the square and could run no further, he quickly identified which small alley they'd entered from, slipping inside its shadows. Resting his back to the wall, he panted heavily. A dumb grin remained plastered on his face. He looked down at both his paws: one still squeezed that small amount of money securely, while two pieces of slightly-shredded cheese lay in his other palm.

 

Hopefully neither Alice nor Gaius would complain about unwashed paws, he hoped.

 

Wow, and to think I told myself that I'd never stoop to this level… Flame let out a bittersweet frown. It did not make much sense, to feel ashamed for wanting to help. Whichever way he acted was acceptable, he tried to convince himself, so long as it brought joy to his teammates' faces. Indeed, was not that his final purpose?

 

Perhaps his friends would eye him wearily for such distasteful tactics—most certainly Alice.

 

I just hope prices haven't risen for everything. That merchant said it's Ariel who gets to decide. Why would she change things overnight? Why now?

 

If prices had skyrocketed amongst all goods, and not just luxuries—Flame dared not entertain the thought—then the fifty-thousand poké they'd so proudly collected would suddenly amount to naught. A loaf of bread, berry-scented at most. All in the blink of an eye!

 

Flame blinked out of his thoughts as he noticed two familiar figures worm through the crowd. He caught their attention by waving and shouting their names, after which they reached him in the alleyway.

 

The look on their faces did not inspire confidence.

 

"How did it go?" he asked, perhaps a tiny bit rhetorically.

 

"Horribly," Alice spoke up, mumbling. "We looked in three different stalls, and every merchant we came across was absolutely mental. Eleven-thousand poké? What did you stuff the bread with, gold bars? I only saw ants inside!"

 

The Dragonair's voice was frustrated and seething with bitterness.

 

"Oh," Flame frowned. "So they raised the price of bread, too?"

 

Alice gazed back to the visual and auditory mess coming from the market square. "Yes, and the whole square is in upheaval about it. I think someone even stepped on my tail. Ouch," she rubbed its tip against her body.

 

"But did you buy anything in the end?" Flame asked.

 

"Just a single loaf. Maybe it costs too much, but…" she paused momentarily, looking downwards. "I simply can't be bothered to scavenge again. Just this once."

 

Gaius, who had stood and listened quietly, shifted his gaze to the Charmeleon's hands.

 

"Uh, I see you actually bought what we asked for," Gaius pointed with a claw, eyebrows raised. "How … how did you manage to get the money? Didn't we give you too little?"

 

"W-well, I … didn't exactly pay for it," Flame said, accompanied by a meek chuckle.

 

For a few moments, Alice stared right into his eyes, silent. He definitely saw surprise in them, but couldn't quite discern which type.

 

"… Oh. I-I guess that explains the shouts I heard from where we left you."

 

The tone charging her voice caused his heart to droop in a corner.

 

"Look, I'm sorry," Flame bit his lower lip, eyes cast downwards. "But there was no other way for me to buy it regularly. I just didn't want us to have come here for nothing."

 

"Nonono, don't get me wrong," Alice forced another smile to reassure him. "Me and Gaius have to do it every now and then as well. Simply put it, I dislike stealing from others. It's nothing against you."

 

"Come on, don't listen to her," Gaius chuckled, amused, delivering a mock punch to his shoulder. "You did good. Man, what happened to you? If you keep surprising me like this, I might just start tolerating your presence."

 

Flame chuckled along half-heartedly, hoping to sweep his less-than-moral methods out of his friends' thoughts.

 

"How about we get away for now?" he said, throwing a brief glance towards the market square. "I doubt that merchant's going to look for us in this mess, but I'd rather not take the risk."

 

Motioning his teammates forth with a paw, Flame retreated down the alleyway, back in the direction of Camp Tempest.

 

Albeit they'd technically obtained what they came here for, the atmosphere around Team Phalanx was one of palpable uneasiness.

 

"So much for the team base," Alice sighed and looked away, as she dodged a passing Rattata. "Guess we're back to eating berries every day. Again…"

 

Flame could not help but flinch, both mentally and physically. There was an underlying melancholy in her voice that almost made him want to hug her to make her feel better. Stroke those fluffy head wings, he pictured in his head. But would it be seen as demeaning?

 

"Hey…" he said, laying a claw on the back of her neck. "Look at the bright side. At least we can eat decently, even if it's just this once."

 

While admittedly he hadn't said much, it seemed enough to lift a small smile back on her face.

 

The Dragonair turned to him, visibly regaining her composure. "You're right. It's no use whining like this. It's been ages since I've had cheese—I should be grateful, if anything."

 

Flame felt a small twinge of pride reverberate through his body—a mental sigh of relief. Even though he was powerless to do anything about the prices, he felt it was his duty in a way to keep morale high nonetheless. A short moment of silence ensued as the three of them exited the greasy alleyway and backtracked through the similarly unkempt slums from before. A part of him wondered why Gaius did not wish to commence eating at once; then he remembered that proles would not hesitate jump at them like insects at the naked sight of fresh bread.

 

Soon enough, after no more dilapidated insulae followed, and the cacophony of strident voices ebbed away, the same upward slope walked so many times to and fro Camp Tempest appeared. The encampment's lone guard tower loomed against swirling, tar-black clouds. He thought he spotted its guard kindle a torch to ward off the cumulating shadows.

 

It was then that Gaius spoke up.

 

"Anybody wanna eat?"

 

Gleeful approval came from Alice without delay.

 

Although Flame shared a certain kind of anticipation, he waited a second before speaking. "Out here? What if it rains?"

 

Gaius shrugged, wandering over to a patch of roadside grass. "Then we get wet. Cover the bread, if need be."

 

"Yeah, easy for you to say..." Flame huffed, paw instinctively clutching his tail tip. Nevertheless the Grovyle immediately detected a certain lack of resistance.

 

"I've heard of Charmanders who learnt to swim right out the egg," said Gaius, plopping himself down. "Don't tell me a few drops are too much to bear."

 

When no objection followed, Gaius took it as a green light. Their leader grabbed a lonely loaf of bread—around the length of his forearm—and carefully brought his leaf blade down akin to a guillotine. It broke into two rough halves, causing a shower of crumbs to scatter all over.

 

Flame nodded courteously as he was handed one half. He gazed down with perhaps too much zeal. It looked so much purer, so much softer than what his teeth were accustomed to!

 

The Grovyle dug the twin slices of cheese out of his bag; gingerly he slashed the fresh bread open —without spilling too many crumbs, for each was precious—and inserted one of the two pieces of cheese inside.

 

At once, Flame's own piece received similar treatment, and now, the bread stood firmly within his grip, flaps of cheese dangling from the sides, his mouth salivating involuntarily. Neither of the two items emitted much of a scent, but he figured it was already an improvement over the stench that had slowly become normal for him.

 

Had it been good custom, he would have gladly begun licking the individual breadcrumbs scattered on his claws.

 

Just when his jaws nearly clamped down on his meal, the expression on Alice's face stopped him mid-act.

 

"What's wrong?" Flame raised a bemused eyebrow.

 

That question answered itself wordlessly when he noticed that she held no meal in her tail's end. The Dragonair did not speak, though her features revealed a tiny bit of annoyance.

 

That might be a problem, he thought, alternating looks between his piece of bread and the one in Gaius' paws. The Grovyle sank his teeth into his, wholly concentrated, only noticing the dilemma after a second bite.

 

"Uh-oh. There's only two slices. Plus two pieces of bread," Gaius uttered while chewing, careful not to spit anything, "Looks like someone'll have to eat less."

 

A momentary silence cloaked all three of them. They exchanged looks with one another, but nobody seemed to gather the will to volunteer.

 

Ah, just what we needed…Flame cursed mentally. His claws seemed to dig further into the hardy crust for a few seconds. A bit of it was chipped off. Biting his lip, he exhaled audibly, and extended his half-loaf in Alice's direction.

 

"Take it," he said. "I can wait until dinner."

 

The cobalt-scaled dragon proceeded to eye him as one would eye a lunatic. "Surely you are joking? Don't be ridiculous—we can divide it up again."

 

"But it's already quite small," Flame insisted. "I-I can't possibly make you eat so little. Take it," he extended the bread in her direction again.

 

Alice held her tail up in a blocking motion. "No, no, split it. I insist."

 

"Really, I'm not that hungry right—"

 

"Flame, I refuse to eat that other half. Throw it away, if you truly want."

 

He knew that there could be no further negotiating. Although he'd be shirking his portion, on the other hand, he smiled. So, the already smaller half-loaf was split once again, and he handed Alice her rightful piece.

 

"Guess it won't be me," Gaius shrugged with a grin, and tore another chunk out of his meal.

 

Resting his rear against the tickly grass stalks, Flame shifted his attention to his now-diminished nourishment in his hands. In a few minutes, it had gone from looking enough to satiate him throughout the day to just enough to fit in his paws.

 

I'm in no real position to complain, am I? he shrugged mentally, and gave his rations a tentative nib.

 

Right away, the sweet, dominant flavour of cheese inundated his taste buds—nearly drowning out everything else. Salty yet one could feel the faint trace of oil and butter. The only reason his brain hadn't completely forgotten about the bread was its crust; as crunchy as a biscuit, so brittle that it cracked audibly when he pressed down with his teeth. Entire grains of it fell to the ground with each gnaw.

 

Mid-way through chewing, he dedicated a few seconds to throw a glance at his friends. Both had only taken minute bites out of their meal, likely to savour every grain. And—

 

Flame's heart jumped so much that, for a fleeting moment, he forgot about his hunger. It was the first time he'd seen sparkles in their eyes. Their usual demeanour seeped with traces of calm: eagerness behind each bite, Alice's tail swinging back and forth unconsciously, both within metres of him. The sight enthralled his eyes. He'd certainly seen what struggles Team Phalanx experienced daily, heard of years and years spent under even more austere conditions.

 

Yet, here they all were, sitting merrily by the roadside. Happy. Even as the first raindrops splattered against his back, he smiled.

 


 

Thunder boomed somewhere far-off, causing Flame to jerk in place out of instinct. Rain still pelted his back. Once he sneaked a look to the side to make certain none of his teammates saw, he kept his neck arced downwards, paws cradling his fiery tail tip.

 

At first it had only been a slow shower, but by the time they had reached Camp Tempest proper, it had settled into a ceaseless rhythm.

 

Whose idea was it to put a bulletin board under the god-forsaken rain? Flame struggled to hold back a grimace, his throat starting to tighten.

 

"Can't you bring those fliers inside?" Alice raised her voice. "If it pours down any heavier, I think Flame's going to pass out. And I'm not exactly enjoying myself, either."

 

"Almost done," Gaius mumbled back, oblivious to their discomfort. When they arrived, there were a mere seven fliers left affixed; and the Grovyle insisted upon reading each one, back hunched forward to act as a roof of sorts.

 

Flame did not find the energy to voice his discomfort. Whereas other pokémon might have found raindrops to be minor annoyances—water-types enjoyed them, those wretched beasts—he likened the experience closer to painful chunks of ice. No, pinpricks; that's what they were, tiny pinpricks leaking cold through to his bones.

 

"So? What is it?" Alice said, forwarding a hint of impatience.

 

Gaius straightened his back, letting the various fliers get pummeled by rainwater, becoming soaked within seconds.

 

"Nothing," Gaius said plainly. "Absolutely nothing. 'Rebuild collapsed bridge'; 'interrogate suspected reactionaries'; 'reinforce the Fifth Legion in Colonia Basilea', and so on. One would involve travelling half-way across the province, and the other is out of our league."

 

"And?" Alice pressed on. "The bridge assignments sounds feasible to me. Besides, you can't possibly make me believe that there is not a single everyday rescue mission."

 

Gaius suddenly lifted his foot and kicked a small pile of dirt onto the damp flyers.

 

"Problem is," Gaius hissed, clenching his fists. "The payout is worthless. Fifteen-thousand poké? Sweat and grime for an entire day to earn nothing?!"

 

"… So what do we do now?" Alice alternated looks between her teammates, her scales—Flame noted—almost gleamy because of the rain.

 

Gaius cupped his face in his paws, then exhaled audibly. "I swear, if I see that lizard bitch I'll slit her throat out. Either that, or the proles will do it. Hope they burn down her villa, too."

 

Flame had not opened mouth (it wouldn't have been right, to complain), yet it was becoming increasingly difficult not to openly yell at his leader's face.

 

"… Gaius?" he said, amazed at how feeble his voice sounded right then.

 

Thankfully, Alice seemed to take notice of his plight. Another thunder crackled in the distance, this one just a tad fainter.

 

"We can call this off, if you want," Alice told him, a little disappointed. "Stay home for the day. But, first of all, let's get out of this god-forsaken rain."

 

Flame could only oblige, and trail his teammates to the nearest roofed building, which, despite being a few hundred metres off, still demanded that they step through a lagoon of mud. He grimaced in the process, the gooey substance latching onto his feet and between his toes, only to notice that Alice had it even worse than him. Because of her serpentine body, more of her underside became coated with the filth. He told her not to fret; the rain would wash it off.

 

Sweet, sweet warmth returned to his body the moment they pushed the twin doors to a nearby building open, leading into some kind of lobby area. There were numerous Civil Protection officers, not unlike Team Phalanx, huddled in groups of three or four—he took glee in noting the number of fire-types. None of them Charmeleon, though.

 

Flame set one foot in front of the other with extra care. The wooden pavement was one big puddle, and Team Phalanx's arrival likely did little to help. Besides that, he could still hear those infernal, phantom raindrops rattling in his ears, as if his body had yet to fully realise that there were none.

 

That's probably why it took him a second to notice a massive Scizor shove another nearby Vulpix against the wall to reach them.

 

"Psst! Hey!" the Scizor waved its pincer to draw attention.

 

Team Phalanx halted collectively, staring up as the tall insectoid stepped ever closer. Light from overhead lamps refracted off the insectoid's red, metallic exoskeleton, making it seem gleamier than it probably was.

 

"You three. Task Force Aegis?" his voice was coarse, as though channelled via a metal grate.

 

Neither of them responded, instead staring bemused, unsure of what to say.

 

"Looks like it," the Scizor answered himself, eyeing the badges pinned on their bags. "I need your help with something. Come."

 

"Apologies, mister," Alice narrowed his eyes. "I don't believe we know each other. Who are you?"

 

The Scizor remained impassible, nonchalantly tapping the thin, imperial-purple scarf tied round his neck. "Imperial Army. Let me explain: part of my troops are tied down in Victory Square to control some ongoing unrest. That means bureaucracy won't allow me to launch a raid without recruiting more participants. I need two minimum. Interested?"

 

Flame turned his head to exchange looks with his teammates. Such a proposal would grant them something to do for the day, yet he could not help but shake a veil of weariness that came with anything regarding the Imperial Army.

 

He really didn't want to see Virgo or Yvaine again, either.

 

"Oh. But s-sir, why us? Aren't there other pokémon fit for the job?" Alice asked.

 

"My colleagues would rather see my head roll than lend me their troops," the Scizor said. "All that's left here at Tempest are these lousy fire-types, and they whine like cubs at the thought of going out in the rain."

 

The officer barely seemed to acknowledge the glares directed at him throughout the room, shifting his eyes to Flame. "Your friend here looks tougher in comparison. So? What will it be?"

 

Flame blinked, caught unprepared by the compliment. He didn't quite mind—even if it did only serve to appease him.

 

Now it was Gaius who spoke up, arms crossed. "Sir, I'm sorry, but our current rank does not allow us to take joint assignments with the Imperial Army. Accepting would be against the rules."

 

Flame leant over to the side, whispering. "Oh, right. Even after we completed that mission, she still hasn't promoted us, did she?"

 

"Damn right she didn't," Gaius murmured back. "Probably doesn't even care."

 

The Scizor let out a near-metallic noise akin to a groan. While outwardly impassible, a quick glance at its eyes revealed mounting impatience. "Look, I'll give you two days' worth of mess hall meals. Just a simple raid on some insulae. Suspected reactionaries. My squad is competent: there will be no threat to your life."

 

Flame took a step backwards, beckoning his teammates to follow.

 

"So, what do you think? Do we risk it?" he said in a hushed tone.

 

"It would certainly give us something to do for the day," Alice said. "And the food sounds promising, too."

 

Gaius kept his arms crossed, gaze lost in thought. "Yeah. There isn't really much of a choice; Ariel just made every mission on the bulletin board worthless. Damn her. Let's just hope no one finds out."

 

"But … what if she does?" Flame asked, biting his lower lip.

 

"Then we'll starve. Just like if we turn down this offer," Gaius looked him straight in the eye.

 

Still not entirely comfortable with what they were about to do, Flame acquiesced nevertheless. There were still a plethora of questions going unanswered in his head: why would Ariel raise the price of basic goods so abruptly? If they found themselves in trouble, how would the rest of Civil Protection cope? And the proles!

 

It was Gaius, in function of team leader, who turned to the Scizor. "We accept."

 

"Perfect. My team will rendezvous at twelve-hundred hours near Domus Aerelia. Be there."

 

After the Scizor had stepped outside, Flame was left only with hushed blathers of the other pokémon in that lobby, and the rhythmic fizz leaking from outside.

 

He looked past the doors. It was still pouring.

 


 

At least we don't need to travel far... Flame grimaced as he struggled to keep apace with Alice and Gaius, hugging his own chest tightly, tailtip firm within his protective grasp.

 

If such a thing were even possible, the rain had only intensified ever since entering those moody streets overlooked by Camp Tempest. It must have been high noon, yet telling with any kind of certainty was an impossibility whilst storm clouds barricated the skies above.

 

Cold jabbed spikes into his concentration with each droplet. He could not so much as take a single step without quivering visibly. On the upside, however, it almost meant that the streets were near-empty—veiled under a thin layer of mist—and the grime which normally coated the pavement slowly washed away.

 

"Come, let's stop under here for a moment," Gaius gazed back at him, pointing them to a small shop on the pavement surmounted by an awning.

 

"… Thanks," Flame muttered, mildly surprised at such thoughtfulness. Once beneath the awning, he began squeezing his eyes and shaking off as many droplets as feasible. Within seconds, a mild warmth began to spread—already his tailtip's fire danced jovially. The rain only sounded louder as it ricocheted off the overhead canvas. On impulse he pressed his body against the shop's entrance, perhaps in a vague hope that the owner had foolishly left it unlocked. No such luck.

 

"Don't worry," Alice said. "I'm pretty sure our mission is going to take place inside. Hopefully it'll clear up by then."

 

"Hopefully," Flame replied, gaze wandering all over. He could feel his thoughts become a little clearer with each passing moment. He realised that this might have possibly been the first act of kindness ever offered by his leader. Perhaps things would get better between the two of them. Yet soon he would have to step outside his protective haven, and that did little to boost morale.

 

"Are we late?" he asked.

 

Gaius shrugged. "Don't think so. I'd rather find out when we get there—Ariel's villa should be a few blocks away."

 

"Okay. Sorry for … y-you know, slowing us down."

 

Alice nuzzled his shoulder gently. "Don't worry about it. Heck, I myself can barely function during wintertime. Feels like your brain's encased in ice."

 

"Oh, Mew, don't remind me…" Gaius groaned, the grass-type cupping his claws over his face.

 

A wry smile crossed the Dragonair's face. "Come winter, I bet we'll be the ones having to apologise. Expect that tail fire of yours to be abused extensively."

 

Flame could not help but be infected by her smile. "Mobile torch and warm blanket? Man, I just keep on finding new roles to fill…"

 

Gaius interrupted them both by tapping his foot loudly against the ground. "Let's not loiter too long. We can chat along the way, if you want."

 

Any sort of glee in Flame's mind vanished as quickly as those words were uttered. With great reluctance, he swallowed back an impulsive groan and stepped forth into the rain.

 

The three of them marched along with further impetus, perhaps empathetic to his misery. Somewhere in remote distance, thunder boomed. They passed by what Gaius said was Ariel's villa: he could not quite see it beyond the tall walls, overseen by Bisharp guards whose metallic armour gleamed moist as it refracted his passing tail fire.

 

If these legionaries are anything like Virgo and Yvaine, I'm going back to Tempest, Flame clenched his fists at the thought of those two.

 

Tightening his self-embrace, he spoke, struggling to maintain coherent syllables. "Have you two ever worked with legionaries before? A-apart from our escort, the other day."

 

Never turning directly to him, Gaius shook his head."Nah, that fortress mission was a first. Never bothered to speak to one before. I can't stand the thought of those pompous twats faring better than us."

 

"R-r-really?" Flame said. "How? Do they get better pay?"

 

"Not quite," Alice chimed in. "Legionaries do not receive 'pay' in the traditional sense. However, they have a mess hall which serves breakfast and dinner rations every day."

 

Flame stared directly at her. "That … t-that sounds amazing! Why don't we enlist? It would solve all our problems with making ends meet!"

 

Alice seemed to halt for a moment, as if caught unprepared by his statement. "I … suppose you're right, technically. I myself considered joining the Imperial Army when I first came to Aesernia. But…" her gaze drifted from his eyes. "What if we're forced to serve on the front lines? That Scum encampment back inside the fortress was small—it is dangerous to press one's luck. I just don't want to exchange death by starvation for death by mutilation."

 

Flame was so enthralled that the rain clawing at his scales became close to an afterthought. She was right, he thought, no particular type of demise appealed to him over another. Yet, none of them could ignore that lack of food continued to weigh on their every step, with each sunrise, and winter looming ever nearer.

 

"Yeah," Gaius said. "That, and the ridiculous recruitment fee you have to pay. Because of it, most soldiers end up being sons and daughters of rich Southern pricks."

 

"Actually, that doesn't hold true anymore," Alice pointed out.

 

Gaius scoffed. "Wait, are you being serious?"

 

A vigorous nod followed by Alice. "There was a paper I found last time we went scavenging, dating a couple of days back. It said that General Sycorax has announced plans to axe membership fees, as to make enrollment more appealing."

 

Gaius rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Ah, great. Now Southern pricks can serve beside Southern proles. As if the Imperial Army wasn't already incompetent enough."

 

Flame scanned their faces for any signs. Both Alice and Gaius looked on quiescently in contemplation, still considering the topic. Doubtless it brought impulsive skepticism, but Team Phalanx needed to acknowledge every possible option.

 

Let's just focus on the mission for now, Flame thought, just as the three of them turned a corner and detoured through a shanty prole street of nearly identical three-storey houses, only marginally cleaner due to rainfall.

 

Albeit their given assembly point was kept sort of vague, it didn't take very long for them to spot a small gathering of six, maybe seven pokémon by the roadside. With the streets being nearly deserted, this had to be their temporary colleagues. He mentally praised their common sense for standing underneath a fairly large balcony jutting out of a prole apartment, and quickly slipped under it himself, disregarding formalities.

 

All eyes turned to Team Phalanx.

 

"Here's those civvies the captain sent us," sneered a snow-furred canine, garnishing a large scythe-like protuberance from its face. Flame had to take a step backwards to dodge an erratic swing when its owner looked to the side.

 

"That's us," Gaius nodded. "Is everything set for the mission?"

 

The Absol took a second to reply, seemingly forcing back a sneer. "Yes. Intel says our target lives just a few hundred metres out. Male, Combusken. Weather should make sure he's home. Come."

 

The Absol motioned with his head once again, prompting Flame to jump back at a swinging head-scythe. Their entourage of legionaries walked forth down the right side, close enough for snippets of speech to leak to his ears.

 

"What was he thinking, hiring three worthless sacks?" the Absol murmured to a goofy fire-duck creature.

 

"Shouldn't we trust the captain?" the Magmar replied. "He must have seen something in them."

 

"Nah, they're civvies—they'll find some way to mess it all up."

 

Brow furrowed in internalised animosity, Flame followed the legionaries from beneath balcony-to-balcony up to one of the many three-storey insulae dotting the street. This one actually featured a door—its wood chipped off, yet still standing. Claw marks could be seen all over, forming patterns as though impromptu graffiti. From the tail of his eye, he could have sworn he spied figures shifting from behind the cracked window.

 

"… 'Right, this is it," the Absol proclaimed as they stared down the door. "Know the basics of breaching?"

 

Team Phalanx gave one another a brief glance, remaining silent.

 

"Figures," the legionary said, displaying a pompous grin which only made his face more punchable to Flame.

 

Gaius was containing his expression to display a staunchly neutral visage. The grass-type played with his forearms, eyeing his leaf blades. "Where's your boss—Scizor guy?"

 

If such a thing was possible, the Absol was locked in a staring stand-off. "The captain's not participating. As his second-in-command, I make the rules here."

 

Then one legionary, an overgrown turtle with head-wings almost as fluffy as Alice's, laid a hand on the Absol's shoulder. "Lieutenant, keep your voice down! Or else we'll blow our cover."

 

Lieutenant Absol shot back towards his colleague at once, before finally giving in with a snort.

 

"Fine, then," the Absol said in a hushed tone. "Standard procedure. You three, line up behind me. Sergeant, get ready to breach."

 

Flame looked on along with his teammates as the six legionaries spontaneously took position by both sides of the door: five soldiers to the right, headed by the Magmar, whilst the Absol posted lonesome by the door's left. When the latter turned and growled, Team Phalanx expedited to avoid any further insults.

 

I'm still going to punch him when this is over, Flame grinned to himself, as he reared his soon-to-be victim. He was abruptly shaken out of his fantasies when he felt the ceaseless rain batter his scales like grape-sized hail. Whilst gritting his trembling teeth tight, he spotted the Magmar glance with a glimmer of sympathy. Glass shards poked at his feet; now that Gaius and Alice were in position, this torture would hopefully end once inside.

 

Combusken. No idea what one looks like, so I'll just follow what the others do.

 

"On your mark," said lieutenant Absol, foreknees bent in preparation. A quasi imperceptible black aura surrounded the soldier's head-scythe.

 

The Magmar nodded. Facing the door, it took two, three steps back, taking one long breath. Then, in the span of mere moments, it opened its beak-like mouth, and out streamed a jet of fire. Steam began hissing and swirling the air as waterdrops kept falling without care onto the flamethrower attack. When the Magmar cut its onslaught short, lieutanant Absol let out a violent cry and brought his charged scythe down on the weakened surface. The result was imminent: the door burst into a thousand pieces, scattered both inside and outside, leaving nothing recogniseable but sawdust and smouldering, steaming chunks of charcoal.

 

Flame had not the time to uncover his eyes from the shower of splinters before the Absol dashed indoors, and the remaining team members scrambled to follow suit. His tail fire brought illumination to the gloomy first room. The very first thing his brain registered was a small chicken-like creature with red feathers and vestigial wings for arms shrilling sonorously, flushing out of the room in a blur, its little feet tippering against the wooden floorboards.

 

"Search the building! Move!" Absol barked, already taking off into an adjacent chamber.

 

And move he did. Albeit the first room looked barren and dust-ridden—perhaps a former commercial venue—it remained connected with the rest of the apartment building via narrow doorways. He kicked over an oil lamp, the only object present on the floor, and gingerly crossed the doorway's threshold. This room was noticeably larger. Grime and dust coated each wall and even the ceiling showed off mold in between each plank. All windows were boarded up: only his own body's tail light allowed him to discern some four or five figures distributed throughout the featureless room, which soon became closer to ten, gaping wide-eyed at the irrupting soldiers. Suddenly the whole room was in commotion. There were yells of warning from all sides. Someone let out a feminine shriek, nearly toppling a bedside cabinet whilst shooting out of the room. A young Delcatty leapt out of the darkness just ahead of Flame, grabbed her crying kit by the scruff of its neck, and leapt away, all in one motion.

 

It took no time for murmurs and voices to envelop the whole insula like a swarm of flies.

 

"Did you hear that?"

 

"What's happening?"

 

"Civil Protection!"

 

"Run for your life!"

 

At the same instant, lieutenant Absol did not seem phased in the slightest—he halted only for the briefest of moments to gaze at the cowering proles in disgust.

 

"Target's not here. Move up."

 

Team Phalanx moved room to room, each accommodating anywhere between two to four families ranging up to a dozen, surrounded by the simplest furniture: an occasional cracked oil lamp, ragged blankets whose sight evoked nausea in Flame. Hardly any windows were present, and even if it had been bright and sunny outside, he figured that most of the rooms would have remained in penumbra regardless. There was only a single functioning door beyond the former entrance. The second he neared it, an insufferable stench resembling that of faeces suggested it served as a communal bathroom.

 

Oh, please don't vomit now, he repeated in his own head, squeezing his eyes shut and flinching his head away. How could proles possibly tolerate these conditions? To sweat thousand more missions and wear his bones down to dust would have seemed more appealing, rather than spend one night in such squallor. Any one of those inhabitants might have been harbouring enough bacteria and disease to kill him outright. He drifted away from the inhabited chambers into a tiny passage further along the back, where a decrepit-looking set of steps led upwards to a further level.

 

"Ground floor's clear. No signs of the target," said a legionary Wartortle.

 

"Understood. Sweep the second floor. Go!"

 

Lieutenant Absol led the way quickly up the steep and creaking stairs and along a tiny passage, into a room which gave on the cobbled street. There was a strip of cloth on the floor masquerading as carpet, a worn-looking stool, bits of food collected in a corner. One could hear the sound of drops leaking through the ceiling. Other than that, empty. The doorless balcony allowed whatever light present outside to seep in.

 

It was almost imperceptible—Flame noticed a shadow cast on the balcony's surface. As if setting off a chain reaction, the legionaries caught sight of his gaze, and followed the only logical conclusion.

 

"Thought you could hide, huh?" exploded Absol, who then charged onto the balcony and tackled the hidden figure on the ground. There was a gasp and a flurry as the rest of the legionaries flung themselves through the small doorway to aid their struggling companion. Neither Flame nor the rest of Team Phalanx did so, instead standing back with a sort of disinterest. Bound by curiosity, he merely allowed himself to peek through the doorway.

 

A scene was unfolding before his eyes, with the Combusken laying with its belly on the balcony railing, legs up in the air, whereas the legionaries attempted to pull it back and inconvenienced each other in the process via sheer numbers. Eventually, though, no amount of kicks to the face proved enough. The Combusken was dragged back and slammed to the floor, Absol laying a paw on its chest.

 

"Officers!" the Combusken cried. "Don't take me away! You already got my brother, what more do you want? It was him who insulted Ariel—not me!"

 

"Why so eager to jump off, then?" Absol sneered.

 

No answer came from the prole, who instead seemed more busy holding onto the railing's metal bars with exceptional vigour. Alas, it would not last; a kick from a legionary's foot had broken the claws on one of his paws. They dragged him back inside, right under Team Phalanx's reluctant gaze.

 

"What are you even arresting me for?" spewed out the Combusken in a wheeze.

 

"Let's see…" Absol hummed, absentmindedly licking his paw's fur clean. "You're charged with counts of inciting unrest, civil disobedience, and … ah, I can't remember. Doesn't matter."

 

"No! I-I just said my merchandise wouldn't sell—never would I dare to imply that anyone should disobey the law!"

 

"Oh?" smirked Absol widely, half-sarcastic, half-mocking. "Do we have a confession here?"

 

The lieutenant did not listen to the following pleads of mercy and attempts at outright bribery.

 

"Put 'im to sleep," Absol turned to the other team members, who proceeded to follow the order via force-feeding a palm-sized seed into the struggling thing's throat.

 

It was then that Flame noticed a small audience had gathered. Multiple heads peeked through nearby doorways, exchanging dark whispers, a few even climbing halfway up the stairs to look. Some of those stares he felt almost uncomfortable under, being an unsafe cocktail of contempt and curiosity.

 

Drifting around the room, Absol came about to open a small bedside chest, fidgeting with its dysfunctional locking mechanism and eventually just slashing it open with a claw. He rummaged for a little while before he grasped a quantity of coins just adept to fill his paws, staring in detached uninterest. As if enlightened by an idea, Absol then turned to Team Phalanx.

 

"Hey, civvies. Want this?"

 

Flame stared for a few moments. He inherently predicted a childish trick to gain a few laughs from them, but it couldn't hurt to try. His nod came out more sideways than he had intended. Eyes narrowed, he then took one step forward, unwilling to quite wear any sliver of gratefulness. He extended his arm out—

 

Ah! Now coins littered the floor, bouncing and rolling onto the balcony and plunging into the yard below, bar a few that stopped rolling and settled on the ground in a small, rhythmic dance. From behind he heard Gaius grumble some indiscernable obscenity directed at the Imperial Army lieutenant.

 

Within seconds, Absol's superior grin grew until it blew up in laughter, gripping his chest as to not lose balance in the process.

 

Flame grunted inwardly. He felt more bemused than properly furious. Looking outside, he took notice that the rain had largely subsided. Maybe he wouldn't even need to stay in their tent all-day long.

 

"Come on, don't tell me you're going to act all offended over a few thousand poké," Absol laughed. "It was junk! Six-thousand poké or so. Weighs more than it's worth."

 

"Of course, you wouldn't need it for anything," Gaius uttered lowly to his companions when the pokémon in question had turned around. Alice said nothing, merely emitted a tiny sigh embued with patience.

 

Absol seemed to notice that everyone was sort of standing in place with no real purpose. He barked something to the onlookers watching them from every doorway and began walking toward the stairs. Sensing an unspoken order, two of the bulkier legionaries among the team each grabbed one end of the Combusken's body, lifting the malnourished chicken with minimal effort. The unofficial team leader was precluded from leaving by a small ground of four or five pokémon obstructing the stairs, all of whom had gather to watch.

 

"What is it? Clear the way!" said Absol.

 

The commoners stared back, those eyes burning with a fiercer impetus than Flame had imagined possible, but eventually bolted downstairs and vanished into a doorway.

 


 

Indeed, the weather had cleared, although the sky resembled nothing like a sunny day. The sphere of fire itself could be seen impressed behind a barrier of clouds, thin tendrils managing to break through. Flame was drifting back on a bench in an ill-traversed street, flanked by his teammates. A sigh escaped his mouth. He hadn't quite kept count of how much time had passed since those legionaries told them to wait in place. Perhaps it was possible that they would never come back. It was the Absol that said it, after all—doubtless the Absol would convince his captain to withhold any reward out of pure amusement.

 

He turned to his teammates, wary. "Guys, do you … think they're actually going to give us those rations?"

 

"No idea," Gaius shrugged without returning his look. "This whole mission was off-the-cuff, anyways."

 

Alice shifted uncomfortably in her coils. "You know, now that you mention it, they really have no incentive to show up. Maybe—maybe we did just waste a working day."

 

Flame wanted to say something. He wanted to add comforting words, if only to bolster his own hopes of compensation. But those sounds faded in his throat, for his brain picked up on a most odd sensation. A feeble, nearly imperceptible vibration travelling down his bones. At first, he dismissed it as a mere physical hallucination, perhaps a phantom remnant of his time spent under the rain, yet to disappear from his nervous system. It did not cease.

 

He shifted uncomfortably in place, head twisting round to observe his surroundings. It wasn't just a sensation; the earth was actually shaking him to the core. Even Alice and Gaius seemed to stiffen all of a sudden.

 

"What the…" he blurted out, incredulous. "A-are you feeling this?"

 

Neither responded, but the mesmerized look in their eyes counted as an affirmative answer.

 

First they felt shock-waves that penetrated the ground, and reverberated around them. They all stood there, incredulous, listening as an all-encompassing grumble became ever louder and the shaking ever more tangible. For an instant it would have seemed plausible that a colossal creature was growling underneath Aesernia's foundations. There was a mighty crash somewhere far-off as a heavy roof collapsed under its weight, followed by confused shrieks as proles flocked out of doorways and onto the streets.

 

"An earthquake. It's a goddamn earthquake," Gaius repeated, springing to his feet, eyes stretched wide.

 

Suddenly, the tremor had halted, along with the rumbling emitting from the ground itself.

 

"I—I didn't think I'd ever get to experience one," Alice gaped, eyes bound in a kind of stupour.

 

"T-they're not common around here, right?" Flame asked, he too unconsciously standing up.

 

"No, as far as I'm aware," Alice returned an uncomfortable look. "The quake didn't feel very strong, thank Arceus. I … I think the epicentre must have been in a nearby province. There's no other explanation."

 

Another shock wave threatened to send them down on the ground. Thin cracks began appearing on a nearby building's façade. The three of them seemed to realise that standing there in the open would lead to nowhere.

 

"Let's get back to Camp Tempest," Alice said as soon as the aftershock settled. "I have a bad feeling about this."

 



End of Chapter X

Chapter Text

Chapter XI: Equilibrium


 

"I worry for this great nation. Our Emperor continues to talk about this 'Ascension Programme' and how he has the protection of so-called 'Benefactors'. Albeit I refuse to believe it, his own words imply heavily that our state's sovereignty has been sold to external entities. If this were true … someone must take matters into their own hands."

 

Excerpt from Governor Marius Alakazam's speech at the Imperial Council.

 


 

Imperial Palace – Urbe

 

The ministers had reconvened at nine-thirty that morning. Since then, the sky outside the vast double-paned windows had turned gloomy and overcast, denying the sun any chance to shed its life. There would be few people out on the streets of Urbe, Adrian thought. The council room became just as somber; the elaborate golden chandelier dangling perilously overhead was lit only at dawn.

 

Diverting his gaze from the rambling Sceptile sitting opposite him, the Dragonite let out a small sigh, struggling to find enough concentration to absorb every word. His eyes travelled downwards by themselves. There were five pokémon gauging his reaction—all hand-picked ministers, all sitting around a table with him at its forefront. Currently the Minister of Agriculture—a tall and frail-looking Sceptile—was reading off endless statistics about food production for the month. In a way, Adrian simultaneously listened and didn't listen. One moment his mind reflected on the possible ramifications of declining wheat production, and the very next moment he'd already drifted off to simpler times, spent running down the palace halls, laughing, devoid of harrowing duties.

 

"… No droughts have taken place this year, my lord. The blame for the recent decline of agricultural output can only be attributed to war," the Sceptile went on, hunching over to read from his papers. "In fact, nearly forty percent of the north's farmers have been conscripted for military service, and as such their fields remain abandoned. The food supply in the provinces of Basilea and Aesernia remains particularly worrying. On a positive note, however, reports show a healthy harvest in the rest of our realm, where the main issue remains that of transportation—"

 

Adrian's paw tapped idly at the mohogany table, cutting his advisor short. "That's quite enough of that. We do not have all day. There are more pressing matters to discuss."

 

The minister seemed intended to add something for a moment, looking vaguely offended, but nodded wordlessly nevertheless.

 

Adrian came dangerously close to letting out a sigh of relief when silence reigned once again. It allowed him to consolidate his attention. Wind began howling outside the windows. Something throbbed from within his head, but he largely managed to ignore it. Taking a deep breath to brace himself for what was to come, his eyes turned towards the youngest pokémon in the room: a Lucario, standing as representative of the Imperial Army in lieu of Sycorax, who had left Urbe just a few days prior.

 

Let's just get on with this, he swallowed unconsciously.

 

"Colonel, would you kindly explain to us how the war effort is going?"

 

The Lucario bit his lower lip briefly, feeling every pair of eyes in the room shift to him. However, he remained perfectly still in his seat.

 

"Of course. To put it bluntly, Your Highness, the situation at the front has not changed," the colonel drew imaginary lines along the map on the table, "All along the lines towns are constantly exchanging hands, and every offensive comes at a murderous price in casualties. Only a handful of army groups have achieved their full objectives. Further south, however, the town of Sperantia Nova has reportedly been pillaged and burnt to the ground, though an expeditionary force sent to investigate found no trace of hostiles."

 

Adrian leant forward to inspect the map. The town lay well away from the front lines. Yet, a different question pressed on him: was this 'expeditionary force' the one he had personally sent out on a mission? It had to have been. Feeling his heartbeat flutter, he immediately expelled those thoughts and assumed a stern expression.

 

"How did the enemy reach this deep into our territory? Do we not have scouting teams?" Adrian narrowed his eyes, fiddling with his claws.

 

"We do, Your Majesty. I am just as confused as my colleagues as to how they could have travelled so far while remaining undetected. Reports seem to indicate that they may have exploited a local spacial anomaly—or mystery dungeon, as the civilians say."

 

Adrian sat back against his chair. Not only that, but they had never stopped multiplying. Every other month he'd wake up to news of a new anomaly being discovered. Sooner or later, he thought grimly, one would spontaneously ingest the Imperial Palace. All a matter of time.

 

My father didn't have to deal with this madness…

 

"Tell me, Colonel. What exactly do our troops lack?" Adrian asked the question that had been building up inside him, grinding his teeth together. "Morale? Determination? Courage?"

 

"My lord, I assure you our troops fight courageously. The main issue is that none of us know what the enemy wants, or even who they are. Our forces are exhausted. After two years of continuous fighting, we have yet to figure out what it is that pushes them to fight—their goals."

 

"They have no goals," a wrinkly Alakazam chimed in, wagging a single finger in the air. "Only the destruction of civilisation! That is why they rape and plunder. That is why they use portal storms to destabilise our populace before striking."

 

Adrian could not help but raise an eyebrow. "That is a very bold statement, senator. What proof do you have?"

 

"Do you truly believe it's a coincidence that these weather anomalies we call 'portal storms' began to appear alongside the first border raids? Of course the Scum are using them as weapons! Stop being so naive!"

 

The Dragonite sent a look of veiled antipathy toward the Governor of Urbe Province. Such office did not even exist barely two years prior—filled automatically by the emperor—but mounting preoccupations had led him to appoint the elderly senator in hopes of relieving some administrative burden. Such a terrible lapse of judgment!

 

"Actually, my lord, there has been a peculiar development," the Lucario continued, tapping a particular spot on the map. "It happened five days ago, just west of Aquisgranam. The XI and VII Legions, led by general Varus, have been successfully besieging a large enemy force trapped between our lines and the Danubius river. It would appear that on one occasion a small detachment of barbarians walked to our encampment and attempted to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. However, communication was extremely difficult for our troops, and in the end no side could make their demands clear."

 

He blinked. Somehow, the enemy suddenly made less sense than it did previously.

 

So … they do have goals? Perhaps they are not simple brutes after all, he clawed at his chin thoughtlessly, But why migrate an entire people? Sure, I imagine the Wasteland is a cold, harsh place, but it does not explain why an entire people migrated after hundreds of years. Something must have happened there. Ugh, so many questions…

 

"General Varus seeks to press on their gains via an all-out assault. For this, he has requested five thousand soldiers and forty more catapults."

 

"What? Has the general gone mad? I just approved further reinforcements for his legion two weeks ago!"

 

The Lucario averted his gaze momentarily. "You see, my emperor, there have been issues. The governor of Aesernia has issued the arriving legions conflicting orders; she also has begun shuffling troops around on assignments with Civil Protection and generally impedes their deployment."

 

The Alakazam grinned subtly, seizing the moment to rise on his feet. "Well said! Since we are on the matter, Hadrianus, your nonchalance is no longer acceptable. Governor Ariel gets away with everything: increasing food prices without imperial consent, commandeering legionaries for Civil Protection, and generally treating the city as her own personal fief. And you—" he pointed an accusatory finger,"—have done nothing!"

 

He figured he ought to have felt a plethora of emotions. He figured he ought to have felt rage at being so blatantly disrespected—him, the emperor!—and even having his birth name tossed about like vermin. (Years had passed since anyone last referred to him by name; the memory was still vivid). He figured he ought to have defended his honour before all the other ministers. Instead, a lump obstructed his throat.

 

"… She raised food prices?"

 

A sense of helplessness took hold of Adrian. No longer did his eyes watch any particular minister, staring into oblivion. Perhaps it was no use trying. After all, he reasoned, the matter should have ended long ago. To persecute his conscience, saddle his thoughts with angst—nothing short of foolishness.

 

For a moment—he could see quite clearly—her face materialised in his consciousness; her embrace beckoned. 'Won't you come?' she'd say. She would place her hands on his cheeks; she would kiss his cheek, his nose, until all else boiled away…

 

The sky was starting to turn blue. No, that thought held no place now. She was gone, just like the rest of them.

 


 

Aesernia

 

After the last major aftershock subsided, Team Phalanx discovered that returning to Camp Tempest would not be easy. A regime of panic had taken hold of the streets, as masses of proles fearful of crumbling ceilings flushed down onto the pavement much like a colony of ants. Indeed, the three of them were forced to divert path multiple times, twisting and snaking past streets clogged with debris and pokémon trying to dig through it.

 

Eventually Flame gave up on attempting to triangulate their current position, and confided in his teammates' knowledge of the town to navigate. The living stream of proles flowing around him forced his eyes glued to Alice and Gaius, fearful of losing sight of them, and meant he could only steal a few glances. Perhaps half the street's buildings paraded significant damage. Two lacked a ground floor entirely. Even those that looked mostly intact still showed traces of distress, like collapsed balconies or cracked cement.

 

"My god…" he breathed, feeling fatigue creep into his legs.

 

At some point, he stopped surveying the damage and focused solely on following the Dragonair and Grovyle in front of him.

 

That soon proved unnecessary, however, for before them lay an enraged mob so thick that Flame could not discern where it ended. The greater mob seemed to concentrate their attention toward a wall—there! Now he remembered: this was Ariel's villa. There were dozens upon dozens of proles crying profanities and collectively pushing against the heavy steel gates.

 

Although Flame held no clue as to what possibly could have sparked such disorder, a simple look around the area revealed everything he needed to know. Whilst the great walls and the magnificent villa within (only a small sliver of the roof could be spotted) both stood unscathed, scarcely three hundred metres away the entire side of an insula had morphed into a shapeless pile of rubble. Before long, a quadret of Bisharps rushed to the fore of the mob and began pushing and slashing relentlessly at anything in their way. The attack only drove more pokémon to join the fray, and more guards to protect the beleaguered gates.

 

"I knew it—I knew it would happen!" Gaius said, his voice somewhere in between excitement and concern. "It was only a matter of time. Now they're going to be at her throat until she comes out."

 

Alice looked on with uneasiness. "Arceus, this is going to end in a bloodshed. We need to get away."

 

"But … what about the food rations?" Flame disputed. "That's what we came here for!"

 

A conflicted frown crossed Alice's face. "Too much confusion. There's no time. Let's pray we can find those legionaries later."

 

He could only sigh internally. Such was fate, he thought; time and effort tossed to the wind, and the problem of securing food had not diminished one bit. As if the earthquake could sense their misery!

 

But the crowd left no time for debate. As if in an elaborate dance, flaring commoners began responding with streams of fire, water, electricity shot in seemingly uncoordinated directions, and the unfeeling guards only lashed out more savagely. Flame spotted more than a few bloodied faces.

 

There was a wordless consensus between Team Phalanx. The three drifted toward the very side of the road, a former pavement now strewn entirely with chunks of rubble—grand and tiny.

 

"Hide your badges. Try to slip through unnoticed," Alice whispered with almost shut lips.

 

Instinctively Flame reached down for his bag, only to remember that he had none.

 

That's what I deserve for being so careless yesterday, Flame snarled at himself, hopping briskly along the larger fragments of stone and mortar, I really, really need to get another bag next time we head outside town. No sense in buying one new—not anymore.

 

To his side, he saw Gaius flip his bag around so that the Civil Protection badge pressed against his body. As far as Alice was concerned, she was visibly unable to remove the object without being forced to halt altogether and meddle carefully with her tail tip. Instead he detached it and tossed it in her bag without much thought, receiving a grateful nod in exchange. Yet, even such provision did not fully quell his fears—for was it not painfully obvious? Civilians never carried bags on them; whether out of lack of necessity, or the price, he didn't know. Moreover, he thought—scenarios already played out in his deluded brain—he'd never seen a group of multiple, radically different species of pokémon travel together as one.

 

No clue seemed to indicate that the mob directed its rage against Civil Protection as an extension of Ariel's rule, yet such worry came quite naturally. Had anyone seen them, they would doubtless be lynched on the spot.

 

A passing glance revealed the cordon of guards unravelling before the crowd's fury. One by one they retreated behind the gates through a slim opening, shut again before any prole could force their way through.

 

In less time than he processed, Team Phalanx pushed aside the last few strands of pokémon who blockaded their advance. Nobody appeared to neither notice nor care about three officers scrambling off in a hurry.

 

A smile took over Flame's lips once they strayed at comfortable distance from the roaring crowd. It did not last. Thoughts were swirling in his head violently: all the rubble, all the pokémon wandering aimlessly—what actually did happen? For now, he simply channelled his concentration into running.

 

"Come on, it'll be safer once we're there," Alice breathed heavily as they dashed uphill, Camp Tempest now partly visible to their eyes.

 

"Any idea what's going to happen now?" Gaius wondered aloud.

 

"I—no," Flame replied frankly. "Maybe they'll have us dig through the rubble in search of survivors. Depends on whether Ariel can even step outside her home."

 

"Wasn't she around here this morning?" Alice tossed a glance at her teammates. "She's always at the Camp at midday, right?"

 

"Probably," Gaius shrugged. "Don't know what to hope for. Either the crowd maims her, or she comes home to find a pile of ashes. Both would spell trouble for us."

 

"… and we still don't have a dinner," Flame added in a murmur, as though unwilling to remind such sombering fact.

 

The Grovyle heaved quietly, shaking his head. "Things just keep getting better, don't they?"

 

They entered Camp Tempest in all-out sprint, and stopped momentarily to scan the horizon. . Patches of mud persisted all over. Out of all concrete buildings in sight, only one presented wounds graver than shattered windows. A quick glance dispelled their fears that something had happened to the barracks tent complex. Despite that, officers dashed about in a disordered panic, pushing and shouting and heading off in every direction.

 

Before they could elaborate what was happening, a hurried Dewott collided with Flame's body in the midst of a sprint and hurled both pokémon to the ground—him, on soft grass; the Dewott in a pool of mud. A few drops splashed over to his forearm. For a moment he contemplated whether to feel puzzled that luck did not abandon him. Then he was on his feet, eyes wide.

 

"Oh, apologies, s-sir—"

 

The officer lifted himself slowly, fur dripping with the horrid liquid, eyes fiery. "Hey! What are you three even doing, standing around?"

 

"I … we're—"

 

The otter ran his paw over his fur, scrubbing as much sludge off as possible, deeming them unworthy of eye contact. "Didn't you get the memo? Ariel's just convened an urgent meeting of Task Force Aegis. She wants every last person to move their arse."

 

"Hold on—she's here?" Alice inquired. "She's alive?"

 

"Yes, of course. Get moving, now!" it nearly growled, beginning to jog away.

 

"Uh, okay," Flame said, sensing that there wouldn't be time for a conversation. "Where, exactly?"

 

"How the hell am I supposed to know? Just follow everyone else!" the water-type shouted as his distant voice drowned beneath a general buzz that seemed to envelop the whole town.

 


 

Just like that—faster than one's eyes could blink—Aesernia was gone. A particular, tentatively optimistic part of his intellect whispered that all hope was not lost; it remained only that, an attempt. Albeit one could reason that only around a quarter of the total structures had been reduced to ruins (all visual statistics) there hung a certain sentiment in the air, one which announced that this state of affairs would not disappear any time in the foreseeable future.

 

And yet, as Flame sat cross-legged on that humid patch of grass, surrounded by his priceless comrades, a kind of palpable guilt irrupted in his system: he ought to have felt worse, it barked. Do you not value your own home? Perhaps his affection for this place had simply not matured fully, for only a week or so had passed since that faithful awakening. Or perhaps it was that he felt something akin to suffocation.

 

He interrupted that stream of thought to gaze around himself again. Following the general movement of the Camp eventually led them to the training fields, the very same he and Alice had sparred just the day afore, where a sizeable contingent of pokémon already sat. Since then, they picked a spot in the grass and plopped themselves down, waiting. Ariel did not arrive. Only a larger and larger stream of officers, encircling their spot, occupying more and more square metres until the entire field now bristled with creatures. The eye would physically strain attempting to merely guess at the number. Most of them appeared to either be murmuring to one another, crying openly, or quietly rummaging through their bags.

 

"Wow…" Flame said for the third time as he twisted his head round to see better. "This is … a lot … of pokémon. I didn't even know Civil Protection was this big."

 

Alice did not speak immediately from her coils; he could tell something weighed on her mind as well."Don't take my word for it, but I believe it stood at roughly seven-hundred members when I joined," she said quietly. "You rarely ever see everybody in the Camp all at once."

 

"I hope we get this over with soon," Gaius bemoaned, shifting uncomfortably in the little space available. "The heat is too much. I think I'm gonna dehydrate if I don't drink something soon."

 

Upon careful inspection, Flame noticed that in fact both Alice and Gaius were sweating profously, though the former did a better job of not broadcasting it publically. In truth, he wouldn't have been able to notice it alone, but there indeed was a considerable blanket of torrid air engulfing the field. It must have been due to the sheer number of creatures congregated in one spot. If anything, though, the warmth felt oddly soothing on his scales.

 

One positive perk of his body was that he never quite suffered the changing of the seasons; while an ice-type might glee in winter and feel miserable come midsummer, neither the scorching heat nor the cold, snowy nights particularly fazed him.

 

Rain, of course, was a different issue altogether; one could not obtain everything in life.

 

"Cut that grin, Flame," Gaius shot back. "It's not like you're helping, either."

 

"What? I can't help it," he half-smiled back, fiddling with his tailtip to avoid it brushing with any unsuspecting back.

 

Approximately thirty seconds after he said that, a near-sounding voice broke into all-out crying.

 

Flame sighed. The wait was beginning to take a toll on him, too. Perhaps twenty-five minutes had passed in cramped and uncomfortable positions. Although he did not suffer much from temperature, having dozens upon dozens of pokémon surround him and clamp down on his precious breathing space did naught to make things bearable.

 

Maybe I should stop whining for once, he thought, Gaius and Alice have it even worse than me—and I still act like it's the end of the world.

 

Why those two wished to keep him close puzzled him. But it warmed his heart, all the same. Maybe they didn't wish for him to turn any warmer right now.

 

Suddenly, following what felt like hours but likely amounted to less, something upset the swathes of officers. A general murmur arose. Flame attempted in vain to stretch himself up to identify the subject of their attention, likely Ariel. Nothing. To shift his knees would have meant collision with a large Heracross sitting just ahead; to stand up was unthinkable.

 

He was about to say something, but bit his tongue when he noticed silence swallowed the whole plateau. Even those still in tears bit back louder sobs. All made sense when his eyes spotted the Haxorus' figure in between two officers in front of him. More sightings followed in a semi-circle, until she reached a podium-like platform on one end of the crowd. Her mean-looking legionary escort did not attempt to conceal. Among those was a peculiar form: some metallic purple insectoid—the familiarity with Scizor was undeniable, minus the pincers—with an oversized cannon attached on its back.

 

Next to him, Alice gasped loudly. "Oh my goodness—Flame, do you see that?"

 

Attempting to ignore the half-dozen pokémon who stared at them for infringing the unspoken moratorium on noise, he turned to her. "The weird purple thing? Yeah. Why do you ask?"

 

"That is Sycorax, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Army. Legend goes he was gifted by the gods to our current emperor. Normally you would never find him outside Urbe. What is he doing next to Ariel…?"

 

He looked more attently, or at least as much as distance permitted. Alice continued referring to the thing as 'he', but he could spot no traits distinguishing either maleness or femininity.

 

The Haxorus took one step forth.

 

Now his eyes were fixated on her, much like everybody else's. Even from this distance, she did not look very pleased, eyes almost torpid. Oh, what must that angry mob storming her gates be thinking?

 

"First things first, let's get the obvious out of the way," Ariel began, voice thundering against dead silence. "Approximately five hours and thirty-seven minutes ago, an earthquake ripped through the province. Early estimates rank it as six-point-five on the Diglett scale."

 

No voice dared reveal itself in the audience. A thousand eyes stared, brimming with hope and fear.

 

Ariel paced back and forth on stage, paws held behind her back."Thankfully, most of the damage here appears to be concentrated in the lower residential areas; as you can see, Camp Tempest itself has remained mostly unscathed."

 

Though imperceptible, faint whispers arose from the crowd. Flame blinked. How that constituted good news escaped him entirely.

 

Moreover, there lay some vague element of strangeness in their commander's demeanour, at least in his eyes. She seemed quite restrained in both words and stance, casting glances behind her back at the metal insectoid—Sycorax, as Alice called him.

 

"The epicentre is believed to be in the vicinity of Portus, ninety kilometres west of Aesernia. As such, to confront this emergency, I am organising an expedition to survey the place and locate any survivors. This will include both you—" she gave Task Force Aegis a sweeping look. "And embedded elements of the V Legion. Just in case. Don't expect the professionals to babysit you all, though. Supplies and wagons are being assembled as we speak."

 

Flame exchanged looks with his teammates. No words were spoken, as though wary of breaking the unspoken moratorium on sound, but pure emotion could be read almost as easily from the eye. Both bore vexation in their dilated pupils.

 

Another expedition? We just came back from one yesterday! he thought, a newfound object obstructing his throat.

 

It was, after all, a moral justice. For he wished to rest alone with his team; and now fate reminded him the impossiblity of rest. Two lengthy missions had more than taught him what to expect. They would all walk for hours until their legs collapsed—a force this large, fitting on narrow roads!—and expose themselves to danger and suffer the cold and fight until death clawed at their feet.

 

Perhaps he was thinking in overly melodramatic terms. There didn't necessarily have to be fighting, especially if no mystery dungeons lay on the road. And yet, he could not help but worry.

 

"Officers, this is a matter of great importance. Don't worry about Aesernia: the remaining legionaries have already pledged to assist with clean-up operations, and to restore order among civilians," Ariel said, pronouncing the last word with every drop of spite imaginable.

 

Probably means guard duty around her villa, he thought. His thoughts wandered off to the mob-rule that had taken hold outside her villa. With the Haxorus standing before his eyes, they'd obviously failed in satiating their vengeance. He pictured Bisharp guards slashing and hacking rioters' chests open, forming a cordon behind the breached gates. Was it conceivable that the proles smashed through?

 

"Got it? Any questions? Good. You will rendezvous outside the western gate two hours from now. Bring whatever you can. Dismissed."

 


 

Unsurprisingly, Team Phalanx did not have supplies to gather. They forwent visiting their tent entirely, instead taking a stroll around the town centre to digest what just happened. There was a lot to digest.

 

Just when I was thinking we could get some rest… Flame heaved internally, eyeing the mess of plaster dust and that coated the main road white.

 

"She can't be serious," Alice mumbled, face cast downward. "We're going on another expedition. Another one! We could help dig through rubble here at home, and instead she sends us off again."

 

Flame reflected for a moment upon the bitterness embued in her voice. "Yeah. How far away is this place? P-Portus, I mean."

 

Her eyes rose to meet his briefly. "Not too far, I suppose. It's a fairly big maritime city—most goods circling up north pass through its port. I think Ariel said ninety kilomtres, so…" she drifted off, retreating in thought. "That should take around eleven hours on foot. Perhaps more. Travelling with the whole Task Force can't make matters easier."

 

A mindless sigh escaped him. Thoughts had been wracking all over his head for hours, ever since the first tremor, but … what was he supposed to think? He admitted internally to not quite knowing yet. Perhaps it wouldn't all come crashing down; as he looked around, he took a little surprise in finding the town centre mostly intact (if one ignored the caved roofs and potholes). There was a chance Aesernia's pain might turn into Team Phalanx's bloodline.

 

Such line of thought brought forth a vapid feeling of nausea, yes, but it didn't strip them of truth.

 

With an entire province more than likely laying devastated, surely there would be an influx of search and rescue missions! Proles would have nothing left to offer—but the bourgeoisie would offer anything to see their loved ones safe and sound. Even that scenario (always best-case; always stuck in wishful fantasies of his) could not budge problems close into the future. With Portus reportedly destroyed and its harbour unusable, supplies would undoubtedly dwindle before long. Famine might struck jointly with wintertime. What then?

 

Maybe … maybe we'll have made enough money by then to leave Aesernia. Try our luck elsewhere. Too much to think about right now.

 

Few pokémon hung about Victory Square. The Gyarados statue ontop the fountain was split in two: the tail attached to the fountain's base, and the head, now laying fragmented on the floor. Here too the smell of plaster permeated the air, overpowering even the habitual scent of sweat and urine.

 

"Thank goodness the square hasn't been destroyed," Alice said in the same dazed voice. "It could have been much worse."

 

"We have less than an hour left," Gaius noted duly, and pointed to the public sun dial. It consisted of little more than a square slab painted with twelve clockwise numbers, a triangular blade jutting out in the middle and casting shade upon one of the numbers.

 

With nothing else to do but loiter, Team Phalanx drifted onto one of the roads which branched out from the square. Around the corner, dozens of pokémon were preoccupied sifting through smaller pieces of rubble, and two carried away what appeared to be a lifeless body now painted entirely in milky-white dust.

 

"Arceus. I … I really don't want to leave," Alice whispered. "It almost makes me feel like a coward. The essence of our job is protecting our fellow citizens—and now we're just going to abandon them in a time of need."

 

Gaius shrugged in a wide motion, managing a small, albeit forced smile. "Not our choice. Besides, what's left for us if we stay?"

 

"Technically that's true, but, still…" Alice's voice wandered off.

 

"Think about it: there will be plenty of opportunities to forage in the wilderness. It'll solve the problem of tonight's meal, and then some."

 

Alice said nothing further, only exhaling softly. Her gaze seldom lifted off the ground.

 

Immediately Flame sensed a moral impetus to act. His mind wished to retreat back into thought, but that only dug a deeper emptiness in his chest. No, too much thinking destroyed your sanity. After some minutes spent walking, he decided to take initiative.

 

Just to see her troubled was intolerable.

 

"Hey … are you feeling okay?" he asked in the most tender tone he could muster. What a question to ask! Obviously she wasn't; but to show that he cared, he thought, would amount to a kinder gift than any petty reassurance.

 

"Huh? Oh, sorry. I was just … thinking," Alice said quietly, raising her eyes to meet his, only to look away once more.

 

He nodded, smiling softly in empathy. Almost as if on reflex, his claw ended up on her back. For a moment, he held his breath at committing such a forcibly intimate gesture. For a moment, he considered withdrawing it, until he noticed that she did not protest in the slightest.

 

"It all happened so quickly," she continued. "One moment we're fretful over food prices, then all of a sudden the earth starts shaking, and no one knows what will happen next."

 

Dozens of bird pokémon flew overhead in tight formation, though Alice did not appear to notice, so embroiled she was in spilling her mind out.

 

"Heck, this isn't technically my home town. I should despise this place. Ever since leaving the South I've faced nothing but hardship, and yet … it hurts. It hurts to see Aesernia in this state."

 

"I … I was starting to grow attached as well. No matter how filthy, it's our home. My home. It's the only one I remember having, anyway."

 

Alice stared wordlessly with a hint of surprise. Her expression showed two things: firstly, that in the last few days she had completely forgotten that he had amnesia; and secondly, that sharing her thoughts helped alleviate a fair amount of melancholy.

 

"Look at the bright side—at least we all get to be miserable together, right?" Alice said playfully.

 

"Eh, that's what we've always been doing," Gaius replied, the veiled smile on his face contradicting those words.

 

He chuckled, carried away by the sudden current of upbeatness. For a moment he forgot all traces of death and devastation in his head, instead replaced by morbid awe at his team's sheer cohesion.

 

But as soon as he payed attention to the surrounding flow of pokémon, something caught his eye. A Swampert, headed toward them. Something in it sparked familiarity. It locked eyes with Flame.

 

"Oh…" Flame said, piecing together the hints. "It's … it's you."

 

The Charmeleon wasn't entirely sure what happened in the following instants, other than he took off into the crowd like a lightning bolt.

 

Behind him a great cry roared.

 

"Thief! Get back here!"

 

Without really needing to turn round he knew at once the merchant was giving chase. He dashed and pierced through multiple formations of townspeople, butted an innocent bystander to the ground and only resorted to snaking his way around when the crowd's density grew too impenetrable. Now his desperate escape roused quite commotion, and some pokémon dove away from the incoming missile.

 

The walls—I need to reach the walls. They're so close!

 

He felt air rush past him much like during a light breeze, when realisation entered his panicked mind: hurling down the road in a straight line would render him awfully predictable.

 

So in a split second his psyche identified a secondary road relatively devoid of pokémon, and there was no hesitation. Nobody seemed to notice when he deviated, and—with periodic looks behind his back—the last stretch to the rendezvous point blurred until he was back onto the main road. Here the gates stood wide open. Very briefly he stood motionless, tempted to regain his breath, but decided to stick with other officers for paranoia's sake. Just then a four-member team exited the great wooden doors, past a set of unmoving Bisharp guards. (Always Bisharp—Ariel must have been fixated, he thought).

 

Stumbling outside of Aesernia, and flattening himself against the cold stone of the outer wall, his heartbeat gradually returned to a healthy rhythm. He rested a paw on his chest to make sure of that, bordering on dizziness. The fatigue seemed to hit him all at once; realistically, it hadn't even been that long, perhaps one or two minutes. Each breath felt heavy, oozing with both relief and exhaustion. About a dozen distinct aches dotted his thighs, all of which flared with every passing moment.

 

Way to go, idiot, he thought, gritting his teeth and growling faintly at himself.

 

Of course it would happen. Eleven hours of journey loomed ahead of him, all rigorously on foot; of course flinging his body to its exertion limit would happen right beforehand. He knew not whether to blame himself or destiny. The Swampert did appear unexpectedly—certainly an event he could not control. But did he truly need to burst away like a madman, make a scene in front of everyone?

 

His eyes wandered to his surroundings. Squads of officers and legionaries alike left Aesernia's confines, few sparing perplexed glances in his direction, and walked to an impromptu assembly just down the dirt road, where dozens of wheeled wagons covered by a cloth roof were being lined up perpendicularly. Uncountable numbers of pokémon already flooded the streets and spilt onto the surrounding prairie. How that many creatures would follow one narrow path remained a mystery.

 

Before long, one of the outbound Civil Protection teams turned out to be a certain Dragonair and Grovyle duo. Some portion of him feared that the enraged merchant would emerge at any moment behind them, but such did not happen. He waved his paw up high to capture their attention, and they joined him below the outer walls.

 

"Flame? What the hell was that about?" Gaius gave him a sideways glance, speaking slowly.

 

"R-remember the cheese we ate earlier?" he said, panting lightly, resisting the urge to look away.

 

Alice's eyes sparked with realisation. "Oh. So that's who you stole it from…"

 

He nodded plainly. Traces of discomfort lingered in her gaze, but he acted oblivious, knowing not what to say that would alleviate the distaste she likely harboured for what he did.

 

Regardless of that, Team Phalanx sat down to gather precious rest, knowing what lay ahead of them.

 


 

Route 115

 

Flame was tired. He felt dead tired. But even more importantly, he was bored out of his wits.

 

Not long after departing, the expeditionary force was forced to cross a bridge over a river one wagon at a time; but that was about the most interesting event to befall them. The rest had been a nightmare of boredom and sweat. For hours they marched and marched without so much as one moment of rest. The conscious act of walking slipped out of his perception entirely, now little more of a mechanical impulse than breathing.

 

Solace would not greet him in the landscape, either. Lush forests alternated with rolling plateaus, and even dry hills every sporadic hour—it all started to look the same after a while. At some points he even craved to enter a mystery dungeon, if only to bring some excitement into play!

 

But undoubtedly the hills were the absolute most excruciating bit of the journey. Once the wagons became stuck in a pool of mud and their carriers realised help would be needed to make it uphill—all Aggron and Machoke and Rapidash, all scary-looking—no officer was spared from having to wet their legs and tails in slime, pushing the ungodly heavy wagons one by one for however many kilomtres required (Alice merely pretended; the lieutenants would not hear that she had no arms).

 

Every now and again he entertained himself by watching a scouting team composed solely of birds, soaring far above in tight formation and completing periodic surveying loops round the Task Force. No updates; nothing short of wilderness ahead.

 

Perhaps chatting with his teammates would have helped keep his mind off of just how dull things were, but chatter had been banned within the first hour of force-marching. Not that he could blame the lieutenants, of course. An army so large definitely produced enough noise to turn a pokémon deaf.

 

And so, left to its own devices, Flame's mind inevitably fell into the single action which would unequivocally destroy him: thinking. For no matter how long he kept them at bay, wrapped them under layers of glass, his thoughts would inevitably catch up to him. And chief amongst those was always his past.

 

He closed his eyes briefly, breathing out a small sigh as he trampled grass stalks. Nothing had changed. Nothing made sense. Questions arisen during his first day in this world remained in a sort of limbo, unmoved behemoths. Why was he here? Who was he? What on earth had happened to him?

 

Why was he here? The question looped endlessly in his inner echochamber.

 

He put a claw to his chin and closed his eyes.

 

In this past week, I've made no progress in figuring out who I am or what happened to me. But where do I even look? Alice said the Scum might have something to do with me, but that's just a theory. No concrete proof. Think, Flame, think…

 

Most surprisingly, the fact that he was walking and the fatigue somewhat helped his psyche carve out realistic possibilities of how events might have unfolded, and work backwards to find solutions.

 

Many times he'd been told that Charmeleons were not a common sight up north. That meant he very likely was not originally a native inhabitant of Aesernia, or the surrounding area. That left the southern portion of the empire (the map appeared behind his eyelids) at play. Immense swathes of land, certainly, but nonetheless fewer than before.

 

Suppose he'd joined the Imperial Army, and combat drifted him up north, fighting claw-to-claw and tooth-to-tooth; suppose a particularly able psychic had ambushed him, wiped his memories clean, and left him to freeze solid in that very cavern.

 

In such scenario, surely he'd left some kind of family member behind who now remained distressed at his disappearance. Or maybe even come searching…

 

For a moment, he halted hours upon hours of march. His eyes widened in enlightenment.

 

Of course! How could this have escaped him? It was so simple!

 

All he needed to do was find one of his fellow Char evolutionary line. None were native to this region. Thus, for any to present themselves meant a high likeliness of them being said family—a brother or a sister, looking for him!

 

Almost on cue he brought his eyes to analyse the compositon of the army group in front and behind him. The wagon convoy that stretched almost as far as the horizon covered much of the force, but from what he could gather no fellow Char stood out amongst the crowd.

 

This surprised him very little. If his family wouldn't come to him, he thought, then he would go find them himself.

 

Smiling widely, he paused to appreciate how pleasant it felt to have a long-term goal, one not tied to Team Phalanx's current mission or day-to-day survival. It gave him purpose.

 

High above, the scouting birds squawked in unison.

 


 

Flame maneuvered his way through dappled light and shade, venturing deeper into the coniferous forest. He had to make a conscious effort to keep his tail fire from brushing against endemic shrubbery. Nettles grew alongside ferns and seemed to intermingle into one thick, messy layer. From somewhere deeper in the heart of the woods came the droning of Spearows.

 

"So…" he hopped over a fallen log. "Ariel didn't even come along with us? After everything she said?"

 

Every word was alternated with loud snaps from the trampled needle-like leaves and withering twigs.

 

"That's her quintessential nature," Alice frowned. "We're sent to risk our lives, while she relaxes in her thermae."

 

"Oh, I hope those proles burnt her villa down for good," Gaius ran his claws along a tree's bark, leaving superficial scratch marks.

 

Such possibility, in hindsight, should not have evoked surprise. It grew when the expeditionary force had stopped to set up camp on a naked plateau overlooking what the lieutenants claimed to be the Portus countryside. Only then did those in the force realise that Ariel had not quite followed them.

 

Whilst dozens upon dozens of tents began to spring up, it was Gaius who suggested that they slip out into the nearby woods to hoard as much precious food as physically transportable.

 

Now, as they continued, he internally marvelled at how coniferous trees towered over all—so slender and fragile, yet the needle-thin leaves only began sprouting where a regular oak tree would end. Consequently, the forest's practical rooftop left swathes of unblocked air, allowing wind to kiss one's skin.

 

Not long afterwards they came upon an ample break in the trees, where moody sunlight streamed freely. It took but a few steps to realise that there was a fairly broad river slicing up two wooded areas, flowing with foamy impetus. He halted to inspect closer. Both the riverbed and the its banks were coated perfectly with jagged rocks of variable size. At no point did the water ascend above hypothetical waist-level, but it still looked like something any sound Charmeleon would rightly mistrust.

 

"Should we focus on something in particular?" Flame said, his eyes fixated on the pure current. "Like meat or berries?"

 

Gaius took a few moments to reply. "The two of you stay here and fish. In the meantime, I'll pick any berries that come up and look for ferals. Sentret shouldn't be too hard to find."

 

"Let's see…" Alice hummed. "I believe there were legionaries fishing downstream: I doubt they shall take kindly to us stealing their prey."

 

"Ugh, fine…" Gaius heaved. "Bloody bastards, playing our own game. Do what you want. I'm going hunting—see you at sunset."

 

"Hang on!" Alice raised her voice as the Grovyle turned to leave. "How can you be positive that you won't get lost? Let's stick—hey! Listen to me, for once!"

 

But Gaius had already begun dashing parallel to the stream, and exited auditory range mere seconds later.

 

Alice muttered something nefarious under her breath, diverting her eyes to the water and forest surrounding them.

 

"I think we should try," Flame looked her directly in the eye. "Nobody will ever know if we only catch a couple of fish and leg it. Are you up to it?"

 

Alice let out a chuckle, one not of derision, but of happiness. "Wow. First bread with cheese, and now fish. Eating like royals, aren't we? Yes, we can try."

 

"Fantastic," Flame nodded. "I'm assuming you already know the process."

 

"… Somewhat. 'Tis a skill I was never taught, but the theoretical part is relatively easy to grasp. Leave me a few seconds to word this properly."

 

She drifted closer to the ege of the water, dipping her tailtip in it, as though to gauge temperature and current intensity.

 

"Okay, so … the aim is to first stir confusion among the fish, preferably by denying them a chance to escape downstream, and one must then eletrctrocute the water. Any fish should instantly shoot up. Just make sure to catch them as they fall."

 

Flame hummed loudly. "Makes sense. Between us two you're the only one capable of electric attacks, so that's that. As for me…"

 

He brought his gaze all round to analyse the river. A voice in the back of his head doubted he could provide much help. Not that he lacked the intention: the stream was anything but impassable, and yet he did not wish to immerge one toe inside it.

 

No obvious solition presented itself until — there! That's when he saw it. A rough line of rocks jutting out of the stream, surrounded by foam, sufficiently flat and close to each other to be considered a haphazard bridge.

 

Without so much as a word, Flame walked forth to where his toes actually did touch the water. It was freezing, much like expected. For multiple, undecided moments he stared at the first of the many rocks, picturing possible aftermaths of disastrous falls—a slippery surface, that was all it took.

 

But those thoughts were soon held at bay by an impetus to show initiative, and—he felt—a particularly strong bout of self-confidence which originated from inside, rather than any individual praise or compliment.

 

Come on, Flame. It's easy. Show her you're not afraid.

 

Swallowing, he paced back a few steps, dashed forth, and jumped over his fears. Upon landing his balance suddenly teetered, but the rock was relatively flat enough to allow him to recover.

 

"Flame? What are you doing?" Alice's voice inquired from behind.

 

"I have an idea."

 

Once sufficently stable, he bent his knees carefully and, with another hop, reached a second rock, this one engorged akin to an oval-shape, but also marginally larger. In an effort to keep his feet still, Flame promptly brought his paws down as secondary support, much like a quadruped.

 

Were it possible, he would have driven his claws into the rocky surface, so close he felt to slipping to certain demise.

 

See? That wasn't so bad. Now…

 

Doubt creeped into his mind, but he shook it away immediately, and held on in the middle of the river.

 

"Okay, um … I'll use my fire to stir some confusion," Flame turned to Alice. "Once I have them trapped, you go in for the kill."

 

Alice nodded, looking rather curious. After all, standing on four paws must have been quite an amusing sight, he thought.

 

Filling his lungs with air, Flame wasted no time to follow standard attacking procedure: no sooner than he could puff his chest did his throat start to clench shut, and a lively, scorching jet of fire spewed out of his jaws and into the water.

 

No thought was required. Upon contact fire turned to steam, and was accompanied by a crackling hiss that closely symbolised pain. A localised trail of smoke quickly developed into an entire cloud. Fire kept streaming undeterred, pounding the river's surface and doubtless boiling it to temperatures unbearable for any fish. The onslaught continued for nearly an entire minute, at which point dwindling oxygen forced Flame to stop.

 

No sooner than he began gasping for air did Alice shoot a small net of electricity directly inside the stream. Water itself seemed to twitch, as ripples emerged all over. Then, quiet. Only the sound of his laboured breathing. He looked on with anticipation when an object emerged from under the surface—a fish, Magikarp to be exact, followed by another and another and five more simultaneously. All unmoving. Noticing that the strong current was drifting the motionless fish away, he reacted on instinct and quickly seized the only fish drifting within arm range.

 

He put it on the rock, pressed under both his paws to keep it although the Magikarp hardly struggled before going limp. The heat emanating only momentarily surprised him. It certainly did look unexceptional, though he would have to taste its flesh for himself.

 

Looking at the riverbank revealed that Alice had caught a fish of her own. They both looked each other in the eye.

 

"Did you see that? I didn't think we'd make it on the first try!" Flame shouted whilst attempting to retain balance in his quadruped posture.

 

"Me neither," Alice said. "I honestly expected fishing to require more effort. Had I known sooner, think of all the meals we could have caught! We'd be eating like royalty every other day."

 

"I wouldn't quite call Magikarp 'royalty food', but in our situation, that's the closest we can get."

 

"Oh, would you rather eat Gorebyss fillet?" Alice grinned playfully. "Is that the bar you're setting?"

 

Flame laughed. "Now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind trying some."

 

Standing up on wobbly footing, he managed to jump back to the bridging rock without tumbling, claws sunk into the fish's skin out of paranoia. From there, it took one last hop for him to return on firm land.

 

Alice was struggling with getting her bag open, so he mindlessly did it in her stead, storing both fish inside, earning a nod of thanks from the Dragonair.

 

Two isn't enough for all of us, though, he thought, Certainly not enough for more than one meal…

 

His eyes wandered back to the bunch of dead fish floating away farther and farther downstream. Alice's own gaze followed his.

 

"Right. I almost forgot about our 'rivals'. They'll undoubtedly deduce our activities here. Here, let's go," she turned counter to the stream's flow, the water on her left.

 

"Okay, but…" Flame walked by her side. "There's only two fish. What about Gaius? I don't think he'd appreciate being excluded."

 

"Hey—we did all the hard work, we get to enjoy its fruits," she raised her snout. "Besides, remember this morning?"

 

Indeed, he remembered. Faced with the prospect of splitting their rations, the Grovyle had refused to share a crumb of his bread with cheese. That memory suddenly evaporated any worry for their team leader.

 

Among other topics running through his mind, he wondered whether the two had always held this opinion of near-disdain for each other. In fact, the details of how Team Phalanx came to exist interested him a great deal. If Alice was born in the tranquil South, why was she here, amidst poverty and famine? And Gaius!—not one mention of family or friends or past life. Right now, however, he would only be able to ask her. He bit the inner part of his lip as he mulled over the options. Perhaps she would not wish to disclose her past—take offense, even. He would need to word such question with extreme care.

 

"Um, Alice," he said, waiting for her attention to be drawn to him. "Would you mind if I … asked a bit about your past? I still don't know you or Gaius properly. B-but if it's too intimate to share, I understand. Heck, I'd gladly tell you my story, but … you know…" he drifted, nervousness stealing syllables from his mouth.

 

She stared at him with a tiny grain of apprehension, silent. After a few seconds, she gave him a half-nod. "I suppose you're right. We are teammates, after all. Ask me whatever you wish."

 

"Thanks. So … I was wondering, what brought you up here? You were born in Urbe, right?"

 

"Yes, that is correct. I've lived in Urbe nearly my entire life. Up until three years ago. Actually…" she brought her eyes around. "Not even Gaius knows this, but my family comes from the imperial court." she took an extra second of silence. "S-senators, to be precise."

 

His eyes dilated. "Woah, really? Th-that's incredible! Did you ever get to meet the emperor?"

 

"Well … sometimes. At official speeches or banquets. Never talked to him, of course."

 

Flame contemplated the information she'd just revealed. He pictured the Dragonair scurrying about an elegant banquet, the imperial gardens visible outside the window, surrounded by dignitaries and servants. Now that he entertained that thought, he could not imagine a more appropriate setting for her.

 

"I did not choose to leave Urbe. 'Tis still my home, after all. However, my family…" she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. "Ugh, it's complicated. I have no clue what to think, or what I did wrong. They destested the sight of me. It all went downhill after some time. At times, I wonder if I'll ever be able to return."

 

Flame immediately detected the notes of discomfort and bitterness intertwined in her voice, and decided to not press the matter any further.

 

"On that matter, I did some thinking earlier. With Aesernia destroyed, we might not have a job anymore. What if we look for a better life elsewhere? Nothing is forcing us to stay."

 

"I hadn't thought of that. It's definitely a possibility," a smile touched her snout. "How about we think this through once we have gathered enough food?"

 

Just as those words were uttered, a bush displaying pear-shaped berries (some ripe, some spoilt, others healthy-looking) presented itself inside a small ditch off the riverbank. Sunlight would soon vanish completely, and gathering food at night presented unnecessary dangers. The two of them continued to chat about any and all minutiae that came to mind, from the beauty of Urbe, ancient history, future ambitions and dreams, or just prodding fun at one another. Talking, at times, overshadowed the main task they were there to accomplish.

 

Eventually, whichever topic of discussion ceased to matter much, both simply content in the other's companionship.

 


 

Camp Horizon

 

The sun had long set by the time distant thunderclouds covered its nightly counterpart.

 

The plateau was an arid and barren place, where dun yellow bushes sat atop equally rusted soil, one of chunky complexion that glued to the legs. Some ways away it dropped off to a startling height, where darkness engorged what lay beyond.

 

Flame returned to his senses when the dense odour of smoke permeated his nostrils, infused with cooked fish. He stopped muddling his attention into nothingness and turned back to the group he'd been spending the night with. There were many of them, most mere officers, a few legionaries, all gathered round a large pyre to dine very much informally. Some engaged in near-hysterical laughter and droned on about immature sex jokes he did not understand, others quipped in every other bite, others yet—Alice and Gaius flanked him—made but the sound of chewing.

 

He ripped another chunk of flesh off the cooked Magikarp in his claws, gnawing eagerly at to leech off more of its salty juice. It was unlike anything he'd ever eaten before: the scales felt crispy beneath his teeth, hiding a layer of plentiful flesh. At some point, he became so lost in the meal that he unconsciously abandoned efforts to savour it slowly. It disappeared within a scant few minutes.

 

Seeing no common rubbish dump agreed on, he felt authorised to chuck the bones and inedible parts behind his back without so much as care. The sheer taste of this dinner left him licking his lips to taste its last traces. He now knew that fishing would become a semi-priority whenever searching for food in the future.

 

Overall, the outcome of their detour had been very fruitful. Their bags now contained enough Sentret and Deerling meat and berries and fruit to last them circa four days (to gather any more would have proved futile due to putrefaction). It certainly did feel alleviating not to have to worry about such basic needs for once—the privilege to focus on the bigger picture.

 

Out of sheer curiosity, he shifted his attention to the ongoing conversation around him and attempted to pick up stray sentences.

 

"That's what you call 'craziest experience'? I once had a Haxorus give me head."

 

"With those tusks touching down there? You've gotta be kidding!"

 

"Nah, their females have smaller tusks. Pretty good tongues, too."

 

"Small tusks? You mean like Ariel?"

 

Five pokémon or so burst into laughter. "Woah, now, she's a special case. If it weren't for her voice, I would have thought she was a guy."

 

Flame found himself snickering lightly at that. It's true, though. Almost called her 'sir' when she first addressed me.

 

A handful of sparks jumped our from the pyre, appearing to hit one nearby pokémon before fading away into invisible ash.

 

Disinterest took a hold of him. The fire and social atmosphere did feel welcoming, yes, but his eyelids had begun loosening of their own accord every so often. He got to his feet, turning to leave, and noticed Alice peering up from the corner of her eye. Gaius was too distracted talking to other officers.

 

"Tired. I'm going to bed," he mumbled to her with as few words as feasible.

 

Thus, while walking away from the group, he squeezed his mind to remember where exactly their assigned tent was. He remembered that it stood somewhere close to the plateau's edge, but…

 

Mid-step, he froze. His eyes had caught wind of a most improbable sight. Sitting alone outside a group of ragged tents was, of all things, a Charmeleon. Female, judging by its looks, sifting through her bag, fire-tipped tail swaying to and fro. Her scales were markedly more pale-hued than his—a delicate orange. It took some moments for him to fully realise what this entailed. The plan he'd concocted hours earlier rushed into his mind all at once.

 

She's just like me … this is the chance I've been waiting for! There must be a reason she's all the way up here. What if she's my sister?

 

Even the remote possibility of having found a lead roused his excitement to no end. He needed to extrapolate every useful minutia conceivable from that brain of hers.

 

Moving by sheer impetus rather than conscious thought, he moved within a few metres of her. Before he could protest to himself that it would become awkward and that he needed to word his question correctly, it was already too late to back out.

 

"Hey there," he sat cross-legged by her side.

 

"Oh, hi!" she smiled back with mild surpsise, with none of the expected wariness. "It's so refreshing meeting a fellow Char out here."

 

Flame smiled back even wider, finding the timbre in her voice sweet—not unlike Alice's. "Same. I haven't seen one in … months, at the very least. How come I've never seen you around at Camp Tempest?"

 

"Big place, y'know," she shrugged, completely attentive. "I was starting to think I was the only Char for hundreds of kilometres. Finally, my ears can hear something other than that horrible accent they have up here. It gets maddening after a while."

 

Flame paused for a second, if only to gather his racing thoughts. To find an element of instantaneous connection certainly did bless his chances. But to ask the fatidical question outright would deprive him of crucial knowledge. One step at a time, he thought.

 

"Name's Flame. You?"

 

"Livia," a smile blossomed on her short snout.

 

"Livia … I like that name. Perhaps I have met you before. Where are you from?"

 

"My family owns the Imperial Navy dockyards in Agia Marina. We get by just fine—the only reason I'm here is to help my country."

 

He had the map of the Empire behind his eyelids. Rummaging through memory, he recalled such a settlement far along the southern coast, just off the Lipari Arcipelago. So far, every piece fit to form a plausible scenario. Riding the flow of the conversation would surely lend more details.

 

From so close, he could not help but take a moment to notice her 'features'. Her body was built just like his, only distinctly feminine: a less pronounced snout, shorter claws and tail, as well as a tantalisingly puffier upper chest.

 

Some part of him stirred in protest. Not necessarily that this act was morally distasteful in and of itself—some other message he was unable to decipher. He cast that thought aside.

 

"Wow, what are the chances? I come from that area as well. Ur—Urbe, to be exact. Arceus knows I miss that place…"

 

Livia turned to face him directly, her posture open and untense. "Same. Life up here's bloody depressing. Y'know, when you came up to me like that, for a moment I could have sworn it was my brother. You and him truly do look alike."

 

Now his interest peaked. A tingling of excitement washed upon him. There was a very realistic chance he was this Charmeleon's sibling—in which case, however, this whole situation (his occasional glances at her form) would abruptly become very creepy.

 

"Really? I'm going to assume that's a compliment, then," he chuckled, unconsciously mimicking her posture. "And, this brother of yours … have you heard from him recently? Just for curiosity."

 

Her gaze wandered over to the starless night sky. "Yes, actually. Just a week ago, he wrote me a letter."

 

Flame frowned. He felt his shoulders slump. All was not set in stone certainly: a letter would probably take weeks, perhaps months to be delivered. More than enough time for his hypothetical past self to disappear without a trace, considering he solely possessed memories of the past week. At the very least, knowing they probably did not share blood made those thoughts caressing his mind less weird.

 

Livia's smile faded as well. "Even while enjoying company, I'm unused to sharing personal details as much as this. Why are you so interested in me?"

 

He bit his tongue lightly. "Um … the main reason is that I need your help. For some time now, I've lost all contact with my family. They likely don't know where I am. Do you have any memories of hearing about a missing Charmeleon?"

 

Her gaze softened. "Oh, I see. Let me recall." she spun her gaze around, hanging in troubling silence for some time. "There's only a couple families of Chars back in Agia Marina, and I know them all very well. So, no, I have no information of use to you, unless it happened after I enrolled."

 

A small breath of defeat left him. It had been arguably the worse fate of all—not only did no grasp of a concrete lead to his past exist, but no previous hypothesis could be definitely scrapped, either. He forced those thoughts to the back of his mind.

 

"Don't worry about it. I appreciate it nonetheless. Maybe I'd feel a bit more disappointed if your voice weren't so soothing."

 

She giggled lightly. "Is that so? Why, thank you. In that case, I suppose you won't mind chatting some more."

 

Flame nodded courtly. "Would you prefer taking this conversation to my tent?"

 

The words had poured from his mouth spontaneously. Then, realisation struck him with the force of a slap across the face. Warmth rose into that very face, and his eyes suddenly jerked between her own and a nondescript point behind her.

 

"Listen, Flame…" she said slowly, paws cupped together. "I appreciate how sweet you're being, and you are kind of cute,"—he flushed redder—"but I already have a mate. I promised him we'd marry once I got back to Agia Marina."

 

"Oh."

 

Whenever he attempted to conjure more words, his mind seemed to shut down completely. Silence between them only stretched. To maintain a composed face was intolerable. It had been too early—far too early. He ought to have fraternised more beforehand!

 

Remaining still didn't seem like a desirable option, so he shuffled to his feet. "That's fine. D-don't worry about it. I'll … be heading to bed, now. Good luck."

 

She said something in goodbye, but he didn't quite catch it, for he had already moved away toward his own tent.

 

Well, that was … sloppy, at best. I tried, he sighed internally.

 

With his vision blurry from fatigue, he entered his team's tent, puzzled at this rotten feeling that had nestled firmly within his chest.

 


 

End of Chapter XI