The dark, rocky hill shined a soft silver as the moon slowly rose into the sky, hanging high above the sweeping valley of Stargaze City, accompanied by star after star winking into view on all sides of it. Wispy clouds drifted past, carried along by a blustering sea breeze, and a thick, loose flap of canvas ruffled noisily against the dusty ground. Lickilicky patted his striped belly as the sun finished setting, and he turned towards his hideout, gazing at the ramshacke, makeshift tent that he had built into the hillside. The pink paint was already starting to peel off, and it barely looked like him aside from the welcome mat, but it was a safehouse nonetheless.
"Finally, today's over," He murmured to himself as he bent over, grabbing the end of the tent's tongue, rolling it up, and pushing it through the gap in the tent. The heavy fabric thudded against the floor, echoing off of the cavern walls dug into the hill. "Sorry folks, business time is over, and the... meh-heh, the guildmaster's busy counting his earnings!"
"Wait, Lickilicky, sir!"
The normal type Pokemon practically jumped in surprise, whirling around irritably and craning his neck to search for where the call had come from, and he tensed up at the sight of a yellow-and-blue feathered figure making a beeline for him. Lickilicky took a hasty step away to give the prehistoric bird enough room to land, and the Archeops did just that, digging his talons into the dirt and skidding to a stop, flapping his wings a couple times to help slow himself down.
"Phew!" The flying type wheezed out a heavy sigh, patting a wing on his satchel bag, and Lickilicky raised his eyebrows when he noticed the jeweled necklace the other Pokemon wore, moonlight glinting on the pale gemstones. "I'm glad I got here while you were still open... sorry for keeping you up."
"Oh! Er-hem, no no, it's fine, fine!" Lickilicky coughed to clear his throat, hiding his annoyance behind the honeyed greeting he'd practiced, and he wrung his fists a few times before scurrying over to the unexpected visitor, offering a hand for the bird to shake. "The Lickilicky Guild is happy to serve. What is it that you needed... er...?"
"Vale," The Archeops answered, nipping at his plumage a bit. The salt-smelling wind picked up speed, kicking up a few puffs of dust from the ground as it swept past them. "It's not very urgent, but a friend of mine over in the city was wondering how to join the guild? She wants to be an explorer, see."
Lickilicky blinked, then sighed, smiling outwardly and cringing inwardly. Why was it so hard for the locals to understand that his guild wasn't one that you could join!? He slowly turned towards the tent's doorflaps, gesturing dismissively at Vale. "Ahh, yes, well, I'm afraid I don't have any openings for more apprentices at the moment. Stargaze surely needs our help, but we are not stretched thin, either."
"Huh? Wait, really?" The Archeops blurted out, and Lickilicky halted in his tracks, gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes as his frustration grew. "A-Are you sure? She was so excited about it..."
"Well, tell her that I apologize!" The pink Pokemon shot back, his eyes going wide afterward, and he quickly spun on his heels, waving his hands apologetically when he saw the Archeops' hurt expression. "A-Ah! And I apologize for snapping, as well. But I have many more Pokemon asking to join, and it gets tiresome. You understand, right? Eheh... meh-heh."
Vale was silent for a moment, then nodded, looking crestfallen; even the bird's tail had drooped low, laying flat and unmoving in the dirt. "Okay... I understand. Sorry for wasting your time, then."
Lickilicky nodded back at the Archeops, slowly easing his way into his tent, and then he turned tail and marched further into the hillside caves, closing the doorflaps behind him with a loud yank. Vale turned around and walked a few paces away, spreading his wings in preparation to leave... then paused, stealing a sideways glance at the patches of trampled grass, the flattened blades catching the moonlight. The trail of telltale footsteps ran right alongside the lines his talons had made in the dirt, and the bird took one last look at the Lickilicky-shaped tent, his mouth curling into a concerned half-smile.
"Star..." Vale muttered under his breath, breaking into a jog before leaping into the air, flapping hard and swooping towards the seaside city. "Be careful in there, alright?"
The air in the dry, dusty tunnel wavered slightly as Lickilicky stomped inside, hastily pulling the tent closed before swiveling on his heels and hunching over with a wheeze. The normal type Pokemon slowly let a nervous smile worm its way onto his face, and he furrowed his brow, patting his belly a few more times before walking deeper into his hideout. His lumbering form was quickly swallowed by the darkness, his loud footsteps echoing through the passage.
Moments after the outlaw had left, the air in the tent wavered again, and a Zoroark suddenly came into view, letting go of the breath she had been holding as she dispelled her illusion. The dark-furred fox sidled up along the wall a little bit longer, then took a stumbling step forward, clutching a pair of silver spikes in one paw and a small, yellow-shelled seed in her other paw. She cocked her head when the marching Lickilicky made a series of quiet grunts, and she crouched low, rolling her shoulders to fluff her flattened hair as she skulked into the dimly-lit cavern.
"That's the hard part done..." The dark type whispered to herself, licking her dry lips, then wiping her wrist on the red, star-shaped birthmarks at the corners of her mouth. "Now just to stay on your tail, big-mouth..."
Star kept one of her elbows against the wall as she slunk through the shadows, her sharp blue eyes quickly adjusting to the lack of light, and she glanced from side to side, gazing intently at the grainy, unpolished stones. Underfoot, she could feel pebbles squashed deeply into the shallow, sandy soil, undoubtedly pressed down by the retreating Lickilicky. As the Zoroark made her way through the tunnel, said Lickilicky soon came into view, his round figure silhouetted by a moonbeam shining in from a window dug into the wall up ahead.
She stopped in her tracks – heart freezing for a split-second – when the tips of her clawed footpaws tapped against a larger rock jutting up from the dirt. The light sound drifted through the tunnel, and the dark-furred fox tensed when she saw the outlaw stop walking, kicking over a couple pointed stones as he wobbled over to the window, his pink body and long tongue shaking unpleasantly.
A tense second passed.
Then another. Star arched her tiptoes and balanced on her pawpads, the wind gusting ominously outside.
"Ooohh, ow, what a pain! Blasted things, I'm so frazzled tonight..." The Lickilicky's disgruntled voice bounced off the walls, followed by a pained whine, and Star winced, reaching her free paw up to press her ears against her skull. The outlaw started marching not long afterward, though, vanishing from sight and sending the slightest of trembles through the ground. "I can't wait until I can finally be done with this stupid little city..."
Star relaxed, turning her gaze towards the loose bit of rubble that she had accidentally bumped into. Then she sucked in a breath; numerous shards of sharp, jagged granite were jutting a full inch into the air, haphazardly arranged into a bunch of lazy, jumbled rows, set up just far enough from the gap in the wall to keep them hidden. Some of them were tilting loosely, and a fair few had been knocked over entirely thanks to Lickilicky's lumbering. The trap almost looked like a strange, dangerous rock garden.
"Mmhmhm," Star laughed slyly, standing up to her full height and reaching up with her silver spikes to see how high the tunnel went. She had barely bent her arm when the edges of the thin blades clinked on the ceiling, and the dark type Pokemon shrugged, the dark ruff around her shoulders shaking as she took a couple steps back from the stealth rocks. "You'll be done soon, that's for sure."
The Zoroark broke into a short run, then pounced when she got close to the stones, curling her knees and spreading her arms as she leaped over the trapped part of the floor. She sailed across the underground tunnel, her mop of wild hair whipping around, and she passed by the window with a smirk, bracing herself when she began to fall. The thief hit the dirt with a hard thud, a jolt running through her nerves as soon as her footpaws touched the sandy ground, her balance going awry.
She teetered back and forth, stealing a nervous glance over her shoulder at the sharp rocks, waving her arms as she swayed dangerously close to the trap. Star curled her paws into fists, but her instincts kicked in just before she crushed the yellow-shelled seed that she was carrying, and she stabbed her silver spikes into the ground, shifting her weight to her tiptoes to anchor herself.
A muted sigh of relief escaped the dark type Pokemon's throat when she managed to steady herself, and she crouched there for a couple seconds longer, leaning forward and peering sharply into the continuing depths of the tunnel. The path curved to the side slightly, moving closer to the center of the hill, and though there didn't seem to be any more traps ahead, the cavern's dismal, dreary darkness remained. The star-flecked corners of Star's mouth twitched downwards a bit – the chances of finding another window along the way were looking slimmer and slimmer.
Lickilicky's fading stomps pulled the Zoroark out of her thoughts, and she stood up and dusted herself off, sidling up to the wall and shuffling after the outlaw. Curling her footpaws to keep her claws from tapping the pebbles buried in the soil, Star followed her target's trail, the bright window and sharp rows of rocks quickly fading from both her view and her mind. The closer she drew to Lickilicky, the more and more she pressed herself up against the rough stone walls, an unpleasant, gritty, grimy feeling settling into her red hair and gray fur.
Suddenly, the echoing footsteps got faster, the ground rumbled harder. Star's ears flicked again when Lickilicky let out another wheeze and picked up his pace, and she ducked, eyes narrowing, when the curving tunnel gave way to a much sharper twist. The dark-furred fox pushed off the wall and rounded the turn, looking up and down to check for any more traps, and then she broke into a brisk stride, still trying to stay as quiet as she could as she padded after the other Pokemon. The loose dirt crumbled underfoot with each and every thump, collecting in the two sets of prints left in the ground.
The underground path soon took another turn, and she dug her heels in and deftly skipped past it, jolting in surprise when she spotted the hideout's owner a short distance away. A faint circle of orange light shined through a gap, casting a glow on Lickilicky's pink body, and ever-so-slightly on the rocks surrounding him. Star skidded to a stop and leaned forward, catching her breath as she watched.
Lickilicky was hunching over, fidgeting and fiddling with something that she couldn't quite see yet, huffing and puffing even harder and louder than she was and occasionally making an incoherent grumble of frustration. Between his labored breaths, she could hear a soft clicking and clinking, metal touching metal, and she briefly peeked at her silver spikes, then stared forward again. The gears in her mind turned as she noticed a few more details, sticking her free paw out and tracing the outline of a door with a claw.
"There! Argh, at last!" Star tensed up when Lickilicky finally blurted out something sensible – for a given value of sensible, she told herself, keeping her wits about her – and yanked the wooden door open, the hinges squeaking and scraping noisily. Star sneaked forward a step, only to balk when the bright, orange circle got a little bigger, and as the other Pokemon retreated into the next room, she just barely caught a glimpse of a lantern hanging from a hook inside. "Goodnight and good riddance!"
Star winced when Lickilicky pulled the door shut with a powerful slam, sending a tremor all through the tunnel from the force of the swing, and she started moving again, hunkering low to the ground and walking over to the end of the cave. The iron knocker wiggled and dinged as the room was locked back up from the other side, and the Zoroark frowned, peering at the barred hole carved into the top of the wooden boards.
As soon as the metallic rattling subsided, Lickilicky stood up and turned around, the curled tuft on his head bouncing into view through the door, and the outlaw nervously shoved the key onto the nearby hook, accidentally shaking the lantern that was already hanging there. Star flattened herself against the dirt as the light shining through the door wavered, and she lay there and listened, hearing the other Pokemon gasp and grab the lamp, holding it still. Then, he plodded away with a strained sigh.
After resting outside of the room for another couple moments, the thief pushed herself back to her knees. She brought her arms to her lap, taking one of her silver spikes into her other paw, awkwardly holding the seed she carried underneath the handle as she brandished the blades. Easing up onto her tiptoes, she inched higher, little by little, staring through the hole in the door and scanning over Lickilicky's meager hideaway.
The normal type had sat down on a small stone in front of a larger stone, a charcoal stick clenched in his hand as he scribbled into a bark-bound book, occasionally looking over to the side. Star leaned over, and her eyes widened – there was a cloth sack sitting next to the makeshift desk, filled nearly to the brim with gold coins, wonder orbs, scarves and treasures, and other knickknacks. With a shake of her head, she returned her attention to the door, eyeing the lock underneath the knocker.
"Mmm..." She hummed under her breath, tilting her head and peering intently into the keyhole, then slipping the silver spikes into the lock, running into an unseen barrier almost immediately. She gently jiggled the door, and her muzzle curled into a smile at the loose, hollow noise that she was rewarded with. This lock had nothing to fear from her... "Just one pin... big-mouth, you're making this too easy for me."
Arching her hands, the thief pushed one of her silver spikes low, angling it downwards to dig the tip of the blade underneath the tumbler, and she pushed her other spike in, keeping the lock from moving as she worked. With a little poking and prodding, the Zoroark slipped her lockpick past the pin, twisting it around a little before flicking her wrist. The thin blade went up, and so did the tiny peg; Star pressed an ear onto the door, furrowing her brow as the numerous bits and pieces of the lock clicked from within, drowning out Lickilicky's nervous grumbling.
She readied her other silver spike, holding it steady, but paused when she felt an almost-imperceptible shake run through her paws, accompanied by another clink as the pin fell back down. Quickly rolling her eyes, she tried again, snapping her lockpicks up and inching the tumbler back into the lock, pushing it out of the way and then prodding at it through the top of the keyhole. The lock shook gingerly, making the ring-shaped knocker shake as well, and Star reached out with a claw to hold the door steady when its hinges squeaked.
"Wh-whuh? What was that?" Lickilicky said from the other side of the door, and Star froze, swearing inwardly when she felt the door's single pin slowly slide out of place again. A perfect chance to stick the pin into place, ruined by the outlaw's sudden outburst. She didn't have time to dwell on it, however, as the normal type Pokemon started to breath harder – his annoyance from his conversation with Vale and his general paranoia were really starting to get to him. Slowly, Star moved her silver spikes around, quietly easing them out from the door... but, from the tapping of the bladetips on the sides of the lock, not quietly enough. "Oh, Arceus, Dialga, Palkia blast it all! That does it!"
There was a grunt, then a scraping of rock against rock, and Star pulled her ear away from the door, nearly dropping her tools as she slunk away from the door and back against the tunnel wall. She hopped up onto the tips of her footpaws, digging her whole body into her long, messy hair as she hugged the grainy rocks, hiding in the shadows. Lickilicky's feet plodded on the dirt as he dashed back over to the wiggling, jiggling door, yanking the key from the hook and shoving it into the keyhole, not even caring about the shaking lantern as he struggled with his own lock.
"Stupid bird, catching me right at the end and making me get like this...!" The round, pink Pokemon growled under his breath as he twisted the key this way and that, shoving his weight against the wooden door as his frustrations boiled over. Lickilicky yelped when the planks finally gave way, and he stumbled out into the tunnel, holding onto the doorknocker with a white-knuckle grip. He glared into the darkness, inhaling and exhaling a few short times before yelling loudly, wiping the curly tuft on his head and lashing his tongue out. "Who's out there? I know you're out there! 'Cause you can't outsmart the guildmaster, Lickilicky-"
As soon as he said his name, something slashed against the tip of his tongue, and he gasped in shock as a sharp stab tore through his senses, the tension in the air so palpable that all of his muscles seemed to stiffen at once. He whirled around, snapping his head all around, partly out of pain and partly to find whatever had attacked him, but then he felt soft fur graze against his tastebuds, making him gag.
Lickilicky turned towards the other Pokemon, his eyes going wide when a small, yellow-shelled seed was jammed into his mouth. The outlaw bit down instinctively, crushing the tiny thing between his teeth, and as the pieces tumbled down his throat, a mix of grogginess and realization swept over him.
"Goodnight," A low, smooth voice echoed in his head as sleep took him. "And good riddance."