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Fledglings

Chapter Text

The sensation of footprints in the earth below... whiskers prodding into earthen walls... the scent of grass wafting in from the passage to the left. It was these things that guided the little blue lump of spikes attempting to press forward from the depths of the burrow.

"Oof!"

She stumbled and fell forward, stunned for a moment, but soon regained her bearings and got up. Flattening out her ears and shaking a few small spines loose, she continued on, grumbling softly about the dumb ledge that tripped her up.

Her annoyance was quickly pushed out of her mind after catching a whiff of dew from the end of the tunnel, and more importantly, spotted a faint light marking the moon outside.

The little creature crept up the claustrophobic tunnel little-by-little, with nary a peep, and reached a reed-woven mat just beyond its opening. There, she took a quick inventory.

Four legs, two ears, two protruding teeth at the end of her muzzle. No scratches or loose barbs from her clumsy trek up the tunnel... well, none that would worry her more than her mother, anyhow. From the light of the heavens above, she could verify that her fur was still a light blue. Yep, she had all the markings of a healthy, if still rather young Nidoran.

Around her... there was the mailbox on a wooden post next to the burrow. Throughout the sparsely wooded hillside were a few mats with accompanying posts spread before trees and other holes, or sometimes laid out as places of rest for the various Pokémon who currently slept on them. The distant crashing of waves could be heard, intertwined with faint sounds of forest nightlife. Down the hill, nearer to the coast, a small town of shacks, tents and the like had been erected.

But the attention and senses of the little Nidoran were tuned elsewhere that night.

She reared up on her hind legs and turned her gaze skyward. Somewhere in that beautiful, glittering mess- around the moon, between the stars, and the twists and bends of the Rainbow Road- were the drifting ones- little stars that moved slowly and without tails. Her mother told her that some of the Pokémon in town called them the "Travelers" and that, through some contrivance, you could tell what time of the night it was based off of where they were.

But most importantly, she said, if you were up at just the right moment, you could see one, perhaps peeking out from behind the moon.

"Come on, where is it?"

She looked up at the moon... and then above it. Then below it. Then, to its left. To its right. Back at the Nidoran in the moon staring down at the world again. But still, she couldn't find her star.

"...Maybe I heard the story wrong?"

The Nidoran pouted a bit and punted a pebble that had found its way onto the mat. She was about to return to the burrow when the thought crossed her to check the shape of the moon. Perhaps her "Traveler" was still peeking from behind it.

She started from the top, and slowly followed its contour around from the left. It was the same old moon, giving off its same old white glow. The same old Nidoran on its face was still staring down quietly on the world below. Yep, it was the same moon she had seen many a night before.

Except for the ever-so-small bump on the right of it.

"Eh?"

The Nidoran tilted her ears and focused on the bump. It seemed like a rather insignificant speck, except slightly growing, stretching a bit from the moon's face. And suddenly, the speck broke free from the moon, and it all became clear to the little creature.

"Wow! They really do come-"

"Going somewhere?!" a deeper voice barked.

"Eeep-"

Before the Nidoran could turn around, she found herself lifted from the ground by the scruff of her neck. As she flailed in protest, she was brought away from the night sky and back into the inky depths of the burrow. Her captor took her effortlessly back along the route she had so carefully traced out to the surface, and unceremoniously dumped her into a straw nest shared by a handful of her fellow blue and purple spike balls.

After the Nidoran's captor released their grip on the back of her neck, she shook off some saliva and finally whirled around to come face to face with a rather unimpressed-looking Nidorina staring down at her, wearing a white scarf with a blue whirlpool design.

"Really, Nida, just how deaf do you think I am?" the Nidorina whispered sternly.

"But, Mami-"

"Shh!"

The Nidorina gestured to the Nidoran's siblings, all of them in the embrace of sleep, if somewhat loosely. She flicked her ears, and narrowed her eyes to continue her quiet admonishment.

"It's not healthy for a young kit like you to be up into the early morning! Rest will let you grow healthy and strong."

"But I was just headed out to see the Travelers-!", Nida protested.

"Is that why you forgot this on your way out?"

Her mother held up a small scarf bearing the same design as her own. Nida shrank a bit in embarrassment. After all, the importance of wearing her scarf was constantly lectured about. It was the the thing that allowed any Pokémon to identify who you were and where you belonged… and she had forgotten it on her way out the burrow.

"Er… oops?"

Her mother sighed, and placed the scarf back at the base of the nest alongside a small number of others before turning back to her child.

"Sleep is a blessing, mija. Having enough of it keeps you from making foolish missteps like that."

"But how am I supposed to sleep if you don't tell me a story?" the Nidoran demanded.

"Nida," said the Nidorina, her ears and countenance not-so-subtly hinting at a desire to return to her own nest.

"Well?" Nida persisted.

The Nidorina sized up her daughter, and the other siblings dozing around her, and after giving an irked sigh, decided that dealing with one small and rambunctious spike ball was enough at this hour.

"Fine. Which one do you want this time? The Nidoran in the Moon? The time I fought and beat the cheating Dragonite? Another Warriors of Light tale?"

Nida perked up, buoyed by her small victory in staving off bedtime, and thought about just what she wanted to hear.

"I wanna hear the story about the humans, and why they don't live with Pokémon like us anymore," she replied.

"Nida, haven't you heard that story from the Day Care enough times by now?" the Nidorina asked exasperatedly.

"It's different when you tell it."

"I suppose I'll need to start from the beginning, then," the Nidorina sighed, as she drew her daughter's attention to a patch of dirt that she began to move a foreclaw over.

"A long, long time ago, longer than any Pokémon can remember, there lived a peculiar type of creature. One that had not been given strength in their bodies by the gods as we Pokémon have," the Nidorina said as she began to sketch some tall pylons in the dirt.

"In its place, the gods gave them the power to see and understand mysteries, questions, and engimas... to think in ways completely different to the way you or I would. To bring dreams to life, and to work wonders and impossibilities from the world around them, including from its Pokémon."

The pylons were then crossed, forming a scene of boxlike towers, each piling up against the other.

"The gods saw it fit to make them mediators of Pokémon. Their lack of strength was filled by that of Pokémon that joined them. In return, they provided food, shelter, and companionship. As the gods tended to the world, this mediation was to provide bounty to the order they guarded."

"And they built cities of glass and metal, and rolling boxes that could cross islands in minutes, and planted fields that stretched across the horizon, and-" Nida began to recount.

"Hey now, who's telling the story here? You or me?" the Nidorina interjected while sketching a star in the corner of her picture.

"It was an order that brought out the best of both Pokémon and humans," she continued, "But for some, it simply wasn't enough."

The Nidorina moved on to crudely sketch some figures in the dirt. A few birds, others that looked vaguely like horses, and a few squiggly serpents.

"In their arrogance, some of the Pokémon that dwelt among the humans decided that the gods were superfluous, that they would know better how to manage our world. Thus they declared war on the gods to take their place. It was a pitiful chapter that would have surely been thwarted and forgotten… But everything changed when the Star of Destruction shone from above."

Nida watched as her mother raked her claws over the scene, their impressions coming from the star in the corner and piercing through the towers and crude figures.

"The fiends had made a dark construct, which upon shining its light, pierced the gods and slew them. Thunder, wind, rain, land, sea, earth… all gone. So the slaughter went up to the three attendants of Arceus."

"And then that's when everything went wrong?"

It was then that Nidorina obliterated her painstakingly drawn scene with a barrage of poisonous spikes from her ruff, causing Nida to flinch for a moment.

"Well, what do you know of what happened, mija?"

"The seas rotted, destruction rained from the heavens, the land became dead and filled with ash and distortion hidden in fog... Like the Mystery Dungeon on the other side of the island. That's how the Wastes were formed," Nida dutifully recited.

"Well, is that the end of it?"

"It isn't?" Nida asked, as she gave a puzzled head tilt as to what her mother could be implying.

"Silly kit, I would hope that our home isn't in such a sad state!"

"Oh! Ahehe, right," Nida replied as she turned her attention to a new patch of dirt where her mother began to draw a triangle, and then a circumscribing circle.

"From there, Arceus saw that there were still points of light in the darkness. Places where the blight the Star of Destruction had caused had not yet touched. But in order for life to remain at all in this world, these places would need to be kept separate and protected."

"And that's how our island was made?" Nida asked, as the Nidorina began to draw three circles around the points of the triangle.

"That's how all of the islands were made, mija. Bits and pieces of the old world that Arceus pried from its dying husk with his thousand arms and placed into this sea, the sea that we call the Cradle."

Nida continued to watch her mother add more and more circles onto the design in the dirt. It was apparently some manner of important symbol, but that was surely a story for another time. Even so… There was something that the little Nidoran couldn't help but wonder after hearing her mother's words that she hadn't thought about the times when her ears heard this tale before.

"But wait, if humans acted as mediators for Pokémon… Who mediates for the Pokémon that came here?"

"At first, there was no one," the Nidorina replied, "And the Cradle was but a mass of feuding creatures of different kinds and different minds… Until our world's creator set down the Compact that governs our world to this day."

"A… Compact?" Nida yawned.

"The Pokémon that lived without humans, the 'ferals' as you've probably heard them called, were free to continue to live on as they did in the past. Growing, breeding, and dying with the course of nature. They were to be left to live without interference from outsiders, but at the expense of giving up the right to interfere in the lives of those outsiders. It is why the predators among the ferals do not dare to consider you or your brothers and sisters as meals…

Or at least not ones that don't have a death wish."

Nida yawned again more audibly, which caused the Nidorina to shift and lick a paw before continuing on, keenly noticing that her child was at last beginning to grow drowsy.

"As for the humans that remained, the world that remained was too fragile for them, and their role as mediators was given to others to carry out until the world was restored to the way it once was," the Nidorina continued as she watched Nida begin to progressively fidget less and less as sleep neared the Nidoran.

"Others? What are you talking about?"

"Silly, it fell upon the Pokémon that lived among humans to take up their mantle. To become mediators among our different kinds. To aid them, they were given four gifts…

"The gift of writing, to allow them to preserve what knowledge of the humans had not been lost.

"The gift of gummis, to free them from the hunger forcing their ranks against each other.

"The spirits of the departed gods, who remained in the night skies as the Travelers you and I can see today.

"And lastly, the gift of pacting, in which a Pokémon could make cause with another and join their ranks. To bury past fears and resentments together and live the same life. Friend, foe, feral, it matters not. As long as there is one to ask and there is one to respond."

The Nidorina couldn't help but sigh contently as she watched her daughter start to settle into the straw of the nest along with her siblings. It had been a long tale, but her goal of putting the little scamp to sleep was almost realized.

"What about the Pokémon that went to war with the gods? What happened to them?" Nida asked, which elicited a pause from her mother before she responded to her daughter's question.

"The ones that did not die in the chaos they caused were allowed to come in as a mercy. In return, they, and their children, would forever bear the mark of the star they created, so that no one would ever forget. They became the Pokémon that the others call the 'Marked'."

"Eh?!"

Almost immediately, the Nidorina regretted bringing the topic up as Nida immediately perked up at attention, on guard from her mother's words of these surely ill-meaning Pokémon still being around.

"Shh… Shh... Don't dwell upon it too much, they're far from capable of mounting a war against much of anything these days. And even if they somehow did, they would be hard pressed against the last thing that Arceus left."

"What's that?" the Nidoran asked, starting to settle down again.

"A hope. When the Cradle was made, new gods were created and left to sleep until they were needed. Why, even here, on tiny little Tromba Island, we have a protector sleeping somewhere hidden away.

And as they all wake up, the world we live in will start to be restored to the way it used to be. And eventually, the humans too will come back."

"Is that why those Pokémon… the Rescue Teams. Is that why they work so hard in that Mystery Dungeon?" Nida yawned.

"Well… It's a bit more mundane than that. Our island's protector is somewhere in there, but so are a lot of the things that our town uses to get by. And it's not a safe place, so there need to be Pokémon to help protect those that go in doing imprudent things… Like little kits going out without their scarves."

"Mami, I get it," Nida groaned in annoyance, as her eyelids began to fall.

"But all in all, they're there to give help to Pokémon when they need it most."

"I wish that I could be a Pokémon like that…" said Nida, as her red eyes finally drooped shut and she drifted off to sleep.


Chapter Text

A few years later, Nida's dream of becoming a member of Rescue Team had begun to be realized… Sort of. She was still a Nidoran, still in training, but no longer quite as small or young.

"Hey rookie, watch it!"

While she had largely moved on from watching the stars by night, Nida had yet to move on from these hectic darts through crowds of Pokémon by day. Today was no exception, as she had just narrowly avoided being stepped on by the passing Rhyhorn that was shooting a frustrated glare at her.

She darted off to the wall of a shack to rest a moment and catch her breath. With a navy blue scarf adorned with a solitary white star around her neck, a small glinting badge affixed to it along her throat, and a satchel on her back, the Nidoran was not quite the same kit she had been so many nights ago.

"Alright! Alright! Sorry!"

The square that Nida was making her way into was ringed with simple wooden huts and garish tents styled after Pokémon. There were item shops, eateries, raucous juice bars, even the odd tailor or two- the latter eagerly claiming that their wares would outlast the toughest rigors thrown at them thanks to silk they spun themselves.

The sky turned a vibrant shade of orange under the setting sun, the air crisp from the sea. The mountain that anchored the island loomed in the background, its far face graced by the fog around its Mystery Dungeon.

Along the sea, rickety wooden ships moored alongside similarly rickety wooden docks, with Pokémon clambering on and off helping to load and unload small parcels. Other Pokémon, bobbing in the waves, chattered with their land-bound counterparts, trading gossip that had surely travelled great distances with the waves.

It was a scene that might have filled Nida with wonder… if she had not already lived through it hundreds of times before- though only rarely getting stepped on as she almost had tonight. Nida hopped up onto a crate and then, after a brief bit of scanning, bounded up to a small shack with a low counter. She rested a short moment and then called out into the shack's interior.

"Calino? Are you still there?"

Much to the Nidoran's relief, she was answered by a green and yellow lizard with a long tongue popping up from behind some crates, who gingerly sauntered over to the counter.

"Speaking, missy. What can I do you for?"

"...You still haven't replaced your old tent?" Nida said, sizing up the Kecleon's somewhat rough pavilion.

"Ahehe… See, the thing about those custom buildings and all… They kinda are a little hard on the coin purse. Especially when you're looking to get them fireproofed so that the next one won't get burned down by a wet Combusken," the Kecleon chuckled awkwardly.

Nida couldn't help but wonder how Calino managed to get himself into such situations. He was a Pokémon from outside Tromba who had a shrewd sense for business and seemed good-natured… mostly, somewhat, maybe. But he had a knack for having a bit of a grating sense of humor, one which maybe wasn't so unrelated to why Calino was here selling wares out of a wooden shack in tiny Bluewhorl Town and not on some other island.

"Of course, you could help speed up ol' Calino's renovations if you did a little shopping, eh?"

"I'd be able to buy more if you'd let me get some of the discounts you give to the other teams, you know," Nida said, flattening her ears while hopping up onto a stump serving as a stool.

"Perhaps you should spend a little more, or else boost your Team ranking a bit then, eh? Why, I wouldn't give a discount to the Protector himself if he was still at your ranking!" Calino teased, flushing a burnt yellow.

"Come on, Calino. My mami used to be una Cazadragones! Surely Dragon Busting's worth something, of all things?" the Nidoran protested, growing a bit huffy with the merchant's ribbing.

"Well then, perhaps you just need to waken that familial blood of yours a bit, eh? That'd be quite a lark, doncha think? Hahaha!"

The Kecleon watched as his customer's countenance twisted into more and more of a leer, sensing that he had perhaps gone a bit too far in his attempts to provide some good-natured banter. Calino deemed it best to drop the attempt at humor and revert to a more business-like tone as his scales reverted back to their normal green.

"Haha… more seriously Nida, as much as I'd like to cut you a discount, I can't. Or at least not outside of hatching days and other big events," Calino sighed, "Why, between the take that the Company sucks out of Bluewhorl Town here each year and all of the rookies that go off for more mundane work like berry picking after their mandatory stint servicing in the guild or with the town guards…"

"Heh heh, I'd be left with nary a scale left over afterwards!" the Kecleon chortled.

Seeing that his customer was looking away towards the pebbles on the ground and not visibly moved by his appeal, the Kecleon decided that it would perhaps be best to offer some reassurance.

"Nida, look at it this way. It's just a matter of time before you wind up becoming one of my big buyers, right? Why, a Pokémon like you- always chomping at the bit for tougher missions even while in a trainee team- once you get into a real team it would only be a matter of time before you rose through the ranks!"

"Or wind up dying in the dungeon," a passing Sentret volunteered.

"Or wind up d-Oi!" Calino turned around visibly flustered. "Snark at your own customers, Scout!"

"Just… Give me the usual, Calino," Nida grumbled, as the Sentret continued on his way.

The Kecleon quietly gathered a couple berries and a few assorted seeds and deposited them into Nida's bag as she shuffled a few misshapen but glinting coins across the counter.

"Say… Marley's had some more kids since you and your three brothers and sisters came along, right? Two… three…?" Calino asked apologetically, his scales starting to have turned a teal color.

"Six," Nida corrected, scowling at the Kecleon.

"Oh! Ah… That's a bit more than I- Ahem, anyways, maybe on their next hatching day, I could arrange for the mon that buys their gift to get a little something extra, huh?"

"I'll keep it in mind after I tell Mami about my day, I guess. I'll be sure to include how my run here went," Nida said while turning off, finally giving a small smile.

"Er… About the discount I offered?" Calino asked nervously as he knocked over a few seeds from a box behind him and flinched a moment. His scales began to flush a dingy brown.

"Nah, about everything," the Nidoran smirked, before bounding off down a dirt road.

"Erk! Gods help me…

"Wait, Nida! Come on! Let's be reasonable here! That was just good-natured ribbing!" Calino called after the rapidly escaping Nidoran, flushing white in distress.

"Aw, relax, ya old miser! I'll say enough to keep you alive so I can shop here next time!"

Nida continued bounding up the road for a time, before arriving at a large round pavillion tent. Behind it, she could see a wooden structure fashioned in the shape of an Ampharos' head with a sheltered platform up top, seemingly for signaling. From her vantage point, she also saw some simple roofed huts where the guild members sometimes ate together and stayed overnight, and a large earthen clearing along a seaside ledge kept dutifully free of obstructions.

Pokémon busied themselves milling in and out of the complex: a Rattata happily chattered with some other similarly experienced peers about having just graduated from the lowest rank. Meanwhile, a Natu and a Sealeo discussed the recent arrival of letters from off-island and who a 'Manternal' by the name of 'Maranda' was supposed to be. Nida's face lit up as at last she found what she'd been looking for: the guild's Mission Board, which was occupied by a Loudred, Shiftry, and a Croconaw who were sizing up the listings.

"See anything yet?" the Croconaw asked.

"It's all a bunch of fetch quests this time around. Unless you count a bunch of outdated bounties on pirates as jobs," the Shiftry scoffed.

"Well, what's the one that makes most sense for us to do, then?" the Loudred demanded.

"I'm working on it! Hrm… fetching some kid's 'lost treasure...' Pass. Hunting for rare gummis… eh, not feeling it. Oh, here we go, finding an 'ahp-gredh' for Melissa."

"Melissa? The move tutor? What's an 'ahp-gredh' and why on earth would she want one of those?" the Croconaw asked.

"Eh, beats me, but when a client's offering that much Poké, they're always right," the Shiftry mused, before taking the mission listing off the board and heading off chattering with her companions about just what exactly an "ahp-gredh" was anyways, leaving Nida behind to stare at the mission listing and sigh.

"Oh, I see you brought supplies for our mission tomorrow. Are you staying overnight at the guild hall?"

Nida turned around, and came face to face with a Swellow bearing a bandanna of the same design and color as her scarf.

"Oh, hello, Kiran. I thought I told you that I couldn't stay over tonight."

"Eh? But why in the world not? Why, you're still in training! Starting brisk from a relaxing night straight from the guild hall is proven, by my observations, to improve performance in Mystery Dungeons by 100% for rookies like you!" the Swellow said, craning his head down to the Nidoran.

He was a creature with the best of intentions, and a heart after guiding young Pokémon into becoming full-fledged members of Rescue Teams. But every so often, the navy blue and white bird couldn't help but come off as ever so slightly… clueless.

"Kiran, it's my turn to babysit my younger siblings. Besides, how much energy does collecting apples need anyways?" Nida muttered, starting to flatten out her ears.

"Oh, but plenty of energy! Why, you need to be brimming and up and at them for any trip into a dungeon!"

"Kiran… If the mission didn't ask for the apples to specifically be ones scattered in the dungeon as a training exercise, we could just complete it by stealing from Mildrew's orchard on the south side of town."

"... The Tropius? I mean, well. Um... yes, I suppose that's not completely in-", Kiran stammered, ruffling some feathers to regain composure, before getting interrupted by his small charge.

"Why on earth are we still doing missions like these? I thought that Rescue Teams were supposed to help Pokémon, not do idle busywork!"

The Swellow paused, and extended a wing over the Nidoran, trying to offer her some reassurance.

"Nida, I know that you want to move on already. But I swear, I'm not doing this just to annoy you. You've got much more drive than I've normally seen in rookies… especially with what happened last year and all…"

"Let's… not talk about that, Kiran. It happened, and everything worked out without anyone getting really hurt in spite of it. Let's just leave it at that," Nida said, the topic eliciting an involuntary shudder.

"But my point is, moments like those are real possibilities!" Kiran said, throwing his wings wide and flailing.

"The entire point of training is so that you can be prepared for them if you stay on a Rescue Team past this first stage! And… well-"

The Swellow lowered his head and found his voice dropping to a little above a murmur, uttering some uncomfortable confessions.

"None of us want to see you get hurt from trying to push on ahead too fast. Not Crom. Not your mami. And especially not me... you understand, don't you?"

"I guess," Nida said, looking down. She kicked at the dirt, not really sure what to say back to her team leader's concern, only to feel a feathery sensation moving up against her and seeing Kiran patting her head with his wing.

"You're almost through, Nida, I promise. I just need to be able to see a little more from your teamwork with Crom that shows you're ready to be guided under less tutoring wings."

"So… if I can definitively prove to you that I can take care of myself as a Rescuer, you'll upgrade my rank?" Nida asked, starting to smirk- much to the immediate concern of the Swellow.

"Now hold on, that's not what I said at-!"

"I think I can live with that, Kiran," Nida cheerfully replied.

"Ah… Nida."

"Whelp, I'm off," the Nidoran said, turning to leave.

"Nida!" Kiran called after his teammate.

"What? Oh… right."

Nida then shook her satchel off her shoulders and passed her bag off to the Swellow

"Almost left without leaving the supplies for your bag tomorrow, didn't I?"

"Yes, let's… leave it at that," Kiran said, his voice betraying ever so slight hints of exasperation, but deciding for the moment to let the matter be.

The Nidoran then turned and bounded off down another path, the guild hall quickly disappearing behind her as the shacks and tents she passed started to become less extravagant, and the paths less-travelled.

"Don't forget to remind Crom to prepare on your way back home!" she heard Kiran calling after her.

"Heh heh, silly Swellow, I don't need anyone to remind me to do anything with Crom," she called back, and away she went. Past wooden and canvas buildings, past the Day Care run by the Froslass (who stopped watching her siblings after dark after the incident with her Pomeg plants), past one of the little bridges over the creek that went through town, until she came to a small hut with the smell of toasted grain wafting in the air.

"Crom? Are you in there?" Nida called towards the humble building, but to no apparent response. The Nidoran thought the whole matter was rather peculiar- usually Crom had no trouble coming to the front- and so with a bit of concern, she poked her head into the rude hut's doorway...

"Crom-? Meep!"

… Only to find herself scooped up by a set of blue claws and brought up a couple feet off the ground, where she came face to face with a jagged red maw and its piercing yellow eyes.

"Hee hee, gotcha!"

Nida untensed and breathed a sigh of relief as she recognized the welcomer. "Phew… Crom, don't do that. You know how Nidoran like me feel about suddenly getting snatched like that."

"Aw, but then how am I supposed to ever get you more than a foot off the floor?" the young Druddigon piped back as he set Nida back on the ground.

"Did you come to head off to dinner at the guild hall together?" the red-and-blue creature cheerily asked.

Crom and his family were ever-so-slightly strange creatures. Usually when one thought of dragon Pokémon, one thought of fighters or warriors, or the heavens forbid, pirates. Crom and his relatives on the other hand…

"Mom said that I could stay overnight at the guild hall once the evening loaves are done. A bakery's hard work, you know?"

The Nidoran's ears drooped after hearing the young dragon's words.

"You won't be able to come?" Crom asked, visibly disappointed.

"Sorry… Mami and Papi have field work late tonight, and I got the short end of the stick for babysitting my younger brothers and sisters," Nida sighed.

"Oh. Well, it's just four of you guys, ri-?"

"My younger brothers and sisters, Crom," Nida said, bringing an awkward silence over the room.

"Oh, right."

"I take it that you already knew about Kiran wanting us to be prepared for tomorrow, right?"

"Uh huh!" the young Druddigon beckoned Nida to clamber up his back and onto his crest, and brought her to see a table set with the first loaves of the evening.

"I'm already planning on bringing along all of the ones that don't sell in the morning!" Crom beamed.

Nida's ears flattened out at the mention of the idea of bringing day-old bread along.

"Um, Crom… Wouldn't fresh bread make you grow even faster? And be less hard on your jaws?"

"Well hey, beggars can't be choosers. And mom says that eating well will help me to grow big and strong just like her! I'm at her chest height now! It's not that different for Nidoran, right?"

"... Whatever, I'm just saying, whenever I eventually have kits, that's not what I plan on feeding them. Ever," Nida said, furrowing her brow a bit.

Crom couldn't help but giggle and tease a bit after hearing his passenger's comments.

"Is that a hint that one day we're gonna have-?"

It was then that the moment the two young Pokémon were enjoying was abruptly brought to an end by another Druddigon half a head shorter barging in.

"Cro-om! Mom says to stop dawdling and help put the bread out onto the display tables!"

"Alright, alright!" Crom replied, reluctantly bringing his snout to the ground to let his passenger off.

"Sorry Nida, but I need to get back to helping. Good luck with babysitting?"

"I'll try, I guess," Nida said.

"See you in the morning," Crom said, waving a hasty farewell.

"Yeah, you too," Nida sighed, before heading off towards the hills above the town.

A short time later, Nida returned to the area around her burrow, a hillside with a distinctive lack of buildings and tents. Most Pokémon in the area lived in nests or burrows; the lack of undergrowth, the sparser trees, and the reed mat placemarkers were the only major difference from the forests deeper in the island.

Eventually, Nida came back to her family's burrow. Absently, she noted how little had changed in the last couple of years, since the nights she would sneak out to stargaze.

"I'm h-"

Before Nida could finish her breath, six rowdy and visibly smaller Nidoran with matching white scarves with blue whirlpools on them bounded out of the burrow's entrance.

"Whee!" a little blue ball cried out, hopping circles around Nida.

"Sissy, play with us, play with us!" a purple ball demanded, tugging at Nida's leg.

"Sissy, Dia stole my berry earlier!" another purple ball pouted.

"Did not!" a blue ball responded.

"Did so!"

"They're both lying, I saw them!" another purple ball interjected.

"When's Mami gonna be home? And are you going to be a boring babysitter like Dorin?" the last, blue ball asked skeptically.

As the six little Nidoran continued jabbering, a larger male Nidoran slipped out from the burrow, mouthed something that seemed to be "They're your problem now," and quickly hopped away.

"-ome..." Nida sighed, as she resigned herself to what was evidently going to be a very long and weary night.


The final strains of day eventually gave way to night, and life in Bluewhorl Town began to largely wind down and come to a close. But further up the mountain, behind a shroud of fog, the ever-changing passages of Tromba Island's Mystery Dungeon were slightly more active.

A couple floors beyond the entrance, in a chamber composed primarily of light stone intersected by small tidal pools, some Krabby scuttled to and fro across the cave floor between shallow pools of water, snapping at a few Finneon that happened to float by, while a Corsola pulled itself out of another pool to gather salts from a damp rock. An unremarkable night for Pokémon whose lives followed an alternative rhythm to those slumbering down the hill.

The only sign of any disturbance to this rhythm came when a strong wind began to blow, causing the Pokémon in the chamber to hesitate and begin to mill about towards signs of shelter uneasily, in expectation of some disruptive force that would come by and quickly pass.

Then the winds abruptly picked up, followed by thunder, and the walls began to shake. It was far more severe than the poor creatures expected, and they now madly and desperately scurried about the chamber for some respite. A few lighter creatures were swept up in the draft and blown elsewhere into the maze, giving panicked chitters, yelps, and cries.

Those that could maintain their rooting to the chamber couldn't help but stare down at the end where the winds blew from, a single dreadful question lurking in their minds.

What sort of beast, down deep in the dungeon, could cause a calamity like this?


In a chamber fashioned further on in the Mystery Dungeon, its position ever in flux with the disturbances that constantly reshaped the floors of the maze, a solitary silvery-white egg with blue swirls waited on a raised patch of stone ringed by a shallow pool of water. The chamber, fashioned from darker stone, basked in the dim glow of the bioluminescent algae on the ceiling. The stone room was blissfully separated enough from the cacophony elsewhere in the dungeon to hear only the faint but sharp whistling of distant-sounding winds, the eye to the storm that had engulfed the rest of the maze.

And then, the comparative stillness broke with a faint crack. And then a louder crack with the faint, wet sound of some viscous substance being pulled apart. The lights from the ceiling were just strong enough to produce a shadow of the rapidly hatching orb on the wall of the the chamber: a limb forcing its way out of one end, a snout and long neck from another. Soon, there was nothing left of the egg at all, but the form of a winged creature rearing up, spreading its wings.

The chamber's separation from the storm was then broken by the creature's loud, feral screech.


Back in the burrow, and many, many earshots away, Nida was fast asleep alone in a nest made for less frequent cohabitants, recovering from a long and exhausting night tending to six ever-moving lumps of fluff.

"Eeek!"

"The sky is breaking!"

"Mami!"

The sound began to rouse Nida awake, causing her to mutter under her breath about kits these days.

"Not right now, plea-"

Only for a deafening boom to cause her to bolt up from her matted straw.

"Gack!"

Now that she was awake, she began to understand why her younger siblings were crying out from the chamber next to hers. A wild wind whipped the air outside, and the smell of the rain wafted its way into the burrow. A flash of thunder down the entrance to the burrow caught Nida's eye briefly.

All these sensations suddenly made Nida feel much smaller and more alone. She nestled into her bedding, bristling her fur and barbs on instinct.

"Eh? Still shrinking away from thunder? I thought your guild friends helped fix that," a voice from out in the hall called.

Nida sighed, and detensed her fur and spines a bit. "It's not the same when it wakes you up, papi!" she fumed defensively.

The speaker came into the room and revealed himself to be a Nidorino, leaning into his daughter's nest and giving her snout a soft nuzzle. "Oh come now, it's nothing worse than what your mami throws around, don't you think?" he chuckled.

Nida couldn't help but stifle a laugh at the question. He had a point, she guessed. No matter how loud and angry the storm, there would always be a moment whereMami could match it. Still, she couldn't help but be somewhat concerned about the abrupt gale outside.

"Papi, what's going on? Isn't the wet season not supposed to come for another two moons?"

The Nidorino shook his head, "I'm afraid I don't know myself, mija. The storm suddenly kicked up a little after the Sea Prince's Traveler went behind the moon and it's been like this ever since."

"Then… someone did this? But… who? And why?" Nida asked, starting to grow a little concerned.

"Let's hope for their sake that it was for a good reason. Your mami is going to be sour in the morning without her sleep," the Nidorino sighed.

Just as suddenly as they'd started, the winds began to die down. The sound of the pouring rain gave way to the gentler pitter-patter of a drizzle, and then ultimately, silence came.

"It just… stopped," Nida said, before quickly hopping out of bed and up the entrance of the burrow.

The once-scenic view outside had been wrecked by the sudden storm.. The family's welcome mat oozed water when stepped on; some of the trees had had limbs blown down; cries of some neighbors' children rang out along the hillside, startled by the storm much as her siblings deeper in the burrow had been. Nida shuddered as she realized that some of those children were without an earthen ceiling to provide some measure of shelter.

But up in the skies, the clouds began to break, rapidly giving way back to the view of the cosmos as if nothing had happened.

The Nidorino followed Nida up to the entrance of the burrow, taking in the scene for himself. "Probably all just a dispute among some sea ferals," he snorted before turning back to his child.

"Come on, you should head back to bed. You've got a big adventure tomorrow, right?"

"Right."

And the two went back into the little burrow on the hill as calm returned to the night.


Chapter Text

The following morning, Nida found herself bounding down the now-muddy paths of Bluewhorl towards the Guild Hall.

"I'm late, I'm late," she panted, dashing past the shops on the shoreline plaza, dodging between Pokémon and weaving around the occasional footstep of someone much larger than her.

The storm had been about as kind to the town as it had been to Nida's home; that is to say, not at all. Nida passed a grumbling Azumarill along with her Chinchou partner, the two of them surveying a gaping hole in the stern of a boat that had been pushed into one of the piers. She passed Calino, who busied himself dumping out some ruined stock; all the while, he bewailed the damage it was going to do to his renovation fund. All of the tents and huts the Nidoran passed by the water had caved in on one side or another from the harsh winds and waves rolling over the docks.

As Nida made her way up towards the guild hall, the storm's damage became less noticeable. A tear in some tent canvas here, a missing patch of roof there, some drenched papers on the mission board blotted to illegibility by the rain.

"I didn't keep you... waiting too long... did I?" Nida struggled to relay her meaning to Kiran in between ragged breaths, settling to hope that he could piece together her fragmented thoughts. She waggled her leg, trying to free it of the flecks from mud puddles that she'd run straight through in her rush to get to the guild.

"We haven't been waiting longer than anyone else, no. Guildmaster Hatteras has been busy all morning trying to get everything back in order around here," the Swellow said, pointing at an Ampharos surveying tears along the different pieces of canvas on the tent.

"I see," Nida said, "So… that means we're ready to go, then?"

Kiran visibly shifted his wings a bit, "Erm…"

"Kiran, we are going, aren't we?" Nida demanded.

"It's just that, perhaps we should let a few other teams go into the dungeon first today," the Swellow offered.

"Kiran. It's apple-gathering," Nida mumbled, feeling cross at her team leader's sudden hesitance. "We've done missions to scatter them before, just how well-hidden do you think they'd be?"

"Yeah! We could probably finish up halfway just in the first room!" Crom said, his beating wings displaying a hidden side of youthful eagerness much like his shorter partner's.

"That sorta work sounds right up your alley, tykes," a familiar Sentret volunteered as he passed by.

"Hey! I don't see you doing any work, Scout!" Crom growled after the squirrely windbag.

"I know that," Kiran replied, "But… after storms like these, Mystery Dungeons usually shift around. A lot. We don't really know how the floors will be ordered, or what will be on them, or…"

"If any outside Pokémon will have been blown in again," Nida finished.

There was an uncomfortable silence among the three Pokémon, the Swellow and the short Druddigon trading looks with Nida.

"You said after everything happened that that was all a freak incident, so did everyone else. So if it was such an accident, why are we just standing here? It's not like it would happen again, right?" Nida said, giving a firm and determined leer at the Swellow.

"Nida. I know that it doesn't always seem so, but things always happen for a reason," the Swellow began to reply, but his words soon trailed off after seeing his red-and-blue charge also looking at him.

"It is just getting apples, Kiran. Maybe she has a point," Crom said, his eyes adopting a bit of a pleading expression.

Kiran paused for what seemed an eternity before he responded, "Fine. We'll go, but on the first sign of something more dangerous than normal, we're calling for a lift out of there. Understood?"

"Understood," the two agreed.

From there, the three Pokémon headed off, up a winding trail that lead out of town up towards the fog shrouding the far side of the mountain.


A ways up the path, the trio found themselves trudging their way past innumerable trees, bushes, assorted flowers, and little pebbles which marked the contours of the path, all drenched by the prior night's storm. The aroma of freshly-moistened earth wafted all around as it always did after heavy rain. Despite the pleasant atmosphere it created, the three found themselves shrouded in an uncomfortable silence. Nida took it upon herself to try and break it.

"... So, Crom. Did you remember to bring that bread?"

"Yep! It's right on top of Kiran's bag- Oof!"

En route to the Swellow, Crom found himself knocking heads with an unfortunate dangling Spinarak with an unmarked body. The creature knocked the Druddigon backwards, hissing angrily.

"Hey! Watch where you're going, you little village runt!"

"A-aah!" Crom cried out. He backpedaled from the angry Pokémon as Kiran swooped in to intervene.

"Eeek!"

The Spinarak promptly flew into a state of panic at the sight of the swift-winged bird before him.

"Monster! Monster!"

The team breathed a collective sigh after the small creature skittered into the cleft of a nearby tree and began to cower in silence, waiting for the dangerous creatures below to pass.

"Crom, you need to remember that there are ferals outside of Mystery Dungeons, too!" Kiran admonished, rubbing a wing against his forehead.

"But they usually keep to themselves!" Crom protested, dusting himself off from his fall backwards.

"That one did seem a bit meaner than normal, Kiran," Nida said while continuing on up the path, "I thought you said that the reason why ferals attacked more often in Mystery Dungeons was because they could get away with it easier."

"Well, you have to understand it from the perspective of a feral, Nida," Kiran said as he took flight once more.

"If they get hurt and no one helps them or lets them get away, well… That's sometimes it for them. So if someone seems scary, and you feel like you have a chance of scaring them off or defeating them, you have to try and do something about it."

"Sounds like a really tough way to live," Crom remarked, following Kiran down the path.

"Well now, I guess we'll just have to show them why being part of a Rescue Team is so much better, huh?"

"Heh, I gue- Oh, look!"

Crom pointed out a side path which wound around a couple bends to a simple wooden pavillion with a shingled roof that stood on a seaside ledge, stubbornly defying the elements and its unkempt surroundings.

"Huh… That ánima held out better than I thought it would. Why, I'm not sure if I see any change from the storm beyond a few missing shingles," Kiran said.

"Why don't we pay a visit, huh? It can't hurt for a little good luck before we head in, right?" Crom asked.

"Well, I don't suppose it can," Nida responded as she led the way over to the simple shrine, her teammates close in tow.

Nida hopped up a jutting stone at the shrine's base in order to peer in. There were some small pebbles laid out in front of it, and the shutters that normally protected its interior at night had been opened earlier that morning by its custodians. Now that the shutters were opened, one could see that inside the shrine was a simple iron bell; above it each panel of the roof was painted in a different scene.

One panel depicted a white and blue bird rising from the sea, with red, yellow, and blue birds waiting for it. Another depicted those same birds being struck by arrows of light and falling to earth. Another depicted a strange egg with various nondescript Pokémon gathered around it. Finally, the last panel pictured the egg being carried into the fog further up the mountain.

Crom took two loaves from his bag, setting one on the ledge of the shrine.

"One for the Protector… And one for us!" he cheered, breaking up the remaining loaf and sharing it with his companions.

"Don't the ferals just take the food that gets left here anyways?" Nida asked while biting into her chunk of the loaf. The bread was firm, but much to her pleasant surprise, less stale than she had expected from day-old leftovers.

"It's the thought that counts!" Crom insisted as he greedily gulped down his piece.

"Leth geth going, kidth," Kiran prodded the two in-between mouthfuls of bread. He then picked up the remainder with his beak and ushered his charges back to the winding path, finishing his portion alongside Nida as they walked.


By the time everyone finished their bread, the team found themselves entering a foggy portion of the forest leading up to a cave entrance.

"Do you remember the rules of going in?" Kiran asked his two charges at the mouth of the cave.

"Stay together in the fog, don't wander off the path, and don't run into the dungeon," Nida and Crom recited, groaning at having to partake of this ritual reminder.

"Good, then let's make our way in," the Swellow said, extending a wing for Crom to hold onto. As the two began to set off, Nida scurried up Crom's back and onto his crest, her preferred perch for ensuring she stuck with the group.

"So, what do you think we should do with the apples that are left over after this mission, Nida?"

"Eh? Wouldn't we just keep them for later?" Nida asked, tilting her ears.

The fog had grown increasingly thick, and as the group made their way in, the less they were able to see of each other. Heads, limbs, tails disappeared into the haze.

"You're thinking too simple! Why... think about the things you can do with those apples! You could bake them into bread... You could candy them… Kiran said they might be a decent Gravelerock substitute…"

Nida couldn't help but giggle at the idea of trying to clock someone with an apple; it was one of those silly, nonsensical ideas that couldn't help but take the edge off someone. As the fog thickened enough that she lost sight of her own whiskers, she decided she quite appreciated that sentiment.

The thickest portions of the fog were always unnerving, even after all these times passing through it. For what seemed an eternity, Nida couldn't see past her nose, sounds and smells became garbled and misleading, and even the very air seemed to grow thick and heavy. It was during this stretch that she was silently grateful that Crom had allowed her to hitchhike on his crest today.

"Alright, we should be through the worst of it!" Kiran announced.

True to his word, the fog around them slowly thinned, the air felt less weighty with each trudging step forward, and the smell of rushing salt water came on the breeze. After a few steps further, they found themselves able to see their paws, claws, and wings once again in the haze. Finally, the fog cleared entirely, leaving an unobstructed view of the surrounding sea cave the group had wandered into.

"How does this dungeon look like a sea cave when it's halfway up a mountain?" Nida asked before hopping off of Crom's head. "I mean, I know that the distortion in here probably has something to do with it, but still..."

"The lower levels apparently open out to deep in the seas off the shore," Kiran said while taking his wing back to his side. "Not that we will need to go anywhere that far today."

The Swellow beat his wings a few times - "to get my blood flowing," he'd explained in the past- and turned back to his two teammates after taking flight.

"Remember, if you get lost or in trouble, find a place apart from everything else and use your badges to call for help," the Swellow reminded.

"We will," the two younger Pokémon responded in unison, before turning their attention to helping the Swellow scan the floor for apples.


The first floor was rather quiet. Aside from the tidal pools and the various rocks, all the team encountered were items. True to Crom's predictions, they found half of the apples they had been tasked to deliver, which were stuffed into Kiran's bag. The time in between then and the search for the stairs had primarily been spent by Crom and Nida playing in the tide pools that just so happened to be along the way. They also, at Crom's request, tested Kiran's theory of apples as a substitute for Gravelerocks… on Kiran himself.

Eventually, the three found themselves in front of the stairs to the second floor, peering down a pathway which separated their position from the next chamber.

"Are we sure there's nothing else we want from the first level? Once we set down these stairs, distortion will seal the entrance by the time we reach the next floor," the Swellow asked cautiously.

"We're sure, let's keep going!" Nida said.

"Yeah, it's no fun to only go to the first floor of a dungeon anyways!" Crom added.

The group descended the stairs, heard the normal scrapes and shudders as a wall of stone from the floor above closed over the way they came, and quickly took stock of their surroundings… finding their room to be barren with the sole exception of some further stairs heading down.

"... That's it?" Nida asked, in a flat and unimpressed tone.

"Erm… Not quite," Kiran said, pointing out where the ceiling for the chamber would normally be. In its stead was the incredibly distant-looking layout of the floor they had just came from. Upside down.

"Shame we'd never be able to reach it thanks to the distortion… I wonder what it feels like to be able to walk upside down without falling," Crom said as he stared up at the inverted floor.

It was one of those unsubtle moments that helped to bring back into the minds of the three explorers that in spite of their previous times traversing this Mystery Dungeon, it was very much not home.

After the group's attention turned back to the stairs to the next level, there was a bit of a collective shrug and the three continued down deeper into the maze.

"Heh, I think the storm might have actually worked out quite well for us!" Crom said, pleased with their fortune on the last floor.

As the trio headed down the stairs, they found that the third floor was a bit more mundane in appearance. The ceiling was seemingly all there, unlike the prior room. The floor was still mostly rocks and shallow water pools. All seemed to be normal.

"See anything, you two?" Kiran asked while scanning the room.

"There are definitely apples in here… I can smell them," Nida replied.

"Oh! Oh! I smell them too! But… I don't see any apples," Crom added, drooping his wings a little.

"Maybe it would be best for you two to lead the way on this floor, I'm afraid I can't smell much of anything."

"Hmm… I think I'll take the higher stuff. You'll be able to handle the ground, Nida?"

Nida flattened her ears a bit at the idea of having to deal with attempting to plant her nose on the waterlogged ground. It always was so much more comfortable when the apples were plainly visible and the damp ground could remain underneath her feet where it belonged. Unfortunately for her, it didn't seem like there was much of a choice on this floor.

"I think I'll survive, Crom."

The two then began to attempt to ferret out just where the scent of the apples might be coming from. Crom strayed a bit to the left of the room, while Nida went to the right. In spite of the strong odor of salt, she could tell that there definitely was an apple out there… somewhere. Little by little, she continued to follow the smell ever closer to-

"Oop!"

Tumbling headfirst into one of the shallow pools. The Nidoran hastily pulled herself out, and after coughing up a little water, shook herself dry.

"Grr… I don't understand, I can smell the apple right here, but this is just a-!"

She then looked up and saw that the apple was floating within the water itself, apparently having rolled off of a ledge overlooking the pool.

"Found one!" Nida called out, which quickly drew her companions over to the pool. Kiran came first, followed quickly by Crom, who had apparently already found his apple on the left and deposited it into Kiran's bag.

"... I'll need to find out what team was responsible for scattering these and tell them to be a bit more cuidadoso next time," Kiran sighed, watching the apple bob up and down lazily in the water.

"Eh, it's just a little pool," Crom said before clambering into the water. The Druddigon waded along, the water coming up to his wings as he went out far enough to grasp the apple.

"See? Piece of- YEOW!"

Much to Nida's shock, Crom then pitched forward and into the water.

"Crom!"

He shortly resurfaced, thrashing and flailing as something had latched itself onto his wing.

"Get it off! Get it off!"

The most unwelcome assailant quickly revealed itself to be a Krabby, fastened tight to Crom's left wing.

"Get out of our pool!" the Krabby chittered, trying to find something for its other pincer to latch onto. Kiran immediately tried to swoop in to intervene while Nida rushed over to the water's edge.

"Hold on, Crom, we're comi- GACK!"

Only for another Krabby to latch onto his foot as he passed over the water.

"Go away and stay away!" it demanded, as Nida came to the side of the water. She tried to rear up the barbs in her pelt much as her parents and more experienced siblings would. While she managed to fire a singular barb, the little missile accomplished nothing but to sail through the air a couple feet and fall into the water with a weak splash.

"Rats… How on earth do they make stinging seem so easy?"

She decided to try a more proven tactic, and called out to the Swellow, "Kiran, quick! Give me your bag- Meep!"

Only to be forced to abruptly sidestep a beam of bubbles that drenched the spot where she was standing with bubbles that burst with sticky glop that was scalding hot to the touch.

"You'll not get away from me so easily, furball!" hissed a third Krabby, the apparent culprit of the bubbly attack, who made haste clambering out of the pool.

"Kiran!" Nida shouted, fanning out the barbs under her fur, "The bag would be nice about now!"

"Agarra!" the Swellow cried as he tried to fling the group's bag to Nida. The bag sailed through the air, its trajectory having been jerked off course by his ongoing struggle with the Krabby clamping down on his foot, and landed a good distance away from her, towards the middle of the room.

"Oh yeah, great throw ther-" Nida grumbled, only to have her train of thought promptly interrupted by having to sidestep a snapping claw.

"Stay still so that I can grab you!"

"Get away from me!" Nida cried, giving two stiff, spinning kicks to the Krabby that was almost upon her. Her legs felt as if they were striking damp stone, but they were forceful enough to cause the crustacean to stumble a bit, which Nida took advantage of to sprint towards the bag as fast as her feet could carry her.

She threw open the flap to the bag, stuck her head and forepaws in, and began to fling out its contents. "Gravelerock, Gravelerock," she muttered to herself while fumbling around inside. She knew that Kiran had one in there from an earlier mission when they went in… Apple, apple, another apple, why had the guild been so adamant that they had to gather these stupid training apples in the first place?!

"Where is it?! I know we had a-!"

Her search was interrupted by the sting of hot bursts and the sensation of something gummy and warm that stuck to the fur that sent her and the bag tumbling, coming to rest staring at a far wall in a daze.

"Can the room stop spinning no-OW!"

Her dizziness was suddenly joined by a sharp pain shooting through one of her hind legs.

"I've got you now!" an irate voice chittered.

"Let me go!"

This was bad, Nida had not expected a Pokémon who could only move sideways on land to close the gap so quickly. Worse still, she couldn't kick her way out of this one with one leg caught and her underbelly half-open to further attacks from the Krabby.

The Krabby then tugged on Nida's leg, and began to drag her. She began to flail and shouted out from pain as the creature's grip tightened. It was then, in the corner of her eye, that the relative movement of being dragged along a stone cave floor caused a slim object to come into view.

She couldn't tell what the object was, but that was beside the point. She needed something to hurl at her sopping attacker, and this would have to do. She quickly latched onto the object with a forepaw.

"I said, 'Let me go!'" Nida shouted, before blindly throwing the slim item at the Krabby. It was then that she heard a cracking noise and felt its grip release and the sharp pain became dull.

Nida whirled to her feet, and gave another two kicks at her attacker. The second one was with her injured leg, the immediate shot of pain causing Nida to yelp and hastily change tactics.

"Go away!" she yelled, tackling the Krabby. The crustacean flopped backwards. As Nida stumbled backwards and uneasily tried to regain her footing, she noticed that the Krabby was weakly snoring with fragments of a seed's husk scattered about it. It was subdued enough for now, she supposed.

"Kiran! Are you okay?!" she called out.

Nida was answered by the sound of a wing striking chitin and the sight of a limp and groaning Krabby bouncing off some rocks into a pool of water.

"I'm alright! I'm alright!" the Swellow cried back, "Where's Crom?"

"H-Help!"

Then, both sets of eyes turned to the young Druddigon, who was busy pressing a wing against a rock.

"I defeated it, but it's not coming off!" Crom cried.

"Crom... Move away from the rock and let it fall off," Nida said in between gasping breaths. Leaving the Druddigon to stare back with a sheepish expression.

"Heh heh… right," Crom replied awkwardly, and moved away from the cave wall and through the pool, the dazed Krabby falling off his left wing and into the pool with a splash.

Crom crossed the pool back over to Nida as Kiran sighed and began to regather the contents of his bag… minus one Sleep Seed. "Are you two alright?" he asked.

"Erm… well..."

"No," Nida interjected emphatically.

"Stay still, lemme come over and take a look," Kiran started, only to be interrupted while passing the sleeping Krabby as it started to come to.

"Rrgh… You! Bird! So you think that you can blow us around like the monster did last night? Well, you're sorely mis-!"

Kiran quickly cut off the Krabby's rant with a stiff swat from his wing, which flung the crustacean unconscious into the pool with its dazed companions.

The two were rather scuffed up, which made Kiran silently grateful that he merely had some scrapes on his foot and damaged plumage to tend to; Crom's left wing was turning red and had scales scraped off in the place where the Krabby that attacked him had latched on, with other scuffs from its free appendages. Nida's right flank was covered in sudsy glop, showing red in between the strands of her pelt and the barbs underneath, with her hind right leg visibly limping from having been caught in her attacking Krabby's claws.

"Well, I suppose it could be worse. Lie down on your left, Nida, I'll get the Oran Berries," Kiran said while rummaging through his bag.

He drew out one of the blue berries, tore away the peels with his talons, and after scraping the gummy mass off of Nida's flank, pressed the naked fruit against it, letting the juice seep into her skin as she winced. Oran Berries always stung when their juice seeped into wounds, both in their natural state, and after the rare cases they had been changed and made more potent by prolonged exposure to the distortion. And the little berry that Kiran was squeezing against Nida's body was no exception.

"That… Didn't go as well as it could have," Crom sighed. Nida flared her ears as the the initial sting from her flank dulled, and began to talk back.

"Understatement mu- Ow!" she winced, Kiran having moved on to applying the rest of the berry to her right leg.

"Make sure to eat the pulp at the least, it's where most of the nutrients and healing properties are," said the Swellow as he left the remains of the berry to Nida and turned to tend to Crom's wing.

"Kiran… How many more of these apples do we need to get?" Nida asked, while starting to bite into her Oran Berry's pulp.

"The mission asked for at least six," Kiran responded.

"Maybe we should just head back and get that last one la- ARGH!"

Crom's flinching caught Kiran off guard, if partly because he was a full foot taller than the Swellow and not-so-slightly heavier. This made steadying him when treating wounds a bit trickier.

"Easy there, and if you two aren't feeling up to going further, I suppose-"

"No," Nida said, her stern tone softened by the mass of Oran pulp in her mouth. The effects of the berry's healing properties had already started to kick in as the sting from its juices faded, dulling the pain from her leg and flank.

"E-Eh?" Crom stammered.

"Nida, it really isn't that necessary to-"

"Kiran, we need one more apple. We can get one apple. We haven't even gone half as deep as the furthest point in our last mission yet!" Nida protested.

Kiran and Crom exchanged glances. The little Nidoran did have a point: an extra day in the dungeon would be an extra day that they wouldn't be able to do other jobs, or spend time with their families, or run errands in town.

"I mean, if you're sure it's a good idea, Nida," Crom said hesitantly, "I mean, the Oran Berry is making me feel a lot better already."

"I'm not sure if I like this… But I guess it would be pretty silly to just pack it in if the last apple was lying in a corner on this floor here," Kiran mulled as he looked about the room. "Did either of you smell any more apples around?"

"No," Nida said.

Crom took a minute to sniff the air, and after a pause, he gave his verdict. "I do smell one. But… it seems really faint."

"Which way is it, Crom?" Kiran asked.

"Past that wall over there," Crom replied, pointing out a slab of cave rock with a bend to the right that went around it.

"Let's get going, then," Kiran said.

"What about the Krabby?" Nida asked, only to have her question answered by the dazed voice of one of the earlier Krabby weakly skittering up some rocks.

"Hey, where'd that furball go?"

"Okay never mind, they seem well enough," Nida quickly decided, "Let's get going!"

The three quickly put some distance in between themselves and the Krabby-infested pool, rounding the dungeon wall and finding a crossroads.

"That way!" Crom said, gesturing to a passage on the right. The team went down the passage, and relaxed their pace after they could no longer hear or sense the Krabby further back. They then found themselves nearing a third flight of stairs.

"Are we sure this is a good idea, Nida? I mean, the smell of the apple's fairly strong here, but…" Crom shifted uncomfortably, "That one last Krabby did mention a monster and all."

The suggestion unnerved Nida; she knew full well that such talk wasn't always without reason. But then again, hadn't that Spinarak on the path called Kiran a monster?

"I'm pretty sure that the 'monster' is just some Pokémon that's slightly bigger than them," she huffed.

"Well, I guess that is the most likely thing it would be," Kiran said, his misgivings not fully dispelled.

"Then let's get going!"

"Fair enough," the Swellow sighed, as he began to lead Crom and Nida down the steps, a bit more wearily than their last one. Heading down, there was no obvious sign of anything amiss, not that a staircase could go awry too badly. The distortion that shaped the other floors, for whatever reason, seemed to always make the "stairs" some manner of rough ramp consisting of low, staggered stone ledges.

The fourth floor that day had its furthest wall composed of water which crashed against some unseen lip and cascaded down into some abyss far, far below. At least, it seemed that way. It was hard to truly know where one thing began and another ended in this tangled pit. The floor was a bit easier to make sense of, consisting of small outcroppings of rock that jutted out of a layer of water meandering forward from the cascade at the rear.

"Oh great, just the sort of floor I was looking forward to," Nida groaned, lowering her ears as she hopped across a small stretch of water to another outcropping.

"Well, at least the visibility's good," Crom offered as Kiran flapped up to get a better view.

"And the main hazard in the room seems to be visible off the bat and not too hard to avoid-"

"Look!" Nida interrupted, gesturing to a small, elevated alcove that was obscured by an overhanging ledge. There, next to a spiral-shaped shell embedded in the rock was the last of the small red fruits that her team needed.

"Heh, heh, looks like it's mission accomplished!" she proclaimed as she drew near to the alcove, preparing to hop across another small waterlogged gap.

"Good work! Hurry up and get it so we can bring these apples to mom's bakery!" Crom cheered.

Nida dug her hindclaws into the dungeon floor beneath her and, after a short moment getting her footing against the slick stone, hopped forward to the crimson apple.

She had no sooner just left the ground when she suddenly heard a surprised squawk from Kiran, "Nida, wait!"

"Huh-?"

She crested the lip of the ledge, and noticed a faint crosshatched pattern on the stone below.

Her feet rested upon it.

To her horror, there was a soft, but audible click.

"Tra-!"

Then the floor gave way beneath her, and the Nidoran found herself tumbling head over heels through thin air.

Chapter Text

Further and further Nida fell. She could hear Crom and Kiran calling her name coming from somewhere; but as she slipped deeper into the abyss, her teammates' voices quickly slipped into muddled gibberish. Soon, the only sounds that remained were Nida's own screams piercing the silence.

"Aaah!"

The next thing she felt was the dull thud of her rump striking something hard and her body pitching forward. Her head and legs slammed into hard stone and Nida tumbled a few times along a floor before coming to a rest on her back. As stars swirled around her eyes, she heard something bounce off with a clink, followed by the distinctive splash of a small object falling into water.

As Nida regained her bearings little by little, she couldn't help but groan. As if the piercing headache that the fall had inflicted wasn't enough, the sheer carelessness of what she had done added insult to injury- a blind leap in the wrong place and the wrong time, one that could have led to a stint in the medics' tent... or the afterlife.

She weakly moved a paw up against her neck, to the place where she always pinned her badge on her scarf. Nida pressed where the badge normally was, dreading the chewing out she was sure to get from one of the psychics back at the guild who would sense her presence. "I really screwed this one up, can I get a lift out?" she sighed.

But there was no response except her own voice echoing from deeper in the cave. After a few fumbling prods, Nida discovered that the cold, metal bauble she had expected to find on her scarf had vanished.

"Oh no," she muttered. The Nidoran sprang up and stumbled to her feet in a panic- so that was that clinking noise she had heard- her badge! The one thing that would have let her retreat back to the guild hall was gone! Mercifully, wherever she was seemed to be lit a dim blue- enough for her to see a rock-strewn passage that carried around a bend straddling a long, slow-flowing stream that her badge had surely fallen into.

"Please still be here," she muttered, hopping into the channel and groping around its bottom for her badge. She splashed and flailed around in a frantic search in the water, but for all of her combing of the stream's bed, she found nothing but cold sand and pebbles.

"Please still be here," she repeated every once in a while.

After what seemed like an eternity to Nida, the unmistakable sound of a metallic clink echoed from around the bend, along with an occasional staccato tapping noise. It was her badge! As Nida pulled herself out of the channel and the sound of the flowing water grew fainter, she began to discernible the sound of something shifting and moving about... in the direction of her ticket out of this pit.

"Wh-Who's there?! Give that badge back right now! It's important!" Nida cried as she bounded out of the channel, not bothering to shake off the water that had drenched her pelt. She rushed towards the tapping noises, but as she rounded the bend, she froze in her tracks.

"That's-"

She saw a round stone landing in the middle of a pool of water that took up most of a room that sat between corridors heading off in the three other cardinal directions. On that landing, a white and blue bird with a long tail was resting, facing away from her.

From her position, Nida guessed that the creature was just a bit bigger than Kiran, if a few inches taller. Around the bird's feet were some fragments, like pieces of a large, freshly broken pot. The creature was enraptured from tapping at something by its feet that Nida couldn't make out, but assumed was her badge.

It stopped to preen its shoulder, before it noticed some water droplets dribbling off of a stalactite in the passage to its right. The creature stopped preening itself, pulled its head up, and waddled towards the direction of the corridor. When it reached the lip of the water, it spread its wings and gave them a playful beat just as Nida realized...

This was the white and blue Pokémon on the shrine bell!

"It's you! The Prote-!"

The creature gave a high cry as its blue markings and the contours of its wings began to glow, before beating them together. Nida flinched as a burst of wind from between the bird's wings sucked out most of the water from the moat around its platform and tore into the right corridor. There was a brief shudder of stone and then a loud crash that shook the chamber as the passage's ceiling collapsed.

"Ha-aah," Nida shuddered, mouth agape. This 'Protector,' it just- If those droplets had come from her passage, that would be her buried under a wall of rubble. The bird then tilted its head, turned towards Nida, and began to draw towards her with a few flapping hops across the now depleted moat.

Nida felt her legs go numb and her stomach begin to twist into knots, freezing in fear at the sight of this thing drawing near to her.

"W-Wait! Stay there! I'm a Rescue Team member! I just need my badge and th-then I'll get out of here!" she stammered, backpedaling all the while away from the creature.

But no luck, the 'Protector' seemed to be set on catching this strange blue intruder. It quickened its pace, closing the gap faster and faster. Nida turned to run, but stumbled over an underfoot pebble and fell- just as the shadow of the bird's head fell over her.

"I'm a- A-Aaah!"

Nida screwed her eyes shut and fanned out her barbs, bracing herself for whatever this strange beast was about to do. She then felt a light peck at her head, and then heard a soft voice.

"What are you?" it asked.

"I-I'm a Nidoran! A-And I'm poisonous!" Nida squeaked as she kept her eyes firmly closed. "S-So don't get any ideas about trying to eat me!"

"'Poisonous'?" the voice asked.

"Y-Yeah! I'll make you sick if you hurt me! Y-You'll regret it afterwards!" Nida said, trying to muster up what little bluster she could while curled up in a spiky ball.

"'Sick'? 'Hurt'?" the voice asked again.

"E-Eh?"

Nida opened her eyes, and saw that the white creature had drawn its head back away from her and was holding it at a tilt, perplexed by the little blue Pokémon's words.

"Can you play with a 'sick' or a 'hurt'? What are they?" it asked.

"Uh… I mean, I guess you can kinda play with them- B-But that's not saying that you should! They're not good things to play with!" Nida answered back as she cautiously uncurled herself, still unsure what to make of the much larger bird before her.

"Are Nidoran good things to play with?" the Pokémon asked, tilting its head the other way and inspecting Nida's blinking red eyes.

"Uh… I mean, if you don't hurt the Nidoran, they're good, yes," Nida responded, still blinking.

"Okay!" the creature responded, as it opened its jaws and began to clamp down on one of Nida's ears.

"A-Aah! Biting hurts the Nidoran! Biting hurts the Nidoran! Lemme go!"

The creature opened its mouth and retreated hastily, startled from the abrupt noise of the Nidoran's shrieks. After the two bounded back a small distance from each other, the white creature turned back.

"Was that playing with a Nidoran?" it asked.

"No!" Nida retorted as she nursed her nipped ear and finally shook her pelt dry from her earlier dunk into the channel.

"But then how does playing with a Nidoran work?"

Nida stopped and thought. There had to be a way to get this thing, Protector or not, to leave her in one piece long enough to get her badge. But… How?

It was then that her hind leg chanced to brush up against a pebble. Immediately recognizing the opportunity, Nida declared, "Here, I'll show you how to play with a Nidoran."

Nida circled around the pebble and picked it up with her forepaws. She then dropped it onto the ground and batted it forward with a swipe towards the white creature.

"See? Now you try," Nida said.

The bird eyed the pebble, and after puzzling on what to do with the rock, the Protector nosed it back to the Nidoran with its snout "Like that?" it asked.

"Yes! Exactly like that!"

"Do Nidoran only play with this rock?"

Nida couldn't help but slap a paw over her forehead at the question. What kind of Pokémon assumed that someone would only play with a single rock?

"Uh… No- Hey wait-! Where are you going?"

As Nida spoke, the strange bird darted back to its platform, tromping through the remaining water in the moat. It stopped and grabbed some things off of the floor with its mouth and then returned back to the Nidoran.

"I broth more rokths!" it declared, beaming. The Pokémon then promptly spat up some assorted objects from its mouth… Which were all coated in a film of saliva.

"Ew..." Nida muttered, repulsed from the 'playthings' before her. She wasn't going to have to touch these grody things, was she?

There were a few cave pebbles, some berries that had been pecked into pieces of skin and pulp, an elliptical-shaped thing half-caked in mud that glinted in the dim blue light- Wait a minute!

"That's my badge!" Nida declared, snatching up the muddy and drool-slicked bauble at once. After a few moments to register her disgust from touching the sullied badge, Nida swallowed her reservations, pressed down upon it, and began to speak.

"Hey, if any of you on the other side are listening, I kinda need to be rescued here!" Nida fumed. But there was still no response and no obvious sign of anything at all coming from the muddied badge.

"Did- Did the fall break it?" she asked herself, beginning to panic. Her fears were then somewhat distracted by the strange white Pokémon beating its wings in eager expectation.

"Aren't you going to play with it?"

"What? No! This is important! I can't play around with this!" Nida shot back.

"But it's a rock."

"No, it isn't. It's a badge! I need it to go home!"

"Go... Home…?" the creature asked as it tilted its head again at the Nidoran.

It was then that Nida heard the voice of another bird calling from the leftward corridor.

"Nida!"

Along with the voice of a young dragon joining shortly afterward.

"Nida, where are you? Please, say something back!"

"I'm here! I'm alright!" Nida cried back, dashing through the mostly-emptied moat around the platform and hopping around the bend.

When she came out of the moat, she saw that the passage opposite the one the Protector had destroyed was filled with a thick fog like the one she passed through at the Mystery Dungeon's mouth. This place must have been a stable patch, one of a handful of points in the maze she heard about that- while still shifting, kept a floor pattern that wouldn't get warped and reformed with a strong wind like the rest of the dungeon… Or at least one that wasn't caused by a Pokémon, anyway.

More importantly, she saw the forms of her Druddigon and Swellow teammates exiting that fog. Nida squeaked out of overjoyed surprise and bounded up to Crom, who drew her into a tight and careful grasp.

"You had us so worried!" Crom cried out, "The Pokémon from the retrieval pad said that a strong feral made off with your badge!"

"Thank goodness we made it down here before the floors shifted!" Kiran said, rushing up to inspect the Nidoran, "We were afraid that you'd be a goner by the time someone found-"

"Wait! You stopped playing!" the strange bird's voice cried out, as it hopped and flapped after the Nidoran, coming to a stop behind Nida, and before two very surprised teammates... After a moment staring, the two came to a realization not too different from the one Nida had earlier.

"Wow! The Protector rescued you, Nida?" Crom asked, his eyes widening in awe of his partner's companion.

"Er… Kinda?" Nida said, flattening out her ears with a sheepish expression.

"That's so cool!" Crom said, gushing at the luck and honor of coming face-to-face with the legendary Protector of Tromba Island.

The eldest team member wasn't quite sure what to make of the specimen before him, "Er… I mean, the markings are definitely the Protector's, but- It seems like he's just un pollito- According to the legends..." Kiran trailed off, gesturing with his wings at the white creature before finishing his thought. "Shouldn't he be bigger than Crom at least?"

"He's supposed to be bigger? But his pictures were so much smaller," Crom murmured before turning to his Nidoran teammate, "Does he have a name, Nida?"

"What's a 'he'? And what's a 'name'? Are these also Nidoran?" the Protector asked, blinking at the two strange new faces in the chamber.

"Uh…"

"I don't think this Protector has been around very long, Crom," Nida sighed.

"If those things on that little rock over there are what I think they are, he hasn't. Why, that looks like it used to be un huevo..." Kiran said, pointing out the shattered clay-like pieces in the center of the moat. All the while, the white creature continued to try and make sense of these two new Pokémon that now seemed as puzzled as it was.

"Do they play with rocks, too?" the young stranger asked.

"Er," Crom mumbled, wondering just why the Protector of all Pokémon would ask such a thing.

"Uhm, I guess I can't say I haven't before-" Kiran added, to which the strange bird seemed to perk up.

"Okay!" it beamed, as it waddled through the moat over to the middle of the central platform, and spread its wings upward, preparing to beat out a gust.

"Ack! Wait! Don't do that in here-!" Nida cried as the creature sent a whirling gust towards the ceiling... that turned out to be a pitiful, feeble wind that was just strong enough to dislodge a few small pebbles that plunked into the moat's water for a blinking audience of three.

"I'm pretty sure that the legends also stated that the Protector was supposed to be stronger, too," Kiran said, growing perplexed with this most strange 'Protector'.

"But- That isn't normal!" Nida interjected. "He destroyed that entire passage over there!" she insisted, pointing at a passageway obstructed by boulders in the background.

"That gust looked pretty normal for him though, Nida," Crom said, tilting his head out of skepticism.

"Are you sure you're not suffering a concussion, Nida?" Kiran asked. After all, she had just fallen through a Pitfall Trap, perhaps the poor Nidoran took a knock to her head made her see things earlier. "If you are, we should really get goi-" the Swellow volunteered as he happened to brush his badge while shifting a wing.

"What are you guys doing with that feral down there? Are you trying to get yourselves rescued or wiped out-?" an unseen voice interrupted, its words filling the minds of the four Pokémon in the room before fading as quickly as they came.

"Ah! The walls spoke!" the strange bird cried out, flinching out of surprise.

Kiran jumped up with a start from the voice, before he realized that it was just one of the teleporters at the guild. He didn't know whether it was their fault for being over-sensitive or if his badge was just finicky, but Kiran always seemed to be in the habit of accidentally messaging the teleporters at the guild.

The Swellow then gave the talisman a firm and more deliberate press. "It's not what it seems like, we're perfectly fine here! Come and get us out!" he replied back to the voice, before releasing the badge.

"What's going on? The walls weren't talking before!" the Protector asked, starting to grow a bit worried from the sudden unseen speaker.

"It's not the walls. It's the Pokémon that is going to get us out of here. She's a Psychic," Kiran corrected in a reassuring tone.

"Sorry, Mister Protector, but I think we need to get going," Crom demurred in an apologetic tone as he went over to his team leader..

"Thanks for helping me find my badge," Nida said, as she turned and drew near to Kiran.

"But you can't leave!" the white bird protested.

"But we live outside of here," the Druddigon tried to explain.

"Outside? But I want to play! And I can't play if you leave!"

"Eh?! What makes you think that you can only play here?" Nida said, this time tilting her head at the Protector.

"I... Can play in different places?" it asked while drawing a wing to its mouth, the question presenting a possibility it had never considered.

"Yes! Of course you can!" Crom answered.

"We'll explain later, but… We will play with you outside of here. We promise," Nida responded.

"You 'promise'?" the strange bird asked. It seemed to garner that whatever this 'promise' was, it was something that was important to the Nidoran.

"It means that we'll do it no matter how un-fun it is!" Nida said. The response seemed to reassure the white creature a bit, as it headed over to the other Pokémon.

"I mean- If it's really possible to play outside," it said while sidling up with the Nidoran. Meanwhile, Kiran had become increasingly impatient with the teleporter that still had not arrived in the Mystery Dungeon and pressed down on his badge again.

"Pataki, stop stalling and just come and get us!" Kiran barked at the shining orb under his wing.

"But the feral is still right there!" the disembodied voice protested.

"Look, you peabrain," Kiran squawked, "That's our-!"

The Swellow stopped, as a brief flash of inspiration came over his eyes. He then proudly declared, "That's our newest recruit!"

"Say what?" the disembodied voice asked, taken aback by Kiran's words.

"You heard me, Pataki! Now hurry up and get us out of here!" Kiran fumed as his patience wore thin.

"You're gonna have a long story to explain once we get back," the voice snapped as Kiran let go of the badge.

The owner of the disembodied voice became apparent as a Kirlia abruptly teleported beside the moat down the corridor, and came up fuming towards the waiting rescue team...

"Alright, there you a-! Ah!"

...as well as the Protector that they had somehow inducted into their ranks. The shock and awe of the ordeal all but left the little fairy dumbstruck.

"Tha- That's-" the teleporter babbled.

"Hey! Teleport now, story later!" Kiran demanded, irked with the Kirlia's continued hesitance when home was literally just a blip away.

"O-Of course! Hang on tight to each other!"

The Kirlia grasped a handful of Kiran's flight feathers, as did Nida, as well as Crom, who used his other claw to latch onto some of the flight feathers of their newfound recruit. The white creature looked around for a moment, bewildered, before the five Pokémon vanished from the room with a blip of light.


In the blink of an eye, Nida and her compatriots found themselves in a cleared and leveled dirt field in between the sea and the Guild Hall's structures. The blue sky was visible again, the air was crisp and fresh... The Kirlia was huffing and catching her breath… if only for a moment.

"Omigosh! You guys found our island's protector? And recruited it?"

Pataki quickly recovered from the exhaustion of teleporting the group and was soon busy babbling in a giddy tone and inspecting every feature of the young white bird's plumage.

"You have no idea how exciting this moment is for me! Just being able to stand here face to face with a god!" the Kirlia beamed.

"I think we have a good enough idea, Pataki," Nida replied under her breath as the Protector looked around at this strange new place this white and green stranger had brought the group to.

"What room is this? What's 'recruiting'? And why is the wall-speaking thingy looking at me like-?"

"Hey, Pataki! Get off the field with those rookies already!" a voice called out in a scolding tone from a shaded hut on the edge of the earthen space.

Nida and the others saw the forms of a Natu and a Kadabra approaching them, their eyes betraying some aggravation at the party's dawdling on a space that needed to be keep free of obstacles for abruptly appearing Pokémon.

The Kadabra began to chastise his counterpart on the earthen patch. "It's like you're trying to cause a teleportation acci- Eh?!" his voice giving way to stunned surprise upon catching sight of the stranger in the group's midst.

"The white and blue feathers, the eyes, the wings shaped like the Great One's hands," the Kadabra recounted while piecing the bits and pieces of the white creature's appearance together "That's-"

"Lugia, the Guardian of the Seas!" the Natu interjected. The two's faces were filled with awe, and they couldn't think of a better way to react to their visitor than to prostrate themselves before the Lugia, much to its puzzlement.

"Um… Why are they scrunched up like that? Are they also 'poisonous'?"

"Why, they're showing reverence to you!" Kiran chirped heartily, which was unfortunately not as complete of an explanation as the young 'Guardian of the Seas' needed.

"'Reverence'? Is that a kind of playing?"

"Uh… Sorta?" Crom said with a sheepish look.

"Oh! I wanna try-!" the Lugia said before beating his wings out for a bow.

"Oi, you two! Enough pointing your bums in the air, we've got the rest of the guild to inform!" the Kirlia barked at her two compatriots, who began to trade flustered looks.

"Oh! H-Heh, of course!" the Natu agreed a bit over-quickly.

"Sorry for the lack of propriety, Master Lugia," the Kadabra apologized, before the three darted off into the Guild Hall's complex, their fading cries about the awakening of 'the Protector' and 'Lugia's arrival' carrying with the winds.

"Aw. They left before I could 'reverence' too," the young Legendary said halfway into a bow, its words betraying some disappointment, "Now what'll I play with?"

"It's an entire island! Why there's the town, the fields, the beaches… Why there's one just down that path over there!" Crom said, gesturing to a worn, rocky path fenced in by some string and wooden posts.

"Ooh," the Lugia said to itself, "I wanna see this 'bea-'" only for its progress to be interrupted by the sound of the the voice of a returning Kirlia.

"You guys aren't going to believe it," Pataki declared, pride swelling in her voice, to a number of accompanying Pokémon coming into view through the brush on the other end of the teleport field.

"Kiran and his little tykes found Lugia!"

"What? Kiran?" a Hoothoot asked.

"The captain who's always working with trainees on Team Traveler?" a Shiftry who had been interrupted from preparing to search for an 'ahp-gredh' questioned.

"They can't even find orbs half the time in the dungeon," a Rhyhorn that had an unfortunate habit of running into smaller Pokémon huffed out of skepticism. "And you mean to tell us that they somehow stumbled across-?"

The gray creature found himself coming face-to-face with the Protector, and verily enough, the members of one 'Team Traveler' standing alongside the creature.

"I stand corrected," the Rhyhorn murmured, slack-jawed.

At once, awed mumbles began to travel about the gathering. After the initial 'Wow's and 'Whoa's quieted and the novelty of the matter tapered off a little, a few Pokémon in the crowd began to get a little ahead of themselves. Voices here and there gleefully volunteered possible implications of their newest recruit's presence for Tromba and Bluewhorl Town.

"Oh wow, I can't wait to see the looks on the faces of the next pirates to try and come around here!" a Persian smirked, taking a moment to entertain a few fantasies.

"Pirates? You're thinking too small! Why, I'd like to see the Company try and push us around now that the Protector's awake!" an Azumarill from the docks declared in a triumphant tone.

Others wished to know more about the newfound Protector.

"What's being a sea god like anyways, your Lordliness?" a bright-eyed and curious Shellos inquired.

"Um… I'm me, I guess?" the Lugia replied, perplexed as to what the creature was asking about.

An Ampharos who was advanced in years drew near to size up the white stranger. "Where on earth did you find him? Or is it a her, Kiran? I can't tell with you birds half the time," the electric sheep asked with a reverent, if strangely uncertain, tone.

"Well, his plumage certainly looks masculine and colorful enough, Guildmaster Hatteras" Kiran answered the sheep in a cheery tone, "So I'd think 'him' is a safe enough bet. As for where we found him, er…"

"We found him like this in a stable zone we found on the fifth floor!" Crom chimed in. His comment drew some confused murmurs from the watching Pokémon and some looks from Nida and Kiran.

"Did… I speak too soon?" the Druddigon asked, taken aback at the direction of the conversation.

"But Lugia's chamber is supposed to lurk somewhere way at the bottom of the dungeon," the Hoothoot piped up.

"Well, the whole encounter was just a little unexpected," Kiran chirped.

"What can I say? It was quite a trip," Nida added, pulling her ears a bit back sheepishly, "The storm must have shaken up the floors from the way they normally are."

"Also, why is the Protector shorter than Guildmaster Hatteras?" the Shiftry piped up, "I mean, no offense to the sea god and all, but Lugia's supposed to be huge! This thing's- I mean I guess getting overshadowed by Crom isn't that uncommon for a Pokémon, but-"

"Ah, who cares about looks?" the Persian interjected "Pint-sized or not, a god's still a god! Come on, give us a show of that power of yours."

Some nervous laughter went around the group, prompting the Persian to hastily qualify her request.

"Heh heh… Pointed safely out to la mar, of course," she said, flattening out her ears with an awkward chuckle.

Once again, Kiran and Crom found themselves placed in the unenviable position of coming between a Pokémon and her expectations.

"Er…"

"Ah…"

"Well, you see, about that 'power'-" Nida began to explain, only for the Lugia to inquire into the Persian's request.

"Wait, what do you want me to do?" he tilted his head.

"Just gust away those little rocks in the waves over there," the Persian explained as she pointed out a cluster of rocks in the surf. "Shouldn't be a biggie, right?"

"Oh, okay!" the Lugia answered, before he turned to the rocks at sea, and spread his wings.

The bird then sent out a weak, swirling gust. A small pebble by the edge of the bluff was knocked free and sailed a small distance before splashing into a tide pool on the ecru-colored beach below.

"Like that?" the Lugia answered with a cheerful, absentminded tone while staring at the place where the pebble had fallen. Completely oblivious to the creeping shock and disbelief spreading over the faces in the audience.

"He's kinda… inconsistent with it," Nida said to the gathering.

"Well hey, it's stronger than what we've seen, Nida! I think he's catching on!" Crom offered. Crom's awkward smile quickly faded as he noticed that the entire gathering was staring stunned and dismayed by the Lugia's display... or more accurately, from his lack of one.

Hatteras cleared his throat and began to try and dispel the worries of the gathered Pokémon, as their attention began to focus on the electric sheep.

"Ahem… I guess it wouldn't be out of the question for even a god to need training," the creature offered, "As strange as it might sound at first. Perhaps all he needs is a bit of time-"

It was then that Hatteras and the rest of the gathering noticed that the Lugia was absent.

"Wait, where'd he go?" Kiran asked, startled at the abrupt disappearance of the sea god.

Nida happened to catch the glance of a stray white feather caught on the string guarding the path. As Nida headed to inspect it, she caught sight of the Lugia hopping down the last few steps of the path to the beach.

The Lugia waddled over to the sand along the shoreline, and as everyone watched, he began to dig into the wet sand and move it a little further up the beach.

"Hey guys! Where's the god that will deliver us from the pirate raids?!" a Chinchou called while flopping in with her fins. The little fish awkwardly continued up to the ledge expectantly, only to see the 'god' in question busy sculpting a sand mound.

"... Why is the Sea Prince building a misshapen sand castle?"

"Hey, the wet sand here feels different from the sand back in the cave! Come and try it!" the Lugia called up to the gathering.

There was a sinking feeling in many a Pokémon's stomach at the gathering as Tromba's guardian cheerfully returned to focusing on his sand heap, which Scout the Sentret couldn't help but voice in his usual sardonic way.

"We're doomed."

Chapter Text

A short time after Tromba's Protector had thoroughly underwhelmed the proud teams of Bluewhorl Town's Rescue Team guild, Team Traveler found itself on the ground floor of a wooden hut shaped like an Ampharos' head.

Inside, they sat on a mat along with a few carefully selected snacks in front of the hut's proprietor, who was calmly seated on an overlooking stump lit by sunlight coming in through open windows. As his audience waited expectantly, Hatteras passed the time adjusting a red scarf with white dots on it.

"Is there something to play with here too?" the young Lugia asked, fidgeting a bit at how somber and quiet the room was compared to the beach the others lured him off of.

"In a moment, Protector," the Ampharos answered. "Your arrival… Has some rather profound implications for our town, and this is a matter that must be presented to the mayor at once!" he proclaimed, waving about one of his arms in the air before his nonplussed audience.

"The… Mayor?" Crom asked, shifting his young Druddigon eyes a little uneasily.

"Guildmaster Hatteras," Kiran interjected "Is this really-?"

"Now, now, Kiran. Ceremony is important!" the Ampharos insisted as he carefully undid the red scarf about his neck. The electric sheep set aside the scarf, and then traded it for a teal one hung on the wall behind with simple, thin, black runes in the local script.

"And that will be 'Mayor Hatteras' for the time being," he corrected while loosely tying his new article around his throat, cheerily ignoring the blank, exasperated looks and sweat droplets forming on the Pokémon in his audience… With one standout exception.

"What's a 'mayor'?" the young Lugia asked while tilting his head, still trying to piece together just what the importance of the scarf trade was.

"A mayor is the leader of a town, much like an Ampharos like me might be the leader of a flock. It's a bit of a different role than a 'Guildmaster', and as such the trappings also change accordingly," Hatteras answered, giving his new scarf a firm tug at the front to tighten its knot.

"Yeah, he does things like helping to plan out festivals," Crom added, "And negotiating with the Company over who gets to be a guard and how much they're allowed to take from us each-"

"Anyhow," Hatteras interrupted, one nubby paw raised into the air, "Let us take a moment to recount the facts of the matter… starting from the beginning!"

"Uhm… Well…" Nida began, flattening her ears as she found herself at a loss of just where to start summarizing this debacle. "There's a sea god in the same room as us right now?"

"We found him in the dungeon!" Crom interrupted, "And Kiran, Nida, and I only had to go through 5 floors to find him!"

"In a stable spot within it," Kiran corrected, "We passed through the fog on our way into the Protector's chamber. As for why it was so far up in the-"

"Yes, yes, the distortion shifting the chamber so close to the top is a surprise to all of us. But we should perhaps move on to the other facts about our Protector we know right now," Hatteras said.

"Er… Well, he's still un pollito…" Kiran replied in between casual pecks at some seeds spread out before him.

"And he comes up to my snout when he stands!" Crom dutifully added.

"And he seems to be a little inexperienced," Nida added as she turned to see the Lugia staring down puzzledly at a pile of seeds, before looking up from it.

"Do you play special games with these pebbles?" the Lugia asked.

"Uh… That's food, pollito. You're supposed to eat it," Kiran explained before pecking at the pile before him again to demonstrate. Which prompted the Lugia to try to follow the Swellow's lead and mimic his actions.

"Mmm! These pebbles taste much better than normal pebbles!" he declared.

"Okay, he seems to be very inexperienced," the Nidoran sighed.

"Then perhaps it is appropriate to consider what the best way to remedy that would be..." the Ampharos mulled while rubbing his chin deep in thought. "Maybe it would make most sense to have Hariti watch over him at the Day Care for a while? Watching over young Pokémon is her forte."

"Eh?! But Kiran recruited him!" Crom objected.

"Guildmaster-" the Swellow interrupted.

"Mayor," the Ampharos quickly corrected.

"Mayor Hatteras, I did indeed recruit the pollito in a proper manner and all," Kiran continued, his tone beginning to grow a little nervous at the thought of Team Traveler losing its newest recruit so swiftly.

"Perhaps. But given the… Ahem, present condition of our Protector, it does not seem quite right to be throwing him into the thick of dungeon crawling right now." At the Ampharos' reply, the trio's faces sank.

The Ampharos did have a point. Just because the Lugia with them came from the Mystery Dungeon didn't mean that he was remotely prepared to go back into that maze. Perhaps Kiran had been a little too hasty in claiming the creature as his newest recruit after all.

"What's a 'Hariti'?" the little Protector asked.

"She's the Froslass who runs the Day Care, who unfortunately doesn't watch Nidoran in the evening anymore," Nida replied, muttering the second part of her statement under her breath.

"'Froslass'? And will I still get to play with you?" the Lugia asked, starting to grow a little concerned about where the conversation was going.

"Er… Well… We're all a little too old for Hariti… And we kinda have our work here at the guild," Kiran reluctantly answered.

"And I have to help mom and Cenn at the bakery," Crom added uneasily.

"And I have babysitting every fourth turn at home," Nida grumbled.

"I mean, it's not that we wouldn't have time, but-" the Swellow tried to explain before the Lugia cut him off.

"But the Nidoran said that you'd play with me!" he chirped, flailing his wings in protest. Team Traveler's members traded dismayed looks with each other as they attempted to puzzle out how they were going to untangle this situation... Then, Hatteras' voice cut in.

"Well now, it seems that the Protector's taken a bit of a liking to your team, Kiran," he chuckled.

"Ahehe, well… You know how pollitos work, it's in their nature to latch onto friends and family," Kiran replied, sheepishly batting out a wing as Hatteras tried to think of a solution to the present conundrum.

"Hmm... Perhaps you all could lend Hariti some help for the time being? Your team is, after all, meant for teaching little lambs to stand on their own, isn't it Kiran?"

The suggestion immediately drew some vexed groans from the less Legendary members of Hatteras' audience.

"Babysitting during the day too?" Nida shuddered, not particularly looking forward to dealing with more rambunctious children along with her siblings.

"Er… With all due respect, Guildmaster-"

"Mayor," Hatteras once again admonished, pointing at the script on his scarf.

"Mayor Hatteras," Kiran corrected, rolling his eyes a bit at the absurdity of the whole routine, "But my team's mission statement is to fledge new Rescue Team members, and not babysitters."

"And he's our Protector!" Crom protested, "How's a Pokémon supposed to learn to protect anything if he's being babysat at Hariti's all day?"

The Druddigon snorted a bit, "Why, what's a team if its members can't work together and get their names known helping other Pokémon?"

"'Names'?" the young Protector asked, not fully sure what the ruddy lizard was saying.

"A name is… well, it's like a word that is attached to you," Nida explained. "Like I'm a Nidoran, but my name is 'Nida'. Crom is a Druddigon, but his name is- Oh, you get the idea," she said, flattening out her ears.

"Do I have one?" the white creature asked after a pause, tilting his head quizzically.

"Um… I mean, we call you 'Lugia'," Hatteras answered from his stump, "But... Well, you technically don't-"

"I want a name!" the Lugia cheerfully exclaimed, beating his wings out excitedly at the prospect of getting one of these strange things called a 'name'. The entire display took the poor Ampharos aback a bit as he voiced his hesitations.

"Is it really proper to give a common name to a god?"

"But I want one!" the Lugia chirped insistently, not fully understanding why the yellow and black creature on the stump seemed so opposed to him having one of these 'names' that Nida and Crom had.

"I don't think it could hurt, Guild- Er… Mayor Hatteras. And it might make him seem a little more approachable to the locals," Kiran replied.

The Swellow seemed to have a point, but naming the white bird in the hut was a matter that the Ampharos couldn't help but find himself at a loss of how to even begin.

"But what would we call him?"

"Oh! Oh! Give him a name that means something!" Crom insisted "Like mine! Mom says that it's the name of a tough dragon from the old world!"

"Uh... I'm pretty sure that Mami and Papi just rearranged sounds to make my name," Nida sighed, "But definitely something that isn't too much of a mouthful."

"Hmm… Well, he is un pollito, maybe we could use use that for his name? It's certainly appropriate..." Kiran offered, beaming expectantly.

"Puh- Puh-yee... Puh-leo…" the Lugia muttered to himself trying to mimic the Swellow, before asking in a satisfied tone, "Pleo?"

"No, no. Pollito," Kiran corrected, "It means-"

"Pleo! I like Pleo!" the Lugia said, growing delighted with his imperfect mimicry of Kiran's suggestion.

"Heh, I'll admit, it seemed odd to me, but it looks like our Protector has made up his mind. And the name does have a bit of a ring to it, Kiran," Hatteras chuckled.

"Yay! My name's Pleo! My name's Pleo!" the newly-christened Protector chirped in triumph, as he prattled on to himself with different inflections of his new name.

"I suppose it could be worse," Kiran sighed as his younger charges couldn't help but giggle a bit at their teammate's fascination with his new moniker.

"Also, on the topic of unconventional approaches… There might be another way we could train up our Pro- Er… 'Pleo' here that might be a bit more appropriate for your team," the Ampharos said to the audience as he visibly pondered some particulars as he spoke.

"Oh?" Crom asked.

"Think about it," the Ampharos mused, "You need a place for Pleo here to learn how to channel his power, but you need it to be done in a controlled manner..."

"And what better place for that here in Bluewhorl Town than in Mosca's Dojo?" Kiran finished, as he began to piece together where Hatteras was going with his comment. "Now that you mention it, I'm sure the Hawlucha would be aflutter at the chance to train the fabled Protector of Tromba."

"A 'Dojo'?" Pleo asked, unsure of just what this funny-sounding word was supposed to mean.

"It's a place where you can train and get tougher without having to fight ferals," Nida answered.

"Yeah, we go there all the time in between missions!" Crom added in a cheerful tone.

"Great! You all will start reporting there first thing in the morning!" the mayor happily decreed.

"T-Tomorrow?" Crom stammered, "B-But we were just one apple away from finishing up our current mission!"

Nida began to feel a sinking sensation rise in her stomach. The Druddigon was right, they were indeed one apple shy of finishing their mission before she fell down the Pitfall Trap. Going to the Dojo first thing in the morning would mean pushing the mission off for later, potentially much later. Nida's mind then realized that this whole matter, as awful-feeling as it was, was unavoidable due to something that happened back in the dungeon...

"Crom… We wouldn't be able to go back anyways. My badge's broken."

"I appreciate you taking your training mission seriously, Crom. But… Seriously. Sea god among us. Priorities," the Ampharos replied while undoing his scarf. After he hung the teal scarf on the wall, Hatteras took back his earlier red scarf and dutifully donned it... Before nonchalantly pushing an apple by his feet forward.

"Now that I'm 'Guildmaster Hatteras' again, I can safely say that I'll count this apple here as your team's sixth. And... might I see that badge for a moment?" he prodded Nida.

The Nidoran undid her mud-encrusted badge with her forepaws and gave it over to Hatteras, who carefully took it up and began to inspect the sorry little brooch in the light filtering in from the windows.

"Hm… Yes," the Ampharos mulled, while Nida uneasily watched his inspection.

"Is it bad, Guildmaster?" she asked.

"Hmm? Oh, hardly."

The Ampharos dipped the badge into a small bowl of water and rubbed a coarse shred of cloth over it, slowly melting away the coated dirt and grime. After a short while, he then set it down on his stump and gave it a firm press with one of his not-terribly dextrous paws.

"What now?" Pataki's voice filled the minds of the Pokémon in the room.

"Why, it just needed a good cleaning. The Psychics can't sense you if there's a layer of gunk that thick covering your badge, after all," the Ampharos cheerily explained.

"Guildmaster, if there's not a problem, could you not message us? I was in the middle of-!"

Hatteras cut off the telepath's message by releasing his grip on the badge. "Good as new, just make sure to keep it cleaner," he declared as he handed the badge back to a most sheepish-looking Nidoran. As he watched, Crom couldn't help but realize...

"Couldn't you have just washed that off back in the dungeon, Ni-?"

"Crom, stop talking," Nida growled, flattening her ears.

"But I was just-"

"Stop. Talking," the Nidoran demanded in an adamant tone as she reaffixed the now-glinting badge to her navy blue scarf. The shine from the badge had caught Pleo's attention and he found himself drawing his head near to keenly eye a faint reflection of himself on one of the misshapen brooch's surfaces.

"Do I get one, too?"

"But of course, a badge is necessary for every member of the guild. I'll have Kiran pick up one along with some other things for you as a team member before your session at the Dojo tomorrow," Hatteras replied, "For now, just take the evening off and-"

The Guildmaster's words were abruptly cut off by a harsh rapping against the door of the hut, and the sound of a frightened voice coming from the other side.

"Hatteras!"

The sound of a commotion and of markedly more hostile voices reverberated outside the door. "Oi! You! What do you think you're doing?!" a hostile voice demanded of the frightened-sounding one.

The eyes of everyone in the room turned to the door, where a white and green, chitinous blade slipped through the crack opposite the door's hinge and forced it open. Its owner burst in, a Scyther- bearing a dark round blotch on his head, with five ends trailing upward not unlike the tails of a comet.

"Hatteras, you must rid this island of that monster before we are all doomed!"

"H-Huh?!" Pleo cried out, startled by the commotion and the sudden intruder.

"What's the meaning of this?!" Hatteras demanded. As the intruder's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he noticed that much to his horror, one of the members of Hatteras' audience was the white and blue 'monster' he dreaded.

"ACK! It's- It's here?!" the creature flinched, and turned to flee before he was grabbed by a leering Machoke and a Mightyena with some blackened spectacles from the ranks of the guild.

"Apologies for the distraction, Ander here was just leaving," the silver and black-furred Pokémon huffed.

"Yeah, not like you would care about gods anyways!" the muscled reptile growled at the Scyther.

"Enough! Unhand him!" Hatteras bleated angrily and rose to his feet, sparks beginning to form along his hide. "This is my town, and everyone in it can speak!"

The two Pokémon, surprised at their Guildmaster's (or was it Mayor's?) outburst, hastily complied and backed away a little from the Ampharos' direction. The Scyther, realizing that he blundered into an audience, inhaled deeply and, although visibly quailing, attempted to brave the presence of the sea god in the room.

"Hatteras, you- You need to get rid of that thing!" he cried, gesturing at Pleo with a trembling scythe.

"Get rid of him?!" Kiran exclaimed.

"H-Huh?! But that's our Protector!" Crom protested.

The outburst sent a shiver down Pleo's back, and led him to retreat behind his teammates to put some distance between himself and the large, loud, creature with blades affixed to its body who was clearly displeased with his presence.

"Wh-what is-?"

"That's Ander," Nida whispered to Pleo, "He's one of the Marked."

"What are they?"

"They're other Pokémon… They… Don't really like Pokémon like you, at all."

"So what, you're gonna kill this god too?" the Machoke spat at the Scyther.

"Yeah, a fine way to repay the town that lets you live here! With an apocalypse!" the Mightyena snarled.

"Quiet!" the Ampharos demanded, stamping his foot against the ground irately. After the two quickly hushed up, the Scyther sensed that the floor was his again, and Ander continued with his entreaty.

"Hatteras, please! Send that thing away from here!" the Scyther begged, his eyes widened with fear.

"Just where am I supposed to send him to, Ander?"

"It doesn't matter where it goes! Just get it out of here before it brings ruin on us all!"

Pleo began to retreat into a corner behind his teammates, curling himself progressively into a ball as he grew more and more unnerved by the large bug flailing its scythes about and loudly shouting things the Lugia didn't really understand. Nida and her teammates found themselves stunned into silence as they watched the exchange between Hatteras and Ander unfold.

"Ander... The Pokémon on this island have been waiting generations for this day," the Ampharos answered in a calm, but firm tone.

"And Pokémon like me have been dreading this day for all those generations! You don't understand what you're doing! That thing- That demon is evil and it will destroy everything you know and love if you let it stay here!"

"Hatteras, this is really getting out of hand," Kiran whispered, pointing at an increasingly bewildered and frightened Lugia balling up in his corner behind Crom and Nida. Hatteras, seeing that the meeting was now rather thoroughly derailed, turned back to Ander in a bid to try and get him out the door peacefully.

"Ander, I'm not saying that I agree with you, but even if you're right… What good do you expect sending the Protector away will do?"

"It will keep us alive!"

"Ander, get a hold of yourself!" Hatteras snapped, stunning the bladed bug into silence.

"Stop and think about it! 'Anywhere' isn't a serious option for places to put a sea god!"

Indeed, it truly was not, given that the world that the two Pokémon was really effectively split in two. On the one hand, there was the Cradle, the inland sea and the skies above it that held Tromba and the other islands in the world that were habitable. On the other, there were the Wastes beyond, which... Well, they certainly weren't anything that the Cradle was.

"You and I both know he can't be sent into the Wastes... Just think of what could happen if this Protector shuffled off the mortal coil out there!

Can't you see that only leaves places in the Cradle?" the Ampharos asked in exasperation, "Don't you think he'd be able to come back from such a place later?"

The Scyther stammered and tapped his blades together as he visibly fumbled in his mind for an answer. Was there really anywhere in the Cradle to put this 'demon' away? Maybe… Just maybe... There the solution wasn't 'anywhere', but 'anyone'.

"L-let the Company take it away from here! Let them be the ones to bring doom upon themselves while penning the demon up!" Ander blurted out.

Immediately, loud protests went about the room. It was a suggestion that was just too much for anyone else in the room to bear.

Pleo? Off Tromba, the island he was supposed to protect? In the claws of Company lackeys without someone like Hatteras to keep them in check? At the mercy of the force that tried its hardest to suck the island dry after every harvest that would probably 'pen' Pleo up by leaving him to shiver cold and alone in the bowels of some dreary sea fort?

"Wh-What?!" Crom exclaimed.

"You can't let the Company take him away!" Nida cried.

"Hatteras already has his hands full keeping them from sending their off-island creeps here! How can we just hand him over to them?!" Kiran squawked, surprised and frankly horrified that the Scyther could even contemplate such a thing.

"That's enough, Ander!" Hatteras cried out, his body sparking and his patience having finally worn out. The Scyther flinched and braced himself as the Ampharos got up from his seat, which prompted the two Pokémon at the door to trade some snide comments about how Ander was surely in for it now.

Their comments abruptly shut up after Hatteras gave a withering glare at the two spectators before he directed his attention back at the Scyther, taking a moment to breathe in and calm himself before he spoke with Ander again.

"Look. This is a big change, Ander and you're obviously… apprehensive about it," the Ampharos sighed while maintaining a firm and hardened countenance. "But running your mouth off like that isn't going to make anything better. Please… for your sake and mine, just go home, spend a night with your family and calm down. I have other things to tend to, and I'm sure you do, too."

"B-But-!" Ander weakly buzzed, before the Machoke grasped one of the bug's arms above his scythe.

"Alright bub, let's go," the Pokémon demanded.

"Huh-?!"

"You heard the Pokémon, he's busy. If you're going to be like this, go back home and wait with your mate and that brat you allowed your curse to pass onto to die from this 'imminent doom'," the other added as the two lead the stammering Scyther out of hut and slammed the door behind them on a room that remained dead silent for what seemed an eternity.

"Is… Is he gone?" a wavering voice asked from the corner of the room.

"Yeah, he's gone," Nida replied, which prompted Pleo to uneasily poke his head up from the rough ball his body formed.

"I understand that that could have gone… Significantly better than it did, but please don't let it get to you, Protector," Hatteras sighed while rubbing his forehead, wondering whether he perhaps could have handled the whole debacle more gracefully. "Pokémon like Ander mean well, it's just… They've become scared of things that normal Pokémon shouldn't be."

"Yeah! We don't think you're gonna bring doom to us!" Crom piped up.

"It truly is an honor just to be around you-" Kiran said, as the sound of the hut's door being thrown open could be heard.

"Oh no," Nida groaned, facing away from the door. Much to her dismayed surprise, it was not Ander's voice that called out from the door, but that of a male Nidoran.

"Oi! Nida!"

"Oh no," Nida groaned louder, screwing her eyes shut in frustration before turning to see one of her older brothers standing in the doorway.

"Mami needs you to watch over the little twerps tonight," the purple Nidoran barked.

"What?! But it's Ani's turn tonight!" Nida objected in an exasperated tone.

"Not anymore, it's not. She's sick in bed right now," her brother responded before hopping off, leaving Nida to flatten her ears and turn to headbutt a wall.

"Ugh… en serio?" she groaned after her forehead came to a rest against the wall of Hatteras' abode.

"Hey! Hey! Careful with the walls! It needs to serve as a guild and a mayoral office!" the Ampharos exclaimed.

"What's wrong?" Pleo asked, his earlier apprehensions melting away as he waddled out from his corner and tried to puzzle together what the purple spike ball had done to deflate Nida's mood so much.

"It's just… I'm going to have a long night tonight," Nida sighed while turning back to face her white-feathered teammate.

"Can I come, too?" Pleo asked curiously, which immediately took the Nidoran aback.

"E-Eh?"

"I don't see any harm from it, Nida," Kiran offered.

"Yeah! Maybe he'd be able to help out!" Crom chimed in.

"It would solve the problem of where he'd stay for the night," Hatteras added.

"I… I mean, I suppose it's at least worth a try."


As the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon, Nida arrived back at her family's burrow on the thinly-wooded hillside overlooking Bluewhorl Town.

"Well, this is it," she said, coming to a rest on the reed mat in front of the burrow. Pleo gawked around, looking at the dark hole in the ground, at the mailbox on the wooden post, and then back at the hole in the ground.

"Oh, so that's what a home is?" he asked.

"Well, it's what mine is," Nida sighed. Between her siblings and this Protector who seemed to need everything explained to him, she could tell that this was going to be a most interesting night to say the least. Pleo looked around, expecting something, but not fully certain what, before he questioned Nida about why she came to this place anyways.

"So what is 'babysitting'-?"

"Sissy!"

Almost immediately, Pleo's question was answered by six shouting little Nidoran who spilled out from the burrow and surrounded Nida.

"Play with us, si-!" a blue spike lump demanded, before her and her siblings' eyes caught sight of the tall, white, stranger that Nida had brought home. "Huh?"

The attention of the little Nidoran immediately shifted to the stranger, and they began to hop over and press up against Pleo.

"Who's the big birdie?" a purple lump asked.

"I wanna ride it!" another declared.

"No, me first!" a blue Nidoran protested.

"I'm the biggest, I should go first!" one of the purple balls huffed. All the while, Pleo began to grow increasingly bewildered and intimidated by these fast-moving- and rather pushy- little things that Nida called her 'siblings'.

"Ah! Nida! They're-! OW!"

Pleo recoiled, hopping back and wrenching his right wing away from a Nidoran that brushed up against him. He looked down, and saw a small spine stuck in between some feathers, still dripping purple fluid.

"Oh nice going, Dino, you poisoned the birdie before any of us could ride!" a blue Nidoran huffed, hopping up and down

"I poisoned the birdie? That's your spike!" a purple sibling retorted.

"Is not!"

"Is so!"

As the two Nidoran bickered, Nida couldn't help but bury her face in her paws. Two minutes at home, and her siblings had already done their best to keep their home's latest guest from ever returning. Meanwhile, Pleo began to feel a chill course through his body. His limbs began to ache and feel stiff, and his stomach began to feel increasingly uncooperative.

"Urgh… Nida, I don't feel so-"

"Here," a voice interrupted, prompting all eyes to turn to see a Dustox clutching a pink, heart-shaped fruit.

"It's a Pecha Berry, eat it," the Pokémon said while offering the fruit to Pleo, "It'll dispel the poison."

As Pleo bit into the fruit, and took it for himself, Nida couldn't help but shake out her pelt, a bit flustered.

"Um… Artemis? I mean- I'm thankful, but I already had a-"

"Don't mind me!" another voice called out, revealing its owner to be a Pidove. "Lemme see what I can do about that barb stuck in you."

The Pidove quickly began tending to Pleo's wing, which couldn't help but make Pleo shrink back uneasily from the stranger's abrupt examination.

"Um… Nida? What are all of these?"

"They're our neighbors!" one of the younger Nidoran replied.

"They… Live next to us?" Nida sheepishly explained.

"I heard that someone needed a Pecha Berry?" a Lombre asked, also bearing a pink fruit.

"No, take mine," interjected a Goomy that abruptly came from the left. "It's fresher!"

"Mine's from mom's own field!" a young Poochyena that came from the bushes behind the burrow insisted. One after the other, more and more Pokémon came to the scene, each offering some small service or another to the Protector in their midst.

As Pleo put two and two together and began to realize that as pushy as the strangers were being, their pink fruits were surprisingly tasty, his initial misgivings about them began to melt away. Nida, on the other hand, couldn't help but grow increasingly flustered.

"H-Hold on a minute here! I'm supposed to be babysitting my siblings, not half the neighborhood!"

"We can help!" one of the neighbors offered.

"I'm not watching all of you-! Wait… Help?"

Nida paused for a moment, looked at her siblings, at Pleo, then at the crowd of her neighbors looking expectantly... and then back at her siblings, before she came to her own conclusion of what to do with the offer.

"Uh… Hehe, I guess some help couldn't hurt."


After the sun went down and the moon and the stars rose into the sky, life around Bluewhorl began to wind down. As the deep blues of late sunset transitioned into the black of night and the shops shut one-by-one, the guild's teams returned from their missions and traded their worries about their tasks for worries about dinner and preparing for their next outings. Further from town, the Pokémon that tended the fields along the fringes began to leave for their homes.

Among the Pokémon that returned from the fields along the fringes of the settlement were a certain Nidorina and Nidorino that Nida called 'Mami' and 'Papi', who made small talk with each other as they worked their way down a path going through a thinly wooded hillside above the town.

"The berries are coming along nicely this season, don't you think, Marley?" the Nidorino asked his mate.

"They'd better with all the time we've been putting into them, Teja!" the Nidorina huffed in response, in a tone that evinced some degree of frustration with a fickle crop.

"Cálmate, they'll be fine, they're being watched by keen eyes tonight. Just like our kits-" the Nidorino said before he was interrupted by the sounds of a raucous celebration… Coming from the direction of his burrow.

As the two drew closer to the burrow, they found that their home was ringed by most of the neighbors, cheerfully talking with each other, trading food and drink. The kits were up and awake kicking a pebble around among themselves- Wait a minute, the kits were up and awake?

"Did you send out an invitation to the neighbors for tonight that I didn't know about?" Teja asked.

"No, I didn't," Marley answered, her expression hardening into a leer as she tromped up to the middle of the assembly.

"Okay, what is going on here?!" she demanded.

"Uh oh," a neighbor Lombre mumbled. The other neighbors and some of Marley's children pieced together that they perhaps overstepped a bit from the tone the Nidorina was taking with them, and the festive atmosphere came to an abrupt halt.

"Er… There's a perfectly logical expl-" Nida said from the welcome mat, before a young purple Nidoran excitedly cut her off.

"Mami, Mami, Nida is the best babysitter ever!" he declared, bouncing up and down.

"Nida, why are all of the neighbors in front of our burrow? And why are the kits still awake? The Mountain Roar's Traveler has already come out from behind the moon!" the Nidorina fumed, giving a withering leer to a larger blue Nidoran who was all but digging a fresh hole in the ground to hide from her mother's gaze.

"Marley, your kid brought the Protector home with her today!" the Dustox that was apparently named 'Artemis' interjected, trying to get the Nidorina to cut poor Nida some slack.

"Hrmph! A likely sto-!" Marley fumed, before an unfamiliar voice piped up.

"Hi!"

"-ry," she trailed off, before turning to find that, much to her astonishment, Nida truly had brought the Protector home with her.

"My name is Pleo!" the Lugia cheerily replied.

"Oh, so this is the invitation that you sent out," Teja chuckled to his now slack-jawed mate after taking a few moments to blink and prick himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming things.

"We figured that given the occasion, Nida could use a little help," a Pidove offered, as Marley hastily recomposed herself to try and regain control of this unexpected situation.

"That's- Aherm- That's fine and all, but my kits still need to be getting to bed! Right now," she said, shooting a stern leer towards six small spike balls that were quick to protest.

"Aww."

"But Mami-"

"No buts, it's well past bedtime," Teja interrupted, before Marley chimed in with a much blunter tone of voice.

"Bed. Now."

The younger kits realized this was not a battle they were going to win, folded their ears back, and marched down the burrow's entrance, followed closely by their mother.

"Whelp, party's over," a Pidove said.

"Yeah, see you tomorrow," a Goomy added.

"Let us know if 'Pleo' there needs anything," a Poochyena's voice called out in passing.

One after the other, the neighbors left for their own homes on the hillside, bidding their farewells to Nida and Pleo as the young Lugia mimicked a few of the parting calls the neighbors made.

Eventually, all that was left of the gathering was a young Lugia, a blue Nidoran with ears folded back, and a Nidorino staring down at his child.

"Papi, this really wasn't what I meant to-!" Nida protested, only for her father to interrupt her words.

"It's fine, mija. Given the circumstances, I think that we can overlook one night of shaky babysitting. Besides, you'll have someone of your own to put to bed tonight," the Nidorino responded.

"I… Do?" Nida asked, before a Lugia's voice piped up.

"Nida, what's a 'bed'?"

"You weren't going to make him sleep outside on the mat, were you?" the Nidorino laughed, as he gestured at the white bird with his horn.

"Uh, well, I guess not," Nida sheepishly responded, before she turned to her new companion.

"Come on, Pleo, we should be going to bed too. Especially with training at the Dojo tomorrow."

"But what's a 'bed'?"

"It's a place to lie down and sleep. Come on, I'll show you," she replied, gesturing at the entrance to the burrow.

"Uh… Nida? How do I get in?"

"You might need to crouch a little, pollito," the Nidorino explained "Try to walk low to the ground like me."

The Nidorino demonstrated by lowering his body, and folding his ears and spikes close to his body in order to make it through the tight contours of the burrow's entrance tunnels.

"Oh, so that's a crouch," Pleo mused, one more mystery from this strange world having been explained to him.

"Follow me," Nida said, as she began to make her way down the burrow. Pleo paused for a moment as he shifted his body low to the ground to get a hang of this 'crouching' thing. After a slight delay, he followed after the Nidoran, occasionally brushing the sides and the walls of the tunnel.

The Nidoran lead the young Protector down the tunnel and around a bend, into a small chamber with a straw nest, a rude table, and a pair of stumps that served as stools that were shoved into a corner. The room was illuminated by a small, semi-opaque jar on the table that faintly glowed blue from some manner of bioluminescent material inside. A thick piece of cloth rested next to the jar, apparently meant to cover it as needed.

"Whelp, this is it. Mi casa es tu casa. Or at least for tonight," Nida sighed as she hopped into the room, glad that her elder siblings now slept under other earthen roofs now… or at least when Mamididn't have one of them babysit in Nida's stead. Pleo followed the Nidoran into the room and entered the straw nest. After some circling and fidgeting, he eventually found that if he folded in his wings and curled in his tail, the nest was a surprising, if rather tight fit.

"How come you use those weird words sometimes?" Pleo asked.

"Weird words?" Nida tilted her head, raising an ear.

"Like that 'casa' thingy that you were just mentioning," the white bird chirped.

"Hmm? I was saying that 'my house is your house'."

"But then why didn't you just say that?"

"That's just the way that Pokemon on this island spoke back when it was part of the old world. Before they started meeting the Pokemon in the Cradle and began to form the way we're speaking now," Nida replied. "I learned it from Mami, Mami learned it from her Mami… and, well- You get the idea."

Pleo tilted his head curiously at the Nidoran. He supposed that her explanation made sense, but...

"Then why does it sound funny to me?"

"Well, I heard that Pokemon are supposed to learn their first words based off of the voices they hear from inside their egg close to hatching," she murmured. "And you were in yours a long, long time. Why, if the voices you heard were speaking like we are now, and you heard enough of them..."

Nida's prattling stalled as she noticed that Pleo grew increasingly distracted with tucking his head behind his back to preen some of his feathers.

"Eh, I guess explain more later. You seem to be getting a little bored," Nida sighed.

"Hm? Okay," the Lugia chirped as he turned his attention back to the Nidoran. "So… What do we do now?"

"You just lie here, and fall asleep," Nida explained, as the sounds of her siblings protesting with their mother faintly wormed their way into the room.

"Mami, Mami, don't forget to tell us a bedtime story!" one of them demanded, which caused Pleo to perk up at the noise.

"'Bedtime story'?"

"Uh, well… It's something that's normally told by parents as their kits go to sleep," Nida explained.

"Can I have one?"

"Pleo, I'm not exactly your-"

"Bedtime story! Bedtime story!" Pleo insisted.

"Alright! Alright! Keep it down, Mami's trying to put my siblings to sleep!" Nida whispered in an irked tone, not particularly caring to put up with an earful from her mother on this night. Pleo, happy with his victory, quietly sank down into the nest as he waited expectantly for whatever this nighttime ritual might entail.

"So what is this 'bedtime story'?"

"How about… The story of the 'Prince of a Thousand Enemies'?" Nida offered.

"'Prince of a Thousand Enemies?'"

"It's about a Pokémon with many, many other Pokémon that didn't like him."

"But why wouldn't they like him?" Pleo asked, as he thought back to his earlier encounter with Ander that day. Did that mean that this 'Prince of a Thousand Enemies' also had a lot of Pokémon that yelled and made a lot of noise when they were around him?

"Er… Well," Nida cleared her throat as she began her tale, "A long, long time ago. Back in the time of the old gods, before the first Nidoran went to live among the humans, there was a young Prince Nidorino who ruled over all the world's Nidoran."

"So… Over all the Nidoran here?"

"Our town didn't exist then, but that's missing the point," she explained, "Now this prince was strong in body and in will, and he had many children, so many that they were like the stars in the sky. And under his guidance, his children were bold, taking and eating as they pleased from the world's plants."

"Plants?"

"Like those berries and seeds you ate earlier. Anyhow, the children ate so much that they left other Pokémon without enough food for themselves, and after they complained to the old gods, they went to the Prince and sternly warned him to control his children."

"'Control'?"

"Like putting them to bed on time," Nida sighed, wondering just how long it would take before Pleo would be less clueless about facets of her world that seemed to just be.

"Oh," Pleo responded, "So… Then why is he called 'Prince of a Thousand Enemies'?"

"Well, in his arrogance, the Prince laughed the warning off. Saying to the old gods that his children were the strongest Pokémon in the world, and were simply doing what their numbers allowed them to.

"And so it was that the old gods, exasperated, decided that if the Prince would not control his children, they would allow the other Pokémon to be able to do so in his stead. And so they gave them gifts to fight against the Prince and his children. Long claws, and sharp teeth, and eyes that could pierce through the dark, and-"

"Oh, so like Crom?"

"Yes- Wait- No!" Nida exclaimed, lowering her ears, "Crom isn't my enemy, he's my friend!"

"So the old gods also gave the friends of Nidoran things to fight them with?"

"Well, I don't think that would make- But-," Nida stammered. How on earth did Pleo even get on this track anyways?

"I suppose it's possible they became friends later on?"

"But didn't the old gods say they needed Pokémon to control the Nidoran?" Pleo yawned.

"The Nidoran learned to behave? Anyways, let me finish the-"

"This story is confusing," Pleo interrupted as he began to curl tighter in the nest and his eyes began to droop.

"Can you tell me the rest later?" Pleo asked, his voice thick and drowsy. Nida paused for a moment, somewhat exasperated at how completely derailed her bedtime story turned out. As she heard the Lugia begin to doze off, her exasperation waned, and she contented herself with a job well done as a storyteller… Sorta.

"Yeah... I think I can do that," she said as she covered the glowing jar. After the cloth did its work in blocking out the light, she took off her scarf and threw it on top of the jar's cover before hopping up onto the lip of the nest to settle down for a well-deserved rest.

"Good night, Pleo."


Chapter Text

Morning came... the sun was out, the sky was blue, and the grass and the mat outside were damp from the dew of the night. As the sun's rays poked through the treetops on the sparsely-wooded hillside where Marley and Teja's burrow was, Nida found herself emerging from her parents' burrow and stretching after a not-terribly refreshing sleep. She saw the neighbor Pokémon doing similar stretches before they went off to their day's errands after a raucous night that had seemed like it had come from some strange dream.

Except that dream was grounded in an Legendary reality, which Nida's ears could hear stumbling its way up the burrow's passage.

"Pleo… Are you making it out alright?" she yawned. Her question was quickly answered by a head popping out from the burrow, the rest of the Lugia it belonged to not following.

"I'm stuck!" Pleo cried, fidgeting and trying to find a way out the mouth of the burrow. The Nidoran gave a quick peek under the Lugia's neck and quickly delivered a prognosis.

"Uh… Pleo."

"Yeah?"

"Remember how you needed to crouch to get in last night?" Nida asked, flattening her ears.

"Eh-? Oh! Right!"

The base of Pleo's neck dropped a little, as the rest of his body emerged from the burrow, crouching low to the ground. Once he had finally crested the entrance and made his way onto the mat, Pleo vigorously beat his wings to shake off some dirt and cramps from his rest overnight.

"Your house is too small!" Pleo said, his voice coming out as somewhere in between a childish protest and a sleepy yawn.

"I'll try and have you stay with Crom or at the Guild Hall from now on," Nida sighed. "But was the rest of your stay fun? Er… aside from the poisoning of course."

"Uh-huh!" Pleo nodded.

"Great, now let's get going."

The two set out towards the creek that Nida normally crossed to reach the Guild Hall. They passed neighbors who offered up reverent greetings, as well as a few young Pokémon in a group who momentarily stopped a short game with a pebble they were kicking about to wave to the passing Lugia.

Before long, the trees grew thinner and the clutter of Bluewhorl Town's huts and tents began to spring up, though the reactions by the varying locals had not changed much from the ones up on the hillside where the burrow was. The two eventually found themselves nearing a hut along a path that smelled strongly of baked flour. "Ooh! Something smells good!" exclaimed Pleo.

"That's the bakery that Crom's family runs. They're probably making bread inside," Nida answered.

"But… Where's Cro-?"

"Hey!" a voice answered.

Nida and Pleo turned to find themselves face-to-face with Crom darting out from the entrance to his family's bakery. This time, there was also two other Druddigon that came with him, wearing golden scarves with umber designs that resembled sheafs of grain on them. One of the two Druddigon that followed was slightly smaller than Crom, and the other was much, much larger.

"Mom made us fresh bread today!" Crom cheerily proclaimed, giving his wings a playful beat before the elder Druddigon began to speak.

"Hmm hmm, I felt that it was the least I could do. After all, a Protector surely needs to eat well in order to defend other Pokémon!" the larger Druddigon answered with a proud smile.

She passed over a small satchel that contained fresh and warm loaves that had been shaped to look roughly like Lugia- or more accurately, the rough paintings of Lugia that were up at the shrine. "

Ooh… They look pretty," Pleo said as he gawked at the golden-brown loaves. "And it smells great too, Gwenith" Nida chimed in as she couldn't help but sniff at the little bird-shaped pieces of bread.

"All the better to help you today! I had heard from Mosca that she wants the Protector to try out scouting practice," Gwenith replied. "Why, with loaves like these to sniff out, you'll get through those mazes in no time!"

"That said, aren't you all running a little late right now?" she asked, drawing some awkward looks from Nida and Pleo.

"Uh…"

"Er…"

"Right," Crom said, shaking his head a bit. "See you later, mom!" he called off as the three Pokémon turned and briskly made their way along the path to the Dojo, Gwenith waving after them.

"Mooom, why does Crom get to hang around the sea god?" the smaller Druddigon protested as the three left.

"Now, now, Cenn, he's not doing this for just fun and games. He's helping the Protector grow big and strong, just like you and Crom will be one day," Gwenith admonished, her voice fading into the din of life in town as the Nida, Crom, and Pleo went further down the path.

As the three followed the path, they found themselves travelling alongside the creek that flowed through town. The buildings and tents grew more closely-spaced, the gawking and greetings from bystanders more common. All the while, Pleo couldn't help but have a question gnaw at his mind.

"What is 'training'?"

"It's teaching you how to fight and get tough!" Crom responded, giving a playful swipe through the air with his claws.

"... But Nida said that 'enemies' fight in her bedtime story last night. Will we be fighting with enemies there?" Pleo asked, tilting his head a bit.

"Uhm… No. They're just Pokémon from around town also looking to get tough," Crom answered.

"... So 'friends' also fight?"

"What? No!" Crom explained, concerned about what idea the young Lugia seemed to be putting into his head. "Training's fun!"

"Maybe we should let Maestra Mosca explain the rest of this, Crom," Nida sighed. After all, if he could go down the wrong track of a simple bedtime story… Maybe it would be better to try and let some older Pokémon explain things to Pleo.

"Is 'training' also a story? It seems confusing like a story-"

"Oi!" a Swellow's voice interrupted. The group of three turned to see their team's leader perching on a rude wooden fence in front of a hut with large side wings and a tiled roof. Thankfully Kiran was there bright and early, otherwise they would have walked right on past the Dojo!

"Oh, good morning, Kiran!" Pleo chirped energetically.

"Are you ready for your training today, Pleo? I've even got a scarf and a badge just for you!" Kiran said, gesturing with a wing to a navy blue scarf with a white star on it- and a glinting badge that he had taken the liberty of affixing for his newest recruit.

"So we're going to be fighting for fun today?" Pleo cheerily asked.

"Uh," Kiran groaned as he looked at his other teammates, getting just a little nervous about where Pleo might have gotten that idea.

"Crom said that training is when 'friends' fight for fun, so…"

"That wasn't what I said at all!" Crom interjected.

"Why don't we go inside and put on your scarf first, Pleo," Kiran sighed, "We should probably take this one step at a time.

" The young Lugia gave a quizzical head tilt, but not seeing the harm in the matter, decided to follow Kiran's heed and follow him and the other members of Team Traveler into the tiled hut.


The interior of the Dojo was far more impressive than its shabby exterior let on. Inside there were simple, yet orderly and neat, wooden floors. The roof and walls were composed of cleanly-cut wooden beams that were separated by partitions made mostly of brownish paper. It became apparent when walking in that the "hut" was merely the entrance to the dojo, and that the "wings" were really covered corridors that lead to other huts, and to encircled grounds with boundaries neatly demarcated by lines in sand.

"So this is a 'Dojo'?" Pleo asked as Nida drew her paws back from affixing a navy blue scarf around Pleo's neck. The young Lugia looked around, mesmerized by this strange complex that seemed rather unlike anything else he had seen so far in Bluewhorl.

"Mmm hmm! This is where Maestra Mosca's gonna teach you how to get tough!" Crom cheerily answered.

"'Maestra Mosca'?" Pleo asked.

"That would be me," a voice answered from down the corridor.

The speaker drew nearer and revealed itself to be a Hawlucha. The ground-bound bird walked towards the group with a sagely calm that seemed at odds with her garish green, magenta, and white plumage as she drew near to the waiting group and greeted them with a bow.

"I must say, when Guildmaster Hatteras asked me to train the Protector, at first I had thought that he had accidentally ordered an overly stiff drink from one of the Juice Bars!" Mosca chuckled a bit.

"But, now that I see the truth of the matter, I must say that I am deeply honored to be able to mentor you as our Protector, pollito."

"But my name's Pleo," the young Lugia insisted after an awkward pause.

"Of course it is. Anyhow, the training chamber Guildmaster Hatteras arranged for you is this way," the Hawlucha replied, before ushering Team Traveler down a corridor which passed some streamside huts on one side and a series of fields in between buildings and covered corridors on the other.

"So… What is training?" Pleo asked the Hawlucha, "Crom tried to tell me on the way over, but I didn't really understand what he was saying."

"'Training' in the strictest sense is merely readying yourself for the challenges of life by making challenges of your own to conquer," Mosca answered as she lead the group into a turn around an intersecting corridor. "To make battles that you can safely retreat from in order to prepare for those that you can't run from."

"What does that mea-?" Pleo blinked, before a shrill shout cut him off.

"Kyaaah!"

The group turned from the sound of the cry to see a Mawile and Luxio locked in combat in a rectangular courtyard. Along the courtyard's edges, various Pokémon worked in teams of two to maintain translucent barriers of what seemed to be light. On sidelines behind them, a much larger body of Pokémon cheered on the two opponents, most of them wearing lavender scarves that had been scrunched and folded up into headbands and made it impossible to tell whether or not the cloth had any designs on them. The Mawile too wore one of these headbands, and had just narrowly weaved around an arcing whitish-yellow bolt of electricity that the Luxio further behind shot out at him.

"Haw! Haw! Is that the best you've got, ya little guild runt?" the Mawile called over his shoulder. "I've fought off ferals that hit better than that-! Oof!"

The Mawile was cut off by the Luxio, who cut off her opponent by lunging and pinning it down before sinking sharp teeth that became coated in an orange fire into the maw-like horns on the Mawile's head.

The creature was forced to let go almost quickly as she had clamped down, as the Mawile instinctively flung his head about to fling off his assailant. After tumbling a distance, the Luxio bounded away as her opponent was preoccupied with nursing the sting of the flaming bite, before taking a moment of its own to retort in kind from a good distance.

"Maybe you should do something more with those jaws of yours than just talk! I thought you were supposed to be a guard!"

"Wow!" Pleo exclaimed. "So that's what we're going to do today?"

The Mawile took a moment to brush himself off, shake some sensation back into his second maw on his head, and get back onto his feet, leering determinedly back at the opponent Luxio.

"Hmm, not bad, but it'll take more than that to finish me- Eh?!"

And then, the Mawile's eyes caught sight of Pleo. As did those of the Luxio, followed one by one by the rest of the shielding and gawking Pokémon on the sidelines, the frenzy of battle broken by their awed stare at the white and blue guardian in the corridor.

"Hi!" the little guardian waved. "So, I'm gonna get to fight one of y-?"

"Ahehe… Not quite, Pleo," Kiran laughed nervously as he tucked Pleo's wing down. "Para ser fuerte, you can't go throwing yourself into the thick of things!"

"Otro día, pollito. Please follow me this way," Mosca quickly replied, "As for the rest of you, don't you have a battle to be getting back to?"

"Oi! Less staring, more sparring!" a Girafarig from the sidelines, apparently the referee, cried out with both its mouths, as the Pokémon in the courtyard began to uneasily pull themselves away back to the Mawile and Luxio, who slowly eased themselves back into battle positions.

"Wait, everyone was looking at something? What was it?" a Zubat asked, before the noise of the returning din of battle drowned its voice out and grew indistinct as Team Traveler continued to move further away.

"... But why can't I fight?" Pleo asked in a pouting tone.

"Most of those Pokémon are guards, Pleo," Nida explained, "Their training focuses on fighting because if anything bad in town happens, they'll need to help protect the town from it."

"But if they also protect things, and I'm a 'Protector'... Shouldn't I also be doing their training?" Pleo asked.

"You will eventually. Why who knows? Perhaps I'll wind up sparring with you myself to see how you fare against my world-famous Plancha Voladora!" Mosca proudly declared as she slid a partition open in order to let her pupils into a wooden hut by the stream. "But before that, there are some fundamentals that you must learn. This way."

Inside the hut were a series of high partitions that, unlike the others seen in the complex, were fashioned from solid wood. The panels reached up to a net strung along some rafters, having the net effect of making a rough cube of netting and wooden partitions.

Mosca shut the partition behind her, and led the group up to an entrance of the cube in the middle of the room. There, Crom handed off his bag of bread to her, which she set beside the cube's entrance.

"For today's exercise, we will doing a mock-up of a dungeon crawling experience that you will all surely find familiar one day," Mosca lectured, pointing at the wood-and-net cube behind her. "

Now, the dungeon is not too different from this maze behind me here. The layout's unpredictable, it's often hard to see things, and most importantly: there's treasure lying about," the Hawlucha continued, which immediately drew a curious inquiry from Pleo.

"Wait, there is-?"

"However!", she interrupted, "Any dungeon, our own included, has its hazards. The ferals there will pick fights more often if they are threatened or moody, the Distortion creates traps, and most importantly, if you take too long, the Distortion will clear out the floor you are on."

"What does this have to do with the wall maze, though?" Crom asked.

"Everything! As a mock-up, you will need to put all of the skills and senses that you would need in the dungeon to use to find these loaves that your mother, Gwenith, so generously provided for us.

"If you can clear this gauntlet in time and make it out the end still standing, then, and only then will you be able to-"

It was then that Mosca found herself interrupted by the sound of munching, and of hard pecks against wood. The team's attention was then drawn to the bag by the entrance, where they noticed that it had already been half-emptied by Pleo, who was presently working on a half-devoured loaf on the floor.

"Wow… And I thought I was a fast eater," Crom murmured.

"Psst! Pleo! You're supposed to eat those after you find them in the maze!" Nida whispered.

"Hmm? But they were right there! And the pink birdie said to find them!"

"We… Have a lot of work ahead, don't we?" Mosca sighed, putting a balled-up claw up to her face.


During the first few days after Pleo began his training at the Dojo, his progress was marked by fits and starts, mostly false ones. Still, there was some incremental improvement, and the monotony of the routine was broken by a midday break, which Team Traveler used to show its newest member places around Bluewhorl.

As it so chanced this particular day, Nida and Crom decided to bring Pleo along into the town's square by the docks.

"Wow! I think these 'boat' thingies changed overnight, Nida!" Pleo exclaimed as he passed a wooden craft tied up along one of the docks, oblivious to the gapes that some of the nearby Pokémon interrupted their routines to give him.

"Well, they kinda did. Two went out last night, and two came in this morning," Crom explained. He took a short moment to perch on a post on the dock to stretch his wings in the sun.

"Eh? Where did the others go?"

"Probably to a nearby island to trade for some supplies," Nida answered, "There's some things that we wouldn't be able to normally get easily here on Tromba without them, and it helps some Pokémon like Crom's dad to support their families."

"'Trade'? What's that?" Pleo asked, tilting his head out of puzzlement.

"Eh? Nida, did we not buy anything with Pleo before?" Crom asked, turning slightly from his sunning on the post.

"Now that I think about it," Nida pondered, drawing a paw to her muzzle in thought, "I guess we haven't."

It was then that she happened to catch a glance of a certain rude wooden shack from the corner of her eye, and with a devious smirk, she turned back to Pleo.

"Actually, let's fix that right now. The team could use a few more supplies anyways," Nida said, as she hopped off towards the hut.

Pleo gave a quizzical look to Crom, who shrugged his shoulders and dismounted his post. The two nimbly followed Nida to make up for her head start, and caught up with her just in time to see her hopping up a stump next to a wooden counter on the shack.

"Hey! Calino! Are you back there?" the Nidoran called to the back of the shack.

"Speaking!" answered a Kecleon who popped up from behind some boxes. The creature made its way over, changing his scales to the customary viridian that he tried to greet all his customers with.

"What can I do you for to- Oh!"

And saw that the Protector he had heard so much about in recent days had graced his shop with a visit!

"Ahehe, it is truly an honor to have you here, Protector," Calino said, giving a small bow from behind the counter.

"Oh really now?" Nida said in an accusing tone, lowering her ears to play up a sense of grievance, "I seem to remember that you said that you wouldn't give even theProtector a discount if he was a rookie!"

"Oh! Er..." Calino stammered, his scales starting to flush an embarrassed burnt yellow, "Well, you know, Nida, that was all hypotheticals! I wasn't honestly expecting that the Protector would be awakened in my lifetime, so-"

"So… You'll give that discount on whatever we buy today, then?" Nida asked in a saccharine tone, perking her ears up.

"Haha! You mean for yourself, yes?" Calino chortled. "When you sprout white feathers and wings like this Lugia here, we'll talk-"

"I want to get whatever Nida buys!" Pleo cheerily proclaimed to the Kecleon, waving his wings.

"E-Eh?!" the Kecleon cried out in surprise, his body rapidly turning white.

"So you'll give a discount now?" Nida insisted, giving a cheery head tilt.

"Uhm… I mean-! Th-This isn't fair, Nida! Hiding behind the Pro-!"

"You did just imply that you'd cut a deal for Pleo, Calino," Crom said, as a few Pokémon passing by began to stop to watch the exchange between Calino and his young, if surprisingly tough customers.

"W-Would buy one get one half off-?"

"Seriously, Calino? Just how much Poké do you expect Pleo to have after a week around here?" Nida sighed, flicking her ears back as some of the nearby residents chimed in.

"Yeah, Calino, don't be such a tightwad!" Scout called from the water beside the dock.

"Can't you even cut the Protector a break?" a Corsola from the harbor cried.

"B-Buy one get one free! That's my final offer!" Calino cried, his scales now tinged a desperate grayish-blue as he eagerly tried to save some face, "Why, my poor purse couldn't possibly take more than that!"

"'Free'?" Pleo asked.

"It means that he'll give us an extra thing for whatever we buy!"

"Oh! Okay!" the young Lugia chirped, happy that he had helped to get his friends some extra goodies.

"Thanks for explaining, Crom," Nida replied before turning to Calino. "I'll take the usual again, this time with an extra X-Eye Seed!"

Calino couldn't help but grumble and have his colors turn a bit red on his extremities as he put together a double portion of Nida's mostly-customary selection of items as she slid some glinting baubles onto the counter.

"What is it that you're giving him, Nida?" Pleo asked.

"It's Poké, the money that's used in this town," she explained.

"'Money'?"

"It's kinda like trading food, except the food never goes bad… And you can't eat it... I guess it's not like food at all, now that I think about it," Crom mused with a claw up against his chin before a certain Swellow's voice abruptly cut short his train of thought.

"Nida! Crom! What are you two doing? Pleo's training session was supposed to start again 10 minutes ago!" Kiran admonished mid-flight from above the shops behind the group.

"Uh oh. Looks like we'll have to get going, Pleo," Crom said, before tromping off after his team's Swellow leader. After a moment's hesitation, Pleo waddled along, occasionally hopping from the ground with the beat of his wings.

"Thanks for the discount, Calino!" Nida called out to the Kecleon, bounding away after her teammates.

"Uh huh, sure," the merchant groaned, putting a claw to his face.

"Gods these days."

"Oh, so you do have things that you care about more than money, Calino," a certain Sentret piped up while passing by the counter. "That's honestly surprising."

"Scout, could you not right now?" a now fully-red Calino fumed.


Soon enough, Pleo found himself back within the wooden corridors of the Dojo's maze. Although he had been in there more times than he could count on one of his wings by then, the experience was still disorienting. Outside of intersections and rooms, the list of directions where one could see in any meaningful direction was short: Forward down the corridor, behind oneself, and, if it wasn't covered by a chunk of the next level of the maze like his present corridor, the netting that hung along the rafters.

"See anything Pleo?" an unseen Nidoran called out.

"Yeah, we should have three more loaves left!" the voice of an also-absent Druddigon added.

Even though Nida and Crom had taught him some handy tips for training over the last few days, such as that the two didn't disappear when Pleo couldn't see them, or to always mark his place and pick the next closest direction if he got stuck at an intersection… The isolation of the maze always felt unnerving.

"I smell it, but nothing yet-" Pleo called, as he rounded a sharp turn in the maze. As his the corridor on his left progressively became less obscured by one of the maze's walls, Pleo noticed one of Gwenith's golden-brown loaves sitting at a dead end.

"Oh! I found it! I found it!" Pleo cheered, as he veered to the left of the corridor to waddle towards his prize.

"I've got i-!"

Click.

The faint sound of a trap triggering resounded, followed by a stiff smack from underneath by something cold, slimy, and smelling of earth, causing Pleo to pitch forward.

"A-Ah!"

"Pleo! Are you alright?!" Nida cried out from deeper in the maze, "What happened?"

As Pleo picked himself up from the floor, he looked down and found that the entire lower half of his body had been covered in thick, damp mud. When he turned back to the place where he had stumbled, he found that the mud that struck him had been splattered radially all over the corridor. "Yes, but I just got a bunch of brown goop stuck on my legs and wings!"

"Oh, you probably stepped on a mud trap!" Crom's voice called out over the walls.

"Simulated mud trap!" Mosca's voice from outside the maze's partitions corrected.

"Whatever!"

"Pleo, can you move alright?" Nida's voice asked.

Pleo attempted to shake off some of the mud, finding that it weighed down his legs and wings. While he was able to get some of it off, the majority of it remained stuck in his feathers and continued to uncomfortably encumber his movements.

"Not really!" he answered back.

"Just clean off what you can and play through it for now!" Nida's voice cried back. "Mud Traps affect your ability to fight depending on what part of your body they gum up. It'll go away eventually as you get the mud out!"

"Okay!"

"And pay closer attention to the floor from now on!" Crom's voice added. "If you see one that has a pattern kinda like an arrow, step on that one! It'll pump you up and clear up that trap's effects right away!"

Pleo snatched up the loaf by pressing it in between his wings and backtracked down the corridor. He made sure to keenly avoid the center of the mud splatter as he made his way back to an intersection with three other corridors stemming from it. There he attempted to scrape some of the mud off onto a corner before he paused for a moment.

"Let's see… The one that I didn't go down should be on the… Right!" he chirped, as he turned down his chosen direction. The young Lugia continued on under the shadow of the next floor, leaving a small trail of muddy footprints and splatters as he carried on down the corridor's bends and turns. As Pleo entered a small chamber with two narrow passages leading out, one forward and a smaller one to the left, he could overhear Nida's voice call out.

"I found another one!"

"Okay, so then there's just one left!" his other partner replied.

Pleo paused for a moment. After realizing that he had already marked his position (in a manner of speaking) from the flecked mud trail still following him, he decided to follow the "next closest" direction rule and head to the left corridor. He carried on a ways, until he noticed a break in the pattern of the floorboards below his feet where some jagged rocks were poking out.

"There's pointy rocks in the bottom of the floor like last time!"

"It's probably another trap!" Nida called out "Can you get around it?"

Pleo went up to the trap, keen to keep his feet a healthy distance from where its edge might possibly be, and saw that the corridor was narrow enough for the patch of embedded stones to span its entire width.

"I don't think so!" he called back.

"Turn around and try another path, then!" Crom's voice piped up, which prompted the Lugia to sigh at just how hard this 'training' thing was as he retraced his muddy steps back to the chamber.

He then noticed that as he got closer to the other corridor, the smell of toasted grain lingered in the air. Pleo made his way down the passage a bit more briskly, keenly watching the floor.

"Oof!" Perhaps a bit too keenly, as he bumped his head into a wall. After he drawing back and giving his head a good shake to regain his bearings, Pleo noticed the last loaf lying in the middle of the corridor.

"I found the last loaf!" he cheered, seizing the piece of bread with his mouth.

"Alright, great! Now we just need to find each other... Did any of you see the stairs by any chance?" Nida's voice echoed down the corridors.

"Nop- Oh wait, I just found them, Nida!" Crom hastily announced.

"Alright! We'll come to you, Crom! What should we be looking for?"

"Claw marks!"

… Hopefully Mosca would be understanding about that. After all, there were already a bunch of nicks in the maze panels already, right? As Pleo backtracked his way towards where he and Nida had split up, he discovered that sure enough, Crom had scratched little reminders to himself into the panels.

A scratch on a corridor here, a gash on a corridor there, an occasional tracing of a dead end that Crom had gone down. So went the process of plodding along and trying to piece together these clues to follow the young Druddigon's steps.

"Hey!"

Pleo soon found himself looking up at Crom waving at him from beside some stairs.

"Don't eat those until after we get out!"

"I wathnth!" Pleo protested through a beak filled with bread loaf. Crom quickly darted over and took the remaining pieces of bread, depositing them into the bag Kiran had let him borrow for training.

"Here, while we wait, lemme try and get that mud out of your feathers," Crom offered, as he prompted Pleo to raise his wings and began to carefully rake the mud out with his claws.

"Are the other floors of the cave also like this?" Pleo asked.

"Kinda. They're not as boxy or wooden, and in the places where Kiran takes us, the Distortion usually makes them a lot more open," Crom replied, as he flicked off globs of mud before moving on to one of Pleo's legs.

"The… Distortion?"

"You know, rearranges the Mystery Dungeon... creates orbs and traps… changes plant seeds into the sort that Calino sells from his shop... occasionally makes a forgotten gummi or apple left in there into a super-special gummi or apple if the ferals don't eat it first," Crom explained.

"But then why aren't we training there?"

"Eh?! The Mystery Dungeon is a lot more dangerous than here! That's why Maestra Mosca has this maze! So that way Pokémon can practice and go home easily if they mess something up!"

"Dangerous?" Pleo asked, tilting his head as Crom quickly wiped off Pleo's badge and then moved his attention to cleaning a few stray spots on the Lugia's plumage that he had not already gone over.

"It's a place where you can get hurt a lot more easily," Crom responded.

"But if it hurts you easier, why do you go there?"

"Because it's training for us. A Pokémon on a Rescue Team needs to be able to not run away from danger or scary things all the time, because in the future, someone might be counting on you to help them," the Druddigon explained.

"Someone… Might be counting on you," Pleo repeated, as Nida's voice interrupted from behind him.

"Oi!"

And Pleo turned to see Nida setting some bread loaves that had visible bite and drag marks down on the ground.

"Well, I suppose that that's one way to spend half a week," Nida sighed.

"Well… Think of it this way, it's only been half a week, and we've managed to make it with Pleo to the sparring partner!" Crom cheerily replied as he stuffed Nida's loaves into his bag.

"Uhm… Crom, you realize Pleo has to win against said sparring partner before he can move on, right?" Nida whispered, as she watched Pleo beat his wings, enjoying his regained mobility now that the mud caking his body was gone, minus a few stains on his feathers.

"Ah, we're fighting as a team of three, I'm sure we'll do fine!" Crom replied back in a hushed tone.

"Nida? Crom? What are you talking about? Aren't we going up the stairs?" Pleo interrupted.

"Heh. We were just talking about that, actually," Nida said as she began to make her way up the stairs, and lead her teammates on.

"So, a 'sparring partner' is a Pokémon that you fight, right?" Pleo asked.

"Sorta. They give you a battle in which they hold back a little so that you can use the chance to improve how you fight," the Nidoran explained as the group reached the top of the stairs and the last level of the maze.

"Hmm? But who is Maestra Mosca going to have us spar with-?" Pleo asked as he gawked at the now unobstructed view of the netting above, before a low, familiar voice interrupted.

"Hello, Crom. I was beginning to wonder when you were going to make it up here.

" The three Pokémon paused, blinked, and stopped a moment to make sure their eyes were not being deceived by the sight of the large ruddy-headed Pokémon waiting in the room, standing between wall partitions that went up to her chest.

"Wait… Mom? You're our sparring partner?" Crom asked incredulously.

Chapter Text

Crom, Nida, and Pleo found themselves trading awkward stares with each other. Yes, there was supposed to be a sparring partner after their crawl through Mosca's maze, but… this older Druddigon waiting in the center of the last wood-paneled chamber...

"Of course, sweetie!" Gwenith chuckled. "You didn't think that I just came and went during the session to restock your bread loaves did you?"

"Um… Nida? I thought friends didn't fight with each other," Pleo said, somewhat unnerved by the idea of fighting the Pokémon that gave them bread in the morning. Crom also felt that the battle arrangements seemed rather unsettling. After all, it was one thing for the young Druddigon to fight with his brother Cenn, but...

"Mom, are you sure that-?"

"I'm pretty confident that I can stomach a couple nicks here and there to help you younguns grow a little," Gwenith responded as she adopted a tensed pose.

"Try and hit me with your best shot!" she roared.

"Uhmm… rawr, look at how totally fearsomely cute I am?" Nida growled endearingly back at the Druddigon.

"Yeah! Yeah! We're tough! And scary!" Pleo chimed in as he attempted to mimic Nida's growl, but wound up producing something that came out as more of an awkward squeak.

"Well, if you won't land the first hit, then I will!" Gwenith huffed before she lunged for the group with an open claw.

"Whoa! Mom?!" Crom exclaimed as he narrowly rolled out of the way of a weak, but still stiff claw swipe. Gwenith's swipe carried on past Pleo, who had narrowly ducked the attack, and into Nida, sending her tumbling back a bit towards a wall.

"Ga-aah! That was an attack!" Nida shouted as she bounced up back to her feet and braced herself against her foe. "Growling disarmingly is listed in the Dojo annals as a perfectly legitimate technique!"

"You won't put a feral down for the count that way!"

"Okay! Okay! We'll hit you!" Crom cried, before he attempted to rush back, and latched onto his mother's arm with his maw. The younger Druddigon quickly came to regret doing so, abruptly spitting out her arm.

"Owowow!" he groaned, it seemed biting down softer on his mother's jagged hide didn't make it hurt any less.

"Oh come now, Crom. I'm not letting you take off from the bakery to pull your punches! Put some thought behind them!" the older Druddigon admonished, before she slugged Crom with a forceful, if not squarely aimed, punch to the chest that sent him reeling.

"Argh! Moooom! Couldn't you have made that point with something less painful?" Crom grunted as he got back up to his feet, now keenly maintaining his battle posture.

"Hey, if you're gonna fight, then we can hit back too!" Pleo cried from behind the older Druddigon. The young bird stiffened his neck, and felt a hot sensation forming at the back of his throat before he opened his beak and disgorged a glowing white sphere at Gwenith's direction…

Only to watch, to his astonishment, as the Druddigon backflipped over his Weather Ball, used her wings to reorient her body so her claws were again facing the ground, and entered a momentary, stalling glide in mid-air…

"A-Aaaaaaaah!"

And bore down and pounced upon Pleo claws-first, pinning him to the arena's floorboards.

"You have to think fast in battle, Protecto- Oof!"

The Druddigon found herself thrown forward from her trapped opponent, who had, while still sprawled-out, wide-eyed and panting on the floor, disgorged another glowing ball on his foe in panic.

"D-Don't scare me like that!" Pleo fumed as he righted himself and got back up to his feet.

"Hah, that's more like it! You're learning already!" the Druddigon complimented as she threw herself back up to her feet. Gwenith then heard a weak plink and a faint drop of liquid fall on her hindquarters, followed by a second pink of something falling onto the arena floor. When she looked at the source of the faint noises, the Druddigon saw that it was a Nidoran's barb...

That had failed to lodge itself in her hide, glancing off and spilling its poison harmlessly outside the Druddigon's body.

"Um… At least it went further that time?" Nida said sheepishly from behind a corner panel. Crom interrupted her awkward moment with a roar as he attempted to lunge into the fray.

"Got you now, Mom!" he cried as he slashed at the other Druddigon, only to wind up slicing at air and charging headlong into a low wall. After crumpling up stunned against the wall, Crom found himself nursing his head as he pulled it back from a visible dent in the panel.
As for the where the elder Druddigon went, the matter was quickly answered by the sound of Gwenith tromping just beyond the wall.

"Aaaack!"

"Come on, Crom! Before she gets away!" Nida cried, hopping up onto the wall's ledge and vaulting over the other end. Crom got up, shook some stars from orbit around his head, and ran around the wall to rejoin the fray, leaving behind a solitary young Lugia.

"Enh! Enh!" Pleo cried as he tried again and again to bound over the wooden partition as Nida had.

Pleo found that although he was able to make flapping hops up to see Gwenith locked in combat with his partners over the ledge, he couldn't quite make it over.

"Why are these walls so high?!" he fumed before he gave up and ran around in the direction Crom had gone, just in time to see Nida being swatted away after a failed attempt to poison her sparring opponent with a running tackle.

"Oof!"

"A bit smarter, but you'll need to do better than that!" Gwenith called to the sprawled-out Nidoran.

"Nida, just keep her busy a little longer! I'm almost done honing my claws!" Crom shouted out while poking his head from behind a partition.

"Aha! That's where you are!" the elder Druddigon exclaimed as her son sank in the realization that he had just betrayed his position. "Uh-oh," he quietly uttered, as his mother came charging towards him.

At this point, Pleo had become a bit overwhelmed by the entire experience, and tried to think of something, anything to put this ordeal to a close.

"Stop it!" the young Lugia shouted, then beat together his wings to whip up a churning, whirling wind that cut across the floor of the arena. It struck Gwenith and sent her tumbling past her child into a wall.

"Good thinking, Pleo!" Crom called from his position, before starting to run as his mother regained her bearings while slumped against her wooden partition, "Nida, I think we've got an opening!"

"Right behind you!" Nida shouted, as she got to her feet and bounded after her partner.

Crom gave the hardest slash he could muster at his mother's belly scales, and quickly ducked out of the way before Nida came sprinting up to deliver a passing tackle to the Druddigon. Gwenith's jagged hide stung back, but the two were keen to swallow their urge to stop and cry out in pain. Luxuries such as staying still would have to wait for the two rookies until after they had some healthy distance between themselves and Gwenith, who would surely be hot on their heels…

Only… She never came.

"Oof! I- I am slain!" the older Druddigon cried, before she staggered and overdramatically toppled forward onto the floor, closing her eyes. The scene made Crom pause for a moment, and after he saw that she was not getting up, he rushed over out of concern.

"M-Mom?! Are you-?! I d-didn't mean to-!"

Only to find himself cut off by his mother jumping up and latching onto her son, lifting him off the ground in an embrace.

"See? I told you your old mother could take a nick or two!" she said, while nuzzling her child's crest.

"Moooom! You're embarrassing me!" Crom protested as he flailed to try and break free.

"Oh, so that's where he gets it from," Nida groaned. As Gwenith finally let her child go, the Nidoran turned and noticed that Pleo was still maintaining a healthy berth from the group of three.

"You did great too, Protector!" the Druddigon cheered towards the white bird, but her words didn't seem to have any effect on the Lugia, who was visibly shaking and wide-eyed.

"Pleo?" Crom asked.

"Pleo, it's over. We won. She won't attack if you get near right now," Nida called out.

"No! She hurt me! And she's scary!" Pleo chirped back, his voice still tense and anxious. It made Gwenith's expression sink a bit.

"I- I suppose that I might have overdone it a little," she murmured to herself as she set Crom back down on the floor, which prompted Nida to go up to try and console her teammate.

"Pleo, it was just a sparring match," Nida explained, nuzzling the young Lugia. "She's still the same Gwenith that works at the town bakery."

"But it hurt!" Pleo protested.

"Er… Well, that's what happens in battles, yes," Nida sighed, flattening her ears. "But if you don't practice, you could wind up really getting hurt by a Pokémon that won't be friendly after fighting."

"Yeah, like pirates!" Crom exclaimed.

"'Pirates'?" Pleo asked.

"Mean Pokémon that gang up to bully and take stuff from Pokémon that can't fight back against them," Crom growled from beside his mother. "And to top it all off, they even wear scarves like we do but don't follow the pact that goes along with wearing them at all!"

Pleo didn't like the sound of these "pirates," but… but something seemed to be missing from what Crom was saying. How exactly would putting oneself in danger of getting hurt help avoid getting hurt later?

"Besides, if you never practice, you won't ever get any stronger," Nida added.

"Uh-huh! Uh-huh! A Protector's gotta be strong in order to be able to do any protecting!" Crom chimed in with a toothy smile.

"I realize that it's probably different than blowing over sea rocks... Or entire tunnels," she said, uttering the last part under her breath, "But Gwenith really isn't scary."

"Y-You promise?" the young Protector stammered.

"I promise. Now come on, let's go shake Gwenith's claw," Nida said as she guided Pleo over to the Druddigon. The two stood there, staring at each other, waiting expectantly for… something.

"Psst! Pleo! Stick one of your wings out! Like Guildmaster Hatteras showed you!" Nida whispered.

"Like thi-? Oh!"

As Pleo followed the Nidoran's instructions, he was surprised to see that the elder Druddigon had grasped his extended wing firmly, but gently. She gave it a firm shake before letting go and drawing her claw back to her side.

"You're improving a lot, Protector!" Gwenith said, before giving a soft pat to Pleo's head.

"See? Would a scary Pokémon do that, Pleo?" Crom asked.

"Heh heh, I guess not," Pleo giggled, having finally been convinced that Gwenith bade him no ill will. He would have to think twice before asking to train with her in this "sparring" thing, though.

"Um… How do we get out of here anyways?" Crom asked.


Mosca took off a couple panels from the upper walls of the maze and unspooled some netting for Team Traveler and their partner to clamber down. After exiting the wooden training course, Pleo drank some crisp, cold water from a bowl while Kiran inspected his body, Oran Berry in beak.

"So it seems like Gwenith was quite the competition, huh?" the Swellow asked as he inspected the young Lugia's body.

"Yeah, that battle was really tough- Ow!"

Pleo recoiled as Kiran squeezed the berry along a cross-cut he made into the fruit's flesh, causing some juice from the berry to dribble onto a wing scrape.

"It's alright, Pleo! The sting from the Oran juice means that it's healing you!" Crom explained.

"Crom… I thought the idea was to reassure him," Nida sighed as Pleo returned to his resting position being attended by Kiran as the Swellow continued.

"Why didn't you just fly, pollito? You would have been able to outmaneuver your opponent much earlier on if you had," Kiran asked as he daubed some Oran juice onto Pleo's other wing.

"Ungh! 'Fly' over them?" Pleo asked after wincing a bit due to the juice stinging.

"E-Eh?! But you're una ave!" Kiran interjected while giving the berry's pulp over to his comparatively large charge. "I mean, your wings look a little scrawny and all, but surely you can fly a little?"

"Well, he doesn't know how," Crom said, scratching the back of his crest sheepishly. "And Druddigon can't exactly fly with these wings. We glide, and we're not that great at it."

"Yeah, and I sure can't teach him," Nida piped up, hopping a bit off the floor. As he looked over the young Protector nibbling through his Oran pulp, the Swellow realized to his dismay that Nida and Crom raised a good point.

"That's… something I shouldn't have taken for granted," he groaned, burying his face into a wing.

"One step at a time, Kiran," Mosca said as she walked up from behind. "Though given the Protector's progress today, I think that we can put him through some flight-focused training for the next few sessions."

"It'll have to do," the Swellow sighed as he wondered whether conceding to Hatteras' suggestion to babysit Pleo in the Day Care might have been the more prudent option after all.

"Hrm… Have you all recovered a bit from your training?" the Hawlucha asked the three younger members of Kiran's team.

"Uh huh! Uh huh!" Pleo cheerily responded as his teammates echoed, the sting of the Oran juice and the aches from their scrapes having already faded.

"Now then," the Hawlucha continued. "I think that it's perfectly reasonable to now call it a-"

"Woo hoo! Training's over! Come on Pleo, let's go!" Crom cheered, throwing his arms back into the air before he made a beeline for the chamber door, flung it open, and ran out into the corridor outside, with Nida and Pleo closely following behind him.

"See you at the front, Kiran!" Nida called back as she darted through the now-opened sliding partition.

"Day- Hey! No se corre en mis pasillos!" Mosca huffed after the three Pokémon.

"Heh. Well, I guess at least one thing is predictable with that pollito," Kiran said as he too turned, took wing, and made his leave after the rest of his team.


By the time Team Traveler departed the Dojo, the sun had just begun to touch the horizon and begin its process of slipping over for the night. The group decided to make their way back to the guild hall by walking in the gully of the town's stream, which had enough dry ground exposed to be walkable. The team made their way along, passing under the frail bridges that stitched the two sides of Bluewhorl together over it. The water was clean, flowing at a pleasingly meandering pace, and briskly cool to wade in...

"It tastes like the water at the Dojo!"

Most importantly, it did a remarkably good job at cleaning out the leftover dirt from the mud trap in the maze out of Pleo's feathers. After the first few chilly dips and a few subsequent moments to stop and preen his feathers, his stints in the water grew increasingly long and enjoyable as the white feathers began to better shield his skin underneath from the creek's water.

"Where are we going now?" the young Protector asked, as he came up onto the shore from his latest journey into the creek.

"Well," Nida said, "I think the next step is heading to the Guild Hall and-"

She opened her mouth to continue, but found the words in her mouth abruptly dying as she had a sudden realization.

"Oh… I just remembered something. I still need to drop off that watering can I packed in your bag that I promised I'd bring to Mami and Papi while they were in the field today," she sighed.

"Eh, we can all afford to take a little diversion, Nida," Kiran chirped. "We got out a little earlier than I expected"

"Erm… I mean, I guess it couldn't hurt to see your dad again," Crom added in a cheery tone.

"Mami will also be there too, Crom," Nida emphasized, which caused the young Druddigon to briefly blanch a pale shade and give his wings a nervous beat.

"Uhm… Maybe you could ask her to be a little less scary?"

"Crom, she's perfectly fi-" Nida admonished, before she turned to notice that her team's newest member suddenly wasn't there. "Wait… Where's Pleo?"

Crom and Kiran looked around their surroundings, and after a brief moment of panic, they caught the sight of his tail disappearing around the corner of a hut up the hill of the gulley the creek laid in.

"Pleo! Wait!" Kiran squawked, as he flew after his young white charge, Nida and Crom following the Swellow gingerly up the stream, where they ran into their teammate dawdling in the middle of a path.

"What are you doing?" Nida scolded, "Just because this is a small town doesn't mean that you should go wandering off like-!"

It was then that Nida noticed that Pleo had a number of young Pokémon gawking back at him from the path, a motionless ball lying beside their feet.

"Nida! Nida! These Pokémon have a 'ball'!" Pleo chirped eagerly. As Nida and her companions drew nearer, they saw the Pokémon were coming from a tent that was shaped much like a Froslass' head. One of the edges of the white and violet tent straddled a shallow pool, which a small Finneon was flopping out of on its fins. The pool extended to the ledge of the gully, ending in a sluice that was apparently meant to drain it out into the stream.

One after another, more and more young Pokémon darted, flew, or awkwardly flopped out onto the path to the best of their abilities. The young creatures soon enough wound up crowding around Pleo, and jabbered among themselves excitedly.

"Wow! You're so pretty," a Poliwag gushed.

"How do you become a Protector? I wanna become one, too!" the Finneon Nida saw earlier cheered.

"Auntie Hariti! That 'Lugia' thingy is in the yard!" a marginally older Meowth called, turning its head back towards the tent's entrance. Almost immediately, the Meowth's voice summoned a wispy white and blue wraith, with a purple face and yellow and red eyes, that floated effortlessly above the ground.

Perhaps it was the pleasant chilling effect the creature had on the air around her in Tromba's tropical and muggy weather, but being in this "Hariti's" presence felt strangely disarming, as she seemed to exude a certain eerie motherliness to her demeanor.

"Oh my. I must say, I wasn't expecting you to need my services, Kiran," she smiled, replying in an gentle, airy tone. "Not that I would pass up the chance to care for this most… Unusual trainee of yours."

"Ahehe, well… That's not quite why we're here," Kiran chirped, giving an awkward ruffle to his feathers.

"I found a ball!" Pleo exclaimed cheerily, waving and gesturing at the ball still lying in the path.

"Ah, well a little curiosity never hurt a Pokémon around here either!" Hariti giggled a bit at the young Lugia's enthusiasm towards such simple things. "Hang on, I think there are some snacks left over from mealtime for you and your teammates."

The ice wraith briefly ducked back into her tent, phasing through one of its walls. Pleo squawked out of startled surprise, "Sh-She disappeared!"

"Eh? She always does that though," a young Bidoof nonchalantly responded.

"It's something that Pokémon like her can do with practice," Crom explained as Hariti returned to the group through another wall, this time clutching some small, frosted, thick-skinned, red fruits in between her digits.

"Here you go, frozen Pomeg berries straight from my prize bushes!" she said, offering the fruits to Pleo and his companions. Pleo paused a moment as he watched his partners claim berries for themselves and split some cuts along the rind to expose what looked like red seeds inside.

"What's 'frozen'?" Pleo asked, tilting his head at the fruit.

"It means that I made them very, very cold, sweetie. Things sometimes change when that happens to them," the Froslass explained. "Go on, take it!"

Pleo hesitated a moment, and then grasped the fruit in between his wings. The red berry felt cold to the touch, and after hesitating a moment, Pleo managed to force part of the rind off along a cut Hariti had made into it, exposing some red seeds inside.

The young Protector paused a moment, and then pecked at the seeds. Much to his pleasant surprise, the seeds were firm like the blander seeds that Pleo had eaten earlier, but tasted spicy-sweet and had a peculiar aftertaste.

"I think I like it!" Pleo chirped, as he dutifully returned to pecking out the seeds in the fruit. Little by little, the white bird and his companions had whittled their frozen fruit down to little more than rinds when a timorous voice called from the tent.

"Au-Auntie Hariti? I-Is it gone yet?"

"Huh? Who's that?" Pleo asked, turning from his snack.

"It's those blotched Pokémon!" an Oddish huffed.

"Yeah, you don't want to talk with them, my dad said all they're good for is eating!" a Spearow declared.

"Yeah, they're bad Pok-! Yip!" a Snubbull cried out as the Froslass flicked a small ice shard at its rump. The Oddish and the Spearow also found themselves stumbling forward and nursing their rears, whining quietly after they too were struck by small pieces of ice.

"Thank goodness she shut up those críos," Nida mumbled under her breath, lowering her ears.

"That's quite enough out of you three," Hariti admonished sternly before turning to Pleo. "Protector, er... I realize that it might seem a bit strange to you, but some of the younglings here are extremely shy towards-"

Much to her dismay, the young bird had already made his way to the tent's entrance, prompting her to call after him frantically.

"Protector, wait!"

By the time she reached the tent, Pleo had made his way in, and was passing a group of young Pokémon with blotches on their heads- much like Ander the other day- that were cowering in a corner.

"Auntie H-Hariti!" a Chatot who was still covered in soft, downy feathers squawked in panic.

"H-Help!" a Bulbasaur stammered, as the toad tried to hide in vain to hide behind the Chatot that was far too small a shield.

"Pl-Please make it go away!" a trembling Mudkip cried while curled up in a ball at the foot of one of his larger compatriots. The compatriot was a small Scyther about as tall as Pleo, wide-eyed, and frozen in place in a corner.

The young Lugia, after pausing a moment to give a quizzical look, proceeded towards some sundry painted doodles he had noticed on rough paper on the floor of the tent as Hariti and his teammates rushed in.

"Pleo, you should really-" Kiran began, only for Pleo to cut off his words.

"Wow! You make paintings here?" Pleo asked as he examined the doodles. There were pictures of the harbor (if with buildings that didn't look quite as sturdy as their actual counterparts), of the mountain and its shroud of fog, of the different townsfolk…

Of the multitude of pictures, one stood out to Pleo in particular. It was a picture that was a little less crude than the others that depicted a funny little blue blob with purple antennae on the sides of its head that was balancing a blue circle on its nose.

"Who made this one?" Pleo asked, as he pointed out the picture that caught his attention.

"I did," a voice called from the corner, and when Pleo turned back towards it, he saw that the speaker was the young Marked Scyther, uneasily tapping her scythes together.

"It looks really pretty!" Pleo chirped.

"Uhm… Thank you, I guess," the bladed bug buzzed, clearly at a loss as to why this Pokémon would choose to praise her handiwork. Her companions in the corner similarly found themselves at a loss for the behavior of the dread beast in front of them.

"H-Huh?!" the Bulbasaur exclaimed, poking his head out from behind the Chatot.

"I-It's- It's being nice?" the Mudkip asked, as he began to ease of the ball he had curled his body into.

"Uh huh! Uh huh! He's not mean at all!" Crom tried to reassure the young Marked. There was an awkward pause as he and the other Pokémon realized that, beyond some perplexed stares and some faltering half-steps that were quickly taken back, the Pokémon huddled in the corner just couldn't work up the courage to walk up to the young Protector.

"Why are they just sitting there?" Pleo asked, tilting his head up to the Froslass.

"I… Think that maybe it would be best for Kiran to explain this to you once you're gone," Hariti sighed. "It's not nice to try and force Pokémon to do things they're not ready to do."

"Yeah! Come play with us instead!" the Bidoof from earlier called, poking her head into the Day Care's entrance.

"Uhm, as tempting as that offer is, we have to get going," Nida replied, folding her ears back in obvious displeasure. "We're busy Pokémon."

"We should get going, Pleo. Come along," Kiran instructed, much to the audible displeasure of the young Pokémon in the yard of the Day Care.

"Aww..."

"But I wanted to play with the birdie..."

Kiran led the team back out to the path, after they traded farewells with Hariti and her charges, the four continued on past the bridge. As the team made its way out back to the fringes, the town's structures once again began thinning out. As Pleo once again found himself under the shade of the hillside trees that began to line the path, he couldn't help but ask...

"Who were those Pokémon?"

"Some young ones that Hariti watches for Pokémon around the area," Kiran explained as he landed on a branch to briefly rest his wings.

"She helps to raise a few who don't have parents that watch over them," Nida added as she made her way over a root that intruded into the path.

"Huh?"

"Well, you see Pleo, sometimes young Pokémon, for one reason or another, don't have anyone around to look after them. Sometimes they're all busy with work around town, sometimes no one can find any of them, and sometimes they just aren't there for them," Kiran explained from his perch as his teammates continued on the path a small ways. "When that happens, Hariti takes care of them either until the Pokémon that take care of them come back, or until they grow old enough to take care of themselves."

"How come Nida looks after her brothers and sisters instead of Hariti, though?" Pleo persisted, turning back to look at the Swellow.

"Sometimes… Hariti gets very upset when young Pokémon have others to take care of them and don't behave themselves… Repeatedly," Nida grumbled as Kiran left his perch to catch up with the group.

"How come those Pokémon in the corner were scared of me?"

"It's because they were Marked, just like that Scyther that startled you a few days ago," Crom said, as he stopped to claw at some visibly loose bark on a tree that had caught his eye.

"So they didn't like me either?" Pleo murmured. "But why?"

"They were probably expecting you to be mean to them," the Druddigon explained as he left his tree, flicking aside a few scraps of bark that had clung to his claws.

"But… How come?"

"Well, a very, very long time ago, those Pokémon's ancestors did some very bad things to the old gods…" Kiran explained as he took a moment to circle the group in a small clearing they were passing through. "And they've somehow since got it in their heads that when Protectors like you came along again, that you'd be mean to them."

"But I'm not mean, am I?" Pleo asked in an apprehensive, squawking tone.

"Of course you aren't, pollito!"

Pleo breathed a sigh of relief. If he wasn't mean, then that would mean that sooner or later, those Pokémon with the blotches would realize that… Right? But, there was one other matter from the Day Care that Pleo couldn't help but wonder about.

"What does it mean to eat a Pokémon? The brown and red birdie said something about it."

The question instantly brought the entire group to a stop, and caused Crom and Kiran to look flustered while they thought about how they should answer.

"Er…"

"Uh… Well…"

"Hrmph, don't think about it too much. If that kid wasn't talking about the food that Ander sells for a living, he's probably some mouthy feral runt that got dumped there by his parents," Nida grumbled as she continued on the path.

"Now Nida, that's hardly fair! Most of the town is related to or descended from ferals if you go far back enough!" Kiran admonished as he followed along with Crom.

"So… Ferals are Pokémon that eat other Pokémon?" Pleo asked as he too began to follow his group.

"That's kinda oversimplifying," Kiran protested as the group rounded a bend, "But-"

"Doesn't that hurt the Pokémon that get eaten, though?" Pleo interrupted, as he thought about how he had pecked and chewed and generally torn apart the various berries, seeds, and those colorful things called 'gummis' he had eaten over the past few days. If it hurt to get nicked by Gwenith, this being "eaten" sounded absolutely dreadful!

"It's... Complicated, but yes, it does. And it hurts them in a way that healers can't make better," Nida explained, which caused Pleo to stop and think a moment.

"So ferals are mean Pokémon, then?"

"It's hard to explain… In the way that ferals live on their own, they need to be able to eat, and sometimes the only way for them to do that is by hurting another Pokémon," Kiran answered.

"But I don't hear anyone talking about eating Pokémon in town…"

"That's because Pokémon that live in town eat Gummis like the ones you've been eating for the past few days and aren't allowed to eat other Pokémon. Other Pokémon aren't allowed to eat them in return," Nida said as she hopped up a ledge, prompting Crom to mull a moment and interrupt.

"Doesn't the guild allow that 'scavenging' thing that Ander's involved with, thou-"

"Crom. Stop. Talking," Nida hissed, "This is already a confusing enough thing to explain!"

Oh, so that's why those brightly-colored things seemed to show up so often at meals. Something about Nida's explanation still didn't add up for Pleo, though. If Pokémon didn't eat other Pokémon...

"Why doesn't someone just make the feral Pokémon live in towns, then?" Pleo demanded, which caused Kiran to stop and come to a rest on the ground, before he turned back to Pleo and began to speak with a gentle, if firm tone.

"Pleo… Do you remember what Hariti said back at the Day Care?"

"'It's not nice to try and force Pokémon to do things they're not ready to do'?"

"One of the rules for Pokémon that wear scarves like us is that no matter how much they might gain from it, other Pokémon aren't supposed to try to eat us or take advantage of us or force us to do things we don't want to… but that in return, we're not allowed do anything of the like to another Pokémon," the Swellow explained. "And you have to live like that even when there's other Pokémon counting on you, which some ferals find to be asking for too much. It wouldn't be terribly fair to expect ferals to leave us alone if we went around trying to force them to live in a way they weren't ready to, don't you think?"

That all seemed fine to Pleo… with one caveat that he couldn't seem to wrap his head around.

"Huh? But what about Pokémon that don't follow those rules? Didn't Crom say that pirates also wore scarves, but they took things from Pokémon anyways?" Pleo asked, thinking about those creatures that Crom spoke of in the training maze. "Aren't they also Pokémon that aren't ready to live like you do?"

"Uh…" Kiran muttered, beak agape.

"Eh?! Of course not!" Crom cried.

"Yeah, if you let them have their way, they'll just go on stealing from Pokémon like us!" Nida protested.

"Let me clarify that statement a bit," Kiran sighed, putting a wing over his face. "'It's not okay to try and force Pokémon to do things they're not ready to do when they're not trying to hurt you or your friends.' When they do, you're perfectly in the right to try and make them knock it off!"

"That's also why you're allowed to hit back at attacking ferals," Nida whispered.

"Oh, I… I guess that makes sense," Pleo said, before Crom interrupted his train of thought as he gestured off towards some bushes in a clearing.

"Hey, I see your family's field, Nida!"

As Nida and her companions drew nearer to the clearing, the neat rows that the bushes were planted in became apparent, as did the little Leppa fruits that could be seen in between clumps of leaves here and there.

"Mami! Papi! I'm here!" Nida called out, her voice soon being answered as a few bushes began to rustle before Nida's parents emerged before the group.

"Hola, mija," Teja said before the Nidorino drew forward and gave the Nidoran a small nuzzle with his snout.

"Hola a todos, and pleased to see that you've been growing, Crom," Marley said in a congenial, if guarded, tone.

"H-Hello, Marley," Crom stammered, as he found himself folding his wings back and subconsciously backpedaling from the Nidorina.

"You don't have to be so shy, Crom," Marley tut-tutted. "I've never taken any trophies from nice dragons before."

Crom suddenly decided that he needed to be anywhere not directly in front of Marley, and hastily retreated behind Kiran with a shudder.

"Nida! Sh-She's doing it again!" he whined.

"Mami, couldn't you have said that differently?" the blue Nidoran groaned.

"What? That was supposed to be reassuring!"

"I think that not bringing up your past exploits would probably work better, dear," Teja sighed as he flicked away a loose spike under a bush.

"Well, what's the point of that if everyone on this island already knows about them?" Marley huffed in protest as her daughter couldn't help but roll her eyes a little.

"Anyhow, I brought the pail," the Nidoran said as she fetched a small, rudimentary clay pot with a handle and long neck from Kiran's bag and brought it over, which prompted the Nidorina to stop a moment to give them an inspecting sniff.

"Hmm… Very good," Marley said. As Nida's parents sized up the watering pail, the group was interrupted by the sound of rustling from the undergrowth around the clearing, and a voice calling out.

"Aha, I found you!" it called out, as a four-legged creature covered in jagged, striped fur with a long tail popped out of the undergrowth, carrying an stony ring in its maw.

"Eh?! Who are you?" Pleo asked as he stumbled back from the Zigzagoon.

"Pleo, that's a feral," Nida whispered as she and the other Pokémon present quickly adopted cautious postures, just in case the creature had come with belligerent intentions.

"Grr," Marley growled at the Zigzagoon, "If you think that you're going to walk off with my berries, you've got another thing comi-!"

"Whoa! Whoa! I'm not here for that… I'm just a humble Pokémon that's come to pay respects with the gift from the land," the feral Zigzagoon explained before he dropped the ring in its mouth and nudged it forward.

"Huh?"

"I'm presenting you a gift, great one," the creature bowed.

"Oh! Er… Thank you?" Pleo responded as he went forward to curiously examine the item. It was a most peculiar ring… or was it a rock? Whatever it was, it was a yellowish band with crags that jutted out laterally, as if it were meant to be worn somehow.

"Why, it looks like a crown!" Crom murmured to himself.

"A… 'Crown'?" Pleo asked, but before anyone could explain what the little Druddigon meant, the Zigzagoon abruptly spoke up and bowed again.

"It is truly an honor, please enjoy the offering. But now I must go," the creature replied before darting off back into the undergrowth. Pleo deposited this rock- ring- crown-thing into Kiran's bag as Team Traveler was left to wonder why the Pokémon was so quick to leave. As if in answer, the quiet was broken by the much deeper sound of brush being trampled as a Tropius tromped into the clearing, slowing to a stop to catch its breath.

"Mildrew?" Teja asked, flicking his ears out of surprise. "Is something the matter? Shouldn't you be at your orchard?"

"That's why I'm here!" the Tropius panted. "A feral just barged through my field with some rock or whatever and knocked over a bunch of apples my daughter was in the middle of setting aside to eat at her job at Melissa's!"

The comment caused the rest of the Pokémon in the clearing to pause and trade looks with each other.

"Well, that would explain why the Zigzagoon was in such a rush," Crom groaned, putting a claw over his eyes.

"Uhm… Pleo, I think that we might need to take a moment to help the nice Tropius," Nida sighed.

"Huh," Pleo chirped. "But-?"

As Pleo trailed off, he noticed something strange from the corner of his eye. Even though the sun had not set yet, there was something sparkling like stars in the sky above the town.

"Kiran! Kiran! Look, the stars are out!"

"Eh, I'm pretty sure that's just some dust kicked up by some bug. Maybe a Volbeat," Mildrew answered nonchalantly. Pleo, on the other hand, was made only more curious by the Tropius's comment, and waddled over to a ledge that provided a view above the treetops of Bluewhorl Town's harbor.

As Pleo looked over the ledge, he saw that the "stars" were being scattered by a flying red and yellow six-limbed bug of some sort. The creature flew briskly along, quickly finishing up a long, trailing arc of glowing powder which slowly fell from the sky. Down in the water, a large, strange ship with a slim and tapered hull entered the harbor at a brisk clip, carried along by the wind and the trails of sea Pokémon flanking its hull closely. The ship had two masts with large, golden sails sporting a central design of what seemed to be a gray teardrop with two spikes jutting out along its sides. Indistinct figures followed it in the air, with other figures visible moving on its deck. Occasionally, there would be a stiff wave or column of water coming from the flanking sea Pokémon directed at other points in the water, surely some sort of sport or game.

"There's a ship! The stars brought a ship to town!" Pleo insisted in his cheery demeanor. The others were not so quick to brush that statement off. One by one, the Pokémon in the field came up to the ledge, and as they saw the strange vessel Pleo couldn't help but notice something very wrong with what he had expected would be a fun sight for everybody…

Everyone else watching at the ledge had turned pale.

"Oh no, first ferals disturbing my orchard, and now this?" Mildrew muttered to himself.

"We need to head back to town to make sure the kits are safe, now," Teja barked to his mate.

"You take the burrow, I'll check on the older kits in town," Marley tensely replied as they rushed off down the path from their field, their preoccupation with their crops having been completely erased by the sight of the strange ship.

"Wait! Marley! Teja!" Pleo cried, turning after the Nidorino and Nidorina who were disappearing down the path. "Where are you going?! What's going o-?"

Before Pleo could finish, he heard a deep boom and the faint sound of shouting, followed by another boom, and then another.

When Pleo looked back down, he saw that the ship had rammed a smaller craft and forced it up onto the docks in order to make a space for itself. A few of the figures who arrived with the ship stayed nearby, casting barriers of light similar to those Pleo saw at some sparring matches at the Dojo.

The rest of them were making their way into the town from the ship. Every now and then, a bright flash or a torrent of water could be seen ripping through the paths and structures along Bluewhorl's seaside, sometimes from the direction of the boat, sometimes from the opposing direction. Each one made a faint sound that carried above the din of shouts coming from the town; a crack, a pop, a boom, a churning noise much like angry waves from the sea.

After so many cycles of the cacophony, one of Bluewhorl Town's structures would crumble, or catch fire and trail smoke into the air, or simply cease to exist.

"Huh?! What's-?! What's going on?! What is that ship?! And why are the Pokémon from it wrecking the town?!" Pleo squawked, bewildered and concerned about why this ship had all of a sudden started ruining the home he had lived most of his life in.

"Pleo," Nida answered seriously. "Those are pirates."

Chapter Text

As the faint din of the pirate raid continued to reverberate up the hills of Tromba Island while smoke billowed up from Bluewhorl, the members of Team Traveller struggled to come to terms with the calamity unfolding before their eyes. After a shocked pause, Kiran shook his head and broke the silence.

"Come on, we need to get going," the Swellow said to his teammates with an anxious chirp as he flapped up and took wing. "The Guild and the guards are going to need all the help they can get down there."

The Swellow flew for the path that returned from the fields to the town, his teammates darting off after the team leader…

Save one.

"Wh-Where are you going?!" Pleo cried from the ledge, his words stopping the rest of Team Traveler in their tracks at the other end of the Leppa field that Nida's family tended to.

"Where do you think they'd be going?" Mildrew's voice answered from the side, his head trained towards his field. "They've got things to defend, just like I've got a field, a mate, and a sapling that need protecting!"

While they didn't exactly have children or fields of their own, the other Pokémon on Team Traveler also looked similarly torn about staying any longer at the little Leppa field on the hill. Family, friends, neighbors, their teammates at the guild, little places which brought moments of joy to their lives, all of those were threatened by the chaos in the town below.

"We need to get down there right now to help fight them off!" Nida exclaimed, hopping up and down, her barbs fanned out from tense anxiety.

"F-Fight them off?" Pleo stammered, his feet still firmly glued in place by the bluff.

"Yes! We have to!" Crom cried, the young Druddigon flailing his arms to try and beckon the young Lugia forward.

"B-But won't that hurt?!" Pleo squawked. After all, if Gwenith was already intimidating to fight against when she was all smiles and cheers afterwards… why, these pirates must surely be in a class of their own.

"It doesn't matter! The town's in danger!" Nida shouted back, her tone betraying annoyance with the hesitation of the white bird that was supposed to be Tromba's Protector. At the other end of the Leppa field, Kiran circled in the air a moment and turned his head back to Pleo.

"Pleo, do you remember how we said that Pokémon on Rescue Teams need to be able to not run away from scary things all the time?" the Swellow called out.

"Because- Because someone might be counting on you to help them?" Pleo asked back falteringly.

"Yeah, well right now, the entire town's counting on us to help," Kiran explained, his words causing Pleo to cast a troubled glance at the ground in front of him. Yes, these pirates seemed frightening and all, but... The entire town? All of those Pokémon in their scarves, the ones that had given him so much attention since he came down from that cave…

All of them were counting on Pokémon like this little group to help them?

As the little Lugia remained frozen in place with indecision, he was interrupted by a chirp from Kiran, who was now facing down the path.

"Pleo, we can't wait any longer! If you're not ready, just stay here with Mildrew, okay? We'll be back when it's over," he tried to reassure his newest recruit before he, Nida, and Crom turned and took off down the path for the town.

"Kiran! Not that this isn't a big honor and all, but shouldn't you not be volunteering other Pokémon for babysitting?!" the apple-grower called after the Swellow as he quickly trotted over to Pleo.

"Bring it up when there isn't a town being destroyed!" Kiran's rapidly fading voice called back. Mildrew glanced out at Bluewhorl, the bedlam engulfing it visible from the bluff.

"Fair enough," the Tropius sighed. "Come on, Protector. There'll at least be things up here you can defend, too."

The more Pleo looked at the destruction unfolding below as Mildrew led him off, the more he thought of the townsfolk in Bluewhorl. About the Pokémon that lived there... About how aside from the Marked, they all were so happy just to be around their 'Protector'… And about how many of them might be just as scared as he was of getting hurt and counting on that 'Protector' to help them...

It was then that Pleo decided that, as intimidating as this whole matter with these pirates was, he needed to be somewhere other than this patch of Leppa berries high up on the hill.

"W-Wait for me!" the Lugia cried out. Much to Mildrew's surprise, almost as soon as the words had left Pleo's mouth, the young Guardian had darted onto the path and after his teammates.

"Eh?! Wait-! Where are you going?!"

As the tree trunks and shrubs lining the path flew past Pleo, and Mildrew's voice grew further and further away, the young bird called out again, hoping that his choice had not come too late.

"Kiran! Kiran! I'm coming too! I wanna help!"

"Come quickly, then!" a Nidoran's voice called from further ahead.

Pleo darted down the wooded path, and before long he could see his teammates again. When he rejoined their rush along the path towards Bluewhorl, he found his worries about the bedlam below crowded out by thoughts about the Pokémon that were counting on this blue-scarved Rescue Team to help them. After what seemed like an eternity running past an unending mass of trees and undergrowth, the forest along the path melted into the abodes and structures on Bluewhorl Town's outskirts.

The attack on the town still raged in the distance with deep booms and thuds which were punctuated by the occasional sounds of struggles. Shouts, roars, screeches, yowls… All of them accentuated the already sobering sight of plumes of smoke coming up from the direction of the town's harbor. The paths were devoid of the normal bustle of Bluewhorl's daily life; the team's arrival into town was greeted by a lone young Meowth that had not found shelter yet and was bolting up the path with wide-eyed fear.

"Are you okay?!" Nida cried out, causing the cream and brown kitten to come to a panting stop.

"Th-There's pirates wrecking the town, o-of course I'm not okay!" the still-hyperventilating Pokémon blurted out.

"Calm down, calm down… You're fine, just find a place in the fringes to lay low for now-" Kiran attempted to reassure the creature, when a bug-like voice from further down the path hissed:

"Oh nice going, veikka, you brought us even deeper into the island."

"Aah! They're here, too!" the Meowth panicked, as it fled as fast as its legs could carry it up the path and into the fringes around the town. Pleo's throat tensed as he saw his teammates brace themselves. The Pokemon that the jittery creature had heard was just around a blind corner, and worse still, it sounded as if the creature was not alone.

"Oi! You try maintaining a sense of direction with an old maid clawing and trying to take a bite out of you!" a gruff voice growled.

"Look you morons, there's a path right here that heads to the sea," a comparatively yippy voice admonished. "Let's just take it before we get surrounded!"

And the voices were… Leaving? Pleo could hear fading footfalls from around the blind corner, which indeed were heading towards the sea. But… Was that really such a good thing?

"Kiran, they're getting away!" Nida cried.

"Oh no they aren't!" Kiran squawked. He lead the group around the corner, bringing into view the forms of a Gabite, a Trapinch, and a Growlithe who were quietly retreating for the sea.

"Stop right there, criminal scum!" the Swellow barked to the three, which caused the Pokemon to stop dead in their tracks and whirl around, revealing gold scarves with some grey spiked pattern tied around their necks. The Growlithe was lugging a satchel, the Gabite had a claw occupied with a half-eaten piece of bread, and all three seemed to all have a few scrapes from a scuffle with what was probably the 'old maid' that they were talking about.

"Aw crud," the Trapinch groaned.

"Relax, veikka. They're obviously still a rookie team," the Gabite scoffed in between mouthfuls of bird-shaped bread loaf. "What are they gonna do? Cry on us?"

"Wait a minute- That's one of mom's loaves!" Crom growled once he recognized the shape of the bread the Gabite was polishing off. "That's from her bakery!"

"Yeah, and so what?" the Gabite spat out, devouring the rest of the loaf. "What are you going to do about it, brat?"

"We'll sic our island's Protector on you!" Crom roared. "Lugia! Guardian of the Seas-!"

Before Crom could point out the Protector of Bluewhorl Town, he was interrupted by an indignant chirp.

"I'm Pleo!" the white bird in the group interrupted as he beat his wings to try and look more forceful. "A-And you can't just barge in here and wreck the town! That's mean!"

Although Pleo tried his hardest to mimic Crom's roar, his words came out closer to the shrill cry of a disturbed Wingull- and failed completely to impart a 'divine' impression on the three ruffians that were currently trading unimpressed looks with each other.

"That mewa is supposed to be a Protector?" the Growlithe asked dismissively.

"Ha! Sure you are," the Trapinch chittered mockingly. "And I'm the King of Conntow!"

"Nice try birdie, but I'm pretty sure that 'Protectors' aren't little mutant feather dusters that are shorter than me," the Gabite growled.

"Let's see if you rookies can fight better than you fib!" the Trapinch huffed, snapping his jaws aggressively as he hopped up and down.

"Come on, give us a claw, mutt!" the Gabite snarled, before he drew one of his claws into a tensed stance. "Let's wipe the floor with them!"

"Coming right up!" the Growlithe cried, before he hopped back, tensed himself, and emanated a blue, seemingly electric aura his body before giving a running tag to the Gabite and Trapinch. The Gabite flinched a moment from the tag, and then lunged for the group slashing wildly.

The team quickly scattered out of the way of the land shark, Pleo making a tumbling dodge to the ground. As he hopped up back to his feet, he became acutely aware of a pain shooting from his tail as something heavy latched on to it and attempted to drag the Lugia back.

"Ow! Let go! Let go!"

"Not happening!" a muffled voice hissed. When Pleo looked behind himself, he saw the culprit to the sudden pain: the orange bug among the pirates had taken a bite into the end of his tail!

Pleo squawked out of surprise and swung the Trapinch around, attempting to shake the antlion loose. A bit further on, Kiran narrowly dodged being swatted out of the sky by the Gabite, thanks to Crom intercepting the Gabite's arm fins with a timely bite.

"Grr, please. Who do you think I am? Some dainty little Deerling?" the Gabite growled at Crom, before he used his free claw to deliver an upwards slash at Crom's underbelly. The poor Druddigon let go of his grip, crying out in pain, and was knocked away to a tumbling stop against a wooden message board.

"O-OW!"

As Crom staggered to his feet and nursed the raw, reddish scrape along his belly scales, the Gabite took a moment to wince a bit from the ruddy lizard's bite and some fresh scrapes the land shark had picked up while clawing him away.

The Gabite whined a little under his breath about how this accursed hamlet just had to have Pokemon that it hurt to strike, steeled himself again, and then after perceiving an opening, swooped down at the Druddigon to best him.

"Here, have another-!" he cried, before he was cut off by Nida's voice.

"Get away from him!"

Nida plowed into the Gabite's stomach with a tackle, throwing him off course and off-balance with a yelp. The Gabite got up uneasily and stiffly and, much to Nida's pleasant discovery, with a pawful of her barbs stuck in his stomach.

"Urgh… You little runt, what did you do to me?!" the Gabite demanded in a groaning snarl as he eased himself to his feet and tried to pick out some of the barbs. In the background, Nida could hear Pleo crying out, as well as the voices of the other two pirates harrying him.

"Stop moving around so I can deep fry the bird, you dumb bug!" the Growlithe's voice barked.

"I'm trying! He keeps jerking me around!"

"So let go of him!"

Crom had gotten back up on his feet just in time to turn with Nida to see the Trapinch release his grip on Pleo's tail, apparently attempting to nip at him again on something less peripheral than a tail.

"Grr!" the Gabite growled as he approached Nida and Crom with bared claws. "Don't think that you're just gonna be able to- Gah!"

The Gabite quickly fell back, narrowly dodging a directed burst of air from Kiran's wings strong enough to cut a groove into the dirt of the path as the Swellow swooped in between his teammates and the attacking dragon.

"Nida! Crom! I'll take the Gabite!" the Swellow directed as he tensed himself for an exchange of blows with the land shark. "If you and Pleo keep the other two busy so they can't heal the poison, we've got this battle sealed!"

Nida and Crom didn't question Kiran's words. As soon as they felt the breeze from his taking flight after the Gabite, they rushed forward to Pleo. Said Lugia was running further down the path, having just barely dodged a gout of fire from the Growlithe and an open-mawed tackle from the Trapinch by a stroke of luck.

"H-Help! Two against one isn't fair at all!"

"You're right! It isn't!" the Trapinch chittered as he reared up to lunge at the Lugia with another bite from his jaws. "But that's life, hu- Ow!"

But the lunge was not to be, as the Trapinch quickly found himself getting pounced on by a larger and heavier spiked dragon that slashed at his back, which sent the Trapinch tumbling forward.

"Oh, you'll pay for that, runt!" the orange bug hissed as he righted himself, and then lunged forward and clamped his maw onto the Druddigon's arm.

"Argh!"

The Trapinch came to regret latching onto Crom's arm almost as soon as he bit down, as he spat the blue arm out and dropped to the ground whining with his maw agape and its innards scraped by the Druddigon's rough hide.

"Owowow… My poor mowth-"

Before the Trapinch could overcome the pain in his maw, he was kicked up into the air by an unseen assailant. As he fell back to earth, he saw a Nidoran entering a second spinning kick, with her foot racing toward his head.

The sound of a loud thud from Nida's kick reverberated along the path, along with a second, duller thud of something striking a wall with the accompanying sight of a small cloud of dust. When it cleared, the form of a weakly groaning Trapinch embedded in a damaged wall became plainly visible.

"V-Veikka!" the antlion groaned before he lapsed out of consciousness, which prompted Nida, panting and wide-eyed with surprise that her second kick came out so strong, to take a moment to grumble and leer at the creature.

"'That's life,' hu-?"

Nida was cut off by a burning sensation on her flank that made her yelp and jump back. When she looked at her side, she noticed a blackened patch of fur and barbs that had been where a small but potent gout of flame struck her. She then looked up and locked eyes with the pirate Growlithe who had snuck past Nida, Pleo, and Crom and now stood in between them and Kiran.

"I'm still here, you know! And I heard your bigmouth captain blab all about your strategy!" the orange and cream dog growled, before he dug out a Pecha Berry from his bag with his muzzle and bolted on up the path towards Kiran, who was busy evading the Gabite and trading occasional potshots.

"Hey! Fatty! Heal up! These bachory are trying to wear you-!"

No, the team was not going to have their hard work undone by some tubby thug playing medic, Nida thought to herself. She sprung forward, and swiped at one of the Growlithe's hind legs with a claw, causing him to stumble in pain and whirl around.

"Ow! Oh, it's-!"

As the Growlithe prepared to retaliate, he noticed that Pleo had disgorged a glowing ball that was coming straight at him- a realization that came a few moments too late as the ball struck the Growlithe and sent him tumbling across the path into a post supporting someone's mailbox. As he tried to get back up to his feet, he felt a stiff smack to his underbelly by something that felt like it was covered in sandpaper, and another from a thing that prickled to the touch.

"Gaaack," the pirate groaned, before he too fell unconscious. Nida gave the dog another stiff kick for good measure before she and her teammates discovered the final pirate's fortunes with the sound of a loud thwack.

"O-Ow!"

When she and the others directed their attention towards the Gabite, they saw that he was stumbling, stunned after being struck in the nose with the team Gravelerock.

"You didn't think I was keeping my distance from you just because you were ugly, did you?" Kiran taunted from the air.

At this point, the Gabite was near the end of his rope from the poison and this rookie team that was surely cheating in its battle somehow. The dragon growled, and decided that things would be better off were he to call a retreat.

"Nrghh... Ugh, aika häipyä. Take your own path to the sea, you useless mutt! I'm out of here!"

As the Gabite ran off and hopped off the ground in a running glide, he suddenly found a white, frigid beam striking one of his wings and crusting it over with ice. The Gabite lost his balance, pinwheeled, and tumbled along the ground before crashing into the wall of a hut.

The Gabite then weakly attempted to rise to his feet, only for a Nidorina to ram his belly and drive the hapless dragon into the wall of the hut.

"Ar-Argh," the Gabite groaned, before the Nidorina released the Gabite to flop forward from the wall with a thud. Much to Nida's surprise, the Nidorina was none other than...

"Mom?!"

"You're the last kit unaccounted for, and so help me, no one harms my kits like that!" Marley growled with a freshly-plucked scale in her mouth, looking back at the motionless Gabite sprawled out on the ground. The whole incident couldn't help but massively unnerve an already weakened Crom, who shivered a bit at the sight of Marley's thoroughly effective defeat of the last pirate of the group.

"D-Did she just-?!" he squeaked.

"Mrph, the Gabite will at least live to get what's coming to him," Marley harumphed as she scratched at an ear and took a moment to pocket her most recent trophy.

Kiran flew down and hopped along the ground towards his teammates. The pirates they had encountered were a bit easy to defeat, but they had exacted their toll on Team Traveler. There were bites to treat, scrapes and cuts to clean, and burns to soothe.

But before Kiran could fish out so much as a berry from his bag, the team recoiled as they felt the ground beneath their feet tremble a little and heard the sound of loud, thudding footsteps belonging to a heavy and powerful creature.

"Gaah. Where is that shrine bell?" a deep voice grumbled. "Snacks aren't supposed to be this hard to fi-!"

The thumping noise rounded the blind corner, and revealed himself to be a hulking black beast with gray metal rings about his limbs, an armored head with long horns that looked just like the spiky design on the pirates' scarves, and a strong, cruel-looking maw. He was exactly the sort of Pokemon that Team Traveler didn't need to run into right now. Nida and Crom froze in their tracks, Pleo squawked out in startled shock, and even Marley seemed to be caught off-guard for a moment.

"Oh, you're kidding me!" Nida squeaked, instinctively raising the barbs in her fur while her knees went wobbly. Steel types were always a pain to deal with since they never seemed to be affected by her barbs, and this pirate was the biggest Steel type she had ever seen.

The Aggron, detecting the apprehension of the Pokemon gathered before him, gave a self-assured grunt, before shooting a piercing leer at the much smaller and unthreatening-looking annoyances before him.

"Step aside, runts!" the creature bellowed, "Unless you dare to challenge Hess, the mighty captain of the Iron Fleet!"

"Grr, it is you that should be stepping aside, Captain of the One Ship 'Fleet'!" Marley growled as she bared the barbs under her blue fur. "You barge into our town, talk about eating the bell fromour ánima!"

"Um, Mami," Nida whispered wide-eyed, the big brute staring dismissively down the group seeming just ever-so-slightly improbable for even Mami to challenge. "You might not want to-"

"Well I, Marley, La Cazadragones de Tromba won't let you!" the Nidorina spat defiantly at the Aggron.

"Y-Yeah!" Crom cried, trying to swallow his fear of the pirate leader and put on a brave face. The Druddigon spread his wings to try and make himself seem larger and gestured at Pleo. "And we've got our Protector here too!"

The young dragon's words made the Aggron flinch for a moment, before he blinked and realized that the 'Protector' that the Druddigon was pointing at barely came up to his stomach and looked about as self-collected as a Deerling about to be hit by a Flash Cannon.

"Pffhahaha! That thing is your 'Protector'?" the Aggron laughed. "I've sparred with the likes of Trizano the Immortal before! Do you think I'm going to let a bunch of midgets and an overgrown Wingull push me around?!"

The creature gave a low growl and lowered his head at the group, adopting a pose that was clearly tensed for battle.

"It looks like I'm gonna have to run you all over to get it into your heads!" he cried, before the towering brigand charged at the five Pokémon on the path.

"Take cover!" Kiran squawked, as the five scattered out of the way of the oncoming Aggron. The bulky Pokemon was easy enough for them to weave and fly around, but much to their horror, the creature, rather than stopping and attempting to charge again, leapt up into the air and slammed his legs into the earth as he came back down.

Pleo quickly leapt off churning and tossing earth and clung onto an overhead tree branch for dear life, as the Aggron's impact cracked the ground, kicked up a plume of dirt, and caused some of the nearby tents and huts to shudder and partly collapse from the violent tremor.

As the dust settled and Pleo let go of the tree branch to drop back down to earth, he became aware that Nida and Crom had been thrown across the path, and weren't moving beyond an occasional weak twitch.

"A-Aaah! Nida! Crom!" the Protector cried out in panic.

Marley, who had ridden out the pirate's tremor, was livid at the sight of her daughter sprawled out on the ground.

"Grr! You! It's time to end you, pirate!" she snarled back at the Aggron. The Nidorina threw herself at the creature, delivering a powerful kick along the creases of his belly armor that caused the creature to stumble backwards and yelp out of pain. As Marley kept the Aggron occupied with another kick, Kiran dug out a round seed from his bag and lobbed at the Aggron, which exploded with a fiery, searing blast after it struck Hess' back. As the creature stumbled about to regain his footing, Kiran, seeing a momentary opening, flitted down to Pleo to try and direct the increasingly battle-paralyzed Lugia.

"Pleo! Get Nida and Crom out of here and somewhere sa-! Look out!"

Just then, the Swellow attempted to push Pleo out of the way of something from the corner of his eye. It was only after feeling a heavy blunt slam, being knocked back tumbling across the path, and starting to hear a shrill repeating noise in his head that Pleo discovered that he was surrounded by rocks and compacted dirt that the Aggron had thrown up the path.

"Ugh… Why- Why do I hear beeping?" Pleo groaned as he uneasily rose to his feet. Kiran was splayed out along the ground, groaning weakly. In coming to Pleo's aid, Kiran had taken the full brunt of the earth and rocks the pirate captain had thrown up the path. Just up ahead, Marley was pulling herself out of a ditch weakly, panting from having been thrown up the path by the torrent of earth and stone.

"Grr," the Nidorina panted, still defiant, but her strength having been badly dented from this ordeal. Hess, gasping from having had the wind taken out of him from Marley's surprisingly painful kicks, was still energetic enough to taunt her in an ugly tone.

"Ha… Ha… Is that the best that the little bunny that was gonna 'end' me can do?!" the armored lizard bellowed as he advanced on the Nidorina.

At this point, Pleo simply couldn't help but be overwhelmed.

This stranger had come into town and made everyone miserable, had made his body ache and feel like it was going to fall apart at any moment, had just hurt his teammates in front of him... and here he was about to hurt another Pokemon that Pleo knew.

And Pleo just couldn't accept that.

"St-Stop it! Just stop it!" the young Lugia cried, his voice growing shriller and increasingly feral in tone. As the Aggron and Nidorina turned towards Pleo, they saw that the blue markings that adorned his body were now glowing bright.

"H-Huh?! What is-?!" Hess stammered, beginning to grow increasingly pallid before Pleo cut him off with a screech.

"Just leave us alone!"

And then the Lugia brought his wings together, with the winds whirling in between them.


Near the harbor, the pirates' incursion had dealt quite a toll to the town. Most of the shops and structures were badly damaged, if not outright destroyed from the flying beam attacks and projectiles that filled the air. Some sea Pokémon in the pirate ranks defended a beachhead with a constant torrent of water attacks, allowing their more terrestrial numbers to probe deeper into the town.

A Skiploom with a lavender headband tottering and falling out of the air after being hit by a gout of fire here, a Rhyhorn from the guild crumpling up against a wall from a jet of water there, a Cherrim among the pirates getting thrown into the water after being hit by a roundhouse kick from a Mienfoo... So the chaos went on, until a loud thump came from the southern direction of Bluewhorl.

For a fleeting moment, all eyes trained themselves on the sight of a massive column of air abruptly blowing out from the direction of the noise, and then a stiff gale-like gust that swept over the battlefield, blowing pirate and defender alike off their feet. As the different Pokémon picked themselves up from the sudden gust, they heard the sound of… Screaming?

"A-Aaaaaaah!"

The screaming figure was revealed to be an Aggron that was hurtling through the air… Directly towards one of the masts of the pirate ship in the harbor. The tumbling Pokemon struck the mast, which, after bending back a bit, snapped like a tree limb in a storm and fell into the water, sending the Aggron falling the other direction to the ship's deck with an audible crash.

"F-Fall back! F-Fall back!" Hess' voice rang out across the harbor filled with the unmistakable sound of panic. "We're g-getting out of here!"

It took only a moment's hesitation from the various pirates to realize that whatever creature had done that to their captain, and their poor ship, was still out there. And that if they didn't get a move on, it might come for them next.

"Retreat! Retreat!" a Floatzel with an Iron Fleet scarf cried out. The fierce fight quickly became a hasty and disorderly rush by the pirates back to the ship as the defenders renewed their assault, exhaling whispered gratitude at whatever had so clearly turned the tide of battle in their favor.


Back on the path on the southern side of Bluewhorl Town, Pleo was panting, exhausted and drained, his plumage having reverted back to their normal colors.

"Haaah… Haaaah…"

All that was left on the battered and torn-up path lined by now battered and torn-up buildings was simply him, the unconscious forms of his teammates, the three less-threatening pirates they had defeated earlier, and, of course, Marley.

"Protector?" the Nidorina panted, as she stumbled onto her feet from a wall she had been blown up against.

"H-Huh? Wh-What happened?" Pleo woozily asked as he groped around for something to steady himself.

"That was incredible!" Marley cried out in reverential awe. "You-!"

Before Marley could get particularly far with her praise, Pleo tripped over one of the rocks that Hess had thrown about in battle, which sent the young Lugia stumbling headlong into an askew mailbox.

"Ow..." Pleo groaned, before he toppled over and the color and sounds of the world around him faded, leaving Marley to poke uneasily at his prone body.

"Um… Protector?"

Chapter Text

The first thing that came back to Pleo was the pain: a dull, throbbing ache all over his body, that flared whenever he bumped or brushed up against something too hard. The next thing that came to him was that he was in some sort of tight, confined space that was round and soft like Nida's bedding… wait a minute, it smelled like Nida's bedding too! So this was… straw? But then why did the things he brush up against feel like his scarf?

"Ow," Pleo groaned, as his eyes wearily opened. Little by little, the sights and sounds around him became less of an amorphous blur. He began to make out partitions, the cloth-covered straw nest his body was resting in, and a ceiling made of canvas around him, illuminated by bioluminescent algae in jars, and soon heard voices coming from behind.

"He's waking up!" a young, but deep and rough voice cried out.

"Pleo, are you okay?" a smaller and softer voice asked.

"Huh? Who's-"

The Lugia uneasily shifted in this strange nest. He could make out the forms of a Swellow and young Druddigon in the periphery of his vision, but by and large, it was dominated by the face of a little blue spike-lump.

"Nida!" Pleo cried, as the young Protector all but pounced on the Nidoran to wrap his wings around her.

"Ow! Hey! I'm still sore from getting floored earlier!" the Nidoran protested, which made Pleo recoil from the noise. When he drew his wings back from his partner, he noticed that his teammates seemed to be sporting white bands over parts of their bodies.

Nida had some on her flank, where the Growlithe had burned her, and on a few of her legs... Crom had some around his belly and his arm, where the pirates they had fought had bit and clawed him... Kiran had some over a wing that must have been the one he shoved Pleo out of the way of those rocks with earlier…

Why, as Pleo inspected himself, he discovered that he too had some of the white bands, primarily over his tail and along some places on his side where he had been glanced by the rocks that knocked Kiran out.

"E-Eh?!"

"Oh, they're just bandages, Protector," a passing Chimecho explained. "Why you'll probably be able to get rid of them after a few days, an Oran Berry or two, and a lot of rest."

Pleo looked about his surroundings, and realized that the canvas roof went on for quite a ways, terminating at walls fashioned from wooden panels in the four directions around him. Everywhere he looked, there were other Pokémon running to and fro tending to other Pokémon that had white bands over parts of their body on similar straw beds. Pleo noticed that, like the Chimecho, the attending Pokémon wore white scarves bearing the outline of a red circle divided in two with a smaller circle overlying the center.

"Where are we? And why are all these other Pokémon here?"

"We're in the medics' tent," Nida said. "Mami brought us here after we got knocked out. We... weren't the only Pokémon to get thrown around a bit earlier."

As Pleo paid closer attention to the other Pokémon in the room, he noticed that with the exception of the Pokémon in white scarves, they all seemed to be aching, much like his teammates were. Some of the Pokémon seemed to be well enough to talk with these 'medics', others were groaning from their aches and lingering wounds, and a few truly pitiful-sounding voices could be heard whimpering.

All of these Pokémon had gotten hurt by the pirates? After Pleo's thoughts shifted to the golden scarved Pokémon, he was then hit by a nagging, dreadful realization that the ne'er-do-wells might still be in the town hurting others.

"But the pirates!" Pleo cried out of alarm, "They're-!"

"Gone, thanks to you!" Crom cheered.

Why, they still needed to be-! Wait, did… Did Crom just say they were gone? But how?

"Thanks to… Me?" Pleo asked, giving an incredulous chirp.

"Yeah, after you blew their captain into their ship, the rest of them high-tailed it off the island!" Nida exclaimed.

"Well… It was a shock when we heard about it after waking up, but everything really is safe now," Kiran said, as he gave a reassuring pat to the Lugia. It was a moment that would have ended with a content if weary night resting… Were it not for the fact that at that very moment, a Mawile, Pinsir, and a Girafarig wearing the town guards' lavender headbands marched past Pleo's bedding, and dragged a bandaged and hogtied Trapinch up from another cloth-covered straw mat.

"Alright, you!" the Mawile snarled. "You've got a sentencing at the main square to attend!"

The Pinsir grabbed the antlion by his bindings and unceremoniously dragged the poor creature along, the Girafarig shoving the pirate from behind every now and then.

"H-Hey! Ow! E-Ei niin kovaa! These ropes chafe and the ground's rough!" the Trapinch protested, kicking futilely against his bonds all the while as the guards drug the Pokémon out of the tent.

"E-Eh?! I thought you just said all the pirates were gone!" Pleo squawked, hopping up from his bed and retreating back towards a corner at the sight of the Trapinch. Why, that was even one of the same pirates the group had fought earlier!

"Uh… Well, some of them weren't able to get away with their ship," Kiran ruffled his feathers in discomfort as he began to explain, "So they wound up getting captured."

"And it's not like they could go anywhere fast," Nida added, "They're being guarded closely, why Mami and Papi even took some time off to-"

"They're still here?!" the Lugia exclaimed, growing wide-eyed at the thought that the pirates were still in Bluewhorl Town menacing its residents. The rest of Team Traveler couldn't help but groan and trade some looks with each other as Kiran attempted to explain just what 'captured' meant.

"Er. Pleo, that's not what-"

"We have to stop them!" Pleo cried out, as he darted off past the group for one of the tent's exits, tripping up a passing Meditite carrying a small bundle of berries on his way out.

"Kiran! He's not supposed to leave observation this soon!" the Chimecho exclaimed, before she floated briskly off to help the Meditite pick up the scattered berries.

"Pleo? Pleo! Wait!" Kiran called after the little Guardian as he and his teammates attempted to keep pace as much as their wounds would let them.


Moving around Bluewhorl Town at night was so much more confusing than it was during the day, even before taking the damage to the local landmarks into account. Pleo still had an idea of where the pirates would be, and after a few wrong turns and dead ends, the little Lugia found himself nearing Bluewhorl's main square by the sea...

Or as Pleo made out from fires burning in the centers of hastily-cleared and lined pits, he had more accurately arrived where the square was earlier in the day. Whatever damage the square sustained was from last week's storm rendered irrelevant by its present state as a mass of rubble and trashed structures. A crowd of Pokémon from around town, including numerous leering guards, were forming a cordon.

Aha, so that's where those pirates would be, Pleo thought to himself as he worked his way through the mass of bodies.

"I'm here! I'm here! Where's the pirates to stop-?" he panted, fatigued from his journey from the medics' tent in his present state. After he popped out at the front of the crowd, he saw that the pirates were indeed there, if not the way he expected them to be. Much to Pleo's surprise, the pirates of the Iron Fleet had all been bound and dumped around a long wooden post with cross-beams and tattered, sopping ropes and canvas attached to it that had splintered towards its base end.

Perhaps it was because they were bandaged much like the Pokémon in the medic's tent, perhaps it was the fact they were ringed by a much larger hostile group, but the creatures seemed to have their aggression largely drained from them… Well, sort of, judging by some familiar faces that Pleo quickly picked out from the sorry assembly.

"Some 'path back to the sea' you chose, Eltenios!" a Trapinch tipped onto his back with bound feet pointing in the air and a bandaged jaw grumbled.

"Grr… And to top it off, you called me fat when you're the one that pigs out every meal!" a Gabite with a bruised nose and bandages around his belly tied to a cross beam growled.

"It's fur, not fat!" a hogtied Growlithe with bandaged flank, evidently 'Eltenios,' huffed back at his companions. The three continued bickering with each other as Pleo continued to stare puzzled at the ineffectual pirates, when he heard Kiran's voice calling out from behind him.

"Pleo!"

Pleo turned around, and saw that his teammates had also made their way through the crowd, trading relieved, if exasperated, looks as they caught their breath.

"Don't run off like that!" Kiran admonished.

"Erinomaista... just when life couldn't get any worse," the Gabite moaned, as he and his companions finally noticed some most unwelcome foes from earlier.

"Why are they all tied up?" Pleo asked.

"That's because they were captured," Nida sighed. "The ropes are to keep them from getting away and hurting anyone else."

"Must say that when I heard that the pirates lost a mast off their ship, I didn't expect it to come in handy like this," Crom mulled, as some uneasy murmurs came from the captured gold scarved Pokémon bound to and around the broken ship mast.

"Aw man… This is totally not gonna end well, is it?" a defeated and battered-looking Quilava groaned.

"I thought that lucky charm Hess wore under his scarf was supposed to deliver Pokémon safely back home!" a Sableye bound with some loose mast rigging grumbled.

"Well, it did… for him," a Jigglypuff that had been bound and gagged (lest any song from her be too audible) with strips cut from the mast's sails replied, screwing her eyes shut in frustration.

"Th-This wasn't supposed to happen! It w-was supposed to be a simple hit-and-run!" a trembling Zebstrika whined.

"Well now it's a simple one-way ticket for you patéticos parásitos out into the Wastes!" a Granbull with a lavender headband growled back.

"Yeah! See how you like having your day ruined!" a Wingull jeered from the sidelines.

"Enough!"

After the commanding voice cried out, the crowd grew silent. Some Pokémon near where one of the juice bars used to be cleared the way for an Ampharos with a red scarf with white dots holding a square scarf that was diagonally divided into a black and a white portion with one of his hands to come through to the front.

"Silence in the court! I, er-"

The Ampharos nipped the scarf he was holding, undid and tossed his Guildmaster's Scarf into the air, letting it fall and drape over his tail as he took his new scarf and draped it over his head much like a wig.

"Aha, now I'm ready! I, Judge Hatteras now call this court into session!"

"Psst! How many of those scarf changes does he do anyways?" Pleo quietly asked Kiran as Hatteras finished tightening up his judge's attire. The Ampharos then turned to a waiting Sceptile with a guard's headband and questioned the arboreal reptile.

"Osmund, you're the Captain of the Guard are you not? What are the charges against this lot?"

"Um… Guildmaster Hattera-?" the Sceptile asked incredulously as it stood blinking, before the Ampharos quickly interrupted.

"Judge Hatteras, Osmund."

"Right… anyhow, just take a look around for yourself!" Osmund exclaimed, making a slow, sweeping arc with the blade on his right arm. Hatteras took a moment to survey the swath of destruction all around the gathered crowd. The docks were missing chunks of the piers and other parts had collapsed into the water. The boats moored at them were similarly filled with holes, some half-sunken and resting on the harbor's floor. Not a single shop along the docks or around the square was undamaged- many of them utterly erased from existence by the events of the raid.

"Aha… so Destruction of Property and Public Disorder..." Hatteras mused.

"One of them knocked me out for being in the way!" a Skrelp with a bandaged snout huffed from the harbor's water.

"And Battery…"

"One of them set my shop on fire! I was going to upgrade it!" Calino shouted, hopping up and down, his scales flushing a most irate-looking shade of red.

"And Arson…"

"They stole from my bakery like a bunch of ill-mannered ferals!" Gwenith's voice roared from the crowd, the Druddigon shaking a fist in the air.

"And Grand Theft Pastry…"

"They murdered my bubble!" an upset Wooper from the end opposite Pleo cried out. "It was my best friend!"

"And Bubblecide..." Hatteras concluded before he turned to the bound Pokémon in the center of the gathering. "How do the accused respond?"

"I-It's not like we stole eggs or anything like that!" an Ekans that had been bound into a hoop nervously stammered.

"And... Uh… We didn't kill anyone? I think?" a Carvahna weighed down by a rock tied to her tail offered.

"My bubble was someone!" the Wooper angrily retorted.

"Grr… The bubble aside, this sorry lot did at least manage those two things, even if a number of us are presently sleeping off some wounds tonight," Osmund growled as he cast a leer at the captured pirates. "Though given their shameful display, I suspect it was because of our luck and their incompetence rather than any goodness from their hearts."

"Duly noted," Hatteras replied, before he raised his voice to ask the assembled Pokémon, "Now then, I ask the humble jury, just what should be the sentence for these ruffians?"

"The Wastes!" a Kingler shouted.

"Yeah, let's see them try to rob their way out of that!" a Pinsir from the town's guard hissed.

"Our world doesn't need Pokémon like them around!" a glaring Mightyena added.

The suggestions were joined by others of their kind, which caused the brigands to begin to pale and quake out of fear after the crowd pronounced its verdict. Exile. To the uninhabitable grave that ringed the Cradle and filled the rest of the world. To an unknown future where the few that managed to return spoke of it offering nothing but desperation and a slow demise to those who couldn't escape.

Hatteras took a moment to pause with a hand to his chin, and then turned to question the captured Pokémon.

"Do the defendants have any commentary about the suggested sentence?"

"W-Wait! D-Don't do that! Pl-Please!" the Zebstrika begged.

"There's nothing out there but distortions and ash!" the Carvahna whimpered, trembling after finding her attempts to flop away frustrated by the rock tied to her tail.

"We'll starve!" the Quilava whined, flattening out his ears.

"J-Just let us go! We won't come back to this island again! E-Ever!" the Ekans cried out as the serpent curled tighter against its bindings into a rough ball.

The desperate pleading went on for a little before Hatteras cleared his throat, and barring some sniffling from one of the unfortunates who had begun to cry out of fright, he managed to secure the silence of the crowd.

"Now I ask the jury… Is this really what we want as a town?"

Some quiet murmurs went around the gathering. Some were dismissive of the Ampharos' words, others wondered aloud why Hatteras didn't just zap the creatures to shut them up. It was then that the mumbling was broken by the sound of a familiar Nidorina's voice.

"Well what are we supposed to do, Hatteras?" Marley asked as she came along with her mate to the forefront of the mass of Pokémon. "They come into our town and leave a gaping scar on it… They try and steal the things we store away for our young, for the next year, and for making peace with the Company… And their leader was planning on desecrating the town ánima!"

"And they don't give us a lot of options, either!" Teja grumbled in agreement as he flicked his ears and shot a leer at the captured brigands. "We've got their damage to patch up! How's that supposed to get done if we still have to deal with them?"

"With all due respect, Guildmaster-" Bluewhorl's Sceptile captain of the guard interjected.

"Judge Hatteras."

"Judge Hatteras," Osmund hastily corrected, rolling his eyes. "But we wouldn't have enough cells to hold over a dozen miscreants like these even if we gave them over to the Company later! Those cells are meant for Pokémon that have made fools of themselves at a Juice Bar!"

"And all that pirates know how to do anyways is to steal and to ruin things!" a Hoothoot from the guild shouted from the crowd.

"Then... Perhaps it's time that they learned some different skills," the Ampharos proposed, which drew some curious questions from the gathered residents.

"Huh?"

"What's he going on about?"

"As you and I can all agree, this lot has caused more than its fair share of trouble to our town and has a debt to society to repay," Hatteras said, gesturing at the still-shaken looking group of pirates in the center of the gathering.

"So given that the Pokémon that have wronged you are still inexperienced… would it not be a bit more sensible to put them to work healing the scars they've left behind so that they might makesomething of themselves in the long run beyond being petty thugs and thieves?"

"It sounds good to me!" a voice called out, before all eyes in the gathering turned towards the direction of a certain white and blue Protector, whose teammates were visibly burying appendages into their faces.

"Pleo!" Nida scolded.

"What? It did seem to make sense," Pleo replied. Some more murmurs went about the crowd- after all, if the Protector thought it was an idea worth trying… Maybe this 'making the pirates fix the mess they made' suggestion did have some sense to it…

"As it so happens, we do have a means of exacting justice along those lines. One that this town has used before in the past…" Hatteras trailed off before finishing his thought in a dramatically lower and louder tone, such as one that one might utter a prophecy of doom with: "Community Service."

Some of the younger Pokémon in the audience turned to their parents to ask questions such as "what's a 'Community Service'?" as some of the elder Pokémon murmured among themselves approvingly and hastily explained that they knew that 'Community Service' was sensible all along. The pirates, sensing that there was an alternative for them to look forward to other than the Wastes, began to calm down, but even then, there was still a nagging matter that prevented them from being completely at ease...

"Why did he just suddenly say that in a super-ominous voice?" the Sableye among the pirates asked worriedly.

"Hmm? I don't believe it was ominous, Community Service is just the term," Hatteras replied, once again enunciating the term with particular stress to it. "You will be pacting to a Pokémon that will guide you through life here in Tromba much like we would treat a feral seeking to join our ranks. When you are deemed to have reformed and paid your debt to the island, you will be accorded the rights and privileges of a normal resident."

"Hrmph, cute euphemism you have there for forced labor. Well, what if we don't want this 'Community Ser-'?" the muffled Jigglypuff huffed defiantly, before she noticed a wall of leers coming from the surrounding Pokémon… As well as from her companions.

"Oh, right," she muttered.

"Whelp, that's my verdict. Those of you who wish to go to the Wastes anyways are more than welcome to ask Osmund here to make arrangements with one of his teleporters if you so insist," Hatteras declared. "Alternatively, for those who would prefer an equivalent sentence closer to town, there are some Apricorn thickets on the far side of the-"

"Okay! Okay! We get it!" the Gabite cried. "Just… What exactly are you gonna make us do?"

"I have a proposal!" a Druddigon's voice called, as a certain 'old maid' stormed out from the crowd, stomping directly towards a Gabite that had helped himself to her bread earlier.

"Erk!" the Gabite gulped, as he frantically tried to break free of his bonds only to feel a coarse-hided claw grab his neck.

"It's called 'You're repaying me for that bread you stole!'" Gwenith snarled at the Gabite, as she tightened her grip on the dragon's neck and dug the points of her claws in between his scales.

"O-Ow! Let go! Your hide's hurting me!" he whined.

"Wait, mom. If you're putting him to work, does this mean that I can get off a little early from the bakery for a while?" Crom asked from the sidelines.

"Proposal approved," Hatteras proclaimed, and motioned for some guards to undo the Gabite's bindings. As Gwenith dragged her still-flailing new baker back into the crowd, the Ampharos turned back to the assembly.

"Any others?"

"Hmm, I mean, it didn't suffer any damage directly… But I could use that Trapinch there to dig a few ditches for my field," Mildrew called out from a few rows behind the front. "I have been meaning to plant a few more apple trees..."

"What?!" the Trapinch chittered in exasperation.

"Approved," Hatteras replied, as the guards came to unbind the newly-minted apprentice horticulturalist for Mildrew to claim. An icy and airy tone then called out from another part of the crowd.

"I'll take the Quilava, I could use him for more… Ahem. Intractable babysitting cases," she said, which caused a few of the parents in the crowd to begin to trade nervous looks with each other.

"Hariti," a Lombre protested, "You can't honestly be suggesting-"

The Quilava was quick to toss in a loud protest of his own at the idea of being stuck with the Day Care worker.

"You beat me unconscious and then froze me over into an ice block! As if I'm doing anything for you!" he spat, which caused Hariti to receive a few incredulous and impressed looks.

"Oh trust me, I'll survive him. I've wrangled my fair share of Fire types before. And I'm sure he'll learn how to find his softer side for younglings… Or else learn to like being a lawn ornament for a few hours at a time," she replied, shooting a frosty leer at the Quilava.

"Approved," Hatteras announced as the Quilava too was untied and reluctantly led off groaning under his breath, taking care to not be heard by the ice sprite.

Pleo, not really picking up the gravity of the situation at hand, couldn't help but find these 'Community Service' sentences to be a little amusing. When an idea struck him… Perhaps he could help out with this sentencing, too...

"Oh! Oh! I want a Community Service! I want a Community Service!" Pleo cried out, waving his wings for attention.

"Pleo!" Nida admonished, flattening out her ears. The Nidoran grumbled a little and wondered why the little Guardian couldn't have a less-outsized mouth to run off.

"With all due respect, Pleo, but I'm not exactly convinced this is a good idea," Kiran sighed, putting a wing over his face. Pleo paused for a moment, taken aback- it was all in good spirits and helping the town, wasn't it? So why were his teammates so reluctant to get into this 'Community Service' thing, too?

After he mulled things over, he thought there might be a way for him to still help out in sentencing after all...

"The Community Service can be helping me train?" he suggested.

"What?! Why should one of these thugs get that honor?!" a bandaged Rhyhorn loudly protested from the the crowd, before being joined by a number of other protesting voices… Until Hatteras cleared his throat to speak.

"Now, now, there is some sense in the Protector's words… Recall how he blew their captain across town earlier?"

"Yeah! It's not easy to spar with this!" Pleo declared, happily playing along as he beat his wings together to try and whirl away some heaps of shop rubble near the sea to show off… Only to find that the winds that came from his wings, barring a few odds and ends, completely failed to dislodge anything from the rubble heaps.

"I dunno, I'm pretty sure I could spar with that," Scout's voice volunteered from the crowd.

Pleo squawked in shock and his beak fell agape. Didn't everyone say that he had blown the mean Aggron across town earlier? But he had just given the toughest beat of his wings he could muster... he could even feel his wings aching a bit from overexertion! And it didn't look anything out of the ordinary!

"Eh?!" Pleo cried. "That was just like-!"

"That's quite enough, Pleo," Hatteras hastily spoke. "Let me rephrase the question… With the knowledge that the Protector will eventually replicate today's feat sometime down the road, which of you would care to take up the offer for sparring?"

The question elicited some coughing and nervous laughter from the crowd, the Rhyhorn and a few of the more vocal protesters earlier quickly concocting various excuses for why they couldn't volunteer such as 'chronic stomachaches'.

Even Pleo's teammates had to concede, it would be nice if someone else could do the work of sparring with Pleo. He seemed to be back to normal now… But just in case he wound up stumbling into whatever had allowed him to rout Hess earlier once again, it would probably be for the best if they weren't the ones getting blown across Tromba.

"Well, if there are no takers, I think that it's fair to let Pleo make his choice," the Ampharos said, as he motioned for Pleo to step forward.

"Hrm… I pick…"

Who should he pick? The Zebstrika still in the group? No… He looked too big and intimidating. The Jigglypuff? But the pink puffball seemed too hostile and angry earlier. If only he could convince Hatteras to let him borrow the Trapinch or Gabite from earlier… Wait a minute! There was one more Pokémon with them, and no one had given him community service yet!

"The doggy! I already beat him once with Nida and Crom, so if I have to do it a second time, it shouldn't be that hard, right?" Pleo chirped cheerily, proud that he was helping with this 'Community Service'. His teammates on the other hand...

"Uh… Pleo," Crom groaned as he screwed his eyes shut and buried his face in an open claw.

"Can we maybe pick a different-?" Nida suggested, before Hatteras' voice interrupted her.

"Approved."

"Grr," Nida grumbled. Of all of the pirates to get stuck with, it just had to be the lippy fatty who burned her earlier. She watched with a leer as the guards undid the orange dog's ropes; before any of Nida's teammates could come over, the Growlithe exhaled what seemed to be a sigh of relief and bounded off over their surprised objections… towards her position.

"Well, I suppose that's one way to get a new recruit," Kiran murmured as the little dog approached the team. The Growlithe was quick to pick up on the misgivings of some of his teammates, and huffed back accusingly.

"Hrmph! With the way you're acting, you'd think I was diseased or something! I thought that pacting was supposed to be a fresh break!"

"Unfortunately, he does have a point," Crom sighed. Nida flattened her ears, not really understanding why Pleo, who was still in his giddy own world about being able to help with 'Community Service', had thought this was a good idea. But since they were going to be stuck with this mutt for a while...

"Fine, tell us a bit about yourself. Do you have a name?" she sighed.

"The name's Eltenios!" the Growlithe barked proudly. "It means I don't ever, ever give up and-"

"Okay, first rule of your community service," the Nidoran interrupted while raising her barbs in frustration. "We're not saying all of that."

"Eh?!" the Growlithe yipped. "But it's my-!"

"Why not 'Elty'?" Pleo cheerily suggested.

"Actually, it does has a ring to it and it is more concise," Kiran mulled. "I'll let Nida's rule stand."

"I like 'Elty' too!" Crom added.

"Daj spokój! I don't even get to be called by my full name?!" the Growlithe exclaimed, folding his ears back in annoyance.

"I thought you said that 'pacting was supposed to be a fresh break' earlier," Nida chided the now grumbling Growlithe that would from now on be 'Elty'. "Who said anything about names being exempt?"

"Grr..." Eltenios- er… Elty fumed, glaring daggers all the while at Nida.

"This is going to be an interesting season for training, isn't it?" Kiran sighed.

Chapter Text

It was another balmy afternoon in Tromba, with blue cloudless skies above, and sunlight beaming down on the tropical island and its little town by the sea. A quaint backdrop to the sight of a young Lugia darting about a courtyard in between the roofed corridors of Mosca's Dojo...

"A-Ack!"

… who was trying his hardest to dodge clumps of burning cinders being spat out at him by a strafing Growlithe.

"What, you expected me to just bark and roll over for you today?"

As the days passed after the pirate raid on Bluewhorl, things settled little by little into some sense of equilibrium. Bandages were removed, aches and pains faded away, and Pokémon became healthy again. Even if the repairs to the damaged and obliterated shacks and tents in town didn't keep pace, the residents of Bluewhorl went back to their livelihoods. As for Pleo, he too returned to his routine of daily training, resuming his sessions in Mosca's Dojo under Team Traveler's guidance as if the raid never happened...

"Come on, Protector!"

"Yeah! Kick that pirate's butt!"

"You should try to fly! Do a barrel roll!"

... except his routine back then didn't involve Nida's three older siblings cheering him on. Or being on the battlefield at the far end of the Dojo that deliberately built away from any nearby shacks. Or getting burning hot embers being blown at him. Or sparring with a former pirate the team had dubbed 'Elty' (or 'Eltenios' as the Growlithe occasionally insisted) who was blowing said embers at him. They also most certainly didn't involve said Growlithe running circles around the young Protector of Tromba Island. Perhaps it wasn't such a normal routine, Pleo thought as he whirled around after Elty and spat up a glowing ball from his mouth.

"Just because you're sparring alone now doesn't mean that I'm going to be going any easier!" the Growlithe barked. The orange dog sidestepped the glowing ball, which sailed on until it struck an barely-visible barrier of light being held in place by a Golduck.

The ball imploded with a flash of light and the barrier dissipated, the Golduck muttered something under her breath about "Mosca oughta work on his accuracy." The creature then swiftly switched places with a Staryu, who formed a barrier to replace the one that Pleo had broken.

As the young sea guardian and his sparring partner continued their fray, a certain Druddigon and Nidoran cast wary glances at the Hawlucha overseeing this match. The two noting and growing a bit concerned at the raptor's visible nonchalance towards the events on the field.

"Erm… Mosca? Are you sure this is a good idea?" Crom asked as he gave a subconscious beat to his wings. Pleo did seem like he was taking a harsher beating on the field than was healthy for the young Lugia.

"Now, now, one-on-one sparring is an important skill to develop," the Dojo Maestra replied to the young Druddigon.

"Yeah, but against Elty?" Nida protested. The Nidoran hopped up and down and waved her arms to try and grab the Dojo leader's attention.

"Oh?"

"Kiran's off running an errand! I'm just saying, I'd be more comfortable if we were in there to help smack him around again," Nida piped. Which for a short moment caused the Growlithe on the field to stop and wheel around towards the direction of his spectating teammates.

"Oi! Just because your leader's making me serve as a punching bag here doesn't mean I'm not on your team, you know!" he growled indignantly. "Why, I'm even wearing your same dippy blue scarf now!"

"Oh trust me, this old bird can keep him in check if it comes to that," Mosca quietly reassured. "No Pokémon walks away unfazed from Mosca's Plancha Voladora!"

"And we're here, too!" a purple spike ball proudly declared, puffing his spikes out.

"Yeah, if we have to, we'll make that mutt see stars!" another blue Nidoran added.

"Dorin? Ani? Don't you have work right now?" Nida grumbled, frowning and flattening out her ears.

"We're all en recreo!" another male Nidoran cheered.

The chatter among the Nidoran was quickly interrupted by a cry from Pleo on the other end of the field, as he once again cast a glowing ball from the back of his throat.

"Hah!"

Only for the Growlithe to weave around the orb again, if narrowly enough for the ball to graze his pelt. It was an experience that couldn't help but frustrate Pleo. Elty hadn't been this slippery when in earlier fights with Nida and Crom's help, so why was he suddenly so much better at avoiding things when it was just against himself?

"H-Hey! Stop moving around like that!" Pleo squawked.

"For you to land a free hit? As if!" Elty taunted, taking a moment to wave his tail at Pleo's face.

"You want a piece of this? Chodź i weź to!"

"Alright, fine then!" Pleo snapped as he took off running for his sparring partner. The Growlithe rolled his eyes and exhaled another red-hot clump of cinders at the approaching bird, only to be stunned to see the bird rise above the glint of fire into the air.

Which was quickly followed by Pleo beginning to wobble and then come tumbling down with a crash… on top of the little orange dog.

Nida and Crom winced as the sound of a loud yelp reverberated across the battlefield. Pleo for his part seemed to have his wind sucked out of him; he caught his breath from on top of his mostly-obscured opponent as Nida's siblings chattered excitedly.

"Nice one!"

"Yeah, you flattened him!"

"Ooh! Why that's just like mi Plancha Voladora! Well done, Pleo!" Mosca cheered. The Dojo's Maestra was pleasantly surprised. Why the Protector seemed to have a shared fancy for how to pin annoying opponents! … if with some rather visible weaknesses in his form.

"Try and put more oomph into it next time, though!" she called out.

"Uhm… But-" Pleo stammered sheepishly. "I meant to fly down and do that glowing ball thing, tho-"

Before Pleo could finish explaining what his awkward tackle was meant to be, his ears were suddenly filled with a harsh, snarling roar from beneath him.

"GET OFF OF ME!" the Growlithe bellowed. The ear-splitting racket making Pleo flinch and calmly and quietly get off of his opponent.

"A-Aaah!"

Oh who are we kidding? Pleo couldn't think of many things at that moment other that he desperately wanted to be anywhere but where that dreadful-sounding voice was coming from. He broke away, running as fast as his legs could carry him… Straight into an unseen wall.

"Gwark!"

Pleo recoiled and rubbed his head to find that he had struck one of the barriers maintained by the Pokémon manning the fringes of the battlefield. Its owner, a Glaceon, immediately responded with "I'm so sorry, Protector!" and a litany of profuse apologies before he abruptly recoiled and jumped back.

Before Pleo could ask what was wrong, he was cut off by a burning pain along his back. He looked behind himself and saw that a large blotch of his feathers along his spine had been singed. As Pleo flailed around, beating out cinders that stubbornly clung to life, he indignantly called out to their maker.

"Aagh! H-Hey! You can't just breathe fire on me like that! You roared in my ears!"

"Sure I can," Elty retorted, scoffing at the young Lugia. "I scared you off. You let your guard down. I burned you. Simple as that."

"What?!" Pleo shouted, growing rather cross with this sparrer who seemed to take every chance to attack him while he was down. Frustrations which the extra Nidoran on the side were keen to echo.

"Boo!" the purple Nidoran known as 'Dorin' hissed, fanning his barbs out.

The faint sound of a pebble glancing off the backside of one of the barriers reverberated, followed closely by an growling "Way to be cheap!" from the blue Nidoran called 'Ani'.

"Pleo! You need to play at his own game!" Crom called out from the side and over the voices of the Nidoran. Pleo stopped on the field to tilt his head towards the Druddigon, what did Crom mean by 'playing at his own game'?

"Huh-? Hey-YEOW!"

Pleo saw Elty coming with teeth bared from the corner of his vision, and reflexively tried to pull his wing away from him. But alas, he was not fast enough to prevent Elty from clamping his jaws down onto a mouthful of his wing.

"Hey! I was explaining something to him!" Crom fumed, before Elty unclamped his jaw to respond… and spit out a few feathers from his mouth.

"Not my problem!"

"There!" Nida cried. "While his guard's down, Pleo!"

"While my-?"

As soon as Elty began, he found himself sailing headlong towards one of the sidelines on a stiff, unrelenting gust of wind which took him off of his feet. He bonked his head on a translucent panel erected by a Gloom and fell to the ground with a yelp.

"A-agh! What was-?!" the Growlithe cried out. His yelps were then answered by a voice that, while tired and fatigued, sounded rather frustrated.

"Stop being mean!"

Elty heard some Pokémon from behind him moving away. As he stumbled to his feet, he immediately understood why when he saw a quickly moving glowing ball headed directly for him.

"Aw kurczę-"

In the blink of an eye, the ball struck the hapless Growlithe, flinging him through the vacated gap where the Gloom and her partner had been. The hapless dog sailed across a roofed walkway and into the wall of a hut with a thud. Gravity then took over and dropped Elty to the ground along his flank, leaving him to moan stunned for a moment...

"O-ow…"

… as the audience of Nidoran on the sidelines continued to trade commentary.

"Ooh, harsh."

"That's gonna leave a mark."

"I think that we've gone far enough and damaged enough property for one day to declare a victor," Mosca hastily interjected. Between the winded and scowling Lugia on the field, the Growlithe groaning next to the Dojo hut, and the visible dent hut's wall, it was hard to argue with the Hawlucha.

Or at least it was until Elty took a moment for the Maestra's words to register.

"H-Huh?!" the Growlithe exclaimed, springing to his feet swiftly but uneasily. "But I'm still able to-!"

"As cathartic as it is to watch you get blown around the room, Elty... you can't exactly carry out your community service if you're passed out for half the day," Nida chided. If nothing else, she had to quietly concede that the former pirate was candid about something. Even when it wasn't sensible, he really didn't ever give up.

"Besides, if you're conscious, you'll be able to work on getting a little less tubby!" Crom added.

"Grr… I could've turned things around though!" the Growlithe fumed, flattening out his ears as made his way back towards Pleo onto the battlefield. "And it's fur, not fat!"

"Enough. The match is over," Mosca scolded. "Shake claws and then let's get you both healed up."

Pleo didn't really want to shake with Elty, and judging from the leer the Growlithe had as the two walked to each other, it seemed like Elty didn't particularly want to either. But this was just sparring, and if it was right to give one to Gwenith after a heated fight… maybe it was right to give Elty one too, he guessed.

After the two gave each other a begrudging shake, they made their way back towards Mosca and their waiting teammates. The Pokémon that kept the barriers up around the battlefield headed off for a break from work and Nida's siblings darted off for the exit back to their work with a shared refrain of "Whelp, show's over." Mosca quickly summoned Pleo over to her side where she had set out a bowl of water for him to drink from as she inspected him for wounds. Elty went towards another bowl laid out a short distance away and began to lap up its contents when he noticed a blue spike ball approaching him with an Oran Berry.

"Oi. What do you think you're doing?" he growled.

"Um... Hello? Treating the wounds you picked up?" Nida replied, dropping her Oran Berry by her paws and nudging it forward to emphasize her intentions.

"Look, I might not be a smart Pokémon, but I'm pretty sure that a poisonous little spike ball like you is the last thing that I need around my wounds!"

"Do you want to be miserable and wait your turn for healing?" Nida grumbled, the Nidoran rolling her eyes a bit at her new teammate's intransigence.

"It's alright, Nida," Crom offered. "I actually need some first aid practice myself!"

"See? Someone more qualified is here already!" Elty declared, taking the opportunity to stick his tongue out. Nida looked at Elty, then over at Crom, and then back to Elty. She supposed Crom might have gotten better at healing since the last time that Kiran had him care for someone on the team, but...

"Um… Crom..."

"I think I've seen Kiran do this enough times to know how it works now," Crom replied with a cheery grin.

"Ow!"

Aha, Mosca must have found some wounds to use that Oran Berry from the team bag on after all. The clamor of Pleo's cries out from a little ways down the hall couldn't help but make Nida turn her head towards the sound. She caught sight of Pleo just in time to wince and shift his wings a bit from the aftereffects of the berry's juice, and to see Mosca set the blue fruit's pulp before him.

"You heard him," Elty barked. "Go and talk with the feather duster or something."

"Whatever, it's your body, Elty," Nida sighed. She hopped off over to Pleo's side just as he started to pick at the leftover Oran pulp and Mosca went over to inspect the damage from Elty's rough landing.

"Hey, the Oran Berry wasn't too hard on you, was it?" the Nidoran asked.

"It feels much better when it's going into my tummy than onto me."

"Heh, they're weird like that, yeah," Nida replied, before she was abruptly interrupted by a certain Growlithe's voice crying out.

"Gah! What are you doing to me?!"

"I'm trying to find your wounds!" a young Druddigon-turned-impromptu-healer reassured. Sounded like Crom hadn't improved that much from last time based off of that start.

"Is Elty okay?" Pleo asked, his earlier frustrations with the Growlithe subsiding a bit as he flinched at the sound of the dog's yelps.

"Eh, he asked for it. I'm sure that he'll be happy enough with his choice of a healer."

Nida sighed at the Growlithe's stubbornness. Perhaps in the future he'd be a little less hesitant to trust his teammates' advice.

"Elty wasn't too hard on you out there, was he?"

"He kept on attacking me even when I wasn't ready!" Pleo chirped indignantly, pouting a bit at how Elty had so persistently dogged him throughout the entire session.

"Well, I won't say anything about his attitude," Mosca interrupted as she returned from surveying the damage from the match. "But he wasn't doing anything wrong in helping you train."

"He… wasn't?" Pleo asked, tilting his head as Elty continued being preoccupied with his, erm… First aid?

"Argh! You're scraping me!"

"Stop squirming!" Crom huffed as he attempted to pin the wriggling Growlithe in place on the dog's flank. "I need to apply the berry!"

"Oh boy… Looks like I'll have someone else to tend to," Mosca muttered under her breath. The Hawlucha stared a moment at Crom's fumbling attempts at treating wounds, before she turned back to address the young Protector. "Well, remember when you first fought him? Were any of you really worrying about if the other side was ready or not?"

"I... don't remember anyone worrying about it," Pleo replied. Though really, who was supposed to worry about that when the 'other side' was trashing the town?

"Recall that the whole point of sparring is to prepare you for battles where you can't retreat," Mosca explained. "Part of that is also preparing for things you might encounter in those battles. Even if they aren't necessarily very fair."

"I guess I understand… But he seemed like he was enjoying it too much!" Pleo squawked as Elty's voice rang out again.

"Why are you holding a clawful of my fur?!" he cried out, turning his head up from the ground.

And true enough, Crom was holding a clump of Elty's fur, which he set aside.

"Well, I couldn't get the berry to touch your hide. So I just needed get some of your fur out of the way. I'll do it for all the scrapes that I made while looking for it too-"

"Get away from me!" the orange dog yelped as he sprang to his feet.

"I think the universe might have agreed with you a little there, but even so, be gracious," Mosca replied as Elty bolted away from his 'healer'. Nida tried and mostly failed to stifle a giggle as this former brigand was put on the run by an attempt at healing of all things.

"Crom? Maybe you should let me take over," the Hawlucha instructed.

"Yes, please!" Elty cried out.

"Oh? But I just started!" Crom protested as Mosca started tending to the Growlithe who was all too eager to sidle up and wait on her assistance. On the other hand, it wouldn't make sense to protesttoo much... It was one less task to do, he guessed. Meanwhile, Nida observed that Pleo continued to be troubled.

"Hmm," he sighed.

"Is something else bugging you, Pleo?" the Nidoran asked. After all, he seemed satisfied enough with Mosca's explanation earlier… So then what could be bothering him now?

"It's not something that Elty did, it's just that- Well... Kiran says that I need to practice flying… but I also need to practice sparring. So I tried to do both today, and-"

"Hey! I'm back!" a chirping voice interrupted.

Its owner swooped in in a blue and red blur. After circling around the courtyard to slow a bit, the speaker alighted on a railing along the corridor, revealing himself to be the Swellow leader of Team Traveler. After taking a moment to shake out his plumage, Kiran bent his neck down to talk with his younger teammates from his perch.

"How'd sparring go?" he asked.

"Harrumph! Elty needs to learn how to make up his mind!" Crom growled, shooting a dirty look at the Growlithe. "First he tells me that he wants me to heal him, and then he takes off on me before I even got started!"

"Well excuse me for expecting someone who could treat my wounds without putting me through agony!" the Growlithe replied, incensed that the creature that hurt him had the gall to be the one to complain first.

"Er… Crom... you did mention to him that you're still going through first aid training beforehand, right?" Kiran sighed after hearing the argument between the Druddigon and the Growlithe.

"Wait, what?!" Elty cried, as his expression hardened into an exasperated leer that seemed to be doing its hardest to all but bore through Crom's hide.

"Why are you looking at me like that? You never asked!" the Druddigon protested.

"You really didn't, Elty," Nida added.

As Elty grumbled a little under his breath, Kiran then turned to the only Pokémon on his team who hadn't said a word to him so far about sparring.

"What about you, Pleo?"

"Well, I guess it wasn't too bad, but..." Pleo said as he shuffled his wings uneasily. "Kiran? Why is flying so hard?"

The question took Kiran aback as he all but fell off of his perch on the railing. "Eh?! Mosca already moved you onto airborne sparring?!" he squawked in surprise.

"Wait, she did? But I thought I was just sparring with Elty," Pleo mumbled, now rather confused. Mosca was supposed to teach him flying while he was sparring too?

"He tried to get airborne in the middle of today's match," Nida explained. "And… Well, he didn't quite stay off the ground too long."

"Hey, it's not all bad! He pinned Elty nicely once he came down!" Crom added as he mimed Pleo's earlier dropping tackle onto the Growlithe, who rolled his eyes out of annoyance.

"I see," Kiran mulled to himself as he hopped down to hallway's floor.

"Wait, what were you doing away from the Dojo today anyways?" Pleo asked with a curious tilt to his head.

"Oh, I told Hatteras about the trouble you've been having flying, Pleo, and you're not going to believe this!"

"Huh? What did he say?" Pleo asked.

"He pulled a few strings to get you on your wings faster with Melissa's help! Why, you just might be flying by sundown!" Kiran exclaimed, beating out his wings excitedly. It was a revelation that made Pleo hop into the air and mimic his team's leader in celebration.

"Yay! That's awesome! But… Who's Melissa?"



Kiran answered the question quickly enough as the team made their way out of the Dojo and through the town, even if it was one that Pleo couldn't quite wrap his head around. Apparently 'Melissa' was an odd little bird who had a talent for helping other Pokémon to learn moves.

Melissa's shop was surprisingly easy to find; part of it was because the shop was one of the few buildings on its path that wasn't in dire need of repairs. The other part of it was that the shop was... in a word, strange.

Unlike any of the other structures Pleo saw in Bluewhorl so far, the walls of Melissa's shop were composed entirely of mismatched and various-sized stone cubes. The stone blocks were fitted haphazardly here and there, glued together with something that looked like silt. Along the top of the walls, bits of undyed canvas poked out horizontally from in between stone, apparently the building's roof. The doorway and windows, if they could be called that, were empty spaces with erratic fringes as the cubes jutted in and out of where a straight-ish contour would usually be. The only remotely normal features of the doors and windows were the plain, drab pieces of canvas that covered them from the inside, listing with the movement of the wind.

It made the younger Pokémon on Team Traveler wonder… Just what was Melissa going to do to Pleo?

"So… Melissa's a 'move tutor'?" Pleo asked. The Lugia couldn't help bob his head side to side scanning along the peculiar building, mesmerized with the stone cubes in the wall.

"Uh huh! Uh huh! She's supposed to help Pokémon learn moves they normally couldn't with the help of tee-yems!" Crom replied, before he put a claw to his mouth and continued on in a more puzzled tone. "Although... some of them are called eych-ehms for some reason or another."

"'Tee-yems'?"

"I'm pretty sure they're supposed to be magical plates that were created back in the days of the old gods," Nida added as she took a moment to scratch an ear with a paw. "Or at least I'm pretty sure they're magic since I don't know what 'dee-yenay baioh-dehta' is supposed to be otherwise."

A 'dee-'? A what now? Pleo thought to himself that for the first time, this 'dee-ehn'... Whatever thingy seemed to be a word that Nida didn't know for herself, which only made him more confused and left him staring blankly at his partner.

"Huh?"

"It's what Melissa says they're made out of," Kiran explained. "The plates are supposed to be made of a material containing the essence of life and have some sort of spell for learning a move that was written on them."

"Wait, so this place… Is full of tee-yems?" Elty asked, as a devious grin began to creep over his muzzle. They were peculiar things and supposedly useless in the paws of most Pokémon. But, in his former line of work, they would reward anyone who was lucky enough to nab one with a princely sum. And from the sound of it, his old compatriots had somehow missed this veritable treasure trove!

"They wouldn't by chance miss one, would they?"

"Hey, hey, hey! Don't think that I can't see that smirk on your mug!" a chittering voice from within cried out.

The voice's owner quickly stormed out, revealing himself to be a leering Corphish. The red and white crustacean was quickly joined by a young Tropius- the daughter of a certain Tropius apple farmer out on the fringes, the more seasoned members of Team Traveler guessed.

"For the record, all of the discs in here are labeled already," she huffed. "If you tried to walk off with one, everyone else in Bluewhorl would know it came from here!"

"And we would get your sorry pirate bum punted off to the Wastes afterwards if you stole from here like your buddies tried to!" the Corphish hissed as he clicked and flailed his claws angrily.

"Alright! Alright! I get it!" Elty hastily corrected as he bounded back behind Crom. "It was just a question!"

As Nida and Crom rolled their eyes at Elty's transparent excuse, Pleo blinked back at the two other creatures with confusion.

"Wait, which of you is 'Melissa'?"

"Neither of them are," a strange, droning voice from within chirped. "Those are my assistants, Bracket and Patricia."

The droning voice came out and revealed itself to be a bird quite unlike any others the gathered Pokémon could think of. She was a pink creature with a teal beak, tail, underbelly, and a pink body. In lieu of the more expected limbs a bird might have, Melissa had nubby triangular things in place of wings and moved about by floating to and fro above the ground. The creature's flesh, if it could be called that, was firm and angular, as if she was a giant lantern folded from some curious type of paper.

"I am Melissa. Move Tutor and- DOGGY!"

The Porygon abruptly chirped and gestured excitedly at Elty with her beak, much to the Growlithe's surprise.

"Eh?! What's with you?!" he cried out, as the Porygon floated back and attempted to recompose herself.

"Apologies, residual subroutines… As I was saying, I am Melissa, Move Tutor and Sentient Advanced Variable Virtual Interface. Bracket, Patricia, please be dear moderators and lead our guests in," the creature chimed, as she returned to the inside of the stone building.

The Corphish and Tropius began to follow after the creature and beckoned Team Traveler to follow. The house seemed every bit as unusual inside as out. The roof was composed of canvas partitions that laid on a cross-hatched grid of rope, such that they could be taken down whenever Melissa desired. The receiving room was furnished with naught but some canvas on the floor and some stone cubes of different sizes. Crom and Nida couldn't immediately tell what any of the furnishings were for; perhaps the agglomeration was supposed to be some sort of rug paired with stools or small tables?

"My internal subconscious processes are being regulated by SilphOS version . Though not for much longer if Team Sawtooth finds me an Up-Grade soon," the creature carried on in a peculiar if recognizably congenial tone. The strange bird bobbed up and down off the ground giving her "wings" a small twist before she turned her attention to the Swellow in the group.

"So what brings you here today, Kiran?"

"Yeah, I can't remember the last time you ever came by here," Patricia added.

"Hatteras said you would be able to teach Pleo a move to help him learn how to fly?" the Swellow asked, as he dug out a slip of folded paper from his bag, uncreased it on the ground, and presented to the Porygon with his beak. "He even gave me a voucher for one of your lessons to use it on."

Pleo stared at the slip of paper as Melissa sized it up. He still couldn't fully understand what the runes on it, this 'writing', was supposed to mean. Pleo was sure it was just there to be pretty and decorative when he first saw it, but everyone else was adamant that it was a form of talking for the eyes. Why, none of the patterns on the slip of paper looked anything like the ones that Nida and Crom had shown him earlier.

"Hmm… Yes, the organization is a bit sloppy, but my image processing routine can confirm that this is indeed a valid voucher. As for a move to fly… Let me run a quick internal query," the Move Tutor said as her eyes seemed to wander.

"I detected four potential results excluding duplicates. Information from prior queries suggests that the most requested result for this query was HM02," the pink and blue bird answered, bobbing her tail in triumph. "The most common associated applications for HM02's use are battle and endurance flight."

"That sounds perfect!" Kiran chirped, all but taking to the air out of excitement. "We'll take that one!"

"So… You're going to teach me to read 'dee-yenay baioh-dehta'?" Pleo asked the young Tropius, tilting his head.

"Oh no, silly. You wouldn't be doing the reading," the Tropius explained as her shorter counterpart ducked into a back room.

"Yeah!" Bracket added before darting out, holding the edges of some tablet with his claws. "Good luck trying to make sense of this!"

The Corphish presented the contents of his claws to Pleo, which Nida, Crom, and Elty quietly walked over to snoop in on for themselves. The tablet was a clear substance that looked like some sort of glass, though felt less smooth and cold to the touch. The tablet appeared to have two hinges or bindings, almost as if it were a book bound on both sides, and had apparently developed some cracks on its "covers" through the ages. In spite of all of that, the fragile little volume seemed to do its part in protecting a reflective circle with a hole in it that was there in lieu of pages.

"It's a mirror?" Pleo asked.

"Nope," the Corphish answered he as moved the translucent tablet nearer. "Look closer."

The four looked and looked, and after a while, Crom, always the team member with one of the keener visions, blinked as he noticed something amiss with this 'tee-yem'.

"Eh? Why there's rings on the outer and inner edges!" the young Druddigon cried out. "So that's what the spell is written on?"

"Er… sorta," Bracket burbled as he handed the disc off to Patricia, who clamped gently down on a corner of the volume. "Most of the writing is supposed to be on teeny little dots that are too small for any of us to see, or at least that's what Melissa says."

"Yeah, and on top of that, the writing needs to be interpreted properly," Patricia added as she beat out her wings, the case muffling her words. " If it isn't done just right, it's downright useless!"

"But then how on earth is anyone supposed to read writing on tiny invisible dots?" Elty barked, giving a puzzled frown to the Tropius and Corphish.

"That is where I come in," Melissa droned. "Every properly-functioning Porygon instance contains data IO capabilities, including an interface for biodata mass storage."

"Basically, she'll read the disc for you, and teach you how to get started," Patricia explained in a cheery tone. "All you need to do is follow instructions."

"Please come in to the tutoring chamber so we can get started, Protector," Melissa instructed. The Porygon began to float off into a chamber next to a window with a canvas shutter before gesturing with her beak at Elty. "Bracket, please ensure the extraneous variable in the group doesn't cause any problems coming into the room."

"What's that supposed to- Gack!" the Growlithe cried out, as he found his head being drug towards the ground by Bracket, who had clamped on firmly onto his scarf.

"Way ahead of you, Melissa," the Corphish chirped in response as the group headed into the chamber. As the crustacean dragged him along, Elty grumbled quietly all the while at the indignity of having to be led around like a troublesome pup.

"Ugh… Is this really necessary?"

Team Traveler entered a chamber dominated by two cube-shaped seats, each directly opposite the other. Melissa settled down next to the one further from the door, coming to a rest on her side as Kiran and his teammates traded blank looks with each other.

"Please take the other seat while my attendants prepare me for the reading, Protector," Melissa instructed.

"Prepare you?" Nida asked, tilting her head at just what a teacher would need to prepare for reading some words.

"She goes into a bit of a trance while teaching," Patricia explained as she trotted over to Melissa, still holding the tablet Bracket showed off to Team Traveler earlier.

"Yeah, so she needs help both getting into it and out of it," Bracket explained as he drug Elty over to Kiran's side by the Growlithe's scarf. The Corphish then let go and skittered over to Melissa. When he reached the Porygon, he felt along her underbelly, seemingly in search of something.

"While I am in Data Read Mode, please sit in the designated space and do not leave it until I return to normal operations," Melissa droned.

"O- kay..." Pleo answered. The little Lugia settled down and tried his hardest to stifle the urge to move about, to look around, to preen himself, or to do any of the things that a young bird normally would.

"And don't interrupt him!" Bracket added in an adamant tone. "Move Tutoring only works on one Pokémon at a time! If you butt in, it could ruin the session!"

"Understood. But…" Crom trailed off in a curious tone. "What exactly is Melissa going to do?"

"Yeah, sounds like one heck of a trance," Nida murmured, as she began to grow concerned. Elty on the other hand gave an unamused huff, still annoyed about being drug along into the room by a little mud bug shorter than he was.

"Pbbt, as if we'd want to interrupt! Just how far do you expect any of us to fly?"

There was then the sound of a faint click after Patricia made a motion along Melissa's underside, and of something whining inorganically as what seemed to be a hatch opened. Bracket then grabbed the tablet, fiddled a little with its orientation a little… And slid it into the hatch with a click before Patricia closed it.

"Eh?! You put the tee-yem in her!" Pleo cried out, as the pupils on Melissa's eyes faded and she began to drone in a monotone.

"External Disc detected. Entering Data Read Mode. Detecting External Disc encoding."

"Oh, that's not creepy at all," Elty yipped, his fur beginning to stand on end. Nida too, couldn't help but be unnerved by this sudden change in demeanor in what, just moments ago, was the cheery Move Tutor.

"M-Melissa?" she stammered, as the Nidoran fanned out her barbs… Just in case.

"Are you okay-?" Crom asked, before Bracket interrupted.

"That's her trance. It'll start getting into the good stuff shortly, so just stay still, Protector," the Corphish chittered. Bracket and his Tropius partner eased Melissa up onto the vacant stone cube and righted her, pointing Melissa's beak at Pleo. The vacant look persisted in her eyes as the Porygon continued her monotone.

"Hidden Machine detected. Biodata is unlearnable by this Porygon instance. Do you wish to tutor another Pokémon?"

"Yes," Bracket chirped.

"Command accepted. Booting Move Tutor Routine. Starting Biocompatibility Analysis."

A light shot out from it and moved up and down the young Protector, who was at once mesmerized and mildly intimidated by the experience. It was then that a voice called from the doorway.

"Ahem. Kiran?"

"Hmm-? Oh!" the Swellow turned and discovered that, much to his surprise, it was none other than Guildmaster Hatteras. Or Mayor, or Judge, or Lighthouse Keeper, as the time and scarf dictated. The wizened Ampharos of many trades was a steadfast shepherd for Bluewhorl Town through its trials and tribulations, but what had brought him here?

"While Pleo's being tutored, might I see you for a moment?" he asked. He quickly qualified his request after seeing Nida, Crom, and Elty creeping for the door. "In private, that is."

"Um… Sure?" the Swellow replied. Kiran's words caused a disappointed look pass over the faces of his teammates. There would be no escape from watching this most peculiar and chilling magic that Melissa was practicing in the room, it seemed. The three sighed and resigned themselves to sitting through the rest of Melissa's session close to the door. Just in case, they figured, so that Kiran could come to their aid quicker if something went amiss with the Porygon's magic.

As Kiran followed the Ampharos out of the room, he could hear Melissa droning "Biocompatibility Analysis Complete. Target compatible." She then asked some sort of question that Kiran couldn't make out that the Corphish affirmed. A few more mechanical-sounding words resounded from the next room, including what Kiran swore was "Beginning biodata transfer." For a fleeting moment before he crossed the doorway, Kiran saw an arcing and waving blue light shoot from Melissa's beak and connect with Pleo.

Kiran took a moment to collect himself and involuntarily ruffle his feathers. Safe as it was, he was unable to dispel the nagging sensation that he shouldn't be leaving his younger charges all alone in the room as Melissa's eerie rite droned on.

"You had something you wanted to do out here?" the Swellow chirped reluctantly.

"Well, I did overhear that Pleo received a little keepsake a few days ago… A King's Rock, I think?" the Ampharos cheerily asked.

"Hmm? You mean this?" Kiran asked, before he dug into his bag with his beak and pulled out a stone, crown-like ring.

"Yep! I was hoping to make it into something for Pleo… a lucky charm, you might call it," Hatteras replied. The Ampharos took the stone ring from Kiran, untied some cord he had fastened about the knot on his scarf, and began to thread the cord through the stone ring. As the Ampharos closed the loop little by little, motions of his paws progressively betrayed an uneasy tenseness in the creature.

"Guildmaster Hatteras… You didn't really call me out here just to watch you make a fashion accessory, did you?" Kiran asked.

"No, I can't say that I did," the Ampharos bleated as he peeked over at Pleo in the next room and adjusted the cord in between his paws. The Ampharos hesitated a moment before he began to speak again.

"In terms of things on the island, things are going well… Or at least as well as we could have hoped with recent events," he said as he formed a knot with the cord and tightened it. "And Pleo has been making admirable progress for someone starting from a total vacuum of experience."

Kiran gave a perplexed tilt to his head. Why, everything that Hatteras had said so far sounded like good news!

"Then what is the problem?" he asked.

"I'm afraid that as fast as Pleo has been progressing towards awakening his true power... That he might be running out of time," the Ampharos sighed, as he rubbed his brow with a free paw.

"Running out of time?" Kiran squawked and beat his wings out of surprise. "How? It's not as if he'd need to worry about keeling over overnight!"

The Swellow quickly became mum after he saw Hatteras motion for quiet. It would defeat the purpose of a private conversation if the kids could just overhear it all, but… What was the electric sheep getting at?

"On his own, time surely would not be an issue. But what with that Aggron, or one of his better-prepared friends..." Hatteras said as he slipped the newly crafted necklace into Kiran's bag. The Ampharos shook his head, and the expression on his old face became increasingly serious.

"On top of all that, we have at most a matter of months before the Company comes after the next harvest. And that's assuming that they don't come beforehand for whatever pretext their overseers have thought of."

"But Guildmaster, Pleo fought off a pirate captain!" Kiran replied in a hushed tone, spreading his wings to convey his surprise in lieu of running his beak off. "I don't understand what the problem you're getting at is!"

"The problem is, Kiran. Pleo fought that pirate captain off using his true power. We don't know if Pleo will be able to draw out that power if we wind up in such straits again. And worse, if he finds himself in such straits."

Kiran caught himself and froze. That… was a rather good point that Hatteras made. Why, if Pleo's power hadn't been awakened as it was during the raid, he would have been knocked out just as easily as his teammates were. And, if the Aggron were a little less foolishly preoccupied with that shrine bell…

Why, he could have kidnapped Tromba's Protector! And gods knows where Pleo might have ended up after that.

Kiran shook his head, hoping to dispel that dark fantasy from his mind.

"What do you propose then, Guildmaster?" he asked.

"To discover whether there's some way that Pleo can draw out his true power reliably. Or at least reliably in the circumstances where he would most need it," Hatteras replied. It was a suggestion that immediately took Kiran aback with a cry.

"Eh?! You're not suggesting that I put him in harm's-!"

"I'm suggesting that we need to find a way push up against the boundaries as much as it's safe," Hatteras interrupted. The Ampharos' serious expression held firm and now began to show shades of adamance as he continued on. "To see if whether or not our strategy should be to put Pleo at the vanguard of the town in troublesome times…

"Or if our strategy should be to make ourselves his vanguard in such times for the foreseeable future."

"But how can we do that?" Kiran demanded. "I mean, if we organized a mock pirate raid… If we succeeded at drawing out Pleo's power, wouldn't we put the volunteers in danger?"

"You think a little too grand in scale, Kiran. There's something that's more controllable that we could use to test him. Something that two rookies of yours have been waiting for a while now."

Something that two rookies of his had been waiting for? The Swellow scratched his head blankly for a moment, just what could Nida and Crom be looking forward to that could possibly-? Wait! Surely Hatteras wasn't referring to...

"Eh?! You want to send Pleo into the Mystery Dungeon?!" he whispered back, shocked.

"Along with your rookies on a solo run, yes," the Guildmaster replied. "You would obviously be shadowing them with some help in case anything went wrong, and the teleporters would be monitoring their presence closely."

"But he's younger than most of the kids at Hariti's!" Kiran protested, flapping his wings.

"And in spite of that, he has already delivered this town once," Hatteras quietly reminded the team leader. "Surely that's grounds for making an exception, yes?"

"I mean," the Swellow mumbled, trailing off a bit. Hatteras did have a point. Even if Pleo was young enough to be in the Day Care, he definitely had contributed more to its defense than anyone else from it had at his age. "I guess it would have been a matter of time for Nida and Crom but... Surely there's another way this could be done, isn't there?"

Hatteras sighed and gave his head a slow, sad shake as he found himself looking at the floor.

"It is the best that I can think of, Kiran. For all these generations, we've been taught that the gods were bigger than us. That they knew more, that they were stronger, that all that they needed in order to protect and bless this island were a few gifts and adoring words every so often… we never realized that there would be a time when they would need to be protected by Pokémon like us.

"If there is some better way of doing this, it's not in the books," the Ampharos said, as he shifted his head to meet Kiran's gaze. "I won't blame you if you refuse to undertake this, but... The stakes are both high and real here, and waiting only will raise them."

There was a long, dead silence in the room, punctuated only by Melissa's continued droning and some indistinct chatter from the rest of Team Traveler in the background. Eventually, Kiran made up his mind, and spoke.

"I'll do it. On the condition that Pleo's made aware that he's being sent into the Mystery Dungeon to test himself."

"I see. I'll let you get back to your little lambs… and your muzzled wolf for the time being," Hatteras replied. The Ampharos gave a passing nod, and then quietly walked out the door of the peculiar hut composed of stone cubes and back out into Bluewhorl.

As the Ampharos' footsteps faded away, Kiran headed back for the room where the rest of the team was, just in time to see the arcing light between Pleo and Melissa vanish.

"Biodata transfer complete. Terminating Move Tutor Routine. Please eject disc to exit Data Read Mode," the Porygon continued in her monotone. As Bracket and Patricia quickly went over to fetch their employer from her seat and set her on the ground on her side again, Pleo gave his wings a thorough series of beats. To get his blood flowing, Kiran surmised, as he and his teammates went up to see just what had Melissa's handicraft had done.

"Wait, Pleo… Do you feel any different?" Crom asked. The question prompted the young Protector to inspect his body and pat himself down… Nope, he felt just like same old him from a few minutes ago.

"I don't see or feel anything that's different," Pleo responded

"Well of course he wouldn't, it's a move!" Elty barked.

"Heh, so tutoring went well, I take it?" Kiran questioned in a cheerful, if slightly forced, tone.

"Mmm hmm! Mmm hmm!" Patricia insisted, as she looked up from Melissa while holding the disc from earlier. The pink bird was now moving her appendages again and the vacant stare left the Porygon's eyes. The sight made the Swellow's expectations soar as he turned to the white and blue Protector.

"Well, let's see it!" he cried excitedly to Pleo as Melissa floated over, seemingly unfazed by her strange episode earlier.

"Jump after taking a moment to breathe in and focus, Protector," she instructed.

Pleo hunched down, tensed his legs, and after a short wait, sprung up… Finding that he could now reach the canvas roof with his hop.

"Whoa!" he cried. He was finally so high in the air, he began to flap his wings, and… This was it! He was flying!

"Wow! I'm flying! I'm fly-!"

Or at least that's what he thought for the few seconds before he fell to the ground with a dull thud, much as a stone thrown into the air does, flapping his wings fruitlessly.

"Oof!"

As Pleo rubbed his head a bit from the fall and dusted himself off, Kiran turned to Melissa with an ever-so-unsubtle hint of concern in his eyes.

"Uh… Melissa, I thought you said that your tutoring would teach him how to fly…"

"My tutoring awakens the potential for using a move and gives a small foundation," the Porygon corrected. "The Protector will need to practice in order to make the most of those jumps… Let alone to be able to leverage them into flying."

"Then what was the point of all of that?!" the Swellow cried, screwing his eyes shut in frustration and beating his wings.

"Everything takes practice, Kiran," Melissa chirped. "Surely you of all Pokémon would understand that."

"Aw… So I still can't fly?" Pleo asked, disappointed.

"Not exactly," Bracket replied. "But! It should help you learn a lot faster!"

"Yeah, Pokémon that get tutored by Melissa always get the hang of their moves a lot sooner!" Patricia added.

"Let's hope." Nida sighed.

"What were you and Guildmaster Hatteras talking about out there anyways, Kiran?" Crom asked.

"Oh, he made this for you, Pleo!" Kiran cheered as he dug out the stone necklace that Hatteras fashioned out in the hallway and slipped it over Pleo's head.

"Oh! It's the 'offering' that ziggy-zaggy thingy gave me!" the young Lugia cheered.

"Uh huh! Just remember to slip it under your scarf later! It'll keep it a bit safer from the elements," Kiran chirped back, as the other Pokémon on Team Traveler scrutinized their leader.

"The sheep seriously spent all that time talking with you about a rock on a string?" Elty asked, lowering his eyelids skeptically.

"Er," the Swellow hesitated. "Well, not exactly..."

"Then what was he going on about then?" Nida pressed.



A few moments later, from the path outside, the din of daily life found itself abruptly pierced by a chorus of overjoyed cries from inside Melissa's stone hut.

"Woo hoo!"

Yes… This was going to be quite the transition. In more ways than one if the Sentret holding his ears in pain from the shout was any indication.

"Gah… I didn't know 'blowing around hot air' needed a Move Tutor to learn!"


Chapter Text

After the session at Melissa's, Kiran left his charges to themselves to prepare for their excursion in the morning. The team of four made their way towards the harbor, as Pleo eagerly practiced the skill he had picked up at Melissa's. That is, hopping up high into the air every so often above the eaves of the wooden, canvas, and thatch roofs that covered most of Bluewhorl Town's buildings. Every time the white bird went up, he would almost as quickly come back down only to repeat the process again, hoping his latest launch might be the one to finally give him flight. The passerbyers on the path would turn their head time to time to watch Pleo pass... if not as frequently as they had a couple weeks ago. After all, the sea god had become more and more a fixture of their mundane routines.

As the group carried along their way, Crom began to get a little ahead of himself over what Kiran had told him about tomorrow's mission in the Mystery Dungeon.

"I don't believe it, we're finally going to graduate to Normal Rank!" Crom cried.

Ah yes, the moment that Crom and Nida had been waiting for all these moons was finally upon them at last. That said, the importance was a bit lost on Pleo, who came down from his most recent leap into the air and gave a puzzled tilt of his head to the Druddigon and Nidoran.

"Hrm? 'Normal Rank'?" Pleo asked. Didn't the two go on missions all the time with Kiran? So why was 'graduating' so important?

"It means we're gonna be able to do more as Rescuers!" Crom declared, puffing his chest in triumph. "Why, we'd even be allowed to start our own team if we wanted to!" He continued proudly… until Elty promptly knocked his little moment back down to earth.

"What are you going on about? You're being tested! If you don't impress your leader, he's not gonna pass you!" the Growlithe barked, flattening out his ears. "And frankly, I'm not exactly convinced that 'ganging up on the Growlithe' is gonna get you through a dungeon without handholding."

The Growlithe's words immediately dampened Crom and Nida's high spirits, and the two shot annoyed leers at the Fire type who so rudely drug them back to reality.

"Elty, couldn't you have just let us have our moment?" Nida snapped, fanning her barbs a bit at the little dog's tone. Pleo, blissfully ignorant to why this 'moment' couldn't go on, cheerily tried to reassure the team.

"Aw, don't worry! I'm sure they'll pass with your help, Elty!" he chirped as he hopped up onto an awning of a shop that had been left intact during the raid. "Why, you can just dance around the ferals like you did on the battlefield!"

"Wait, what?" Elty spluttered. "Why on earth would I help you pass your ranking test when you've been using me as a sparring dummy for the last week?"

"Because Kiran said that the entire team was getting tested?" Crom said, giving a piercing glare at the Growlithe.

"Because you're supposed to help me?" Pleo replied, tilting his head before he jumped across the lane onto another shack's roof.

"Because it's a break from getting pounded on at the Dojo?" Nida asked, flattening out her ears in annoyance. "Besides if we don't pass, just what do you think we're going to be doing afterwards to toughen up?"

The former pirate opened his mouth to speak only to catch his tongue and blink. Elty had to admit, while he didn't exactly like the rationale, these 'teammates' of his made a decently convincing argument for helping them tomorrow.

"Grr… What on earth do they teach amatorzy at your guild anyways?" the orange and cream dog frowned.

"How to stand up for ourselves," Nida responded, sticking out a tongue. During this, Pleo hopped up once again. Although he flapped his wings hard enough to shake a few loose feathers free, he stillcouldn't seem to get the hang of staying airborne. This time he landed a bit less gracefully than normal on his breast, the 'lucky charm' that Guildmaster Hatteras fashioned from his stone ring jabbing him a little.

"Oof! What do we need to do to prepare for tomorrow anyways?" the young guardian asked as he dusted himself and his new charm off, ruffled his feathers, and took a moment to preen himself after his landing.

"Well, there's supplies, which we'll take care of as soon as we get to Calino's," Crom replied. "And we oughta check things with our parents to see if we have to do anything before we leave."

"Um… Yeah," Elty muttered as he flattened out his ears. "I'm just going to head back to-"

"You're sticking with us during this, thanks," Nida huffed. "Teams are responsible for their members' behavior and I don't trust you on your own."

"Are you supposed to be 'teammates' or 'babysitters'?" Elty growled under his breath, his words failing to elude Nida's hearing.

"Most teams don't have members that tried to rob other Pokémon just a week ago. Just saying," she retorted, narrowing her eyes at the Growlithe.

"Aww, come on! It'll be fun!" Pleo insisted. "And Calino's is right there anyways!"

Sure enough, Calino's little shack was right there, just across the main square by the harbor… If it was appropriate to call it that. Yes, it was busy with Pokémon again and not quite the moonscape of rubble and trashed shops that it was after the raid, but most of the businesses were still shuttered for repairs- or, as in the case of a few juice bars and sundry shops, had simply stubbornly continued their business in what was left of their tents and shacks as and slowly rebuilt around their customers.

Calino's store fell into the latter category. It was scorched, blackened, and had hasty canvas patchwork thrown up over gaping holes in the walls and roof. Even so, its Kecleon proprietor could still be seen dutifully shuffling merchandise around in the back.

Some things just didn't change, Nida guessed, as she hopped up onto the counter and called into the back of the shop.

"Hey! Calino!"

"Coming! Coming!" the shopkeeper's reply came as he hurried out, if a bit slower and more haggardly than normal. As soon as he saw that his customers included a certain town guardian once again, the Kecleon's face momentarily slipped into an expression of despair. The chameleon shook his head a moment and steeled himself before he addressed his customers.

"Before you ask, I really can't give any discounts this time," he said. The poor creature appeared sleep-deprived, the green scales on his body having developed a dull and dingy color to them.

"Eh?! But why not?!" Pleo cried, batting his wings out. Hadn't Calino given the party that 'buy one get one free' last time? By chance, Pleo happened to brush part of the shack, which shook, and with a groan, dropped a chunk of burnt timber from the awning onto his head.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Pleo groaned, nursing his head.

"Pleo, are you alright?!" Nida cried.

"Yeah, I think I'm okay," the young Lugia replied as he shook his head. "But-"

"Sorry about that, Protector. I can't exactly keep a hut up when it's dropping pieces of itself on customers. Even if it is a placeholder." Calino sighed, his scales starting to flush an apologetic teal. "Between this and that storm earlier, I'm never gonna get a replacement for my old tent at this rate… You understand, right?"

"It does look like Calino's shop took the raid kinda hard," Crom said to himself while looking around.

"Yeah, by the way, thanks for that, mutt," Calino growled at Elty, leering from behind the counter.

"Hey! Hey! I didn't torch this shop!" Elty protested before he stopped himself to try and jog his memory. "… I'm pretty sure I didn't… I think. Kinda hard to remember with the whole 'getting beaten unconscious' thing."

"It's fine, Calino. We'll pay full price... This time," Nida answered with a sigh as she hopped off the counter.

"The usual, I take it?" Calino asked. The Kecleon's scales returned to their default green along with the congenial if business-like attitude he tried to greet all his customers with. That is, at least as much as several straight nights' worth of poor sleep allowed him to.

"Actually, I know it'll cost more, but can we get the same as last time?" Crom asked. "I'm sure Kiran will understand, we're exploring with a bigger team now and all!"

"So you... do want to help my renovation fund!" the Kecleon chuckled, turning a rosy pink as his expected burden on business transformed into a surprise boon. "Hrm… Lemme see what I can do."

Nida opened her mouth to object, but after sizing up the even sorrier appearance of Calino's already normally sorry-looking wooden shack, she held her tongue. Calino then ducked into the back of his shop and spent a short while rummaging behind some crates. Sure enough, when he returned, Calino brought over a tray full of the same berries and seeds that Team Traveler had ordered at their last visit to his shop. The Kecleon stuffed the goods into Nida's satchel and dutifully ignored Elty's protests that he also had a perfectly good satchel to hold stuff as well. After Calino gave his customary thanks for the team's patronage, Nida and Crom lead the team off and up towards the hills. On the way up, Pleo couldn't help but wonder...

"I don't understand, Nida. Why did we let Crom give Calino more of those shinies for the same stuff you got last time?"

"Well, Calino's kinda mean with his sense of humor sometimes," Nida answered. "But it just seemed wrong to press him when his shop was in the shape it was in."

"Huh? How come?" Pleo asked.

"Well, when a Pokémon is having a tough time, it's generally nice to not give them extra things to worry about on top of it," she replied.

Elty was quick to butt in. "So… That means that you'll go easier on me during sparring-" Only to be just as quickly cut off by Nida, too.

"Hey! I said 'tough' time, not 'deserved'!"

Soon enough, Team Traveler's younger members found themselves approaching a hut that smelled strongly of toasted grain. Barring a stray gouge into a wall here or there that had been hastily filled in with some manner of mismatching-colored resin, there was hardly any sign that this little shack had been visited by hostile company just a few days ago.

Crom was the first to enter the hut, calling in to the shop as he crossed the doorway.

"Mom? Are you in there-? Oof!"

Only to trip and fall down against one of the display tables that for some reason or another had a small pile of apples on it. Looking down at his feet, Crom saw a Trapinch that had been loitering in the doorway, looking around the inside.

"Yeargh! Watch where you're going, you abrasive clod!" the Trapinch squealed in pain, as he quickly scuttled into a corner to try and nurse his injury.

"Sorry! Sorry!" Crom replied as he rubbed his head from the fall and the effects of a few falling apples conking him afterwards. As his teammates entered the room, a realization dawned on him about his victim and the Druddigon's tone became less apologetic and more gruff. "Wait a minute-"

As Nida entered the room and saw the Trapinch, she lowered her ears, recognizing him as being one of Elty's former… erm... companions.

"Shouldn't you be digging ditches at Mildrew's field or something?" she asked in a biting tone.

"Psst! Managed to sneak one past your slave driver, eh?" Elty whispered to the Trapinch in a hushed tone from behind the Nidoran. "And got any tips?"

"Mrph. I wish, Eltenios," the little antlion chittered in a grumbling tone. "I only got allowed to come down here because I said I'd drop off some apples during my break!"

Aha. So that explained the pile of apples on the table. In spite of all of that, something still bothered Pleo about the Trapinch's actions.

"Why would you go through all that trouble, though-?"

"Veikka, is that you?" a voice cried out from the backroom.

"Pyry!" the Trapinch eagerly responded, as the voice's owner, a haggard-looking Gabite coated in flour, burst out into the room and scooped up the Trapinch in his claws.

"Pekka, please! Tell me there's an open spot to dig ditches!" the Gabite pleaded, staring into the Trapinch's eyes with a desperate gaze that seemed to all but bore into the creature.

"Um… Veikka? You're kinda scaring me," the Trapinch squeaked.

"I can't take it anymore with these weirdos! Stuck here all alone with nothing but flour, dough, and an oven all day! And they make me help with dinner, too! I go to bed each night looking like I fell into chalk dust!"

"Oh yes, poor you," Nida grumbled. Why, aside from all of the spilled flour on his scales, the Gabite just described exactly what Crom and his brother did on a normal day when not doing guild work!

"Hrmph! Maybe you shouldn't have stolen from here, then!" Crom snarled at the Gabite.

"Oh for crying out loud! Why are you going on about it as if you're being made to burn out waste pits? You're working in a bakery!" Elty groaned as he put a paw over his face. "Some of us wouldpunt hatchlings for a chance to make food for this 'Community Service!'"

"Um… Pyry," Pekka said as he flailed his legs in the air. "I'm not saying that I don't feel your pain. But-"

"And worst of all, there's that whiny little ipana and his mother I have to put up wi-!" the Gabite continued, before a young Druddigon smaller than Crom stormed in from the backroom with a growl.

"Oi! Thief! Get back to work!" Cenn shouted.

The Gabite snarled indignantly back at the shorter Druddigon, upset that this little whelp was pushing him around. He dropped his Trapinch companion, who cried out a little after hitting the ground, and whirled around and advanced on Cenn.

"Okay, listen up you yappy little ru-!" only to yelp after he felt a claw digging into his shoulder from behind, as the voice of a much larger Druddigon who had just come in from outside with a sack of flour began to speak.

"Grr… For someone who complains as much as you do about honest work, you sure seem eager put your mouth to use!" Gwenith growled, giving an overpowering glare that seemed to all but say "Go ahead, make my day" at this Gabite that had the temerity to threaten one of her children.

The Gabite's aggression quickly evaporated with a blanch at the thought of having to stand his ground against the elder Druddigon.

"Erk! S-Sorry! I'll get back to work right away!" he squeaked, as he quickly ran back into the backroom to help with the next day's loaves. Cenn stuck out his tongue behind him as he followed Pyry into the backroom. Crom couldn't help but roll his eyes at the Gabite still not understanding who the biggest and meanest dragon in this house was.

"... I think I'm gonna get out of here before she gets ideas," Pekka said to himself. The orange antlion quickly bolted out of the bakery, leaving Gwenith to push the sack of flour into a corner and turn to her elder child.

"Something come up, Crom?" she asked.

"Uhm… Well-" Crom began, shifting a bit uneasily.

"We're getting tested to graduate into Normal Rank!" Pleo interrupted. Crom flinched out of surprise, hoping that his mother wouldn't be upset over his sudden testing getting in the way of baking. However, Crom quickly found that his apprehensions to be unfounded, as the very next words from his mother's mouth were...

"Oh! That's wonderful to hear!" Gwenith cried. "Why, with the way you're growing up, you'll be big and as strong as your father in no time! Here, let me get some things for your adventure!"

Crom's mother ducked into the backroom, her presence accompanied by sounds of rummaging and Pyry continuing to bellyache on the job. The backroom's sounds eventually died down after a Druddigon's growl, and Gwenith returned with a satchel filled with loaves fresh from the oven and handed it off to Crom.

"Just make sure to rest up well tonight," she instructed. "You've got a big day tomorrow!"

"Eh?" Crom asked. This had seemed to go over rather- Well, wasn't there supposed to be some sort of catch? "You don't need my help at the bakery tonight?"

"I'm sure that I can make my extra set of claws fill in," Gwenith replied. "It is a special occasion for you, after all. And it sounds like you'll already have yours full with some extra heads to keep track of."

"Ahehe, well when you put it that way-" Crom began before his mother interrupted him.

"Crom… One more thing."

"Huh?" the Druddigon asked, only to abruptly find himself being pulled into an embrace by his mother, who gave him a nuzzle with her snout.

"Be careful out there."

"Moooom! You're embarrassing me!" Crom protested, squirming a little to try and break free.

"Not to interrupt the moment, but doesn't the spike ball here also have her parents to check with, too?" Elty asked, rolling his eyes at Crom's struggle with his mother.

"Ack! That's right! If we dawdle here, I won't be able to catch Mami at the Day Care!" Nida cried, hopping up off the ground, and then bolting out the door.

"See you, mom!" Crom waved as he followed after his teammate.

"Bye, Gwenith!" Pleo chirped, as he and his Growlithe teammate followed after Crom and Nida.
By the time the two made it out, Pleo had to hop up into the air to see where Nida had gone off to. Seeing that she was making her way towards the creek that ran through Bluewhorl Town, he quickly darted off after her, Elty in tow behind him.

By the time the two caught up, they found themselves approaching one of the bridges over the creek, with a certain Froslass' tent visible on the other side.

"Nida? Why are we going to the Day Care and not your home?" Pleo asked, putting a wing to his mouth.

"Mami usually leads my siblings home from there at this time of day. So if we catch her there, we can explain things on the way to the guild hall-!" Nida explained, only to have her words interrupted by a protesting voice from the direction of the Day Care.

"What?! You said that I didn't have to worry about twerps that had parents after dark!"

As Team Traveler continued on, the protesting figure revealed himself to be the Quilava that Hariti had taken under her wing. The cream and teal stoat stared down a leering Nidorina that Crom recognized as Marley, prompting the Druddigon to shuffle behind Nida to keep a healthy distance.

"First off, it's 'youngsters'," Hariti admonished. The Froslass floated to and fro at the entrance of her tent, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to make sure the rowdy children inside weren't getting too out of hand. "Second of all, I said that you didn't have to worry about most of them after dark. Specifically, you'll be dealing with-"

Suddenly, six purple and blue spike balls burst out of the tent entrance, hopping gleefully past Hariti and towards the Nidorina. The Nidoran sprinted towards their mother, prompting the Quilava to yelp and dart out of the way lest the lumps of fluff run him over.

"Whee!" a female Nidoran cheered.

"Mami! Mami!" a purple spike lump called out.

"You're back!" a blue ball cried.

"Who's watching us tonight?" a male Nidoran from the group asked.

"You'll be able to stay right here with your normal playmates until I'm done in the field with Papi tonight," Marley cheerily explained. "Auntie Hariti and I found someone to watch over you…"
It was then that the Quilava became aware that Hariti, the Nidorina, and all six of the Nidoran with her… Were staring at him.

"Those little dweebs?! N-No way! I've been picking their spikes out of my pelt all week!" he cried out. From the sidelines, Nida quietly sighed, somewhat relieved that she wasn't going to have to babysit her younger siblings tonight. As for the the predicament that this former brigand found himself in… she couldn't tell if she felt sorry or amused about it.

"I heard you talking the other day, you've got a ton of kids of your own! Have some of them help you out!" the stoat protested.

"They're all grown and busy with their own lives. Also, need I remind you that I do have an alternate use for you if you don't pull your weight babysitting?" Hariti glowered at the Quilava as the little Nidoran began to draw near to him. "Besides, it is just six Pokémon. I'm sure a former pirate like you can handle them and keep them away from my Pomeg bushes."

"This is cruel and unethical punishment and you know it!" the Quilava whined as he started darting this way and that to keep the little poisonous pests away from him.

"Aww, stay still Mr. Fireplace!"

"We want to nuzzle you!"

The Quilava found himself running head-on into the Nidorina, and then felt his body getting lifted up by something pointy that was faintly jabbing his stomach.

"Oh yes, poor you. Now do your Community Service and get back to babysitting," Marley growled, the horn on her head resting on the Quilava's belly.

"And do be aware what I'll do to you if anything happens to the kits," she warned. The Nidorina jabbed her horn a bit more firmly into the creature's stomach before letting him drop to the ground. All just in time for her cheering children to swarm him as she began to head off.

"H-Help… Me…" the poor creature feebly whimpered as the six little Nidoran began to press up against him.

"Well, I guess that's one way to get a reliable babysitter for your siblings," Elty murmured. The little dog sighed out of relief, now quietly thankful that the Froslass hadn't taken a fancy to him on the night that Community Service sentences were handed down.

"It's an unorthodox solution, yes… But anyways- Mami!" Nida called after her mother, hopping off after her as the rest of her team followed her tracks.

"Eh?" the Nidorina asked, as she turned around just in time to see Team Traveler passing the Day Care and heading for her.

"Hey wait, they have older siblings?!" the Quilava cried out, hopping up and away from the Nidoran around him with a start as Team Traveler passed. "Why don't they just-!"

The Quilava suddenly yelped, and stumbled forward as a shard of ice promptly struck his rear. As the Nidoran caught up with him, the creature nursed his rump and hastily tried to mollify a glaring Hariti at the tent's entrance.

"Gah! Okay! Okay!" his voice trailed off as the team moved further up the path.

Nida came face to face with her mother, who waited with an impatient leer for her daughter to say something.

"Um, well… I was just going to say-" Nida began. Had- Had she gone about trying to get her mother's attention the wrong way? "That I'm going to the guild hall tonight, and testing to graduate from-"

"It's alright, mija," her mother interrupted. "I knew this day was coming."

"You're... not worried at all?" Nida asked, a bit taken aback at her mother's apparent lack of concern.

"Of course not! Why, not every team has the Protector helping it!" the Nidorina chuckled to herself as she pointed out Pleo waiting with Crom and Elty a few paces away.

"This way, me and your papi can count on you wrapping up your service and coming to help work in the field again a bit sooner!" the Nidorina cheered.

"Uhm… Mami…" Nida grumbled, flattening out her ears a bit.

"Now, now, it's a part of growing up and becoming a responsible Pokémon!" she admonished.

"Mami…" Nida groaned. Why, Mami was treating this as if it was just another day's update from her elder siblings! Of all the nights to be just another face in her crowd of brothers and sisters, did Marley really have to be this way on this one-?

"Enough with the attitude already, Nida!" the Nidorina huffed, which abruptly caused Nida to hop back and brace herself. Only to find that the next words from her mother's mouth were softer than she anticipated.

"You'll want to save it for inside the dungeon, won't you? After all, tomorrow's the big opportunity to impress your team captain!"

"Heh, well I guess I can't argue with that-" Nida began, only to be cut off by her mother drawing forwards and nuzzling her snout.

"Good luck, mija. Your papi and I will be wishing you the best," Marley said. The Nidorina gave her daughter a pat on the head before she headed down a side lane.

Team Traveler turned and continued up the path, past some less damaged huts and tents. Slowly but surely, the team drew near to the entrance of the Guild Hall's complex of tents and buildings.

"Oi!"

As the team approached the Mission Board, freshly repopulated with listings since the trials and tribulations from last week, they found Kiran there waiting for them. The Swellow flew over, and cheerily greeted his charges.

"I was wondering when you all were going to show up!"

"Well, we're here," Nida answered.

"So, did you find out who's going to be our shadowing team tomorrow?" Crom questioned.

"That would be us," a voice answered. When the Pokémon of Team Traveler turned, they found that the speaker was a Shiftry accompanied by a Croconaw and Loudred.

"Wait… Team Sawtooth is shadowing us?" Crom asked, surprised at their team's company.

"Team 'Sawtooth'?" Pleo asked, tilting his head.

"Yup! Don't be fooled by these dainty-looking things here!" the Shiftry proudly answered, showing off the fans on her arms. "They'll cut through wood like cloth!"

"That's where the 'saw' comes from!" the Loudred cheerily explained.

"Yup, and Alto and I here have got the teeth!" the Croconaw added, proudly opening his stout jaws and showing off the fishhook-like teeth that lined them.

"I… guess that makes sense?" Pleo chirped, blinking a bit at the enthusiastic trio.

"Eh?! I thought that you were busy looking for an 'ahp-gredh'!" Nida cried out.

"Eh, I think we can put that on hold for a little," the Croconaw replied with a shrug.

"Who are these Pokémon, Kiran?" Pleo whispered over to his team's leader.

"The Shiftry is Pitys, the Loudred is Alto, and the Croconaw is Cardellini. They're one of the tougher teams at the guild. When Hatteras told them that you were going to be tested tomorrow… Why they practically begged to come along!" Kiran cheered.

"After all, someone's gotta make sure that the Protector goes through his test safely," Pitys proudly declared.

"And to keep fat little thugs like that Growlithe there from causing you too much trouble," the Loudred loudly chortled.

"Har har har-" Elty groaned, screwing his eyes shut in frustration before he abruptly flicked his ears. "Wait-"

The Growlithe whirled around, and saw a short green bug sketching on some paper a ways back on the side of the path, occasionally looking at the group further ahead.

"Was that Scyther sketching us earlier?" Elty asked the other Pokémon in the group.

"Scyther?" Kiran asked, as Team Traveler and their companions turned around. It was then that Pleo saw that the little bug was the artist with the blotched head from the Day Care he met last week.

"Oh! Hi!" he called out, waving. When the Scyther saw that she had been spotted by the white bird, she gave a startled buzz.

"A-Ah!" she cried out, before taking off down the path back in the direction of the Day Care, abandoning the piece of paper she had been drawing on.

"Hey! Wait!" Pleo cried out as he darted to where the Scyther was, and picked up her doodle. "You dropped your picture!"

Pleo then inspected the picture. It was a sketch of the Guild Hall's entrance, with Pleo and his teammates facing towards it. While the doodle was still a little basic, it had a remarkable resemblance to reality, the buildings and objects really looked like they were further back, and there was even some simple shadowing on it! As the others drew near, they too saw the picture, the elder Pokémon finding themselves commenting on the Scyther's work.

"Huh… Ander's kid really does have some talent with art," the wood sprite murmured to herself.

"Bah, Cass shouldn't be sneaking out of the Day Care on her own anyways," Cardellini muttered.

"I'm sure she can just draw another one if she doesn't feel like coming by," Alto chimed in.

Pleo looked down at the picture, and then off in the direction that this 'Cass' fled down. She seemed to have put an awful lot of work into the little image, and Pleo couldn't dislodge an uneasy feeling that surely Cass would be in low spirits without her handi- uh… scythework.

"We can always stop by to give it back to her later, Pleo," Kiran reassured.

"I… Guess that's true," Pleo said to himself. Still, he couldn't help but wish that the Scyther hadn't run off before he could compliment her.

"Let's head on in, dinner should have just started being set a couple minutes ago," the Croconaw beckoned. It was getting late in the day, and Pleo could hear his stomach growling… As well as those of a few of his teammates.

After taking a moment to look out in the direction where Cass had run off to, Pleo turned around, and followed the others towards the Guild Hall. After all, it was no use worrying about these things on an empty stomach.


Eating at the Guild Hall was always a rather raucous occasion in Bluewhorl Town. Every day- morning, noon, and night- food was served in a long, wooden hall full of rude tables and stools illuminated by candles and bioluminescent moss stashed in jars. The cost of admission was merely showing off a Rescue Team's scarf and badge at the door. It was an amenity that led the guild's Pokémon to tend to spend their free time frequenting the guild's grounds when missions and other obligations did not keep them away.

That is not to say that the mess hall was only good for the free food. It acted as a convenient place to find and interact with peers from other teams, to trade gossip, tips, and general enjoyment between errands and missions. A Persian's off-color joke at the expense of some past incompetent from the Company here, a Hoothoot's request for advice for finding a mate on another team there...

And of course, there were also a few scattered whispers and murmurs about the white and blue bird that was greedily inhaling a spread alongside a pair of teams.

"Liking the food, Pleo?" Nida asked as she looked up from her own dinner seated in her customary place right beside Crom.

The spreads were always simple, but filling, servings that were provided by the town. Meals were apportioned by species based off of the recommendations of a well-worn tome with messy notes and records of trials and errors that had been passed down through the years among the Pokémon that worked at the mess hall. The typical result was some mix of berries, leafy greens, grains or lentils, a salt or a sugar cube depending on the time of day, and of course- gummis.

The little morsels were about the size of small berries and about as colorful, but had a tough but edible exterior. Their insides had a pasty-textured filling and a savory flavor. Depending on how they were prepared, the filling would leave sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, or astringent aftertastes in the mouth. Nida couldn't remember what exactly went into them, but she was pretty sure that she remembered hearing 'seaweed' being involved once. All in all, it probably didn't matter so much what was in their recipes that had supposedly been passed down since the beginnings of the Cradle (and was probably better for keeping one's appetite). Whatever the diner's species or what their teeth looked like, gummis kept the conversation about dinner at the guild limited to what as opposed to who would be on the table.

It was all fine and dandy, but more importantly for Pleo...

"Mmm hmm! It's pretty and tasty!" the Lugia chirped in between mouthfuls of his dinner. That is not to say the gummi-laden servings at the guild were perfect meals. After all, a food that was equal before all also had the net effect of being equally odd before all, which Elty couldn't help but grumble about.

"Eh… Could use some meat, in my opinion," Elty mumbled as he scarfed down a few grains along with a half-bitten gummi.

"Not saying that I don't agree, but you know the rules, bub," the Shiftry lectured with an unamused leer. "Pokémon that specifically want meat need to go out and buy it for themselves through a registered and inspected scavver like Ander."

"Yeah, 'whine' isn't on the menu here!" Cardellini snapped.

"Mrph, I know what a scavver is and how they work. We had them where I'm from," Elty grumbled, rolling his eyes. "All I'm saying is that if I'm expected to be buying stuff, then why'd my bag get cleaned out for 'reparations' then?"

"Well look at it this way... a full stomach, even if it's not your favorite food, will improve your alertness in the dungeon!" Kiran said while fanning out a wing. "Why, from my own observations, it helps raise your alertness by 150%!"

"Hmm? What will that do?" Pleo asked.

"Well for one, it'll help you sniff out traps easier so you don't trip over them," Nida replied, as she helped herself to another gummi from her spread.

"And tomorrow's mission is a simulated rescue! Why, sensitivity is key for finding stranded Pokémon in a Mystery Dungeon!" Kiran chirped. "After all, a Pokémon that's lost or damaged their badge in there can't communicate with the Psychics at all."

Ah yes, that was why the team and anyone else who entered a Mystery Dungeon always made sure to carry some paper and envelopes with them. If they ever somehow got completely stuck and deprived of working badges, they could write a distress note. From there, the winds that reshaped floors in Distortion would catch them up, the note's light weight allowing the winds to carry them out of the Mystery Dungeon.

It was said that any self-respecting settlement always made sure to reward the discoverers of such notes, whether a resident, a visitor, or a feral. It was an erratic method to be sure, but as long as a team could tough it out, hide in stable zones in between the Distortion's wiping of floors, and didn't move around too much, an attentive team could find them. Except… that seemed a bit overly-detailed for this 'simulated rescue' to Crom. After all...

"Aren't we just tracking down a Substitute, though?" he asked. "I mean, I guess it's still important to be able to pick out entrances to stable zones hidden in alcoves and the like, but… It's not like it would up and run anywhere, right?

"Well, training mission or not, you never can be too careful. After all, a migrating feral getting blown in or stranded in the Mystery Dungeon sea una posiblidad real," the Loudred said as he snarfed down a fruit from before him

"Blown in? Stranded?" Pleo asked, as he stopped himself from grabbing another morsel with his beak.

"Yup, you never know with those cases. Sometimes they'll come up to a team they run into crying for help, and we'll bail them like we would a lost Pokémon from town. It's the ones that don't want your help out of there that are trouble," Alto said as he polished off his fruit. "Those ones are usually just itching for a fight. Sometimes they're about as tough as normal, other times they're a lot stronger and more dangerous. Why, Nida there got into a close shave with a feral like that that was out of her league just last year."

"Huh?!" Pleo cried out, knocking the table with a start with a wing. "What happened?!"

"It's really not-" Nida muttered. She usually appreciated others remembering her name as something besides 'Marley's girl', but this occasion was an exception. The Nidoran's ears folded back more and more, as the big-mouth at the table prattled on.

"She got ambushed and worked over by a Skarmory that blew in during a storm," he answered. "Big and fierce as ferals, hunt for food, too. Left her jittery about going back in those caves for weeks. Why, if Kiran hadn't been around to blow the metal fiend away, that feral probably would have made a meal of-!"

"Can we not, Alto?!" the Nidoran shouted, causing a dead silence to fall over the table and a couple nearby ones. Pairs upon pairs of eyes found themselves staring at a Nidoran half-up a table, barbs raised, giving a glare at a surprised Loudred that seemed to all but drill through his purple hide.

"Did... I say something that I wasn't supposed to?" he meekly asked in as quiet a voice his natural boisterousness could allow.

"You really do need to master the art of thinking before you speak," Pitys sighed as she buried her face in a leafy fan.

"It's just that… That was a really rough moment for us as a team," Crom replied. "And it's not one we like to dwell upon."

"Er… Hey, so about that 'ahp-gredh' you were looking for earlier!" Kiran hastily interjected in a cheery tone to shift the topic of conversation. Little by little, all signs of the outburst faded away as Team Sawtooth began to regale Kiran and his companions with their elusive quarry for Melissa. The snooping teams at the other tables similarly returned to their own discussions.

All signs but two, that is, as Nida scowled through the rest of dinner. The little Protector of Tromba similarly didn't return to his prior buoyancy, as he lost his appetite at the table and grew more and more apprehensive as the hours passed by about this test that was going to come tomorrow.


After dinner, the skies turned dark as the sun dipped over the horizon and the moon and stars began their customary ascendance into the sky for the night. The Guild's Pokémon traded goodnights among each other, some of them heading off to various abodes around Bluewhorl and its surroundings for the night. Many others, including Team Traveler that night, had lodging a bit closer to the watchful gaze of Hatteras' hut and signaling platform.

Much as with meals, the guild's members could claim a free space overnight in a rude, if roomy, hut with not much to much to speak of in the way of privacy. Dozens of Pokémon were assigned to each hut, their only furnishings being mats on the floor to square off spots for straw and twig bedding or hammocks hung from the rafters. In spite of that, the price and convenient location for checking the mission board bright and early in the morning provided some degree of compensation. As such, there was no shortage of Pokémon that chose this humble lodging, as Team Traveler's members did for this night.

In one hut, Pleo lay on a small heap of straw on a reed mat, Crom lay on another, half-curled around Nida and Elty, and Kiran was perched on an overhead rafter. Beside the Swellow, the team had hung their scarves and other personal effects for the night. All were now in the deep embrace of sleep...

All except Pleo, that is, who was wide awake, staring up at the wall. He fidgeted, trying this position and that to try and fall asleep, only to be kept up by the Loudred's words. Nida had really run into such a scary-sounding Pokémon in the Mystery Dungeon? The one where his old cave pond was? What would have happened if such a Pokémon found him before Kiran and Crom and Nida did? What if there was one waiting for him to come in tomorrow? As the questions continued to plague the young guardian's mind, he eventually found himself turning to look out the window. In the window, light winked intermittently from the top floor of Hatteras' hut and the sea of stars glimmered brightly in the sky.

"Can't sleep, Pleo? Or were you trying see one of the Travelers come out from behind the moon?" a voice asked.

"Eh?!"

As Pleo turned around towards the source of the voice, he found himself coming face to face with a blue Nidoran, who had gotten up from her straw bedding.

"What? I've got good ears and I've been hearing you toss around all night," Nida said, pawing at one of her ears. "And the Travelers are supposed to be the spirits of the-"

"Nida, I don't wanna go in the dungeon!" Pleo squawked, getting up and beating his wings. The racket caused some of the nearby Pokémon to shift about; Crom muttered something about "Yay, flour!" as Elty grumbled about some cards or some other manner of game he played with his old companions in the past, apparently not very well.

"Not so loud! Everyone's trying to sleep!" Nida scolded quietly, thankful that everyone else nearby seemed to be deeper sleepers than she was. "And it's the middle of the night! Of course you don't want to go right-"

"I don't wanna go in the morning, either though!" Pleo whispered back.

"Eh? But you were so excited earlier today!" Nida replied in a hushed tone, stepping back in surprise. "What-?"

Nida then noticed that Pleo looked, well... scared. Or at least she was pretty sure he looked scared, since the only other times she had seen Pleo like this were on the day that Captain Hess had raided the town. The Nidoran quickly put together just what could be making her teammate so antsy.

"Oh, this is about what Alto brought up at dinner today, wasn't it?"

"What if the Skarmory comes back?!" Pleo asked, as he looked about the hut anxiously. The matter made Nida screw her eyes shut and shake her head.

"That bird was taken care of ages ago and now is a long, long ways away from everyone else in a place where he won't hurt anyone," she replied, pawing at the mat. The truth was a bit less simplistic than that, but for Pleo's sake (and Elty's were he awake, she supposed), the Nidoran decided to leave the explanation at that.

"But what about the other ferals?!" the young Lugia insisted.

"They will only try to do what they think they can get away with. A scarf tells ferals that if they mess with us too severely, they'll be in big trouble afterwards," Nida replied, pointing up at the blue pieces of cloth that hung by their team leader's feet. "Besides, we've got badges to escape with, and an entire extra team watching our backs tomorrow. And…"

Pleo then felt a soft sensation, and saw that Nida had walked up and was nuzzling him under his chin.

"You won't be alone in there. We'll all be there right alongside you."

"You… Promise?" Pleo asked warily.

"I promise, Pleo. Now come on, go to sleep," Nida pleaded.

"... Can I have a bedtime story first?"

"How about a part of one?" Nida countered, sighing. Were the old gods also this demanding when they were little too? "I'll pick up on where we last left from the 'Prince of a Thousand Enemies'... If you can remind me where I left off."

"The Prince Nidorino got scared after hearing about his enemies coming and about the old gods being upset with him. So the Prince began to dig a hole for his children to hide in," Pleo replied as he slowly sank back down onto his straw. "Then the old gods passed by him as he was still digging saying they were looking to give the Prince a gift. The Prince then pretended to be someone else and they offered him the gift they were gonna give the Prince instead."

"Ah, right," Nida replied as she cleared her throat and shook her head to try and jog her memory. "So anyhow… 'I'm busy! My enemies are coming for me and my children!' the Prince insisted, before he spoke back to the old gods. 'If you want to give me a gift, then give it to my bottom! It's poking out of my hole!' The old gods then grew impressed with the Prince. Even as his thousand enemies approached, even as his children were in danger, even after the old gods found him after he angered them, he did not despair and give up."

Nida noticed that Pleo's eyes were beginning to droop, and he started to curl up on his pile of straw. All that sleeplessness must have been tiring, she thought to herself with a yawn.

"They murmured among themselves before they decided to humor the Prince, and so, the old god of the skies spoke on behalf of them all and said: 'Let it be so! Bottom, give your master strength and protection and character forever!' Just then, the Prince's hind legs grew strong and sprouted poisonous spikes that spread forward over his body. As the Prince continued to dig, his strengthened legs thumped and thumped, and shook even the very top of the skies, shaking bits and pieces of the moon off that fell to the earth-"

Nida then saw that Pleo's eyes were firmly shut. That was a good enough place to stop, she guessed. The Nidoran looked back at her space and saw that Elty had tossed about in his sleep and drifted over it. Nida grumbled to herself, and were it not for all the sleeping Pokémon around her, she'd have had half a mind to ram the little fatty and make him give her spot back.

But… She supposed that it wasn't unmanageable. After all, there seemed to be space enough for her next to where Pleo had curled up. She quietly crept over Pleo's feet and shuffled into the straw by his belly, settling down and drooping her eyes.

She then felt a feathery sensation brush up past her. Nida looked up for a moment and saw that Pleo had spread a wing over her, before she became too tired to care anymore and let her eyes close entirely as a soft voice spoke.

"Good night, Nida."

Chapter Text

The following morning, the sun broke over the horizon and its light began to filter through the treetops along the path from Bluewhorl Town to Tromba's Mystery Dungeon. Along with daylight and the blue sky, signs of diurnal life returned to the woods along the path. There was the sound of "ferals" yawning and moseying themselves awake from further off in the undergrowth. In the distance down the hill, the faint smoke and din from the town in the distance evidenced that the skeleton crew that served Bluewhorl's more nocturnal residents had traded places with the normal Pokémon that helped keep the town running by day.

Tromp tromp tromp

And there was also the sound of two Rescue Teams trudging up the path for the fog. At the rear was a seasoned team with scarves that consisted of a green and a white field forming a sawtooth pattern, separated by a tan divider. Their ranks consisted of a Shiftry, a Croconaw, a Loudred, and their temporary Swellow addition for the day, Kiran. Up ahead of them on the path was Team Traveler, the band of rookies who were going to prove themselves today…

That they were ready to break into Normal Rank…

That the sea god among them would discover just what it would take to serve as Tromba's Protector and how to draw out his true power...

Or at least that was the hope.

"Are we there yet?" the team's Growlithe whined as he hopped over a root, a rude satchel slung over his back, which did not escape Nida's notice.

"We have a bag for the team, you know, so you don't need that," Nida growled, pointing to the Growlithe's bag.

"Relax, Elty," Crom admonished. The Druddigon perched on a stump at the rear of the group, his wings spread out to catch some warming rays from the sun. The ruddy lizard then gave his wings a lively beat and glided along with a leaping start to catch up with his teammates. "We just started going up the path a few minutes ago!"

"And why are you suddenly so hesitant to go someplace where you can pick fights with other Pokémon, anyways?" Nida grumbled, flattening out her ears.

"Because I'm not getting anything out of this!"

Of course. Nida sighed to herself and rolled her eyes. The complaint did make a kind of sense, albeit the kind that made her want to give the ex-pirate a stiff headbutt to knock some respect into him. Mercifully for Elty, her train of thought was interrupted after Pleo hopped up from the path onto a tree branch high above, clambering onto it on his way down.

"Kiran? Aren't you guys supposed to be shadowing us while we rescue that Substitute today?" he called behind him to the path below, where Kiran and Team Sawtooth dutifully followed along behind their younger charges.

"Hmm?" the Swellow asked. The blue and red bird tilted his head at Pleo curiously, as the young Lugia carefully inched along the branch, spreading his wings out for balance.

"Well, your shadow's not touching any of us," Pleo replied as he paced tottering towards the end of the branch he was on.

"Uh… 'Shadowing' means that we'll follow you around," Pitys corrected, the Shiftry sighing at this little Protector's rather… erm, literal train of thought.

"Yeah, and that's what we're doing now," Cardellini, her Croconaw teammate assured, calling up to the little white bird who was perched at the end of a now sagging-branch.

"Hmm. I guess that makes sense," Pleo mused to himself, drawing a wing to his mouth as he looked around. "But… then why call it-? Oh! Look! Look!"

Pleo noticed something off in the direction of the sea and began to gesture wildly at it. His companions hastily tried to make out what Pleo saw between the tree trunks along the path, just in case it was another pirate ship like the day up at Marley and Teja's field. Kiran flew up over the treetops and saw that from Pleo's vantage point, one could see a simple wooden pavilion on a seaside ledge.

"Heh, that's your ánima!" Kiran cheerily squawked. "Come on, we'll stop by it!"

Pleo eagerly leapt off his branch, catapulting himself into the air and flapping all the way down to the earth. After stumbling to a stop on the ground, he dusted himself off and dashed on ahead, his companions quickly following suit with a chorus of "Pleo! Wait up!" and other pleas for the little sea guardian to be a bit more patient and run a little more slowly.

Before long, Pleo found the fork in the path that led to the shrine and darted up to it, staring at this rude little structure with a strange upside-down cup thingy in it. Oh, so that must be a bell! Except Pleo couldn't understand for the life of him why that Aggron that attacked them back in the raid would think it would've been tasty at all.

As Pleo poked his head into the little structure and began to gawk at the paintings that were plastered on undersides of the roof panels, he heard footsteps running up. The young Protector turned around to see his teammates approaching the shrine as he began to wonder...

"I don't understand, why is this here?" he asked.

"Well..." Nida began. "Mom says that when the Cradle was being put together, Arceus left behind eggs of new gods based on the hopes of the Pokémon that lived there. The Pokémon here hoped for someone who could use the very sea and winds to protect them, and we got your egg from it."

"Uh huh! Uh huh!" Crom replied. "And as you protect us, and other Protectors start to wake up around the Cradle, the world around the Wastes will start to go back to normal!"

"It… will? Just from me being a Protector?" Pleo chirped.

"Yep!" the Druddigon cheered, wagging his tail a bit. "Your presence will help restore balance to the world, or at least that's how the stories go! That's why the Pokémon on this island built this shrine, so that we could always give thanks to you!"

Nida and Crom seemed sunny and to be enjoying themselves as they explained the purpose of the shrine and began to look around at the surrounding seascape.

Elty on the other hand, looked, well...

"That pathetic little rudera is supposed to be a gesture of thanks?"

Judging from the exasperated scowl that crept over his face and how quickly his ears folded back, 'unimpressed' probably was a generous way of putting it.

"Eh? But I think it looks pretty!" Pleo protested, as he felt his foot brush up against something that fell against a rock with a faint thud. Pleo craned his head down, and discovered that the object that made the noise was a little red berry, apparently frozen over.

"Eh? Isn't this one of Hariti's berries?" he asked as he inspected the little fruit.

"Huh. Looks like she must have left it as an offering earlier," Nida said to herself.

"Hrm? But why would she do that?" Pleo questioned, as he tilted his head at the Nidoran.

"It's an offering," Crom explained, beating his wings a little as he stretched a bit on the sun-drenched pathway. "Pokémon in town leave food there for you!"

"Oh! I see!" Pleo chirped, as he brought his head down to peck at the frosty red-colored little morsel, only to suddenly hear a cry.

"Hey!"

"Huh?!" Pleo squawked. He whirled around to the source of the voice, and saw a little yellow rodent with black ears and brown stripes hastily burst out of some bushes. Pleo wasn't sure what this little creature wanted, but noticed that much like the Zigzagoon who had caused a ruckus through Mildrew's field just before the Iron Fleet's raid on Bluewhorl, she wasn't wearing a scarf.

Pleo looked back at his teammates and saw that all of them had tensed up and had adopted defensive positions. Nida had her barbs fanned out, Crom had his claws bared and opened his maw a little, and Elty had steadied his legs in order to pounce at a moment's notice.

"I was going to eat that!" the Pikachu huffed, electricity dancing on the hairs of its pelt.

Oh, this must have been another one of those 'ferals', and based off of his teammates, it seemed to Pleo as if he wasn't supposed to trust her. The little Lugia braced himself, and beat its wings in protest.

"But it's mine! It's my 'anime'-thingy!"

"Er… Pollito," Kiran's voice admonished. Pleo looked up and saw the Swellow swoop in and perch on one of the eaves of the shrine. Team Sawtooth, with their jagged-patterned scarves, ran in behind the younger Pokémon with blue scarves with white stars.

The sight of all these much stronger Pokémon appearing made the sparks on the Pikachu's pelt abruptly die, and the little mouse folded its ears back and began to try and make itself look small. As the younger Pokémon began to pick up on the yellow rodent's unease, they eased themselves and traded awkward looks with each other, leaving Pleo to ask uneasily...

"Isn't it? Nida and Crom even said so..."

"Well, isn't that what everyone in town says?" Crom murmured.

"So shouldn't whatever gets left there be his?" Nida asked.

"Well, kids... over the years," Kiran began. "The town's let the ferals have the food."

"Yeah, we assumed giving Pokémon that live lean lives a helping fan was what you would have wanted. Being a 'Protector' and all," the Shiftry added.

"How… Come?" Pleo asked.

"Because it's my first meal since yesterday!" the Pikachu squeaked, which made Pleo stare at the creature, and then up to Kiran.

"Pleo," he explained, flapping down and coming to a rest next to his white and blue charge. "Part of being a Protector is looking out for Pokémon that don't have it as well as you, even if they're strange to you."

'Looking out for'? Pleo thought to himself. How was skipping out on his food supposed to be protecting another Pokémon? As Pleo looked from his berry and over at the Pikachu, he noticed that the creature seemed lean and its fur seemed scraggly and unkempt, as if she had a busy and weary day, without time even to stop and eat… all while it was still morning.

Maybe… maybe 'protecting' Pokémon meant more than simply keeping mean Pokémon like Hess from hurting them... things like making sure the Pokémon next to you didn't go hungry.

"I mean, I guess," the Pikachu mumbled as she looked at the ground. "If you really need it, I could skip it…"

"It's alright, you haven't eaten for longer than me," Pleo replied. The Pikachu then eyed the frozen berry cautiously, and as she cautiously eyed the surrounding Pokémon, she scooped it up, gave a bow to the little guardian present, and then scurried back off into the bushes.

"I guess we should get going, too," Crom murmured as the Pikachu vanished into the undergrowth. "I'll make up the berry to you. After all, we've got loaves from mom's bakery!"

The Druddigon fished out two golden loaves from Kiran's bag. As was his custom, he left one at the base of the shrine, and began to tear up the other and share it with his companions. One for Pleo, one for himself, and of course, one for Nida...

"Ready to get going, Pleo?" Nida asked as she took her portion of bread loaf. The question made Pleo pause for a moment as he helped himself to his piece.

"You'll be there beside me, right?" he asked through a beakful of bread.

"Uh huh! Uh huh!" Crom cheerfully replied as he tore off a chunk for his newest teammate.

"Hrmph… I don't have much of a choice," Elty grumbled as he snatched up his piece of Crom's loaf, occasionally shooting dissatisfied looks at the loaf the dragon had just left there on the shrine's base.

"Of course we will," Nida reassured in between nibbles of her portion. "We're a team, remember?"

"Then… I think that I am," Pleo replied, ruffling his feathers as he drew near to his teammates. Crom was the first to lead the charge, marching on past Team Sawtooth. One by one, his teammates and the shadowing team followed suit, returning to the path in between the trees that wound its way up Tromba's mountains… on towards that strange, thick fog that hung from the peaks.

Before too long, Nida, Crom, Elty, Pleo, and their shadowing team found themselves in a foggy portion of forest, standing in front of a yawning cave entrance that acted as the last barrier between Tromba and the distorted floors within the Mystery Dungeon just ahead.

"Do we all know the rules for going in?" Kiran asked, keenly eyeing his charges who today would have to trawl through the floors on their own. Nida and Crom couldn't help but give each other exasperated looks, as usual.

"Um," Nida grumbled, flattening out her ears.

"Kiran," Crom added, as he slapped a claw over his snout. It was something that they had been through many times before, and judging from Elty's unamused leer, he was certainly in their same camp.

"Look, I might not be from your island, but what kind of moron doesn't know how to safely enter a Mystery-?" he snapped, before he noticed that Pleo was staring blankly at the Swellow.

"Oh, right," the Growlithe grumbled to himself. Nida and Crom did say that this would be the feather duster's first time in a Mystery Dungeon, so of course he wouldn't know!

"What are they, Kiran?" Pleo asked.

"Why don't you explain this time, kids?" Kiran asked as he gestured to Crom and Nida with a wing.

"Stay together in the fog, don't wander off the path, and don't run into the dungeon," they dutifully recited, this time not groaning at this routine reminder since one of their companions actually needed it this time.

"Yeah, what they said!" Elty added hastily as Kiran quickly talked some matters over with Team Sawtooth that the younger Pokémon couldn't make out before Pitys spoke up.

"We'll be letting you guys lead the way in today, you know how to get in, right?"

"I sure do!" Crom answered. "All you've gotta do is make sure your feet are always on the path!"

"And when the fog gets all espesa?" Alto asked, the Loudred's booming voice carrying off into the distance.

"Keep your head close to the ground to check!" Crom dutifully replied.

"Seems like they've got the hang of it, Kiran," Cardellini said. "And if you kids run into any trouble, we'll take over for you."

"I'll follow whichever one of you will be at the end, so feel free to organize the team, Crom," Kiran replied as he turned to quickly preen some shoulder feathers. Crom stopped and eyed his teammates, before he bent down to address the Nidoran.

"You hitching a ride again this time, Nida?" he asked, his jagged maw giving the closest approximation to a smile a Druddigon could muster.

"Actually… I think I'll pass this time, Crom," Nida said, putting a paw to her mouth as she looked aside.

"Eh?!" the young Druddigon cried out of surprise. "But you always-!"

He then noticed that Nida was glancing at Pleo, who was busy preening some flight feathers on his wing.

"Someone probably needs the company a bit more," she explained. "It'll be his first time going through the fog, remember?"

"Ah, right. Good catch," Crom replied. "Pleo! Hold on tight to my tail as we go in-! Ow!"

Crom then felt Pleo latching onto the end of his tail with his beak, as he cheerily replied in a muffled tone.

"Likth dath?" he asked.

"Um… Pleo, let's try using your wings," Nida said, sighing. The Nidoran then hopped up onto Pleo's shoulders and sat at the base of his neck and after a little prodding, the Lugia let go of Crom's tail and gave the dragon a moment to wag some sensation back into it. After Crom seemed to be ready, Pleo again latched onto the Druddigon's tail, this time by pressing it firmly between his wings. Yep, everyone was now accounted for, except...

"Alright," declared the Growlithe's voice. "So I'll just go at the very end of the- Gark!"

The former pirate yelped as felt himself being lifted off the ground by the scruff of his neck, then drawn into a tight clutch of two arms coated in rough scales as Crom looked down at him with those piercing eyes of his.

"Yeah, nice try, Elty," he said. "But you'll be sticking with me today."

"Hey! I can handle myself fine! And your scales chafe!" Elty whined as Kiran grabbed Pleo's tail with his own wings and Team Sawtooth latched onto each other, grasping tails, arms, or shoulders to finish their chain.

"Alright, I think we're good here. Lead the way, Crom!" Kiran called out.

"I'm on it!" Crom cheered, as he began trudging past the lip of the cave, deeper and deeper into the mist.

As the Druddigon lead the group deeper and deeper into the haze, Pleo keenly eyed his young guide. Crom always trudged forth slowly and carefully, sometimes stopping and bending down to eye and sniff at the ground to make sure he hadn't strayed off the path. Even as his form became more and more indistinct from the haze, it was a process the young Druddigon dutifully kept up. With each step forward, less and less of the world stayed visible to the Lugia. The feeling of Nida on his shoulders, Crom's tail before him, and Kiran's wings behind him being the only sensations that seemed to not grow more muddled as he went along.

"Why do we have to go through this fog thing?" Pleo asked the riding Nidoran on his shoulders.

"That's just how the barrier to the Distortion works," Nida replied. "It apparently was that way even back in the days of humans."

"Yeah, there's stories about the different ways humans would try to mark paths through them back when they were around," Crom called off from ahead. "In one of them, they tried building pillars along the path as a guide!"

"Not that we'd ever know for sure," Kiran explained as Pleo watched the Swellow's face became harder and harder to make out in the fog. "All of those Distortions, if they're even aroundanymore, would be somewhere out in the Wastes."

As they kept walking along, more and more of the world around Pleo vanished. Team Sawtooth's Pokémon were the first to vanish, blotted out from Pleo's view by the fog. Kiran was next, and soon enough Pleo couldn't even make out his own tail. Then came Crom and Nida, as the fog enveloped more and more of Pleo, to the point where he couldn't even see past the end of his snout.

All the while, everything seemed to become… wrong. The chatter of his teammates, the smell of the path's surroundings, even the very feel of the air surrounding him and the path under his feet... all of it became murky, heavy, and strange, as if Crom had lead everyone into the clutch of some strange and awful snare that was closing in on him… leaving him all alone.

Pleo stopped trudging forward, not daring to move his wings or take another step, and began to call out, frightened.

"N-Nida?! Nida!"

He tried to look about, but all there was around him was this thick, oppressive haze. Pleo's heart sank and he began to wish that he was back in the town, back where he could see the sun and the sky, where everyone seemed happy and content. All of a sudden, Pleo felt something soft on his back, and heard a small voice from the haze.

"-eep going...! alm... -ough!" it called. Wait a minute, that voice… It was Nida's!

"Nida! Where are you?!" he cried, before he began to hear other voices.

"Don… -ive up!"

"So -ose!"

"-oin… grea…!"

"-ollow… -om!"

Pleo stopped and shuffled his feet… Were these sounds his teammates? Or was it all just a trick? He stood there, torn at what to do, before a voice murmured through the haze.

"right here... -side you."

It was then that Pleo shook his head and the fog suddenly seemed less overwhelming. Even if he couldn't see them, his friends really were still right beside him. He felt a tug ahead, and decided that as disorienting as everything seemed, it was safe to press on. So he went, trudging step by step, letting the scraping tug before him be his guide.

Little by little, the air felt lighter and lighter and the sound of flowing water became clearer and clearer along with an increasingly strong smell of salt as the haze began to recede. Nida, Crom, Kiran… One by one, the different Pokémon that had gone along with Pleo through the mist returned to the guardian's vision, until they were all there again.

As last wisps of fog cleared away, Pleo saw that Crom led everyone into a simple sea cave with a pool of water that stretched along the wall to the right and a narrow corridor at the end.

"Make it through alright, pollito?" Kiran asked as he sidled up to Pleo. "You seemed like you took the trip through a little hard."

"I think so," Pleo murmured uneasily as he looked about the stone chamber. "But why does the fog get so scary?"

"You'll get used to it with time, Pleo," Nida explained. "It always seems scary the first time around."

"Alright, so this is as far as we'll lead you today," Pitys declared as she brushed her fans together and shook some life into them.

"Wait, it… is?" Pleo asked. "But I thought we were exploring!"

"Emphasis on 'we'," Crom replied as he stretched his limbs. "We'll be leading the way for the practice rescue, Kiran and the others will be following. Think of it as kinda being like our times going through Maestra Mosca's maze."

"I guess that makes sense," Pleo said to himself.

"And if you guys ever find yourself in need of a speedy exit, you've got an easy way to make that happen!" Kiran cheered before he pressed his badge with a wing, which quickly caused a familiar Kirlia's voice to flood the minds of the present Pokémon.

"Yeah, what is it, Kiran? I'm juggling stuff!"

"Oh, hi wall-talker!" Pleo cheered as he waved ahead, and then blinked and looked around sheepishly as he remembered that the Guild's psychics didn't have to be anywhere nearby to speak with him.

"It's Pataki, Pleo," Crom corrected. The voice, realizing who was in the party, suddenly adopted a much more congenial demeanor.

"Oh! Right! It's the Protector's big day! Ahehe, I'm sure that I can manage if he needs some help. Or maybe someone to keep that lordly mind of his company in that dreary sea cave~"

"You know, I'm pretty sure that you just made the whole 'being stuck alone in a dreary sea cave that shifts around' sound a lot more appealing right now," Elty said, rolling his eyes at the Kirlia's broadcast thoughts.

"Shut it, mutt!"

Kiran let go of his badge- no sense in getting into an argument with Pataki this early into the mission. He then motioned for his teammates to draw near, and embraced them all with his wings, even Elty.

"Good luck, kids," he said, giving a tight squeeze before letting the group free. "We'll be rooting for you!"

They all quietly nodded, before Crom turned around and began to trudge for the corridor in the back. His companions followed after the young dragon one by one as Kiran waited at the entrance with Team Sawtooth, watching his pupils vanish deeper into the maze.

"Where you go here is all up to you," he chirped to himself.

After finding each floor's stairs, Team Traveler would wait on Kiran and Team Sawtooth to come along. Then they would all go down the stairs together, the Distortion sealing up the path behind them as the Pokémon made their way deeper into the Mystery Dungeon. Once they reached the next floor, the young rookies would then once again trudge on ahead as the others sat and once again waited for them to slip out of their line of sight.

The first two floors of the dungeon were quiet ones that day, with the only real encounters in the routine the two teams established being Pataki's gushing whenever Pleo happened to brush his badge, much to the annoyance of his teammates. Still, they couldn't complain too much about things, the Substitute that the team was to 'rescue' was supposed to be somewhere between the fifth and seventh floors that day, and here they were, still on the third.

The third floor that day had been created by the Distortion as a simple collection of large chambers, mostly bereft of the spindly and narrow passageways that the team had trained in back at the Dojo. The trappings of this floor were mostly what one would expect from a sea cave: stony ceilings, floors, and walls, a few shallow pools and streams of sea water…

With one rather obvious exception.

"Look! The water's going up!" Pleo cried out.

The young Lugia pointed at a wall in their cave passageway covered with cascading seawater. Except the direction the water flowed in went from bottom to top.

"Er… Well, it seems to be, yeah," Nida murmured. She had to admit, watching that curious fascination that Guild members often felt their first time in the Mystery Dungeon was cute, but…

Was Pleo going to do this for everything out of the ordinary he ran across?

"That's so cool!" Pleo chirped. "Can we make a wall of water like this back home?"

"Tch. Not likely, they call the thing that makes these Mystery Dungeons the 'Distortion' for a reason!" a voice called out.

Pleo and Nida looked behind them and saw a Growlithe hopping between stones over the stream of water which emptied up the wall. The little dog keenly eyed each rock, tensing up before each leap.

Splash!

Only to slip on his final jump and fall into the stream. The Growlithe slipped under the surface for a moment, before he bolted back up to his feet and quickly climbed out of the stream, coughing up some water.

"Bah… At least it's shallow," the Growlithe grumbled to himself. The little dog crept up the edge of the pool, dripping all the while before he stopped and vigorously shook himself to try and dry his pelt.

"Heey! Come on! We can't find that Substitute if we're just sitting around here looking at the cave!" Crom cried from further down the passageway.

"Come on, Pleo, we should get going," Nida said as she turned and began to carefully trudge forward to Crom's position.

"And if we take too long here, we might get caught up when the Distortion blows away the floor," Elty chimed in as he darted off towards Crom.

"'Blows away the floor'?" Pleo asked nervously as he followed his Nidoran teammate.

Nida flattened out her ears. Why did Elty have to bring that up right now? This was Pleo's first time in the Mystery Dungeon, and the last thing anyone on the team needed was a jittery and panicky teammate in such an unstable environment.

"It's something that happens occasionally. No te preocupes! We'd be able to get enough warning to get to safety if the floor was about to get shifted up," Nida reassured.

It seemed to be good enough for the young Protector; his momentary unease wavered and then melted away as he went back to following along after Nida, occasionally casting glances back at the inverted waterfall.

The two followed Crom deeper into the maze, down a path which led the group through a broad pool that came up to Nida's knees. There were portions of the pool that gave way to darker shades of blue; presumably the deep ends. But as long as the team stayed where it was shallow-

"Ow!"

A voice cried out from ahead, and was quickly joined by Crom's.

"Gyaaah!"

Much to the shock of everyone present, Crom abruptly fell backwards into the water. He narrowly missed Nida and Elty, who sidestepped the Druddigon's body at the last minute. After the minor panic, everyone's eyes quickly settled upon a pink, wraith-like jellyfish that burst out from the water ahead of the Druddigon.

"That's my tentacle you stepped on, jerk!" the Frillish hissed as she glared at the blue and red intruder.

"Ack! Sorry! Sorry! We didn't see you!" Crom stammered.

"Yeah, do you think we just hopped into this pool for laughs or something?" Elty barked.

"Look, we're sorry about the trouble-" Nida began, before the pink creature cut her off.

"I'm sure you are!" she shouted as a red and black aura began to form around her body. "Get out!"

"Wait!" Pleo cried, waving his wings desperately at the jellyfish. "You can't attack them! I'm the Protector!"

"E-Eh?!" the creature cried out of surprise. Her aura abruptly vanished and the jellyfish began to eye the white bird skeptically. "I mean… I guess you kinda do look like how the Protector's supposed to, but…"

The Frillish paused for a moment, and then shook her head before gesturing at Nida, Elty, and Crom.

"If you're really the Protector, have your friends perform your secret ritual dance!" she cried.

"Wh-What?!" Pleo squawked.

"What dance?!" Nida cried

"My mother told me that back in the days of humans, a secret dance was used to summon the Protector in caves like this one! If that bird's really the Protector, he must have taught you it!"

Nida, Crom, and Elty stared at each other blankly as they realized that they hadn't had the foggiest idea of what sort of dance was supposed to summon a bird that had trouble paying attention half the time. On top of all of that, even if they did somehow know the dance...

"Yeah… I'm not going to dance," Elty grumbled, folding back his ears.

It didn't look like they were going to have any luck performing it.

"We're doomed, aren't we?" Crom groaned, throwing a claw over his face.

"Yes, you are," the Frillish hissed, her reddish-black aura thickening and re-emerging. "That bird's an imposter!"

Before Pleo could speak back, the aura around the Frillish coalesced and focused itself into a black beam that struck Pleo in his chest and threw him backwards.

"Aah!"

As Pleo struggled back to his feet and tried to shake some sensation back into his chest (and some water off himself), the others quickly slipped into battle poses.

"We'll try diplomacy another time!" Nida cried. "Let's just fight this creepy jerk jellyfish off already!"

"Right!" Elty grunted.

"Leave us alone!" Crom roared at the Frillish, before he charged the creature and clamped down on one of her tentacles with his jaws.

"Yeargh!" the jellyfish shrieked, flailing around desperately trying to break free. As she pulled at her tentacle, an indigo aura spread over the Druddigon. As he noticed the eerie aura passing onto him along with a sudden overbearing and draining feeling, the young dragon cried out in surprise, allowing the Frillish to pull her tentacle free. Just in time for the aura to coalesce in bands that wrapped themselves around Crom's snout, clamping it shut.

"Mrrph!"

Crom began to panic, clawing at the binds around his mouth. But as hard as he tried, the strange violet binds didn't show any appreciable damage and simply refused to budge.

"Not so tough without your jaws, are ya?" the Frillish taunted as the blackish aura returned to her body. "Enjoy your curse!"

And much as she had done with Pleo, the creature's aura focused itself into a black beam which zipped forward and bowled the Druddigon over in the water.

"Mrrrrgh!"

As the Frillish darted forward to strike the Druddigon, she suddenly recoiled from a flying spike that narrowly missed her head, and a little gout of fire that passed close enough to her tentacles to singe one. The two attacks belonged to a certain Nidoran and Growlithe, who were staring down the Frillish that was now turning their direction. Nida stood much closer than Elty, who kept a healthy distance at the back.

"Elty, you can help in ways beyond sticking around in the back, you know!" she huffed to her teammate.

"Don't rush me, battling's not a science!" Elty growled back. His words were… unencouraging to say the least, as the Frillish began to close the gap with Nida, causing her to tense her barbs once more.

"Take this!"

She flicked another of her spikes from her body at the advancing jellyfish and watched it sail straight at her assailant, only for the Frillish to catch sight of the approaching spike and then abruptly fade just before it struck, leaving the projectile to pass through entirely.

"Eh?! They can do that with moving objects, too-?!" Nida cried out, slack-jawed. Before she could dodge or weave out of the way, she felt the familiar stream of scalding bursts and accompanying glop of a BubbleBeam.

"Ack!"

As Nida tumbled back through the water and stumbled back to her feet, she heard the sound of something bolting through the water in the direction of the Frillish, along with Pleo's voice.

"W-Wait! Leave her alone!"

Nida cleared her eyes enough to catch the Frillish whirling towards Pleo, beginning to build a dark aura around herself again as Pleo froze in his tracks.

"Eep!"

"Don't think I've forgotten about you, imposter!" the Frillish shouted at the petrified young Lugia.

Much to Nida's horror, the creature's aura coalesced again, and disgorged itself as a black beam that tore towards Pleo, making Nida flinch. Only… there were no cries of pain this time. Just the sounds of surprise from the Frillish.

"Huh?! Where'd it go?!"

When Nida's eyes opened again, she saw that Pleo had vanished from his spot. Nida gave a surprised squeak, it was then that she chanced to glance up and saw that Pleo was sailing in the air with a wobble.

"I'm flying!" he chirped, ecstatic that he was in the air, high above everyone, just barely skimming the surface of the cave's roof. "I'm fly- Whoa- Whoa!"

He then lost his balance and entered a steep dive, the Lugia plummeting like a stone back to the pool below with a splash… directly on top of the Frillish. The Frillish flopped weakly, stunned for a moment. Dazed by being landed on by a much larger creature, the jellyfish then feebly began to pull herself free.

"O-Ow- EYAAAAAH!"

The Frillish suddenly gave a shrill cry of pain intermingled with the sound of frantic splashing after Elty bit down upon her bell. Her voice wavered and her motions grew weaker until they were but occasional twitches as she slipped out of consciousness and drifted back down into the water from where she came.

"Hrmph, [I[that[/I] far enough from the back for you, spike ball?" he asked, spitting up the taste of Frillish from his mouth.

"It's an improvement," Nida grunted, as she saw Crom stumbling over to help Pleo up onto his feet. The bands muzzling his snout began to evaporate, allowing the Druddigon to finally tear the accursed binds off.

"Is everyone alright?" the Druddigon panted, still feeling the effects of the Frillish's attack.

"My body aches a little, but I think I'm-" Pleo began, but before he could finish, the young Lugia had his attention diverted to the sight of an olive, glassy sphere that looked like it was filled with grayish, silky cords in the water. "Look!"

"Eh?" Crom began, before he too saw the sphere in the water. "Oh! Good eye! That's a Slow Orb!"

"An… 'Orb'?" the young Lugia asked as Nida bounded into the pool to fish out the Slow Orb.

"It's said that unlike things like Blast Seeds, orbs are pure crystallizations of the essence of the Distortion," Nida explained, as she nudged the orb over to Pleo. "And that depending on the orb, once they're broken, they'll either affect everyone close enough who's touched it… Or for orbs like this one, everyone close enough who hasn't touched it."

"They're supposed to be best used inside Mystery Dungeons," Crom added. "If you try using them outside, the ones that do work aren't nearly as effective out there."

Pleo stared into the strange, greenish orb, and pecked at it gently. It felt smooth and cold like one of the glass jars in town that Pokémon put moss or candles in for light, and even made a similar plinking noise. The Lugia then pushed the bauble forward with his beak, but couldn't help but feel uneasy about something.

"Wait… but isn't this 'orb' thingy the Frillish's? It was in her pool of water, wasn't it?"

"Meh, who cares?" Elty grunted. "Finder's keepers!"

"We did just get jumped for no good reason by her. And she covered me in that asquerosa bubbly glop!" Nida grumbled, flattening out her ears as she brought the Slow Orb over to the bag Crom was holding. "I'm pretty sure that's grounds for demanding something in return- Oh."

"We don't have any space left in the bag, Crom," she sighed.

"Well, I've got plenty of space in mine!" Elty offered, nosing at the bag he was still carrying from the evening he came to Tromba. "Put it here!"

There was a pause as the other three Pokémon present traded skeptical looks with each other before Nida tersely broke the silence.

"Yeah, I think we'll heal to make room, thanks."

"Daj mi spokój! I bailed you out!" the Growlithe complained. "Can't I get a little bit of trust here?!"

"It would get more confusing with two bags to have to juggle, Elty," Crom said as he began trudging through the water towards the shore. "Come on, we should get out of this pool and get patched up anyways."

The team trudged on wearily to the other side of the pool and came to a rest on the rocks. It was decided that Nida would tend to Crom, and she could also tend to Pleo… as for Nida...

"Er… How are we going to heal you, Nida?" Pleo asked.

"Uh," Nida mumbled, mouth agape. She couldn't say that she was terribly confident in letting Crom try to treat her given his… Erm, need for understudy. But the team was supposed to take care of itself…

"I'll do it," Elty volunteered.

"You what?" Nida asked, her ears beginning to droop.

"What? Basic healing isn't that uncommon of a skill, is it?" the Growlithe scoffed, before giving an askew glance at Crom. "Besides, considering your alternatives…"

"Grr… Fine, but I'm going last so that way Crom and Pleo can beat the snot out of you if you get any ideas!" Nida huffed.

Well, that settled that. Nida sidled over to Crom, who had sprawled out on the ground, and began to tend to his wounds. All the while, Pleo couldn't help but feel troubled about something. He was supposed to be the Protector of Tromba Island, and not just of the Pokémon that lived in town either. So why did the Frillish get mad at him and call him an imposter when he didn't do what she wanted? Pleo thought, and thought, but couldn't come to a satisfying answer before Nida's voice interrupted his train of thought.

"Hey, it's your turn, Pleo," she said, inspecting Pleo under his feathers. "Lemme see what I can do for you about your chest. I don't think attacks like those break hide, but it should still be treated."

"Hmm? Oh, I guess that's alright," Pleo murmured, not really paying attention as Nida brought over a peeled Oran Berry and began to inspect his chest.

"Nida?" Pleo asked.

"Hmm?"

"Why did-? Nnngh!" Pleo looked down and saw that Nida had begun to apply the berry's juice to his chest. He steeled himself a bit from the pain before he returned to his train of thought. "Why did the thing you called a 'Frillish' not believe me?"

"I don't know Pleo," Nida sighed as she brushed away some more feathers from another site on Pleo's chest. "Maybe, she was just expecting something different from a Protector."

"Am I supposed to be different as a Protector though-? Ow!"

As Pleo winced from the last of the juice, Nida stopped and thought a moment as she passed the pulp up to Pleo to chew. While the white creature bit into and swallowed the Oran pulp in bits, Nida realized that she didn't really know if Pleo was supposed to be different as a Protector or not. The only thing she had to work with was folklore and what everyone said a Protector ought to be, and… well, the town had seen for themselves that not all of them seemed to come to pass. And apparently the ferals had stories and expectations of their own that she had never heard before!

"Well, I can't say that I know for sure," the Nidoran murmured. "I'm pretty sure that you're more than just a Pokémon that's supposed to show up whenever other Pokémon do some special dance, like that Frillish thought."

"Yeah, I thought that was strange too," Pleo answered. Well, that seemed to clear one thing up: even if he was supposed to be different as a Protector, it wasn't necessarily supposed to be in the way that the Frillish wanted. The realization helped to bring some relief to Pleo as Elty drew over to Nida.

"Alright, it's your turn, spike ball," the Growlithe said as he went over to grab an Oran Berry, only for the sound of the Frillish stirring to reverberate from the pool of water.

"Nnngah."

"Er," Elty groaned, biting his tongue.

"Come on, we should get going before she wakes all the way up," Nida said. "I can get healed while we wait at the stairs."

"Sounds like music to my ears," Elty sighed as the group hurriedly went further on down the chamber, the Frillish and the pool slowly slipping out of sight.

Chapter Text

As Team Traveller treated their wounds from their battle with the Frillish, Hatteras was walking about the main square back in town. He had shelved his red and white Guildmaster scarf that day in favor of something a bit more mayoral while he surveyed repairs that were going on.

A Togetic tailor was operating under an awning. As Pokémon carted in pieces of lumber to slowly rebuild the interior of a freshly constructed frame, he engaged in an idle conversation with the Starmie that owned the similarly-obliterated Appraisal Shop on the docks, wondering if hiding discount vouchers in chests in the Mystery Dungeon might encourage more business from the guild.

Over at Calino's stall, the Kecleon was engaged in a heated negotiation with the Honchkrow that owned the local bank. Apparently Hess's underlings had made off with a sizable quantity of Poké- or "merchants' scrip" as the Honchkrow called it, to Calino's annoyance- from the vaults. Calino's off-island associates reimbursed a healthy part of such losses in return for Pokémon like the banker maintaining reserves in Poké, and the crow felt it proper for that portion to cover most of the purloined money. Hatteras privately hoped that the two could come to an agreement without requiring his adjudication. Numismatics was always such a dry subject, and had a worrisome tendency to bring out unfavorable sides of Pokémon.

A little further up, Hatteras saw a familiar Sceptile with a lavender headband seated on a stool in a wood-floored juice bar. The wooden hut that housed it sat beside a glassblowing shop run by a Magmar that insisted that the strong drinks served just next door were an aid to his craft and not just a fire hazard. The town's arboreal captain of the guard lazily toyed with a chewing twig in the shade, taking a break from guarding, it seemed. The Ampharos turned and entered the establishment, rebuilt recently enough to not to have the sights and accompanying smells of many rowdy and well-used nights yet.

"Oh? Not loafing around on the job are you now, Osmund?" Hatteras asked as his eyes adjusted to the shade of the juice bar.

"Heh, heh, as the Pokémon who gave me this job you oughta know me better than that, Hatteras!" Osmund answered. "I might play a little loose according to the Company's standards, but even I've got better things to do than while my time away in an empty juice bar."

As the Sceptile observed, there really were no customers at the low tables around the establishment. Before Hatteras could ask what his captain of the guard was doing here, Osmund spoke up.

"I'm doing rounds, checking up on the Pokémon you had fill those community service positions," he explained. The green lizard then gestured at a Sableye who was lazily cleaning the floor with a brush and crude wooden pan by some empty tables. "Hoy, tenderfoot! I hope you don't keep the barkeep waiting like this! It's a slow day, there's juice on the counter, and I've been waiting 10 minutes for it!"

"Hey, cool it!" the imp snapped back. "The old windbag's picking up inventory right now and I'm juggling her brat's clea-!"

Before the Sableye could continue, though, he became acutely aware just who the two customers in the juice bar were and flushed pale.

"G-Gih!" the creature squeaked, dropping the brush and pan. "I mean- I guess I could-!"

"Actually, make it two," Hatteras added. "I'll take one of whatever he's having."

The Sableye darted over to the counter, hastily poured juice from a pitcher into a second cup, and rushed back to the table.

"Two Rawsts with honey! S-Sorry about the wait! I'm still getting used to this, h-honest!" he stammered, before darting away from the table and returning to his work cleaning. The Sableye's motions had a bit more vigor to them now, in what was an obvious and transparent attempt to secure some peace. Even so, Hatteras found some small positive sign from the purple creature's behavior.

"Well, you can't say they haven't been learning their manners towards authority figures, can you?" Hatteras cheered as he took a sip from his cup.

"Mmph, Mirlia needs to get him to put some more work into that 'service with a smile' part… but that's not new," the Sceptile replied.

"So, I take it reconstruction's been going well? With all the Pokémon going about the square today, you'd think that all of the shops have already reopened!" Hatteras cheered.

"Well… well enough to be able to get a drink," Osmund sighed before taking a swig from his cup. "Mirlia and Minia got this place open up quickly enough, but my preferred haunt's still out from fire damage at the moment."

"So, has there been any word about when they'll-?"

"Mrph. I'm afraid I can't help you there, Hatteras," the Sceptile said, shaking his head. "If there was word, I'd have heard it. I'm supposed to be the 'mon who hears things first through the Grepa bush from the rest of the Company, hierarchal structure and all. What I have been able to get from them about how on earth this raid even happened was that they'd 'come to make an assessment soon'."

"I was afraid of that, actually," Hatteras said, putting a paw over his brow. "Did they at least give any ideas as to how soon-?"

"E-Eh?!" a Kangaskhan's voice from outside cried out.

"M-Mom? Why are they here already?" a younger voice added, its softer tone full of apprehension and dread.

"Mirlia sure came back soon, but I wonder what's going-?" Hatteras began to ask as jewel-eyed creature went up to the juice bar's entrance. The Pokémon carried on past an apprehensive Kangaskhan attempting to reassure her child and looked towards the harbor...

And promptly went slack-jawed.

"Oh great, just what I needed to get stuck here on this island in time for," he muttered.

Hatteras and Osmund got up from their table at once and walked over to the gawking barkeep and her help. To their dismay, they, along with everyone else on the path, saw a ship sidling up to one of the harbor's docks. A ship that flew lavender sails bearing an emblem made of violet squares.

"Sooner than I expected, it looks like," Osmund muttered.


A bit later, Team Sawtooth found themselves pacing down a narrow, winding passage on the third floor of Tromba's Mystery Dungeon. The group was lead by Alto, who every so often stopped and listened for something further down the path.

"I'm telling you guys, I heard them this way!" the Loudred insisted.

"Ugh, couldn't you have picked a less cramped way to get there?" Cardellini grumbled. Croconaw weren't meant to have their tails rub up against cave walls with every turn in a corridor, after all.

"It would be nice to be able to fly without running into something right now," Kiran added.

"If we get ambushed, you won't be doing us any favors for being able to fight effectively," Pitys sighed. As the Shiftry kept watch over the portion of the corridor behind her, Kiran stopped and pressed his badge with his wing.

"Pataki, you're sure this passage leads to the stairs and the kids, right?" the Swellow spoke to the bauble.

"Do you want to try to scan the floor in my place?" Pataki's voice snapped back in the four Pokémon's minds.

"Ya, ya! Entiendo!" Kiran squawked, before he gave an apologetic sigh. "I'm… just a little on-edge. You said earlier the kids got into a scuffle, and I'm concerned that they're not taking care of them-"

"-a ha! And you said I couldn't be a good healer!" a voice carried on from down the passage.

"-f you're so great, why'd you ask for Crom to heal you back at the Dojo, then?"

"-selves," Kiran murmured before dropping his wing from his badge.

"They sound pretty healthy to me," Alto said as he rounded a corner. "And I think this must be their chamber!"

Kiran and his temporary teammates carefully followed Alto, plumbing down another narrow corridor into an unremarkable, straightforward chamber. The stairs lay directly in front of them, and the four other members of Team Traveler were resting on the other side..

"Hey!" Kiran cried out, immediately drawing the attention of the four rookies.

"Took you long enough!" Elty barked. Now that he had some more room, Kiran took wing and flapped over to the four younger Pokémon. The Swellow settled down and ruffled his feathers, his calm similarly perturbed as he anxiously asked his teammates:

"The floor wasn't too hard on you, was it?"

"Yeah, we ran into this really upset 'Frillish' thing earlier!" Pleo chirped. "But we defeated her! We even found a 'Slow Orb' afterwards!"

"Yeah! Check it out!" Crom cried. The Druddigon thrust his claws into the team bag and, after a little rummaging, fished out an olive sphere and proudly showed it off. The Swellow stopped and blinked at the group.

Perhaps it was the effects of the Oran Berries they used coming in, but Team Traveller seemed far less beleaguered than Kiran had dreaded. Yes, they still had a few obvious scuffs and nicks here and there, but there seemed to be a confidence and determination that etched itself across the team's faces. Why, even Elty seemed to have a little bit of the same spark in him!

No, there was something more to this than some temporary berry effect, and the Pokémon from Team Sawtooth seemed to notice it, too.

"It looks like they've been taking care of themselves pretty good for rookies, Kiran," Pitys reassured.

"Yeah, they take after their captain pretty good, it seems!" Alto chimed in.

The Swellow paused and, after puffing out his feathers a bit with a hint of pride, finally spoke up.

"Well, what can I say?" he chirped in satisfaction. "Why, when you get your fundamentals down, everything else just follows!"


Back in Bluewhorl, the atmosphere was far less cheery as the Company ship docked. Hatteras breathed a quiet sigh of gratitude to the gods for the ship being smaller and less imposing than he had dreaded- and more importantly, for Pleo being far away right now. Far from the eyes of the Pokémon accompanying the unwelcome ship that day.

"At least it's one of their smaller ships this time. I don't think they'll be able to take much from this town today."

"How much they'd take wasn't my biggest concern," Hatteras replied. "Get some of your subordinates handy, they'll need a welcoming committee to keep them in line."

Osmund gave a nod and ducked off down the path after hastily leaving some Poké on the counter, leaving Hatteras to walk towards the docks on his own. As he drew nearer, he saw some of the Pokémon at the harbor dart away after seeing the ship dock. Some sea Pokémon and fliers perched around their chosen docks, all of them wearing lavender scarves bearing a violet square pattern simpler than the ship's sails. The creatures maintained gruff and inhospitable attitudes with any locals unfortunate enough to be near them; every low growl and snarl was aimed to consciously remind the hapless residents that this was their town as long as they were in port. As Hatteras drew near he heard apprehensive whispers circulate among the townsfolk.

"The Company's already come?"

"But they're not supposed to be here until after the next wet season!"

"Mommy, are the mean Pokémon going to root through our stuff again?"

He walked up the dock, towards some Pokémon that had disembarked from the ship and were waiting around a Mothim with. Hatteras looked back just in time to see Osmund making his way up along with some hastily called-up guards, and then turned back to the Mothim. The Bug-type wore a lavender scarf with a purple design consisting of four small squares that laid on top of the corners of a larger square that connected them all

"I was expecting bit more from a collection agent," Hatteras murmured.

"I'm a notary thank you very much," the Mothim snapped back with an icy leer.

"Then note this," a Granbull among the guards Osmund called up growled. "We don't want you around here any more than you have to be!"

"Yeah, take your boat and push off already!" snapped a Mawile that Team Traveler might have recognized were they there. The outbursts drew growls and leers from the Pokémon with lavender scarves, but strangely enough, the Mothim seemed unmoved.

"Really now... 'Osmund', is it? You ought to do more to keep your ranks in check," the bug lectured as he flitted about nonchalantly, before his eyes glowed and he flicked one of his arms down. The gesture pulled the Mawile's headband over his face with an unseen force. The strip of cloth unfurled, revealing itself to be a scrunched-up lavender scarf with a violet square much like the ones the Mothim's lackeys wore.

"Ah!" the Mawile cried out, as he hastily tried to redo his headband, backpedaling nervously from this moth that was far less frail than appearances indicated.

"It's so unbecoming to air private disputes in public, don't you think?" the fluttering moth asked the Sceptile. "Especially when such disputes involve insubordination by upstarts who don't know their place in the hierarchy."

"Grr… You're new to this circuit," Osmund glowered back. "Who are you and what do you want?"

"The name is Ellsberg. As for why I'm here..." the Mothim replied. "I believe that it was you that shot those distress flares off. You needed help to fend off an assault, yes? A ship captained by an Aggron, I believe?"

"That was a week ago!" the Sceptile blurted out in frustration.

"And the closest spotters had a bit of ship trouble a week ago. Really now," Ellsberg chided. "As much as we dislike the present arrangement here, we don't stoop that-"

"Ahem, but given the… delicacy of these details, might I suggest that we continue this over something more relaxed?" Hatteras proposed. "Osmund and I were just in the middle of drinks when you pulled into port."

"That's fine by me," the Mothim replied, as he began to motion to the lavender-scarved Pokémon with him to come along. "After all, I did not come to this hamlet thinking there would be much that worth bothering with to begin with."

"Keep your lackeys on the docks," Osmund brusquely interrupted. Which caused the Pokémon that had come with the ship to trade skeptical looks with each other and mumble snide comments about 'these bumpkins' and the like. The Mothim however, called for quiet before he turned back to the Sceptile.

"Hrmph, I see that you're as eager as ever to kowtow to native sensibilities, Osmund," the creature sneered. "But very well, I'm sure that you know as well as I do what ramifications there will be for your position in the Company and this town's arrangement if any harm comes to me."

"We're both aware, yes," Hatteras replied. "Now, I believe we had drinks to get to?"

The Ampharos led the Mothim back along the path, Osmund following close behind the flitting bug all the way back to the juice bar. The Mothim for his part seemed utterly unconcerned with the hostile and apprehensive stares from the locals, or, if anything, pleased by them.

As soon as the Mothim came into the juice bar, which now had Mirlia and her daughter Minia working behind the counter, a pall instantly fell over the three Pokémon in the room. The Sableye, keenly aware of the additional customer who had come into the shop, quietly busied himself with cleaning and avoided eye contact.

"Uhm… Guildmaster Hatteras-?" the Kangaskhan asked, as she uneasily eyed the flitting bug while her child ducked behind her for shelter.

"You there! You juice berries don't you?" the Mothim barked. "I'll take a Charti smoothie with a hint of mint."

"R-Right away!" Mirlia stammered, as she hastily set about juicing Charti Berries for the Mothim's drink. All the while, her daughter nervously scanned some shelves for the mint the Mothim had requested, ultimately producing some green leaves. Before too long, the berries were reduced into a yellow, pulpy fluid in a cup with the mint crushed into a fine crumble along the top. With the drink done, Mirlia brought the juice over to the Mothim's table, her eyes betraying an uneasy reluctance and Minia shivering in her pouch all the while. Osmund mouthed some words of encouragement to the younger Kangaskhan and gave a few misshapen coins to cover the drink, which was met with an unimpressed buzz.

"You shouldn't be so charitable, Osmund!" the Mothim admonished as he extended a proboscis down into his drink. "I was merely asking for a mere pittance in return for what the Company does for this town."

"Hrmph, really now?" Hatteras asked gruffly. "Over the past week, I can't say that anyone in this town has been satisfied with these… 'Services'."

"Ellsberg, these Pokémon work themselves to the bone to pay for their town's defense after every harvest!" Osmund huffed. "If we guards can't so much as count on the rest of the Company to help stop a few boats, then what on earth is that take that gets sent off of the island being used for?"

"Resources are scarcer in our age, Osmund. I suppose back in the days when the capital and the rest of Conntow wasn't a barren ruin... Before the throne had the gall to try and end our emergency regency after everything happened... To think that they also demanded direct administration of the Colonies with that! After the calamity they caused!" the Mothim lectured in between sips of his drink. "I suppose back then, we might be able to do more."

"But that was then. The Company has a third of the former realm to work with right now. The rest is under the control of the so-called 'rightful heirs' to the Empire. And then there's those places that are now ungovernable due to strategic difficulties," the bug continued, pushing aside his drink for a moment. "Is it really so unreasonable to think that a couple pirates might slip through the cracks? They were also a problem in the olden days, you know."

"This town paid less after each harvest in those days and got more in return! And pirates in those days laid in wait for travelers in out in far corners of the sea! They didn't storm into port!" Hatteras fumed back indignantly. "Don't lecture me on history you weren't alive for!"

"And back in those days, the residents of this hamlet didn't suddenly become experts in the tax code with each revision! And we had an Administrator that lived here instead of performing his duties in absentia! Or do you not remember that your island maintains a particular 'understanding' with the Company?" the Mothim asked the Ampharos accusingly. "One that a certain Dragonite would love to see reversed were it not for you, a couple of your friends, and one 'Dragon Buster'?"

"I fail to see how that relates to us not getting our tribute's worth!" Hatteras snapped.

"You're evading the question," Osmund growled.

"Please, Osmund, interrupting is so rude. Look, Guildmaster… Hatterby, was it?" the Mothim asked as he finished off his drink, retracted his proboscis and began fluttering about. "We in the Company are in a delicate position; there is only so much that we can do for all of our holdings. But you should be mindful that you are in a position that even we don't envy."

"Tell me, where would this island be without our help? Would it stop those boats that give you such grief any better? Would it make your ability to rule this island as you see fit any stronger in the long run?" the Mothim asked as he flew about, getting closer and closer to Hatteras with each question. "And most importantly, do you think that it would keep us from taking this rock back?"

"Yes it would!" a voice from the counter protested. "Pleo would protect us!"

All heads in the juice bar turned, and trained themselves on Minia, who was now shrinking back after becoming ever more aware that everyone was now staring at her.

"Who now?" the Mothim asked, his eyes boring into an increasingly unnerved-looking Minia who was shrinking back into her mother's pouch.

"Aherm… Never mind her," Mirlia hastily tried to excuse her child. "She must have helped herself to some of my mixes while I wasn't looking."

"I don't suppose that you would know anything about this, Hatterby?" the Mothim demanded as he turned back to the Ampharos.

"It's Hatteras, and what can I say? Children these days are easily impressionable," Hatteras answered flatly. "She must have remembered a particularly memorable traveler that passed through."

"Hmm… Is that so, Osmund?" Ellsberg asked, turning to the Sceptile. "I do hope you know better than to conceal the truth from someone whose job is to verify it."

There was a long, tense pause. The Sceptile couldn't risk giving a straight fabrication to the Mothim. Perhaps his command over psychic abilities was limited to party tricks such as pulling down his subordinates' headbands as he did earlier, but if it wasn't

Tromba would quickly find itself with a new captain of the guard- one that might not be anywhere near as concerned with its welfare as he was.

Then… perhaps it was best to just tell the truth.

"Pleo is a stranger to this town who fought tooth and nail to defend it in last week's raid," Osmund answered. "He was brought here by chance, and he's since gone out of town."

In a manner of speaking, of course.

"Hm… So a traveling warrior, like a few of the so-called 'Immortals'. How quaint," Ellsberg murmured as he began to flit towards the door. "Well, I think I've seen enough. And I don't see any need to change the quota for the next collection."

"What?!" Hatteras cried out.

"Are you blind?!" Osmund exclaimed. "Did you not see all of the damage on your way in?!"

"I saw plenty of damage… To the town. The tribute we collect from this island is primarily crops, there should be no problem in meeting the quota that we need specifically. As for me, my business here is done. I'll be returning to my ship and resting my wings a bit as it sets sail," Ellsberg answered, giving a cold, unmoving stare back at the Ampharos and the Sceptile.

"We'll keep an eye out for that Aggron though. I'm sure that such a big Pokémon will turn up eventually."

The Mothim flitted towards the door, but before he left, he turned to the counter, where he addressed Mirlia and her daughter.

"I would encourage you to keep your child's fantasies in line," the moth lectured sternly, gesturing at Minia. "This is the real world, where strength talks and lofty idealism makes Pokémon into prey for others."

The Mothim then left, leaving the young Kangaskhan to duck and shiver in her mother's pouch as Mirlia tried to reassure the poor creature.

"It's okay, he's gone now," she said, patting her daughter to try and comfort her as much as she was trying to comfort herself.

"What a creep," the Sableye spat, looking up from his overeager busywork and breathing a sigh of relief.

"I'll send him off, Hatteras," Osmund sighed. "I'm sure you have some work to be getting back to, especially after hearing that. I just hope that I can last the rest of the day without a stiff drink after this."

The two bade their farewells and parted, Hatteras heading back up the path in the direction of the Guild Hall, and Osmund towards the dock. Along the way, the Sceptile saw Ellsberg paused in the path, looking down at something that he had picked up off of the well-trodden ground.

"Oi! What's taking you so long?" Osmund barked. The noise prompted Ellsberg to quickly slip away whatever it was he had found in the square- probably some dropped Poké considering Company types- before he turned back.

"Hrmph! I just needed a moment to rest!" the Mothim fumed, before he swiftly flew on towards the lavender-sailed ship and barked at his subordinates..

"Get everyone aboard and raise the plank, we don't have any more business here!"

The Pokémon murmured among themselves, some of the locals making disparaging comments wishing the Company ship a stormy travel home. As the others got distracted by the boat preparing to set off, the Mothim fished out the little article he was so keen to hide from Osmund. One that he was surprised that none of the local rubes had seen him take.

It was a silvery-white feather that had split at its top, and it proved that in spite of his doubts, this hamlet indeed had something worth bothering with for the Company.


"You know, you actually fought pretty well back there. Aside from the whole 'waiting behind without telling us about it' part," Nida's voice rang out in the maze under Tromba's peaks, with nothing echoing back.

Not that there was anything that could echo back. The distortion had wrapped the fourth floor into a concave sphere and stripped away where the ceiling would be on most floors. In its place, was a space composed of pools, stone paths and towering walls. Thanks to the dim light of the glowing algae that grew in clumps here and there in the dungeon, one could see the entire other half of the floor from any one location.

The team had stopped seeing the stairs overhead three chambers ago, and were currently resting in a spacious open-topped chamber. Every now and then, they would look back up as they tried to make sense of a rude map that Crom had doodled after first coming down the flight to the next floor was somewhere in this one, all that was left was to find it. And wait.

"What? I'm not that bad at fighting!" Elty objected as he trotted along.

"But we were able to defeat you once!" Pleo insisted, as he looked about for the surprisingly elusive stairs.

"That's because you ganged up on me!" Elty growled.

That was to be expected, Pleo guessed. Every time he pressed about how the Growlithe never seemed to hold up against the team, 'ganging up' or some variation thereof was usually the excuse. But even so, Elty seemed to have some talent… which beggared the question...

"Wait, what did you use to do back when you were a pirate, Elty?" he asked.

"Oh, me?" Elty asked. "I was a ship-burner."

The admission brought the procession to a sudden, dead halt, as Crom turned and whirled towards the Growlithe.

"You were a what?!" the Druddigon cried out, his eyes widening in shock.

"You know, set ships on fire. Keep the other crew busy putting it out," Elty nonchalantly replied. "Normal stuff."

"Wait… That's normal?" Pleo asked, putting a wing to his beak as he took keen note of Crom and Nida's startled expressions.

In a matter of speaking, it was indeed 'normal' stuff… except for the fact that putting out a fire on a ship was a dangerous, convoluted ordeal for any crew unfortunate enough suffer through one. Too little water spent fighting it off or simply not applying it in time to keep particularly flammable cargo from burning would doom the ship to becoming a collection of cinders… and too much would weigh down the craft and send it below the waves.

"That's awful!" Crom roared, his mind turning to his own father and the ship that he worked on. "Setting a fire's one of the worst things you can do to a ship!"

"Elty, seriously, how do you sleep at night?" Nida spat in disgust as she bristled her barbs.

"Hey! Get off my case! It wasn't that bad!" Elty huffed defensively. "The only ship that ever got sunk thanks to our fire was a hulk full of fajerwerki at a dock!"

There was a long, blinking silence. Ship-burning was supposed to put other Pokémon in mortal danger, but that explanation... just didn't quite fit expectations.

"Wait… What?" Crom asked.

"Um… Maybe you're overstating ship-burner a bit much?" Nida sighed.

"I mean, it doesn't sound like you did that good of a job," Pleo added.

"Oh come on, at least we got the other boats on fire more often than our own!" Elty protested, which left the three other Pokémon of Team Traveler trading looks with each other.

"Wouldn't you be expected to do that anyways, though?" Pleo asked.

"How on earth did you guys never get captured until you raided our island?" Crom groaned, as he put a claw to his face.

"Better question, how are you still alive, Elty?" Nida asked as she furrowed her brow.

The Growlithe opened his mouth to speak, and then paused and thought about the Nidoran's question for a short moment.

"I dunno," he shrugged. "I never really questioned it before."

Nida rolled her eyes. Elty suddenly seemed much less out of place on a rookie team than she had thought. As she continued to trek forward and heard her teammates' footsteps alongside her, their thoughts returned to the search for the exit.

"Bah, where are those stairs?" Crom complained as he eyed his scribbles on his beaten piece of paper. "The map I made says they should be right here, and all I see is some dumb wall!"

"I mean, they could have shifted since you drew the picture, Crom," Nida explained as she carried on around a corner. "The Distortion can shift stairs around a few times before it clears out the floor-"

Nida found her foot dropping further than she expected, which lead her to yank it back out of instinct- and see that the stairs to the next floor sat around a blind alcove in the wall.

"Or it could be right in front of me," she hastily corrected. The others soon came over, and saw that the Nidoran had indeed found the stairs. So now all that would be left was...

"So we wait for Kiran now?" Pleo asked.

"That would be the smart thing to do, yeah," Crom answered. "Besides, we could use a bit of a rest."

"Pbbt. Is that seriously what you're going to do until you find that Substitute?" Elty admonished as he began to sniff the air. "Seriously, look around a little! You might just find something interesting. Something like… that!"

The Growlithe gestured down a corridor that ran in the opposite direction of the alcove, where Nida could make out the faint sight of what looked like a chest sitting at its end.

"Heh heh, a treasure chest and it's all mine!" Elty proudly declared.

"Um, Elty," Crom groaned. "Those are usually used to store gummis or berries in here to try and get the Distortion to change them."

"Yeah, and who do you think's gets first dibs on them? The finder!" he cried as he bounded down the corridor.

"Elty! Be careful," Crom called out after the Growlithe. "There might be a-!"

Click

"Huh-? Eeyargh!"

Immediately after he heard the trap being sprung, a sudden gust of wind threw Elty back into his teammates. The Growlithe's body knocked the lot back and sent them tumbling down the stairs, yelping and crying out before coming to a rest at the bottom.

"Are treasure chests supposed to do that?" Pleo groaned as stars filled his vision.

"Urgh, no they aren't-" Nida began, just as the sound of scraping and rock groaning from above reverberated.

"Oh no, the stairs!" she cried out. "They're closing!"

"Guh-?" Crom asked as he came to his senses from his fall down the passage, only to recognize the sound of the stairs above being sealed. "What?! Wait!"

But it was too late. The groaning continued, and subsided with a loud, dull thud.

"Blargh… I take those dibs back," a Growlithe's voice weakly groaned a short way from the steps.

"Elty!" Nida fumed.

"Yeah, don't worry about me," Elty continued rambling on in his daze. "Just ate a little dir- Oof!"

The Growlithe then crumpled up and fell to the ground after the Nidoran gave a stiff kick to the orange dog's gut.

"Tonto! What were you thinking?!" she hissed, her ears flared and barbs raised.

"Yeah, you could have gotten hurt!" Pleo admonished, flapping his wings to try and emphasize how scary things could have been.

"And thanks to you, Kiran and the others will have to wait for the Distortion to expose a new set of stairs for them to catch up!" Crom snarled.

"Hey! At least we stuck together, right? How bad could this floor be?" Elty asked as he stumbled back to his feet, just as Crom's snarl was suddenly followed by others.

"Grr…"

"Intruders…"

The team turned and looked across the chamber, and paled after they saw a Buizel, a Corsola, a Frillish, a Finneon, and a pair of Zubat...

Who were advancing on the group as they watched.

"Me and my big mouth," Elty gulped.

Chapter Text

The floor that Team Traveler had stumbled into was a spacious cavern with a ceiling that carried on beyond the range of even Crom's vision. The ground was largely devoid of obstacles, much as the courtyards in Mosca's Dojo were. The primary exceptions were a few glowing moss beds and a network of what, depending on one's perspective, were either rather shallow pools or particularly deep puddles on the ground.

On one end of the floor's first chamber was the team, the now-sealed stairs that they had taken to get there, and some dead ends further behind them. On the other end were three corridors. One, a water-filled channel leading to a deeper pool. The other two, a pair of passages that trailed off deeper into the Mystery Dungeon…

But more importantly, the Buizel, Corsola, Frillish, Finneon, and two Zubat from earlier were also at the other end. Angered, aggressive, and worst of all, standing in between Team Traveler and any exit.

"Er… Hi there?" Elty gulped. Step by step, the Growlithe backpedaled away nervously- not that it made much of a difference. For each step Elty and the others took backwards, the six ferals took one forwards as they continued their growling march towards the group.

"We were just looking for the stairs!" Crom cried out to the advancing Pokémon. The young Druddigon's voice had a gruff, grumbling tone to it, albeit one tinged with anxious unease. "Let us through and we'll get out of here right away!"

"Oh, you'll be going places, alright!" a Zubat from the approaching group screeched.

"Hope you like seeing stars!" the Buizel hissed back at the young dragon. The creature kept her back arched and her paws dug into the ground, ready to throw her body forward at a moment's notice. The other Pokémon's postures were no less inviting, all of them also ready for sudden lunges.

Those… were not exactly the results of fruitful diplomacy. Worse still, as the group continued falling further and further back, they noticed they were running out of open ground between themselves and the chamber's stony walls to retreat to.

"Wait!" Nida squeaked to the approaching ferals. As the Nidoran continued her plea, hoping desperately as she kept her barbs spread wide and tensed that the situation could be defused peacefully against such numerous foes. "We just stepped down here!"

"Yeah! We haven't swiped anything yet!" Elty protested. As his barks reverberated in the chamber, the Growlithe's eyes darted nervously here in there for in search of something- anything that might help him give the approaching assailants the slip.

Nida screwed her eyes shut in frustration. Of all of the things for that pudgy mutt to say to a Monster House, why did he have to say that? They needed to give these Pokémon a reason not to beat the poison out of them! Something… something like…

She noticed Pleo out of the corner of her eye. Wait a minute! That could work! ... Maybe... It hadn't worked a few floors earlier, but if nothing else, it could at least buy some time to fall back. Nida shook her head, dug in her feet to stand her ground, and opened her mouth to speak...

"And you wouldn't hurt a group of Pokémon escorting the Protector, would you?" she asked the approaching ferals accusingly. Immediately, the Pokémon stopped and traded uneasy looks with each other.

"The… Protector?" the blue jellyfish asked warily as he sized up the white bird among the intruders.

"That's me!" Pleo cried. Now that the Pokémon weren't growling at him and their leers had been displaced with stunned glances, it became much easier to muster the strength to stand firm. The Lugia spread his wings, and bellowed out in the largest voice the little bird could muster. "If you really care about me… then you'll leave them alone!"

There was a lingering, uncomfortable silence, Nida, Elty, and Crom taking the time to quietly inch back away from the mass of other Pokémon as the ferals traded uneasy looks with one another. All of a sudden, there was a splash from a nearby pool as the Finneon ahead shook his head and cleared his throat.

"Oh, yeah?" he asked, the shock slipping from his face as his expression slowly drifted back into a mistrusting leer. "Pruébamelo! You can't just say you're the Protector!"

The Finneon's skepticism seemed to rub off onto the other ferals, as hostile expressions one by one began to return to their faces. Pleo's boldness started to evaporate as his mind raced to try and think of a way to placate his audience.

"Um… Er... I'm me? I mean, I have these pretty fea-"

His uneasy words only served to make the unfriendly looks on the ferals' faces harden as they traded skeptical whispers. Suddenly, the Corsola stepped forward and demanded...

"Show us your power!"

Nida blanched after she heard the Corsola, and sinking expressions spread over her teammates' faces. All this time in the Mystery Dungeon, Pleo hadn't done anything that would really prove he was the Protector. How could he suddenly pull something from out his wings now? And if he did… would everyone wind up buried under a wall of rocks? She still remembered how that empty passage was collapsed on the day she first met the little bird.

"Er... W-Well," Pleo stammered before he shook his head and spread his wings. "Hyah!"

With all of his might, Pleo brought his wings together and sent a swirling gust of wind above the heads of the waiting ferals. Everyone flinched for a moment, and then, after the wind subsided, everyone looked around… and saw that the only change Pleo had effected was some disturbed dust and pebbles on the ground and tousled fur on one of the Zubat, whose expression was hardening into hostility once again.

"Um… C-Can I try again?" Pleo weakly groan.

"We've seen enough!" the Finneon yelled as he burst out of the pool. "Time to tan your hides!"

The creature spat a jet of water out at Pleo, which struck him in the face, sending him tumbling back with a startled squawk. Without missing a beat, the Lugia hastily picked himself up and dashed off, retreating behind the rest of the team. After shaking his head to regain his wits and recover from the sting of the jet of water, Pleo saw that his teammates, while still wide-eyed and anxious much as he was, were all poised in battle stances.

"Brace yourselves!" Nida cried. "We're gonna have to fight our way out of this!"

Pleo hastily tensed and drew his neck and wings close to his body, the last beads of water from the fish's attack rolling off his plumes. Meanwhile, Crom ran towards the Finneon that lead the charge, and dug out a round, scaled, orange-ish seed.

"Grr! You just won't listen, will you?!" he growled back at the Finneon before he popped the seed into his mouth.

"Take this!" Crom cried, biting down on the orange seed. A brilliant gout of fire erupted out of his maw and onto the Finneon, who had unwisely charged on ahead into terrain that was out of his element. The flames swallowed up the hapless fish and sent him tumbling along the ground shrieking in pain. Ultimately, the creature came to rest in a pool, floating upside-down on the surface, groaning and unable to muster the strength to right his body.

Unfortunately for the young Druddigon, his victory came at a price. He had defeated one foe… only to notice the others were already closing the distance to him, completely unimpeded.

Before Crom could so much as swipe a claw in his defense, he was shoved to the side by a tackle from the Corsola. The dragon tumbled along through a puddle and back onto dry-ish ground, uneasily trying to regain his footing on a patch of cave stone with a spiral design he didn't think much of at the time. That was, until the Druddigon clearly heard a soft click amid the cries of his teammates and the baying of his assailants.

"Huh-? Agh!"

The ground beneath Crom abruptly whirled around repeatedly before coming to an equally abrupt stop, leaving the the poor dragon to totter about disoriented with little white-and-blue birds circling in his vision.

"Gaaah, what is-?"

Except, much to his rude surprise, those birds spoke like the other ferals. And all of a sudden, sharp pains shot through his body as the 'birds' began hitting and dousing him from every direction he turned to.

"A-Aah! H-Help!" he cried. Crom thrashed this way and that under the barrage of attacks, desperately trying to swipe back at his assailants with his claws.

From Nida's vantage point, she could clearly see the direness of the situation. The ferals had surrounded the Spin Trap they had shoved Crom onto. Her partner's dazed swipes struck nothing but empty air over and over again as the creatures did everything in their power to pummel the poor dragon into next week.

"Crom!" Pleo squawked. At that moment, the Lugia's anxieties were pushed from his mind, and the bird took off running towards his embattled teammate, Nida hot on his tail.

"Hang in there-!" she cried, before Elty's voice chimed in from behind.

"Oi, you salt-suckers! Pick a fairer fight!"

The next thing Nida and Pleo felt was Elty tagging them from behind before falling back, leaving a bluish, sparking aura to envelop the two before settling down.

"Elty?!" Pleo squawked. "What did you do to-?!"

"Don't worry about it!" the Growlithe snapped. No sense in explaining the ins-and-outs of a Helping Hand at a time like this, after all. "Just hit them before the boost wears off!"

"Right!" Nida huffed. The Nidoran dashed up to the Buizel and gave a stiff kick at her flank. The creature froze in pain, but when Nida brought her leg out for another kick, the mustelid ran on ahead, leaving Nida kicking nothing but air.

"Grr, let's see you do that twice, spike ball!" the Buizel spat before she lunged for the Nidoran, only for the little blue creature to hop over her shoulder and behind the sea weasel.

"Huh? Where'd she-? Eargh!"

The creature abruptly pitched forward and slumped onto the ground. Embedded into her back was a Nidoran's barb... further behind, was the barb's previous owner, astonished with her achievement.

"Wait, that was a sting!" she cried, her voice beginning to grow giddy as she realized... "I finally stung a-! Gah!"

Nida's elation was promptly brought back to earth by a stiff, watery smack which sent her rolling along the floor. As she lay stunned on the ground, catching her breath, she could hear the sound of a Frillish angrily burbling and drawing near…

"Pay attention, Księżniczka!"

Elty's voice rang out and was quickly joined by the sound of the Frillish screeching, followed by a faint thud and groaning. When Nida righted herself and turned towards the direction of the commotion, she saw her assailant sprawled out on the floor with bite marks on his bell and Elty approaching her, brimming with confidence.

"See, you've gotta be smart about picking your-"

Before Elty could finish his thought, he was abruptly bowled over, then sent tumbling into one of the pools by a stream of scalding bubbles that burst along his side. Nida only dodged the attack by abruptly hopping out of the way. When she turned back, she saw Elty coughing up water as he weakly limped back to drier ground.

"Gyaah! You ferals aren't supposed to be smart about picking fights with me!" he whined, before he turned to see the Corsola responsible for the Bubble Beam drawing near to him in the pool.

The Growlithe bolted out of the water and ran off in open retreat, the Corsola chasing after him, consciously sticking near to the pools. No sense getting lured out onto the ground and routed, after all. Crom was a little further back from Elty's current trajectory, clutching his head, tottering. And there was the sound of a Zubat's flapping wings rapidly drawing on Nida's position...

Yes, things weren't going well at all.

"N-Nida! Keep them off our tails for a moment!" Crom shouted. The Druddigon dug out an object from the team bag and sent it rolling along a spit of stone towards, whirling around to make a break for cover with Elty. Without thinking, the Nidoran darted for the tumbling object before it could come to a stop, scooped it up, and flung it as hard as she could in the direction of the angry screeches from the Zubat.

As the object left her paws, she saw that she had thrown the Slow Orb from the floor before… except she had arced her throw for a bed of soft moss, far too soft to make the orb break. Meaning that it would be of little help against the Zubat who was swooping straight for her.

"Ack!"

As Nida fanned out her barbs and braced herself, she heard and felt a whoosh of wind. Much to her astonishment, Nida saw the Slow Orb abruptly change direction in midair, getting sent into a wall before exploding in a shower of green shards. Suddenly, a torrent of white threads shot out from the broken orb, worming wildly about the room. Nida looked back at the Zubat just in time to see the creature fall to the floor and struggle against white, silky bands that clung to her body. As the bat groaned and struggled to lift her body back in the air, Nida quickly ran up and kicked the downed creature in the head, and then once again for good measure. The second kick sent the Pokémon sailing limply through the air before crashing back down to the ground twitching and groaning.

Immediately after that, the young Protector of Tromba ran up panting to the Nidoran from the direction of the gust.

"Nida?! Are you alright?!"

It was then that Nida realized how her botched throw managed to hit her foe. Pleo's gust had redirected her Slow Orb! The Nidoran looked down at herself, over at Pleo, and then at Crom and Elty further away, and saw that none of them had been gummed up by the threads!

This was their big chance!

"Crom! Elty! We'll cover-! Gah!"

Nida pulled her head in to narrowly duck and dodge a column of disturbed air that accompanied a loud shriek, the attack carrying on into the wall of the chamber. Nida and Pleo shook their heads to dispel some momentary light-headedness from the racket, and whirled around to see the remaining Pokémon. Of the group that had ambushed them, only the remaining Zubat and the Corsola, having given up his pursuit of Elty, still stared them down. Their bodies were covered in white silk, but the two had visibly managed to adjust to the strands gumming up their movement, the bat enough to even get falteringly airborne again. Both of them were much closer than either Nida or Pleo had expected. The ferals' expressions were still hostile, but now intermingled with fear.

"Wh-Who do you even think you are?!" the Corsola cried out.

"Y-Yeah! Barging in on our home like this!" the Zubat fumed.

"We just wanted to get through!" Pleo protested. "What's so-?"

"Pleo!" Nida's voice suddenly admonished. "Don't just stand there!"

Pleo looked back and saw that Nida had retreated towards the direction Crom and Elty fell back towards. He suddenly felt a stabbing pain on his neck as something latched onto it. Pleo beat his wings wildly, and ran about shouting in a panic. The pain dulled with a sudden slap against his head, which made Pleo stop to regain his bearings. When he looked up, he caught sight of the remaining Zubat leering at him in the air, his mouth dribbling some red fluid that looked like the scrapes he had seen on his teammates after battles. On the ground off to the side was the Corsola, who had flanked him together with the flying Pokémon.

"A-Aah!" Pleo squawked, his eyes going wide as he began to realize what a predicament he was now in. "You snuck up on me!"

"So what? You fought dirty!" the Corsola growled. "So we'll fight back dirty!"

"Have some pain, you imposter!" the Zubat shouted before he lunged for the young Lugia, the Corsola joining in. Pleo hopped up in a blind panic as the two Pokémon descended on his position, sailing high off the ground as the Zubat carried on with his swoop into the cave floor with a yelp. As he began to stall in the air, he heard his attackers' confusion below.

"Huh?!"

"Ow! Where'd he go-?!"

And then gravity took over and the young Protector started falling back to earth again, flailing desperately.

"A-Aack!"

Pleo's tumbles and rolls through the air became slower, and his body began to straighten out into a straight dive towards the ground as he spread his wings. The cave floor was now rapidly approaching, which made Pleo cry out and pull his wings back, cringing in anticipation of the impact.

Except… He felt… Air underneath him?

"Argh!"

And then the stiff smack of his left wing clipping something, followed by the feeling of air again. Pleo opened his eyes, he saw the other Zubat groaning on the ground below him, feebly twitching her wings. The Lugia blinked, although it was beginning to stall and slow, his body was sailing up into the air again!

He gave another beat of his wings- and instead of falling to the ground again, he stayed in his place and spun a little. Why, this meant... He was flying!

"I'm- I'm flying! I'm really flying this time!" he cried, his voice drawing Nida's awed attention from the ground, before it was interrupted by the panicked-sounding voice of the Corsola.

"A-Ahh… Stay back! St-Stay back! None of this would have happened if you never came!" he cried.

"Just stand down and let us through!" Nida barked. "Haven't we fought long enough?"

"Leave me alone!" the creature shrieked, before he opened his mouth and prepared to breathe out a stream of gloppy bubbles at the Nidoran. "Just go awa-!"

The creature then flinched after catching a barb in his face, which sent him reeling backwards. The barb was followed up by a glowing ball that sent him tumbling across the floor. As the creature staggered up, his last sensation before lapsing out of consciousness was being pounced on and pinned to the ground by something gliding in from the air with a hide that felt like sandpaper.

"Aaack," the Corsola groaned, his legs going limp as his eyes slipped shut.

"And stay down!" Crom growled to the creature before getting up, his maw stained with Oran juice.

"Daj spokoj!" Elty protested, quickly coming up from behind with a similarly stained muzzle. "I could have finished him-"

Before Elty could finish, he was interrupted by the sound of a faint splashing thud.

"Ow!"

Everyone turned towards the sound of the yelp, seeing Pleo getting up from a crash-landing in one of the cave pools and lurching about in a daze.

"Attacking while flying's hard," he groaned, as he tottered disorientedly back over to Nida. "Are- Are there any more mean Pokémon?"

"No- I- I think that's all of them," she replied to Pleo in between ragged pants. The Nidoran drew her barbs back against her hide, and went over to steady the bird's unstable gait, sighing out of relief that the battle was finally over, even if the Oran stains on her other companions evidenced that its after-effects were still around to be grappled with.

"You really are terrible at healing, Crom," she chuckled, shooting a tired smirk at a Druddigon who instantly grew flustered with the charge.

"H-Hey!" he protested. "Kiran said that if you're ever in a pinch, you can just eat the berries and they'll still work! ... Kinda."

"Ugh… This is just great," Elty grumbled. "We still need to find the stairs Kiran took and-"

The Growlithe looked back in the direction of the stairs, only to see that they had vanished! The only evidence of them ever existing was a small mound of broken stone on the ground, seemingly dropped from above.

"Wait a minute, there were stairs there just a minute ago!"

"Huh?!" Pleo cried out. The dog was right, there definitely were stairs there earlier. But… where did they go?

"They must've shifted while we were battling," Crom explained. "Why, that means that Kiran-"

"Están bien?!"

Would have already made it to their floor?

Everyone turned and watched Team Traveller's leader fly in from the leftmost of the three passages that exited the chamber, Team Sawtooth following after closely. The Swellow rushed up and landed near Team Traveler, who quickly drew up to him.

"Yeah, we're fine... Well-" Nida stopped to frown and shake her head, flattening out her ears. "Okay, we're not. But you get the idea, Kiran."

"Why on earth did you all go on ahead without us?!" Kiran cried, beating his wings out with an admonishing squawk.

"You all just blundered right into a Monster House!" Alto exclaimed.

There was a long and lingering silence, as Crom, Nida, and Pleo one-by-one began to give unamused leers towards Elty.

"Er… Something came up?" the Growlithe sheepishly offered.

"We had some bad luck with a trap near the stairs," Crom grunted. "We weren't exactly expecting to-"

"Oi, look alive, everyone," Pitys suddenly interrupted. Sure enough, the Pokémon scattered about the floor were once again beginning to stir.

"Nrgh," the Finneon groaned as he falteringly righted himself and weakly splashed in his pool, the defiance returning to his voice. "This isn't-!"

Only to be replaced by startled shock when he and the other ferals saw the four much larger and intimidating Pokémon that had since joined the 'intruders' they had fought with.

"Gih!"

"E-Eep!"

"I'd encourage you all to not pick another fight," Kiran replied, leering at the Pokémon. "We're just passing through, and we'd like to go through without any trouble."

The weakened ferals traded nervous glances with each other as they tried to decide what to do about these new Pokémon. On the one hand, they were violating their territory… on the other hand, they looked much tougher and meaner than the four worn-out and battered intruders from earlier.

"That- That- Th-This isn't fair!" the Finneon whined.

"D-Don't argue with the monsters!" one of the Zubat admonished. "Let's get out of here!"

The six hastily retreated as quickly as their condition allowed them to down the other two exits. Their voices fading as they vanished deeper into the maze as the gathered Pokémon watched.

"Well, all's well that ends well," Nida said to herself with a tired sigh.

"Do you all need any help getting healed up?" Kiran asked, as he inspected his charges. Their fight surely must have been one grueling ordeal. Crom was covered in lacerations and bruises, and had clearly seen more than his due share of punishment.

Pokémon like Nida and Elty were always somewhat hard to get a bead on, what with fur in the way, but he could clearly see they too had been fairly roughed up. There were scrapes on their body here and there, and the Growlithe still had glop from the Frillish caught in his pelt.

Even Pleo was not spared, Kiran noticed that Pleo would occasionally rub his face into his wing- apparently it must have smarted from being hit by something. The Swellow then noticed with a shudder that some feathers on the backside of Pleo's neck that had been sullied from some darkening reddish fluid. Blood, if thankfully not fresh, he presumed.

"Thanks for the offer," Crom replied. "But… I think we can handle it."

"E-Eh?!" Kiran protested, ruffling his feathers uneasily. "But you're all-!"

"We made it this far on our own, Kiran," Nida replied softly. Kiran blinked and saw the Nidoran's face was filled with a determined look that shone even through her body's tired gait. "I think we can manage the rest."

There was a long silence as the four elder Pokémon puzzled themselves as to the right thing to do in this situation. Yes, they were still kids, but...

"They do have a point," Cardellini murmured.

"Yeah, if they can hold their own in a Monster House, I think that they can patch themselves up fine," Alto added.

"Heh… Let's get cracking, then!" Kiran chirped, beating his wings and taking back to the air. "I wanna find that Substitute and get outta here as much as you do! So let's get this show on the road!"


Crom got a chance to practice his healing skills once again… with the aid of Kiran's dutiful supervision and instructions to keep him on task, that is. Before long, the team patched themselves up and carried on, as their wounds recovered with the help of the Oran Berries they had packed for that day.

The trek to the next floor was much quieter, after which Pataki gleefully informed "The decoy to rescue is somewhere on this floor!", leading to a mostly uneventful search through the corridors and bends of the Mystery Dungeon.

That was, until Team Traveler found the much-awaited Substitute, and presented it to Kiran and the others.

"Wait, this was their objective?" Cardellini asked, burying his face into an open claw.

"Uh, well," Kiran trailed off as he too took in the sight of the training decoy. "The psychics would be the Pokémon best suited to getting a decoy in here, so…"

Substitutes were doppelgangers born of the essence of life in Pokémon. Just similar enough to their makers to trick opponents into focusing on them in the heat of battle, or so the explanation went. In a pinch, the mimicries made for serviceable dolls. For guards to use as sparring dummies... for younger Pokémon to use as playthings... and of course, for the guild to use in training missions. So logically, it should have been much less of a surprise to everyone that the Substitute that the team stumbled on that day…

"Kiran," Pleo began. "Why does our decoy look like-?"

Would be a crude doll-like figure of a Kirlia, the Pokémon who had clearly gone through far more trouble than necessary to put it there.

"Do you like it, Protector?" Pataki's voice rang out in the minds of the gathered Pokémon. "I even made it myself!"

"Oh no…" Nida groaned, flattening out her ears.

"Who's pressing their badge?" Crom asked. As the Druddigon screwed his eyes shut in frustration, Pleo ruffled his feathers and awkwardly tried to think of something to say back to the enamored wall-talker.

"Um, it looks... cute?"

"I know right?" Pataki's voice gushed. "It only took me three tries and wearing myself down a little to make a substitute of myself that looked as good as-"

"Um, as lovely as your paw-work is… Can we get out of here?!" Elty barked.

"It would be nice to get back home about now, Pataki," Kiran sighed.

"Yeah, it's not like some of us don't have other missions to get back to, you know!" Cardellini snapped at the unseen voice.

"Hrmph! I was getting to that!"

After a short pause, there was a blip of light further down the room. As Team Traveler turned to face Pataki, they saw that much to their surprise, the Natu from the teleportation pad had accompanied her that day.

"Wait, there's two of them this time?" Pleo asked.

"Two teleporters for two groups!" the Natu chirped. "I'll take Kiran and the others in the first one, and then when we get the clearing all ready, it'll be safe for Pataki to take the rest of you over."

"Music to my ears," Pataki crooned, her expression brightening after hearing that she would have another chance to be close to the Protector. An announcement that came much to the groaning dismay of Team Traveler.

"Please just hurry this up," Elty grumbled, moving a paw over his snout.

The Natu hopped over onto the Shiftry's head and clung to her hair, who in turn provided her arms for Kiran and her teammates to latch onto. After all of the older Pokémon found partners to hold onto, the group vanished with a blip of light much as before, leaving Team Traveler… and one rather giddy Kirlia.

"You know, Protector…" the Kirlia babbled dreamily. "The best way to keep a chain of Pokémon together is to have a big and strong Pokémon holding on directly to the teleporter."

"Oh?" Pleo asked. Pataki needed a strong Pokémon, huh? Pleo thought and thought about the Kirlia's suggestion, then, after an epiphany, chirped back triumphantly at the Psychic. "Oh! So Crom, then!"

"What?!" Pataki exclaimed, her face giving way to mortified shock. "Ew! No! I was talking about-!"

"Oi! Pataki! The clearing's open! Go ahead and bring them over!" a Kadabra's voice reverberated.

"I think I'll take up the 'big and strong' conduit role today, thanks," Crom answered, rolling his eyes as he grasped one of Pataki's arms.

"But- But-" the Kirlia protested, the rest of the team dutifully ignoring her as they formed a chain around Crom's free arm and his wings.

"It would be nice if we could get home sometime today, Pataki," Nida grumbled, leering at the green and white sprite.

"And Crom probably is still tougher than me right now," Pleo answered as he grabbed the Kirlia decoy with his beak. "Maybe it would make more sense to be your conduit another time?"

"And you heard the nice Pokémon! The clearing's open, idźmy dalej!" Elty snapped.

"Ugh… Fine," the Kirlia grumbled, before the team vanished from the cave.


With a blip, the team arrived back at the guild's receiving field, where Hatteras was awaiting them on the sidelines. After Team Traveler and Pataki let go of each other, Pleo set down Pataki's Substitute and nosed it forward towards the now somewhat sour-looking Kirlia.

"Um… So I guess we should give this back to you since this was supposed to be a rescue mission?" he asked, the question immediately clearing up the Psychic type's demeanor.

"Oh no, that's fine! You can keep it!" she cheerfully replied. "Why, I was honestly expecting you to!"

"Um…" Crom groaned.

"Can we not keep that thing in our section of the sleeping hall?" Nida hissed under her breath.

"Er… I guess it would make my shrine look a little less lonely?" Pleo volunteered, moving a wing behind his head sheepishly.

"Of course it would!" Pataki exclaimed before she turned to leave the field, gushing aloud to herself all the while about how the Protector was going to put her handiwork on show at his shrine. Team Sawtooth also left the clearing, excusing themselves with the words: "That ahp-gredh isn't going to find itself for Melissa." The team sighed quietly in relief, and turned to make their way to Hatteras.

"Psst, nice save there," Elty whispered.

"Yeah, I was afraid that I was going to have to make my siblings dispose of that thing," Nida murmured as the group walked up to an Ampharos waiting expectantly alongside a Swellow.

"Hey! So how'd it go in there?" Hatteras cheerily asked the team.

"It was really tough!" Pleo chirped.

"Yeah, we really had to work to get our mission done that time," Nida sighed.

"Oh?" Hatteras asked, his eyes adopting a keen look to them. "Did… Anything peculiar happen with Pleo in there?"

"Uh huh! Uh huh!" Pleo exclaimed, before he hopped up into the air and soared forward.

"I can fly now!" he cried. Pleo soared on, his young frame still having some of that majesty that the old Lugia must surely have had back when it flew above the seas. Well… had it. Just a moment later, a sudden breeze blew Pleo off course and into a tree branch, causing the young Protector to tumble back to earth.

"Oof! Er… Kinda?" the Lugia said sheepishly, ruffling his feathers as he got back up to his feet and waddled back to the group.

"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves, mewa," Elty muttered under his breath.

"I'm sure it'll work itself out with practice," Crom added. "But he really did fly in there, Hatteras."

"I… see," Hatteras murmured as he stroked his chin, before turning back to the young sea god. "Was there anything else that happened in there that was strange, Pleo?"

"Um… Well, we got into some fights," Pleo said, drawing a wing to his beak. "It was just like training, except the Pokémon I was fighting with were meaner."

"Meh, I didn't see him do anything that some Pidgey couldn't do," Elty said.

"Yeah... fighting and flying aside, we didn't see anything out of the ordinary from him today," Nida added.

"I… understand," Hatteras replied. The Ampharos still wore a smile in front of the young Pokémon, but for a second, Nida and Crom swore that they had seen his expression droop a bit.

"Well, Kiran? What do you think?" he asked, turning to the Swellow beside him.

"Oh! Well..." Kiran murmured to himself. "I must say that I can't really think of anything holding Nida and Crom back, so…"

"Wait, we've finally graduated?" Crom asked, his eyes lighting up.

"We're now in Normal Rank?" Nida prodded excitedly, her ears perking up expectantly..

"Heh, yeah. You are," Kiran chuckled. "Congratulations, you two! Welcome to Normal Rank!"

"Woo hoo!" Crom roared in triumph, beating his wings excitedly.

"We can finally move on now!" Nida cheered, bouncing up and down as she leapt into Crom's arms. The Druddigon, still high off of the euphoric mood, lifted her up and eagerly spun her around in front of the others.

"Why, we could even set up our own team together!" he cried, before a disappointed chirp suddenly pierced the festive atmosphere.

"Aw… You're- You're gonna leave?"

Crom and Nida abruptly stopped and saw that Pleo was staring at them, his head lowered and his spirits downcast. After trading looks with each other, the two prodded their team leader.

"Wait... Kiran? Pleo's not graduating with us?" Nida asked.

"Yeah, he went through the test just like we did," Crom added.

"Er… Well, he is still rather inexperienced," Kiran explained. "And Elty here needs to stay wherever Pleo is, so…"

"Seriously?" Elty grumbled. "Just graduate him with the others!"

"It is part of your community service, Elty," Hatteras sternly admonished, as Pleo looked down at the ground and began to mutter quietly.

"But… I thought we were gonna stay and play together..."

"Erm, well… I mean, just because we graduated doesn't mean we have to move on right away," Crom replied. "I guess I could still learn a few things from Kiran about healing."

"And it would be nice to get some time to look around at the other teams before I suddenly jump off to another one," Nida added as she hopped down from Crom's arms.

"So… You'll stay with me?" Pleo asked, his demeanor beginning to brighten a bit.

"Heh, I think we can do that for a little while," Nida said, before she sidled up and give a nuzzle to the Lugia.

"Yeah, why if we could get you onto our team once you graduate… Why, we'd be able to get all the missions we wanted!" Crom cheered. "Not many Pokémon would turn down help from the Protector, you know!"

"And, well… we did make a promise, after all," Nida replied, flattening out her ears sheepishly.

"Yay! We're still together! We're still together!" Pleo exclaimed, giddily hopping about to and fro.

"Fantastic," Elty growled, rolling his eyes.

"Heh, why don't you kids take the rest of the day off?" Kiran chirped to the four. "You've earned it."

"Yay! Free day!" Pleo cheered as he beat his wings excitedly. "Come on! Let's go to the beach!"

Kiran watched as Pleo flew down from the ledge to the beach below, his teammates joining him after clambering down the path (Elty a bit more begrudgingly than the others). As the four reached the sand below, Kiran noticed in the corner of his eye that Hatteras' expression had sunk, his ears drooping down, and the Ampharos was tirely rubbing his brow with one of his paws.

"Is something wrong, Guildmaster?" the Swellow asked, turning to face the Ampharos.

"This… wasn't supposed to happen, Kiran," Hatteras sighed.

"What wasn't?"

"We weren't supposed to still be clueless about Pleo's power even after he went through the Mystery Dungeon!" the Guildmaster exclaimed.

"Guildmaster, I'm certain he'll figure it out soon enough," Kiran reassured. He turned back to see Team Traveler on the beach below and babbling about their little distractions.

There was Pleo's giddy bobbing in the surf... Crom and Nida following after the little bird into the water... Elty furrowing his brow and trying to offer the team help with building a sand castle instead because hadn't they "been in water enough for one day already?"

"Just let the kids have their moment, Guildmaster," the Swellow chirped. "Getting Pleo all worried about how to draw out his power won't make him learn how to do it any faster, right? Why, if my experiences with trying to force things are anything to go by… it might slow down his learning by over 50%!"

The Ampharos looked out at the four young Pokémon, and after a long pause, he shook his head and sighed.

"Let's hope you're right, Kiran," Hatteras murmured to himself. "And hope that he learns how to bring it out before he truly needs it."


As the afternoon gave way to sunset, and the sunset in turn gave way to nightfall, Ellsberg and his crew put a fair distance between themselves and the sleepy island of Tromba just as the Time Lord's Traveller began its arc across the sky. As Ellsberg yawned and beat his wings on the railing of the deck, a Pidgeot from among the ship's escorts squawked her sighting of land ahead to the west lit by the moon and stars.

Above the horizon rose a chain of long, narrow reefs that formed an atoll ringing an island. On it were two sets of peaks with scraggly trees, a valley in between them that was covered in fog, and a collection of shacks with smoke trailing up from small fires that comprised a town on a seaside bluff markedly busier and more populated than Bluewhorl… that was Kenobi Island, alright. Or as some of the locals would occasionally insist, Tennobi Island.

But Ellsberg's ship had no need to go that far to pull into port. Instead, the craft slowly turned and bobbed towards a complex of docks, rudely-constructed warehouses, and yards filled with wooden crates, all under the shadow of a sturdy stone fortress on the atoll in the foreground .

"Pull her up beside the closest dock to the storehouse you can get," Ellsberg barked to the Gligar. "I'll catch up after I run some briefings."

The Gligar chittered back an affirmation before Ellsberg hopped up onto a railing of his ship, and took to the air with a fluttering leap. The Mothim carried on past the churning waves below, above some docks with a variety of ships, past gruff lavender-scarved Company grunts watching Pokémon milling about moving cargo to and fro, and on towards a complex of buildings arranged around some square courtyards next to the fort.

In the yards, the Mothim could see colleagues with lavender scarves sparring, with Pokémon lining the sides of the battlefields with carefully-maintained barriers of light. One fielded a match on a clearing covered with craggy rocks between an Eelektross, a Chesnaught and a Houndoom against an opposing squad consisting of a Vigoroth, Arbok, and an Aerodactyl. Another hosted a Staraptor and Crobat diving and weaving around each other's attacks in a pitched aerial battle. One to the south was occupied by some weaker Company initiates who were bashing in some straw dummies on poles topped with Watmel Berries for heads.

But the one courtyard that stood out most was the one occupied by a Samurott with a lavender scarf bearing a purple square, with four cross-shaped piers and miscellaneous notches extending into the square from its surrounding color. The mustelid was in the middle of a dash toward a standing figure of a Kirlia that, after a moment's hesitation, Ellsberg deduced was a Substitute.

"Aha… There you are," the Mothim buzzed to himself, and flitted down to the sidelines just in time to see the Samurott punt the mock Kirlia up into the air with one of his forelimbs. With one smooth motion, the massive otter then drew a blade with his still moving paw from a keratinous scabbard along his other arm…

Gashunk!

And cleaved the Substitute's head from its shoulders as it fell back to earth, sending it rolling along the field as it and the now headless body began to dissipate into white and green mist.

"You're late, Ellsberg," the Samurott chided, giving the Mothim a passing glance before sheathing his blade. The blue otter then ambled over to a wooden bin next to a satchel, with an abacus dangling out of the bag's mouth. As the moth flitted up, he saw that the bin was full of Substitutes, the rough mimicries of various species heaped upon each other into a pile that just crested the top.

"Apologies, some things just can't be helped," the Mothim replied. "I wasn't exactly expecting you to pull into port at a hive of scum and villainy like Kenobi, Lyn."

"Mrph, the hive is on the island in Aisle Town, not the atoll around it," the Samurott snapped, turning from the bin a moment. "Besides, my ship needed a patch job, and these are our only yards outside the capital."

"Looks more like you're bored and wasting Substitutes," Ellsberg buzzed. "The Ditto that make them for us don't work that cheaply, you know!"

"Well, you could tell me what you've found out about those rumors instead of haranguing someone above your rank," the Samurott growled, glaring at the moth as he dug out a Substitute that was fashioned in the shape of a Sceptile. Ellsberg blanched a moment, and then shook his head and cleared his throat to quickly recompose himself.

"Er… right. Well, whatever fought off the so-called 'Iron Fleet' was a Pokémon by the name of 'Pleo', and…" the Mothim prattled on, fluttering to and fro as Lyn set up the Sceptile decoy. "While I don't have any conclusive evidence... I could sense that the locals were most evasive about the Pokémon's identity, and I believe that I know why."

"Enlighten me, then," Lyn replied as he sauntered back from his training doll over to Ellsberg. The Mothim duly dug through a satchel he brought along, before his arms stopped moving and he produced the silvery-white feather he had taken from Bluewhorl Town.

"Well now, does this remind you of anything you might have heard of in one of your debriefings?" Ellsberg asked. The Samurott paused and blinked out of surprise at the sight of the peculiar feather. After running a digit along the plume of the feather, brought up a paw to stroke his whiskers as he stared intently at Ellsberg's keepsake...

"So, the 'Guardian of the Seas' has finally awakened," he murmured.

"All signs seem to indicate that, yes," the Mothim said. "So, I take it that that's your main priority after chasing down that Aggron and his sea rabble."

There was a long pause between the two Pokémon as they looked each other in the eye, and then both burst out laughing.

"Pffahaha! Oh, Ellsberg, you really do know how to tell a good joke," Lyn snickered as he turned his attention back to the waiting surrogate Sceptile on the field.

"Heh heh heh," the Mothim chortled as he came to a rest on the ground to catch his breath. "I suppose it would be a little unreasonable to focus on a sideshow that's better known even among his peers for bungled raids and empty bluster, wouldn't it?"

"Well, he's certainly not the first item on my checklist once that hull's done getting touched up!"

The Samurott then gave a deep bellow, and charged the Substitute, spitting up a freezing beam that caked the decoy in ice. When he reached the encrusted mimic, he drove a blade into its belly before throwing the unfortunate, ice-encrusted decoy backwards. The Sceptile doll came to a tumbling stop at the feet of the Mothim, now with a gaping hole under its chest, and began to decompose into green mist around its wound in front of the Mothim.

"Eugh... Well, they're certainly no substitute for live opponents in durability," Ellsberg muttered, flinching at the sight of the mutilated decoy.

The Mothim leapt into the air and fluttered uneasily to distance himself from the decomposing Substitute. It was truly a blessing that the gods had deigned to create Pokémon as creatures whose life essence helped to shield their bodies. Such a design meant that it was rare for a Pokémon to be cut to pieces, let alone dissolved into his constituent viscera like Lyn's unfortunate Substitutes with one overwhelming barrage. Ellsberg shook his head, and then attempted to change the subject with his higher-ranked peer.

"I still don't understand why the Board insisted on chasing after this god, though."

"What can I say? They need a champion," Lyn said as he made his way back to the bin of Substitutes. "One that they can use to help smooth over some lasting thorns in the Company's side. To soothe and charm those loose ends that helped to put an end to the old order all those years ago."

"And you need that promotion to becoming an Administrator," the Mothim added.

"It would be nice, yes," Lyn replied as he dragged out an Ampharos substitute from the bin, placed it in the middle of the courtyard, and then paced away from his next victim of training towards Ellsberg. "Being the teeth for the Company in collecting tribute and enforcing the peace as a Commissioner is fun and all, but I could use some different Pokémon to order around. It's not like Darzin's doing much with his Administratorship anyways."

"There's just one problem, Lyn," the Mothim rebutted as the Samurott turned his attention back to the mock Ampharos. "What if your would-be champion doesn't play along?"

"That's why the board wants me going after this god- both its mind and its body are still young and weak." the Samurott answered, waving a paw dismissively. "And weak Pokémon are quite pliable creatures. If they don't want to play along, who cares?"

The creature then reared up with a hunch onto his hind legs, quickly drew his blades from his arms, and after spitting up a freezing beam at the Ampharos decoy's head, lunged for it.

The doll immediately fell victim to a torrent of slashes, to its neck, to its chest, to its left leg, a stab to its stomach that flung it into the air…

Splutch

And an impaling stab into its back as it struck the ground, the poor Ampharos Substitute beginning to melt away into yellow and black mist around the embedded blade before Lyn turned back to Ellsberg.

"You can make them," he sneered.

Chapter Text

Life for Pokémon in the Cradle was in many ways similar to the lives their forebears lead in the old world. Lives which would go on for long stretches with few major changes, only to suddenly be upended and sent in a new direction thanks to an unexpected event. Even on a Rescue Team, the same held true for Team Traveler. There was the first mission, the first reward, the first serious brush with danger, the first new teammates.

Most recently, there was making the first rank, Normal Rank, needed to become fully fledged rescuers. In each of these cases, these watershed events would wind up giving way to strange new days...

"Yip!"

That wound up becoming suspiciously similar to the days in the past, or at least it seemed as such to Elty as he leapt out of the way of an incoming glowing ball with a yelp. Battles were not new to the Growlithe, and neither were the glowing balls that his opponent spat up at him. He had encountered both before many moons ago in places far, far away from Tromba. Unlike all those prior occasions, the primary thing that hung in the balance of this battle's outcome was pride, the venue was a courtyard in a dojo with paper lanterns hung on strings above in a criss-crossing pattern, and the opponent...

"Elty?! How do you keep moving out of the way?!"

Was a 'Protector' that up until a few days ago, would've done as well staying in the air with the Nidoran currently perched on his back as a Rhyhorn would've done surfing across Bluewhorl's harbor with her.

The other thing askew with this new normal on that day was Kiran's presence, or more accurately the lack of it. He had instructed Elty's recently graduated teammates to care for their companions during today's training. "To prepare supplies for a team mission the day after tomorrow," he told Nida and Crom.

"Let's see how good you do under fire!" the Growlithe barked at the Lugia passing behind him. Elty whirled about after the bird to track the creature's awkward, arcing flight path, and inhaled deeply before he spat out some clumps of burning cinders into the air.

The little flecks of fire sailed towards the white bird, only for Nida to notice them and cry out "Look out, Pleo!" Her partner, catching sight of the approaching embers, abruptly pitched forward and let the flames coast past him along with Elty's self-assured confidence into a barrier of light held up by a Glaceon.

"Eh?! But that totally should've-!"

Too late, the mewa was already making a dive for him. While Pleo's awkward and jerky flying made it easy enough to weave about the Lugia's body, the Growlithe's smooth dodge was suddenly interrupted by a sudden pricking jab on his flank.

"Ow!"

Along with some cheers from some similarly prickly Druddigon who were spectating from the sidelines.

"Nice one, Nida!" Crom called out. His younger brother was also there clambered up a railing, his chores at the bakery out of mind and Pyry's problem to grapple with during this short break from work to cheer on his brother's companions.

"Yeah, dale duro!"

"Blurgh, about time," a Nidoran's voice added from further down the field. Elty looked and saw Nida perched on the Lugia in the air above the other end of the battlefield, her ears flat and her expression marked with impatient exasperation…

Wait. Was she expecting something to-?

Elty felt his stomach churn a little and gagged. The Growlithe cast a glance at his flank and saw a barb had sunk into his side. He nipped at the spike and pulled it out with his mouth, spitting it up onto the ground. Had the barb gotten poison into his body? Or was it just the shock of getting hit near his stomach by a fast-moving object that was making him feel so disagreeable? One way or another, he had to avoid moving around until he knew for certain. If he was poisoned, movement would just make it spread in his body. Simple enough...

"Oof! Nida! He's not chasing after us!" Pleo cried out. The Lugia's errant path steered one of his wings into one of the paper lanterns, sending it to the ground with a faint crumpling sound as Nida's voice cried back.

"Then take the fight to hi-! Aaaah!"

That is, it would've been simple enough if Pleo wasn't suddenly diving towards him again. The only small respite in this situation was that Nida was still a little stunned and defocused from Pleo's sudden loss of altitude as he dove towards Elty.

"Pleo! Sudden diving hurts the Nidoran!" she cried, the spike ball hastily trying to regain her wits and break free of her stunned cling to Pleo's plumage.

Make that very stunned and defocused. The Lugia was now bringing his wings together, to attempt another attack and then slip away, no doubt. In just a few more moments, Elty would be left with no option but to try and run after him just to get a shot at him.

Wait a minute...

Maybe he didn't need to move much to keep up with Pleo at all!

"Yeah, and so does this!" he growled. The orange dog leaped into the air over Pleo's head, drawing a sudden, surprised squawk from the young Protector as the Growlithe vanished from his field of view. Pleo then felt himself suddenly drop and just almost hit the ground as something much heavier landed on him. The seabird suddenly pulled himself back into the air in a panic, his body shooting up towards the paper lanterns above and suddenly feeling much lighter.

Smack

"ARGH!"

For a split second, no one on the field was really sure what just happened. Pleo was up in the air as he ought to be, all of the Pokémon who protected the edges of the battlefield were still in their places, Elty's voice was a little loud but could be heard behind him as expected, and Nida was… falling towards the ground? Suddenly, the startled voices of two Druddigon came from the sidelines.

"Pleo, look out!" Crom shouted, the Druddigon waving his arms at the young Protector desperately as his brother added a cry of his own.

"He's on top of you!"

Pleo's eyes widened realized that Elty's voice behind him was too loud and the load on his back too heavy. As Pleo looked back over his shoulder, sure enough, his opponent was perched squarely on the white bird's back where Nida was just a few moments ago.

The Growlithe watched as the spike ball hit the courtyard with a dull thud, and twitched stunned on the ground. The Lugia's body was a tight fit: a little further farther to the left or the right and Elty would have missed Pleo entirely. A little further behind, and he would have lost his footing and fallen back to earth with the Nidoran.

"You're not the only Pokémon that can hitch a ride, you know!" the dog taunted, taking a moment to stick his tongue out at the disoriented Nidoran on the ground below.

"Ack! Nida!" Pleo cried out. The bird's body wobbled wildly in the air and lurched here and there barely missing wires and paper lanterns as he tried desperately to adjust himself with the sudden extra weight his new passenger brought along.

Tight fit or not, as Elty clung to Pleo's back, he had the Lugia exactly where he wanted him. The Growlithe inhaled deeply, and then spat a gout of small flames out… all over his opponent's back.

"A-Aah! Get off! Get off!"

Pleo pitched upwards wildly, crying out in pain from the burning embers all the while when suddenly Elty's luck ran out. First he felt their paws' grip against Pleo's back waver, then the vanes of Pleo's feathers, and then empty air as the dog fell flailing and yelping back to earth.

"W-Whoa!"

Then came the feeling of the ground slamming against his chin, and the sundry dull pains that pinwheeling along a courtyard was wont to do to a Pokémon. After a few tumbles, the Growlithe came to a groaning stop on his side.

"Ugh, okay, I should've used my jaws instea-"

"Here, have another!" Nida's voice huffed.

Before Elty could get back up, he felt a sharp pain on his stomach. The dog quickly threw himself onto his feet, just in time to see a Nidoran leg come straight for his head.

Thwack

"Agh!"

Elty cried out and recoiled from the little spike ball's still surprisingly tough kicks. When the Growlithe shook some sense back into his head, he found himself locking eyes with a leering Nida for a fleeting moment.

"Hey!" he growled. The Growlithe lunged after the Nidoran to try and nip back at her, but the blue Pokémon managed to hop out of his way and sprint down the field as the orange dog continued fuming. "Were you just sitting there waiting for me to-?!"

Before Elty could finish his train of thought, he heard frantic squawking from above...

"H-Help!" the young Protector cried out. "This move's not as easy as I thought it wou-!"

And looked up just in time to watch Pleo get tangled in the wires above. The cords shuddered a moment and then snapped, sending the bird falling spread-winged along with a couple chains of paper lanterns onto the hapless Growlithe.

Wham

The sound of Pleo's crash into his opponent drew a chorus of winces from the Pokémon that were maintaining the customary barriers on the sidelines, as well as from a certain pair of observing Druddigon.

"Ooh…" Cenn shuddered.

"That fall looked like it hurt," Crom murmured, putting a claw to his mouth.

"Pollito!" Mosca squawked, her voice tinged with panic. "Are you alright?!"

"Is Plancha… Whatever it is supposed to hurt this much?" Pleo groaned as he tottered up and stumbled off of Elty, dragging some detached cords and paper lanterns along with him. Nida dashed over, expecting Elty to spring up at any second to continue harrying her dazed partner...

Except after a few moments, she noticed that Elty was still on the ground and not moving.

"I think that we should probably stop there for the day," Mosca hastily interjected, shaking her head.

The Hawlucha sprang up and vaulted over the barriers and onto the field, making her way towards Elty's prone body. As the Dojo's Maestra drew near to Elty's body, the Pokémon that maintained the barriers for the sparring session broke ranks and scattered along the Dojo's hallways for their customary breaks. Cenn also headed back for his mother's bakery with a cheery farewell and "Make sure that Gabite works his due!" between the two.

Nida harrumphed in the direction of the sprawled-out Growlithe as Pleo began to weakly waddle back over to the sidelines to get healed… and his wings untangled from their new 'accessories'. As the Nidoran followed after and reached the edge of the field, she hesitated a moment and turned her head back to Elty. The Growlithe still spread out on the ground as Mosca sidled up against the dog and prodded his unresponsive body.

"Figures you would overdo it," she sighed, before turning back to head over to the Growlithe's side. Before she reached her opponent, he finally opened his eyes, and stumbled to his feet in front of the Hawlucha.

"Urgh, can the room stop spinning a moment before we continue?" he groaned. The Pokémon then noticing the Nidoran beside him, and a leering frown spread over his muzzle. "Why are youhere anyways?"

"I'm not saying that you didn't deserve your beating for that stunt you pulled," Nida growled. "But you seemed like you could use a little help."

"I'm fine," Elty huffed, the Fire-Type consciously inching away from Mosca's claws. He could get back to the sidelines by himself, and certainly didn't need to be carried around like a tired pup. "And I could've turned things around if I'd noticed the feather duster above me sooner!"

Nida sighed and shook her head as the Growlithe limped off the field ahead of the Hawlucha, the magenta bird occasionally stopping to help ease the dog along back to the sidelines in spite of his audible insistence that he was fine. As Nida followed along after the two, she decided to stay mum about her frustrations from the battle. If she was going to chew Elty out, it would make more sense to do so when they were all feeling a bit better.

Perhaps it was the abundance of headaches between the three of them, or the fact that Crom was able to help a bit more than normal with some careful guidance from Mosca, but the process of treating Pleo, Nida, and Elty's wounds that day seemed to go by quicker than normal. The customary Oran berries were peeled, applied, and their remains devoured. Some Pecha juice was dabbed on Elty's flank just in case if Nida's poison was lingering in his body, the fruit that made it meeting a fate much the same as the Oran berries shortly afterwards. Before long, the three were drinking up water side-by-side from bowls set out before them, the strain and aches of battle having largely left their bodies.

"Good work out there, you two," Mosca congratulated. "And I must admit that you seem to be improving a bit yourself, Elty."

The Hawlucha gave a cheerful pat to the Growlithe's head before she carried on down the hallway. After she left, the Fire-Type shook his head and grumbled under his breath.

"I'd improve faster if you'd give me more to work with in these lopsided matches!"

"Elty, relax. It's not that bad as Community Service," Nida admonished, looking up from her bowl of water. "The more Pleo improves here, the sooner you can pull your weight doing something other than being a punching bag."

"Yeah, Kiran was talking about taking up a mission for after the training session tomorrow," Crom added. As Elty rolled his eyes at the suggestion, the Druddigon took a moment to shift and sun himself along the edge of the corridor before he continued on. "We should head back to get a look the mission board-"

"Wait!"

All eyes turned suddenly to Pleo, in awkward silence. After a pause, the young Protector shook his head as he began to explain to the group...

"Before that… there was one thing that I wanted to do first."


Pleo's 'one thing' soon lead the party out of the Dojo and along a path into the hillsides surrounding the town. The scenery was not particularly out of the ordinary from the walk towards Nida's burrow. There were the same reed mats spread out here and there with mailboxes sitting nearby, the same nests and burrows mixed with the occasional solitary shack, the same town by the sea could be seen below through the sparse treetops. Despite all of that, the team was still uneasy the entire time through the trek when they came to a fork to the left and to the right in the path.

"Look, I know you're trying to be nice to Cassie and all, but..." Crom murmured as he hopped over a root growing across the path. "Couldn't you just have Hariti give Cassie her picture back at the Day Care? It's been three days since we've been back from the testing mission!"

"Hariti said that she was sick with 'cold'!" Pleo answered. It had seemed strange to him, that being this 'cold' would make a Pokémon unable to come to the Day Care when Hariti was cold enough to freeze berries. Hariti insisted that despite that, she was perfectly healthy, even though she was by far the coldest Pokémon Pleo knew on Tromba.

"And I tried looking around for Ander's house to give it to her that way, but I didn't know where it was until last night."

"How on earth did you find out where Ander's house is anyways?" Nida asked.

"Oh, I asked the purple Pokémon with the belt and the black doggy at dinner! They said that if I went there and had them 'meet their makers,' I'd be doing the world a service!" Pleo chirped happily as he flew along the path and down the left fork.

Pleo's words immediately made Nida and Crom go silent and trade looks with each other. If Pleo was talking about that Machoke and Mightyena who intervened when he met Hatteras for the first time… then that meant...

"Except… I don't understand why they said 'makers.' They were talking about Cassie, right? She was the one who made the pictures... So couldn't they just meet her whenever they saw her? And does 'makers' mean that she has siblings like you, Nida?"

"Um… Pleo," Nida replied. As she followed along the left fork, the Nidoran flattened out her ears. No matter how that meeting went over, it couldn't possibly end well.

"Pleo?" Crom began, his voice uneasy and faltering. "I don't think that- that Pokémon-"

Before he could finish, he was interrupted by the sound of Pleo coming to a running stop along the ground.

"But if I give it back," he continued, turning back to the group. "Then she has to think I'm not mean anymore! Right?"

As Nida and Crom stammered and struggled to think of how to respond to Pleo, they were beaten to the punch by the Growlithe accompanying them.

"Look, I'd never say 'give up', but I honestly think you're throwing good effort after bad here," Elty sighed as he trotted along the path. The other two seemed to be having trouble explaining the Machoke and Mightyena's ill will to the little Pokémon, so maybe it was best to head things off by sending Pleo down a different Nidoran hole. "Marked are really klanowy types, and you can't ever count on them being too open with normal Pokémon."

"Hmm?" Pleo asked. "What do you mean by-?"

Before the little Lugia could finish his question, he felt a round and hard object brushing up against his foot. Which made him look down and see a round green nut stuck in the ground.

"Huh?"

One which immediately made Nida and Crom recoil its sight.

"Ack!" Nida squeaked.

"Pleo, get away from that!" Crom shouted. The Druddigon ran up and suddenly pulled Pleo back by his tail, staring wide-eyed at the seed on the ground. "It's dangerous!"

"Eh?!" Pleo cried out. After Crom's grip slipped on his tail, the Lugia flew up into a tree branch, staring down back at the nut anxiously from above. "What is it?!"

"Oh, please. It's harmless," Elty scoffed, rolling his eyes as he went up to the nut. Without bothering to so much as inspect the seed, he picked it up with his mouth and revealed it to be half of a nut that had been cleaved down the middle.

"I've never heard of half an Apricorn ever hurting anyone," he said, before spitting the green seed fragment out in front of him.

"'Apricorn'?" Pleo asked before fluttering back down to the ground. "What are they and why are they not dangerous when there's only half of one?"

"They're big, colorful nuts that grow on short trees," Nida explained. "None on this side of the island, but if you ever see one, you should stay away from them. They don't call them breanuecesfor nothing."

"'Brea-' wha...?"

"They have a curse attached to them that will trap Pokémon that disturb them inside," Crom replied. "If you don't cleanly break them apart or if you're not tough enough to break out of them right away... You'll be stuck there without anything to eat or drink until someone finds the Apricorn and breaks you out of there!"

"But why is that so dangerous?" Pleo insisted as Crom kicked the chunk of Apricorn into the bushes.

"You know that 'meet your makers' thing those Pokémon told you about? That's what happens," Elty replied. "What on earth do you think happens if you don't get food or water for a long time?"

Pleo blanched and stared at the Growlithe. 'Meeting one's makers' was sounding less inviting than Pleo thought. Would one's 'makers' only come to you if you were miserable and extremely hungry and thirsty? Did those Pokémon want Pleo trap Ander and his family in tiny nuts? And what of the Pokémon that helped Ander make meat? He overheard at an earlier dinner that they too were supposed to also have 'met their makers'... So the help Ander got required Pokémon to also get trapped themselves?

Pleo shook his head. Whatever this phrase meant, it was clearly not something that was good at all.

"Oh…"

"On the other hand," Elty said as the group continued on down the path. "If you grind them up after you bust 'em, Apricorns apparently make for some really good shakes."

Maybe Elty was telling the truth, maybe he was leading them on in hopes that they might foolishly try to make these 'shakes' for themselves… But one thing was for certain in the minds of the other three Pokémon: they would much rather play it safe than try these 'shakes' out.

"We'll take your word for it, Elty," Nida mumbled.

As the group continued along the path, they noticed that their surroundings began to look a little strange. The path was still clearly marked, but there were no mats or mailboxes to be seen around them. Little patches here and there had undergrowth growing instead of being cleared out. And on top of all of that...

"Wait a minute, if there's no Apricorn trees on this side of the island," Pleo murmured. "Why would there be part of an Apricorn-?"

It was then that the team rounded a bend in the path. The form of a high-roofed hut with a small door, and wide but short windows near the eaves came into view. Some smoke puffed lazily from a hole in the back and along the side there was a mound of charred rubbish.

"Oh! I think that's the house!"

So this was a place where 'meat' was sold? He had gathered through bits and pieces of conversation that the 'meat' that 'scavvers' like Ander sold actually needed to be treated specially beforehand. It needed to be cleaned, dried, and preserved in order to make it look and smell different so that everyone in town would find it agreeable. On top of that, this meat had to specifically be made by scavvers finding Pokémon that had been found to 'already met their makers' to maintain peace with the ferals outside town.

As the team continued up the entrance to the house, the contents of the rubbish heap became clearer and sent a chill down Pleo's back. Although much of the heap's contents had been blackened beyond recognition, little bits and pieces could still be made out. Chunks of Apricorns that had been hacked to pieces, loose feathers, scales, clumps of fur, and broken discolored objects that looked like pieces of burnt, white wood. Were these things left by the Pokémon Ander had found?

Pleo shuddered as he began wondering what sort of dreadful thing must happen to Pokémon that 'met their makers.' Why the 'meeting' must surely be something painful and frightening if the Pokémon left behind bits of the things that covered their bodies! That was what the doggy and the purple Pokémon wanted him to do to Ander and his family? Before Pleo could think longer about what else those Pokémon must have left in the pile or what the whitish things that looked like wood were, he heard Elty's voice calling out.

"Hey, buddy! You're a scavver, right? How much for your wares?"

The team turned and saw that Elty had spotted a Scyther with a blotch in the shape of a five-tailed comet on his head at the door, who cautiously answered the Growlithe...

"Hmm? It's-"

Until he spotted the white bird following along.

"I-It's not for sale!" Ander buzzed in a panic. "We're closed!"

The Scyther hopped back and slammed the door to the hut shut with a terrific crash. As the team recoiled from the din, they then heard the sound of a faint creaking, and then a second, softer crash. When they looked back at the doorway, they saw that the door to Ander's hut had fallen off of its hinges and toppled over.

"A-Aaaah!"

Much to the horror of the mantis, who was now fleeing deeper into the hut as fast as his legs and wings could carry him.

"How hard did he slam that thing?" Elty asked as he eyed the fallen door with a quizzical tilt.

"I'm not here to be mean!" Pleo squawked after the Bug-Type. "I'm not here to make you meet your makers!"

A wave of paws and claws slapping themselves against faces went about the rest of the team. Of all of the ways Pleo could have tried to soothe Ander...

"Just listen to me a moment!" he insisted.

Much to everyone's astonishment, Pleo then suddenly flew up. The little Protector beating his wings and sailing into the hut, calling after the Scyther all the while as sounds of a racket and furniture upending began to break out.

"Pleo, wait!" Crom cried. "What are you-?!"

"Come back here!" Nida shouted. The Nidoran hopped bounded in after the young Lugia, her teammates rushing after her to keep up.

The inside of Ander's hut was a mess. In his rush to try and escape the Lugia, the mantis had upturned tables and scattered various shades of tan and reddish-brown dried matter, presumably meat, all over the ground. The Scyther flew up to one of the high windows to try and exit the house that way, only to lose his balance after brushing up against the wall and tumble to the ground, Pleo standing over him and in the way of any escape.

"Pl-Please!" the Scyther begged, the creature beginning to curl up and tremble. "T-Take anything you want! Just go away!"

"Wait, really?" the Growlithe asked excitedly from the side, as he began to sniff at the hunks of meat littering the hut's floor. "Because I could actually go for some-"

"Elty!" Nida scolded. She biffed the back of the dog's head and her eyes narrowed into a venomous leer, one that was joined by a similarly disapproving scowl by Crom. The Growlithe shook his head and huffed back defensively.

"What? He offered it!"

Pleo chirped insistently to the quailing Scyther, beating his wings to try and grab his attention. Couldn't he see that he was just trying to be helpful? Maybe if he just explained why he came...

"I wanted to give Cassie something!" he blurted out.

The Scyther stared up at the young bird blankly, stuttering as he began to repeat Pleo's words.

"You- You wanted to give-"

A horrified expression suddenly washed over his face… Pleo was here, for his daughter. The Scyther immediately propped himself up on the ground with his scythes and hissed back at Pleo.

"N-No! You leave her out of this!"

"B-But I-" Pleo stammered. While Ander's voice was clearly still frightened, it had suddenly developed a worrisome fierceness to it. Team Traveller's blood went cold as they realized that Ander was now advancing on Pleo, his blades drawn and pointed directly at him.

"Ander, wait!" Crom cried desperately. "It's not what you thi-!"

But before the Druddigon could finish, Ander interrupted him with a shriek as he swung a scythe at Pleo's breast.

"G-Get out!"

The Lugia hopped back with a cry, the scythe just barely missing him before it carried on into an upended table and dug itself into the wood. As Ander hastily tried to free his arm from the table, Pleo's nerves failed him.

"Aaaaah!"

The young Protector darted behind his also wide-eyed teammates, trying to hide behind them from this much bigger and erratic creature that had just slashed at him.

"Um, yeah. 'Running' would be a good option right about now!" Elty yelped, his fur standing wildly on end. Nida's pelt was in similar straits, flecked with upright barbs that made her look like a small, terrified, blue pincushion.

"C-Come on, let's get out of here!" she cried. Nida turned and bolted for the door, her teammates swiftly fleeing after her in a mad dash past the damaged doorway...

Directly into the path of a startled-looking mother Scyther and her accompanying child.

"A-Ack!" she buzzed. The Scyther hopped back and drew her blades, her startled voice joined by the frightened hiss of a young Scyther who quickly hid behind her mother for shelter.

"M-Mom?! What is the demon doing at our house?!"

"Why are you here?!" the mother shrieked, waving her scythes at the group. "And why did you bring that thing with you?!"

This was bad. The team could already hear Ander pulling himself free of the table he had gotten his blade stuck in, and here was his mate, in every bit as tense a mood, blocking their escape route.

"Oookay, on second thought, you can keep the jerky!" Elty whined, the color beginning to drain from his muzzle at the sight of the other Scyther.

"S-Sandra, please! It's us!" Crom pleaded, his wings folded back to make himself look small. "We're just other Pokémon from town! Mom buys things from you from time to time!"

"This is all just a misunderstanding!" Nida added, her ears lowered, her limbs stiff and unresponsive, and her heart racing as she hoped that the Bug-Types ahead would relent.

But no luck, this 'Sandra' was not budging. Worse still, she too was advancing on the group with blades drawn just as the team heard Ander finally pulling himself free inside the shop and rushing buzzing for the door. How had this even happened? Pleo had come to do something nice, and here these strange creatures were ready to attack him!

Pleo watched helplessly as Sandra lifted one of her blades into the air. Why did she have to attack him?! If only- If only they could just understand...

"I-I just wanted to give Cassie her picture back!" he cried out, screwing his eyes shut.

Nothing came afterwards. A long, uneasy, silent nothing. Pleo opened his eyes and saw Sandra had lowered her blade to her side, and was trading wary and hesitant looks with Ander and her daughter. Every now and then, their gaze would shift back to stare at the rest of the Team Traveller, the poor creatures still shivering from fright from their ordeal.

"Th-That's right! We've got it right here!" Crom cried. The Druddigon hastily dug out Cassie's drawing from a small satchel that Nida brought along and threw picture over, his claws still shaking as the paper fluttered to Cassie's feet.

The Scyther scooped up the paper in between the flats of her blades and quickly drew her drawing back to her chest, hiding behind her mother and avoiding eye contact with Pleo all the while.

"You dropped it the day before we went into the dungeon… I-I thought that you might want it back," he said in a small and quiet voice. "Wh-Why did you think that I came here?"

"T-To hurt us for knowing the truth about Pokémon like you!" the little Scyther suddenly buzzed back, causing expressions of panic to start to spread over her parents' faces.

"Huh?!" Pleo squawked in shock. "What truth?!"

"Cassie, wait!" Ander pleaded, waving his arms to the younger Scyther desperately to keep her from saying anything further. But it was too late, his child had already begun to bare her fears to the group.

"You're a demon! A nightmare from the Abyss that was brought to life! A-And after long enough, you'll just wind up bullying and destroying everything around you!" she cried from behind her mother. "A-And if we try and do anything about it, you'll try and end our world like the old demons!"

What? 'Demon'? 'Abyss'?

"I-I- Th-That's not true at all!" Pleo protested, beating his wings out. Nida and Crom immediately butted in, Pleo was supposed to be Tromba Island's Protector! How could the evil creature that Cassie was describing possibly be the same Pleo that Team Traveller had befriended and come to know over the last few weeks?

"Travellers above! It's insane, that's what!" the Nidoran interjected.

"He's the Protector! He defends us!" the Druddigon cried.

"Is that why the town's been in such rough shape since you came, then?" Sandra asked. "The storm? The raid?"

The storm? The raid? Well- Yes, the second happened while he was around, and the first was supposed to have happened the night before he came to Bluewhorl, Pleo thought to himself. But they couldn't be his fault! It was impossible! … Wasn't it? He… He hadn't done anything directly to cause them… The young Protector opened his mouth to try and say something back, but every time, the words died as they came up.

Could it really be that somehow… he had made all those bad things happen without knowing about it?

"I- I-"

Pleo continued to stammer and his mind returned over and over to the dark possibilities that Cassie had raised when he felt a tug at his wing. Without thinking, he followed along, and slipped out of the cordon Ander and Sandra had formed with the rest of the group. Sandra and Cassie had went up beside Ander next to the broken door to their hut, the little one among them hiding behind their parents. In the other direction, the path was open, with no one left to block it.

"Pleo, Cassie's got her picture back," the Nidoran said, turning down the path. "Let's just get out of here."

"Maybe it would be better if we just parted ways here," Crom added uneasily. The dragon began to trudge on ahead when a panicked voice suddenly called out from behind, the group turning back to see Ander waving desperately.

"Wait!" the Bug-Type interrupted, his face carrying the same sort of look one develops after a sudden, sinking realization. "Before you go- Can we- Can we please keep what happened just between us?"

Elty's eyes narrowed into a venomous glare. After everything that happened, the bug had the gall to ask them to keep quiet?

"Eh?! Between us?!" the dog snarled back at the Scyther. "We're the weaker Pokémon here and you were the one who took a swing at us and flanked us with your mate! Why on earth should we shut up about that?!"

The mantis looked back at the group, his eyes becoming more and more despairing until Cassie spoke up.

"D-Daddy? Are they going to get us in trouble?"

Elty blinked and his leer softened. The young mantis had raised a good point. Even among pirates, going around trying to attack other Pokémon for no reason was a fast way to make enemies. (Granted, if they had something you wanted and you were tougher, that was usually a good enough reason to make them enemies anyways.) Did this family of Pokémon really need more of them?

"Because this is all we have," Ander finally replied, lowering his gaze to the ground. "And it only takes a few upset Pokémon to lose everything."

The other Pokémon on Team Traveler began look at each other uneasily. Yes, Ander and Sandra had accosted them... but if others knew about this incident, what would they think? The Marked were supposed to have been descended from the same Pokémon that put the world in its current state long, long ago…

Considering how Pleo even found out how to find this place, would everyone understand that Ander trying to attack Pleo was all due to a misunderstanding?

Would everyone even want to understand?

The question lingered in the minds of the team, and as much as they wanted to give a confident, reassuring answer back to Ander and his family... they simply couldn't.

"Please, just forget that today happened," Sandra said. Her voice carried a less timorous tone than her mate's but still had a worn, defeated air to it. "All we want is to be left alone and allowed to live in peace."

"Pokémon like us have already accepted there's nothing we can do to stop your kind," Ander buzzed glumly to Pleo. "Not anymore."

No one on Team Traveler said anything after that, they simply kept quiet and turned away, setting off on the path back towards town. As the shack faded away behind them, the four decided that it would be best to heed the scavenger family's pleas and not tell anyone else about the events that transpired on that little path in the hills. Little by little, they trudged down the path, away from that lonely hut surrounded by undergrowth, and back towards the Rescue Guild.

All the while, Pleo couldn't help but think to himself over and over again…

Could all of the bad things that happened to the town lately…

Could they all really have happened because of him?

Chapter Text

That night, Kiran noticed that the team seemed to be in low spirits when they came back to the Guild Hall. Most likely due to some tougher-than-normal training at the Dojo, he presumed. Perhaps he should make a point of going to their session tomorrow, and move his meeting with Hatteras about Pleo to tomorrow night, during Hatteras's customary tending of the town lighthouse. Dinner seemed to dispel some of whatever cloud was hanging over the team, especially when the subject of using apples as a Gravelerock substitute came up at the dinner table again, and the rest that lingered seemed as if it would melt away with a good night's sleep.

And so it was that Kiran made a point to slip a note under Hatteras' door explaining his intentions to bring the team to take first picks (or as close as they could get to it) from the Guild's mission board bright and early in the morning.

Perhaps a little too early, even… The sun was still rising, the moon and the last stars stubbornly clinging to light even as the sky around turned blue, and Hatteras' tail was still winking out light as he dozed from the top of his domicile that doubled as the town lighthouse. Oh well, a quien madruga, los dioses ayudan, or at least as much as they could as departed spirits, Team Traveller's captain thought to himself as the team sized up the rune-covered postings in front of the main tent.

The format was simple enough: a picture for Pokémon with weaker literacy, a description in text underneath of the objectives. At the bottom, there was the signature of the poster, and an empty space left for a second signature from the requester when the mission was completed. It was all part of some system the guild's bookkeepers used it in their calculations of team ranks, but more importantly, it was also the mark of a job well done. On the other hand, the difficult part of picking a mission still remained...

"Hrm… See anything that looks interesting, guys?" the Swellow asked with a yawn.

"Uh… Are they all supposed to be finding things?" Nida sighed, hopping up onto a small empty crate to get a better view of the listings.

"That's not true! What about the new bounties posted on the Iron Fleet?" Crom protested. The Druddigon waved his right claw and pointed out some recent postings near the top. Sure enough, there were crude sketches of the Pokemon that had slipped away from last week's raid, little blurbs jotted in runes underneath detailing rewards and known information about the villainous characters.

"Let me rephrase that, Crom," the Nidoran said, flattening out her ears. "Are all of the jobs that we can reasonably do supposed to be finding things?"

"Now, now, that's the sign of a good day!" Kiran chirped. "When there's not trouble brewing, it's customary for rescue requests from lost and stranded Pokemon to be 100% less frequent!"

Yes, while perhaps a little drowsier than he planned, everyone seemed to have gotten over that curious funk they were in the night before...

With one exception.

"What about you, Pleo?" Kiran warbled. "Do you have any opinions?"

"Is... There something that will help someone the most?" the young Lugia asked uneasily.

"Hrm… What about this one to find one of the exposure chests?" Kiran offered, pointing at a listing just above the middle of the board. That would surely be one of the more helpful requests! Even if they weren't bulky and heavy, many of the merchants in town would struggle to simply get the seeds, berries, and other wares they left in them for the Distortion to alter out of the Mystery Dungeon quick enough keep their stores stocked. The arrangement benefitted the rest of the town, too. A healthy stock of found chests meant full shelves at shops like Calino's for the Pokemon that lived in Bluewhorl.

"Why, if we find one of those, it'll help the owner make a living!"

"Sounds good to me!" Nida exclaimed.

"Yeah, and we'll get some of the items inside as part of the reward!" Crom added.

"Meh," Elty huffed in an unimpressed tone. "You'd get more if you kept it for yourself!"

It did seem like a good enough job… "Eh, why not?" Kiran said to himself, plucking the listing from the board with his beak and stuffing it into the team bag. He then lead his teammates off down the path for the Dojo, flying high above in the air to give Pleo a model to try and mimic as the young Protector continued to refine his flight skills. Every so often, he would stop with the Lugia to let Nida, Crom, and Elty catch up as the three continued to argue among themselves about whether it was right to keep a few extra items from the exposure chests for themselves.

So the process went on the way to the Dojo. En route, the team passed simple houses in town as some of the residents moseyed out for morning exercises. A little further on, there was Calino preparing his inventory for the day and hastily replacing a few burnt-up timbers here and there while his customers were still few and sparse. After that, there was a tired-looking Ninjask resting its wings in the sun who looked up at the group a moment, shook his head, and then flew off for the sea with a loud buzz, apparently in a hurry. Then the group went on past a few sea Pokemon that lived in the Bluewhorl's harbor engaged in a petty argument with some visiting sailors at the docks. Their argument of the hour revolved around the necessity for the harbor's sea creatures to wear scarves when in other places the belts and cords that they used to hold them in place were proof enough to show they weren't ferals in communities further offshore...

In the midst of all of that, Pleo had not said a peep. Why if Kiran didn't know better, he'd have guessed Pleo hadn't seen or heard anything at all on his way over to the Dojo!

Eventually, as the team caught up to the two birds on the team after a stop on the roof of one of the town's huts, the Swellow couldn't help but mention...

"You've been awfully quiet this morning, Pleo."

"Yeah, what's the matter?" Elty asked as he bounded up, and scratched a bit at the fur behind his left ear with a hind foot. "Skitty got your tongue?"

Pleo stared blankly at his teammates, the Lugia's gaze wavering before he drooped his neck down towards the ground below.

"Kiran," he murmured. "Is everything bad that's happened to the town lately… Is it really my fault?"

Immediately, some cries went up from down the path as Pleo's words filtered to the rest of the team.

"Eh?!"

"What do you mean 'your fault'?!"

Which were followed by the sounds of swift footfalls, the team rushing in as Kiran beat out his wings in surprise.

"Why on earth would you say that?!" Kiran squawked. "Of course it isn't!"

Pleo suddenly raised his head and tilted it at the Swellow.

"It… isn't?" Pleo asked. What was it that made him so sure?

"Why would it be?" Nida called out, the Nidoran finally catching up to Elty along with Crom and stopping to look up at Pleo and Kiran. "Bad things have happened to the town before you came here, too! It's just a little bad luck!"

"Yeah, and we didn't have a Protector awake to help make them better then!" Crom added.

"Well, you stranding me here is your fault," Elty groaned, rolling his eyes. "But that's not exactly a bad thing for the town…"

"Uh, no. I'm pretty sure that it is," Nida growled, giving a leer at the Growlithe. "But that's your fault for getting involved in piracy-"

"If you ask me, Pleo," Kiran hastily interrupted Nida's budding argument, the swift-winged Flying-type beating out his wings. "It seems like a coincidence."

"Huh?"

"Bad things sometimes happen in life, and you just have to make the most of them when they come," he explained. "It's not healthy to instantly assume that everything that goes wrong is your fault because you were there for it!"

Pleo turned his head away, his gaze shifting from Kiran. What Kiran was saying sounded nice enough… But… somehow it just didn't seem terribly convincing when there were battered and scarred buildings everywhere he looked in town.

"I guess…"

"Besides," he reassured, patting Pleo with a wing. "There's things that have gone right since you came, too."

"Yeah, we graduated to Normal Rank with your help!" Nida said.

"And you helped keep the town shrine from becoming Aggron food!" Crom added.

"And you seem to be making a lot of friends," Kiran chirped. "Those aren't also bad things, are they?"

Pleo looked back at Team Traveller's captain and gave a small smile (inasmuch as any creature with a beak can smile) back, which Kiran for a moment thought looked a little forced. After a moment, as Pleo visibly drifted in thought, the smile grew and began to seem more earnest and a hopeful brightness returned to his eyes.

"I… I guess they aren't," Pleo said to himself, his voice beginning to grow a bit more cheerful.

"Have some confidence in yourself, pollito. Life's about advancing beat by beat to a better tomorrow, even if there's a little turbulence along the way," Kiran said, the blue bird turning to point out a complex of buildings and courtyards across a bridge with a wing.

"Like, say… Flight practice, eh?"

"Oh joy," Elty grumbled. Yes, perpetually getting put into mismatched fights was totally a way to get to a better tomorrow… Though one would be forgiven if a watching stranger believed that from Crom's sickeningly cheery demeanor.

"Yeah! Why, if you keep it up," the young Druddigon mulled. "Maybe you'll fly better than Kiran someday!"

Pleo's mind wandered after Crom's words, as he began to daydream of one day being able to fly swifter and stronger than his teacher. Why, maybe he'd even be able to lead Kiran around when that day eventually came along!

"I guess when you say it that way, it makes sense..."

"It's settled, then!" Kiran chirped. "Let's all do our best today!"

The Swellow then hopped up and took flight, leading his teammates forward down the last stretch to the Dojo, beat by beat to what everyone was sure would be that better tomorrow.


As Team Traveler busied themselves with another day of flight and sparring practice, the Ninjask that flew for the sea was zipping out of the harbor with the wind's course. As the bug sailed along through the air, the wind whipped an ivory-colored scarf marked with a blue sun to and fro around his neck and a wooden ship began to come into view.

The ship was an imposing vessel, larger than the Iron "Fleet's" craft with three-masts flying lavender sails with purple squares that attached to notched cross-shaped piers dyed on them. As he zipped over, different features of the ship came into view. There were the two wooden grates over the cargo hold that let square blotches of sunlight into the orlop deck below.

Reaching the ship, the cicada passed over a tube made of planks bound together by metal hoops on the deck, the entire contraption resting atop a wooden block on crude wheels. The device was one of eight aboard the vessel. One end of the tube was reinforced by a metal cap, and had a small hole where Blast Seeds were meant to be thrown in. At the other end, there was a much larger hole that a Graveler was pouring Apricorns into from a thickly-padded bag into that was meant for… persuasion.

But most important of all the features on the deck was the helm, or more specifically, the Samurott beside it who was casually sharpening one of the blades he kept with his arms against a whetstone.

The bug chirped to himself and flew down to the wooden craft's deck, hovering in front of the great otter with a loud buzz, drawing the Pokemon's gaze up from his busywork.

"You found a lead, I take it?" the Samurott asked. The creature pulled the blade away from the sharpening stone and carefully ran his free paw's digits along the sides of its edge… Sharp and not a single crack or imperfection, just the way it was meant to be before a day's work.

"They're headed to practice at the Dojo!" the Ninjask buzzed as he flipped his scarf. Opposite of the ivory and blue design on the cloth, there was a lavender underside with a single purple square on it. "It's the long complex along the creek!"

Hiding one's true colors like a bunch of stranded pirates trying to evade capture was a bit of a dirty trick, yes… but it was hard to argue with results. And the results the scout delivered were more than good enough for Lyn. Keeping the peasants he was tasked to collect from in line and in their rightful places was hard work, even for a Pokemon who loomed large over his fellow Company Commissioners and other Third-Ranks.

"Hmm hmm… Excellent," he replied. The Samurott grabbed his sharpened blade and smoothly slid it into the keratinous sheave on his right arm that served as its scabbard. The Water-Type then turned to a Tauros and a Electabuzz with disguising designs matching the one on the Ninjask's scarf hastily dyed over the front of their Company scarves, and drew near as the two fidgeted impatiently beside a railing on the edge of the ship's deck.

"You'll be able to work with that, right?" the Samurott asked.

"Shouldn't be a problem, sir," the Tauros dutifully answered.

"Good. Secure the package and have it brought aboard my ship during re-provisioning," Lyn replied, looking down at the bull with a hardened and serious gaze. "Do try to keep this mum, though."

"Pbbt, what for?" a Electabuzz asked, the creature giving a flippant shrug. "You're not seriously scared of some has-beens that chased off a flabby lizard once with a rig like this, are you?"

Almost immediately, the Electric-Type saw Lyn reared up and towering over him, shooting a piercing glare into the hapless creature's eyes. The Electabuzz froze and blanched a moment before he hastily attempted to excuse his poor choice of words.

"Uh… I-It's not like I was expecting you to be-!"

"I'm perfectly content going in hacking and slashing, thank you," the Samurott growled, maintaining his petrifying gaze all the while. "I'm simply acting on a request from my superiors in the Board that the rabble be kept as ignorant of our dealings as possible."

"Y-Yes, sir!" the creature squeaked.

"Good!" Lyn barked. "Now get out of my sight and do your job!"

The Tauros in the group hopped the side of the ship into the water with a splash, coming up paddling the water furiously and waiting for his partner to clamber down a rope ladder onto his back. After the Electabuzz reached the Tauros in the water, the brown Pokemon swam off at a surprisingly brisk pace for one of the quieter shores near the edge of the harbor, fading away little by little. As Lyn saw the two get up onto shore and slip into some brush, he turned his attention back to his ship.

"All hands on deck!" he bellowed out. "We're going in!" The deck immediately became abuzz with action as the deck hands set about this way and that and around the wooden ship. The stones that served as the anchors were raised and a few of the accompanying fliers sent gusts of wind at the sails to give the ship a jolt forward into Tromba's harbor as Lyn walked up to the bow.

"We've got a show to put on until those two get back," he said, giving a self-assured grin as he looked out at the pitiful little town ahead. The Samurott then leapt from the bow and into harbor's water, diving under before returning to the surface to tear along through the water towards shore, as was his custom whenever it was time to collect tribute on behalf of the Company.

The sea Pokemon that dwelled in the harbors of such towns were always the first to run into the Samurott, usually scattering in startled surprise much as a harried school of their feral counterparts would. But the real fun always came at the docks, where there was always some local with an overinflated sense of self-importance to humble.

And as it so happened as Lyn clambered up one of the docks in the harbor… There were a Granbull and a Mawile in lavender scarves that had been scrunched up into headbands, as was custom among this hamlet's guards. When Lyn came upon the two, he found the pair loafing around and playing a game with cards depicting various Pokemon and some pebbles that were placed on top of them.

"You there!"

The Granbull initially swiped his paw lazily at the interrupting Pokemon, attempting to wave off the distraction from his card game.

"Yeah, yeah, cool it. We're on brea-"

Only to suddenly realize that the Pokemon looming over the card game was none other than the dreaded Comissioner assigned to Tromba, much to his and his partner's unpleasant surprise.

"A-Aaaah!"

The racket immediately caught the attention of the other Pokemon on the docks and in the adjoining square, some freezing in startled fright, others taking off from the sight of the Samurott at the docks and the lavender-sailed ship entering the harbor in the background as fast as their limbs would carry them.

"L-Lyn?!" the Mawile cried out, upending the cards in his panic. The creature stammered and flailed before taking a moment to try and hastily recompose himself. "Wha-?! Er... Wh-What are you doing here?"

"Tribute payments! And that's Commissioner Lyn to you!" he barked, his tone sending a shiver down the Mawile's spine. "Where's the negotiating party?!"

Immediately, a litany of protests went up from some nearby townsfolk who had the misfortune to hear Lyn's bellowing voice.

"H-Huh?!"

"Tribute?!"

"B-But the crops aren't even half-ripened yet!"

The unfortunate guards on the docks gulped. As if Lyn coming out of nowhere with his ship full of thugs wasn't bad enough! He wanted tribute? Now? Of all of the times for Osmund not to show up snapping at them to get back to work...

"E-Eh?!" the Granbull whined. "B-But those aren't supposed to come until a-after the harvest!"

"Yeah, well your defenders need a little extra right now!" the Samurott demanded, leaning in towards the hapless duo and quite literally breathing down their necks. "So have these peasants cough it up!"

"What's going on here?!" a voice suddenly rang out.

The three Pokemon looked up, and saw a Sceptile with a lavender headband leering at Lyn, the blades on his own arms extended and tensed. The Granbull and Mawile hastily darted behind the green lizard, eager to have someone else standing between them and the Samurott.

"Oh, hello Osmund. I see half of the negotiators are punctual, at least. And that lowering your standards by going native and discarding the customary dress code has impaired your subordinates' skills," Lyn greeted the Sceptile, the forced amity in his expression belying a sneering gaze. The Samurott smirked and fished out a blade from one of his arms and twirled it about his knuckles. "You ought to be more cautious! Why, if I were say... a pirate... I could freeze you to the ground right now! Or since we're talking hypotheticals, perhaps I'd just get direct and swamp you with a wave to trip you up! Both of which would leave me free to hack away at you at my pleasure..."

The Granbull and Mawile flinched and shuddered, praying quietly to their Protector and the spirits of the departed gods above that Lyn's veiled threats were mere bluster. The Sceptile remained unmoved, narrowing his eyes back at the Samurott.

"Grr… That's lovely, Lyn," Osmund harrumphed. "I thought that this was supposed to be a negotiation, not a time to waste our breaths!"

"Well then, I suppose you ought to hurry that other negotiator along, don't you think?" Lyn asked smugly, his blade coming to a sudden stop in his paw. The Samurott had caught it by the handle, gripping it firmly as he shot a look at the Sceptile that seemed to dare him, or anyone in Bluewhorl at all, to come and try his patience.

"Ugh," Osmund groaned. The Grass-Type shook his head out of disgust before he turned and murmured to his subordinates. "Get Hatteras down here. Tell him that it's urgent."

"Y-Yes, sir!" they cried. The two darted off down the docks and towards the direction of Bluewhorl's guild hall, eager to be free of Lyn's presence.

"Oh, I'm in no rush, Osmund. Feel free to let your subordinates take all the time they need," the Samurott taunted. As the guards ran off, the Water-Type smirked as he heard the sound of his ship finally sidling up against the docks beside him. "I can wait."


A short time after Lyn arrived in town, Team Traveler got through their day's practice. The session was more exhausting than normal that day, which after a little discussion, prompted the group to take a moment to rest at the front of the complex as they made their way out Mosca's Dojo.

"Whew… Battles are a lot harder and confusing once you get items involved," Pleo sighed, the bird turning to tiredly preen a few feathers along his back.

"You mean they're a lot more fair," Elty corrected. "Nothing like a good old-fashioned Cross-Eye Seed to bring a bird back down to earth!"

"Yes," Nida grumbled, rolling her eyes at the Growlithe's adamant insinuations. "Because you care so much about fairness, Elty."

"Enough, you two," Kiran admonished. The Swellow hopped down the steps and beat his wings to get his blood flowing, then turned back with a bob of his head. "Let's just take the rest of the day easy and prepare a bit for tomorrow."

"Uh huh! We've got a big mission!" Crom cheered, getting up from his place under a patch of sun. "And Pleo's gonna need a little extra help getting the hang of things, right?"

The team happily traded agreements with each other, until suddenly an unexpected voice chimed in.

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that."

"Huh?" Crom asked. "Who said-?"

Just then, the young Druddigon heard something whizz by his head and flinched as a round, peach-colored sphere that seemed to have clouds swirling about in it sailed past from the direction of the creek and shattered along the ground beside him.

"Ack!"

Before anyone could respond, a peach-colored cloud of smoke suddenly enveloped the group. As the cloud blotted out the sight of the blue sky above and the dojo behind them, the team's members all felt themselves becoming drowsy and their eyes growing heavy, their vision beginning to waver...

Whump

The smoke lingered a little before it dissipated and melted away, revealing the forms of five Pokemon slumped over onto the ground, asleep. A Tauros and Electabuzz then poked their heads past the corner of the dojo and walked up the creek. The two gave quick, furtive glances to verify no one else was around, before they walked up past Pleo's dozing teammates and circled around his sleeping form.

"Ungh..."

"Got him!" the Electabuzz cried as he quickly dumped a ratty red blanket out of a canvas bag he had brought along and then grabbed and stuffed Pleo's dozing body into the vacated sack. The Tauros that rounded the bend quickly looked about as his partner slung the bag onto his back, tied it down, and quickly threw the dingy blanket over the top. After the ropes were tightened and the two saw that the coast was clear, the bull turned back to his partner.

"Alright, let's move!"

The two Pokemon then took off, darting down the path, leaving the rest of Team Traveler behind asleep and sprawled-out on the Dojo's steps.

Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap!

Only for their slumber to be broken not too long afterwards by a series of stiff slaps. After some yelps and startled recoiling from the stinging smacks, the various Pokemon on the team turned and saw that the culprit who woke them was none other than the Dojo's Maestra.

"Oi! No se duerme en mis peldaños!" she scolded.

"Urgh," Kiran groaned. What just happened? Someone was waiting nearby and had thrown something at them... Orb shards? Wait a minute! The Swellow looked around wildly and saw that much to his horror, Pleo wasn't with the group. "Ack! They took Pleo!"

"Aaah!" Crom cried out. The Druddigon ran about looking frantically this way and that, but there was no sign of Pleo at all. He caught the scent of something musky and grassy along with something smelling vaguely of electric burns mixed with saltwater, but it was all still so fresh that he couldn't tell which way the Pokemon came or went relative to it! "Who were they?! Where'd they go?!"

"What on earth are you talking about? You were the only Pokemon here!" Mosca exclaimed.

"That's impossible! We got ambushed!" Elty yipped. "The creeps must have run off with the feather duster while we were asleep!"

"Eh?!" Mosca squawked. "But where would they go?!"

"Look!" Crom cried out, pointing at a white feather blowing about on the path. "They dropped one of Pleo's feathers!"

The team saw the feather, and then some footprints through a puddle of water that carried on a ways down the path before fading. As all eyes followed the footsteps, they lead to the direction of the harbor, where the sight of a tall, three-masted ship with lavender sails could be seen at the docks. The team's heart sank for a moment- the Company was in town, and of all of the possible places the kidnappers could have come from, it would surely be from them.

"No…" Nida murmured softly, lowering her head in defeat.

"Kiran? Isn't there anything that we can do to get him back?" Crom asked, his eyes pleading with the Swellow for some sort of positive response.

"From the Company?" Elty muttered. "Just how do you expect any of us to pull that off?"

"I- I don't know, kids…" the Swellow finally admitted, his head and wings drooping."

"Don't give up so easily!" a voice cried out.

The team whirled around, and saw Mosca gesturing excitedly at the ship in the harbor.

"E-Eh?! I'm not giving up!" Elty huffed, taken aback by the Hawlucha's words. "I'm just saying, there's not any realistic ways to get out of this mess!"

"Oh yes there is!" the Hawlucha adamantly rebutted. "You know those kidnappers are still on the island! They ran on foot towards the harbor! That means that they didn't have a faster way of getting Pleo away from here!"

Wait a minute… that meant the ambushers were going to bring Pleo aboard the ship from the docks? That meant still had to get to that ship first and find something to sneak him aboard first!

"Ah! Of course!" Kiran squawked. "So we just need to make it there before they can sneak Pleo aboard!"

"I'll get reinforcements!" Mosca squawked. "Just go on ahead and make sure Pleo doesn't get on that ship!"

"Right!" Nida cried. "They can't be that far ahead of us!"

Without bothering to dust themselves off from the ambush, the team took off flying and running for the harbor, desperately hoping that they would not be too late to rescue Tromba's little Protector.


Back at the harbor, Osmund continued to uneasily stare Lyn down on a rickety wooden dock. The Samurott outranked him in the Company's hierarchy, and had the strength to make the design on his lavender scarf mean something- a fact that Lyn seemed to be aware of given the predatory gaze and smirk on his face.

A small crowd of locals had formed near the end of the dock as they all continued to watch the standoff uneasily. Nervous chattering floated about the gathering and occasionally some Pokemon towards the front would inch away deeper into the crowd. While the leers and occasional growls and menacing gestures from the Pokemon in Lyn's entourage on the ship and the water around hadn't been acted upon yet, one could never be too careful with the Commissioner and his clique. The murmurs died off as the sound of a Pokemon tromping up the docks suddenly reverberated. Much to Osmund's relief, it came from the footsteps of an elderly Ampharos making his way up the docks.

"Hmph… About time the so-called 'mayor' of Tromba showed up!" the Samurott barked, shifting his piercing gaze over to the wizened sheep. "Just what kind of show are you running here?"

"One that doesn't lend itself well to unannounced interruptions. I'm sure you would know the feeling, Lyn," Hatteras replied, his words coming out firmly and unflinchingly to the Company tough. "What do your superiors want? And by when?"

"A third of the normal allotment, by sundown."

Gasps and panicked yelps went about the crowd. He wanted a third of the harvest this early? How on earth was the town supposed to deliver that? Let alone it in a day?

"Lyn, be reasonable," Osmund protested. "Harvest isn't for another two months! Just what can the Company expect us to give right now?"

"Hrmph, you get three of them per year," the Samurott scoffed before casting an aside glance. "Give some of your surplus from the last one! We know that the Pokemon here were unusuallyadept at filling out tax forms last time!"

"Is there a problem with humble Pokemon being a little well-read?" Osmund growled back. The Sceptile's voice betrayed hints of defensiveness to Lyn's ears, which prompted him to narrow his eyes at the impetuous Second-Rank.

"Well, it's certainly suspicious coming from a bunch of bumpkins like these," Lyn retorted. "Why, if any misconduct was at hand, the Board might need to re-evaluate this town's little absentee arrangement with Administrator Darzin-"

Before the Samurott could continue, he felt something stiff and pointed strike his nose and bounce off. The otter recoiled, and after rubbing some feeling back into his face, he looked back at the negotiating duo just in time to see Hatteras pull his arm back to his side.

"Ow!" the Samurott seethed. "Why you-!"

As the creature grabbed at one of the blades along his arms, he was interrupted by an adamant voice from the electric sheep.

"I believe that you're supposed to inspect the tribute that you take off this island, are you not?"

Lyn looked down and upon closer inspection, saw that the object which struck him was a green, unripened Wiki Berry. From the looks of it, not useful for much else than to be thrown at other Pokemon.

"Do you see that berry? That's what the town's fields can offer for your hold right now, Lyn," Osmund insisted, as the Samurott refocused his gaze on the troublesome 'mayor' and Second-Rank. "We're not exactly swimming in excess out here!"

"We have enough left over right now to provision your ship, and no more," Hatteras added, narrowing his eyes back at the leering Samurott. "And if you would like to suggest that I, Bluewhorl's shepherd, steal food from the mouths of the townsfolk in order to do so…"

"Need I remind you of how Darzin and this town came to our current arrangement?"

Lyn's ears picked up a faint, crackling sound. When he looked closer at the old Ampharos, he saw that the sheep's hide was coursing with small electric sparks that danced on its surface, far too close for his liking if he had to act on his threat. The Samurott's eyes betrayed a momentary unease and grip on his blade's handle loosened for a short moment… only to then see a Electabuzz and a Tauros with a bundle on his back covered by a red blanket tied quietly sneaking into the back of the crowd.

Good enough, this charade had lasted as long as it needed to. It was now time to steer things into an acceptable endgame and just wait for his target to be snuck aboard as part of the provisions.

"Hrmph. Calm your sparks, sheep. I don't see your 'Dragon Buster' in the crowd to help you out this time," the otter chided. Lyn shook his head and brought his paw on his now-sheathed blade back to the wooden planks beneath him, his gaze returning to its piercing norm.

"We at the Company do understand the importance of healthy communities, and I have better things to do than to sail around with a cargo full of inedible berries," the creature carried on in a forced cheeriness, the momentary lapse in his confident demeanor having smoothed over as he turned his head back to bellow at the lavender-sailed ship at the docks.

"Oi! Get out there on the dock and start helping with the reprovisioning!"

Immediately, some cries went about the Pokemon on and around the ship, as planks were lowered, and a few creatures in lavender scarves shouted out orders to get ready to disembark. Osmund gave a puzzled, skeptical look at the Commissioner and his crew before he begrudgingly motioned for a few of the local guards to come and, after a brief moment chattering among themselves about how best to disperse the burden of provisioning Lyn's ship on the town, sent them off about Bluewhorl.

"I'm glad that you have a reasonable head on your shoulders, Lyn," Hatteras said, the sparks on his hide dying down and fading away.

"Oh trust me, in my experience on the job… you know when to adjust priorities," the Samurott replied, casting a brief glance at the two infiltrators in the crowd as they slipped in deeper between the mass of bodies.


Meanwhile, Team Traveler continued bounding up the path to the main square attached to the harbor. All the way over, the surrounding huts and fixtures of town and the occasional cry of protest from a resident the group narrowly avoided running over all seemed to be an indistinct blur to Nida, until the group neared the edge of the crowd at the docks. It was then that everyone noticed that down at the end of the dock where the lavender-sailed ship had docked...

"Wait, Lyn's here?!" Crom cried, his eyes widening at the sight of the Samurott standing at the end of the pier.

"Who now?" Elty asked, lowering his body in a tensed position at the sight of the large Water-Type and the chilling effect he had on all the nearby Pokemon.

"The Company Commissioner who collects tribute from here!" Nida exclaimed, fanning her barbs out. "He's a total jerk!"

"No co ty nie powiesz!" Elty growled. "Since when was a Company Pokemon ever not a jerk?"

"Um, Elty," Crom groaned, screwing his eyes shut. "You realize that the guards are technically also part of the Company too, right?"

"Your point being?"

Nida and Crom traded scowls with Elty and then shifted their attention back to the ship. Rude or not, this wasn't the time to head down that Nidoran hole. It would have to wait until they got their friend back safe and sound beside them.

"Kiran, what are we waiting for?" Nida cried, hopping up and down in front of Kiran. "Let's tell everyone Lyn has Pleo!"

The Swellow paused, deep in thought, moving a bit too slowly for any of the three Pokemon's liking. The bird then shook his head and craned down to his younger counterparts and began to speak.

"If we don't catch him at the right time, he could hide Pleo and then just sneak him aboard later. Or say that he had nothing to do with it and come back later," Kiran said. "We need to get Pleo out here in a way that Lyn can't deny."

"But..." Crom murmured. "How do we even find them…?"

"Start looking around for someone that smells of musk and grass who's carrying something that would drop lint."

"Eh? What do you mean, Elty?" the Swellow asked.

"It's not much of a lead to go off of, and I don't know why I'm telling you this, but…" the Growlithe trailed off, rolling his eyes.

"Remember how one of the scents by the Dojo was that one that smelled kinda bad but had a hint of grass to it?" Elty asked. "Well, on the way over I noticed that there was some red lint lying along their scent trail… Why it looked just like this piece-"

The Growlithe's voice died off as he looked down and shook his head to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Sure enough, there it was, a piece of red lint, sitting at the edge of the crowd.

"Right. Here," he murmured. The Growlithe stopped to sniff at the piece of lint and quickly discovered that the smell he had noticed on the way over was all over the little lump. Elty turned and looked down at the docks. The Pokémon he saw were a bit hazy for his sight at that distance, but he could tell that the movement was all coming from the boat and not towards it, and still all concentrated on the dock… For now.

"He has to be nearby, and it looks like no one's gone on the boat yet. Find him, and you might just find your mewa."

The team looked over the crowd and blanched. It was on the smaller side, sure, but a decent portion of Pokemon in the harbor at any given time were from off the island. Worse still, the crowd would surely muddle the kidnapper's scent and the only Pokemon among them that could do a visual check from above was also the Pokemon with the sense of smell that barely functioned!

"A slim lead, but it's the best we have at the moment," Kiran murmured before turning to the team. "Crom! You and Nida go together and take this end of the crowd! Elty and I will take the far end! Raise some hackles if you find him!"

"Right!" the Nidoran and Druddigon cried. The team broke up and darted into the crowd, frantically searching about for any sign of Pleo or his kidnappers. As she weaved between legs and bodies in the crowd, Nida whispered to herself over and over again.

"Please still be here, please still be here..."

Chapter Text

Kiran and Elty disappeared from view as Nida progressed deeper into the crowd, darting here and there between bodies. As the spike ball hopped past, the occasional "Watch it!", "Ojo!", or similar yelp of protest would ring out, only to fall on unresponding ears.

There would be time to apologize. Later.

She looked frantically about, sniffed the ground, and occasionally reared up and flicked her ears for any sign of Pleo or the Pokémon that might have taken him. Not a single clue had come her way, and the Nidoran grew more and more disheartened... until she heard Crom's voice suddenly cry out.

"Nida! Look!"

Nida turned, and saw Crom waving from a few Pokémon over. Without thinking, she bounded forward and clambered up the Druddigon's spiked back, coming to a perched rest on his head. The young dragon pointed out an Electabuzz and a Tauros, with white scarves bearing blue suns, approaching some crates.

"The Tauros! That has to be him! He's got something that would drop red lint!" he whispered before bending down to sniff at the ground. "And I saw him pass through this patch of ground earlier! Why, it even still has a hint of musky smell and seawater!"

Nida prepared to hop down from the Druddigon's head to confirm his observations, but stopped in her tracks as she noticed the pair of Pokémon moving.

"The Pokémon with him would've been able to throw that orb at us, too!" the Druddigon added. It all seemed to mostly add up, but something… Something still seemed amiss. The two white-scarved Pokémon neared a crate, and the Electabuzz began to unbind the bag from the Tauros and shift it towards the crate. Then, Crom suddenly saw it-

The underside of the Electabuzz's scarf. It had been exposed for just a fraction of a second while he was shifting the bag off, but it was all that was needed. The underside wasn't white as would have been expected.

It was unmistakably lavender, and it was proof to Nida and Crom that the two had something to hide. Any lingering reservations of acting up quickly left the pair's mind and the Druddigon shouted out after the Tauros and the Electabuzz.

"Wait! Stop!"

It was time to act.

The Druddigon rushed forward in the crowd, shoving a few of the Pokémon beside him out of the way. Nida tensed her legs and, without thinking, spread her barbs and leapt up and off her perch on Crom's head, straight for the Electabuzz.

"Sácate la mochila!" Nida cried. Before her feet even hit the wood of the deck, she had already flicked a poisonous spike from her ruff at the Electabuzz. The little missile sailed on, until by good fortune, it found its mark on the Electric-Type's lower arm.

"Ack!"

The Pokémon cried out and clutched his arm grimacing in pain, losing his grip on the bag in the process. The canvas satchel fell to the ground, and a sudden squawk rang out from inside it.

"Gwark!"

A commotion quickly broke out among the Pokémon in the crowd as the bag shifted. A white head and neck with a navy blue scarf and a King's Rock around it drowsily poked itself out, in plain view of everyone present.

"Whuh?" Pleo yawned as he began to pull himself from the bag's mouth. "Nida? Crom? Where are you?"

"Wait a minute!" Osmund cried out. "That's-!"

"Eh?!" Hatteras bleated in shock as he saw Pleo pull himself out of the bag. "What is the meaning of-?!"

As the Electabuzz winced and nursed his arm from the painful little missile, his companion nervously nudged him and pointed out a few concerning developments. First, the formerly nervous looks and murmurs in the crowd of spectators had given way to baying and shouting. Second, their superior was seething and leering at them from the end of the dock behind the shocked-looking Ampharos and Sceptile. And lastly, the little white bird they had been sent to snag had gotten all but his tail free of the bag.

"Crud, throw the bird back in and let's get off this rock!" the Tauros cried, much to his quarry's confusion.

"Huh? Aah!"

Or at least until Pleo suddenly felt a hot, numbing sensation course through his body from behind. The little Protector's limbs went rigid, sending him toppling forward with a startled squawk. The bird tilted his head back weakly and saw little sparks dancing among his feathers. Before he could try and make sense of what had happened to him, he felt the faint sensation of something grabbing him and his body being pulled from the dock.

Pleo tried to struggle, but no matter how much he fought back, his flails, kicks, and wingbeats came out as little more than feeble twitches to the two Company Pokémon. The only part of his body that seemed to mount any meaningful resistance as they shoveled the Lugia back into the sack was his mouth, as he cried pitifully over and over again...

"Lemme go! Lemme go!"

Pleo's tormentors suddenly heard running footfalls against the dock's planks. When the two turned to see their source, they saw a Nidoran and a young Druddigon forcing their way to the front of the crowd and charging towards them.

"Let him go!" Nida shouted, as she flicked forward another spike at the Electabuzz.

"Yeah, he's not your Protector!" Crom bellowed, before he ran up and raked the Tauros' flank with opened claws.

The Tauros wheeled back from the Druddigon's clawing, his partner catching a barb in his stomach. While the two younger Pokémon had not done much damage with their attacks, the little jolts of pain still wore the pair's patience thin. The Electabuzz promptly shoved the still-flailing Lugia into the sack and tied its mouth back shut, before getting up and casting an ugly leer at the two pests in front of him for their attempts to get in the way.

"Buzz off, you little brats!" the yellow and black Pokémon growled, before he curled his body and shot out a crackling stream of electricity. Nida hopped back away from the Electric-Type, but was unable to fully clear the arc before it struck one of her hind legs, sending her into a headlong trip. Just before her head hit the planks below, she saw the Tauros charge Crom, the Druddigon narrowly dodging the bull's horns only to be knocked back along the dock...

"A-Aaah!"

Although the two had not been squarely struck by the two Pokémon's blows, they were still sent tumbling to a stop at the foot of the crowd. The two weakly picked themselves up and their hearts sank as the Electabuzz in the duo began to advance on them…

Only for the Electric-Type to suddenly pitch forward onto the docks as a stone abruptly struck him in the side of his head. Followed immediately by a Swellow's cry.

"Hang in there, kids!"

Much to Nida and Crom's joy, they saw Kiran swoop down in front them and whip up a gust of wind with his wings. The cutting wind sailed down the pier, knocking the Tauros off his feet and back from the weakly fidgeting sack that Pleo was trapped in. A orange dog then abruptly jumped out from the crowd behind the two and behind Kiran, growling and braced for battle.

"You really know a thing or two about getting in over your heads!" he called out to the infiltrators, who were still picking themselves up off of the dock. As the Electabuzz stumbled up, he narrowly dodged another Gravelerock, and then a beam of pinkish light, and then an apple which sailed on to hit his partner with a yelp.

The two braced to return to battle, only for their resolve to fail them when the pair saw that it was not just the two brats and their two allies who were advancing against them, but the entire front of the crowd. Guild Pokémon, local shopkeepers, visiting sailors, and a number of Pokémon with lavender headbands that had just recently been preoccupied with moving cargo towards the dock. All of them now baying for their hides.

"Gah! That wasn't supposed to happen!" the Tauros panicked.

"Okay, new strategy!" the Electabuzz cried as sparks began to crackle on his fur. "Kick up a wave!"

The Tauros leapt into the water and kicked up a large wave towards the crowd. As the wave crested, the bull leapt back for the dock while the Electabuzz sent a weak current through it. Kiran hastily swooped down and tried his best to shield his teammates from the brunt of the swell as it came down with a roaring crash.

The crowd's advance abruptly stopped with a chorus of shouts as Team Traveller was pushed back by the wave and felt jolts of electricity run through their bodies. Kiran tumbled along the deck, his wings and legs becoming uncooperative. His teammates weakly flailed as they tried to get back up, only to discover...

"A-Aah!"

"Nngh! I can't move!"

Similar yelps and groans of pain rang out across the front of the crowd. The wave had knocked a couple of its members out cold, and had left a number of Pokémon in the front unable to budge forth another step from paralysis. Pokémon trying to press forward from behind quickly ran into their petrified compatriots, further throwing the entire group into disorder.

The infiltrators turned back and saw that their cohorts on the dock and in the water had hastily set aside their preoccupations with loading cargo onto Lyn's ship. Nida's eyes widened and her breaths grew shallow as she saw the entire lot begin to advance on the group, leering and growling. The Tauros sidled up against the edge of the dock and prepared throw another wave of water at the disorganized crowd.

"Hah!" the bull taunted the incapacitated Pokémon ahead of him. "Not so tough now, are ya-?!"

"Enough!"

The Tauros was abruptly caught by a green, leafy blade in the flank, which sent the creature flying into the side of Lyn's docked ship with a cry and a loud thud. The sound of a splash quickly followed as the bull fell into the harbor's water below, floating listless and unconscious. The Electabuzz whirled around to attack, only to see that the creature that waylaid his partner was none other than Bluewhorl's Captain of the Guard… and that the Sceptile was about to bring his blade down on his head.

Thwack

"Yeargh!"

The Electric-Type tottered, dropped Pleo's still fidgeting sack onto the dock, and then tumbled off the side into the water before also floating back up to the surface. The creature groaned in pain as a long, reddish mark, visible even through his pelt, began to form along his head in between his horns. After seeing two of their compatriots so swiftly overpowered, the rest of Lyn's grunts on the dock fell back with yelps and panicked looks, a few of their number turning back to glare and shout invective at the Sceptile… from a safe distance, of course.

"Yeah, I don't think so," Osmund snarled at the Electabuzz that now floated helplessly in the water, before redirecting his glare at the shrinking Pokémon around him. "Not while I outrank you creeps!"

With a flash, the Sceptile tore a small hole into the bag with his claws, as Pleo's voice unmuffled voice rang out once again.

"Lemme go! Lemme go! Nida! Crom! H-Help!"

Back at the end of the docks, Team Traveler desperately tried to make their way to Pleo. Although they could feel sensation begin to return to their limbs, a sign that the effects of the electrified Surf were beginning to wear off, they still could not manage more than to feebly inch along the wooden planks of the docks. The four breathed a sigh of relief after they saw Osmund approach the still-crying and jostling sack, patting it to try and soothe the trapped bird inside.

"Hang in there, Protector! It's alright now!" Osmund reassured.

The Sceptile grabbed the bag, raised the mouth slightly to ensure there would be a gap between Pleo and the top, and with one smooth motion, cut open the mouth of the sack. The canvas flopped out along the dock and left Pleo stumbling about, still shivering from his ordeal and the effects of his body's paralysis as he slowly picked himself up back to his feet. Hatteras shook his head to try and make sense of everything that had just happened, then turned to the Samurott behind him, sparking with indignance.

"Lyn, I want an explanation. Now- Baah!"

Before the Ampharos could finish his statement, he found himself stumbling back after a bumrushing tackle from the Samurott.

"Out of my way!"

The Ampharos fell backwards and fell off the dock into the harbor's water with a startled bleat and a loud splash. As Team Traveler continued to look on from the end of the dock, they saw that much to their horror, Lyn was charging down the dock. Directly towards Pleo.

"Pleo, fly away!" Nida squeaked.

The little bird desperately tried to brace his numbed legs and wings for a leap into the air, only to see a flash of white from the corner of his eye and feel a freezing jet as his feet were suddenly covered in something cold and hard.

"A-Aah!"

Pleo looked down, and saw that his feet and the lower parts of his legs had been stuck to the docks in a clump of ice. He couldn't tell if the ice was really hard or if the sparks from the Electabuzz had just made him very weak, but no matter what he tried, he simply could not pull them free.

"I'm stuck!" he squawked in panic, beating his wings as frantically as his condition allowed. When Pleo turned towards the direction the freezing burst had come from, he saw a hulking blue otter running for him. The creature had fierce eyes, bared teeth, and held a blade flat to his paces on the dock with one of his paws. Pleo screwed his eyes shut and curled up, flinching from an expected pounce.

"Not so fast, Lyn!"

There was the sound of a loud cry, and of a large Pokémon tumbling across wood. When Pleo opened his eyes, he saw Osmund in the middle of the dock, blades drawn, staring down a livid and wild-eyed Samurott with a red scrape along his chest under his left shoulder.

"I don't care what that scarf of yours means!" the Sceptile growled. "You're not sailing off with this island's Protector if I have anything to say about it!"

"Grr… You should pray that you live to see a court-martial, Osmund!" Lyn bellowed. The Samurott then drew his other blade with a loud scrape and tore forwards at the Sceptile with blades drawn.

The Sceptile weaved out of the way, digging his claws into the hull of the ship and clambering along the wall before dropping back down to slash at his opponent from behind, making the balance-disrupted Samurott stumble forward.

"Is that the best you can do?!" Osmund taunted. "You really don't know when you're in over your head, don't you-?"

Before he could finish, Osmund saw Lyn whirl around abruptly. The Sceptile braced his blades, anticipating a charge, only to see to his dismay that Lyn stayed firmly in place- and spat out a freezing beam which froze his feet to the docks, much as he had done to Pleo a few moments earlier.

"Gah!"

"You're just forgetting one thing, Osmund," the Samurott sneered. "I wasn't given this rank from some friend in a high place. I earned it by grinding wannabes like you into the dirt!"

Lyn then leapt into the harbor as Osmund desperately tried to cut himself free. Before the Grass-Type could break free of the snare, the Samurott burst up from the water behind Osmund and slashed the Sceptile along his back, the force of the blow tearing his feet from their icy bindings and hurling him along the docks onto his side. As the Sceptile righted himself and attempted to stumble up, a searing pain shot through his body. Lyn had caught him with a stab in his stomach, causing the poor reptile to cry out and fall to his knees, much to the shock of everyone watching, including Team Traveler.

"Osmund!" Nida shouted.

"No!" cried Crom.

Elty flinched at the sight of the Samurott's assault, his words failing him save for a stunned whine.

"B-Bogowie…"

"Come on, get it together, quick! He's almost upon you!" Kiran begged.

As the Sceptile's strength ebbed away, the deck hands around them lost their wariness of the Captain of Tromba's guards. Jets of water and flying missiles came at the Sceptile from every direction as he crumpled up onto the dock and tried to curl up to deflect the blows. Lyn, still smarting from the indignity the insubordinate gecko had forced upon him, bellowed out and bade his grunts to fall back.

The pleasure of doing in the traitor would be his.

Osmund was now defenseless and covered in bruises and ugly reddish scrapes. With what little strength remained in his body, the tree lizard struggled to raise himself off the planks of the dock. The Samurott threw an arm back and entered a falling chop at the Sceptile's neck- even if it wouldn't cleave it like a Substitute's, it would presumably do enough to his neck bones to make a court-martial moot.

Suddenly, a loud electrical crack reverberated, and yelps rang out on the docks. A number of the deck hands who had harried Osmund hit the deck cold, as others uneasily stumbled back up to their feet as static continued to dance on their bodies. The burst had even sent the Lyn tumbling back mid-swing along the docks away from Pleo. The great otter panted heavily as electricity continued to crackle on his hide, glaring at the culprit at the end of the docks, as the Lugia continued to desperately try and free himself from the ice about his feet. A sopping, leering Ampharos had butted in between him and Osmund, the Sceptile clutching his wounded stomach and trying his hardest to get back onto his feet.

"Learn some respect for your elders!" the Ampharos bleated angrily at the Samurott. The mustelid growled and eased himself back to his feet, deck hands who were still well enough to fight following suit as faces from the ship and the skies and water around it prepared to join as well.

"Okay, now!"

Thwam

Only for a loud crash, a yelp, and the sound of one of the gangplanks slipping and falling into the water to ring out from further down the dock. All eyes turned to see a red and white blur of feathers leaping to her feet from atop a sprawled-out Excadrill groaning on the docks. Everyone's eyes widened as they realized... this was-!

"Mosca?!"

A nearby lavender-scarved Roselia whirled around to retaliate against the bird, spikes poking from her petals ready to be launched out, only to freeze out of petrified terror as she saw a Tropius rapidly approaching.

"Yeah, we don't suffer bad apples here well!" Mildrew shouted as he promptly ran down the hapless Grass-Type against the dock, stopping by just long enough for Mosca to hop onto his back and leap back up into the air.

Wait, were these-?!

"The cavalry's here, kids!" Mosca squawked.

A brilliant, streaking multi-colored beam and icy flechettes rained out against the side of the ship as the Tropius departed, catching an unfortunate Dusclops and Crawdaunt by surprise as they tumbled in the harbor's water. One of the flechettes chanced to catch Lyn in his shoulder, and made him whirl around towards the dock opposite his ship.

At the other dock, there was a Froslass (the children at the Day Care must have done a better job at keeping her helper in line than anyone expected), a Porygon, a Nidorino, and a Nidorina. All of them leering at the lavender-sailed ship and poised for further attacks.

"You'd best swim back to where you came from, bub!" Teja growled, the Nidorino fanning out his spikes.

"Or don't!" Marley's voice called out, the Nidorina licking her paw as she leered all the while at the Samurott. "I could use some new trophies tonight!"

A volley of spikes from the two soon followed, sending what few Pokémon were still conscious among Lyn's lackeys on the dock swimming, flying, and running for cover behind under the dock and back on the ship behind a hastily-conjured patchwork of barriers of light.

"And don't think that I just brought reinforcements from land either!" the Hawlucha cried out, before she motioned out to sea, revealing a large number of the residents of Tromba's harbor, disgruntled and leering at the Pokémon on and about Lyn's ship. Nervous looks and chatter went about some of the Company Pokémon as Lyn gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on his seamitars. This wasn't the orderly visit he had planned at all.

"Heh, just in time, too," Kiran chirped, as he beat his wings. Wait a minute- he beat his wings! They were fully moving again! This meant...

"Ah! I think I can move again!" Nida cried out, as she paced forward, uneasily, but no longer inching forward as she had earlier, her teammates following her lead one after the other and easing into battle postures.

"Come on, we can do this!"

With their mobility back and reinforcements having joined them, the crowd returned to their tense and aggressive stances. The Pokémon in the huddled masses braced themselves to snatch their Protector from a wounded, if still-powerful enemy.

"Heh... How do you like those odds now, Lyn?" Osmund said. The Sceptile, despite still being too weak to get back up onto his feet, couldn't hide a sense of satisfaction from his weary face.

"Rrgh… Do you honestly all think that you can win this?" Lyn fumed, as he pinned Pleo to the ground with a squawk under a forepaw. "That getting one up on me would suddenly be the end of things?"

"You sure talk tough for a cornered sea rat," Osmund sneered, when some voices rang out from the harbor.

"Eat some brine, you Company scum!" the chorus went, as jets of water and waves flew about at the stern of Lyn's ship. Yes, this was finally Tromba's moment of triumph over the Company…

or at least so everyone thought, until Lyn's bellowing voice rang out:

"Get those miserable fish away from my ship and secure the perimeter!"

Suddenly, the sea Pokémon that accompanied Lyn's ship massed together and sent a massive wave crashing down the harbor, draining the water along the docks enough to strand the ships in the exposed sand for a moment. A torrent of shrieks and cries followed as the wave swept up the locals who lived in the water.

Upon subsiding, the harbor was littered with netting, formerly attached to boats in the harbor and the seabed beneath to provide places for sea Pokémon to rest at night. Along with the nets was a sorry-looking mass of entangled, dazed, groaning, and unconscious Pokémon in the water, as the other sea Pokémon scattered and swam away in a panic before Lyn's cronies could do anything more to them.

BLAM!

Everyone's attention was drawn up to a flurry of colorful, round spheres tearing a series of holes into a tent in the main square.

As all the Pokémon in the crowd turned their stunned attention back to the docks, they became acutely aware that the barriers around it were now neat and orderly as opposed to the haphazard collection it was moments ago. On top of that, all eyes associated with Lyn's ship, whether on the ship, or freshly clambered off of it onto the dock, or in the air, or in the water… all were now focused on the town, along with a number of wooden tubes on rollers. One of them was aimed squarely at Hatteras and Osmund, another was aimed at the Pokémon on the other dock. Worst of all, the six others were trained on the crowd and the rest of Bluewhorl's harbor, including a tube still smoking from a spent Blast Seed targeting the damaged shop.

Every last Pokémon with the Company's scarves was now poised to strike and obliterate the surrounding portions of town. The abrupt reversal made Team Traveler freeze in their tracks, their stomachs growing knotted from the realization that they and everyone in town near the docks were at the mercy of these dangerous beasts. Some startled cries rang out in the crowd and a few more timid Pokémon turned and fled entirely, as Lyn dug his heels in and growled at a now-shaken looking Hatteras.

"You. Did you think that if you somehow pull through right now with a boatload of casualties, it will be the end of things? Do you think that would spare you from the Board getting wind of things and sending others to come to finish the job? The job that some of us have been waiting years to finish thanks to that indecisive fat lump Darzin?" the Samurott spat before he turned back to the crowd.

"Who do you think it is that's been keeping your island from being turned into a den for pirates, huh?! Some little bird?!" he bellowed. "No! It's muscle like mine! The muscle that's gonna flatten your rebellious little hamlet right here and now if you keep this nonsense up!"

"This isn't help!" Pleo angrily squawked from under Lyn's paw. When the Samurott looked down, he saw the Lugia craning his neck up at the otter, his eyes livid and momentarily forgetting all of the danger he was in.

"This is you being a bully just like those pirates!" he cried as a glowing ball at the back of his throat. "Get out!"

Pleo spat the ball into the face of the Samurott, causing the creature to recoil and let go of the bird for a moment. There was a brief moment of silence, which gave the young Lugia hope that perhaps he had knocked the mean Samurott clear over the horizon... which was promptly squashed along with his fleeting, angry resistance after he saw a blade abruptly shoved in front of his beak.

"Don't make things any worse for everyone than you already have today," Lyn growled.

The Samurott's words struck the young Lugia like a bag full of Gravelerocks. Ander and his family said the other day that since he came down from the cave, that all he had done to Tromba was to bring it trouble… and now, here he was, in a situation where every move he made to try and stay on the island genuinely seemed to only make things worse for the Pokémon that lived here.

"I've- I've been making things worse for everyone?" Pleo whimpered.

"You're a 'Protector' aren't you?" Lyn growled, glaring at the white bird. "So protect these Pokémon from their own stupidity!"

Pleo looked down uneasily at the docks. Could- Could Ander really have been right? Could this bully in front of him be right, too? As his teammates saw Pleo hesitate and a blank, stunned expression spread over his face, they called out, desperately hoping that Pleo wouldn't give in.

"Pleo!" Crom cried out.

"Don't listen to him!" Nida begged.

"None of this is your fault, pollito!" Kiran squawked.

"I- I never meant to make things-" Pleo began, only to have his chance to decide for himself torn away. With a swift swat, the Samurott abruptly knocked Pleo's head to the docks with the flat of one of his blades, the blow sprawling the little bird out cold against the planks.

"Pleo!" Nida cried.

"Take him and the wounded aboard my ship," Lyn growled to his still-conscious subordinates nearby. A few of the Pokémon dragged their fallen counterparts groaning and spluttering off the docks and out of the water back up the gangplank. Others went about to inspect dents and damage in the hull from Mosca's intercession.

All the while, the Pokémon onboard Lyn's ship stood prepared to lob volleys of attacks strong enough to break any barriers thrown up by Bluewhorl's residents and the Pokémon behind the wooden tubes readied them to fire at a moment's notice. A Slugma sidled up against and melted away the ice holding Pleo's unconscious body in place before the Protector too was carried off, in front of a watching town.

"He's hurt and in need of medical care along with the deck hands you've been so inhospitable to," Lyn said to the Ampharos, his voice filled with forced congeniality. "And you have your own miscreants to patch up."

The Samurott shoved Osmund to the ground at Hatteras' feet, the lizard wincing and glaring back at Lyn all the while.

"Why, we'll even throw in a gesture of goodwill and load our own cargo today! So get off the docks and let us resupply like loyal subjects, and we'll all pretend this blatant treason didn't happen," the Water-Type growled. "Or we can settle this by fighting it out until the last hut and Pokémon standing in this hamlet. Your choice."

All about the gathering, defeated looks washed over the faces of Bluewhorl's residents as their hopes of wrestling Pleo free crashed to the ground. A few of the Pokémon who were younger or otherwise more dutiful visitors to the shrine up the hill broke down in tears. In spite of all of this, Hatteras somehow seemed to retain some uneasy shred of composure and determination.

"We… We can't really say 'no' to letting Pleo get healed... And I guess we can't have Pleo right this moment," the Ampharos begrudgingly answered.

"Good, nice to see that you've got a reasonable head on your shoulders… Hatteras," the Samurott said, giving a smug smirk at the elderly sheep before turning back to the amassed crowd.

"You heard your mayor! Scram! These docks belong to me and my subordinates until we push off!"

As the Company Pokémon on the docks began to fan out on the docks, the crowd rapidly thinned out as its members darted away from the docks. Even Mosca and her on-land reinforcements retreated into the interior of the town after it became apparent there were no moves left to make from their position. The sea Pokémon from the harbor timidly came back to help the wounded in the water swim away to receive care on the beach next to the Guild. Hatteras helped Osmund totter down the dock and towards help in town in spite of his wounds, the latter occasionally receiving a kick or spittle from a weaker member of Lyn's crew that sensed a chance to ingratiate themselves with their leader at the rebel's expense. Team Traveler also fell back, heading with downcast spirits up a path away from the docks, casting longing glances at it all the while.

"Kiran! Wh-What do we do now?!" Crom cried, the poor dragon visibly misty-eyed from having Pleo snatched away from his claws.

"Yeah, your Guildmaster kinda just gave up the prize bird there," Elty murmured, his ears held low.

"We had him!" Nida squeaked. "We're really just letting Lyn steal Pleo like that?!"

"Psst! Kiran!" a voice whispered from an alley.

When the team turned down the alley, they saw it was none other than…

"Eh?! Mosca?!" the Swellow squawked.

"Stop by the Guild's warehouse, it's urgent," she insisted.

"H-Huh?!" Crom asked. "B-But Pleo! He's-!"

"Hatteras said 'I guess we can't have Pleo right this moment' for a reason, you know! We're not completely out of moves yet!" the Hawlucha whispered back, returning a faint glimmer of hope to the eyes of Team Traveler's members. There still might be a way to get Pleo back!

"Right! We'll be there!" Kiran answered. The Swellow took flight and led the team in a rush for the guild hall.


Crom, Nida, and Elty dashed all the way back, hot on the heels of their swift-winged team leader. They ran past the message board and through the main pavilion, where they saw a Luxio ducking down a path. After a moment's pause, they hurried along after the Electric-Type to the direction of a warehouse- or more accurately an oversized shed. The structure was a dingy, lonely building that laid at the periphery of the guild's grounds. Normally, it was a space to store things that didn't have an immediate use for most of the year, but today, it would host the most pivotal town meeting in living memory. Fighting fatigue and, in Nida and Crom's case, wounds from their encounter on the docks, the four hurried all the way up to the wooden structure's entrance…

"Hold it!"

Where they were stopped by a stern-looking Primape, who quickly pointed at the three younger Pokémon in the group.

"Not you three, just Kiran."

Nida and Crom's jaws dropped. Hatteras was going to hold possibly the most important guild meeting of their lives… and they weren't going to be allowed to go to it?

"Huh?! But we're on the same team!" Nida protested.

"Yeah, we wanna help, too!" Crom cried out, trying his hardest to find a way to slip past the Fighting-Type.

"Yeah, well 'loose lips sink ships'. And this is a very delicate ship this town is on right now," the ape answered, giving a serious leer at Team Traveler's leader. The Swellow hesitated for an uneasy moment, and then turned to his companions.

"It is probably for the best if I handled this alone, kids," Kiran said, which immediately lowered the team's spirits.

"But Kiran-!"

"If whatever Hatteras comes up with has an opening for you to help out, I'll get you in the action first thing," the Swellow chirped, giving a pat to the Nidoran and Druddigon's head before he ducked into the warehouse.

"No eavesdropping either. We've gotta make sure any snooping grunts don't get suspicious!" the Primape admonished.

Nida and Crom glumly turned away and began to walk away from the shed… Until they saw Elty a little ways up the path lazily scratching at his neck with a hind paw.

"Were you just scratching yourself all this time?" Nida asked, her ears folding back and her eyes screwing shut out of frustration.

"What? You should've known you weren't getting in after that Pokémon's second sentence!"

"Elty, just… Don't sit there like that," Crom growled, covering his face with a claw.

The Growlithe shrugged and obliged and, after the Nidoran and Druddigon passed him, trotted off along behind them. Eventually, the three found a set of bushes by a path that still afforded a view of the mess hall and sank in. The brush was reasonably effective at hiding Nida and Elty. Crom on the other hand...

"Uhm… I think this is the best I can fit in."

Well, it probably should have come as no surprise to anyone that the bush would now have a Druddigon's head, wings, and tail poking out from it.

"So I guess we wait now?" the Druddigon asked.

"Well, my Community Service term is kinda sitting on a boat in the harbor right now," Elty replied. "So I'm kinda indifferent here."

The three sat and waited, the only company to the young Pokémon being the sound of other guild members rushing past them. Some faint overlapping words that the three couldn't pick out even with their relatively strong hearing burbled from the direction of the hut. Every second passed like a drip of water, faintly plinking in the minds of the Pokémon… and eventually, it got too much for the Nidoran in the group.

"Ugh... Why are we just standing here?!" she huffed. "Pleo's down on Lyn's ship right now!"

Crom warily looked about in thought. He peered at the warehouse, and then at the docks, before turning back. He paused for a long moment, and then suddenly spoke up.

"Actually, I think you might be onto something, Nida," he murmured to himself. "I mean, it's not much... And I don't think it would mess up any of Hatteras' plans if it didn't work... but we still have a chance to get him while he's in port!"

"Wait… we do?" the Nidoran asked warily.

"Um… Yeah, 'fighting battles an entire town couldn't win' is kinda a non-starter there, you know," Elty grumbled, narrowing his eyes at the Druddigon as the Dragon-Type shuffled out of the bushes.

"Think about how they were going to get Pleo aboard," he explained. "They were going to sneak him in with the cargo! Who's to say we can't do the same?"

"And if we got onboard and snuck him into something they were gonna throw out during resupplying," Nida said to herself as she hopped out of the bushes, her eyes suddenly widening from an abrupt realization. "We'd get him out of there and have time to hunker down before they came back!"

"Then come on!" Crom cried. "Let's hurry up and-!"

"That's all fine and dandy for you," Elty replied as he turned around and poked his head out the bush at his two er… teammates? "But I don't see why I should care."

"What?!" Crom growled. "How do you figure that?!"

"Because this plan's insane? And besides, 'no Pleo' means 'no more Community Service' for me," the Growlithe scoffed, turning his head to the side.

"Listen, you fat jerk," Nida huffed as she fanned out her barbs and walked forward, pressing their tips against the Growlithe's hide. "If Pleo doesn't get back to the Guild Hall safely by the end of the day, I will personally volunteer you for babysitting at Hariti's to make up for it!"

"And I'll support her for you sitting on your butt when we had the chance to do something!" Crom added as he stooped down to glare at the Growlithe.

"So what's it gonna be?" Nida asked, poking the Fire-Type a bit more forcefully with her barbs. The Growlithe blinked and looked at the irked Nidoran and Druddigon uneasily. After letting visions of getting chased around by children and rowdy, poisonous Nidoran kits like the poor Quilava at the Day Care flash through his mind, the little dog growled and begrudgingly resigned himself to the fact that he would be better off playing along.

"Urgh, psiakrew… For young Pokémon, this guild of yours sure teaches you to be tough at bargaining."

"Is that a 'yes'?" Nida pressed.

"Fine," Elty grumbled, rolling his eyes. "But this is still a bad idea!"

"Great to hear you're on the same page, now let's hurry!" she cried, turning and bolting down the path. Crom and Elty quickly followed after the little blue spike ball.

It was a long shot, to be sure, but with the fate of Tromba's Protector hanging in the balance, they couldn't just give him up without trying to do something about it! They had to do something!

For their families.

For Bluewhorl.

For Tromba.

For their friend.


Chapter Text

Perhaps the sense of urgency made everyone more fleetfooted, or perhaps the lack of other Pokémon along the path after Lyn and his underlings had intimidated Bluewhorl into submission had allowed the team to keep a faster pace, but the trip from the Guild to the harbor went by faster that day. Nida, Crom and Elty dutifully kept their distance from the perimeter that the Company had set up around the docks, spying carefully down the town's paths and in between structures for any sign of an unmonitored approach.

Eventually, the group got their break after Crom spotted a Dusclops with a hastily-applied bandage stained with Oran juice and a Heracross walking away from a small cluster of crude wooden crates down an alley.

"I get why we didn't have the peasants load the cargo, but why do we have to handle these crates?! We have teleporters on the crew!" the beetle chittered as the pair slipped past the end of the alleyway. "Wouldn't them blipping things into the hull make this go by faster? Pokémon like them can teleport teams out of Mystery Dungeons just fine!"

"That's 'cause they have those teams' extra mindpower to borrow for that, and even with the help, it still takes the wind out of them and eats into their accuracy," the Dusclops scoffed as the pair slipped out of Team Traveller's view. "If it was that easy to get aboard the ship like that without an accident, don't you think we'd have just blipped that Wingull aboard earlier?"

As the pair's chatter faded into the distance, the team quietly crept down the alleyway towards the boxes, which were each about as tall as Crom.

"So what's your plan?" Elty asked.

"Look for open crates in that bunch there!" Nida cried. "If we get in one, we'll get a shot at-"

"Someone's coming!" Crom whispered hastily after sniffing at the air. The three Pokémon froze in their tracks as they heard footsteps approach the end of the path, and saw a Krokorok pass the alleyway carrying a crate with stains from crushed berries around its lid.

"Lousy hicks, some 'provisions' these are!"

"Meep," Elty gulped.

The creature set down the crate with a rough thud and once again passed the mouth of the alley, pausing for a brief, heartstopping moment to scratch his backside. As the Dark-Type lingered on in front of them, the party of Pokémon froze. Their breaths became shallow and slow, their hearts raced, and their heads began to feel faint as they found themselves devoid of strength or will to continue forward. After what seemed like an eternity, the Krokorok continued on his way, his grumbling about the local residents eventually fading with his footsteps, leaving the team to exhale loudly.

"Phew, that was-" Crom began, only to abruptly stop his train of thought as his snout caught a whiff of a vile odor that lingered in the air.

"Er… Something smells rank," Crom gagged as he covered his snout with a claw.

The smell brought to mind the stone-lined pits that the town maintained on the fringes of town, hidden from view by tall partitions with herbs planted about them to block the odor. Places where Bluewhorl's residents could rid themselves of muck and grime that had no further use other than to be periodically burned to ashes and returned to the earth. Except, this was not the outskirts of town, and the smell was here, making Nida instantly jump to conclusions about its source.

"Ugh, Elty!" Nida complained, as she too attempted to block the stench from her nose.

"That wasn't me!" the Growlithe huffed back angrily. "The smell's stronger in your direction!"

"No wait, he's right!" Crom cried, suddenly gesturing down the alley. "Look!"

Nida and Elty poked their heads out of the alley and looked towards the crate that the Krokorok had set down. There were some stains around its lip, most likely from being forced shut with an overflow of berries in the past. The lid had come loose, revealing that its contents were a mix of fruits, with a number of green, spiky fruits clustered towards the top.

"Durin Berries?" Nida whispered.

"Well, we do grow them on this island," Crom whispered back. "And they do taste good in spite of the awful smell if you prepare them right, so..."

"Isn't that why you'd pack them at the bottom of the crate with some herbs to block the smell and put the rest of the berries on top?" Elty grumbled. "And I thought they were bitter and sour fruits that only old Pokémon liked!"

Perhaps that was normally the case, but Company shakedowns were hardly anything the town wished to consider normal, and there were only so many ways for most residents to air their displeasure without incurring the wrath of the lavender-scarved Pokémon. More importantly than that, it occurred to Nida that if the fruit's smell was overpowering from that distance…

Who on the ship would be able to sniff them out after sneaking aboard?

"Enough, I think that we've got our cover," Nida interrupted. "Come on!"

The three quickly darted out from the alley and up to the boxes. Crom pushed back the lid to the crate full of berries, where there was a gap at the top, just big enough for the two smaller Pokémon to fit in. Nida hopped up onto the reeking crate, then paused a moment before she shook her head and jumped in, perching among the fruit. Crom dropped a flailing and protesting Growlithe alongside her. When it came time for the Druddigon to join, though…

"Er… I don't think you're going to fit here," Elty said, flattening his ears as he looked at the remaining space, and then back at the Druddigon. The ruddy lizard looked about anxiously, trying to think of some way he too could fit into the box with his compatriots.

"Uhm… Well… What about…?"

The Druddigon trailed off as his eyes searched about, until he noticed a worn, empty crate with a crack on one of its sides plugged with wadded-up paper. The sorry container was tilted over on an undamaged side, with its lid lying detached next to a tangle of sea-drenched rope. As soon as he saw the crate, an idea dawned on the young dragon...

"Aha, this one's empty!" he exclaimed. Crom hastily scurried over, righted the box, snatched up the lid, and pushed the wooden container over to Nida and Elty's crate. "Move some of the Durin berries over to cover me! They'll think that it's just a second batch of berries!"

"Right!" the Nidoran answered. Crom clambered into the cracked crate and, after folding his wings back and fidgeting some, was able to fit snugly into his wooden box. Nida and Elty then quickly kicked up and threw some of the pungent berries around them onto Crom, forming a thin layer over the dragon who poked his head and arms out of the crate.

Crom then slid the lid to Nida and Elty's crate over its opening. After a few fumbling attempts and crushing a couple berries in his crate, he did likewise with his own, leaving the three to sit there in the darkness, with only the stench of fresh Durin Berries to keep them company.

"Well, I guess always putting off that bath wasn't such a bad id-," Elty began, only to be met with a sharp kick and a hiss from his Nidoran fellow-traveler.

"Elty, shush!"

Nida's insistence for quiet was well-timed, as shortly after her admonishment, the sound of footsteps and chatter drew nearer and nearer to the crates- until it was quite literally on top of Nida and Elty.

Nida's heart skipped a beat when she felt the crate move, and after a tense moment where she expected the lid to get ripped open at a second's notice, she felt the crate rise off the ground. The crate then rocked back and forth as a voice prattled on, which she supposed to belong to the Pokémon moving the box. As the carrier's paces continued, Nida began to breathe again. Each step forward was one step closer to Pleo, and one step closer to making this whole mess right again.


On Lyn's ship, Pokémon in lavender scarves milled to and fro, moving crates and barrels from the docks up gangplanks and onto the deck. From there, they were piled in the center, where other Pokémon would grab them and then hoist them below the deck with some netting attached to a crude wooden pulley, hewn by patient claws for impatient sea hands.

The Krokorok Team Traveller narrowly eluded earlier picked up a crate with old berry juice stains around its lip. The creature grumbled a little under his breath about it being a touch heavier than usual, but shrugged and put the crate down on the netting to be hoisted down next, ignorant of the racing heartbeats inside that the wood muffled. A Graveler tugged at the rope and began to raise the crate when a commotion suddenly broke out from behind.

"Gyah!"

One of the deckhands, a Grumpig, had tripped while struggling with a particularly heavy crate with a crack clumsily caulked with wadded paper. Such slip-ups were to be expected from time to time, if more likely to attract derision rather than sympathy from one's peers on a crew like Lyn's. What made this slip-up different was...

"Ouch!"

A young, but rough cry that rang out from inside the crate. Oblivious to the young and unseen hearts among them sinking like stones at sea, all nearby Company eyes looked around, before settling on an askew crate in the middle of the boat's deck.

"Did that crate just yelp?" a Crawdaunt asked, the creature moving slightly to avoid disturbing some bindings over a tender spot on his thorax from the earlier battle.

"Open it up," a Weavile growled, flashing his claws at the cracked box.

The Grumpig got up, brushed himself off, flipped the crate, and moved a paw to the side of the lid. With one swift movement, the Grumpig flung the lid open and caused a dazed, young Druddigon to tumble out along with a few stray berries...

Into a sea of glaring eyes.

"Um… H-Hi?" Crom stammered, as he tried to backpedal back into the crate, only to be drug out and shoved onto the deck.

"And just what do you think you're doing here, brat?" the Weavile snarled, as his compatriots quickly joined in and began to ring the young intruder. The simmering chorus of hostility was suddenly pierced by Lyn's voice calling out from the stern.

"Isn't it obvious?" the Samurott asked, the Water-Type leaping over a railing near the helm and coming to a stop on the deck. The captain hung towards the back of the crowd, glaring over the heads of his subordinates into Crom's increasingly wide and intimidated eyes. "He wants his bird back like the rest of the peasants here."

The Druddigon trembled a little at the sight of all of the cruel gazes around him, before he dug his claws into the wood. Mustering the bravest face he could throw together, he growled back at the Samurott who so callously tormented his town.

"Th-That's right! Pleo's not yours, so give him back! Right no-OW!"

Only to be cut off by a kick to his stomach from one of the lackeys, and then a punch. After quickly discovering that the Druddigon had a rough hide, another lackey threw a Gravelerock, a stream of electricity, another blow, and another after that. Crom's pained and frightened cries rang out across the deck in between sickening thuds as the Pokémon that ringed him bore down on him. At this point, the young Nidoran in the juice-stained crate could take it no longer. If the crate were not there to hide and muffle her, they could have seen beads of poison dribbling off Nida's raised barbs, a wide-eyed look of stupefied shock, and heard her cry out in horror.

"Cro-!"

"S-Shh!" a Growlithe's quieter, shaken voice scolded, muzzling the Nidoran by throwing a paw over her mouth. "You'll give us away!"

Crom's cries grew weaker and weaker; by the time that Lyn motioned for the Pokémon attacking him to leave him be, all that was left of the once-defiant intruder was an unconscious blue-and-red lump covered in deep bruises and scrapes, drawing shallow breaths and groaning weakly from time to time.

"Hrmph. Now then, since that waste of my time's over... throw him off my ship and back where he belongs," Lyn growled, before he turned for the stairs back up to his perch at the helm.

The Krokorok dumped out the stray berries from the crate before the Grumpig shoved the unconscious dragon back into the empty crate and lifted it over his head.

"And take your lousy crate with you, too!"

He steadied his feet and with an overhead hurl, sent the crate flying towards the main square by the docks. Lyn watched the crate sail up before it tumbled back to earth and splintered against the hard ground below, ejecting Crom and sending him rolling up against a wall. The racket made Mirlia poke her head out with her daughter from their damaged Juice Bar. The sight of Crom slumped over in the square drew a startled cry from the two, and the elder Pokémon quickly rushed out to scoop up the wounded dragon. As she spirited him back into her establishment, Lyn turned back to his crew.

"Search the cargo!" he barked. "He probably brought others!"

After the Samurott's command, the deck went abuzz with activity. Deckhands began to force open the crates that were in the same bunch as the cracked one that held the intruder, rooting through their contents in search of other conspirators. The Graveler began to bring the half-raised crate back down to the deck, as its occupants desperately tried to dig deeper and hide in the mass of berries and fruits… just as a voice called out from above.

"Captain! There's a storm brewing!"

Its owner, a Xatu, swooped down and perched in front of the Samurott, beating her wings excitedly. Meanwhile, the Rock-Type set the crate down on the deck and began to clear away its netting.

"Yes, yes, you told me about the storm earlier today," Lyn grumbled. "It's taking a long route over, you said."

"Um, yeah… I kinda need to revise that forecast," the Psychic-Type said, showing off a little glass flask shaped something like a plum with a neck grafter onto the side filled with colored water and attached to a string with her beak. The boulder-like Pokémon opened the lid to the crate now on the deck, and pulled it away as the bird continued.

"We're already going to be pushing it for beating it to port in Kenobi, Captain. If you want to leave, the time is now."

Everyone on deck paused after hearing the creature's words, including the Graveler, who turned to see that their captain was rather visibly mulling on what to do next.

"We just checked the crates that were next to the one the lizard was in!" a Heracross volunteered. "There's nothing in them! If others snuck in, they'd want to stick close to him to coordinate with each other, right?"

Lyn looked out at the sea, and then at the town ahead of the bow. He then frowned and shook his head before bellowing out to his crew.

"Raise the anchor and lower the sails! We're getting out of here!"

"But we still have crates on the-!" a Dusclops interjected, before Lyn adamantly interrupted.

"I said we're getting out of here!" he growled. "I'm not letting myself get stuck here with a restive and scheming bunch of peasants, waiting for a storm to pass while we have such a big prize to lose!"

The deckhands, knowing better than to challenge their superior over something he had set his mind to, immediately set to work carrying out his orders as an afterthought rang out over the deck.

"And get the rest of those crates below deck before we hit the open water!"

The Graveler, looking back at his opened crate and seeing nothing but berries from a glance, shrugged his shoulders and put the lid back on. He then hoisted the crate up in the netting and sent it below the ship's decks. Once the crate completed its passage down to the orlop deck, a Heatmor grabbed it and slid it into a corner, as the boat began to drift out for the open ocean.


Crom began to stir, feelings of aches and pains all over his body coming to him along with a bitter, herbal taste in his mouth. Little by little, his vision returned to him and became less indistinct, as he saw Mirlia, Minia, and a Sableye peering down at him. When he looked around, he saw that he was lying on a cleared table at Mirlia's Juice Bar, as the rest of the battered establishment came into view.

"Nngh…"

"Easy there, Crom," the elder Kangaskhan said. "You had a bit of a hard knock earlier."

"Yeah, those Company jerks threw you from their ship!" her daughter added.

"Gwuh? Where am I?" Crom asked as he gagged on something and spat up something that looked like a chewed-up root onto the floor, much to the displeasure of the Sableye.

"You're at my place," Mirlia replied. "You were in really rough shape earlier, and it looked like you needed some patching up before you went to the medics' hut."

"Yeah, if you can't make it up there, we'll help you there now!" Minia interjected.

"A-Aah! Forget about them!" Crom shouted, as he woozily clambered off the table and stumbled to his feet. "I need to get back to the ship!"

"Eh?! You're nuts!" the purple imp exclaimed. "You want to pick another fight with them?!"

"Um, Crom… I know that the Protector means a lot to this town, but that's simply a fight that you and I can't win," the elder barkeep said as she got up and cut the Druddigon's path off, her words growing more reluctant and faltering and her gaze more ground-bound as she went on. "And…"

"Lyn's ship just unmoored from the docks a couple minutes ago," her daughter interrupted, the little Kangaskhan's voice quiet and mournful. Minia's words suddenly threw the young Druddigon into a panic.

"Wh-What?!"

He stumbled to his feet and darted around Mirlia. Although every bone and muscle in his body cried out in protest, the Druddigon bolted for the door, leaving the barkeep to call out after him:

"Cr-Crom?! Wait! You're still hurt!"

Crom reached the path and turned to the harbor where, sure enough, it was as the Kangaskhan had said. Lyn's ship had left the docks, and had already sailed off into the open sea, growing smaller and smaller as Crom began to blink away larger and larger tears.

"N-No…"


Back in the wooden crate that smelt of Durin Berries, things were similarly grim, as Nida and Elty fumbled around in their wooden snare in a panic. The only things keeping their hysterics restrained to hushed whispers were the lingering enemies all about them.

"No! C-Crom!" Nida sobbed, her sniffling little voice filled with frightened anguish.

"Crom?!" the Growlithe barked back indignantly, sorely regretting giving into the little spike ball's paw-twisting earlier. "What about us?! At least he's on land!"

Elty's words made Nida pause, as she began to sniffle a little less and attempt to reassure herself.

"That's- That's right! The town would help him! They'd patch him up!"

"It's nice to hear that you can somehow salvage your plan at a time like this," Elty growled. "But was getting caught part of it, too?!"

"It… It…"

"It's- It's not over yet!" she cried, trying to muster a defiant tone in spite of her fear and sorrow. "We can't just throw our paws up and say 'así es la vida'! We just need to wait until the coast is clear and then we can still find Pleo!"

Yes. They could still find Pleo, and then they would all escape. Back to Tromba. Back to Crom. Back to Kiran. Back to Mami, Papi, and all those little spike balls that suddenly meant more than anything in all the Cradle to her right now. Back to a world where all things would be right and well again. That would be the end of everything!

"... I hope."


Back at the warehouse, the gathering of team heads and other selected Pokémon from around the town continued on. The Ampharos, the metaphorical and literal illuminator of the group, dominated the proceedings as he mulled the next course of action before the gathered townsfolk.

"Guildmaster…" Pitys asked, the voice of Team Sawtooth's Shiftry leader betraying hints of frustration. "Do we have any plans? I mean, 'charging the ship' is kinda out of the question. You saw what happened earlier, we can't just rousingly cheer 'Al abordaje!' out of that!"

"And so's 'having Pataki and the rest of us blip in to the Protector's location,'" a Kadabra from the teleport crew added. "Even if Lyn hasn't thrown his badge away, without backup, we'd get picked off by Lyn's cronies before we had a chance to get out! And with how cramped that ship is, we'd have enough trouble just teleporting ourselves in!"

"Almost!" the Ampharos cheerily answered. "Just need to wrap my head around a few last details…"

"Hatteras, Lyn is leaving at sundown!" Mosca interjected. "At this rate, he'll sail out of the harbor before we do anything!"

"And boss is busy getting patched up right now!" a Mawile in guards' garb added, waving his arms for attention. "It's not like we could have him try and cut up Lyn for us before he gets away!"

"Aha! I've got it!" the Ampharos sparked, his tail bulb suddenly glowing brighter as he excitedly hopped up in front of the surprised crowd.

"We'll have Mincho here stand one of the bluffs overlooking the harbor!" he cried, gesturing at a Wynaut towards the back of the crowd. "And put a mirror next to her! And put another mirror aligned with that mirror pointing at Lyn's ship! And then, Mincho will Mirror Coat a Flash Cannon into those mirrors, reflecting all the way until it burns up Lyn's sails!"

The gathering was left speechless for a few moments, before reluctant and skeptical voices began to air themselves one by one.

"Um…"

"Er… Guildmaster… I'm not sure if I can pull that off…"

"Guildmaster Hatteras... That's seriously what we're going with?"

"I know! Isn't it brilliant?" the Ampharos cheered as he sparked and accidentally set alight a fuse to a round object wrapped in paper. A Seel noticed the burning fuse was near a number of other round objects of the sort and yelped as he quickly shuffled over to pop the sphere onto his head and headbutt it through a canvas partition that served as a window shade.

A few seconds later, everyone flinched and hit the ground as a loud blast rang out. After stumbling back up to the sound of a few cries from outside, a few Pokémon from the group ran to the now shade-less window to see that the sphere had left scorch marks on the ground and the side of the warehouse, along with smoldering fires that some of the guild's Water-Types were hastily putting out.

"… Or, to clean out the stash of supplies from the last New Year's festival, we'll just wait for him to reach the edge of the harbor from those same bluffs and blow some holes in his hull withthese!" the Ampharos exclaimed as he picked up one of the other spheres with fuses.

"We're going to blow up his ship with a bunch of Blast Seeds and berry powder glued together?" the Kadabra asked.

"Ah-ah-ah! A bunch of firework shells!" Hatteras corrected.

"Same difference, but that works!" the Psychic-Type replied.

"Yeah! Surely losing a ship will keep Lyn's cronies busy just staying above water!" a Luxio added. "All the better to keep them from wrecking the town!"

"See, now that sounds like a more reasonable plan!" Mincho cheered.

"Mmm hmm, it'll certainly put some rain on his parade!" Pitys exclaimed.

"With fire, too!" the Mawile exclaimed only to stop and bite his tongue, frowning after the Steel-Type noticed something seemed amiss. "But… I feel like we're missing something still, though…"

"Now that you mention it," Kiran murmured as he ruffled his feathers out of disquiet. "Wouldn't this be about the time that Scout normally said something sarcastic?"

An awkward pause filled the room before Mosca finally cleared her throat.

"Oh, Scout's not in town," the Hawlucha said. "He left on that ship that set out for Boisocéan last night."

"Oh. Yes. Poor us. How will we ever survive without Scout?" Pitys said, rolling her eyes.

"Hrm, we'll have to manage nonetheless," Hatteras said to himself before he cleared his throat and turned back to the rest of the gathering. "But anyways! Are we ready to put this show on the road?!"

"YEAH!"

"Are we ready to knock Lyn down a peg?!" the Ampharos asked, and was once again met with a rousing cheer from the gathered Pokémon.

"YEAH!"

"Are we ready to take our Protector back-?!"

That time, there was no cheer, but the sound of the Primape at the door crying out startledly.

"E-Eh?! Wait, don't come in here! You're hurt! Go see the-!"

And the sound of Crom running into the meeting bawling loudly.

"K-Kiran!"

The young Druddigon was a mess. Mirlia and her daughter ran in a hurry through the door after Crom and came to an uneasy stop at the edge of the stunned gathering… Had- Had he come all the way up here in his wretched state? There were scrapes and deep bruises all over Crom's body that were still untreated, and his face was drenched in tears that were still dribbling down his snout.

"Crom?!" Kiran squawked out of shock, as he rushed over to his battered teammate. "What happened?!"

"Th-They took everyone else!" the Druddigon cried. As the creature continued to sob, his voice broke in between words that came out as something that sounded almost like a pitiful howl.

"Crom! Calm down! Calm down!" Kiran desperately tried to reassure his distraught teammate, as speculation abounded around the gathered Pokémon as to what might have happened to Crom, and what Gwenith was going to do to the unfortunate saps who did this to her child when she got her claws on them.

"What's going on here?!" Hatteras exclaimed.

"W-We were t-trying to get Pleo back, and Lyn, he- he-"

Crom couldn't get any further before he broke down again, crying into Kiran's wing. But there was no need, everyone already pieced it together. The rest of Kiran's team had gotten into big trouble with Lyn, and now needed someone to bail them out. They could take care of that!

"Come on, let's use those fireworks now! The harbor might take a bit more of a beating, but we can still make it work!" the Kadabra exclaimed.

"Yeah, let's stop hi-!" Pitys began, only for her words to die in her throat and the determined mood of the gathering to come to an abrupt crash as they crossed the doorway out of the warehouse. There in the distance, they saw Lyn's ship, now heading for the edge of the horizon out at sea.

"Oh no…" the Mawile muttered.

"Eh?! He left early?!" Mosca cried out in shock. All the while, Kiran's heart began to sink, and the Swellow turned to Hatteras, stammering in panic.

"G-Guildmaster Hatteras, we do have a way of getting them back, yes?"

"Er… Well," the Ampharos struggled, as he racked his mind trying to think of some way to salvage his now-derailed plan for stopping Lyn before he could slip away. "We can have the Pokémon from the harbor catch up with him and chuck them at the ship to blow it up there!"

"Um, Guildmaster Hatteras…?" a Persian asked.

"How are we supposed to do that when half of the harbor's Pokémon tough enough to do that are hurt right now?" an Azumarill from the docks asked as she pointed at a number of wounded Pokémon from the harbor who had lined up along the beach to be treated by the guild's medics. If they could have already been dealt with so severely, what hope did the others in the harbor have of overpowering his sea escorts?

"Well- Uh," Hatteras muttered, desperately trying to think of something, anything else that could still be done to rescue the rest of Team Traveler. "Then we can always have Kiran and our other Flying-Types bring the fireworks over to the ship by air!"

"They'll get picked off by Lyn's fliers and cannons, though!" a Hoothoot cried out. To this, the proud Guildmaster had no answer, but simply stared blankly off ahead.

"Guildmaster Hatteras?" Kiran asked quietly as Crom continued to sniffle into his plumage. "Isn't- Isn't there anything at all we can do?"

"I'm- I'm sorry, Kiran," the Ampharos replied, hanging his head before looking up falteringly. "The only solution left I can think of right now…"

Hatteras trailed off and turned out to the sea, the words finally coming for him to finish his thought.

"Is to pray for a miracle."


If that miracle was somehow waiting in the wings, it was surely not in the same room as Pleo at that moment. When the young Protector woke up from his bump to his head on the docks, he was greeted with a forlorn and unassuring environment. It was a dark, featureless room, devoid of lighting from any source. The only reassurance that the place was even a room at all and not some abyss was the texture of wooden planks underfoot that bobbed and creaked up and down rhythmically.

There was some sort of cloth over his snout, loose enough to allow him to speak, but still snug enough to even keep him from fully yawning, let alone to be able to form and spit up a glowing ball. His feet and wings were held in place by strange, smooth ropes of some sort. The bindings were made of interconnected loops that felt as cold and unyielding as stone no matter how hard he tugged or pecked at them, with no discernible knot to try and undo.

It felt like nowhere on Tromba at all, not even like a place beyond the fog and in the Mystery Dungeon. From everything that Pleo could remember from before he woke up, he reasoned that wherever he was, it had to be the fault of that Samurott. So with nothing else at his disposal for breaking free, Pleo did what little he could think of at that time.

"Let me go! Let me go!"

Namely to shout repeatedly into the darkness and thrash against his bindings, over and over again, until his voice started to become hoarse, his body began to grow sore, and tears of exhaustion welled up. How did this even happen? Why? Why wasn't his power as a Protector, the one that was supposed to have helped the town, there for him now to blow away the darkness all around him?

All of a sudden, a harsh voice called off from the distance, muffled by an unseen barrier.

"Are you still going on about leaving that hamlet?"

The darkness gave way with a creak as a door opened, letting in a little blotch of light from a candlelit jar outside. The light made the room a little more visible: the walls and ceiling were made from rough wood much like the floor, and the loops that connected and tied down Pleo had a dark, grayish-black color to them that reminded the young Protector of Hess' hide and metal armor.

The young Lugia's observations of the room around him were quickly cut off as Lyn entered. Banette and a Toxicroak followed closely behind him, shooting a piercing, scowling glare at the young Lugia all the while.

"Why are you doing this to me?!" Pleo squawked. "Tromba's my home!"

"Because if I bring you to my father, it'll validate me in his eyes and he'll finally accept me for the first time since I was young," the Samurott answered absentmindedly as he fished out one of his blades and began to twirl it in his paws lazily.

"E-Eh?!"

Pleo's startled cry was answered with a scoff as Lyn spun his blade a few more times about his knuckles. The seamitar's twirling suddenly came to an abrupt halt as Lyn grabbed its hilt and addressed the young Protector in a much more serious tone.

"Nah, I'm doing this because you're my ticket to being promoted to an Administrator. Unlike some Pokémon, I don't let emotional sops get in the way of my tasks."

"An 'Admi-what'?" Pleo asked, before he shook his head and hardened a leer at the Samurott. "And I'm a Protector, not a 'ticket'!"

"You still can't figure it out?" Lyn scoffed. "Really now, that island's an awful lot like the clutter around your neck there."

The Samurott then placed his seamitar at the side of Pleo's neck, holding it still as Pleo's eyes widened in frightened shock. Pleo flinched as he felt a swift motion forward and away from his neck.

Thump

Pleo heard something small abruptly drop to the ground. Looking around, he saw that Lyn was still in front of him, but had moved his sword away. Lyn's lackeys were picking up a few objects bundled in cloth off the ground... when it suddenly hit him.

That bundle was his scarf, his badge, and the lucky charm Hatteras made for him!

"Wait! What are you doing?! Those are mine!" Pleo cried.

"Quiet! You won't need those anymore!" the Samurott bellowed, as the Banette suddenly came up beside Pleo and roughly slipped another cloth about his neck. After the Ghost-type finished her claw-work and made some sort of remark about "There, much better now," Pleo looked down, and saw that the creature had replaced his scarf with a lavender one with a violet square in the middle.

"As I was saying," Lyn continued. "They're cute to look at and have around, but they're utterly useless to you and weigh you down. Why should a god, a creature meant to protect Pokémon and their livelihoods, be watching over some nowhere island when there're much bigger problems in our territories we can point you at?"

The ship's captain then looked over his shoulder to the Toxicroak, and spoke nonchalantly.

"Give the King's Rock to Mercury after your shift's done outside, she might find some use from it. As for the rest, it's garbage. Do whatever you want with it."

The pair gave a summary "Aye" and promptly walked out of the door, much to Pleo's indignance.

"No! Give them back!" he shouted, struggling against his strange bonds. "Give them-! A-Aah!"

Pleo's angry cries abruptly gave way to terrified silence as Lyn swung his seamitar at his neck, touching the tip just under his lower beak.

"Tell me, did you ever wonder why your flight feathers were untouched instead of clipped short like some captured pirate? It's because getting too forceful with you would risk trouble with bleeding-hearts like Osmund that might have slipped past screening when I put this crew together," the Samurott growled. "So I'll be nice and explain this to you once."

"You're ours. The Company's asset on the Company's territory. So play along nicely and help me and your future superiors out as we need, and it'll all go well for you," Lyn said as he slipped his blade back into a sheath along his arm, while Pleo continued to tremble. "And if not… well, even a god can have the foolishness whipped out of it and have its priorities set straight."

The Samurott then walked over to the door, and called out back to Pleo.

"Your old life is gone. Dead. Buried at sea. You don't have a prince to come and rescue you and carry you over the horizon, so get over it and move on to your new life as the Protector of the Company's interests."

He slammed the door, the barren room returning back to its inky blackness. The sounds from the room died and an eerie silence lingered for a few moments, punctuated only by the creaking and groaning of the ship as it bobbed on the sea's waves… only to then be joined by a whine and the quiet, despairing sounds of a young Pokémon sobbing.


For what seemed like an eternity, Nida and Elty waited in the berry-juice stained crate in the cargo hold. The pair did everything they could think of to try and ease the passage of time... They treated their wounds with Oran Berries in the crate... Nida nervously shifted Durin Berries to the bottom of the crate to try and keep herself busy and cut the stench down… Elty helped himself to some of the berries and stuffed them in his satchel, mentioning a "two-clawed discount"… It was a monotony that should have been broken by a daring burst out of the crate, except something would always come up.

Many times the Nidoran had been sure no one was around and began to open the crate's lid, only to see some Pokémon in a lavender scarf walk by, or hear one further down the hold, too close to risk them overhearing an escape. Other times, the coast was preoccupied by less dutiful guards, such as a group whiling away time in the middle of the hold playing a game of numbered cards and stones, or two deck hands who smelt strongly of berry juice arguing about how to properly recount the tale of "Butts, the Warrior of Light and Restorer of the Wind".

But at long last, a long lull came, and the Nidoran popped the crate's lid open, seeing that this time, finally, there was not sight, sound, or smell of anyone nearby.

"Psst! Elty!" Nida whispered.

"Eh?" the Growlithe yawned, having dozed off after so many false alarms and a general dearth of things to do in the crate.

"I think the coast is clear! Come on, let's get Pleo and fly out of here!"

"Nida... we're on a boat surrounded by Company grunts. There's strażnicy outside, too!" Elty grumbled. "Even if we find Pleo without getting caught, how do you expect us to get off this boat? There's no junk that's getting offloaded at a dock to hide in!"

"We'll cause a distraction to keep them busy while we fly off, then!" she insisted. "Pleo can carry you while flying around. It's worth a shot to have him try carrying us both, right?"

Elty furrowed his brow and shook his head. Weren't Nidoran supposed to be skittish and quick to flee as ferals? Why did he have to have the luck to get stuck with one that didn't know how to pick her fights?

"Look, I'm sure that you want to help your friend and all, but seriously, focus on staying in one piece here!" he whispered back. "Just ride this out and we'll sneak off during unloading."

"Elty, don't you think they're going to check the cargo when they take it off too?" Nida growled, glaring into the Growlithe's eyes. There was a moment of awkward silence as Elty stared back into the Nidoran's eyes, before he blinked and sighed.

"Point taken. Just don't do anything stupid during this, alright?"

Nida then lifted the lid up, and with a few small kicks, pushed it back along the crate enough to leave a gap big enough to crawl out of...

Whump

And promptly pratfall about three feet onto the floor of the cargo hold below.

"Gih!"

"Oi! What did I just tell you?!" Elty huffed as he hopped out of the box, landing on his feet just ahead of the Nidoran. "Are you trying to get us caught?!"

"Get off my case! I didn't ask to get stuck with you!" Nida hissed as she picked herself up off the floor, fanning her spikes out. "And if Crom were here, I'd partner up with him and leave you back in that box to try and pull your escape on your own!"

The Growlithe turned back to the Nidoran, and the two leered at each other for an uncomfortable moment before the Growlithe spoke up with a vaguely teasing tone.

"You like him, don't you?"

"Shut up!" Nida growled. The Nidoran opened her mouth to begin to tear into the lippy little dog when all of a sudden, the sound of something shifting made the two's fur stand on end.

"Nngh… Your turn, I'm tired of being stuck here at the brig with this bird," a sleepy voice called out.

After a tense silence, the two heard… Snoring? After looking up past the grate which separated the cargo hold from the deck, it became apparent that the moon and the stars were out, and even after a long, cautious wait, Nida couldn't see any of the forms of the flying escorts pass over the grate. Aha, so that would explain why they hadn't heard anything. Most of the ship must've been asleep!

"Wait a minute," Elty murmured. "That voice just said something about watching a bird..."

The Growlithe crept on ahead, and saw that at the end of the hold, a Toxicroak was dozing on a crate by the door muttering in his sleep. And in his claws were a blue scarf and a length of cord.

"Ah!" Nida squeaked. "Those are Pleo's!"

The two snuck over to the frog, and after waiting for the creature to stretch in his sleep, quickly snatched up the purloined effects. Pleo's badge was still just as it was before he was taken… Everything else, not so much. Why, his scarf had been cut on one side, and so had the cord which used to hold the stone ring that Zigzagoon gave him, the King's Rock itself being nowhere to be found. Nida shifted her ears uneasily and looked about the hold.

"Do you think that's-?"

"Do we have any other leads?" Elty grumbled, flattening out his ears.

"We'll have to go with it, then. But how on earth do we find this 'brig'?"

Elty stepped under the grate and stared up, sniffing at the air a moment.

"Brigs are supposed to be places where crews like the Company's keep Pokémon tied down. On ships that have them, they're usually in the steerage, which is always opposite the direction that the wind blows against the sails to make a ship go forward," he murmured to himself as he circled about.

"So then, we need to head that way!" he barked, gesturing with his muzzle at an open door on the opposite end of the hold.

"Right!" Nida answered, as the two Pokémon crept down the darkened cargo bay of the ship. Their friend was so close, and yet so far from them...

But there was no time to get hung up over that, as the Nidoran whispered to herself.

"Please hang in there, Pleo. We're almost there."

Chapter Text

As the ship rocked with the waves at sea, Nida and Elty edged towards the stern in fits and spurts. They'd frequently pause to sniff the air or listen for the sound of footfalls over the creaks of the timbers around them, take a brief look further down the corridors formed by the stacks of crates, and quickly dart down to the next wooden box large enough to hide behind. Their erratic pace was set by the need to avoid detection at all costs; after all, if the Company dealt with stowaways like they did with Crom, there would be no townsfolk to come running to their aid… Or a dock to fall on, for that matter.

As her stomach knotted from stress and the steps under her feet felt light and unsteady, Nida's mind would still wander elsewhere. She thought about the young Protector at the stern... Had the Company hurt him since they took him aboard? If they had roughed him up too much… or put ritual aside and cut his flight feathers, where would any of them turn to? Was he scared? Surely he must be feeling all alone right now… But would she and Elty have anything better to offer him when they found him?

"Look alive!" the Growlithe's voice suddenly rang out, or at least as much as a hushed whisper could.

The Nidoran hopped up, and with a startled cry, whispered back.

"Huh?!"

"Someone's coming!"

She became aware of the smell of Herdier, and the sound of large footsteps coming directly towards their position. Nida froze as her legs wobbled and became unresponsive. Even her barbs seemed to be unable to rise up to face this obvious danger that was coming for her, with no place to hide, and nothing to meaningfully fight back with.

"Stop stalling!" Elty chided. "This way!"

Without thinking, Nida hopped after the voice, and followed it into a narrow gap in between crates. She stumbled in, not daring to breathe as she heard the steps pass directly by her. The blue and brown dog stopped, sniffed the air, and nosed open a crate's lid to check inside. The creature looked about for a moment and then set the lid back down, going on its way. The hound's footsteps grew fainter and fainter until they all but faded over the sound of the creaking timbers… And Nida and Elty's own heartbeats.

"That was way too close," Nida panted. She was sure their scent would have betrayed them, but the blasted Durin Berries she smelt all the while during their passage down the hold must have staved off the Herdier's suspicions. All's well that ended well, she supposed, but there was still something that nagged at Nida's mind...

"Where are we right now?" she asked, just in time to see Elty sniffing at a wooden crate. She too sniffed at the box… It had… straw in it?

The Growlithe paused, before giving a headbutt at the crate.

Tink tink tink

It was the unmistakeable, if muffled sound of something glassy inside. Elty's face lit up, as he suddenly realized...

"We're exactly where we need to be!"

The Growlithe leapt up and latched onto a corner of the lid with his mouth, using his weight to pull it off. Nida hopped up onto the ledge of the box, where inside, the source of the glassy sound became apparent.

The crate was packed full of orbs! The straw was the padding all around them, to keep them protected from rough jolts at sea. Every orb Nida remembered seeing around Tromba before was in there. There was a Totter Orb, packed with small yellow spheres of light inside that glowed in the hold's darkness. A Blowback Orb, with a whitish, wispy substance swirling around in it that looked like the clouds up in the higher parts of the sky. The familiar light blue with swirling bubbles of a Cleanse Orb that Elty was stuffing into his bag- Wait a minute.

"Eh?! What are you doing?!" Nida cried out.

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Elty shot back as he nosed the Blowback Orb into his bag. "If we're going to be doing stupid stunts anyways, we might as well give ourselves a leg up!"

"Elty, en serio?" Nida hissed, flattening out her ears. "Stealing things now of all times?"

"Oi, do odważnych świat należy! Do you want to try taking on one of those guards with a bag full of berries if we get caught?" Elty growled. "Or something that might actually give us a chance?"

Nida stared at the leering Growlithe, and then down at the orbs, and then out further down the hold where she could hear the sounds of a Pokémon shifting about. These orbs were the Company's... If she and Elty didn't use them, the Pokémon aboard this ship surely wouldn't hesitate to use them against the two.

"Okay, point taken."

Nida immediately helped dig up orbs from deeper in the box, not paying attention to what kind they were. At the very least, more orbs couldn't hurt the two right? Eventually, Elty's satchel began to visibly fill up and run out of spaces. After sliding a final violet orb in, Elty drew his bag shut, shook it up a bit to make the orbs settle towards the bottom, and with a swift motion, slung it over his back and prepared to hop out the crate.

"Alright, let's get-" the Growlithe began, only to notice the sight and sound of a Nuzleaf mumbling to himself from the direction of the stern… And drawing closer.

"Er… Not that way."

"Elty," Nida hissed. "There is no other way out!"

"Er… Uh…"

"We'll stay and hide here!" he barked. "If we hunker down, the straw's smell should cover us!"

"Hiding in another box?" Nida grumbled. "Seriously?"

"I don't see you offering any other suggestions here!" Elty growled. "And if he opens it, we'll be able to get the drop on him!"

Good enough, Nida thought to herself. She hopped in as Elty dragged the lid back onto the box. The Nidoran fanned her barbs out as Elty began to fish through his bag, searching for an orb to use just in case the lid got pulled off all of a sudden, before settling on the violet orb from earlier. After noticing a dark, jagged blotch that reminded Nida of a Zubat's shape from above, she saw that it was a One-Shot Orb. An orb that was mostly the purview of Pokémon who were desperate enough to hope fate would let the orb knock out a foe as intended, and had no other way of doing so on their own.

The sound of the approaching Pokémon came closer and closer until the Nidoran and Growlithe could hear its breath from outside the crate. The two waited and waited for the lid opening that never came.

Instead, they felt the box suddenly rise.

"Gih!"

"Ack!"

And head off, under the rocking motions of being carried along by yet another Pokémon. The creature sounded fatigued, and the sound of an occasional yawn evidenced that the guard was clearly not used to night shifts.

"Eh?" Nida asked as she felt the box come to a stop along the floor. "What on earth do sailors need a box full of orbs for right now?"

"Hmm…" Elty mulled, before he propped the lid to the box open. Nida's jaw dropped as Elty poked his head out and dragged a round, yellow berry with green circles on its hide back into the box as the lid shut.

"Whelp, whatever the reason, it apparently involves going through a galley!" the Growlithe cheered as the box rose up and started to move again. Elty contentedly began to nibble at his prize Aspear Berry while Nida seethed, her barbs fanned out, though not from an expectant battle this time.

"Elty, what is wrong with you-?" she began, only for the little dog to cut her off.

"Do you really think that whoever's carrying us wouldn't have noticed the extra weight if he were fully awake?" he retorted. The box then stopped moving, and the two felt the Grass-Type set it down and shove it to the side with a yawn. There was the sound of some shuffling and of some other Pokémon chiding the Nuzleaf for being late...

"Draw seven cards and play a basic," the other Pokémon's voice instructed. The Grass-Type could be heard chewing into something, before asking back in a voice that sounded noticeably less fatigued.

"Four prizes this match, right?"

For a card game?

"Sailors play cards in galleys?" Nida asked. Her barbs dropped from a curious befuddlement; something wasn't adding up here. Whoever had taken the box obviously needed the orbs for some reason, but surely there had to be a reason that wasn't tied to card games, right?

"Hrm…" Elty mulled, before he once again poked the lid open and shoved his head out of the crate. Just as quickly as it left, Elty's head returned, his teeth clamped around the lip of a primitive clay jug that sloshed with fluid in it.

"Looks like we're next to something a bit more secure, which would explain why they brought the orbs over," he answered as he pulled a cork off of the jug and tilted it to begin to lap up its contents from its neck. "Maybe that brig the Toxicroak mentioned."

As the Growlithe continued drinking from the jug, the faint, but perceptible sound of a Nidoran grinding her teeth filled the inside of the box.

"Rrgh… Elty!"

"Relax, rum may be poison, but a little sip never hurt a Growlithe's belly fire," the dog answered. "Besides, the guards seem a bit preoccupied right now."

"Ha! Your bench is looking thin tonight!" the Nuzleaf's voice gloated. "Weren't expecting me to run a Haymaker deck, were you?"

"Grr… I can still bounce back- Wait, I thought you got an Aspear Berry for me. Did you eat it?"

"Of course not! I brought the Chesto Berries to keep us both awake, didn't I? What, can't win without distracting me to peek through my deck?"

"I already know what's in your deck! Seriously, give me the- Wait a minute, you took my rum, too!"

"I did not! Unlike you, I don't have to stoop to tricks to win at cards!"

"Why, you!"

The conversation outside rapidly deteriorated, being replaced by the sound of blows striking bodies.

"Gah!"

A guard was thrown into the side of the crate, sending it tumbling behind some other crates. The box toppled over and dumping Nida and Elty out with a pile of straw and assorted orbs, as Elty's upended jug spilled some manner of tawny-colored fluid all over the floor. Nida's eyes widened as she realized the two of them were now out in the open, and tensed her spikes…

"You'll pay for that, bub!"

Only to see that the two guards, the Nuzleaf and a Hitmonchan, were preoccupied with their childish, violent squabble and oblivious for now to their presence.

"Hey, it's a distraction!" Elty interjected. The dog rolled to his feet and quickly pointed out a now-unguarded passage, presumably the way to that brig he had surmised they were at. "Now come on!"

The two darted past the quarrelling guards and down into a hallway lined with wooden doors and some glass jars with candles in them along the floor. The doors looked heavy and sturdily built, lacking any windows. There were also no signs of hinges on the doorways, as would be expected if the doors opened outwards- Meaning that whoever had built these doors wasn't worried about Pokémon going in…

They were worried about them coming out afterward.

"They had places for Pleo all this time?" Nida asked, her ears drooping.

"Pbbt. Nah," Elty answered. "They're for Pokémon they don't want to deal with right away."

"Oh, so for canallas like you," she snorted, rolling her eyes.

"And you too if we get caught!" the Growlithe shot back with a glare. "So stop running off your yap and start sniffing around for clues!"

The two paced up and down the corridor, stopping at the different doors. There were certainly a number of smells alright, if some muddled with age. Of Pokémon that had trodden up and down the passage, of hints of seawater, a faint but still gag-inducing smell near one of the doors that reminded Nida of an alley behind a Juice Bar after a particularly rowdy night…

But, alas-

"None of it smells like the mewa," Elty murmured.

Nida's heart sank. Could it be that Pleo really wasn't here? That they had risked limb and possibly life sneaking from the cargo hold to these cells for nothing?

It was then that Nida noticed a smell among the different odors that seemed just like the Samurott that had bullied the town earlier.

"Eh? Wait a minute… Lyn was here? And this scent's fresh!" Nida cried out.

"Oh come on, I'm sure that he's been down here before," Elty scoffed. "He is the captain."

"Maybe, but if he was here recently," she murmured as she followed the scent along the ground. "What would he have been doing other than going to see…?"

Nida walked on, sniffing intently at the floor until she felt a bump on her head. The Nidoran pulled back and looked up, seeing that she had run into one of the sturdy, windowless doors at the end of the hallway.

"This has to be it!" she cried, hopping up and pushing against the door, only for nothing to happen.

"Eh?! It won't budge!"

"Of course it won't!" the Growlithe piped. "Look! There's a lock on it!"

Nida followed Elty's gaze towards the door and saw that there was a metal plate placed along the edge, with a hole meant to accommodate a key.

"Uhm," Nida groaned. The Nidoran scrunched her whiskers uneasily before pointing an ear at the orange dog. "You wouldn't happen to have swiped the keys back there, would you?"

Elty stared back at the Nidoran with his ears folded back and an unimpressed scowl. If she had to ask the question...

"Yeah, I didn't think so either," she said, sighing and shaking her head.

"Well, I'd love to be able to burn it open here," the orange dog said. He reared up on his hind legs to inspect and sniff the lock, before slinking back down and shaking his head. "But I think that it's a little soon to be setting the ship on fire while we're still on the orlop deck."

"I'll kick it down, then!" Nida cried, as she hopped back and braced her feet to prepare to rush at the door.

"And wake up the entire crew while you're at it? You don't honestly think you're going to be able to kick that open in one try, do you?"

Elty watched as the Nidoran caught herself and froze. It seemed she hadn't considered that possibility, not that living on some island all her life would have done much for reference pools. Nida visibly fumbled with her thoughts for a moment.

"Uh… Er… Hey, wait a minute," she said, the little spike ball's ears suddenly perking up as she motioned back towards the lock. "Come over here, Elty."

The two went up to the door, where, much to Elty's surprise, Nida hopped up on top of him.

"Ack!" he yelped, his legs wobbling as he tried to adjust to the sudden weight on his shoulders. "Hey, what do you think you're-?!"

He looked up, and saw that the Nidoran inspecting the keyhole. Just what was she-?

"The lock… Why it looks like one of my barbs would fit just nicely in there," she said, hopping off the Growlithe.

Wait a minute… Could it be that this little spike lump really knew…?

"Aha! Lockpicking!" Elty cheered, as he wondered why he hadn't thought of the idea himself earlier. "Why, I didn't think that a guild amator like you would know how to-!"

Only for his cheery demeanor to crash back to earth when he saw the Nidoran rear up and flick a spike into the pinhole with an audible crunch, followed by the sound of pieces of brittle iron spilling out along with dribbling poison out of the hole. Elty's jaw fell open- That wasn't what she was supposed to do at all!

"Ty- Ty bałwan! What on earth was that?!" he growled. "You were supposed to pick the-"

The door then creaked, making the pair flick their ears in surprise. Elty ran up, sniffed at the door, nudged it, and found that it now moved under his push. The Growlithe looked down at the metal fragments ejected from the keyhole and saw they were parts of small levers fashioned from brittle iron, leaving him to blink incredulously as he took a moment to register what had just happened.

"Huh. I guess breaking it works, too," he mumbled. All of a sudden, a voice from behind the door cried out.

"W-Whuh?! Who's there?! Please! Let me go!"

Nida's ears flared as she instantly recognized that the Pokémon inside could be none other than...

"Pleo!"

The Nidoran kicked the door the rest of the way open, where in the middle of the floor stood the form of a white bird that looked like he had just seen a ghost.

"N-Nida?! E-Elty?!" he squawked. The little Lugia gave a startled wingbeat (or at least as much as his bindings allowed him to) as his friends darted into the room. How had they managed to-?!

"Shh! Not so loud!" Nida shushed. "We're here to bust you out!"

"B-But I'm stuck!" Pleo cried. "I'm in cold and heavy ropes without any knots in them!"

As the light filtered in from the candlelit jars outside, the two were finally able to see the pitiful sight before them. Pleo's neck and limbs had been tied down with sturdy metal chains that were bolted to the floor, which drew an involuntary shudder from Elty. Metal was hard to come by in the Cradle, with the easiest way of making anything with it requiring large quantities of metal spikes or thorns found in Mystery Dungeons to be melted down. This made chains like the ones Pleo was bogged down under vastly harder and more expensive to fashion than ropes- But once a Pokémon got tangled up in them, they rarely broke free.

"These guys weren't messing around with trying to keep you here, even if they were a little cheap on the door lock," Elty murmured to himself, nosing at a small metal padlock. "You're gonna need to do this the hard way this time, Nida."

"The hard wa-?" she began, only to be cut off by a sharp pain from her rump. Nida whirled around and saw Elty holding a freshly-plucked barb in between his teeth before spitting it out onto the floor.

"Ow! Hey!" she hissed, her spikes raised and her blood boiling at Elty's decision to suddenly rip a barb out from her. "Qué te pasa?!"

"There's supposed to be a pin inside locks like this one here," the Growlithe quickly explained, spitting the spike out onto the floor. "When you push it up, it'll make a click and then you can pull it off those chains."

That… made a surprising amount of sense. Nida growled and picked the spike up, muttering under her breath about "You could have told me that!" as she slipped the end into the lock's keyhole.

As Nida wobbled the spike back and forth to try and find that pin, she began to notice the effects that captivity had had on Pleo, and wasn't sure if she wanted to rant or cry. The little Protector's feathers around his bonds had been damaged by repeated struggling, and the plumage on his face were sullied from dried tears. The only respite from the sorry sight was that fortunately for them all, it seemed that Lyn had some respect for the gods, as he had chosen to not cut the flight feathers on Pleo's wings.

That, and the fact that, for now at least, Pleo's tears had vanished, even if they weren't replaced by the elation that she hoped he would have at being rescued.

"H-How'd you get here?!" Pleo cried.

"Long story short, we snuck aboard," Elty answered after a furtive glance at the door. "And now we're getting you off this rotten ship!"

Pleo looked at his teammates, and noticed immediately that something was amiss. His friends seemed just as frightened as he was, but more importantly...

"Where's Crom? And Kiran?" he asked. There was a long and uncomfortable silence as Nida looked down at the floor, her paw slipping from her spike a moment she struggled with how to respond to the little Lugia.

"Nida? What's wrong?" Pleo pressed, starting to grow unnerved. Nida's expression sank before she looked up at the Protector and reluctantly answered him.

"Crom's… Back home, Pleo."

"H-Huh?!" Pleo squawked, tugging against his chains. "What happened?!"

"Crom got roughed up while trying to follow us, and had to stay back-" Elty began to answer, only for Pleo to promptly cut him off.

"E-Eh?! He's hurt?!"

"Pleo-" Nida began. But it was no use, the young Protector had already begun to slip into a panic. If Crom wasn't here because he was hurt...

"Wh-What about Kiran?! And Hatteras?! What about your parents?! Are they-?!"

Each name stabbed into Nida's heart like an Iron Thorn; all of them seemed so impossibly far away right now. Were all those Pokémon back home also scared and worried about them?

"Quiet down!" Nida barked, her voice wavering as her eyes misted up. "Y-You'll give us away!"

"B-But I'm supposed to protect you all! And-" Pleo insisted. His voice began to trail off and his head drooped as he saw Nida's expression. Could it really be…? "Just being around you seems to hurt you and your friends instead."

Nida paused. Noticing the effect the tears in her eyes were having on the Protector's psyche, she brushed them aside and tried her hardest to fight back further drops. There would be plenty of time to let them flow when they weren't all in danger, and when Pleo was out of these horrid chains. She shook her head and shot back at the Lugia.

"Pl-Pleo, don't say such nonsense!"

"H-Huh?!"

"We came after you because the entire town's miserable about you being trapped here!" Nida insisted, as she made another attempt with the spike in the lock to find the pin.

"They… are?" Pleo asked.

"Yes! You're someone very special to Tromba!" Nida cried. "Even if we've had a run of bad luck lately, it hurts to see you taken away like this! And-!"

Click

That was the pin. Without thinking, Nida pulled the lock down and watched it pop open.

"Alright, now we just need to get these off of you!" Elty barked, as he slipped the lock out of the chain links with his mouth and whigged it across the room. He and Nida then set about undoing the chains that were held in place, the Nidoran continuing her explanation as she freed up Pleo's wings.

"Pleo, we were worried sick about you, too! You're our friend!" she cried. "That's why we snuck aboard in the first place! To try and help you!"

"It… was?"

"Well, that and not thinking things through," Elty added, shooting a leer at the Nidoran. Nida rolled her eyes and turned back to Pleo as he stepped forward and beat his wings- being chained up surely could not have been kind to his blood flow. After his motions settled, she walked up and sidled next to him.

"You'll have plenty of time to figure out how being a Protector works, and to make everything that's happened today right, Pleo," she said. Even though her eyes were still damp, the Nidoran gave a reassuring nuzzle into Pleo's breast to try and lift her friend's spirits. "For now, let's just get you off of this-"

All of a sudden, the light from the hallway's candles was blotted out by shadows and a gruff voice called out.

"Oi, wait a minute! What do you think you're doing?!"

Nida's blood ran cold and her barbs raised at the harsh voice. She watched as Pleo's expression give way to a frightened grimace and whirled around to see the leering forms of the Nuzleaf and Hitmonchan from earlier. They were battered and bruised from fighting among each other, but still very much alert, and in battle-ready stances.

Hold on a minute... Neither of the two were holding orbs, so they must have been in a hurry coming into the cell block. A realization which also dawned on the Growlithe, and made his eyes suddenly light up.

"Pleo, quick! Stick a wing out!" Elty barked.

Pleo quickly complied, just in time for the Fire-Type to grab the first orb he could find from his satchel and brush it against Pleo's plumage. With a swift motion, Elty whirled his head as his jaws let go of a whitish orb containing what looked like swirling clouds. The Blowback Orb carried on into the wooden floorboards at the Nuzleaf's feet with a crash. In the twinkling of an eye, the glassy sphere burst into shards. As was the orb's nature, it acted upon the nearest Pokémon that had not made contact with it earlier, whipping up a strong wind which launched the hapless Grass-Type backwards into the doorpost.

"Now!" Elty cried.

The Growlithe spat out a surprisingly strong column of cinders at the Hitmonchan and knocked the creature to the floor before he could react to his partner's plight. Nida dashed up and gave a stiff kick at Nuzleaf's gut. Another followed, leaving the creature to crumple up and groan on the ground. The Fighting-Type staggered back to its feet, before a glowing ball cut it off and threw it against the cell's wall, slumped over.

"Whew, knew the drink and those orbs would come in handy," Elty sighed, eyeing the scattered shards of the Blowback Orb.

"Yeah, great," Nida panted. "Can we get out of here now?!"

"To where?!" Pleo squawked. "The mean Pokémon are all around us!"

"If we sneak out, you can fly us out of here!" Elty barked.

Could… That really work? No. Whether it could or not was out of the question. It would work, it had to work. And after they broke free, they would fly back home… Back to Crom, back to Kiran, back to Mami and Papi, the siblings, and everyone else who Pleo was meant to protect.

"Come on!" Nida cried as she darted out the door, Pleo and Elty following closely behind.

One deck. One deck stood between the three of them and the sky outside, from being able to fly off for home. But, all of her earlier fears and worries came back to her…

Would they be able to get past the guards in the ship? Would they be able to distract the ones outside enough to slip away?

No matter what happened in the end, they had to try! They had gone through so much already…

Even if it looked impossible, how could they not take flight now?

Chapter Text

The team slipped back into the darkness from which Nida and Elty came, leaving the overpowered Company Nuzleaf and Hitmonchan behind them. It would only be a matter of time before Pleo's absence was discovered by the other Pokémon aboard, but fortunately for Team Traveller, the sleepy atmosphere in the ship's hold hadn't brought that calamity on just yet. Beyond some footfalls and murmurs beyond blind corners, there were no further run-ins with other guards in that portion of the orlop deck. While by no means ideal, it was perhaps as smooth and peaceful a search Nida, Pleo, and Elty could have hoped for as they looked for the stairs to the next deck. Nida could see moonlight leaking through the grate and cracks in the places where the cargo hold met the weather deck up above, allowing her to recheck her earlier guesses about how far they still had to go...

"There's one deck between us and the top," she whispered. "We just need to find a way up!"

Pleo looked about his surroundings, dimly lit by the moonlight filtering coming from past the grate and the floor below... Why, there were nothing but boxes and corridors in every direction around him! How on earth were they supposed to get out this way? Suddenly, the sound of a faint thud rang out, followed by a Growlithe's voice yipping.

"Here!"

Pleo saw Elty perched on top of a stack of crates, and hopped up with a flap to join him. From his perch atop the crates, he saw a wooden pole that cut down the middle of some short planks fastened on the pole's top. Those were stairs! Honest-to-goodness stairs!

"Nida! This way!" he cried as he flew off for the pole, Nida and Elty bounding after him through the maze. The three clambered up the ladder's steps, Pleo leading the way with fluttering hops, Nida and Elty carefully planting their forepaws on the rungs above them before springing their hindquarters up, one after the other...

"Alright," the Nidoran panted. "We just need to make our way through, and then-"

"Gack!"

Only for the two to run into Pleo from behind after he abruptly stopped at the top.

Team Traveller came to a tumbling stop in a disheveled pile, just past the end of the steps. Nida, Elty, and Pleo dazedly tried to sort themselves out, the Fire-Type in the group thankful that the little spike lump hadn't had her barbs spread out. As he shook out his fur along with some sense back into his head, he whirled around at Pleo, growling.

"Hey! Just what do you think you're-?!"

Before he could get particularly far in his rant, the Growlithe suddenly noticed that Nida and Pleo were frozen in their tracks, wide-eyed. Elty then detected the strong scent of many Pokémon around them, and the sound of…

Zzz…

Snoring.

The entire room was packed with a larger variety of Pokémon than even the guild's sleeping quarters back on Tromba, curled up as they dozed on beds of straw and nestled on perches along rafters. Much to Elty's horror, every last one of them wore the lavender scarf of the Company. The Growlithe grimaced, starting to feel his belly burn from stress while his legs shook nervously.

"Uh… On second thought," he began. "Maybe we should try another-"

As the Growlithe continued on, he saw Nida's ears suddenly flick and her head whirl back towards the steps. Elty then heard it too…

Tromp tromp tromp

The sound of tired, shuffling footsteps heading straight for the ladder from the deck below. Elty gulped and looked around at his teammates. Pleo was starting to panic, looking around wildly for somewhere, anywhere to flee to. All of a sudden, a hushed cry cut through the confusion.

"We don't have any other options here," Nida whispered, her voice tense as she raised her barbs. "Let's just try and sneak through."

The Lugia and Growlithe looked across the room, and saw a faint white light near the end. There was an opening! A way to the surface! Without thinking, Pleo spread his wings and-

"Move quietly!" Nida hastily interrupted, wide-eyed.

The little Protector caught himself and hastily drew his wings back. The Pokémon coming up the stairs was close enough for the team to hear its yawning! They needed somewhere to hide, somewhere like…

"Quick, over there!" Elty whispered.

All eyes quickly darted over to a sleeping Ursaring, next to a Donphan and the Electabuzz from earlier in the day, now with bandages about his head. Without thinking, the three darted over and slipped behind the brown bear, his belly rising and falling with every tired breath he took. The creature's breaths reeked of stale gummis and a good deal of drink, while the creature and his neighbors smelled of straw and many hours of exertion under tropical weather. But in spite of the less-than-bearable sensations around them, no one dared to move a muscle beyond the shallowest of breaths in and out their lungs.

The guard from below deck then came up with an audible yawn. The three could hear the Pokémon's footsteps plod along the timbered floor. After a tense few seconds, they heard the muffled sounds of the creature settling down somewhere in the room, and the presence faded below the sounds of the snores floating about. But… was the coast really clear-?

"Gwark!"

Pleo suddenly cried out and bolted forward in a panic, darting past a number of Pokémon before coming to a stop. After hearing the crunch of straw, Nida and Elty realized that the Ursaring was shifting in his sleep. The two quickly ran after Pleo, and braced themselves for battle… Only for the Pokémon to roll over, mutter something about "stop hogging the 'consideration cookies'", and then began to snore again as Pleo panted for air, his heart racing...

Only to abruptly feel something warm and furry swat against his underbelly.

"E-Eh-?!"

"Shh!"

Pleo whirled to see the sound of the voice, and saw Elty scowling at him, the Growlithe none too pleased about the close call.

"Let's try a different strategy, okay?" the dog huffed. "Keep darting off like that, and you'll get us all caught!"

"But the big furry Pokémon was gonna get me!" the Lugia piped back.

Elty gave an irked growl as he racked his mind for some throwaway reassurance. If only Pleo still had that stupid rock! Then he could just throw together some slapdash yarn about how the lucky charm would keep him safe as long as he kept his beak shut and crept along with the rest of them! Wait a minute…

Maybe there was still a card from that deck he could play!

Elty set down his satchel and nosed over a clear sphere near the top with what seemed to be flecks of greenish light glowing in it, pointing the bauble out to Pleo.

"Here," he said.

"H-Huh?"

"If you and Nida rub all of the orbs we picked up from the deck below, then even if everyone around us wakes up, we'll get out of here safely," he explained. "That way, if we have to use them, you'll stay on the right side of whatever their effects are."

"Really?" Pleo asked, tilting his head skeptically.

"Would I steer you wrong?" the Growlithe asked. Elty wagged his tail expectantly, only to frown as Nida and Pleo looked at each other and nodded back.

"Okay, let me rephrase that," Elty grumbled, screwing his eyes shut. "Would I steer you wrong considering that we're probably going to get thrown overboard if we get caught here?"

The Nidoran hardened her gaze into a withering glare for a brief moment. She started to mouth something before pausing, and then begrudgingly took up the Luminous Orb from Elty's satchel.

"I think Elty might be onto something," she whispered to Pleo, in a tone that sounded almost confident. "Come on, let's try it out."

She removed orb from the bag and looked into its translucent surface for a moment, before rubbing it a smidge and offering it to Pleo. The young Lugia took the orb as he shuffled along with the team. As he brushed it with his feathers, he became entranced by the warm glow from the light inside it. For a fleeting moment, he felt far, far away from the danger all around him as he gazed into the round, colorful, and surprisingly captivating bauble. The little Lugia then felt Nida nose at his wing, prompting him to deposit the sphere in Elty's bag and take whatever orb Nida passed next.

The sinister, bubbling green clouds of a Foe-Fear Orb… The vibrant blue of a Petrify Orb flecked with dancing electrical sparks beneath its surface... The orbs Nida and Elty first stuffed in also turned up in the process, including a ball filled with glowing yellow spheres… As he paced forward and looked into the orbs in between rubs, Pleo could occasionally see dim reflections of little bits and pieces of the surrounding room. The rafters above, Elty and the light of the stars ahead, a dozing Slowpoke just behind his shoulder with a crown-shaped rock by her forepaws…

Hold on a minute!

"That's my lucky rock!" Pleo squawked. The Lugia whirled around, dropping the Totter Orb with an audible thud, leaving Nida to squeak and dash after it. As she caught the orb with her forepaws, Elty gritted his teeth and grimaced.

"Hey, wait!" he barked.

It was no use; the little bird had already darted over to the pink and cream mammal, uneasily craning his neck from side to side as he tried to puzzle out how to retrieve his stone from the Pokémon's grasp.

"What do you think you're doing?!" the Growlithe yelped. "You can get another one of those once we-!"

By then, the Lugia had already thrust his beak down and promptly snatched up the stone ring. Elty's heart skipped a beat, and he lowered himself to all fours.

The Growlithe braced himself as Nida fanned her spikes out like a blue Durin Berry. The two set their teeth on edge and waited in dreadful anticipation for the moment the grunts all around them to suddenly wake up and dogpile the team. Except…

That moment didn't come.

"Got it!" Pleo cried, his voice muffled by the stone ring that he was holding in his beak as he crept over, bobbing his head in triumph. The Growlithe shook his head and scowled. Was that bird trying to get them all caught?

"All's well that ends well," Nida sighed, as she quickly snatched up the King's Rock and stuffed it into Elty's bag, making sure to bury it deep for safekeeping.

"Whuh? What's- Hey!"

Elty heard a voice call out, and turned to see that the Slowpoke had woken up and was glaring daggers at the group.

"Kurczę," the Growlithe muttered. The creature hadn't been oblivious to Pleo taking his rock back at all! As was common to Pokémon of her species, she'd simply just had a delayed reaction!

"Oi! Everyone, wake up!" the creature shouted. "We've got stowaways!"

The other guards had a much faster reaction to the Water-Type's shouting, and quickly sprang up to attention. No matter which way they looked in their panic, the three young Pokémon found themselves staring at the glaring and growling mass of lavender-scarved Pokémon about them.

"N-Nida?" Pleo stammered, starting to shrink back. "Wh-What do we do now?"

Nida's mind raced for something to say back. She couldn't sting or kick her way out of this one, not even with the help of her teammates. Pleo's power was nowhere to be seen, and going down with the ship thanks to a fire started by Elty was not exactly her idea of an 'escape'.

If only they'd had the time to stock up on seeds, or Gravelerocks, or orbs or- oh, duh.

Nida looked down at the glowing yellow orb in between her paws and slammed it against the floor. As she felt it disintegrate into shards against the wood below, a mass of yellow spheres burst out and fanned out, slipping past the group and enveloping the Company grunts within the room and throwing the unfortunate creatures into a defocused daze.

"RUN!" she shouted.

There wasn't any time to think after that. As the guards about them struggled to overcome the disorienting effects of the orb and shouts rang out along with a few complaints about seasickness, the three bolted for the stairs up to the deck. Nida and Elty darted along the ground as Pleo flew overhead, haphazardly dodging rafters and half-awake guards stumbling up from their bedding in the confusion.

"Here, stay toasty!" Elty barked, as he spat out a column of cinders at some straw bedding, just in time to catch a Dusclops that had freshly phased himself out of an overhead rafter. The creature was still tired and disoriented as he readjusted to sudden corporeality and the unexpected confusion in the barracks, only to suddenly shriek as he felt a burning pain underfoot.

The Ghost-Type's cries rang out as he recoiled back from the cinders, followed by the realization that the bedding beneath his feet had caught alight, and was already starting to spread to nearby heaps of straw.

Panicked cries of "Fire! Fire!" began to ring out about the barracks, various guards stumbling about in conflicting and often colliding directions trying to get at the intruders, the dangerous flames in the room, or simply away from the confusion to safety.

"Did you seriously just start a fire?!" Nida cried, just as she saw Pleo swoop down to the base of the steps to the top deck, and begin to run up them.

"You're welcome!" he cried, digging out the violet One-Shot Orb and throwing it off somewhere into the confused and panicked mass of Pokémon. "Now are we escaping with the mewaor wha-?"

"Nida! Elty! Look out!" Pleo's voice suddenly squawked.

Nida and Elty bounced forward as a dark blue blur of a beetle zipped past, slamming a long, chitinous horn down onto the floor where they had just been. Ah, it was the Dusclops' companion, and none too pleased about the rude welcome Elty gave him. The Nidoran instinctively reared up and tackled the Heracross as he tore a plank out of the floor while pulling his horn free, her barbs raised to try and embed themselves in between the plates of the Bug-Type's exoskeleton. Elty hastily clamped down on one of the beetle's arms, but while the Heracross seemed visibly stung by the wounds, his eyes were still full of enraged vigor. The creature whirled around towards Nida-

"Gyaah!"

Just in time to be caught mid-stride by a gust of wind and crumple to the floor.

"Gack..."

The gust was sharp and cutting, like the beats that Kiran would blow from his wings in battle, and Nida could see a crack dribbling drops of yellowish fluid along the underside of the Bug-Type's thorax where the wind had struck. But… Who on earth-?

"Eh?!" a Lugia's voice stammered. "But that was supposed to send him flying ba-"

Nida looked over to Pleo, who was now standing at the base of the stairs. She blinked for a moment and looked back at the groaning Heracross, when she put two and two together.

"Nice work, Pleo!" she grunted. "I think that one was stronger than normal!"

"It… was-?" Pleo began, only for a Growlithe's voice to cut him off.

"Oi! Brag about your moves later!" the little dog yipped, gesturing at flames behind him that were now mostly smothered from panicked jets of water from Pokémon about them. "No one else is in our way and the stairs are right there!"

That was as good a point as any. The three dashed up the steps, not daring to look back to see who might be following them. Then came the deck, the sails above them along with the night sky with the Moon, the stars, and Forest Guardian's Traveller shining above. Pleo skidded to a stop to let Nida and Elty hop up onto his back, the white bird stumbling a bit from the sudden weight, when all of a sudden, he wavered.

"Nida?! Is this really going to work?!" he cried.

"It has to!" she squeaked, as she dug out the Foe-Fear Orb from the bag. "We don't have any other options!"

"Hurry up!" Elty seethed. "Just get us out of-!"

"Going somewhere?!" a booming voice bellowed from the stern.

The three turned, and their hearts sank as they saw Lyn perched at the helm of the ship, glaring. The Samurott leapt forward, drawing his blades in midair as he dove down at Pleo, who hastily darted ahead of a slash from a seamitar.

"A-Ack!"

The bird stumbled forward, and batted his wings out uneasily to try and regain balance. Pleo's tumultuous attempts to stay on his feet made Nida lose her grip on the green sphere in her paws before she could throw it. The sphere went rolling on the deck like an oversized marble, making the Nidoran cry out in panic as it slipped out of her reach.

"Pleo, come on!" she pleaded, as she reached for Elty's satchel. "If we take off now-!"

"You'll be swimming right into our fins, missy!" a voice cried from below, which was quickly followed by another.

"And don't think the skies are clear for you either!" a voice taunted from above.

"H-Huh?!"

The three looked down and saw a Huntail, flanked by a number of leering creatures circling in the water, waiting for the foolish little Pokémon to go ahead and try and fly over them. Pleo craned his head up, and saw that the skies were similarly uninviting, with flying Pokémon led by a Crobat near the crossbeams of the masts circling about the group. To make matters worse, guards from the barracks were spilling out onto the deck, Elty's fire having apparently run its course as a distraction and the Foe-Fear Orb lying unbroken and out of reach, now in the claws of a very awake and grumpy-looking Ursaring.

"Really now, how incompetent do you think I am?" Lyn sneered, drawing nearer to the group. "Did you seriously think that my ship wouldn't have any escorts? That they would just let some stowaways slip away?"

Pleo grimaced, he scanned his head around desperately as he inched back towards the railing. There really didn't seem to be any way out of here, or at least not one he could see. But his teammates… Did they see anything he couldn't?

"N-Nida? E-Elty?"

"I think I've got something," Elty whispered. "Follow my lead."

The Growlithe suddenly arched his back and bristled his fur, and proceeded to shout out the mightiest, fiercest roar that his young voice could muster.

"OUT OF OUR WA-!"

Only to be cut off by a much louder, bellowing "SHUT UP!" from the Samurott that made the group's blood run cold, and made Pleo to stumble forward in a blind panic and bonk his head on the deck railing.

"O-Ow!"

As the color returned to Team Traveler's faces and senses to their rattled minds, they could hear jeers going about their gathered captors.

"Pffahaha! Was that seriously the best you could think of?"

"Yeah, that yap's nothing when you deal with a Samurott on a regular basis!"

"Captain, they're clearly desperate if one of them was going to try and roar his way out of here!"

"Didn't I tell you this once already?" Lyn spat, glaring at Pleo. "Your old life is over, move on already! Really, what are you going to do here? Do you think that you can just fly away from us? That we can't swat you out of the sky like a common Wingull?"

The Samurott slackened his grip on his right paw's seamitar, and spun it about his knuckles.

"Or are you going to try and fight me? At the tender young age of what, a moon? With a pair of rookies that most of my subordinates were sweeping back in their days as pups?" he sneered. After a few cycles, the Samurott suddenly stopped the blade mid-spin, bringing it to a stop with a firm grasp at the hilt. "For crying out loud, know when to give up!"

The little Lugia froze. It really didn't look like there was going to be any way out of this one. Everything the Samurott said was definitely true, the powers all of Tromba counted on hadn't come to him when he so desperately needed them earlier… Should… Should he really just give up?

Pleo suddenly stumbled a little. The weight of Nida and Elty on his back was still awkward to balance, especially with the two shaking as they were. He tilted his head back and saw that the two were trembling, their ears folded back. Surely things must have seemed just as hopeless and impossible-

"N-Not likely! I'm not about to give up here!" Elty growled, baring his teeth even as his body quaked and betrayed the fear the little dog felt.

Huh? Elty wasn't giving up? But, why?

"Captain, we've got a clear shot at them-" the Ursaring began.

"Hold your fire!" Lyn interrupted, the bear hastily quieting down at the sound of his superior's snarling.

"We- We're- We're not giving up our friend!" Nida stammered, baring her barbs as she tried her hardest to put a brave face on in spite of the situation. "N-Not without a fight!"

Pleo looked around at his teammates, his mind drawing blanks as to how on earth they could still stand their ground even with how bad and hopeless everything looked.


After the meeting at the guild's grounds fell apart, Kiran quickly hurried Crom to the medics' tent. The Druddigon's injuries were treated and bandaged, and his mother, hearing how one of her children had been battered, came to take the young Dragon-type home to sleep his wounds off.

The wounds ran deeper than Crom's hide, alas- the entire rhythm of the little baker family was thrown asunder, their normal routine of making bread and pastries to sell to their fellow villagers grinding to a halt. The oven went cold much earlier than normal without anyone to kindle the wood with dragonfire, and the flour and dough for the evening rush went unkneaded.

The rest of the day was marked by Gwenith tearfully growling invectives at the Company when she felt sufficiently alone. Cenn also wasn't immune to the heightened gravity of the situation, as his normal adamance (or "brattiness" as Crom often put it) gave way to periodic, nervous pestering of "will Crom be okay?" Even Pyry's ritual complaining subsided, as he spent most of the day uncomfortably running errands outside to try and avoid the oppressive atmosphere in the little hut.

Crom eventually bawled himself dry of tears, but the poor Druddigon remained mired in a quiet, inconsolable depression over the loss of his friends to Lyn's ship. The setting of the sun and onset of night brought nothing to ease the dragon's spirits. The simple dinner of gummis and homemade loaves that his mother brought in was similarly ineffective, and continued to sit on a rude wooden table next to the fresh straw bedding his family prepared. Well after the moon and stars rose in the sky, Crom remained curled up and stared off at a wall next to the doorway of the room he shared with Cenn at night.

"Crom?" a younger voice called from the side. The voice made the wounded Druddigon uneasily shift about, and he looked up to see a fellow young, if smaller, Druddigon prodding him.

"Whuh?"

"We're heading to the shrine now," Cenn said. "The whole town's been stopping by there all day to offer prayers."

Even though his brother's words were devoid of the teasing and naive mean-spiritedness that sibling rivalry tends to slip into, they still stung to hear, and served only to make Crom sink deeper into his bedding and curl up tighter.

"We'll be back soon!" the younger Druddigon hastily tried to reassure, waving his claws. "And you won't be alone here, Kiran came to watch you while we're out! Mom says to call him if you need anything."

Crom weakly grunted back something resembling a response. Cenn lingered around for a moment before walking off uneasily, giving one last look at his elder brother as he slipped past the doorframe.

For a few long, quiet moments, Crom sat there, his only company being the aching wounds under his bandages and the dull and now vaguely mournful sounds of night outside. The Druddigon tilted his head to look out the window in the room, and saw the night sky full of stars, the Forest Guardian's Traveller currently making its arc as the Traveller before it set beyond the horizon.

It was then that the dragon decided, no matter how haggard his condition was, he needed to be at that shrine too. If he had only held his tongue back in that crate! But perhaps, he could-!

"Agh!"

Crom's preoccupation with the shrine briefly faded from his mind as he stumbled and tripped while getting up out of bed. His balance was still weak from his injuries, feeble enough to be overcome by a careless pebble trodden underfoot.

"Eh?! Crom?!" a Swellow's voice suddenly squawked. "What are you doing?!"

"Huh?!"

The Druddigon looked up as Kiran swooped into the room, and settled down before his snout. The blue and white bird ruffled his feathers and promptly lectured the dragon, the Swellow's voice thick with concern.

"You're in no shape to be trying to skimp on rest!" he exclaimed. "Why, from my prior experience, skipping rest with wounds like these will keep you bedridden 100% longer!"

"Kiran, please!" Crom insisted, dragging himself up to his feet. "I need to go and pray with the others at the shrine! To pray that Pleo will come back to make all of this right!"

"Absolutely not! You're in horrible condition! Why, almost as bad as Osmund is right-!" the Swellow cried, before the sound of a crash and footfalls outside rang out.

"Ack! Marley!" the sound of elderly bleating rang out. "This is no way to treat a mayor!"

Hatteras? But, what on earth was happening out there?

"Hatteras! Get back here!" a Nidorina's livid voice rang out. "That's my niñita out there! You can't just 'have nothing' for a way to get her back!"

"Dear! Calm down!" a Nidorino's voice frantically interjected. "Give the sheep some time to think of something!"

Kiran lowered his head and put a wing over his face. Of all the times for Nida's mother to have her temper get the best of her, did it really have to be now?

"Besides, it probably wouldn't be good for your nerves to see Marley in her present state right now," Kiran sighed, ruffling his feathers.

Crom flinched at the racket outside and shrank back. Going out while a scary Pokémon like Marley was so upset out on his doorstep was certainly not what he wanted to get into while still hurt… But-

"But none of this would have happened if I wasn't so stupid!" he cried. "If I had stopped and thought about what we were all getting into-!"

"Crom! Please! don't blame yourself!" the Swellow suddenly interrupted, beating out his wings. "Everything happens for a reason, and-"

"What reason could there be for this?!" the Druddigon growled. "Pleo's gone! And so's the rest of the team! And-! A-And-!"

The young dragon's voice broke and began to trail off as tears started to well up in his eyes again. As he began to sniffle and wipe at his nose with a claw, he was suddenly interrupted by a soft feeling enveloping his chest. He looked down, and saw that his team leader had wrapped him in his wings, or as much as a Swellow could for a creature that was a full foot taller than himself.

"I don't know, Crom," the bird responded, his head drooping. "All I know is that since I was young, I've been told that was how things were. That no matter how bad things might get, the gods that were and are yet to come work in spite of it, to make the things that need to happen, happen."

"H-How do you know that, though?" Crom asked. The dragon's tears stopped coming and his eyes gave way to a piercing, pleading gaze as he waited for some, for any reassurance from his team leader.

"I don't, Crom… It's all a hope," the Swellow sighed as he rummaged through his bag. "And it's all that we've got right now."

The Swellow poked his beak in, and grasped something with it. When he pulled it out, the article was revealed to be a silvery-white feather, its tip split at the end.

"That's one of Pleo's feathers," Crom mumbled. "Why did you bring that here?"

"Well, it's said that Lugia's feathers allow for the pleas of Pokémon to reach him. And that the spirits of the old gods still have power over our world, especially over things related to them, and..." Kiran began, as he held the feather out to Crom. "It's not much, I'll admit… But I knew that you would have wanted to help out with what's going on right now."

The Druddigon paused, and after hesitating a bit, pinched the feather in between his claws and brought it up to his eyes.

"I… I suppose it was easier than dragging the shrine all the way down here…"

The Druddigon stared at the feather and was unsure how to start. Was there some sort of rite for calling to Pleo? Did they have to do some sort of weird dance? Did they have to also ask for help from the old gods' spirits in the Travellers above?

"If you can somehow hear this, Pleo- I mean, Travellers above-" the Druddigon fumbled for words one after the other, until Kiran interrupted with the pat of a wing on his shoulder.

"Crom. Don't overdo it," the Swellow reassured. "Just say what's on your mind."

The Dragon-Type looked down at the feather in between his claws again, and after a pause, he shook his head before beginning again, this time his words coming out as a desperate plea.

"Please! Whoever I'm talking to! Let our friends come back to us!" he cried. The Druddigon and Swellow stared and stared at the feather, but nothing happened. It was still the same old night outside, the same simple room inside, with the same aching wounds on his body, leaving Crom to hang his head as his heart began to sink.

"We- We just want to know that they're okay..." he murmured weakly.


That's when it hit him. The reason why Elty and Nida were digging in their heels on his back and not backing down was for him, and for the town back home that desperately wanted their Protector back…

Pleo whirled his head towards the sea. For a moment it felt almost as if they were right there! Crom, Kiran, Hatteras, Mosca, and everyone else from Tromba! It was like they were all pleading for him to come back home!

Then… Maybe… The proper thing to do for all of them was to stand his ground and try to help them back, to refuse to let things end without trying…

"Let us go!" Pleo squawked to the Samurott, beating out his wings. "We even made it to the deck fair and square!"

"I see that you're too stubborn to listen to warnings," Lyn growled, as he flicked both his blades to his sides in a battle stance. "So be it! I'll drag you into a life of service the hard way!"

The Samurott readied his legs and was about to spring forward when a shrill cry suddenly cut him off.

"No! I don't want your awful new 'life'!" the bird shrieked. "And I won't let you hurt my friends for it!"

All of a sudden, the dimly lit ship deck became awash in a silvery glow. From Pleo's back, Nida and Elty saw Lyn freeze in his tracks. The two looked down at their carrier and saw the markings on the Lugia begin to shine bright, his white plumage glowing softly.

"A-Ah," Elty murmured, his muzzle dropping in startled awe.

"Pleo?" Nida asked quietly. Just then, her ears pricked and her blood ran cold as Lyn cried out to the surrounding guards.

"Take them down!"

The Samurott lunged for the group, just as Pleo shouted back to the approaching Pokémon.

"Let us go!"

The little Protector then sprang up, leaping from the deck and beating his wings below him. The noises of raging winds howled all around the three Pokémon as Pleo shot upwards with his teammates, punctuated by the sound of sails tearing and thick ropes being whipped about as if they were blades of grass. As they sailed higher and higher, they heard the cries of Lyn and the guards around him that had been blown across the deck, some of his underlings having tumbled over the railing into the sea. The leering fliers in the air were knocked from their places by the sudden gale and fell past them out of the sky, onto the ship and into the sea below. The sea Pokémon that stonewalled the group struggled amid violent waves whipped up by Pleo's winds, some turning tail in a panic and swimming away as fast as their fins and appendages would let them.

All the while, Nida and Elty clung to Pleo's plumes for dear life (with what means their bodies allowed) as they rocketed up and away from the Company ship.

"Aaaaah! Not so fast! Not so fast!" Nida shrieked. "Blasting away hurts the Nidoran!"

And then as suddenly as it came, the glow faded. Pleo's flight slowed and wobbled a little as he poked his head about, leaving his confused and tired voice asked aloud in the darkened skies...

"Huh? What's going on?"

Elty and Nida turned back to see the ship's tattered sails behind them as frantic and disoriented shouts rang out.

That was about where the good news ended, though.

The faint outlines of Company Pokémon still on the deck around the ship began reorienting themselves under the moonlight, along with some of the sea Pokémon who weren't preoccupied fishing out struggling forms from the water. Lyn rushed to the railing, still dripping seawater, and inhaled deeply, readying a torrent of water. One after the other, the various shapes followed their captain's lead and readied attacks and missiles to throw at the group.

"Gah! We can't shake them!" Elty yelped. Without thinking, Nida dug a paw into the Growlithe's satchel, eliciting a bark of protest as she dug out a Luminous orb, leaving a berry and another orb to spill out and fall from the air into the sea below...

And then she threw it.

The glassy sphere sailed on into the darkness, before a bright flash suddenly erupted behind the group. For a fleeting moment, the form of the ship became visible, revealing two masts that had had their sails torn to ribbons. The flash swallowed up the ship along with the waters around it in a blinding light, forcing Nida's eyes shut and leaving her to totter forward as spray from a fast-moving column of water zipped past her ears. As she felt the air beneath her front feet she fanned out her barbs in a panic.

"A-Ack!"

"Uważaj!" Elty's voice suddenly yelped. "Don't go taking sudden trips, spike ball!"

Nida felt a nip at the back of her neck, and a painful yank back onto something soft and downy- Pleo's back she presumed. The only other comfort in her dazed blindness was the sound of her Growlithe teammate's voice.

"Keep going, mewa! Keep going!"

Slowly, but surely, a darkness with muddled blotches began to return to Nida's vision. They slowly began to reform into the moon, the Forest Guardian's Traveller, the major constellations, the Rainbow Road, and the rest of the heavens. After Nida blinked and cleared away the last of her disorientation, her heart skipped a beat as she began to notice their light reflecting off the world around them, dancing off of waves churning below.

After looking back at the now-distant form of Lyn's ship, the Nidoran could see the faint forms of Pokémon struggling aboard the ship from the water, and hear confused and frightened cries ringing out from the direction of the ship. The Nidoran blinked and stared speechless for a moment, as she realized…

They were free…

They were free!

"We- We made it off the ship!" Nida cried, her voice crackling with excitement as she pricked herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming. "Thanks to you and your power, Pleo!"

Pleo squawked and looked around him, and realized that the wind was blowing over his wings, his feet were sailing through the air, and that far, far below him was the sea. Why, this meant that...

"Ah!" he chirped out of overjoyed triumph. "We're flying! We're flying!"

"They'll be busy for a while," Elty grunted as he looked back at the ship in the distance. The Growlithe spat a few embers in the direction of the ship before sighing and sinking into Pleo's feathers. "Talk about your close shaves, though-"

Only for the faint, unmistakeable sound of a bellowing Samurott's voice to ring out in the distance.

"Shoot him down! Now!"

"Huh?!" Pleo cried, as he craned his head about. "What's-?!"

All of a sudden, a bright, searing gout of fire passed by the tips of his wings. The Lugia recoiled, and much as any young Pokémon that has had the misfortune of narrowly dodging an attack of that sort...

"AAAAAAH!"

He screamed and desperately tried to get away. Pleo pitched forward and flapped desperately away from where the light came from. Nida and Elty clung on to his feathers as tight as they could, the sea below suddenly feeling much more dangerously distant than in the initial euphoria surrounding their escape.

"Quick, to the left!" Elty's voice cried out in a panic. "To the left!"

Pleo tilted his wings and lurched abruptly to the left... of all the times to not have this 'turning' thing down… Couldn't it have been sometime when other Pokémon weren't attacking them? While Pleo's passengers struggled to fight off vertigo as Team Traveler's predicament continued, a frigid, slender beam shot past him under his wing and carried on past him, prompting the Growlithe to hastily cry out...

"Your other left!"

"They're still coming!" Nida cried.

A large jet of water, another gout of fire, a coursing bolt of electricity. One after the other, attacks of the like that Nida had only seen the stronger Pokémon back home use, sailed on past Pleo's body. Still, they noticed that with each attack, they seemed to miss the white bird with wider and wider margins.

"Their shots are getting worse!" Elty barked. "We must be getting out of their range!"

"Just hang in there, Pleo!" Nida reassured. "We're almost free!"

"Yeah! We're losing the-!" Elty began, only to see a bright, blinding flash from the deck of the now miniscule ship... and rapidly come closer and closer.

"Aw, kur-"

The next thing that anyone could remember was a sudden, searing pain swallowing up their bodies, followed by the hazy feeling of their bodies getting thrown through the air and the stars in the sky turning into an indistinct, rapidly-passing blur as everything faded to black.


Were they conscious, Team Traveller would have been treated to an impressive view further along their trajectory. Faintly lit by the stars and heavenly bodies, there was an island consisting of a low and worn-down peak that was shrouded in forests, its shores lined with dense mangroves. Much like Tromba, it too was partially covered in fog, though said fog clung to the eastern shoreline, unlike the veil that hung from Tromba's peaks.

And last but not least, there was a settlement among the mangroves a ways west of the fog, one that was most curious in design. Whereas Tromba had been built on firm ground, in this settlement, the docks and the sparsely placed buildings near them were perched on stilts in the water among the mangrove trees. Every so often, a ladder or rickety set of stairs would lead up along one of them, up to a much thicker network of huts and walkways that were nestled among the branches.

The part of the town in the treetops was a bit more active than Tromba would have been at that time of night, if not by much. There was a shop that had been fashioned after a Kecleon's head at a split in a slow, meandering river. Its scaly owner dozed on the counter as a Spinarak, apparently his partner, waited attentively, occasionally calling out to the occasional passing figure.

A few short treetops (and about as many crossings over the river) away from the Kecleon Market was a tangle of roots that crossed the river. The roots, coupled with heaps of twigs glued together with mud, formed a barrier set inland from an estuary whose design evidenced three purposes: its narrow gaps kept aquatic Pokémon passing in and out in a neat and orderly manner, it prevented ships from sailing up the river, and it acted as an anchor to the settlement's docks. In a shack, perched in an overlooking mangrove tree's branches, a Shuckle was busily shuffling around clay cups to tired-looking Pokémon who traded stories about a recent haul, the lot of them apparently sailors that had just straggled into port chattering lazily about a recent offshore sighting of a shifty-looking ship with golden sails and a mast torn off just above the stump. And, at around the time Team Traveller was attempting to dodge attacks thrown at them as they flew... a Tepig, a Purrloin, and a Venipede stood a few bends upstream on a walkway among the branches that passed in front of an interconnected collection of huts along the treetops, looking through pieces of paper attached to a wooden board.

"Venner, are we seriously picking through listings at night?" the orange pig asked, giving an unimpressed snort as he looked about the sparse layer of papers on the board. "I thought that you ran a tighter ship than this!"

"This wasn't my plan, Francoeur... We would've gotten them in the morning if Actor here didn't make us waste the entire day waiting on some glorified ribbons at the docks!" the Venipede chittered. The venomous creature paused from rubbing his antennae over a posting about someone's 'lost marbles' to turn and leer at the Purrloin. "And what kind of stupidnom de scène is 'Viroqua' anyways?"

"It was Virokoe. And I'll have you know that I used to have quite the following back among Giotto's culture scene thanks to having an eye for effects like those 'glorified ribbons'!" the violet cat hissed back. "Not that a pair of common Hunters like you two could appreciate it!"

The Venipede and the Tepig traded unamused looks with each other, before the Fire-Type broke the silence with an exasperated sigh.

"Yes, it takes such a refined Pokémon to call Rescue Team members 'Hunters' like a run-of-the-mill sailor."

"Must have certainly been one interesting dive you used to work at, that's for sure-" the Venipede grumbled, only for his words to suddenly die in his mouth. The creature suddenly noticed a faint flash off in the distance from the corner of his eye, and abruptly whirled around.

"Eh? Did you see something?" the Tepig asked. The bug's companions then turned, and also saw further flashes on the horizon, some dimmer, some stronger. And then all of a sudden…

"They just… Stopped," the Purrloin murmured to himself.

By chance, 'Actor' looked up at the moon, just in time to see an indistinct shape slip past it.

"Ah! Wait a minute!" he cried out. "I think that's a Pokémon up there!"

The three looked about the sky, scanning here and there for any sign of the creature that just passed in front of the moon. Fortuitously, the group happened to pass their gazes over to the fog that rose up from the eastern shoreline, where they saw three forms suddenly slip into the haze. The trio turned to each other and looked at each other blankly.

"Did… They just fly into the fog?" the Tepig asked, blinking uneasily at the curtain of mist out on the eastern side of the island.

"Whelp, that's someone who's going to need to be bailed out," Venner grumbled.

"Mmm hmm, that's certainly-" the Purrloin said to himself, just in time to hear the Venipede begin to scuttle off on a walkway in the direction of the path to the local Mystery Dungeon. "Hey! Where are you going?!"

"Um… Hello? Rescue Team here?" the Bug-Type chittered back, clicking his mandibles impatiently. "Just what do you think those Pokémon are going to need right about now?"

"We would be able to avoid the competition for the listing if we went out and got them now," Francoeur added. "It's a textbook rescue! Nothing un Gruikui, un Venipatte, et un Chacripancouldn't pull off!"

All eyes then turned to 'Actor', who after an uneasy, scowling pause, finally answered back.

"Bugh, I don't believe you two... I just groomed myself an hour ago!" 'Actor' complained, before he turned back to the sparsely-populated mission board. "But I suppose if we can find them somewhere on the upper floors, it's worth a shot."

"So stop stalling and let's go already!" Venner cried. The Venipede scuttled off to the east, his teammates dashing off after him all the while.


The first thing that Elty felt when he woke up was a faint prick, and another, and another.

"Elty, come on! Get up!"

He heard the spike-ball's voice. So he hadn't been knocked into the Spirit World by that beam, not that 'fire and brimstone with Houndour sniffing at his bottom'- as he had heard an opposing Grass-Type threaten a few raids back- really sounded like a punishment. Unless… Being stuck with the Nidoran for all eternity was his punishment.

"Wha-?! Hey, wait! I never agreed to die with you!" the Growlithe yipped, throwing his eyes open and springing to his feet. Only to yelp out of pain and stumble back down to the ground.

"Elty, stop joking!" the Nidoran huffed back weakly, thrusting her face into the Growlithe's vision. "This is serious!"

Oh great, he was stuck with her in life still. Nida was covered in singed fur and barbs; the incoming beam had not been kind to her at all, and probably not to himself either, Elty guessed. He then looked over and noticed that behind her, Pleo was sprawled out along the ground, still out cold, his breast rising and falling in shallow breaths.

"We need to get him up! Ahora mismo!" Nida cried to the Growlithe. "We don't have much time!"

"What are you going on about-?" the dog spluttered back, only to be cut off by the faint sound of whistling wind.

Elty whirled around and looked up, where he saw a chain of broken tree branches, evidently where they had fallen in. It was what lay beyond that which made his heart suddenly sink.

Beyond the treetops, where the moon and stars ought to have been, was the sight of an inverted forest canopy, a likewise-inverted floor distantly visible in little bits and pieces on the ground. Everything suddenly came together for him.

"Oh no…"

The beam that struck them and sent them tumbling through the air… It knocked them into a Mystery Dungeon!

Into one that neither Nida nor Elty recognized, and in a place that neither of them knew…

And it would not be long before the Distortion's reshaping winds claimed the floor they were all on.

Chapter Text

The stretch of sea between the third and fourth Spiral beacons (named after the designs painted on the beacons marking this particular sea route) between Kenobi and Tromba was inviting that day. The waves lolled along with their normal undulations and marine Pokémon occasionally swam about between them giving spirited calls to one another. The sea air was crisp and refreshing, as it tends to be in the immediate aftermath of a recently-subsided storm.

Although the storm that passed upwind of the third Spiral beacon the night before was gone, the stretch of sea route was still marred by the presence of a two-masted ship with lavender sails with purple squares captained by an ill-tempered Mothim. The Bug-Type flitted here and there in his species' usual, erratic fashion. Every so often, he would bark orders to subordinates on deck, and to those escorting his craft in the skies above and the seas below.

It had been five hours since Lyn was supposed to have passed the fourth beacon, long enough for word to get out and reach Kenobi Island and the ears of its Administrator. The absence of news was neither expected, nor desired, and gave the Mothim plenty to grumble about to himself on his voyage over. Lyn never seemed to have trouble reining in those Tromban peasants before, could he really have been caught so off-guard by some inclement weather rolling in earlier than expected?

A call went up from a Pidgeot flying alongside the ship, prompting Ellsberg to over to some rigging along the side to perch and look off into the distance. Just a ways off starboard was a three-masted ship- if you could call it that.

The sails were torn to ribbons and the net-bedding normally towed from the hull for the sea escorts to rest on at night snapped and trailed after the ship in a tangled knot in the water. The rigging fared little better, and was strewn haphazardly here and there twisted up among the masts… So in spite of the reports the Mothim heard, Lyn hadn't been able to outrun the inclement weather after all.

"Of all the times to get ahead of yourself, Lyn," Ellsberg sighed to himself. The Mothim called to his lavender-scarved subordinates to bring the ship to a halt. The Pokémon aboard steadied their footing and the cry went out to drop the anchor. Not too long afterwards, the ship slowed, thanks to the escorts whipping up a sudden headwind and opposing current against the ship's present course. As the vessel slowed, and the splash of a stone anchor hitting the water sounded over the waves, the ship's moth captain hopped up and fluttered off towards Lyn's stricken ship. Even from that distance, it was apparent that Lyn's crew was busy. All over the deck and in the seas and skies around the damaged boat, Pokémon darted here and there attempting to patch together temporary fixes to their craft. Even so, their numbers seemed unusually sparse... Ellsberg was sure that the Samurott had brought along more escorts than the number that paid it watch at that moment, and that there were more deckhands when he left than the skeleton crew on the deck...

As for Lyn's whereabouts, it took Ellsberg a moment, but after having his attention drawn to a wake approaching from the port side, he saw the ship's captain clamber up to the deck from the stricken ship's side. As the Mothim flew closer, it became more and more apparent the Samurott was in a sour mood, the Water-Type having one of his seamitars drawn and clenched in his paws in spite of the lack of any obvious target for them. Just as Ellsberg flitted up to Lyn's side, the moth flinched and caught his ears as the Samurott bellowed into the face of an unfortunate Nuzleaf with a bandaged stomach who had set down a damaged block and tackle to catch his breath on deck. The captain's yells drew a startled yelp from the dryad, and prompted him to pick the crate back up and dart away as fast as his legs allowed him to under such strain.

Ellsberg shook his head, and then cleared his throat, prompting the still-scowling Samurott to grudgingly turn his way.

"I see that the early storm caught you off-guard," the Mothim grumbled. "Administrator Farn's been wondering about why the sighters didn't see your ship go past the fourth Spiral this morning."

"Mrph… Something came up last night," Lyn growled back. Was this… hesitance? Obviously it would not do much good to overly injure the pride of a Commissioner, but even so…

If Lyn had made it to the third Spiral when the spotters there said he had, he should have been out of the storm's path when it blew through...

Then what had happened here last night?

"Well, obviously! I don't think I've ever seen your ship in such a state before!" Ellsberg piped back. Things were in a sorrier state than the mangled sails and tangled ropes left on from afar. As the Mothim fluttered about the deck of Lyn's craft, he noticed that it seemed that half the Pokémon had bruises or bandaged wounds on them. Except… something wasn't adding up.

There were far too many injured crewmates from the tumult of a simple overnight storm. And upon closer inspection, the damage to Lyn's vessel seemed to radiate outward. There were chunks of the railing on the other end that were broken and splintered from heavy objects careening through them and into the sea. Why, it was as if the storm winds had clustered in one place and blown out in all directions like the fiery burst of a Blast Seed! And there was also a nagging concern from earlier that struck the Bug-Type as all the more pertinent now...

"Where on earth is the rest of your crew?"

The Samurott gritted his teeth for a moment, before he exhaled and started to answer the Bug-Type.

"The storm swept away a couple things last night," he answered. "They're a little preoccupied with recovering them right no-"

Only for a panting Crawdaunt with a binding over some cracks on his thorax's exoskeleton to clamber up the side of the ship behind the Samurott and dash red and white crustacean plates still dripping seawater when he suddenly cried out to Lyn...

"Captain! We've canvassed the second search area on the bow end! Still no sign of the Lugia or the stowaw-!"

The crawdad's words died in his mouth as he saw a Mothim with a Second-Rank scarf fluttering in front of him with a face that was slipping increasingly into shock. More concerningly, Lyn was just to the side of the bug, and glaring daggers at the now-paling creature.

"I… wasn't supposed to say that out loud, was I-?" the Crawdaunt stammered, only to be cut off with a sudden thwack as the Samurott drew his blade and struck the Pokémon with its flat.

"ARGH!"

The hapless Water-Type went flying over the deck's railing and into the sea below with a splash, bobbing up to the water's surface dazed and stunned.

"Get back out there and be a little more observant of your surroundings this time!" the Samurott barked after the Crawdaunt. The creature quickly swam back away from the ship, his quiet wincing being swiftly replaced with a startled Mothim's buzzing.

"What?! You mean this isn't storm damage?!" Ellsberg fluttered around nervously as his mind began to put two and two together about its culprit. "You let the sea god get away?!"

"Ellsberg, does it look like I'd ever let anything just 'get away'?!" Lyn spat, clearly unpleased with the wording of the notary's question. The Samurott shook his head and gestured at an Ursaring preoccupied with helping to sort out wadded up pieces of one of the main masts. "Misha downed him last night! I saw the flash and smoke with my own eyes!"

"Then where is he?!" the bug insisted. The Mothim flitting anxiously about the Samurott, Commissioners didn't just lose Pokémon like that! Let alone Pokémon that were pivotal to the Company's future fortunes!

"Does it really need an explanation?" Lyn growled back, gesturing at the lolling waves around the ship. "We're currently doing a search of the nearby seafloor for him and those meddlesome brats. One of the sea Pokémon around here probably found them and brought them into the Subway."

Of course! The Cradle was still in one piece, so that would logically preclude anything too drastic happening to the Guardian of the Seas. So the Subway, the maze of breathable passages and Mystery Dungeons under the waves that crossed the seafloor and seamounts like strands on an Ariados' web… that was the most logical place that the seabird could've escaped to!

"I'll send out word for reinforcements as soon as I pull back into port," Ellsberg cried, flapping his wings anxiously. "The-"

"No, you won't," Lyn interrupted, his voice taking a growling seriousness to it. "The Subway's riddled with choke points and the Guardian would be in no condition to travel far along in it. This isn't an unmanageable situation… yet."

"Lyn, are you daft?" Ellsberg spluttered. "The Subway leads to almost every island in the Cradle-!"

Any further objections melted into a yelp as the Samurott caught Ellsberg by the scarf. Before the Mothim could so much as react, he found himself staring into Lyn's smoldering eyes.

"I'm perfectly aware of the potential disadvantages, Ellsberg, and they're more than manageable given the mission the Board gave me. Are you forgetting that they specifically asked not to draw attention to the extraction? You can't dismiss rumblings of Legendaries roaming about as 'peasants' tall tales' when they're coming from major settlements!" he snapped back. "Just whatdo you think the future would hold for the Pokémon that compromised the Company's interests by needlessly running his mouth off instead of getting out of the way from a quick and quiet canvassing of the nearby Subway passages? My inability to pass my current post as Commissioner down to you would be the least of your worries!"

The Bug-Type paused and quietly blanched. The Board wouldn't be happy about what happened, no… But the otter raised a good point. Ellsberg himself hadn't filled in even his own crew to the specifics of what Lyn's mission was about, precisely because the more mouths there were to silence, the harder it was to keep things mum. "Loose lips sink ships," or so the saying (created by a Pokémon that had lips, clearly) went. And as for the fate of the lips that sank the Company's plans for the young Protector, especially if it was because of a mere Second-Rank like him… Well, "expulsion from the Company's ranks and abject poverty" was the least unpalatable of several unpleasant possibilities that came to the moth's mind.

"Point taken," Ellsberg gulped. The Mothim felt the Samurott's grip release and the Bug-type quickly flitted back away from the Commissioner. He would need to remember to give Lyn a larger berth when he was in a poor mood he thought to himself, before turning back to try and settle one remaining loose end...

"But then what am I supposed to tell Farn and the rest of the Board?"

"Tell them that I've had a slight complication," the Samurott answered. "The Guardian of the Seas damaged my ship, but crippled himself in the process and exposed himself to imminent recapture."

Ellsberg's face fell. Those were surely not the words Farn would want to hear immediately after "the Protector escaped," but… there weren't really any better ways of mincing the situation. Kenobi's Administrator had eyes that were said to pierce through walls as if they were empty air, and her perception of attempts to mislead her were similarly sharp. There were few things more intimidating than an Administrator crossed, and given how little Farn thought of would-be hoodwinkers and how intimidating she already was while at ease… Well...

"Let's… go with that, then," the Mothim answered. The Bug-Type perched on a railing and looked back at the Samurott. "Just don't make me regret this, Lyn."

And then he took to the air, fluttering back to the smaller ship from starboard side of the battered craft. As the moth slipped from view, Lyn turned and looked out to sea, growling under his breath.

"Where are you, you little whelp? You couldn't have been blown that far..."


In spite of Lyn's estimation of the Ursaring's strength, Team Traveler was in fact blown all the way to an island, coming to a crashing stop on a Mystery Dungeon's floor filled with a dense forest in the dead of night.

Woosh

One that would not remain as it was for much longer. After Elty came to, he and Nida desperately tried to drag Pleo's still-limp body along with them through the rough corridors amidst the tangled maze of trees and shrubs. A process that in spite of their efforts, bore little fruit as the young Protector was much bigger and bulkier than either of the two.

"Well, wherever we are, it's not on Tromba, otherwise Pataki and her friends would have sensed it. There's no way my badge hasn't gotten pressed at least once in all of this!" Nida panted as she tried to shove Pleo's body ahead from behind. "If there are Psychics watching this Mystery Dungeon at all, they don't know to look for us right now."

Elty meanwhile tugged along at the young Lugia's wing, pulling him along off of a mossy patch and into a section covered in fallen leaves and twigs.

"Nngh…"

"Hey, wait!" the Growlithe barked. "I think he's getting up!"

Pleo's body suddenly recoiled and shifted, his body curling up and thrashing as if someone had drawn a fire to it. He murmured incoherently, something about "get away" and "falling", until all of a sudden-

"A-AAAH!"

Nida and Elty recoiled as Pleo suddenly threw his eyes open and charged ahead wildly, tripping over a root.

"N-No! St-Stop! It hurts! The light hur-!"

"Pleo! Calm down!" Nida cried. The Nidoran rushing to the white bird's side and nuzzling into the bird's breast. "You're okay! You're okay! They're gone now..."

Pleo panted and his pupils slowly returned to a larger and less panicked appearance. His movements were awkward and jerky much as Nida and Elty's were, clearly suffering from the effects of the Hyper Beam and the subsequent fall through the fog and canopy. The Lugia looked around and saw that sure enough, they were all no longer at sea, but in a place that seemed like the path up to the Mystery Dungeon back on Tromba.

"W-We got away?" he asked, the Protector's voice betraying a desperate longing for an end to his ordeal. No more Company. No more growling and glaring Pokémon. No more painful, burning rays of light. No more falling. Just to be able to go home and rest alongside all their friends and family back in Bluewhorl…

Nida bit her tongue as she tried to think of how to explain their predicament to the young bird, only for Pleo to abruptly get shoved forward from behind.

"We're away enough!" Elty yipped. "But we need to get moving! Now!"

Again and again, the dog pushed Pleo forward and back onto the path, drawing pained and bewildered cries with each shove.

"O-Ouch! Wait!" he squawked. "Why are we moving so fast?!"

Woosh

Suddenly a stiff wind coursed through the corridor, sending leaves and dust flying pell-mell all while disturbing the fur and feathers of Team Traveller's members. Pleo looked puzzledly at the sudden wind, and he noticed that both Nida and Elty looked shaken.

"Did you feel that? The floor's about to get cleared out by the Distortion here!" Elty cried. "If we can't find the stairs or a place to hunker down, we'll get blown who knows where!"

Blown… Who knows where? Like with the beam of light earlier? With all of the searing pain it brought? Pleo's eyes widened again and he beat out his wings in panicked flails.

"I d-don't wanna to get blown away again!" he cried.

"None of us are getting blown anywhere!" Nida squeaked, flailing her paws to try and draw Pleo's attention. "We can find a place to get away from the winds! We just need to stick together!"

"Yeah, that way!" the Growlithe grunted, pawing off in the direction of the path.

The three hastily returned to the path, moving much quicker now that Pleo could move on his own… Not like that said much. No matter how much Pleo tried, he simply wasn't able to muster the energy to get airborne, and was forced to waddle and hop along the ground. Nida and Elty were not much better as their dashing was reduced to a middling, hobbling gait by the wounds all over their bodies.

They went down corridor after corridor, but every way they turned, there were no stairs nor sight of the comforting fog that marked a possible stable zone. Those zones were patches of steady ground and clear weather on dungeon floors which the Distortion's winds had left untouched. They hadn't even seen a single seed or orb all this time, and by extension, none of those so-called 'Escape Orbs' that Nida had heard of, which were supposedly lifesavers in situations like these. Only dead ends, and intersections, and-

Woosh!

The sound of the wind had grown much louder and closer- there were not many winds left before the floor would finally be reclaimed by the Distortion. It was something that Nida was grateful Pleo hadn't experienced yet, but even then...

"A-Aah! N-Nida!"

The wind did little to assuage his panic, as the little Protector whirled about and tried to look for somewhere, anywhere where he could run to.

"We're trying! We're trying, Pleo!" Nida cried back, desperately pleading with the young Protector to calm down. "Just- Please! No te rindas! Don't panic right now!"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Elty drawing near a patch of well-packed dust on the ground, and sniffing at it.

"Elty?!" the Nidoran hissed. "Can you not wander off at a time like-?!"

"Didn't you notice?" he exclaimed. "The leaves and dust didn't get kicked up as badly as last time!"

Nida and Pleo looked around and sure enough, in this particular corridor, the leaves on the ground had shifted only about as much as they would have in a stiff breeze, as opposed to the heavy wind they felt earlier. The Growlithe suddenly stopped at a curtain of vines and called out.

"There!"

The Growlithe breathed a cone of embers at a curtain of vines. The plants shriveled under the heat and a few of the vines fell away, revealing the beginnings of a curtain of fog in the gaps behind them.

"H-Huh?!"

"Wait, that's a stable patch! But how on earth did you-?!"

"I didn't go into my first dungeon yesterday, you know!" Elty shot back. "Places near stable patches aren't affected by changes in the Distortion right away! So-!"

Woosh

That time, the leaves definitely moved much further, and the sound of the wind in the background had become a deafening, howling roar.

"Hurry up and get in there!" the dog barked.

The three ran in past the vines as the howling outside continued and the winds grew stronger and stronger. As they progressed further down the passage, they noticed that the mist had started to grow thicker. Why this was like the fog at the entrance! But… travelling through it...

"H-How are we supposed to make it through in time?" Pleo squawked.

"Hold onto my tail! It'll be close, but I think I can get us through!" Elty shouted "And no matter what, don't stop for anything!"

Pleo latched onto Elty's tail with his beak as Nida hurriedly hopped atop Pleo's shoulders, and the Growlithe was off. The little orange dog hurried ahead, leaving Pleo to follow whatever way his head was yanked. The fog grew thicker and thicker with each hurried step forward as the howling grew more and more garbled. As legs and tails vanished into the haze, Elty's pace grew slower and slower; apparently he couldn't rush tracking a path even in these circumstances.

Pleo grew more and more panicked, but still, he did not dare let go of the furry fluff in his mouth. As the sound of the wind grew more and more incoherent, it suddenly dawned on the group… the noise was also growing weaker and weaker. Elty's pace started to quicken, and the team began to little by little hear the muddled din fade into progressive silence, followed by the smell of grass and flowers growing thicker and thicker.

Sure enough, the mist started to clear out, revealing a small meadow next to a high stony ledge that was ringed by a wall of fog in all directions.

Elty stumbled forward, and collapsed onto a small clump of short ferns. Nida tumbled off of Pleo and onto the ground.

"Ah-aaaah…"

The Nidoran stayed on the ground, her legs not cooperating and her breaths heavy as she couldn't help but have her mind drift back over and over again to how close the team had come to being swept away to gods-knows-where.

Her ears then pricked up as a soft sniffling noise reached her ears. Nida staggered to her feet and flared out her barbs, until she realized that the sound was...

"Pleo?"

The Nidoran looked over and saw that as Pleo continued to sniffle, tears dribbled from his eyes and onto the ground. The Nidoran limped over to the bird and sank her muzzle into his plumage, stroking her partner.

"Pleo," she pleaded. "Please don't cry."

"Yeah, it's alright," Elty's voice added, its owner having staggered up to his feet from his resting place. "We're safe… er… ish."

"B-But we don't even know where we are!" Pleo exclaimed in between continued sniffles. Nida tried to think of something to say back to him, but… she couldn't think of anything, the awful truth of Pleo's statement sinking in as her ears began to droop. They really didn't have any idea of where they were. They were in a Mystery Dungeon that was completely unlike the one on Tromba, one that could be in the middle of the sea for all they knew.

Was there really any way to know where they were? All they had to work with that moment was that they were in the middle of a clearing in an island of stability, located in the midst of a constantly-shifting Distortion. Their only other clues consisting of a few trees, some low plants, and a ledge covered in writing made from charcoal and berry juice a few paces over.

"Eighth floor… Eastern Groves," Elty murmured to himself as he stared at a small patch of script on the ledge. "I swear that I've heard of a dungeon named that before…"

Nida hopped over to get a better look at the scrawls. This was writing, much like she had seen on signs and pieces of paper back home... Hold on a minute! This was writing! A Pokémon's writing!

"Pleo, we're not the only Pokémon that have gotten stuck here before!" Nida said, watching as Pleo's crying started to die down.

"We- We aren't?"

"Really! We aren't! Look!" she replied, as her eyes settled along the wall filled with runes of various colors and shapes, onto a line of similar, but sloppier symbols in black streaks from charcoal. "Look at this line right below the one Elty read! It's leaving encouragement for Pokémon stuck like us, Pleo."

The Growlithe went up to the message, stared at it for a moment, then scowled and tilted his head.

"'If you're stuck here reading this, always look on the bright side of life'... Oi, are you sure that message wasn't sarcasm?" he asked. "Because the messages right next to this one look like something you'd see on the alley outside a juice bar, or the inside of a lat-"

Nida swiftly hissed for silence from the Growlithe and glared at him as the dog shot a sour scowl back and roll his eyes. Darn it Elty, it was encouragement! How sincere or not it was was unimportant when it was making Pleo settle down right now.

"The writing here means someone was stuck here once before, and they got rescued later on," Nida quickly reassured Pleo. Her eyes then drifted towards Elty's bag, when a sudden thought crossed her mind. She dug through it and saw that, buried at the bottom, was an envelope, a piece of paper, and a small piece of charcoal to write on it with (if with a couple obvious bite marks at one end). Not as much as she'd have wanted, but Elty at least didn't go into things totally unprepared with that bag of his. She fished out the three articles and proudly showed them to Pleo.

"And we have a way of letting them know we're here, too!" she explained. "As long as we stick together and stay calm, we'll get rescued just like whoever wrote that message on the wall!"

"Well, you'll need to let the Distortion's winds blow it out," Elty corrected. "But we could be in worse straits right now."

Pleo seemed to have cheered up, and the little Protector brought a wing to his beak and paused in thought...

"Can you let me send it off, then?" he asked.

"Yeah," Nida replied, giving a tired smile back to the Protector as she began to get up. "I think we can do tha-"

And abruptly flinched as she chanced to stumble shoulder-first onto the ground after losing her balance on a pebble, sending a jolt of pain shooting through her body from an obscured wound under her pelt. The Nidoran lurched her body back up, wincing, and flattened out her ears, shaking her head.

"Um… How about after we patch ourselves up first?"


Recovery went less than smoothly. Much to Nida's dismay, it turned out that the berry crate that she and Elty hid in on Lyn's ship contained primarily cash crops, meaning that most of Elty's loot from the box were useless for treating wounds. Between the three of them, all they had to work with were two lonely Oran Berries- ones that hadn't been touched by the effects of a Mystery Dungeon's Distortion, at that. The Nidoran and Growlithe took turns applying the fruits and dividing up the pulp, if a bit more sparingly than either would have liked, and attempted to make up the difference with some inert berries in the bag and rest on the clearing's ground.

The aches and pains all over the three Pokémon's bodies dulled a little, but failed to completely fade away. As time went by, the rescue request was written and sealed in the envelope, while Pleo's lavender Company scarf was charred and rubbed through the dirt to get rid of that troublesome purple square that would need to be explained to rescuers. The team's energies then shifted to keeping a dutiful watch for any potential emerging figures from the surrounding fog, as their lingering aches and the tedium of a long wait without much to do but look at the haze around them set in.

It became harder and harder to tell how long the three were in there. The mist-shrouded sky above didn't even allow the sight of the Travellers crossing overhead to give some clue as to how long the three were in the clearing. The little Protector in the group began to fidget nervously and pace about, asking over and over again...

"How much longer are we going to stay here?"

Pleo's eyes darted here and there at the surrounding curtain of fog as his inquiry went unanswered again and again. Elty scowled, of all the times to be pestered with repeated questions, this wasn't one of them. The Growlithe sprang up and thrust his muzzle into Pleo's face.

"Um, hello?" he snapped. "We almost got blown away with the floor! Don't be in such a rush to get moving!"

Pleo squawked and hastily beat his wings to hop up onto a tree branch away from Elty, stumbling a bit from still-weaken balance when he reached it. As Nida watched her teammates butt heads with each other, she lowered her ears in dismay, grumbling under her breath about the Growlithe's attitude. Things weren't exactly going smoothly among the group, even with their already… er… shaky relationships with each other.

Nida bit her tongue to try and avoid blurting out her frustrations with the two. Why couldn't Pleo realize that they didn't have any better idea than he did of what was going on out there? And why did Elty need to be such an obnoxious snot at a time like this? That's when it struck her- maybe the team needed something to do other than just sit here. Being stuck in one place not knowing what would happen to them surely neither helped tempers nor anxieties. They needed something... something like...

"Why don't we try checking outside? It has been a while, Elty," the Nidoran suggested. "And we should be able to tell if the outside's still in flux by the time we hit the deeper parts of the fog anyways."

The bird and dog looked at each other a moment; after thinking it over, a cautious "Okay" from Pleo, and an irritated "Fine" from Elty, the group decided to set out through the curtain of fog. After coming to the conclusion that trusting someone to latch onto a poisonous spike lump was less-than-ideal given the circumstances, Elty was again selected to lead the group back through the barrier and into the Mystery Dungeon. Much as had happened when coming into the clearing, as the group ventured deeper into the fog, the world around them faded little by little and their senses became distorted in the mist. The group's pace was much slower and methodical that time, with the only company aside from each other during the trek being the sounds of footsteps and Nida occasionally murmuring soft words of encouragement to Pleo to keep him moving in the unsettling haze.

When the fog started to clear up again, the first thing that struck the group was the lack of sound. A sign the winds had subsided, hopefully. As the team trudged on, they felt a barky substance under their feet and saw a dim light up ahead. Why if the ceiling were lower and Nida didn't know any better, she'd think the team had found a passage back into her Mami and Papi's burrow!

The fog finally faded away as the group followed the light out into a rough corridor formed by tall trees and thickets in between their trunks. They looked back and saw that they had come from a great, hollowed log that had been toppled over to form a rough tunnel, the fog still faintly visible in it. Above them was a milky-white layer, much as sea fog appears at night when suspended over the ground- just thin enough for the light of the stars and moon to muddle in, but just thick enough to muddle and obscure their shapes.

It was a place to start, at least. Nida sighed and turned back to the log as Elty and Pleo still looked about their surroundings, where she drug her feet through the dirt to form a cross-shape in front of it. No sense in losing track of a perfectly good hiding spot, at least.

"Pleo, let's have you try and give the letter a head start with a gust and see if there's any supplies we can gather on this floor," Nida said. "We don't know how long we'll be down here, so it would be best to try and prepare for the worst."

"Oi, don't forget skarby!" the Growlithe insisted. "Since we're stuck and out here anyways, we might as well see if something good turns up!"

Nida rolled her eyes and decided not to dignify Elty's words with a response, instead turning to the young Lugia with the sealed distress message in her mouth. She saw that his strength had returned enough to get himself airborne as he flapped up and circled a few times above the team before coming back down in a clumsy landing. The Nidoran set the letter down on the cross in the dirt and smiled slightly, clearly he just needed to get his blood flowing.

"Got all that, Pleo?"

"I… I think so," he replied.

"Alright, holler out if you find something!"

After leaving Pleo to blow the letter off deep into the floor with an awkward but serviceable Whirlwind, the team set off. Nida lead the way as Elty followed closely on her heels and Pleo took to the air behind them, coming back down to earth every now and then. His flight was still erratic and labored from a mix of inexperience and fatigue, but he tracked the team well enough to maintain a constant-ish course.

This dungeon seemed to be somewhat like the rainforest back home. There was the leaf litter on the ground, the occasional root and upended log to cross... Except there was also the fact that everything felt damp, much as the forest at home did during wet season. The undergrowth also was denser than anything Nida remembered seeing near the town or paths, and the trees made the ones on Tromba look like dwarfs. The branches above were filled with plants growing on them whose roots dangled, their shape and pigmentation making them seem like colorful, leafy stars above their heads.

So not that similar to home once you really thought about it...

"Ow!"

All of a sudden, Nida felt a sharp jab shoot through her foot. She recoiled as Pleo and Elty cried out and ran up to her.

"What's wrong?!" Pleo cried out.

"Don't worry, I'm fine," the Nidoran replied, shaking her foot. "I just stepped on something…"

The blue rabbit lowered her head to the ground and sniffed at some leaves, where she noticed a point sticking out from underneath them. She nosed the leaves away and underneath them was a sharp, wooden spike.

"Wait!" she exclaimed. "I think I found something!"

"Eh?" Pleo asked, as he fluttered over to eye the strange spike. "What is it?"

"It's a Stick," Elty answered, sniffing at the long and sharp wooden barb. "You throw it at other Pokémon."

"So… Like a Gravelerock?" Pleo asked.

"A worse Gravelerock, maybe," Nida murmured, frowning as she scooped up the stick and slipped it into Elty's bag. Sticks and barbs of their ilk were always much more cumbersome objects to throw than Gravelerocks, especially for Pokémon that usually went about on all fours like Nidoran. You couldn't arc them thanks to their oblong shape, which made throwing them from behind cover or teammates awkward and difficult. Still, she supposed that it was better than nothing; it could help them in a pinch at the least-

"A-Aah!"

All of a sudden, Pleo pitched forward and tumbled onto the ground. As the little Lugia staggered to get back up, Nida and Elty's fur stood on end. There was a barb embedded in between Pleo's feathers along his right wing's carpal joint, dribbling noxious purple fluid from its end.

"You! Get out of our territory!"

The culprit of the Poison Sting quickly became apparent as a Weedle dropped down chittering angrily from an overhead branch, accompanied by a leering Hoppip.

"Yeah! You can't just disturb a Pokémon's sleep like that!" the Hoppip fumed, bouncing up and down angrily in the air before she expelled some greenish powder at the group.

The three hastily scattered as the powder spread and settled on the ground where they once were, coating it with a fine dust. Oh great, a battle with ferals, just what the team did not need right now.

"Hang in there!" Nida hollered. The Nidoran took the barb back from Elty's bag and whigged it at the Hoppip. "We're gonna have to fight them off!"

The barb struck the Grass-Type's side, making her yelp and tumble down to the floor. As the pink Pokémon slowly picked herself off the ground, Elty dashed towards the Weedle

"Sorry about waking you up!" he growled. "Lemme make it up with a warm welcome!"

The Growlithe inhaled, and before the Bug-Type could scuttle away, spat a clump of cinders at his face, sending the creature screeching on the ground rubbing at his burns.

"Hah! Bet you haven't gotten one that warm before, have y-?"

Before Elty could finish taunting, he suddenly breathed in and abruptly started hacking and spluttering. When he looked up, he saw that the Hoppip had scattered another batch of powder directly onto him, this one leaving sickly purple dust-like particles all over his fur.

"Stop it!" a voice suddenly cried out. As Elty continued to try and catch his breath, he saw the Hoppip get caught by a sudden piercing gust. The creature shrieked as she was blown into a tree trunk alongside the thicket-lined path, and dropped down to the ground, twitching.

"A-Aaah! L-Leave me alone!"

The Weedle at this point had flown into a panic at the realization that he was all alone against the three remaining Pokémon. He promptly grabbed his pink Grass-Type ally and desperately drug her off into some bushes. Afterwards, some quiet, frightened whimpering came from the direction the Weedle fled to, eventually giving way to the sounds of a groaning creature stirring, a pair of bodies hastily tearing away through the brush, and finally... silence.

"And that'll teach you two to not attack other Pokémon for no reason!" Nida huffed after the pair of ferals. The Nidoran flared her ears, kicked a pebble into the bushes after them, and went over to recover the wooden barb she flung at the Hoppip. After becoming satisfied that the two Pokémon were gone, she turned back to her teammates. "They didn't hurt you guys too much, did they?"

Only to let the Stick slip out of her paws when she saw that both of them looked ill and their bodies' movements were labored and clumsy.

"Oh no."

"Urgh… K-Kurczę," Elty gagged. "I think they left a mark."

She saw that Elty's pelt around his snout and face was covered in purple dust. Poison Powder, and he had obviously breathed the particles in. As for the barb stuck in Pleo, that must have been...

"Is this 'poison' too, Nida?" Pleo asked, groaning as he rested on the ground to try and soothe his increasingly woozy head and stomach. "Do we have one of those 'Pechy' Berries to make it go away?"

"J-Just a second!" Nida stuttered as she went over and threw Elty's satchel open. "I'll get those Pecha Berries and then all of this will be-"

The Nidoran looked through the satchel. A Cleanse Orb, the piece of charcoal she used to write the distress letter with, Pleo's King's Rock… Eh?! She started dumping out the contents of the bag. There were definitely still berries in there alright… A Durin Berry (why had Elty bothered stealing one of those anyways?), a Pinkan Berry (they grew those back home?), but...

"Huh?!" she cried, staring wide-eyed at the Growlithe. "I could have sworn there were Pecha Berries in the crate with us!"

"What's that look for?" Elty growled back, the creature's legs wobbling under the strain of the venom in his body. "I just grabbed whatever was closest, alright?"

Nida blanched. The only things that she had seen in Elty's bag that weren't from Lyn's ship were the half-bitten lump of charcoal, a twine 'writing band' that Pokémon like Elty slipped over their forepaws to hold said charcoal in place for writing, Pleo's torn scarf, and his lucky charm! All of the other Oran Berries, all of the other Pecha Berries… all of them were either still at home with Crom, or presently in the team's stomachs. The Nidoran's mind raced, there had to be something they could do now! Maybe… Maybe…

"There- There should be a Pecha Berry on this floor, right?" she stammered. "We could try finding it!"

"All by yourself?" the Growlithe muttered.

Nida lowered her ears and leered back at the Growlithe. What kind of stupid question was that?

"Of course not!" she hissed. "What kind of tonto goes off alone in a Mystery Dungeon?!"

"The one who doesn't want to make poison seep in faster," Elty retorted with a gagging groan.

Nida's heart sank. The Growlithe brought up a good point. Turning around and going back to the stable zone would just be prolonging the inevitable of the poison overtaking Elty and Pleo. She couldn't go off all alone to look for a Pecha Berry. If she had run into those two ferals on her own earlier, they would have surely brought her to her knees. And if Elty and Pleo had to fight ferals like them in their current condition, they would likely not fare any better. They couldn't all go together to look for a Pecha Berry since they were all already weakened, and the poison would only get worse as they moved.

"N-Nida?" Pleo asked nervously. "What are we going to do?"

Nida looked down at the ground. Was there anything they could do? She tried over and over to think of something, but everything just boiled down to the same awful choices. She felt drops well up in her eyes as she began to see that no matter what the team did here, there wasn't any way that someone wasn't going to get hurt. All because of something stupid they could have avoided if they have had the chance to prepare like they did at home...

"Oi!"

Wait a minute, was that-? A voice?

"This is Team Chasseur of the Boisocéan Island Guild! Is anyone out there?!" it called out again, its tenor coming out as a bug-like chitter.

"We heard a struggle!" a mewling, feline voice added.

That- That was help! Travelers Above, there was a way out of this! Granted, there were any number of ways this could still go wrong, but what did the team have to lose at this point? Without thinking or bothering to blink away the mist in her eyes, Nida cried out to the voices with all her strength.

"W-We're right here! We need medical attention!"

Some startled murmures went up in the direction of the earlier voices, followed by the sounds of dashing footfalls against the leaf litter of a floor paths.

"Tiens bon, we're getting you out!" another voice interjected, intermixed with… snorts? Clearly the voice of some sort of earthier creature.

Nida looked down the bend of the path ahead and saw three Pokémon round the corner. There was a Venipede scuttling along in a faded black scarf with a white snowflake design, and two Pokémon in matching scarfs dashing along after him. They were a Tepig and a Purrloin, the former wearing his scarf in the same loose style that the Venipede and Team Traveller did, the latter curiously having tied his scarf up into a tight, skin-hugging band securing a tail that formed a carefully-splayed cravat. Almost as quickly as Team Traveller spotted them, the three strangers had run up to the beleaguered rescue team and began to size them up.

"Yeesh, you guys look terrible," the Tepig muttered. "Did you step on an Explosion Trap or something? I'm not sure there's even Pokémon down here that can singe you like that."

"It's a long- gargh… story," Elty began as he struggled to fight back retching, the Fire-Type lowering his head to the ground as his stomach grew more and more uncooperative.

"Ack!" the Purrloin hissed, hopping back away from the ill-looking dog. "If you're gonna vomit, do it in the bushes! I don't need that anywhere near my pelt!"

"They're poisoned… Actor, fish out the Pecha Berry from Francouer's bag and split it between the two," the Venipede chirped. "It won't be enough to dispel the poison entirely, but it should tide them over until we can get them to Maranda and the rest of the medics."

The Purrloin dug through the Tepig's bag and fished out a pink, heart-shaped berry from it. With one swift motion, he slipped a claw along it and sliced it into two pieces around a pit inside before pulling them apart. The purple cat then set about applying the halves' juices to the two's wounds. Plucking out the barb from Pleo's carpal joint to crush one half against it, and the other against Elty's muzzle to allow the juice to dribble down his sinuses. Much as in the case of Oran Berries, the pulpy remains were also not wasted, and set before the two pink-stained patients. Elty and Pleo greedily devouring their halves of the fruit as soon as they were laid out before them as Nida set to work putting all of the team's belongings back into their bag.

"Normally this would be about when we'd make pleasantries and all, but we'll keep this short since you're looking… well, awful," the Venipede sighed. "I'm Venner, the Chacripan's Actor-"

"I have a proper name, you know!" the Purrloin hissed as he licked up some Pecha juice from his paw. "And I'm the refined one of the lot. Not that you can really expect much from an outfit that literally has 'Hunter' in its name."

"Whatever," the Bug-Type harrumphed. "And the Gruikui's Francouer."

"Sorry our first meeting had to be this rough," the Tepig replied. "But since we're all here, mind telling us your names for the rescue log?"

"Er…" Nida began. Chacripan? Gruikui? But the two were a Purrloin and a Tepig! Lucky save or not, this was certainly an… interesting Rescue Team, the blue spike ball shaking her head before she cleared her throat and replied. "Well, I'm not really sure what you meant by half of that, but… I'm Nida."

"And I'm Eltenios," the Growlithe answered.

"'Elty' is fine for the Growlithe," she replied, lowering her ears and scowling at the orange dog.

"'Growlithe'?" the Tepig murmured to himself, tilting an ear back quizzically.

"It's the thing that you and the other swamp bugs on this island call a 'Caninos'," Actor whispered back. "Something you'd know if you two actually got around more often."

"'Elty' does click off the mandibles better," Venner said to himself. "Just saying."

Elty rolled his eyes and frowned after hearing the bug's response, 'Eltenios' wasn't that complicated a name, was it? Especially compared to a mouthful like 'Caninos'! All of a sudden, the conversation shifted once again as the Purrloin in the other group gestured at Pleo.

"And what about that gull thing with you?" the Dark-Type asked.

"I'm Pleo!" he chirped back, his voice sounding healthier already now that the Pecha fragment had reined in some of the effects of the Weedle's venom. "My friends say I'm called a 'Lugia', and I'm the Protector!"

The three Pokémon traded looks with each other and then looked back at the white bird.

"'Lugia'?" Francoeur wondered. "Venner, have you ever heard of a Pokémon by that name?"

"Nope," the Venipede replied, shaking his head.

"No, really," the Purrloin insisted. "What are you?"

Elty grumbled under his breath and shook his head, before the orange dog began to offer an explanation of his own back to their rescuers.

"Would you believe that he's an oversized pain in the-?"

"Elty!" Nida snapped, glaring daggers at the Growlithe. The Nidoran turned back to the other Pokémon, waving her paws insistently. "He really is the Protector! He's how we got here in the first place!"

"Nice try," Venner buzzed. "But the Protector here has powers over forming passages through time. Every Pokémon on Boisocéan Island knows that."

"Yeah, and le Prince des Temps is a little plant-fairy," the Tepig added. "Not some overgrown seabird!"

"Bw- Bwas- Whaa…?" Pleo stammered. But- But he was the Protector! And the island wasn't called Bwas... Whatever the little bug just said! "But I'm the Protector of Tromba!"

"Um… Pleo?" Elty whispered, putting a paw over his muzzle. "I think we're somewhere different."

That time, Pleo's comments drew head shakes from their three rescuers. That must have been quite the fall these three strangers went through.

"Xe tuti mati," the Purrloin muttered under his breath.

"The wounds and poison must be getting to them. Come on, let's get you all to Maranda," the Venipede sighed, before he sidled up against a tree trunk and pressed a glinting badge pinned to his scarf against it. "Oi, Meyrink!"

"Eh?" a voice suddenly replied. Its tenor sounded vaguely like that of the sound of air blown over a clay jug's neck, the humming presence filling the minds of the gathered Pokémon. "What are you doing out in the dungeon at this hour, Venner?"

"Ne t'en fais pas!" the Bug-Type snapped back. "We found some Pokémon in here!"

"How many?"

"Party of three! And don't keep them waiting, they need patching up!"

"Kids these days," the voice sighed. "Un instant. I'll go wake Acamar."

Suddenly, two bursts of light lit up the end of the corridor. As Team Traveller's eyes adjusted to the unexpected flash, they saw that a Claydol and Staryu had abruptly appeared, and drew closer to the group.

"You all need to learn how to go exploring at sane hours," the Claydol grumbled.

"Yeah! Some of us need our rest in the water!" the Staryu burbled tiredly.

"That's something we'll keep in mind the next time we have a choice," Elty groaned, rolling his eyes.

"Here, go with Meyrink here," Venner instructed, gesturing at the Claydol with his antennae. "When we get back, we'll help you find your way over to the medics."

The items from the team's ransacked bag were returned to their places inside the team's bag and one by one, the Pokémon of Team Traveller made their way tiredly over to the black and red Psychic-Type, locking their wings and paws to form a chain with the creature. At last, they were finally going to be heading to someplace safe… Someplace where even if their ordeal wasn't over, it would be pushed aside, at least for a while.

"Yeah, and we'll hash out the details of that reward on the way over!" Actor called out.

Or maybe it wouldn't...

"Eh?! Rew-?!"

Before Nida could regain her composure, the surrounding forest melted away in a flash of light, as Meyrink whisked the three out of the dungeon.

Chapter Text

"-ard?!"

The flash of light that had swallowed up the group dissipated as quickly as it came, leaving behind a Nidoran, a Growlithe, and a Lugia interlocking their limbs with a Claydol. The group had come fresh from the depths of a Mystery Dungeon, the world around them slowly filling itself back in as color, sound, and smell returned to the three.

Along with those returning senses came the sense of touch. Nida suddenly realized that the ground beneath her had changed- now there were wooden planks underneath. The Nidoran panicked for a second, thinking that the Claydol had brought her back to Lyn's ship. The spike lump wrenched herself free of the chain and darted off, drawing some startled cries from Elty and Pleo. A few paces ahead she realized, while the same moon and stars were overhead… there was no railing. The water was further below than on the ship's deck, and was quieter than the sea's waves. On top of all of that, all around there were tree trunks popping out of the brackish, swampy water, and the sight of lights that looked like the lanterns hung out in front of abodes and structures at night back at Tromba.

"Huh?" she cried out. Nida stood blankly, trying to make sense of what any of these things would be doing out at sea, only for Pleo's voice to jar her train of thought.

"Nida! Look! Look!" he exclaimed, gesturing wildly above with his wings. "There're houses in the trees!"

Everyone looked up, and immediately noticed that the trees all around them had huts built about their boughs and branches. Scattered here and there in their entrances and windows were the lanterns that Nida noticed earlier. Timbered bridges and walkways criss-crossed the gaps between them, not wholly unlike like strands in a Ariados' web. On the end closest to them was a tall lookout hut that towered over the platform. A little ways behind it sat another open-aired platform with wooden stools and tables and an overhead lattice with canvas bunched up at one end, full of Pokémon eating together and raucously talking with one another. Why… that seemed just like-

Just like the mess hall back home! And there were some larger, circular huts further back… Was that lodging? On the other end, there was a slowly-meandering river winding back and forth to a mangrove-lined seashore and some huts further in the distance. Some had wharves at the bases of the trunks that sometimes went below the water's surface, with ladders and rude staircases leading to the walkways above- clearly for Pokémon to clamber up from the river. Others had large windows and storage tanks fashioned from wood and canvas alongside them… Eateries? No, since when did an eatery need a tank like that for anything? There was a place that looked like a Juice Bar further down, and a hut in the shape of a Kecleon's head…

Why, this was-!

"A town in the trees?" she murmured to herself. She shook her head and saw that Meyrink had shepherded her and the rest of the group off to the side. Suddenly, a flash of light appeared before the team, the forms of a Staryu and Team Chasseur coming into view. As the three black-scarved Pokémon stretched and regained their bearings, Team Traveller darted back over, the Nidoran among them eagerly leading the way.

"Venner, I didn't even know that there were towns like this," Nida uttered in awe. "This is incredible!"

"Heh, it's like that the first time for everyone," the Venipede cheered. "Welcome to Seahive Square!"

"Meh, I've seen more impressive places before," Elty grumbled. "And can this wait until after we get healed?"

As soon as the words left the Growlithe's mouth, the dull, throbbing aches began to settle back over the group. Yes, this was a wonderful and exciting place, and it had done its part in keeping the group distracted from their pains for a moment… but that while was rapidly drawing to a wincing close, much to the annoyance of Actor.

"Well aren't you a killjoy?" the Purrloin hissed, only for his Tepig partner to suddenly clear his throat and interrupt.

"He does have a point, Actor," the Fire-Type sighed. "Come on, Maranda's is just this way."


After hastily filling and receiving the customary signatures for some simplified paperwork the teleporters kept up in the lookout hut for unannounced rescues such as this one, Team Chasseur guided Team Traveller along some steps up to a bridge that crossed the river. After cheerily broaching the subject of 'that reward' with the newcomers, it was quickly decided that since the team was absent of any Poke and still in need of a good night's rest, that they could cover their fee with the berries in their bag ('Actor' taking a particular shine to the Pinkan Berry). The difference could be made up with some good press back on Tromba, and when they crossed paths again, perhaps with a tour of the island if Venner and his companions ever got the chance to visit.

The medic's hut wasn't too far from what Nida presumed to be the Guild complex, even if she still found its position- adjacent to and not in the midst of the complex- to be somewhat strange. One short walk along the walkways following the river (and a few double takes and murmurs of "What a curious Goélise!" and "Have we seen a Pokémon like that before?" from passerbyers) later, the group found themselves at the front of a round two-level wooden hut with passionflowers gracing its sides.

The humble structure had been built around branches that were twisted and molded into supports that held up a mass of timbers. Its roof was covered in leafy green leaves that, if it were not for thatch peeking through bare spots here and there, would've been indistinguishable from a normal bough of the tree. At its base, there was a broad entrance with double doors mounted on opposing hinges, clearly designed to allow wounded Pokémon rapid entry, which Team Traveller was grateful to see as they drew near to what would be their abode for the night.

"Whelp, nous voilà," Francoeur said, staring up at the hut's archway. "When you're feeling better, you should take the chance to walk around. There's not another town this side of the Cradle that's quite like what we have here on Boisocéan!"

"And even though the populace leaves a lot to be desired, the gummis here are top-notch!" the Purrloin of the group added in between licks at one of his forepaws.

"Nice priorities there, Actor," Venner grumbled, his antennae stiffening in disagreement. "But yeah, let's focus on getting you three in the door and-"

"Hold it right there!" a voice suddenly roared from behind.

A sudden woosh came, followed by the sound of wings flapping and a large, growling presence quickly reverberating. The presence then shot ahead of the team, prompting Pleo to squawk out of startled fright.

"H-Huh?!"

As the two teams regained their bearings and looked ahead, their blood ran cold. In front of them, flapping in place in the doorway of the hut, was a massive six-winged creature with blue and magenta scales and jet-black feathers. The beast had three heads, each with jaws full of sharp teeth, dull black eyes on the outer heads, and blood-red eyes on the central head that seemed to bore into Pleo with a harsh glare. To top it all off, on her forehead, in front of a crest of magenta spikes…

Was a darkened blotch in the shape of a rough five-tailed comet, much like the one that Ander and his family bore.

"You're not just my mind playing tricks on me," the dragon snarled. "I saw the others react to you!"

"A-AAH!" As the little Protector's shrieks filled the air, Pleo scurried to the back of the group in a panic. Nida, Elty, and their rescuers were similarly taken aback by the huge creature's sudden appearance, which drew startled yelps, arched backs, and bristling fur. Pleo guessed that, like Ander, this Pokémon in front of them didn't like him at all, and also thought that he was here to cause her trouble. Except, this Dragon-Type was much bigger than Ander, and looked much scarier…

"Wh-Who are-?!" Nida squeaked, only to notice from the corner of her eye that Team Chasseur's members were starting to catch their breaths and calm down. Wait, they knew this Pokémon?!

"M-Margi?!" the Venipede gasped, his antennae flailing wildly out of surprise. "What's going on?!"

"Stopping you from letting this demon into the town! That's what!" she declared.

"We're hurt!" Elty yipped back at the leering dragon. "We were about to get healed!"

"And we don't even know if we can go home right now!" Nida added.

After taking a moment to calm his nerves and mat down his fur standing on end, Actor shook his head and spoke back to the Hydreigon.

"Margi, for crying out loud, he's un cocal!" he scoffed. "A bigger one than normal, but still! What's he going to do? Molt on you?"

"Get out of my way, cat," the hydra growled. "You have no idea what you and your team are doing. The dog and rabbit can stay if they must, but the bird must leave. Toni-!"

All of a sudden, a voice called out from inside the hut.

"What's going on here?!"

"Eh?!" the dragon cried out of startled surprise, as she flapped up and saw that behind her was a bewildered-looking Leavanny.

"Margi?!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing to those poor children?!"

"Huh?! I-!"

The sound of falling footsteps along the wooden walkways rang out. As Pleo, Nida, and Elty turned to look, they saw that a pair of Pokémon in sea-green scarves with a white and violet design resembling a passionflower had run up, followed closely by a crowd of anxious onlookers.

"For shame, Margi!" an Aromatisse admonished. "This is how you treat others when you and your child are given a place to stay in peace?"

"B-But!" the Hydreigon protested, her eyes growing wider and wider. "That's not-!"

"Fly away from the kids, Trioxhydre," a Seismitoad with a sea-green scarf growled, glaring daggers along with an accompanying Galvantula at the Dragon-Type. "It's our job to uphold the law in this town and we will use force to separate you if you don't cooperate!"

"As you oughta!" a Snorunt scoffed. "Bullying a bunch of children! Looks like she needs to be reminded of how things work around here!"

The Hydreigon craned her heads around and saw that all around, Pokémon were staring, if not glaring, at her. The creature's expression devolved into one of stunned panic, not unlike the ones Team Traveller and Team Chasseur had made as they watched her swoop in at them. As she continued to fumble in her thoughts on what to do next, the sound of a chittering voice below clearing its throat cut through the air.

"Margi, look. Soyons raisonnable," Venner offered. "You have a kid of your own, right? If he was really in any danger, wouldn't he be safer with you nearby him right now?"

"And it's late, even for the work that you do at the Gummi Fab," Francouer added. "Don't you think he's getting worried without you right now?" The Hydreigon then paused for a long moment, slipping looks here and there at the surrounding crowd, as she lowered her heads and growling reluctantly.

"It would be a better use of your time than needlessly scaring some strangers," Actor chided.

Like it or not, Team Chasseur had raised some valid points, and if she tried to drive off the bird before her… And the topic of her child's well-being drew pause, as well as distrustful glances at the Pokémon around her. The Hydreigon hesitantly flew away from the door towards the river and shook her central head, hardening her gaze back into a harsh leer.

"Grr... Don't think that I won't be watching you," she snarled at Pleo. "No matter what happens, I won't let you drag us into the doom you'll bring on this town!"

The Hydreigon then flew off, leaving the crowd behind her murmuring uneasily before the Leavanny said something that got lost in the chatter to Team Traveller's ears. The guards left, and the other bystanders began thinning out and heading their own ways as the hydra disappeared from view. Eventually only Team Chasseur, Team Traveller, and Maranda, who was still standing at the doorway, remained. Even after the gathering had broken up and the racket died down to the soft back-and-forth of the waves below and of the few Pokémon still up at this hour going about their business, Pleo was still shivering out of fright from the abrupt encounter.

"Pleo? It's alright," Nida reassured, nuzzling the Lugia's wing. "She's gone now."

Little by little, the creature settled down, his trembling giving way to distrustful and wary glances behind him every now and then.

"Well, that was a pleasant introduction to the town," Actor sighed.

"What on earth was Margi going on about, though?" Venner wondered as he glanced at Pleo. "You? A 'demon'? Or if I'm understanding her right… she's saying you were a-"

"Oi!" Elty interrupted. "Healing! Now!"

Nida and Pleo winced as the adrenaline and panic ebbed away. If there were more pressing matters than stepping into the medic's hut right then, they sure weren't obvious- something the leafy bug nurse seemed to pick up upon.

"I think they've been through enough for one night," the Leavanny muttered, shaking her head. "Those three should really come in and rest."

There was an awkward farewell and thanks between the teams as they tried to lift the mood from the earlier scare. After a few brief words, the two groups parted and Maranda lead Team Traveller off deeper into the hut for some much-deserved healing.


For everything else that was different from Tromba, the Seahive guild's medical ward more or less worked the same as the one back home. The trappings were not exactly a large hut with canvas partitions, but the process of getting wounds inspected, berry juice applied to them, subsequently consuming the fruits' pulp, and getting bandages wrapped over more stubborn wounds was exactly the same. After Maranda and a few of her assistants in the hut had done their work, the three Pokémon were taken to a simple room with wooden walls, beds made of fresh straw, and a window overlooking the guild hall for bedrest.

The center of the complex was a large wooden building that was round and pointed much like the central tent back home, with stray treetops jutting up here and there evidencing that the hall had been built around them. The structure had a series of walkways raised just above an island in the swampy ground, two sides hemmed by the river with channels spreading out from narrow bottlenecks cut underneath to allow more aquatic Pokémon access, if admittedly not too freely. Each of the passages in the air were composed of wooden planks, along with one section over the water or marshy ground below that was composed of timber grating. Nida presumed they were there because they would be easy to pull up in times of trouble, or else that checking footprints was more important in this town than it was back in Bluewhorl.

All around the conical center, there were huts and platforms nestled on trees that were connected to the main hall by elevated passages, not unlike petals on the flowery scarf design that the town's apparent guards wore. There was the teleportation platform from earlier, with the dining area next to it. Further afield, Nida could see a platform that looked like a battlefield, and huts of various shapes and sizes. A splendid (if presently sleepy) collection of buildings graced by the sight of clumps of passionflower vines growing here and there on the occasional structure, and the sight of a great tree in the background with a small hut that dangled from its branches. It was all a marvelous sight that surely would have enraptured the team...

"Mmrph."

If it weren't the dead of night and they weren't still tossing about in their straw bedding unable to sleep. Nida tried everything: looking up at the ceiling, telling bedtime stories to Pleo, trying to count Nidoran... Uno... dos... tres... cuatro… cuatro... cuatro… mil... Wait. What?

… maybe it was time to go back to staring at the stars. It was always much harder to make yourself look stupid when tired while looking up at them, watching the stars blink and the Travellers duck behind and out from the Moon.

But tired or not, nothing seemed to make any of them shuffle off to sleep, and the aching wounds didn't help any. Nida couldn't speak for her teammates, but she knew that her own inability to slip off into dreamy slumber was because of constant, nagging anxieties of what was going on back home. Was Crom okay? Was he worried about her? What about Kiran? What about her parents and siblings? Her neighbors? When were they ever going to see each other again?

Such questions pricked her mind over and over again, until she suddenly noticed that the sound of shuffling came particularly loud from Elty's direction. She turned, and saw that Pleo had already noticed that the Growlithe had slung his satchel over his shoulder and settled back down.

"Eh?" Pleo asked. "Was there something you needed from the bag?"

"Elty?" Nida yawned. "Are you still awake?"

"Yeah?" the Growlithe grumbled back. "What of it?"

"What are you doing?" Nida wondered.

"Taking my bag back for tomorrow," he harrumphed. "It's mine anyways, and I already took out your scarf and rock from it."

Sure enough, sitting in a rough pile next to Pleo's bedding was his cut scarf, a split length of cord, and the stone ring that the Zigzagoon had given him back on Tromba. But… why had Elty taken them out? It wasn't as if they'd be able to do anything to fix them tonight, would they?

"Why, what's tomorrow?" Pleo pressed. He didn't know that they had planned anything for tomorrow… Why, they still barely knew anything about this 'Seahive Square' where they were now!

"I'm leaving, that's what," the Growlithe snapped. "You're not in danger right now, and I didn't sign up for this with your sheep leader or his lackeys!"

"Elty!" Pleo cried out of shock. "You're just going to leave?!"

"Yeah, you wouldn't even be here right now if it wasn't for us!" Nida growled, leering at the Growlithe.

"That's exactly the point! I wouldn't have gotten Hyper Beamed onto a completely different island if it wasn't for you!" the Growlithe huffed back, getting up from his straw bedding. "And for the record, my Community Service is helping you train on Tromba. We're not exactly on Tromba right now, and there's no headband-wearing cepy to force me to play along with your stupid ideas! So let me go on with my life and figure out your own way back!"

Nida's blood boiled after hearing the Growlithe's words and she threw herself to her feet, her barbs spread and her aches subsumed under burning lividity. Was Elty really ready to abandon them after they had quite literally needed each other just to survive the last few hours?

"Why I oughta-"

All of a sudden, a voice called from the hallway.

"Eh? You're not from Tromba?"

The three Pokémon turned and saw that it belonged to a Diggersby, who was bringing along a bundle of bandages. Probably for another patient in the hut. The Nidoran and Growlithe looked at each other, their hostility fading as they quickly attempted to put on a more congenial atmosphere in front of the stranger.

"Er… why do you ask?" Elty replied.

"Well, when I first saw you come in, I thought you looked an awful lot like a kinda chubby pirate I remembered from that Harvest Festival raid where the fireworks hulk blew up in front of town," the Diggersby said. Elty opened his mouth to protest the 'chubby' comment before quickly biting his tongue and gulping quietly as the creature tilted her head and continued on her train of thought. "And if you're not from Tromba, then-"

"Oh, he's from Tromba, of course!" Nida swiftly interjected. "He was just saying how he's dying to give the team's bag back to its leader. And how he's eager to help us get back like any homesick Pokémon from there would, so other Pokémon can stop confusing him for some old pirate and getting him into trouble…"

The Nidoran then turned to the Growlithe and gave the little dog a smug leer and prodded with a forepaw.

"Aren't you, Elty?"

The Growlithe's face fell and he grunted, muttering under his breath about the turn of events being "Low even for you!" before he slid the bag off his shoulder and nudged it forward to the Nidoran.

"Ugh… Yes… Of course..." he grumbled, the Growlithe's ears folding down in disgust.

Nida looked down at the bag. It was a little big, but she thought that she'd probably be able to fit it on her. As she slung it over, she allowed a few of her barbs settle between the straps. It took a certain level of dexterity to remove an item from between a Nidoran's barbs without pricking oneself or alerting their owner, a dexterity that Elty didn't seem to have. If he wanted the bag, he wouldn't be able to get it without tearing out a barb or two, which would wake Nida right up no matter how soundly she was asleep.

Now that the matter of keeping the bag with the team was settled... perhaps it was a little quick to be letting Elty off the hook for 'plotted abandonment'.

"Actually, he was just about to tell Pleo one of the stories about the Prince of a Thousand Enemies," she suddenly added.

"Wait, what?!" Elty cried.

"There's more than one of those stories?!" Pleo exclaimed, his head bobbing up and down excitedly. "Come on Elty! Tell me it! Tell me it!"

"Oh for crying out loud!" the Growlithe spluttered. "The only thing that I even know about your stupid stories is that this 'prince' is supposed to be a Nidorino!"

"See, that's a great start already!" Nida teased. "Guess you listen better at night than you let on, huh?"

Elty flattened out his ears in annoyance, while at the other end of the room, the Diggersby nurse stood blinking before she cleared her throat.

"Nidorino?" the nurse asked, tilting an ear down puzzledly. "Since when was the Prince of a Thousand Enemies a Nidorino?"

Wait… This Pokémon also heard of the tales of the Prince of a Thousand Enemies?

"Eh?" Pleo murmured, tilting his head at the Diggersby. "But the Prince has always been a Nidorino when Nida tells it."

"Well, that might be how it is on Tromba… but it's wrong," she corrected. "Here, he's an Excavarenne, like me. Just like one of his nemeses, le lapin de la nuit staring down from the skies above."

There was an uneasy silence across the room, which was suddenly broken after Pleo suddenly asked...

"The 'lap-een day'... Wha?"

"You mean the Nidoran in the moon?" Nida asked. "The one that guides other Nidoran along their paths at night?"

"No, I mean the Excavarenne that guides both Excavarenne and little Sapereaeu through their paths in life on behalf of the Lord of Nightmares, waiting in the shadows of the Lunar Healer's side of the moon, always eluding her attempts to be rid of him. Waiting for each and every one of them to stumble along onto death," the Diggersby began to explain. "Your parents probably told you a cutesier version of story without the whole 'throne of despair and sadness on the moon' part of-"

"Ahem, not that this isn't a lovely story," Elty fumed at the Diggersby. "But could we not talk about things related to death and dying in a medics' ward?"

The Diggersby blinked, saw that the other two members of her audience seemed unnerved, and then looked at their bandages before turning back to them.

"Aherm, pardon," the Diggersby sheepishly offered, shaking her head. "You all probably need some rest."

The creature then carried on down the hallway, her footsteps growing fainter and fainter until they vanished completely. Elty shook his head and growled as he flopped back down onto his straw matting.

"Grr… Rabbits."

That… wasn't exactly helpful for getting to sleep any faster. How on earth had that Pokémon managed to turn the stories of the Prince of a Thousand Enemies into that? Nida shook her head, trying to dislodge from her mind the mental image of death spirits watching from the moon. She eventually managed to settle back down into the straw beneath her in a tired insomnia, until she felt a faint pecking sensation at her head.

"Nida…?" Pleo's voice asked uneasily. "What's a Lunar Healer? And the Lord of Nightmares?

"It's just a story, Pleo… and don't worry about Elty, either." She yawned, not opening her eyes. "I don't know if I'd rush to call him a good Pokémon, but I don't think he'd just abandon us like that… Not while he's in danger of getting recognized for the stuff he got into in the past, anyways."

"I'm right here!" a growling voice called out from the side.

"Mrph, filo. We should all be sleeping anyways," Nida grumbled back. But that reassurance didn't seem to satisfy Pleo, as the sound of the young Protector's voice once again reached her ears.

"That's fine, I guess... but… when are we going to be able to go home?"

Nida's eyelids shot open. The little spike-ball found herself staring right into Pleo's eyes. They looked tired, and worried, much as hers must have looked like for most of the day. She wanted to give an answer back… Tomorrow, the day after, at the start of the next week… But what could she say that wouldn't give him false hope?

She thought, and thought, until she finally shook her head and spoke back.

"I don't know, Pleo. Hopefully soon. Boisocéan is supposed to be one of the closer islands to home... Or at least I thought I heard someone say that once," she sighed. "But… until then, I guess we have a little bit of Tromba with us that we can hold onto."

"We… do?" Pleo asked, tilting his head at the Nidoran.

"Well, I can't quite put your scarf back together right now, but," the Nidoran carried on as she dug Pleo's King's Rock from beside Pleo's bedding. "I'm pretty sure that your rock's more literally a part of Tromba anyways."

"Oh!"

"I don't know if it'll work or not, but if we all work together and don't give up… maybe we'll be able to get back home," Nida said as she fished out the cut string and began to thread it through the stone hoop. "And you'll be able to tell the other Pokémon in town about how you got to go off and visit a town full of huts in trees."

"I… I guess that would be nice," Pleo chirped. The Nidoran tied the cut ends of the string together; a temporary fix to be sure, but it would do until the team could get a fresh cord to replace it. As she drew the knot together, she sighed, and folded her ears back.

"Pleo… I need to tell you something."

"Huh? What's wrong?" Pleo asked, nuzzling the Nidoran along the top of her head.

"Earlier tonight, I… I was on the verge of just giving up," she answered.

"Give up?" Pleo murmured. "What do you mean?"

"Everyone was in trouble and I didn't know any way to make anything better without hurting any of us," Nida explained. "It felt like it wouldn't have made a difference- or even that trying would have just been a disaster."

Not knowing what to do… Being tempted to do nothing since it seemed like it wouldn't make things worse… Wait a moment, that sounded just like when he was facing down Lyn earlier! But Nida and Elty still stood their ground, then… and if they hadn't…

Would he have ever worked up his courage to stand up to the mean Samurott, even with the voices he heard? Would his power have come to him if he never tried to use it? Why, they'd all be stuck aboard that awful ship still!

"E-Eh?! But you can't give up!" Pleo cried, beating his wings out in a start. "If you gave up back on the ship, I would have given up back there too!"

Nida blinked and looked at Pleo. That wasn't the situation she was referring to… so then. That desperate last-ditch stand on the ship… That really helped him?

Then, as daft as it sounded… Maybe the thing to do was to try and stand firm, whatever the odds…

For each other.

"Heh. Sounds like maybe we need to encourage each other then," the Nidoran chuckled quietly as she slipped the repaired necklace over Pleo's neck. "We'll make a promise out of it! A promise to not give up on going back home. Whatever happens, no matter how hard our backs are against the wall... We'll stick it out until we're back in the guild with Crom and Kiran, alright? No te rindas!"

"Hmm? You mean like how Elty says he never gives up?" Pleo asked.

Nida blinked and tried to say something back, her words being arrested by an irked recollection of Elty's first night with the team. She then screwed her eyes shut and folded her ears back. She supposed that that was right, but even then, she didn't particularly like acknowledging it.

"Yes… like Elty said," she sighed.

"I won't give up then!" the Lugia chirped determinedly. "I promise!"

"I know you won't, Pleo," the Nidoran yawned. "But I think this is enough for one night, let's get some rest."

The Nidoran watched as the Lugia curled up on his straw matting and closed his eyes. Slowly but surely, his fidgeting died down, as his mumbling gave way to fatigued snoring. Nida blinked, and with the last of her energy, she left her matted straw, and curled up against the white bird's side as thoughts of home and being back on a complete team with Crom drifted across her mind.

"And I'll keep my promise, too..."


In Tromba, a brand new day had dawned. During the witching hours of the night before, the storm the Xatu in Lyn's crew predicted had come and gone, grazing the island. Mercifully, the damage was limited to some tears in canvas, buffeted walls, and detached tiles, a small silver lining in an otherwise black night. The skies were still somewhat overcast from the residual of the storm, and occasionally a few small drops drizzled onto the island below. Under that gloomy backdrop, Pokémon milled to and fro from various docks and structures along Bluewhorl's harbor through the now muddied and dampened streets. There was a similar damp and dreary heaviness to the air that day, the town's customary bustle devoid of its usual cheer and vitality, as if a sudden death had happened recently and weighed on all the Pokémon present.

If word trickling in from beyond the fringes was to be trusted, the ferals who had neither ignorance nor mistrust to shield them from knowledge of the Protector's recent awakening were similarly sobered by the turn of events. But that was there, and as with most events in the periphery to the townsfolk, they failed to dislodge attention from focuses closer to home.

For the bandaged Druddigon perched at the end of one of the still-soggy docks, that focus was on the sea and the horizon beyond. Like everyone else that day, he too had reason for heavy spirits, even as the sun was strong and warmed his wings. After all this time staring out at the horizon, there had been nothing but the churning of the waves and normal scenery. Nothing had passed from it other than the rising sun since he started watching at daybreak.

"He still hasn't come back," he growled glumly, the Druddigon's wings and head drooping as he looked down into the churning water of the harbor.

Yes, praying out his heart and soul had helped a little with Kiran's reassurances that it really did make a difference… And Nida and Elty were there on the ship, surely they could have helped each other… right? But Pleo still hadn't come back. Had something gone wrong? Did Nida and Elty get caught? Or had worse happened to them? Had Pleo and the others even managed to getoff Lyn's ship?

Did his prayer and the ones the townsfolk offered yesterday get missed? Were they ignored? Was he expecting too much from the little Protector? Were the rumbling spirits of the old gods less in tune with the world than Kiran thought? Or would Pleo come over the horizon if he just waited a little longer and had a little more faith?

"Oi!"

Crom whirled around at the sound of a gruff growl behind him, and saw a Gabite and a Trapinch staring at him. The Gabite was panting and catching his breath, from having darted about willy-nilly, perhaps Elty was onto something about him being a touch on the tubby side.

"What do you think you're doing sneaking out?" Pyry grumbled, shaking his head. "I'm the one that has to put up with your äiti being upset, you know!"

"Yeah, you're supposed to be in bed!" Pekka chittered, clicking his jaws open and shut chidingly. Crom faltered a moment, the two had a point… He really should still be in bed- Hey, wait a minute.

"Aren't you two supposed to be at work?" Crom sighed, lowering his eyelids in annoyance.

"I pulled them off work, Crom," a voice chirped back. A blur of red and blue suddenly swooped in between Crom and the two ex-pirates, as a Swellow came to a rest on the docks with Cenn scampering in after him. The bird shook out his feathers and then turned to the two Pokémon further up the dock as Crom's younger brother joined the group.

"Thanks for the help, by the way," Kiran said.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Pekka hissed. "This wasn't how I wanted to spend my break."

"Hrmph, you're more than welcome to head back to work with Mildrew!" Cenn growled, sticking a tongue out at the Trapinch. Pyry shook his head and muttered something under his breath about "Did he really have to come along?" before turning his attention back to the larger of the two Druddigon.

"What on earth are you doing here anyways?" he grunted.

"Pleo's out there!" Crom cried. "Everyone was praying for him to come back!"

The antlion and the landshark screwed their eyes shut, the latter bringing a claw over his face with an annoyed groan.

"Gods, is he still going on about this? We lost a friend too, you know! And you don't see us blabbing about it to the whole world!"

"Erm… Crom," Kiran began, only for his little charge to interrupt him.

"We did it too, Kiran! He has to come back!" he insisted, waving his claws and beating his wings as much as their current state allowed. After a while, the Druddigon's movements slowed down and his head and wings began to droop along with his enthusiasm, the creature pitifully turning to his team captain…

"Doesn't he? Everyone went through all that trouble and everything…"

"Crom… I know that Pleo's out there, it's just… I'm not sure if it's healthy getting our hopes up he'll be able to come back so soon- Eh?!"

The Swellow suddenly hopped back and beat out his wings in surprise, which made Crom stumble back and almost fall off the edge of the dock. After wobbling and regaining his balance, the Dragon-Type turned around and saw that on the horizon was...

"A ship?"

"Veikka, I think I see a design from one of the other crews on it! Maybe that's our way off of this lousy-!" the Trapinch began to excitedly chitter, hopping up and down until he became acutely aware of the piercing glares he was receiving from the two Druddigon present and Kiran.

"Oh come on, you're allowed to have your wild hopes!" Pekka grumbled. "Why aren't I?"

There were no Pokémon coming in advance from it, so unfortunately for the antlion's hopes, that ruled out pirates, who would need to scout and signal in advance on unfamiliar territory… and for that matter, any ship that hadn't come to Tromba on a regular basis before. Crom's stomach began to turn and knot. Could it be that that ship was Lyn's? If it was, that would surely be bad news for the town. But then that meant he'd also have Pleo with him! But then again, he wasn't prepared at all to face Lyn and his crew again!

As the ship drew closer, he began to notice that it was too small to be Lyn's craft. There were too few masts, the sails were white with a inverted blue triangle and pair of progressively larger trapezoids above them instead of the lavender sails Lyn flew.

Wait a minute...

The Druddigon blinked as he watched the craft come nearer and nearer. There could be no doubt.

"That dad's ship!" Cenn cried, beating his wings excitedly. "He's home! He's home!"

The ship that pulled in was a modest one, a two-masted schooner with triangular and trapezoidal sails that had patching in places and a hull that had visibly undergone similar haphazard repairs over its lifespan. In spite of that, the craft still seemed to brim with activity. The ship reached the docks, and its crew tied the craft down and lowered the gangplanks in full view of Crom and Kiran. As Pokémon began to clamber onto the docks, Pyry and Pekka looked around. Crom had mentioned that his father was on this ship, but between the motley crew of seafarers in the water and the Pokémon of different shapes and kinds on the dock and deck, there didn't seem to be a single Dragon-Type that looked like a likely candidate to be Crom's father...

"Wait," Pekka began. "Who on this hunk of junk is supposed to be his-?"

All of a sudden, the answer came, with an abrupt cry.

"Hey!"

And the sight of a Fraxure with a scarf of matching color and design to the sails clambering down the gangplanks, followed by Cenn running up to give a pouncling hug to his father. The Fraxure gave stumbled back a bit with a yelp, but quickly recollected himself to give a loving squeeze back to Cenn in return. The hatchet-headed dragon then turned and pulled Crom into a similarly tight embrace, the Druddigon's head resting atop the head of this sudden arrival.

"Wasn't expecting you to surprise me on the docks like this!" the Dragon-Type cheered.

"Father?!" Pekka continued, his maw falling agape.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Pyry suddenly cried out to Crom. The Gabite pointed a claw incredulously, tilting it down at the hatchet-faced lizard's head. "I thought the nag always went on about you becoming big and strong like your father! You're taller than he is!"

"Er, you misunderstood her," Cenn answered back. "She meant that Crom would grow big, and also strong like dad."

"It's good to see you back, Pladur," Kiran chirped to the Fraxure.

"And it's good to be back! So how's my favorite little Hunter been-" Pladur began, only for his words to abruptly die. He suddenly realized that in his haste to greet his elder son, he had overlooked that his child had bandages all over his body. The sailor's eyes widened and he recoiled out of shock. "E-Eh?! What happened to you?! There wasn't an accident in the Mystery Dungeon, was there?!"

Crom's mind went into a tumult. Here was his father in front of him, something that he'd been looking forward to for weeks, and yet here he was disappointed that he still hadn't had closure on Pleo's fate like he'd hoped. But his father was right here! It wasn't his fault he came back after something so awful happened! But- And-

"Crom?" Pladur asked, interrupting with a nuzzle. "What's wrong? You look down..."

"Hrmph," Pyry grumbled, drawing nearer to the pair "He's still in a crummy mood because your town's feather duster got-"

All of a sudden, Cenn suddenly batted his tail against the Gabite's leg, the rough scales scraping the teal Dragon-Type's hide enough to draw out a pained yelp.

"Ow! Perk-! ..y little guy, isn't he?" Pyry groaned, nursing his scraped leg and trading leers with the younger Druddigon.

"Don't say it like that!" Cenn huffed back to the Gabite angrily. "That wasn't just some 'feather duster'-!"

The brewing argument was suddenly derailed by one of the Pokémon on the gangplank calling out.

"Oi! Pladur! Let some other Pokémon through already!"

The group looked over to the gangplank and saw a Raichu and Servine lugging a crate down. The Fraxure hastily apologized and scooted off with the others enough to allow the pair through with their cargo, as he turned back to his child.

"Er… Did something happen while we were out?" he asked, before turning to Pyry and Pekka. "And who are these two anyways?"

"Uhm… Well, Pladur…" Kiran began. "While you were out, the Protector woke up and wound up joining my team alongside your elder son."

Whump

"ARGH!"

All eyes turned over to see that the Raichu and Servine had dropped the crate out of startled surprise onto Pekka's abdomen. The hapless Trapinch squealed out of pain before pulling his injured rump free and scuttling backwards along the dock, grumbling irately under his breath.

"Erm… Kiran?" Pladur began, as his crewmates from his ship similarly interrupted their hubbub to come and listen to the exchange unfolding between the Fraxure and the Swellow.

"Wait, come again?" the Raichu asked.

"No really, what happened?" the Servine insisted.

"It really happened!" Cenn cried. "I saw everything! They called him Pleo!"

"A-And he fought off a pirate ship and got Pokémon like Pyry, Pekka, and Elty stuck here doing Community Service!" Crom added, gesturing at the Trapinch and Gabite behind.

"Yeah, thanks for that, by the way," Pekka harrumphed.

"Oh, so that's who those two are," the grass snake murmured to himself, folding his nubby arms over each other with an audible harrumph. "But where's the third one?"

"You're telling us we missed all of that?!" the Raichu cried.

"Wait- Wait- Wait," Pladur stammered. "'Elty'?"

"A new teammate of ours, you could say," Kiran answered, deciding that it probably would be for the best not to delve into details for the time being.

"And he even helped Nida and me get into Normal Rank!" the Druddigon added.

"Eh?! Then what are we waiting for?!" the Fraxure cried out. "This is great news! Let's go see the Protector now!"

Crom's head and wings drooped after hearing his father's words. The gathered crowd traded whispers with one another as their excitement began to fade away. It was then that Crom's father asked the question that had begun to circulate about their minds.

"Did... something happen to him?"

"Lyn came and took him away," Crom answered reluctantly. "And we tried to rescue him, and..."

Pladur blanched. That was how his son had gotten so scuffed up? Getting into fights with Lyn's thugs? The Fraxure had half a mind to take his son straight back to the safety of his mate's bakery with a close call like that. But… right now, it seemed as if maybe what he needed more than safety…

Was reassurance.

"B-But he's the Protector!" Pladur insisted, placing a claw on his son's shoulder. "Surely he'd be able to just blow his way out of Lyn's clutches!"

"It's not like that, dad," Crom glumly answered. "He's not nearly as strong as we thought he would be, or at least not often as we needed him to be."

The Druddigon shook his head and lowered it more and more, as dark fantasies began to enter his mind.

"What if Lyn still has him? What if Nida and Elty got hurt? What if they're all alone and scared…" he murmured. "Because I wasn't strong enough to be there for them?"


Unfortunately, Pleo's sleep would turn out to be as short as it was unsound. He heard a voice waking him for the third time of the long, long night.

"Pleo?"

Wait, Nida's voice?

"Ngh… Wha…?" he murmured.

"Pleo, come on, get up," the voice spoke again. This time, he felt something prodding his body, probably her paws or muzzle. There was more prodding, and then the voice of a Growlithe joined in.

"You kinda need to be awake for this."

Pleo yawned and cracked his eyes open, and began to stretch his wings out.

"Wha- What's going o-?"

His teammates were there beside his bedding, and further ahead, there was a Leavanny standing in front of him, staring at the group. Wait a minute, that was…

"Eh?" Pleo squawked. "Aren't you that 'Maranda' Pokémon who was treating us last night?"

"Sorry to intrude on you while you're still weak," the leafy bug buzzed. "But you are from Tromba with these two, aren't you?"

"I am," the Lugia murmured quietly. "Why?"

"On top of my duties here, I'm also the Mairesse of Seahive Square," Maranda answered, moving an arm towards the door behind her. "Please get up and come along. We need to have a talk."

Chapter Text

After their impromptu rousing, Pleo, Nida, and Elty were escorted ahead of Seahive's Mairesse by a trio of Pokémon in the the local guards' sea-green scarves. Team Traveller's gruff-looking company consisted of the Galvantula and Seismitoad from the night before, along with a Crustle whose movements evidenced that it had gotten a bit more sleep than its counterparts. The three lead the team along the marshy ground level of the mangroves, under the maze of passages between the huts in the treetops above.

Eventually, the three came to a winding set of covered stairs that coiled around a great tree trunk. There, the guards broke off to rest on the dock below, and the team was left to begin the climb up, Maranda following closely behind them. All the while, Pleo couldn't help but wonder uneasily…

"Are we in trouble?" he chirped, turning back to the Leavanny further down the steps.

"Hardly," Maranda buzzed back brusquely. "I just wanted a word with you, and felt we needed a better space to talk."

"Yeah, we're totally in trouble," Elty groaned. Not that there really seemed to be anywhere to go but up. The windows on the stairway were far too small for Pleo to slip through, let alone with him or the spike ball riding. Any escape would have to happen at the top of the stairs; however, if there was any trap waiting for them up there…

Well, the best they could do was hope that there would be some way to slip away from it.

When the three reached the top, however, they saw that their surroundings were much more innocuous than they had feared. They had entered a single large room with branches occasionally poking through here and there that smelled much like a clump of seaweed.

The place seemed to be some manner of workshop, with a collection of wooden and canvas contraptions, clay vessels, crates, and barrels strewn about. There was even a cast-iron cauldron filled with bubbling greenish-brown glop flecked with waxy-looking fragments floating on its surface, apparently the source of the seaweed smell.

Over by the tree trunk cutting through the center, some Pokémon were lighting fires to boil the contents of some clay jars. A little ways away, a pair of Electric-Types ran crackling currents through a trough filled with fluid, causing matter to settle along the bottom. Closer to the far walls of the hut, a few creatures in running wheels hitched to canvas conveyer belts helped move lumps of material along, a steady stream of paws shuffling objects from one part of the room to the next.

"Huh?" Pleo murmured curiously, tilting his head at the various strange objects strewn about. "What is this place?"

"This is a Gummi Fab," Nida answered, the Nidoran twitching her whiskers and sniffing at the air as she gawked around at the room and its curious implements. "Except I didn't know there were even fabs that were this big out there."

"It's actually not all that big," Maranda corrected as she flitted in past the entrance. "Even if it's a bit larger than normal for a settlement Seahive's size."

"Hrm?" Pleo asked. "How come?"

"Well, Seahive traditionally has helped the Pokémon that live in the seas of the Cradle make gummis," she explained, bidding the group to follow. "It's a practice that needs dry, calm land, and Boisocéan's mangroves provides a place those Pokémon can reach easier than most other islands."

The three looked back at the steps, and then at the workers and the machinery all about them. It didn't look like they were in any danger… Surely there would be no harm in following this Leavanny for a bit. The creature gave a content chitter as she saw the group continue following her, and pointed out a window. A small, wooden, red-tiled hut with arched, shuttered entrances hung from the branch of a towering tree in the distance, the forms of Pokémon flitting and scampering about its fringes visible.

"The watchful gaze of our Protector's shrine also helps," Maranda added. "It is said that time passes more fruitfully for Pokémon who work with it in sight; that's why we hung it from the tallest tree in Seahive."

"So that's where ferals are given food then?" Pleo guessed, tilting his head quizzically.

"Oh no, we just leave offerings in the name of our Protector at the base of the shrine's tree," Maranda responded, flitting about a wooden barrel. "No sense making them go all the way upthere to get food."

A strange custom, but it made sense, Pleo thought. There was just one other thing that bothered him here… If this was a Gummi Fab, then…

"Where are all the gummis?" he chirped, as he waddled on with his teammates past the barrels.

"Well," the bug answered, grabbing a small clay cup on one of the barrels and popping a lid off to dip the cup in the contents. "They generally start out looking something like this…"

Pleo flew onto the barrels to examine the cup. Inside of it was a white, crumbly substance with the texture of wet sand.

"Eh?" he asked, poking his beak into the cup. "It doesn't look like a gummi…"

But if this was a gummi, it couldn't hurt to try it out, could it? The young Lugia took a nip at the white substance inside the cup- but as it passed over his tongue, he gagged and spat the white substance onto the floor.

"Ptoo! Ptoo! Ack! It doesn't taste like one either!" he cried. "Cave rocks taste better than this!"

"That's because it's gummi mix. There's no flavoring added to it yet!" Elty admonished as he walked around the spit-covered glob, shaking his head with a disgusted frown. "The gummis are over there!"

Pleo and Nida turned their heads to follow a gesture from Elty's paw at a stiff, canvas belt on rollers being propelled by a Dedenne scampering along a running wheel. The belt deposited little green-colored beans into an empty crate at its end.

"Wait, it only makes one color of gummi?" Nida murmured. The fabs at home weren't anywhere near this size, but she was sure that they at least could produce more than a single color!

"And I thought that you made gummis for sea Pokémon. Don't they usually prefer blue gummis?" she continued. "The ones in Bluewhorl's harbor do…"

"Well that line does, yes. You might have noticed there's quite a few Bug-Types in this town; they have their preferences to cater to as well," the Leavanny replied. Nida spent a moment looking around; she saw another canvas belt further off that, sure enough, ferried blue gummis into a waiting crate. Beside it was another line that was littered with pink gummis. A confused Nida's attention was drawn back to Maranda after the leafy bug cleared her throat. "It's a matter of efficiency, really. Once you get to large enough scales, it becomes easier to make more of one thing than a little of everything."

"Do these gummis do anything special?" Elty wondered aloud, as the Growlithe kept a keen eye on the crate at the end of the line, watching gummi after gummi tumble into it. Nida flattened her ears and scowled, was Elty seriously thinking of trying to steal now?

"Just food, alas. It's said that if you allow the Distortion in a Mystery Dungeon to alter them, they'll allow Bug-Types in particular to develop skills faster, though."

So they were just normal gummis, Nida thought to herself. So what was with Elty and- was Pleo staring at the line too?

Grumble

Oh… right… They hadn't had breakfast. And the food looked so good…

"Can- Can we have some?" Pleo asked.

"I don't see the harm in it," Maranda replied, plucking three gummis off the line and depositing them in front of the group. As the team tore into them, they discovered that the little green candy-like lumps carried a somewhat dry taste with hints of Occa and Coba Berries coming through. A little blander than the ones the guild served at home, but not bad at all on a hungry stomach.

"As I was saying, I didn't bring you out here to only talk about food. I noticed that your friend-"

"Pleo!" the young Protector chirped in between a beakful of his gummi. "My name is Pleo!"

"Aherm, Pleo here seemed awfully young to be travelling," the leafy bug corrected herself. "Yet here you all are, a travelling team, accompanying a fledgling in the ranks of the Company. Surely it's a story worth asking about, isn't it?"

The team abruptly dropped their gummis onto the floor and stared back up at Maranda wide-eyed.

"E-Eh?!" Nida huffed back defensively. "Why on earth would Pleo be a part of the Company?!"

"Yeah!" Pleo squawked. "They're a bunch of mean Pokémon!"

"And it can't be a Company scarf!" Elty insisted. "Where's the purple square?"

But the Leavanny's expression didn't change at all. The creature drew closer and ran Pleo's scarf in between her leafy hands, inspecting it as she buzzed on.

"Well, your attempt at hiding it was certainly admirable," she explained. "But it takes a little more than some minor fire damage to disguise the weave of a Company scarf from me."

"Y-You can tell that?" Elty gulped, his ears starting to fold back.

"Seamstressing as a hobby since I was a grub, and having seen enough Company scarves in various states of disrepair to last a lifetime helps, yes," Maranda admonished, letting Pleo's scarf fall back to his breast as the little Protector grimaced and scooted back uneasily.

"Really, it begs the question…" the Leavanny murmured to herself, keeping a keen eye on the group as sinking expressions crept up over their faces. The Growlithe seemed particularly cagey, as if he was ready to turn and flee at the drop of a pin.

"If Pleo here isn't a part of the Company, why does he have a Company scarf?" she asked.

"Because they made me wear it!" Pleo squawked, beating his wings out adamantly. "They took me away from home and broke my old scarf!"

Before Nida or Elty could react, he dug into the bag that Nida had appropriated the night before and, after shuffling through its contents with his beak, dug out two pieces of a blue bandana with a white star in the center and set them on the ground.

"See!" he cried. "I'm supposed to be wearing scarves like Nida's and Elty's!"

There was a long, tense silence as the Bug-Type continued to stare at the group, unmoving. Pleo's teammates began to fidget nervously. This was the truth, so why was this Leavanny not saying anything back?

"Er… was he supposed to show that off?" Elty whispered to Nida nervously. Maranda suddenly scooted forward and stooped down to look at Pleo, still standing behind the pieces of his old scarf.

"I see… it seems the Company's willing to go quite a ways to make the Protector of Tromba one of their own."

"That's right!" he chirped. "They're-!"

Pleo then paused as he realized… Did… she just call him a 'Protector'?

"Eh…? How did you know I was a Protector?" he wondered, tilting his head puzzledly. "I didn't tell you yet!"

"Well, no one in town has seen a Pokémon like you. I got just a little suspicious after your incident with Margi the other day," the Leavanny replied, as she picked up the pieces of Pleo's scarf. "With everything else you've mentioned and the fact that you lot are allegedly from Tromba… everything seemed to point to that conclusion."

The three grew tense and their breaths shallow… So the Mairesse knew about Pleo, but what was she going to do to him?

"Anyways, as much of an honor as this is, I must confess that divining your identity was only a part of why I called you all here," she sighed. "It was to inform you that considering our island's current situation… it's probably best if you return home as soon as possible."

Some startled cries immediately went up from Pleo and his companions.

"H-Huh?!"

"What are you going on about?!" Nida interjected.

"Yeah, we've still got bandages from yesterday!" Elty barked.

"Perhaps it was a shock to put it that way," Maranda said, shaking her head. "But what I meant to say is… Protectors are best understood and known how to be cared for on their respective islands."

"How so?" Nida pressed.

"Well, think about it. No one here really knows any more about you than what you tell us. At your home, there's surely been records and lore about you and what you can do… All of our legends only focus on le Prince des Temps. Why, before today, all that the average resident knew about Tromba's Protector was that it was a silver-colored sea guardian," the Leavanny answered, as she began to trail off.

"And it is probably for the best that things stay that way… Things are not as placid as they seem in this town."

"What do you mean?" Pleo replied. The town was a little strange, yes… But it's not like there was anything wrong with it! … Was there?

"Boisocéan is a neutral space," Maranda replied. "Wedged in between the reach of the Company and the Imperials…"

"Imperials?" Nida wondered, tilting her head at the Leavanny.

"You have heard of Conntow and their late King, yes? The Imperials are his heirs… of a sort, which puts them at odds with the Company," the Mairesse explained. "Both sides would love to own Boisocéan, but neither can afford the other controlling it. Annexation would lead to certain war, and the bands of ocean Pokémon that depend on our gummis would have reason to attack both sides for disturbing such an important island to them."

"Er… what does any of that mean?" Pleo asked.

"It means that neither side can take this island for themselves," Nida explained. "But why is that bad? You won't have anyone like Lyn coming to bully you!"

A long, uncomfortable silence followed… Eh? This was a good thing, wasn't it?

"It also means that they don't have anyone else to hide behind when trouble comes," Elty spoke up, shaking his head. "Not that Company or Imperial help really makes that much of a difference."

"It makes a bigger difference than you assume, Caninos," she sighed, pointing at some charred patches of bark on a branch cutting through the fab and some patched pockmarks in the wall and shutters where small objects had punched through them in the past.

"The charred portions were from a pirate raid last year," the Bug-Type explained. Elty stiffened up for a moment at Maranda's words, but drifted back at ease as she moved a hand over to the dents and began to speak again. "The rest is from stray cannon fire during a dispute between a Company and an Imperial ship a few months afterwards. I can't speak for what your home is like, but surely the enemy that you know is easier to prepare for than the one that you don't."

Nida blinked and put a paw to her mouth. She hadn't even considered that there'd be islands where the Company wasn't around to bully them… Or that those islands would have headaches of their own to deal with. Maybe Maranda had a point. Hatteras and the others at least had some idea of how to take care of Pleo and of how to try and keep him safe there…

"I guess that makes sense," she murmured.

"Until you know it is safe to return, you're welcome to stay here. Tromba isn't that far from our island, and it shouldn't be that difficult to get word back from them," Maranda replied. "But… while you are here, being mum about Pleo's nature is to your advantage, and I expect you to act the part."

"Eh?" Nida asked. "What do we need to do?"

"Well, let me answer your question with a question, Nidoran," the Leavanny buzzed back as she continued on through the fab. "What would a visiting team in Bluewhorl be expected to do for food and shelter while they were there?"

"Um… Well, the town maintains some places with mats spread for them to stay if they don't have any money to buy lodging," Nida mulled as she followed after the Bug-Type, her teammates in tow. "And the guild gives visiting Rescue Teams access to their dorms and dining hall after doing at least one mission for the guild…"

"That is essentially how it works here as well," Maranda said. The bug came to rest in front of some doors that opened out to the walkways in the treetops' maze, letting stray rays of sunlight in.

"I think that I've shown you enough of this Gummi Fab, and I have other duties to return to. You are presently slated to leave medical observation after tonight, and I'll see to it that Pleo's scarf gets repaired so he can go around in something a touch more presentable tomorrow," the Mairesse responded, gesturing at the door. "Our town's Post Office is along the river not too far from the docks, you might want to make a point of sending off a letter from there. In the interim, you should also take some time to get to know the town and decide what you want to do here until you get word back about the current situation on Tromba."

"Right!" Nida cried, as she pushed the door open to the busy walkways outside, before she turned back. "And… er… thank you."

"It was a pleasure," the Bug-Type replied, as the team filed through the door. It would take time for word to get home and back, they'd need some way to handle food and shelter until then.


As in Mystery Dungeons, finding one's way around a new town also involved an exploratory bent and a good sense of direction. With the absence of the Distortion's effects and moody, territorial ferals, one would have assumed that finding one's way about a town would be fairly straightforward. And here the group was, having more trouble finding a Post Office than stairs in the Mystery Dungeon back home!

Seahive in many ways was a town that favored Pokémon that relied on water and air to move about. Sea Pokémon had the brackish waterways among the mangrove forest's roots to use to swim from one end to the other, whereas flying Pokémon like Pleo could just flit from treetop to treetop as they pleased (even if he decided to spend a good chunk of his time that day bobbing along in the water). As for Nida and Elty, they were left to grapple with the narrow walkways that crisscrossed Seahive. They were fine when there weren't too many Pokémon on them, but passing Pokémon became much more arduous without the wider patches of solid ground Bluewhorl's paths had, and time and again, the pair would fall behind Pleo to a chirping "Huh? What's taking so long?"

The initial thought had been to check the area around the docks and work their way back up along the river. After all, Maranda said herself that the Post Office was along it, and not too far from the docks. They had passed a box buster's shop with wood from splintered exposure chests heaped up behind the counter. The outlet's duo of Murkrow owners chattered among themselves about hiring an additional helper, la Mairesse was getting tired of them dropping the crates into passages for passerbys to bust by trodding underfoot. Further down was a small hut with a Delibird at the counter cheerily advertising places to store extra items, taking special care to point out the extra free spaces for higher-ranked members of the local guild. There was even a Day Care full of raucous children run by a Drapion who shuttled around her charges (a few of them seemingly little Skorupi of her own) on her back!

"Is it really this hard to find where the mail goes out?" Nida growled, the Nidoran giving her barbs a frustrated ruffle.

And yet, they still hadn't found the Post Office they were looking for.

"To be fair, this place is a maze," Elty grumbled, shaking his head as Pleo fluttered up from the river below onto a nearby awning to stop and preen his feathers. "It's not like you can just get up high and spot the post office around here with all the tree branches in the way."

"Hrm… maybe we need to ask-" Pleo murmured to himself, only to suddenly whirl about, the corner of his eye having caught sight of something strange. "Look! Look!"

The young Lugia gestured wildly at a wooden hut nestled among the branches of a tree across a walkway. It was painted vivid green and styled after a Kecleon's head. At the counter, there was a dozing Spinarak dangling from a silk thread from the awning, and a bored-looking green chameleon picking at its claws.

Pleo's heart leapt. A Kecleon in a shop? That had to be…

"Calino! Calino!" he shouted, as he suddenly took wing and flew over towards the nearby hut. Elty furrowed his brow and muttered something under his breath as Nida waved after Pleo.

"Pleo, wait!" she cried. But it was no use, the little Protector had already flown off and swooped down in front of the shop. The two darted off down the walkway after Pleo as he giddily blabbered on and on about "Yay! You can help us send our letter out!" before he stopped and realized.

"Er… wait. What are you doing here?" he asked, tilting his head. "And who's the other Pokémon?"

"'Calino'?" the spider yawned. The Bug-Type stretched its legs and shook itself awake before turning its head to the Kecleon with drowsy eyes. "What's he going on about, Bader?"

"Here I thought I wouldn't have to hear about that big-mouth again after he got demoted to Tromba," the chameleon sighed. The creature's scales flushed an ochre color and put a claw to its face before pulling it away, shifting his scales back to their business-like green, and turning to address this most peculiar customer. "Er, I think that you have me mistaken for a colleague of mine. I'm 'Bader', not 'Calino'. The Mimigal is my associate, Alphonse."

Pleo's head and wings drooped a little. He had been so happy that he'd found someone from home who could help them out with their current troubles finding their way about town… but this Kecleon was just a stranger!

"Huh…? But-"

The sounds of Nida and Elty's footfalls against the wooden walkways interrupted Pleo. He looked back to see the two panting to catch their breath, curiously Nida seemed to also look surprised. She shook her head, twitched her whiskers, and then tilted her head at the strange shop.

"Wait a minute, Seahive also has a shop run by a Kecleon?" she murmured. The discovery was strange, yet comforting to the young Nidoran. The shops' design was even kinda like Calino's old tent had before it got burned down when she was younger!

"You didn't know?" Elty scoffed, shaking his head. "There's an entire trading outfit here in the Cradle run by a family of Kecleon. They've got a shop on just about every island with a town on it!"

"Well, we do aim to please where we can," Alphonse cheered. "Can we help you out with something?"

The spider's amity helped to dispel some of Pleo's disappointment, and after peering towards the back of the shop, he noticed that all along the back wall were gaily-colored displays of seeds, orbs, scarves, and all manner of bric-a-brac.

"Nida! Nida!" he chirped insistently, turning to the Nidoran beside him. "Let's buy something here!"

"Eh?!" she cried, flattening out her ears. "But we don't have any money!"

… Right. Kiran always handled the team's money at home, and the satchel slung over Nida's back only had stationery and charcoal in it before they snuck aboard Lyn's ship. Meaning the three of them didn't have a single Poké to their names right now-

"Well, if you do have something to sell, I could always give you Poké for that and you could buy something with it," the Kecleon interrupted, clearing its throat. "The Merchantry's always been a fan of commerce sans frontières, so no harm in circulating our own money to help travelling Pokémon like you dodge exchange rates, eh?"

The three looked at each other uneasily. Elty had an unimpressed look washed over his face, clearly he didn't think this was a good idea. It wasn't hard to understand why. Orbs were harder to find than most other items in Mystery Dungeons, but they were out of everything else in the bag…

It wouldn't hurt to sell one of the orbs, would it? And they could use the money they made to buy berries and seeds for any jobs they did in the local Mystery Dungeon while here in Boisocéan.

"I guess an appraisal wouldn't hurt at least," Nida said, as she slung the satchel off her back and pushed it up onto the shop counter. The Kecleon straightened the satchel and opened its mouth, taking a cautious peek inside.

"Aha. An orb haul!" he cried, as the reptile's scales started to turn a rosy pink at his spikes. "Give me a sec to look them over."

One by one the chameleon took the orbs from the satchel and pored them over. He inspected their appearance, the way they reflected light, and gave little taps with his claw to their surface. It was all a most amusing routine to Pleo, when he chanced to notice that at the end of the counter was a glinting, metal object.

"Eh? What's that coin there?" he asked, gesturing at the little bauble further down the counter. "It doesn't look like any Poké I've seen before."

"Oh, that?" Elty replied. "That's not Poké. It's a Copper Bezant. You can tell just from the color."

"Copper… Bezant?"

"It's a coin that was used back when the Imperials called the shots all around our patch of the Cradle," Bader answered as he inspected a Sunny Orb, holding the dark sphere with its light inside that smoldered much like a faint fire in the oven at Gwenith's bakery, against the glint of the sun. "Shopkeepers sometimes still use them out on their bigger islands like Giotto, but what with things getting divided up between them, the Company and Pokémon needing to move around… When you don't have to worry about switching over from Bezants to the Company's Tin Thalers, it makes Poké much more useful for travellers like you in small towns like this one, eh?"

"But if you don't take these Bezants here, why keep it around?" Nida wondered, tilting her head.

"Counterfeit checking!" Alphonse interjected.

"Wait, counterfeit checking?" Elty said, rearing up on his hind legs to sniff at the copper coin. Was this all just a bluff? Bader just told them he didn't even accept the coins in the first place, so why would he even need it? "How does that help things?"

"Like so!" the Spinarak insisted. The Pokémon ducked under the counter and fished out a thin silvery disc and two misshapen, golden coins with grooves cut into them to form runes. It slid the two golden coins in between the copper piece and the silver one, then turned towards the three Pokémon.

"Take a guess," it challenged. "Which of the two coins in between the Bezant and the aluminum disc is the real one?"

Nida and Elty stared blankly at the two coins. They didn't look exactly the same, but no two ever did! Coins always had some slightly misshapen features here and there, unique defects formed during pressing while they were still molten lumps. But there wasn't anything that seemed that different between the two! They both had the same runes on them, they both had the same color…

"Er… is this a trick question?" Elty muttered, lowering his ears. "I mean, as far as I know, odor isn't a part of what makes Poké real or not, so-"

Before Elty could continue on, he was cut off by the sound of an excited squawk.

"The one on the left is real!" Pleo cried out.

"Heh heh, good eye!" Alphonse cheered. "That's indeed the real coin."

Nida and Elty's jaws dropped. Pleo picked out the real coin without even thinking about it! Did he guess? He seemed far too confident in his answer. The Growlithe in particular seemed genuinely interested, as he nudged Pleo repeatedly on his wing.

"Wait, what?" he whispered. "Pleo, how on earth can you tell?"

There was a long, awkward silence. Pleo looked over at the coins and pointed at them, as if the answer was right there staring them all in the face. He tilted his head at the two quizzically, confused why this seemed to be so puzzling to them.

"Huh? You can't see it?" he asked. "The one on the left looks just like the Poké we've seen before! It shines with the same shade the Bezant and the silver coin Bader has."

"Heh heh. That's because Poké's made from copper and aluminum here," the chameleon chortled. "Not every Pokémon can see it like you or I can, but it shows in the way the sun shines purplish off of it!"

Elty and Nida continued to stare. Yes, they had heard that some Pokémon saw the world around them differently. And they knew some Pokémon could pick out red apples from the green leaves around them even when when illnesses like colds had weakened their sense of smell, but this was the first either had heard of this "purplish" color they couldn't see.

Something about the explanation seemed not to satisfy Pleo though, the little bird rubbed a wing under his beak before he pecked at the Poké.

"But can't anyone with aluminum and some copper just make their own Poké then?" he asked.

"Are you kidding?" Elty grumbled, shaking his head. "Copper's only mined on one island this side of the Cradle, and it's controlled by the Imperials. And aluminum's even more of a pain in the butt to get!"

Wait, it… was?

"Indeed. The only real way for anyone to get workable aluminum is to get it from things left behind from the age of humans, like shipwrecks and skeletons of their flying machines on the seafloor," Bader answered as he set down the bag's bubbly Cleanse Orb onto the counter alongside the crackling Petrify Orb. "It's said that in their time, humans knew great magic that allowed them to work aluminum so well that it was as common to them as paper… Makes you wonder just how they managed to pull it off back in the day, but no one's been able to crack that nut since the Cradle was created."

The lizard put a claw into the bag and found it empty. He looked down at the counter and counted up the orbs… That was it, it looked like. The Pokémon cleared its throat and looked back at Team Traveller.

"Anyhow, I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, but… I can give you 60 Poké for the lot," he offered. Pleo beat out his wings giddily. They were going to get 60 entire Poké! That was a lot!

"Yay! That's great-!" he cheered, until he noticed exasperated leers forming in Nida and Elty's eyes at the Kecleon.

"60 Poké?! To totalne zdzierstwo!" Elty growled. "I've seen Sunny Orbs alone sell for more than that before!"

Or maybe it wasn't…

"We'll keep the orbs, thanks," the Nidoran frowned, her whiskers twitching with annoyance.

"Eh? Well, suit yourself," the Spinarak chittered. As the spider pushed the orbs back into the satchel and lowered it down to Nida, it continued on. "I mean, we'd like to give you a better deal, but I'm afraid that my partner and I can't stray from the guidelines the Merchantry gives us without a good reason."

"Yeah, especially for customers that don't stick around too long," Bader said, shaking his head. "Wandering travelers are treize à la douzaine in our age."

Nida opened her mouth in order to rebut the lizard but caught herself. Maranda did say they had to keep Pleo's identity quiet, and with the way that everyone other than Margi had taken his claimed identity earlier, it wasn't likely it would help them get a better price for their orbs. The Nidoran shook her head and turned away with the group, just as a squeaky voice suddenly called out, dripping with sarcasm.

"Kinda like Kecleon and shops like these, huh?"

Nida growled after hearing the voice. Even out here, she had to put up with unsolicited snarking! Why, if she hadn't known any better, she would've thought the Sentret watching unimpressed from further up the walkway was Scout.

"And you three! Did you seriously come all the way out here just to fail at haggling?" the brown and white Pokémon added. "You could've done that just fine back at Calino's shack, you know!"

Wait a minute! That Sentret was Scout!

"Eh?!" Nida squeaked.

"Scout?!" Pleo squawked. "What are you doing here?!"

"Wait, who is this guy again?" Elty whispered.

"Playing 'mailmon' and not getting as much of a break from Bluewhorl as I'd like, it seems," he sighed. "And what are you three doing here? Don't you think you're going to be worrying the town by running off with the local sea-?"

"Ack!" Elty shushed. "Don't say that out loud!"

Wait a minute. This could work! Scout was here in Boisocéan with everyone else, so naturally, he had to head back to Tromba sometime soon!

"Oh… Scout?" Pleo said, sidling up to the Sentret, his voice starting to grow excited. "Are you heading back to Tromba anytime soon?"

"Is water wet?" he replied. "Where do you think I'd be going after running these letters off to Hariti's kids?"

Team Traveller traded excited looks with each other. This was it! They finally had a chance to go home! To see Crom, Kiran and everyone else again!

… Right?

Assuming Lyn didn't head back to lie in wait for them.

Or that the Company hadn't sent someone else after Pleo.

Or that something hadn't happened to the town.

Nida shook her head. As much as it pained her to do this, they really couldn't take a blind leap here. Like taking a blind leap in a Mystery Dungeon, the consequences weren't guaranteed, no… But if they did happen…

Would they be able to get past them again?

"Er, actually… we can't head back right just now, but," she murmured. "Could- Could you send a message for us?"

"Hrmph, not looking forward to that earful from your mother, but fine," he sighed, fishing out an envelope and a piece of charcoal from a satchel slung across his shoulder. "Just make this snappy!"

Nida grabbed the charcoal and moved it close to the surface of the paper, only to stop and twiddle the black lump anxiously.

"Er… how do we let them know that it's us?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" the Growlithe huffed. "Just put your footprint on as a signature like a normal Pokémon!"

"Huh?" Pleo chirped. "Pokémon can tell who you are from your footprints?"

"Well between that and your writing, how can't you tell who a Pokémon is?" he scoffed. "Granted, I guess you could just draw one on- But- Oh."

The Growlithe's ears flattened out. So that was why the spike ball hesitated! The Company clearly was willing to go far enough to get Pleo that they'd shackle him down in metal chains… Was it really that out of the question that they'd try writing a fake letter to throw Tromba off?

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Scout exclaimed. "Just put a feather in there!"

The team blinked and looked over at Pleo as he turned from preening himself.

"Huh? Oh! Like this?"

The young Lugia nudged a loose feather off his body, which flitted to the ground. Nida grabbed it at its shaft and saw that it had split along the top. More importantly, the feather was a silvery-white color that she simply couldn't think of any other Pokémon having. Why hadn't they thought of this earlier?

"Ah! Right!" she cried. The Nidoran hastily scrawled a message onto the paper with the charcoal explaining that thanks to luck and perhaps divine providence, Pleo had broken free with her and Elty and was now with them on Boisocéan…

"'Please let us know when it's safe to come home'," she murmured, finishing the letter. She folded up the paper and deposited it and the feather into the envelope before giving it over to Scout.

"So wait, since you're here…" Pleo muttered. "We can stay with you after we get out of the Medic's Hut tonight, right?"

The Sentret's eyes narrowed and grew unamused as the three younger Pokémon before him shot overwide smiles and sickeningly cheery looks at him. He shook his head and put his foot down.

"The lodges here in Boisocéan charge per head, and I only have enough Poké with me to cover one," he grumbled. "You want to sleep on something better than a mat under the stars, youfigure something out!"

Some disappointed looks crept up over Team Traveller's faces. Yeah, Scout had a point… but did he have to put it that way? Elty sighed and shook his head.

"I guess it wouldn't hurt to check the guild's listings here," he said. "It shouldn't be that hard to earn our keep here that way, right?"


It took a while to find the guild again in the maze of walkways in Seahive, but before too long, Team Traveller found themselves standing under the conical roof of the guild's bustling main hall. There were Pokémon making small talk with each other like a colorful group of Vivillon sketching out the details for a meetup at a juice bar later that evening. There was a haughty-sounding Emolga recounting a past time of "coming out on top on some feral Rhinolove" in the Mystery Dungeon, which was met by stifled snickering and an overeager "Da, da, konechno!" of a bemused blue Gastrodon. Off in a corner, an Igglybuff puzzled over a mission listing in its hands for retrieving Perfect Apples, wondering where to even start looking for one of those rare fruits. The Mission Board was further ahead, in a convenient place just up front at one of the approaches.

There was just one problem…

"Er… guilds need to keep track of badges in order to get Pokémon out of Mystery Dungeons, right?" Elty asked as he looked here and there about the crowd of Pokémon. "How exactly are we supposed to make that happen, again?"

They would need someone to get them out of the Mystery Dungeon after they completed any work in it.

"Uhm… well, if we were back home, I'd say we should find one of the Psychics," Nida replied from a crate she had hopped atop to try and get a better view. "Except, I'm not sure how we find them here."

"Maybe we should try asking someone?" Pleo suggested. As it so happened, the sound of a pair of Water-Types with mud-covered scarves passing in a channel of water nearby could be heard.

"Lighten up a little!" a Poliwhirl said. "I'm telling you, these gummis here were totally worth the swim!"

"I still don't know why I let you talk me into this. We're supposed to be working!" his Remoraid partner hissed back. "You know as well as I do that we need to keep a low profile in a place like-"

Maybe the fish and the cute marshblob would know! They seemed to be familiar with the town at least, so asking them about where a Psychic might be couldn't be that bad of an idea, right?

"Oh, hi!" he chirped, waving. "My name's Pleo! Do you happen to know-?"

Much to his surprise, after the pair turned to see him, they seemed startled by his presence.

"Gih!"

"Ack! Cover blown! Cover blown!"

And swiftly swam off, leaving Pleo to stare blankly as Nida shook her head disapprovingly.

"Hrmph, I see even this town has its slackers," she grumbled.

"Aww," Pleo mumbled, his head and wings drooping from disappointment. "But then who's going to tell us where to find a Psy-?"

"You rang?" a voice answered from behind. Team Traveller whirled around and saw Meyrink behind them bobbing lazily in the air just above the planks of the walkway.

"Ah!" Pleo squawked, hopping back with a start "How did you-?!"

"I sensed your troubled thoughts… Well, that and I've been watching you three wander around in circles around the guild all this time. It's kinda hard to miss," the Claydol chuckled. "Headed back into the dungeon so soon after what happened?"

"Er… well, it would be nice to have a more comfortable place to stay than some mats on the outskirts," Nida admitted sheepishly.

"And a roof over my head to keep the rain away would be nice," Elty added. Pleo blinked at the Psychic-Type and tilted his head at the creature as he wondered aloud.

"What is it that you need to do with our badges before we go in?"

"This," it replied. The creature closed its eyes briefly and opened them with a glow. Just then, the three felt tugs against their scarves, and saw that Meyrink had made an unseen force pull at their badges and cause them to glow. As suddenly as it came, the force subsided and the glow, both on the badges and in the Pokémon's eyes faded.

"Can't find you in there if I don't know what to look for, after all!" it cheered. "We Psychics use badges like yours in order to sense around the parts of the Mystery Dungeon you go to!"

"Eh? But what about the other Psychics?" Pleo asked. "Don't they need to also do your glowy thingy so they can see where we are?"

"They usually learn as they go along, Pleo," Nida explained. "Teams wind up passing by teleporters like Meyrink on a regular basis coming out, and they'll often take the opportunity to sense badges they haven't seen before."

"That's right!" the Psychic-Type bubbled. "So don't get too shocked if you feel a little tug or two when passing by out on the pad! It means the others are just doing their jobs!"

"Thank you," Nida said, giving a grateful dip of her head to the Claydol. "I guess now it's time for-"

"A mission!" Pleo cried. "Let's go pick out a mission!"

The young Protector hopped up into the air and beat his wings, flying haphazardly on his way over to the Mission Board at the front of an entrance to the complex. As cries of "Hey, watch it!" and other surprised exclamations rang out, Nida and Elty ran after the little bird.

"Pleo! Wait!" the Nidoran called out. "Don't fly off like that!"

The two weaved and ducked their way past passing Pokémon on the walkway and finally caught up with Pleo, who was staring excitedly at the listings. The two turned, and saw that the board's listings were rather sparse

"Why are you in such a rush anyways?!" Elty yipped. "Aren't all of the good missions claimed by the evening?"

"But there's a bunch of pretty pictures on it right now!" Pleo chirped. "Nicer than the ones back in Bluewhorl!"

Sure enough, most of the remaining listings did have pictures and doodles on them.

"Of course they are," he groaned. It was convention to leave doodles or pawprints on mission listings in order to help Pokémon with weaker reading abilities, such as young Pokémon or recently-recruited ferals, figure out what they needed to do. But even so, the feather duster shouldn't be that much more preoccupied with appearances!

"Well, we don't need anything too fancy right?" Nida asked as she started to look at the board. "Just something to help us get by a little."

"Like one of those fetching missions! Here's one with an apple on it!," Pleo cheered, pointing at a listing towards the center. "Does it want us to find apples?"

Nida frowned and her ears drooped after she saw the listing. Sure enough, it was a mission for gathering apples. But wait a minute, they were on their own! If she didn't want to do the apple mission, she could always do another!

"Er… let's see what other missions are on the board first," she said, shaking her head. Thankfully there were other missions. Not very many, but still a few to choose from.

"Well, there's this one asking for a delivery Pokémon to pick up an exposure chest from some tailor here in town and drop it off in the dungeon by noon tomorrow," Elty offered. "I'm a naturalat delivering things, so we'd just need to find wherever this 'Stitch in Time' tailor is and then go to drop the chest off afterwards!"

Nida flattened out her ears. They hadn't found the Post Office after all this time today, and they hadn't seen any tailor's shop with that name in their search for it earlier today. How were they supposed to find it while time was working against them?

"Let's pick something that won't get us lost at the first step, Elty," Nida sighed.

Elty frowned and furrowed his brow, but he had to admit, the spike ball had a point. He glanced back at the listings, and looked around before Pleo squawked aloud at the sight of a listing halfway up the board.

"Oh! Nida! Nida!" he cried. "Let's do this one with the footprints!"

"Hrm?"

Nida reared up on her hind legs and sniffed at the listing, reading the short, hurried lines on the paper aloud to the group.

"'Stranded thanks to earlier run-in, low on supplies. Need rescue'," she murmured. Now that was a worthwhile mission. Sure, rescues didn't always reward the best for missions, but they were what Rescue Teams were made for!

"Hmm… Eight floors… not that long… all we need to do is find- Wait…"

The Nidoran set the paper down on the planks of the walkway and frowned. Elty and Pleo crowded around, and the Growlithe's expression quickly fell into an exasperated leer.

"Oi! This is the distress message that you wrote last night!"

"Hrm?" Pleo asked. "But didn't we already get rescued, Nida?"

The Nidoran sheepishly laughed and crumpled up the notice, slipping it into the bag on her back. Elty rolled his eyes at the spike ball and looked back up at the remaining few listings. It was then when he noticed a dog-eared sheet with a pair of stick-figure Pokémon sending beams against each other.

"What about that one? It's a request to meet someone called 'Daraen' in front of the town shrine to help him out practicing 'Substitute Battling' on the outskirts," he offered, pointing at the scrap of paper. "The footprint's a little sloppy, so I can't really get a bead on the species, but the place seems like it would be easy enough to find! We saw the shrine a bunch of times today!"

"'Substitute Battling'?" Pleo wondered.

"It's a team sport that's played at home sometimes, nothing we couldn't handle…" Nida mulled, tilting her head at the listing. "But I thought Guilds preferred those to be listed at Juice Bars instead of cluttering up mission boards like these."

"Well, it kinda has signs of being taken down more than once," Elty said. "So my guess is that it's probably considered clutter here too.

"It's still helping, isn't it?" Pleo piped up. "And we'd be getting a reward for playing!"

"Healing berries, even!" Elty added after glancing at some runes at the bottom of the post. "Even if it is clutter, if the Pokémon keeps their end of the deal, it would still be worth our while. It would keep us from getting into a jam like last night."

Nida paused, and pondered as she looked at the humble slip.

"I suppose that it couldn't hurt to pick an easier job. And getting paid to help someone practice at sports sounds fun enough," she mumbled to herself. "Oh, why not? Me parece bien! It would also give us a chance to get to know the town better before we take on tougher requests, too."

"Heh… let's give that 'Daraen' a practice session he'll remember!" she cheered. The Nidoran hopped up against the board and took the listing down. With a request like that, it'd be the most fun they'd had in a good while.


Meanwhile, further out at sea, Lyn's battered ship was still in much the same place as it had been the entire day. Its captain clambered up a rope ladder along the ship's side and shook himself dry from a long day of fruitless searching. He turned to a perched Crobat and asked.

"Anything?"

"Nothing, I'm afraid," the bat replied, shaking its head. "And we've even double-checked the search sectors just in case the Lugia's been moving around!"

"Urgh… this can't be happening," Lyn growled. "Birds may fly, but even they don't just suddenly dissa-!"

All of a sudden, a voice interrupted from the other side of the ship.

"Captain! Good news! We sighted the Lugia!"

Lyn took off and darted in the direction of the voice, where he saw a Poliwhirl and a Remoraid bobbing in the water, with staring eyes coming at them from every direction around them.

"What?!" Lyn cried out. "Where is he?!"

"He's currently in Seahive Square!" the Poliwhirl exclaimed.

"Yeah, we both saw him!" the Remoraid added.

The words hit Lyn like a stiff smack in the face, and made the Water-Type grit his teeth and growl.

"Grr… of course," he seethed. "The one place he chose to hide in and it has to be somewhere that would cause a diplo-"

The Samurott then blinked, and shifted a piercing leer over to the pair of Water-Types. Something wasn't adding up here…

"Wait a minute, how on earth did you two find out he was on the island to begin with?" he demanded. "You were supposed to be doing searches of sea sectors!"

The two blanched and looked at each other, the Poliwhirl taking the opportunity to shove a satchel with some gummis visible at its mouth under the sea's water.

"I… er… uh… found a lead?" it offered, giving a forced cheery expression and hoping desperately that it would be enough to ward off Lyn's wrath.

"Very fortunate for you, it seems," he harrumphed. "I'll overlook the admission of insubordination. This time."

The two sighed, and quickly swam off out of Lyn's line of sight as a Weavile approached the Samurott from behind.

"So what now?" he asked. "With the Imps keeping tabs on what happens here, launching a raid on Seahive can't possibly turn out well for the mission. And even if that wasn't an issue, the ship isn't exactly in good shape for any sort of mission."

Lyn exhaled through gritted teeth. As much as he hated to admit it, he couldn't just run off and potentially embroil his superiors in a major dispute… Or at least, not based off a pair of slackers' words.

"Send word to the search teams to monitor the skies and seas around the island. If the Guardian gets off of that rock, pin him down and grab him," he ordered. The Samurott sidled up against a railing and put a paw to his brow, scowling at the horizon. "I… need to think a few things through before I make any decision about what to do in that accursed swamp town."

Chapter Text

Team Traveller turned back to the medic's hut shortly after their visit to the mission board. Nida presumed that if the team had any guardians to stay with, Maranda and the others likely would've been content enough with their condition to discharge them. Thankfully for the team, the Leavanny didn't, and it meant one more night of being able to coast off the hut's humble meals, accommodations, and Maranda's abilities as a seamstress.

But before they knew it, the sun rose again over the horizon…

That morning, Team Traveller made their way out of the medic's hut. Along with the new dawn, they left behind most of their bandages, and the charred lavender scarf that covered Pleo's lucky charm the day before went back into the bag in favor of a Traveller scarf that had been stitched back together overnight. Small, but deeply appreciated comforts as the three made their way off yawning towards their mission with 'Daraen'.

Finding Seahive's shrine tree was remarkably easy. Whether crossing over spindly walkways or over the marshy ground among the trunks, simply following the sight of the shrine dangling from the branches proved to be a surprisingly reliable guide. One that lead them past the expected periphery of nests and mats (if with few burrows), past curious fields atop rectangular patches of darkened earth nestled amongst the surrounding swamp, all the way to the base of the towering, broadleaved tree that held the shrine up, which enraptured Pleo just by its sight from up close.

"Wow! It's so pretty!"

The shrine's roofing and construction was not too dissimilar from the ánima at home, and the walkway was covered with roofing much like the one leading up to the gummi fab the other day. There, the similarities ended. Along all the apertures were fitted with florid green latticework decorations shaped like twining passionflower vines. When Pleo got close to one of the lattices at the bottom of the steps, he stopped and gave it a peck.

Tonk tonk tonk

They were made of metal! Nida explained before that metal was hard to come by in the Cradle and needed to be worked with strong fire, so it was rare to see it on anything that didn't need to provide durability regardless of price. In between the sheer amount of it, the intricate details that had been worked into the decorations, and the fact that residents of Seahive typically weren't Pokémon that naturally lent themselves to metalworking, it was clear that this town had lavished a great expense on their Protector.

"Well, I can see why Daraen picked this place," Elty said. The Fire-Type looked up at the shrine and the passageway to it that coiled around the tree with murals of this Prince des Temps along the trunk. "Looming over the town like this certainly made it a cinch to find."

"I wonder why their Protector is so small, though," Nida asked herself, inspecting a mural showing the Protector's counterpart in the old world flitting about some freshly-sprouted saplings. She looked at the red tiles on the dangling shrine and the painted shutters that were opened to let light in through arched apertures, before turning back to Elty. "This 'fairy' thing looks like it's supposed to barely be any bigger than me from those paintings! How would it be able to protect anything?"

"Mrph. If there's room for overgrown seabirds to be Protectors, I'm sure there's room for grass fairies, too."

That was a fair point. With how different Pleo had turned out from the legends that had grown around him… was it really unreasonable that a town might also muddle details about what their Protector might be like?

Sure, it was a strange thought, but there were more pressing matters at hand. One which Pleo wound up voicing after preening himself and looking around the still-quiet trunk.

"Wait, where's Daraen?"

Only for a voice to suddenly call out from around it.

"I'm right here!"

Nida's ears pricked up and she began hopping off towards the voice, her teammates following along behind her. At last, they were finally going to meet their client!

"Oh! Hang on, we'll be right-!"

Nida's legs froze as she carried along the trunk. Ahead of her was a small dragon with blue and magenta scales lugging a satchel on his back, his head and back covered in black feathers. On the creature's brow stretching along his head, as clear as day, was a light gray blotch…

One in the tell-tale shape of the Marked's five-tailed comet.

"There…" Nida murmured. Elty and Pleo had caught up and were trading nervous looks. The job had seemed simple enough yes, but how on earth were they supposed to do that with a Pokémon that would think Pleo to be some sort of evil monster?

"You're the Pokémon that accepted my listing?" the Deino asked. The Dragon-Type bounced on his feet and wagged his tail, he had clearly been looking forward to someone accepting his listing for a while. Something that made Nida and Elty hesitate as they struggled with what to do next.

"Uh…"

"Er…"

Pleo was similarly confounded. Here was a Pokémon that if he was anything like Ander and his family, or Margi from the day before, ought to be deathly afraid of him!

"Eh?! But you're-!"

"Daraen!" the Deino cheered, rearing onto his hind legs and showing his teeth proudly. "You know, the Pokémon that made the posting for the Substitute Battles? I had to get some help with it, but I think everything was put together right!"

"Uh, well… we are," Pleo responded as he tried to think of how to answer the Pokémon. "But are you alright? You're kinda-"

"Blind, obviously," Elty hastily interrupted. "And you've got a little bit of dirt on your scarf."

Nida and Pleo blinked and looked back at the Dragon-Type, his scarf did have a small clump of it near its tip. The Deino pawed at his scarf, a simple tawny cloth with five colored circles- red, green, blue, white, and violet- arranged on it. After a few fumbling attempts, he finally wiped the dirt off and shook his head.

"I'm not blind! Everything's just a little blurry for a Solochi like me!" he huffed back defensively. The creature began to grow nervous and started to stammer as he went on trying to reassure Team Traveller. "B-But it's no problem! My smell and hearing are both really good! That's how I can tell you're a Nidoran, a Caninos, and a bigger-than-normal Goélise!"

Travellers above, he really was blind! And that would explain why he wasn't afraid of Pleo even if Margi had been able to piece together his identity! Despite the fact that they seemed to recognize Protectors from beyond their islands, like most Pokémon the Marked probably only knew the gods' appearances based off of what they looked like.

"Uh, right," Elty answered. The little dog rolled his eyes and then batted a paw around in front of Daraen's face. Just how blind was this-?

Thwack

"Ow!"

Only to be biffed by a tackle from a leering Nidoran.

"Elty, cut it out!" Nida hissed quietly. Thankfully Daraen didn't seem to notice Elty's behavior, or at least misinterpreted it as something a bit less offensive.

"Eh? Was he scratching himself or something?" he asked, tilting his head. "But don't worry! I know all the rules about Substitute Battling and even practiced by myself, so you don't have to worry about the practice being too easy or anything!"

The three traded uneasy glances with each other. There wouldn't be any harm with going along, would there? The team did need that reward he offered, and what Daraen didn't know about Pleo couldn't hurt him… On top of all that, the Deino seemed genuinely eager just to have someone to help him.

Nida decided and shook her head. They were going to do this. Maranda had instructed them to keep a low profile anyways, so they might as well start here with their first mission away from home.

"So, where are we practicing anyway?" she questioned.

"There's a secluded clearing in the woods not too far from here!" the dragon replied, hopping up and down. "Come on! I'll lead you there!"

Daraen stopped to sniff the air, and then bounded off down a path that lead deeper into the woods, which transitioned from the mangroves in town to taller and more terrestrial trees that formed a canopy that shut all but little rays of light from the sun. The creature was a most peculiar guide, while Team Traveller was used to running or flying off ahead and waiting for the others to catch up, the Deino would move about in swift darts on straight sections, only to stop and sniff and listen to his surroundings at curves.

Evidently he had trouble distinguishing bends as well as straightaways. Whenever Daraen reached a bend, he would go on about sniffing at the ground below or stopping and tilting his head to listen to his surroundings. Despite those weaknesses, he seemed to cover decent ground in spite of it all. Before too long, Seahive was but a collection of mostly indistinct buildings visible from gaps in between the trees. All the while, a question couldn't help but gnaw at Pleo.

"Wait, Daraen… Why did you need to hire a team to help you practice?" he wondered.

It did seem strange that the Deino would go through all this trouble for a simple game, after all…

"Don't you have friends that are into Substitute Battling?" Nida asked, tilting her head at the Dragon-Type. "You said you played before."

"Um, well… I wanted a place where I could practice without holding back," he answered. "Since the neighbors got really mad when we broke their wall when we tried to practice at home. And with maman saying a demon showed up in town, a lot of them have been avoiding going out."

The Deino shook his head, apparently to reassure himself before he continued on.

"Not that we'd need to be worried! I'm not scared of going near that old tree and maman's really strong! I heard that she scared the demon off the moment it saw her!" he said. "So I thought maybe it would be best to try practicing in the forest… But even before the rumors going around lately, none of my friends were willing to come with me out there to practice…"

Pleo ruffled his feathers uneasily at the mention of Daraen's mother scaring off 'the demon', but much to Nida's relief it seemed he decided that it would be best to not say anything about the matter- Wait a minute, Daraen's friends weren't willing to practice with him here? But why not? They were his friends, weren't they?

"Eh?" Nida replied. "Why's tha-?"

Before Nida could finish her question, a sudden racket broke out as a Rufflet vaulted in over a bush with a fluttering hop and nearly nicked Daraen with a cutting strike with one of his wings. As the Deino shrieked and fell back crying out of startled surprise, the Rufflet was joined by a Vullaby tearing out from a bush squawking angrily at the Dragon-Type.

"Where do you think you're going?!" she screeched. "You little abomination!"

The two Pokémon didn't seem to be wearing scarves, though Daraen's tawny strip of fabric didn't seem to do much to dissuade the little vulture from delivering a sharp, jabbing peck at the Deino's shoulder. The dragon yelped, and bolted away in a blind panic from another strike from the little scavenger.

"A-Aah!"

As he turned to run, the Rufflet followed on the dragon's heels in hot pursuit.

"Yeah, that's right, you'd better ru- Augh!"

And straight into a cone of fiery embers. The young eagle cried out, tumbled beak-first to the ground, and rubbed his face against the dirt. The bird spluttered and brought his head back up, noticing a Growlithe neither he nor the Vullaby had seen earlier leering at him.

"He's with us," Elty snarled. "You should know how the Pact works if you live this close to a town. If you've got something against Pokémon going a little ways out of town in peace, we can settle this the hard way."

The pair quickly grew aware that beyond the orange dog, there was also a little blue spike ball, and worst of all a big, white bird. All three leered at them, waiting for their next moves.

"Erk!" the Vullaby gulped. "You would hide behind a bunch of village runts, wouldn't you- Yipe!"

The creature leapt back as a spike sailed past her head and quickly took off into the bushes. The Rufflet followed suit after another gout of fire from Elty. Nida glared after the birds as she scrunched her whiskers and drew her barbs back under her pelt.

"Hrmph. They're gone," she spat. Daraen had grown quiet and tucked his head in closer to his body facing the ground. There was an uncomfortable silence as the team waited for the Deino to return to leading them forward to the clearing, only for him to stay shivering in place.

Suddenly it made much more sense why his friends weren't willing to come along.

"Daraen? Are… are you alright?" Pleo asked.

"Maybe- Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," the Deino stuttered, backpedaling and turning his head about uneasily. "Maybe we should just go home…"

"Don't listen to those mean Pokémon!" Pleo squawked. "You wanted to train out here! And we're ready to help you!"

"It does take a little more than some surly feral to get me to turn tail," Elty added. "And you won't be alone if they pull a stunt like that again!"

"The choice is yours, Daraen," Nida chimed in. "But if you give in, will it really make you feel any better?"

The Deino stopped and paused, deep in thought. After a while, the team noticed that Daraen had stopped shivering, the Deino shook his head, and with a grunt walked back to the head of the group.

"No… it won't. And I don't need to give in, not now!" he said, his earlier confidence returning to his voice as he turned back to Team Traveller. "Alright, we're doing this! And you'd better be ready! My team's gonna win!"

"Team?" Pleo wondered, bobbing his head out of puzzlement.

"Yeah! Substitute Battles need to be played with separate teams! Two on two for us!" the Deino replied, which made Nida stop and ask…

"Oh? You had a team in mind?"

"Yeah! I'll take the birdie as my partner!" he cried. "It'll be feathers versus fur!"

Immediately, Nida and Elty's ears flattened out and their faces fell. Daraen picking Pleo as his teammate was already enough of a potential headache, but he wanted them to partner with each other on top of that?

"Uh… Daraen," Elty grumbled, his eyelids lowering with an exasperated look.

"Erm…" Nida began. "Are you sure you-?"

"Hey! My team has one member with bad eyesight, you know!"

"That's… fair enough," the Nidoran sighed. Daraen did seem to be at a disadvantage, and it was his posting, so it hardly seemed fair to tell him who couldn't be on his team even if she didn't relish the idea of working with Elty.

"Then come on!" he called. "The clearing should be just ahead!"

Sure enough, after a couple more bends, the team found themselves following the path into a clearing in the thick forest. The sun beamed down on the clearing, and barring the occasional rock or root, the field was certainly flat enough to serve as a training ground for battling. It looked like someone had even dug a few lines into the turf to form the contours of a proper battlefield!

The four headed out onto the field, and after taking a moment to soak up the sun's rays and sniff at the surroundings, their guide turned back to them.

"Alright, so you all know the rules?" asked Daraen. Elty rolled his eyes and opened his muzzle to say something sardonic back, only to see Pleo put a wing to his mouth and stare blankly at the Deino.

Of course he wouldn't know…

"Actually, let's hear them again," the Growlithe said, sighing. "It's been awhile since we've last played this."

"Eh?!" Daraen cried out. The creature must have thought it was strange that the team that took his request would not know the rules to Substitute Battling, but… they had accepted it, and it couldn't hurt for a primer… "Well… basically, each team starts off at a different end of the field. During it, you battle until one side loses their Substitute!"

The Dragon-Type shifted a sack off of his back and dumped out its contents, revealing four straw figures that resembled Deino.

"That's what these are!" he explained.

"Uh… no, they're not," Elty scoffed, rolling his eyes at these most… 'unique' Substitutes. "Those are just some straw dolls you put together!"

"They're close enough! Real Substitutes cost too much for me and I spent all evening working on these!" the Deino protested. "And we can get around them not breaking down like actual Substitutes by playing until they lose their heads! Simple enough, right?"

"Uh huh!" Pleo chirped. The little Lugia beat out his wings happily, it did seem simple and straightforward when Daraen described it.

"Great!" the Deino exclaimed. "I've got enough Substitutes for us to play three rounds. We'll set them up and start at the count of three when we're ready!"

The Deino pushed three of the dolls back into his bag and took one of the remaining two up with his mouth before setting off for one end of the field. As Pleo fluttered off after him, Elty did likewise with Nida and the other straw dummy.

The little dragon set the 'Substitute' down, pushed it upright into a resting position, and after bidding Pleo to turn his attention to the other side of the field, cried out to him.

"Ready?"

"Bring it!" came the reply. Daraen tensed himself in anticipation, Pleo quickly following suit as his partner began counting down.

"Trois… deux… un… Go!"

And the two were off! Pleo hopped up and took to the air. If this was going to be a battle, then he'd need to focus on Elty! That was the Pokémon he had most experience sparring with! The white bird dove for the orange dog and clipped him with his wings.

"Gack!"

"I got him! I got him!" Pleo cheered, only for Daraen's voice to cry out.

"Pleo! Quick! Get back!"

"Huh?" Pleo craned his head around, and he saw Nida darting for the straw figure. With one swift motion, the Nidoran flicked a barb at the dummy, which got stuck right under its neck. The dummy flopped forward as the Deino ran desperately for the doll, leaving Pleo wondering…

"Eh?! Nida! I thought we were battli-!"

Whump whump

Only for the Nidoran to deliver two stiff kicks to the 'Substitute', the first slackening a cord holding the straw Deino's body in place. The second disintegrated the doll in a small cloud of dried grasses and reed cords, sending its head and hindquarters flying into a bush.

"Eh?! Nida!" he squawked. "You broke Daraen's doll!"

"Um… Pleo?" she replied. "That's the point. Remember the battle goes on until one side loses their Substitute?"

"Yeah," Elty added, shaking some sense back into his flank before turning to Pleo. "The mecz is over. Your team just lost.

"B-But the battle just started!" Pleo protested. "And none of the heads fell off yet!"

"Er… let's go over the rules one more time," Daraen sighed as he sniffed at the scattered straw where his team's dummy once was. "I only have so many of these things…"


Meanwhile, back at Hatteras' hut in Bluewhorl, a Raichu and Servine with the same white and blue scarves as Pladur's sidled up against the window, their ears focused on murmuring coming from within.

"What are they saying? What are they saying?" the orange rodent pressed.

"Pipe down!" the grass snake admonished. "You'll give us away-! Gah!"

The two quickly tumbled to the ground in a start as a freezing beam sailed out the window just above the Servine's head, followed by crabby-sounding words coming from inside.

"Do you mind?" an annoyed Nidorina's voice spat. "This is a private conversation!"

Inside the hut, Kiran, Crom, Hatteras, and the other parents of Team Traveller had gathered to help get Pladur debriefed on the status of his son's team. As was their custom since Lyn left port, Marley and Teja were also present, hoping desperately for any word back of what had become of their missing child.

After a horrid past few days, Hatteras finally had time to call together Team Traveller's parents to explain everything that was known at the moment about the missing youngsters. The elderly sheep looked out the window, where he caught sight of the Fraxure's crewmates slipping away to hide in some bushes, before he turned back to Crom's father, shaking his head.

"Anyways, that's everything that's happened since then, Pladur."

Perhaps it was the nature of the Fraxure's work and his separation from his family for long stretches at a time, but Pladur had a tendency to be on pins and needles in the presence of trouble. And few things were as bad as the prospect that…

"The C-Company has our Protector?!" he cried, the dragon's voice coming out as an unnerved squeak.

"That's where things stand right now," Kiran confirmed, lowering his head glumly. The Fraxure continued stammering, still in a nervous panic.

"W-We're gonna get him back, right?!" he asked Hatteras. "Who knows what the Company would do to him?!"

"Dear, I think that you should calm down a little…" Gwenith's voice interrupted with a gentle but stern tone. As bad as things were, his father panicking like this was surely not what Crom needed to see at such a sensitive time.

"Pladur. I understand that," Hatteras said, rubbing a paw over his brow. Perhaps there was a better way he should have broken this news to such a high-strung Pokémon. "But I'm still trying to figure out what we can do here."

"B-But what about us?!" Pladur pressed on. "Crom already had a close shave just wi-!"

At that point, Marley stormed over and jabbed her horn forcefully into the Fraxure's gut.

"Por qué no te callas?!" she bellowed, her red eyes glaring lividly at the Dragon-Type. "At least you still have all your children with you!"

The poor Fraxure, keenly aware of how la Cazadragones de Tromba was upon him and in a less-than-stellar mood, did what many Dragon-Types had done in Marley's presence before-

"E-Eek!"

-fall back and run for cover, specifically behind Gwenith. Crom, unnerved by Marley's flaring temper, joined his father shrinking behind the mother Druddigon, who grew upset with the spike ball's treatment of her mate.

"Oi!" she roared. "You leave him alone!"

Teja for his part also came to his mate's side, if with different intentions. Marley had both a strong reputation and a short temper, and the latter needed to be reined in right now.

"Cosita! He didn't mean any harm-!" he assured, as the room devolved into heated bickering- only for a voice to suddenly pierce the brewing storm.

"Calm down! Calm down!" Hatteras bleated. All eyes turned over to the elderly Ampharos standing on a stump and waving his hands. "I understand that this is a… well, dire situation to say the least. But please! Don't panic and come to blows over this!"

The room grew quiet as the Pokémon traded uncomfortable looks with each other. Pladur slinked out from his hiding place, consciously giving Marley a wider berth. The Ampharos sighed and turned his head to the ground.

"If we can't stick together as a community in dark times like these, what hope do we have of a better tomorrow?" he pleaded. Marley's glare slowly softened, then melted away into a tired, defeated look. She shook her pelt and let her ears droop.

"I'm sorry, Pladur…. That- That was wrong of me. But what are we supposed to do?"

The Nidorina whirled to face the Ampharos, making him bleat aloud in surprise.

"You said you would have a way to bring Nida back!" she cried. "But no matter how we look at it, there's no way out! It's not like you can just count on a solution landing on your doorstep-!"

Just then, a series of pecking taps came from the front door. A voice called from outside.

"Mail call!"

Did this really have to happen now? Kiran shook out his feathers and hopped over to the door, pushing it open a crack. On the stoop was a Pelipper, who tilted his head and tried to peek in.

"Erm… can this wait?" Kiran asked in a hushed tone. "We're kinda in the middle of something."

"Eh? But I've got a letter here from one 'Scout, Freelancer of Bluewhorl Town' for a 'Hatteras, Master of the Tromba Island Guild'!" the pelican squawked, shuffling a letter up to the surface from his lower beak. "And it's marked 'urgent'!"

Sighs went about the room. Even in writing, Scout had to run off that big mouth of his.

Hatteras shook his head and took the letter from the Pelipper. The seabird waddled away awkwardly from the tense group in the hut, hopping off the stoop and taking wing as the elderly Ampharos eyed the envelope.

"It's fine, Kiran," Hatteras said, rubbing a paw over his face. "I suppose it wouldn't take too long to skim one of Scout's inane complaints."

Rrrrip

The Ampharos pried out a letter written in charcoal from inside the envelope, as a silvery-white feather with a split end fell out onto the ground. The feather itself landed without a sound, only to draw a sudden cry from the Pokémon present.

"A-Aah!"

"That's-!"

Crom darted over and scooped up the feather. There was no doubt about it, the silver color, the split-ended shape, the smell…

"That's one of Pleo's feathers!" he cried.

"And this letter's Nida's paw-writing!" Hatteras suddenly bleated out, the electric sheep almost tumbling off his stump in surprise. "She says she's just an island over with Pleo and Elty!"

The room burst into excited shouts as the Pokémon inside turned to one another with ecstatic hugs and tears of joy. They were alright, everything was going to be fine. They would get Pleo, Nida, and even Elty back!

"T-Travellers Above!" Crom sniffled, rubbing away a few tears from his eyes. "Sh-She's really okay!"

"And the Protector!" Teja added. "But- How did he escape?! We saw Lyn take him!"

"That's not important!" Marley interjected, hopping up and down like her excitable children would. "What are we waiting for, Hatteras? Send a Surfer for them and let's bring them all home by morning!"

The Ampharos opened his mouth to speak, only for his overjoyed expression to grow sober as the words he was going to say died in his throat.

"Hatteras?" Gwenith asked. "What's wrong?"

"I think given what's happened so far," he replied, his voice slow and reluctant. "Maybe we should take some time to think this one through."

"E-Eh?!" Pladur exclaimed. "What are you talking about?!"

"Yeah, the kids are alright!" Marley huffed, shaking her barbs up. "And we know where they are! What's left?!"

"Well for one, there's at least one over-ambitious bully of a Samurott and a ship full of cronies still out there."

That… was right. It was already a miracle that Pleo had even escaped from Lyn, let alone with his teammates alive and well. If Lyn found them, or worse, if the town led him to them…

Would another miracle come to save them again?

"And something could always go wrong at sea even without Lyn getting involved," Teja reluctantly said. "Just like with the Mis-"

The Ampharos fidgeted at Teja's words and quickly cleared his throat, evidently not wanting to delve into the subject much further.

"I think we're getting a little off track, Teja," Hatteras responded, shaking his head. "Lyn was able to get away with Pleo because he was strong and caught us off-guard. If we want to get Pleo back home safely, we should presume that he's up to something and make sure that we can get the drop on him if he does try to do something with the kids."

The whole room had grown as sober and somber as the Ampharos. They were all so close! And yet, there were still so many ways bringing the children back home could go wrong… The Ampharos sighed and muttered something about things never being as easy as they needed to be before he spoke up again.

"I know that isn't what you all wanted to hear but… please understand."

"Well," Kiran murmured, tilting his head at the Ampharos. "If we do need to think this through… Where do we start?"


After a remedial strategy session, Daraen and Nida's teams took their places on the field again, with a fresh 'Substitute' set back behind Pleo and Daraen. The countdown sounded and then…

"Go!"

They were off. Nida and Elty took off bounding from their places, the Growlithe leading as Nida hung closer to the back to defend her team's straw dummy. Pleo certainly seemed to have a better grasp on the rules of the game as he hung towards the back of his end of the field, and Daraen charged off ahead much as he had the round before.

"Remember! Keep an eye on the Substitute!" the Deino cried.

"Right!" Pleo chirped back.

So winning this round was going to be less trivial this time, but no matter. They simply needed to be swift-footed and swift-minded. And what with Daraen's clumsy running, that was hardly an issue at all to Elty as he approached the Deino.

"Not so fast there!" he barked, spitting up a column of embers at the young dragon, only to feel an abrupt gust and see his fire blown harmlessly onto some nearby grass.

"E-Eh?!"

The culprit, Pleo, brought his wings back from midair and fluttered forward.

"Nice work, Pleo!" Daraen cheered. "Now like we planned, let's switch!"

The Deino fell back, dug his feet in, and leapt at the Growlithe, teeth bared, as Pleo sailed on above. Elty weaved around Daraen as the Pokémon's jaws snapped shut on empty air where his tail had been just a few moments ago. The dog sprinted off out of the Dragon-Type's reach, only for his eyes to widen as a sudden realization hit him. The Deino's charge had been a feint to let Pleo slingshot ahead, and he'd fallen for it hook, line, and sinker!

"Oi! Don't just stand there!" he yelped at Nida. "Take one of the two and I'll take the other!"

The Nidoran shook her head and muttered to herself as she watched Pleo fly low along the ground in between her and Elty.

"Sorry about this, Pleo. But a match's a match!" she yelled, flicking a barb at the white bird, only for Pleo to suddenly fly up as the missile came down on him. The spike carried on into a Growlithe whose eyes widened just as the barb struck him in the head.

"Yeow!"

The Fire-Type batted his head against the ground and glared back at the Nidoran

"You're not supposed to sting me!" he growled.

"Why are you even there?!" Nida shot back. "You're supposed to be taking Daraen! He's closer to you!"

"He doesn't burn as easy! You were supposed to take him!"

"My attacks go faster! Suck it up and-!"

As the bickering between the two continued, they were interrupted by the sound of Daraen's voice suddenly crying out.

"Got it!"

Nida and Elty looked around in a panic. Pleo was back on the opposite side of the field, but Daraen was nowhere to be found. The two suddenly realized that Daraen's voice was coming from behind and turned around to see the Deino running down their dummy with a stiff headbutt.

"A-Ack! Get away from that!" Nida cried. The Nidoran bounded up to the Deino and delivered two stiff kicks with her hindlegs, catching Daraen in his flank, and then his head.

"Ow!"

The blows flung Daraen tumbling off the battered straw doll, its head dislocated but still attached by a few straw sinews. The young dragon was forced to fall back after Elty breathed out another gout of fire at the Deino, leaving Nida to growl and whirl around fuming to her teammate.

"Pay attention, jerk! We almost lost the-!"

Only to be interrupted by a glowing ball sailing along and slamming into the doll's head, sending a singed-smelling body and now-severed head tumbling along behind them.

"Substitute…"

As Nida and Elty stared blankly at the charred doll- or more accurately the charred lump of straw that used to be their doll- the sound of Pleo chirping in triumph rang out.

"Woo hoo! We did it, Daraen!"

The young Lugia swooped down and cheered with the Deino, the two darting in excited circles around each other. Nida and Elty flattened out their ears, as the sting of defeat began to register.

"Okay, let's agree to figure out who does what fast," Elty growled. "I am not losing to a team with a first-timer!"

"Right," Nida sighed, shaking her head. "So… about your moves' effectiveness again?"


Back on Tromba, Hatteras thought, and thought, and thought some more, leaving the Pokemon from the earlier meeting wondering just when the wizened Ampharos was going to have that plan of his. Finally, as the afternoon gave way to the evening, the Guildmaster's mental logjam suddenly cleared with a loud "I've got it!" and some excited sparking.

In the flurry of activity that followed, word spread, and Pokémon of every conceivable stripe from around town began to turn up at the main square, as was the custom for whenever Hatteras had an important announcement to make. Hatteras brought along his mayoral scarf for the occasion, along with an empty crate from the docks to perch on, as the crowd gathered around and anxious questions floated about the gathering.

"What's going on here?"

"Has word come back at all about the Protector?"

"Is he hurt?"

The murmuring continued until Hatteras cleared his throat and motioned for quiet. The Ampharos shook his tail and then pierced the uneasy silence.

"I am happy to announce that as of noon today, I received word from Boisocéan that all the missing members of Team Traveller are alive and well," he said. "And that I finally know how we're going to get them back."

Jubilant cries went about the crowd, though after the initial happy shock that the Protector and Kiran's missing charges had been found, some questions began to float around in the air. Hatteras actually had a way to get them back to Bluewhorl? How?

"We're going to pull an inside job," he cheered. "To have our own villagers take Pleo back from the Company… as members of the Company."

The happy and joyful atmosphere bled away and was replaced with blanching and skeptical voices, as one after the other, doubtful comments came to the fore.

"What?"

"He's gone completely off his rocker this time."

"Hatteras, how is that a solution to anything?"

"It's simple," the Ampharos explained. "We've been playing a double game with the Company for some time now. Holding their ranks in return for being left to live our lives with less intrusion, Lyn's overpriced 'protection and services' notwithstanding. We are going to use that same double game to put out a bounty of our own to get our Protector back!"

"But there's no way the Board will stand for that!" a Pinsir with a lavender headband cried from further back in the crowd. "And it's not like a bunch of First and Second-Ranks like us have any way to push them around!"

"Maybe so, but they're also the ones who stand to lose greatly if a bounty for a god started circling around on every side of what's left of Anyilla!" the electric sheep bleated back. "And we can use the bounty not turning up on every Mission Board and seedy dive in the old empire as leverage!"

More chattering went about the crowd. Yes, it was audacious, and like many of Hatteras' other plans, it seemed just a little daft, but… it just all seemed to add up somehow. It was a way to strike back at the Company when simple brute force wasn't an option. It was still a long shot, to be sure, but with the stakes what they were, could a better option really present itself?

"Alright, it could work," a Persian from the guild said. "But… what do we need?"

"Well, for starters, a ship," Hatteras mulled, before he turned to a Fraxure at the front of the crowd. "Pladur, how are those sea legs doing?"

"Ah!" the Dragon-Type exclaimed in surprise. It was a big request, and also a big honor at that, but… "Er, w-well, I'm flattered, but it's not really my-"

"We accept!" a Raichu in a matching scarf hastily interjected. "What are you doing, Pladur, this is the chance of a lifetime!"

"I'm the captain, and in my book, 'bringing a god back home' is a mission that's hard to say 'no' to," an Illumise buzzed. "And it's not as if any of us are strangers to 'undeclared cargo'."

Other affirmations hastily went up from other Pokémon on Pladur's crew, which wore down the Fraxure's initial reservations as he turned back to the Ampharos and stammered sheepishly.

"Ehehe, well, I guess you have a ship, Hatteras."

"And I'll provision it!" Calino shouted from the sidelines. "The Merchantry wouldn't want to sit on its claws for something as big as rescuing a god!"

Some murmurs went about the crowd about Calino's newfound generosity, or whether it was really generosity as opposed to the advertising coup of a lifetime.

"That settles it, then!" the Ampharos cheered back as he brought a paw under his chin to continue mulling. They had a ship, provisions for it, and a crew, but there still seemed to be a few loose ends. "Unfortunately, I can't go on account of serving several branches of government and keeping the ships in harbor safe at night. Marley is needed to come out of retirement to fill Osmund's position until he recovers from his 'square-neck greeting'."

"Mmph. It'll be a pleasure," the Nidorina grunted, a proud smirk spreading over her muzzle. "I was already thinking of returning to a more active role in recent weeks anyways."

"And I believe that it would be in poor form to ask Teja to abandon a field and nine children for a crew call," the Electric-Type said to himself. "So we will need some additional help-"

"We'll do it!" a voice suddenly interrupted. All eyes in the crowd turned to see a Quilava, a Jigglypuff and a Zebstrika, waving and trying to draw attention to themselves as they carried on in unusually cheery tones.

"If you're looking for help, can't go wrong with ours!" the Zebstrika eagerly cried.

"Yeah!" the Jigglypuff added. "We're naturals at this 'crewing a ship' thing!"

"Much better use of us than keeping Pokémon around to get chased by kids, huh?" the Quilava asked.

Unamused leers went about the crowd. Just how naive did this lot think the town was? Hatteras sighed and put a paw to his brow as he replied back, shaking his head.

"Help that doesn't have outstanding legal sentences against it, thank you."

After a few disappointed groans from the three, Hatteras entered back into thought as he mulled over just what was still missing from this crew. After he caught the sight of a Swellow's red, white, and blue plumage, it suddenly dawned on him.

"Kiran! He's your charge!" he bleated, whirling around to the Flying-Type. "Surely getting lost lambs back to the fold is not too out of the norm to ask a team leader such as yourself?"

"Not at all!" he chirped triumphantly. "It'll be a pleasure-!"

Suddenly, Kiran was caught off by the sound of a sudden buzz.

"Wait!"

A commotion rang out as a group of Pokémon forced their way to the front, Ander and his mate at the fore followed by a Marshtomp and a Chatot.

"What are you doing?!"

"You can't just bring the demon back here!"

Almost immediately, an outcry arose from voices in the crowd. This was the Protector, and Ander and the other Marked were telling them that they couldn't take him back? The suggestion was enough to draw bilious and angry growls.

"Oh, sod off!"

"Who ever said that you got a voice in getting our god back?!"

"You should just keep your yaps shut and stay in your little holes like normal-!"

"Quiet!" a sharp bleat interrupted. The crowd's attention focused back on Hatteras, who was wearing a sharp leer as indignant sparks danced on his hide. The angry voices quickly hushed up as the Ampharos shook his head, and the sparks, much like his temper, calmed down.

"We are a town. And when we do things as a town, we include everyone in it," the Ampharos said sternly. "And if there's any lingering doubt about something critical to its future, it's best to try and bring back evidence to inform decisions…

Isn't that right, Ander?"

Some gasps and cries went about the group. Did… did Hatteras just ask Ander to be part of the crew that would search for the missing members of Team Traveller? Even the poor Scyther seemed to be taken aback, as he cried out with a buzzing stammer.

"Wh-What?! You want me to-?!"

"Take a wager of sorts," Hatteras replied. "Whether or not I and the majority of this town are right or wrong about the nature of our Protector, there would be evidence to back the truth up, yes? Will you be the one to bring it back?"

Ander blanched and tapped his scythes together nervously. Why did it have to be him that Hatteras asked?

"A-Ah…"

"Ander, do it!" the Chatot squawked.

"Wh-What?!" the Bug-Type objected.

"This is our chance!" the Marshtomp interjected. "Our chance to show that for all these generations the truth we've been taught is real!"

"B-But Cassie! And Sandra!"

"It's fine, Ander," the other Scyther reassured. "With this kind of opportunity, I can afford a little more work back home… Especially if what you find out there means that we can make a better future for ourselves."

"And we'll help them out as we always do when you're not able to work!" the Marshtomp said.

"If you won't do it, one of us will," the Chatot murmured. "But… I mean, none of the rest of us are quite as built for what might be out there as you."

Ander paused for a moment, and then looked back up at the Ampharos and beat his wings.

"I'll- I'll do it!" he buzzed.

"Very well then," Hatteras replied. "And, I think that's-"

"W-Wait!" Crom's voice called out. The young Druddigon ran up to the front of the crowd, nearby Pokémon staring uncomfortably at him as he continued on pleadingly.

"What about me?! I want to help get Pleo back!"

"Um… sweetie," Gwenith answered as she sidled up against her child. "I know that Pleo means a lot to you, but you're really not in any shape to go on a sea voyage."

"And this could be dangerous!" Pladur added. "What if something happens to you?!"

"B-But he's my friend!" the young Druddigon muttered, staring at the ground as Hatteras blinked and began to reply.

"I will say that I can't in good conscience send you as you are right now Crom…"

The dragon shrank and his expression sank, his eyes screwing shut as tears began to well up. He- He really wasn't going to be able to go after his friends? Not even with Kiran?

"But this ship isn't ready to leave port right now. There's reprovisioning that needs to be done, and Osmund will need to give a debrief as to what to expect as new Company First-Ranks," Hatteras continued, as he pat the Druddigon's crest. "As long as you take care of yourself tonight and on the voyage over, I would say those wounds of yours would probably heal enough by then for a stint at sea, no?"

Crom absentmindedly grunted back, when he stopped, and suddenly realized…

Did Hatteras just say he could go?

"H-Huh?!"

"H-Hatteras?!" the Fraxure cried out stammering. "What are you-?!"

"It is proper to keep a Pokémon in company with those near and dear to him, isn't it, Pladur?" the Ampharos countered, which made both the Fraxure and his mate look at their son and pause.

"I- I guess when you say it that way…"

"He would have you with him, dear… And Kiran, too."

"I-I can go?!" Crom exclaimed. Gwenith and Pladur looked at each other, before giving small nods to the elderly sheep.

"It looks like your parents are alright with the idea, Crom," Hatteras answered. "You can go- Ack!"

Hatteras winced as he felt something coarse and rough scraping his hide. He looked down, and saw that Crom had latched onto his body and was hugging it tightly.

"Thank you, Guildmaster!" the dragon said. "You have no idea how much this means to me!"

"Ow! Mayor! But I do- We all do, Crom. Whatever happens, we're all in this together," Hatteras bleated back softly.

"And… if it's not too much trouble, would you mind letting me go?" the Ampharos added. "Your scales are kinda digging into me here."


Nida and Elty slowly put their argument behind them after the second round, as the two concluded that winning the match was a higher priority than airing their displeasure with each other. Nida would play defense, Elty offense, and the two would focus on engaging whoever was closer at hand. The new 'Substitute' was set, the teams took their places, and Daraen's countdown came to a close…

"Go!"

Nida and Elty bounded off ahead at the sound of Daraen's voice. This time, they wouldn't get tripped up over some silly bickering, as Elty whispered back to Nida about their strategy.

"Remember, you take high, I take low. We trade depending on who's closer."

"Mrph. Right!" Nida grunted back. Pleo and Daraen were almost upon the two, following a strategy much the same as the last round. This time, the Deino seemed to be content to charge on ahead for Elty.

"Aha! There you are!" he cried, as he dashed at the Fire-Type, head slung low and braced for a ramming charge. The Growlithe bounded away from the Deino's path with a last-second dodge, leaving the young dragon to skid to a stop and look around disorientedly.

"Eh?! Where'd you- Oof!"

A column of embers caught Daraen from behind, which sent the dragon pitching forward as he tried to run from the burning cinders.

"Gotta pay more attention to those senses- OW!"

Before Elty could finish his taunt, he was cut off by a sudden cry and burning-hot blue flames that stung surprisingly hard. The Growlithe tumbled in the dirt before getting up and shaking some sense back into his head, just in time to hear a retort from the Deino as he too righted himself and shook out his black feathers.

"Ha, that goes double for you!" he called back, as Pleo sailed on overhead, the final Substitute to break and decide the match now clearly in view.

"I've got it! I've got-"

But before he could enter a dive, he was smacked out of the air by a passing black blur.

"GET AWAY FROM HIM!"

"A-AAH!"

As Pleo got back to his feet, he heard Elty give a frightened, whining yelp and saw him run back for his end of the field. Nida had her barbs spread and her eyes widened in shock, leaving the young bird to squawk disorientedly.

"Wh-What was-?!"

As a Hydreigon swooped down and positioned herself in between Daraen and everyone else, all three of her heads snarling at Team Traveller.

"M-Maman?!" the Deino squeaked. "What are you doing?!"

"You would go after my son?!" she roared at Pleo, glaring venomously at the young bird. "Of all of the things for a demon to single out in this world, why him?!"

As soon as the words left his mother's mouths, the Deino flinched and shrank behind her, shivering.

"Y-You mean you're the demon in town I've been hearing about?!"

"Daraen! Pleo's not-!" Nida began, only for the young Dragon-Type to interrupt her with a betrayed and hurt-sounding shout.

"Y-You tricked me! I th-thought you were being nice!"

"Daraen, please!" Pleo pleaded, beating his wings to try and draw attention. "We took this mission because you wanted someone to practice with!"

"I thought we took it because we were desperate for-" Elty muttered, only to be cut off with a kick from a nearby Nidoran.

"Ow!"

"Not now, Elty!" Nida hissed. She shook her head and cried out to the still-hiding Deino, hoping to reach him. "We were all having fun together just a few moments ago! Was that just a 'trick'?"

The little dragon paused, and began to waver. He had been having fun just until a few moments ago. But the thing he had thought was a Goélise turned out to be dangerous! But on the other claw-!

"I- I mean, I guess it wasn't-" he stammered, only for his mother to growl after hearing the rabbit's words.

"Don't try and mislead my child anymore than you already have! As if the doom that thing brings wherever he goes isn't enough!"

"But- But-" Pleo stuttered. Why did this have to happen? They had been having a fun game before Margi came along and blurted out Pleo's identity. And why was she so adamant that he was a demon? He hadn't been mean at all! Why…

"I'm a Protector!" he piped back indignantly. "I've been helping him!"

"Just like how you 'Protectors' 'helped' erase humans from the face of this scarred world, huh?" Margi asked. "For daring to challenge them!"

The clearing went quiet as Team Traveller's jaws dropped. What- What did Margi just say?

"H-Huh?!" Pleo squawked.

"You heard me! Pokémon like you are the reason why there's no more humans in this world!" the Hydreigon snarled back as she snatched up her child in between her neck-arms. "Why all that we have left to get by with are these sea rocks surrounded by the Wastes!"

The dragon then beat her six wings, and tore out of the clearing with her child in the direction of town. Back on the ground, the three were left staring, still speechless as they tried to process what just happened.

"Psiakrew… We didn't get paid, did we?" Elty sighed, shaking his head. Pleo was left stammering as he tried to make sense of Margi's rant. His… his kind of Pokémon made the world as it was today? A world where islands like Tromba and the seas around them were the only places that Pokémon could live?

"That- That can't be true! Nida! Elty! It isn't!" he cried, beating his wings out. Eventually, no response came, and Pleo's wings grew tired, leaving him to drop them and weakly ask.

"It isn't… is it?"

Chapter Text

"Is it?"

Nida and Elty fidgeted their claws and fumbled around for something to say back as Pleo's words lingered in the air. Margi said that Protectors like Pleo were responsible for getting rid of humans in their world? It was crazy-sounding, but even so…

Just what could they tellthe troubled little Lugia to try and make him feel better?

"I… I don't know, Pleo," Nida finally replied, going up to the white bird and nuzzling at one of his wings. "I really don't think it is… And I don't want it to be-"

"Dosyć. It's been a terrible day and I don't want to be out here if we're not getting paid for it," Elty interrupted, shaking his head. "Let's just go find something to do in town to scrape together enough to get something for dinner. No sense in beating ourselves up out here."

"Maybe that is the best thing to do for now," Nida sighed, looking up at Pleo. "It couldn't hurt to calm down, at least."

"I… I guess…" the young Protector reluctantly answered. The three then set off on the path back for town, their spirits lowered by their work being snatched away from them at the last moment and an uncertainty that gnawed at Pleo's mind…

Could Margi be telling the truth? Were Pokémon like him really responsible for the hardships the world had been put through? Did they make the humans disappear? And if so… would he wind up hurting the Pokémon he had befriended?


"Eh?! Kiran?! I thought that Osmund's debriefing was at the Guild Hall! Isn't that where the medic's hut is?"

In Bluewhorl, the Guild Hall stood on the bluff overlooking the harbor, but instead of going there, Kiran had lead Crom along to the town's Guardhouse. Even though the young Druddigon had never been inside, he passed by the place now and then, and was pretty sure that the local guards saw the medics at the Guild just like everybody else.

Then why were they here?

"I honestly don't know what got into that gecko," the Swellow sighed, shaking his head as he alighted on the eave of a roof. "Stubborn pride, perhaps, but if you want to be technical, we aremeeting him at a Guild Hall. A former one, anyways."

"We… are?" Crom asked, tilting his head.

"Yep, this Guardhouse used to be the Guild Hall back when I was a wee little Taillow," Kiran chirped. "After Hatteras wound up becoming mayor and the guards shifted around a bit, they traded places with the Guild."

Crom supposed that the surroundings looked the part. The pair passed the administrative shacks and the open-air stump-desks of the local school. The place where young Pokémon, after leaving the care of guardians like Hariti, came to learn simple math and how to read the town's record of its history and fairy tales. After being fed stories of legendary dungeon explorers such as Shiren the Wanderer or Poulet the Adventurer for a few seasons, there would inevitably be a stream of young recruits for apprenticing teams like Kiran's to pick up and show the ropes of traversing Mystery Dungeons.

Still, it was hard to guess how the two-story structure built into the side of a hill ahead of them with its flat, earthen roof could possibly have once been the Guild Hall. While the building ahead certainly wasn't small, it certainly seemed too small to hold everything that the guild did today! And most puzzling of all…

"How did anything ever work when everything was under one- oof!"

As the Druddigon plodded along, he bumped into the large, chitinous carapace of some passing Bug-Type and stumbled backwards, the unfortunate Pokémon stumbling forward with a cry.

"Ack!"

Crom brushed himself off and opened his mouth to begin to apologize when he noticed that the Pokémon nursing the spot where Crom had scraped him, was a male Scyther with a five-tailed blotch on his head…

"Eh?! Ander?!" Crom stammered, the Druddigon unconsciously folding his wings back. "Wh-What are you doing here?!"

"I've been busy all night putting things in order back at the shop for my departure!" the Scyther blurted out. The mantis lowered his head and turned the cutting edges of his blades inwards towards his body, as Pokémon of his species did whenever the occasion called for making themselves seem smaller. Once the Druddigon seemed to be sufficiently calmed, he eased out of his stance and continued on. "I couldn't just leave Sandra and Cassie completely unprepared, and… Well…"

The mantis sighed and buzzed uneasily, looking down at the ground.

"Truth be told, I'm honestly not sure if I'm ready for this… Why do you insist on putting yourselves in all this danger? And for-"

"They're my friends!"

The Bug-Type's words felt like a jab to the Druddigon's gut. He had already failed his teammates once trying to come to his aid. How could he just turn away from him?

"And Pleo too, Ander!" Crom huffed back, his words coming out with an exasperated growl. "He's our Protector! And-!"

"Easy, Crom!" Kiran's voice interjected, the Swellow swooping down beside the young Druddigon and training a stern gaze which made the young dragon bite his tongue. The bird shook his head during the uneasy calm and cleared his throat to speak up. "I understand that we have some, rather- er… opposing views about what we'll find once this mission is over. But we can agree that we still need to find the kids, yes?"

"Of course!" Crom cried. Ander tapped his scythes together nervously, and begrudgingly chimed in.

"Well… they would need to be found eventually, but-"

"So then, shouldn't we find out what it is we'll need to do in order to reach that goal together?" the Swellow chirped, beating his wings out wide for attention in his usual, cheery, and somewhat oblivious way. "Why, knowing your objective inside-out is the first rule of being part of a Rescue Team!"

The Scyther stared and blinked at the blue and white bird. Wasn't this the sort of routine Kiran went through with the Pokémon he helped train? Why was he talking to him in such a manner?

"Erm… Kiran, you do realize that I know how a Rescue Team works, right?"

"Oh! That'll save some time, then!" the bird warbled back. "But… let's head in for now, shall we?"

Ander sighed and shook his head as the group pushed aside a curtain of dried reeds covering the entranceway into a room with earthen walls and floors. There was a collection of papers posted on a wooden board much like the mission listings back at the guild near the front. Further back on one end was a room with a simple stump-table. A pair of idling guards were chattering in between mouthfuls of some small donuts set out on it with a similarly furnished, but empty room on the opposite side, likely a waiting room.

There were a pair of rooms towards the back of the room, their entrances located behind sturdy-looking doors that chanced to be left ajar. One next to a sign labeled "Records" held a large number of chests filled with various scraps of paper, the other a trio of empty stone-lined cells that were blocked with metal bars (the oppressive atmosphere over the last few days must have kept the customary bar fight of the week at bay), and a hallway that continued on further ahead. Along the wall outside the waiting area, there were stairs that led up to the second level made of tile steps atop compacted earth. The floor above had some rooms that the three couldn't seem to get a handle on, but… which of them was Osmund in?

"So," Crom murmured to himself. "Where is Osmund anyways?"

"Why, at his desk, of course," a voice answered from behind along with a soft prod at his back. Crom flinched, flattened out his wings, and whirled around, where much to his shock, he came face-to-face with a horned, blue-furred spike ball with piercing red eyes.

"AAAAH! K-KIRAN!"

The Druddigon yelped and quickly darted behind the elder Pokémon with him. After exhaling the Dragon-Type slowly calmed down, though stubbornly refused to get any closer to this most sneaky Cazadragones.

"Erm, Marley," the Swellow sighed, putting a wing over his face. "You really do need to work on being a bit more disarming."

"Eh? But I can disarm Pokémon just fine!" the Nidorina protested. "Why, I've even done it literally once before! Remember that Starm-?"

As some wide eyed looks went about the three, Crom flinched at the idea of what 'literal disarming' might entail, prompting Ander to hastily buzz in interruption.

"Aherm. You mentioned that Osmund was at his desk?" he asked. "Shouldn't he… well… be at bedrest?"

"He chose to put his bed a bit closer to his normal work. Nothing wrong with that," the Nidorina responded, licking her paw. "He's in the room up the stairs and to the left. Follow me, we've been expecting you."

The Nidorina hopped on ahead, leading the group up the stairs, and into a room overlooking the main foyer with a glassless window. In the back, on some hastily matted bedding next to a wooden table, the form of a Sceptile with bandages about his abdomen sat up uneasily with Marley's help, struggling with the lingering aches from his wounds.

"About time," he grunted. "I was kinda hoping that I wouldn't need to give another rundown in the morning-"

"Eh?!" Crom cried, as he shrank back and began to look more and more sheepish. "Oh! Er… sorry."

"No, it's fine! It's fine!" Osmund insisted. "I understand that Pokémon have their own things going on, and I can't really begrudge a Pokémon also trying to sleep off wounds."

"So what is it that we need to know for this mission, Osmund?" Kiran asked.

"Well, first off, we're going to need to teach you a thing or two about blending in with the right crowd," the Sceptile answered. "Can you do the honors, Marley?"

The Nidorina fished about a satchel slung across her shoulder and brought out three lavender scarves, unfurling them on the table. On each of them was a solitary, purple square…

"Huh?!" Crom cried out. "But those are Company scarves!"

"They are, yes. And they're your lifeline for this mission," the Sceptile instructed. "It'll get you in the door to enough places to be useful as long as you don't make too many visible waves."

"So… then we should wear them like we see the guards around town wearing them?" Crom wondered. "As headbands?"

"Eh?" Marley replied, tilting an ear back in puzzlement. "Of course not!"

It wouldn't? That seemed strange to Crom and drew a puzzled head tilt. After all, the guards in town wore them as headbands… So why wouldn't they also want to do the same?

"Huh? But… wouldn't that make us fit in better?"

"Well, for one, local styles are exactly that. Styles worn by locals," Marley responded. "Why, if you wear un 'Cintillo Trombense' and say 'Hola, buenos días' bright and early in the morning there, you'll reveal yourself as an outsider right away!"

"To be fair, you might have some luck pulling it off in some bigger settlements," the Sceptile added. "But yeah, the safest route when you need to wear those things is to wear them normally…"

Osmund undid the band around his head and unfurled it. After quickly draping the lavender cloth about his neck and tying a loose knot at the back, he revealed a distinct, if wrinkly square with four smaller ones anchoring its corners.

"Like so. Keep the edges of the squares parallel to your chin. It won't make you popular in many cases, but you'll be better off your lumps in most of those cases."

"Mind you, you'll need to act differently in different situations," Marley said. "If you act the same way to First-Ranks and Third-Ranks alike, you'll just be begging to get smacked around."

"Third-Ranks?" Crom asked.

"Company scarves show off their rank by the pattern on them," Kiran explained. "These scarves on the table are First-Rank scarves, and the one Osmund's wearing is a Second-Rank."

"That's right, and long story short, the more purple squares you see and the more complicated the design, the higher-ranked the Pokémon you're talking to is," the Sceptile grunted. "If you get stuck with a chore by a higher-ranked Pokémon, just take the job to get them off your case, and ditch it when they're not looking."

"Eh, why I'd never recommend that level of passivity, Osmund," Marley scoffed, waving a paw. "Not in all cases anyways. If there's a higher-ranked Pokémon that has worse bark than bite, take it out of their hide if you have to!"

The three looked at each other warily. That was something that would probably work for Marley, but… for them…? In potentially unfriendly places?

"Erm, I think we'll stick with the stealthier approach, thanks," Ander buzzed. "But why would we need to deal with other Company Pokémon in port again, Osmund?"

"It's how you'll get information if you have to! If you've got a scarf, you can go into Guardhouses like these and pick up the news from the bulletin, like ours out in the foyer," he elaborated. "Not to mention, a little berry juice never hurt to get a Pokémon's guard down and their mouths moving."

"That said, you should be mindful that not everyone's going to be quick to talk around a Pokémon in Company lavenders, and it'll bring you trouble in some places," Marley clarified. "In those cases, stick to your normal scarves, and turn tail if you suspect anyone's growing wise to you."

"Wait a minute, the kids are on Boisocéan. It's a neutral island outside of the Company's control, isn't it?" Kiran asked. "If we're headed out as a Company ship, wouldn't we attract suspicion just coming into port thanks to the sails we'd need to sell our disguise?"

"That's… something that you'll have to work around, unfortunately. There might be some times when it'll be better to use the normal white-and-blues instead of Company sails. But any spotters will notice the change and pass it along up the chain, and the only really safe excuse I have for all of you showing up on the books right now is that you're being tapped to crew a new ship," Osmund replied. "That said, you might be able to still get what you want even with suspicion if you're smart about it. And I'm sure they've figured out that Company Pokémon from Tromba are just a little more reasonable than average."

"Eh?! 'Swapping sails'?! Why are you telling us all of this?!" Crom cried. "If Pleo's not even on an island run by the Company, why do we have to go through all that trouble?!"

That was right. Pleo and the rest of the team was on Boisocéan, they were safe and well there. And Kiran had just said that it was a neutral place! So it's not as if they'd run into Company Pokémon there, would they? And why did Osmund and Marley look so hesitant all of a sudden?

"Well-"

Before Osmund could continue speaking, he was interrupted by the sound of Pladur, a Raichu, and a Servine boisterously entering the room from the back. The group was in high spirits, and all of them were decked out in lavender scarves, clearly they had already gone through their own debriefings.

"Hey! We're back!" the Raichu cheered.

"Debrief going well?" the Servine wondered.

"Well enough," Osmund grunted. "Ready to push off, I take it?"

"More or less! Those Company sails you set the Siglo Swellow up with worked great on the test run around the island last night!" Pladur reported, the eager, cheerful words from his mouth making Osmund and Marley blanch.

"You… left harbor with Company sails?" Marley asked, her ears shifting uncomfortably and her words coming hesitantly. The Fraxure failed to detect Marley's unease, and prattled on happily to the rest of the room.

"Uh huh! They're even better at catching the wind for that old hull than-!"

Only to grow wide-eyed and drop to the floor with his Raichu and Servine crewmates to dodge some spikes flying overhead.

"Tontos! What were you all thinking?!" Marley fumed. Before the Fraxure could began to explain himself, his eyes went wide as he felt himself being lifted by his scarf by a forepaw and being drug face to face with a seething Nidorina.

"A-AAH!"

"Of all the reckless, stupid things you could have-!"

The others in the room leapt up and pried the two away from each other. As Marley struggled lividly against Ander and Kiran, Pladur hastily retreated and fell behind his similarly-rattled companions. In an attempt to prevent the situation from escalating any further, Osmund cried out for calm.

"Marley! Easy! Seeing a Company ship isn't out of the ordinary for the sea spotters!" he exclaimed. "Besides, that information still has to work its way up the chain! Don't get yourself so worked up!"

The Nidorina folded her ears back and muttered nervously to herself as she paced back and forth over and over again.

"Right… It's just a ship… The Company surely spots their own ships around here regularly enough…"

"Marley, it'll work out. I'm sure of it," Osmund answered as he tried his hardest to try and soothe Marley's rattled nerves. "To answer the earlier question, the reason why we're telling this all to you… is because you might need it. We're here, and the Protector's in Boisocéan…"

"And Lyn's still out there!" Marley cried. "That Samurott could chase him and my niñita off!"

All of a sudden, her nervousness, her anger at Pladur and the others, all of it seemed to make sense. But was it all really that dire?

"But- But- Pleo and the others told us they were alright!" Crom interjected. "And we haven't heard of any trouble from the island since then! They couldn't have gotten into that much trouble… could they?"


It was a beautiful day back in the hills over Bluewhorl, the skies were blue, the neighbor Pidove was singing a song with her mother to greet the morning as usual, and the town down the hill was lazily returning back to life. Her parents and siblings crowded around to cheer her on from the welcoming mat, and the little blue Nidoran was happy.

Yes, this was the way things were. The nightmare away from home had been dispelled and she was back where she meant to be. She heard a cry from further down the path and saw her teammates, with Crom at the head of the group, waving at her and beckoning her "Hurry up!"

The Nidoran whirled about, dug her feet against the ground, and just as she was about to hop off…

"Aherm."

A harsh voice suddenly called out and the scene suddenly evaporated, leaving behind only darkness and a gnawing feeling in the Poison-Type's stomach. It was all a dream! The team was still stuck on Boisocéan, still waiting on word to come back for if it was safe to return to Bluewhorl.

"Hnn? Are we getting up already?" a sleepy and tired-sounding voice chirped, Pleo's she presumed.

Last night had been a fiasco. No one on the team had found any work to do to get food for the night, and by the time the team got to the mats that Maranda had talked about, the only ones left unclaimed were a handful on the very edge of the wooden platforms they were spread out over. On top of all of that, no one had dinner! No wonder why Pleo still sounded so tired and her stomach disagreed with her so, they'd both not eaten a bite since they left the Medic's Hut yesterday!

"Whuh?" Nida yawned, finally cracking her eyelids open and uncurling. "What's going on-?"

Only to come face to face with the Galvantula, Seismitoad, and Crustle from the day of the Gummi Fab tour… Except this time, the three sported piercing leers directed at the team, the Water-Type among them holding a hogtied Growlithe up by the scruff of his neck.

"Is this yours?" the toad growled, leaving Nida to flatten her ears and bite her tongue.

"Er…"

"Uh huh! That's Elty, he's our teammate!" Pleo cheered, bobbing his head in affirmation. The Lugia then paused and tilted his head curiously as he recognized that something was amiss with this scene. The mats were empty of the Pokémon who were there the night before, the sun was higher in the sky than he expected. But…

"Where are all the other Pokémon? And why do you have him all tied up?"

"We asked for the other Pokémon to give us some privacy," the Water-Type croaked back. "And the mutt had a few things to answer for."

The Seismitoad abruptly tossed the Fire-Type onto the mat, who came to a rolling stop between Pleo and Nida, head under heels.

"Ow!" Elty yelped. "Seriously, it's all an overreaction!"

As the Growlithe fought with his bonds to try and right his body, Nida sighed, shook her head, and pressed the little dog…

"Elty, what did you do?"

"Relax! It wasn't anything serious," the Growlithe answered, as the leers on the group of guards grew sharper and more pronounced. "Just a little forgery."

"WHAT?!" Nida cried, hopping back in a shock as Pleo tilted his head and wondered… Just what was…

"'Four'… 'jury'?"

"Your buddy tried to pass off a fake signature to get into the food line," the Galvantula hissed. "And to help himself to food that belongs to Pokémon that do actual work for the town's guild."

"Oi! We did the job, and we still didn't get to eat anything last night!" Elty huffed back in protest. "What difference does it make if another Pokémon fills in the signature?!"

"A world of difference," a voice from behind the guards chittered, its owner stepping forward and revealing to be none other than…

"Maranda?!"

"At the very least, you could have been a bit less transparent about this whole affair," the Leavanny muttered, shaking her head.

"You can say that again," the Crustle chimed in. "Attempting to forge a completed Mission listing is grounds for a long Community Service stint doing something like scraping gunk off the docks around town."

Elty flinched and folded his ears back at the idea of having to wade into the swampy water around town on a regular basis. He fudged a signature on a clutter mission! Wasn't getting water involved as a punishment just a little much?

"Not to mention, it's also an offense subject to Command Responsibility!" the Seismitoad growled, glaring at the little spike ball before him.

Nida's ears drooped and the Nidoran audibly gulped as soon as the words 'Command Responsibility' left the guard's mouth. She had heard it come up in stern lectures with teams at the guild who had recruited a feral who was slow to take up the town's rules. She was also certain that back home she had overheard Kiran wondering aloud several times if it would come back to haunt his decision to take Elty under his wing…

Now she was about to live through it for herself.

"Eh? Nida?" Pleo asked. "Why do you look so nervous?"

"Command Responsibility means that the leader of a team will get in trouble for something her subordinates do," the Crustle lectured. "Especially if it can be shown that she knew what they were up to and did nothing to stop it. One of the first rules of a Rescue Team, really."

"That said, this does seem to be a rather peculiarly trivial reward to run your names through the mud over," Maranda interrupted, as she looked down at Team Traveller. "You didn't happen to just run off and forget to get your listing signed first, did you?"

Nida traded looks with her teammates as she debated just how much they should tell Maranda about what happened with Daraen and Margi yesterday. After an uneasy silence, she finally turned back to Seahive's medic leader and shook her ruff.

"Something like that, yes," she muttered.

"Understatement much?" Elty whispered. The Leavanny turned to the waiting guards and summarily dismissed them.

"I'll take over from here," she said, waving a leafy hand. "I don't think this will take too much longer, and I should make the most of my rounds about town before my shift at the hut starts up again."

The Galvantula, Seismitoad, and Crustle traded wary looks with each other, but in spite of their hesitation, one after another, they deferred judgement to the leafy bug.

"Understood, Madame."

"I still think you're going too easy on them, but if you think this is a good idea…"

"Yeah, I was looking forward to sticking it to that tubby mutt!"

The three turned and headed down the path back towards town, leaving Elty to fume and bark after them.

"Oi! It's a seasonal coat!"

"I think that if you can go do your paperwork properly, I can talk the guild into leaving this little incident off the record," Maranda interrupted. "Just go back to Daraen, explain the mistake, and get the signature you need."

The team's expressions sank. They were going to have to try going back to Margi? Pleo in particular betrayed his unease as his head and wings drooped.

"Uhm…" he replied uneasily. "I mean, I guess we could try…"

"Was there a misunderstanding between you all?" the Leavanny questioned.

"More his mother, but yes," Elty answered. The team shrank back and bit their tongues as the Bug-Type paused and visibly pondered how to respond back.

"… Maybe it would be best to also try and work through that," Maranda suggested. "I can't promise you'll succeed, but it seems like something that would probably put you at ease, and Daraen and his mother too, for that matter."

"What are we supposed to say?" Nida squeaked, hopping up and down in a start. "She thinks Pleo's evil!"

"I don't really know anything I can tell her to change her mind," Pleo murmured.

"Just go as you are. You don't have anything to hide or have anything against either of them, do you?" the Leavanny asked. "So just show that when you talk with them."

"Okay," Nida answered, nodding her head back. "I think we can manage that. But… where would we find them?"

"Well, I overheard a few Pokémon while passing by the Gummi Fab Margi works at, that she abruptly called in sick from her custodial job a few days ago," the Leavanny mulled. "She obviously sounds more well than what she let on, but knowing the circumstances, I'd imagine she's been staying around her home at la bastille."

"What is it?" Pleo wondered.

"It's a neighborhood past the fringes of town, nestled in some trees past a clearing around a creek," the Mairesse explained. "Just head opposite the direction of the shrine from here, and you'll find its approach soon enough."

"Oh, one last thing," she commented. "Be sure to walk to la bastille. Even if you were able to find it from above, I'm not sure that surprising the Pokémon that live there would do you any favors for getting your signature."

"Right," Nida said. "Thanks for the tip."

The Leavanny turned and left the mats, and the Nidoran finally stretched out, and watched Pleo beat his wings a couple times to get his blood flowing. After the two seemed energetic enough, they turned for the path, and chanced to see a Fearow pass by overhead in a hurry, probably someone else who overslept like them. It wouldn't hurt to pick up their own paces a bit either, but even so… Nida and Pleo couldn't help but feel that something was amiss…

"Hey!" Elty barked. "Are you two going to untie me or what?"

Oh. Right. Still, in spite of all of the trouble the Growlithe had caused earlier… it couldn't hurt to have an extra set of paws to help, could it?


After following Maranda's lead, Team Traveller came to a portion of Seahive's sprawl of wooden pathways that came to an abrupt halt next to a broad, marshy field of leafy green plants that tracked a small creek. The plants were apparently of a kind called "nettles," with thin spikes full of irritants that had a tendency to lodge themselves into Pokémon that brushed up against them. "Just like you, spike ball," the Growlithe on the team noted, much to the Nidoran's annoyance.

The sole route across the field was a rickety-looking rope bridge that lead to another platform at the edge of a much denser patch of trees at the other end. As the group made their way over to the other side, they saw that along the bottom, the lower branches had been stripped, and the nettles grew up in between their trunks.

When the three reached the other end, they saw another rope bridge heading deeper into the cluster of trees. Pleo alighted on a peg holding one of the bridges in place, only to flutter off in a panic after he felt it wobble under his weight. The bridges here seemed much less sturdily built than the passages back in town… Why, a particularly mean-spirited Pokémon could just tear up the bridge by pulling out the pegs on this end end!

But then again… considering what had happened yesterday with Margi and Daraen, maybe that was the point. Perhaps they had been made that way specifically in case of the arrival of a "demon", which made Pleo pause and grow uneasy about pressing forward, prompting him to turn to his shorter blue-furred partner.

"Nida… is this really a good idea?" he asked. "What about when we went to Ander?"

"Of course it is!" Elty barked, leering determinedly back at the little Protector. "If you want to stay and eat at the guild today, we need that signature!"

Nida lowered her ears and rolled her eyes at the Growlithe's words. While his motivations for going here were transparent as always, it was hard to argue with them… And after all…

"Pleo, I know that the last time didn't turn out so good," she sighed. "But Maranda suggested this, that means there has to be a way for it to work out… I hope."

The Nidoran looked ahead down the path warily, and thought about turning back for a moment, when some words came back to her from a few nights prior. She had promised Pleo that they wouldn't give up, no matter how bad things looked. Well, here was food and shelter being held from them thanks to an obstacle… Were they going to give up here?

No, they wouldn't. The Nidoran shook her head and hopped down the rope bridge, beckoning her teammates to follow after her. Elty trotted along hot on her heels, and Pleo followed after him. Before too long, the rope bridge had taken the group past trunk after trunk of the same, tightly-spaced trees, with little to show for Pokémon life around them.

All of a sudden, the quiet was broken by Pleo looking back and pausing.

"Eh? Didn't Maranda say that you could see the shrine from the entire town?" he called to his teammates. "I can't see it anymore!"

"What are you talking about?" Nida asked. "It was visible right-"

The Nidoran turned back, and saw nothing but the forms of her teammates, and the tops of the trees. She blinked a moment, and then hopped up Pleo's back for a better view…

"Behind us…"

Only to see that the shrine that stood over Seahive really wasn't visible, it was blocked by all of the trees around them! Nida hopped off her companion, and shook her head before pressing on with the team in tow. It was a little disorienting, sure, but they were on a bridge. One end lead back to the way they came from and the other-

"A-Aah!"

Towards their destination, a collection of thatch and shingle-roofed shacks and huts, along with platforms with mats spread out that were firmly nestled under a canopy that only let little rays of light in from above. With a panicky Croconaw and Forretress at the end starting to pale at the sight of the group on the path before them.

"It's here! The demon's here!" the Water-Type cried.

"Don't just stand there!" his wide-eyed companion chastised. "Hurry up and pull up the bridge!"

Nida and Elty froze as they saw the crocodile reach for one of the pegs holding in the rope bridge at the destination platform, only for a squawk to ring out…

"A-Ack! Don't do that! You'll make my friends fall!"

And all eyes to see that Pleo had taken flight for the platform, much to the horror of the two guards.

"It can f-fly already?!" the Croconaw whimpered. The Water-Type and his companion froze in visible fear as the still squawking and shouting bird flew nearer, and nearer… Finally, the Forretress' nerves gave way, and he turned and fled hopping along with his counterpart shouting.

"E-Everybody run!"

Nida and Elty quickly dashed after the young Lugia as he alighted on the platform, lest someone more collected come by and pull up the bridge while they were still on it. From the platform, they could see the neighborhood ahead explode into a frenzy, as Pokémon rushed here and there in a panic for shelter, or to be anywhere where the white bird wasn't.

"Whelp, so much for us getting food and shelter today," Elty grumbled. Pleo's head and wings drooped, they had just got here and his efforts to keep his friends from getting hurt had just made all of these Pokémon upset with him again! Frightened cries of "I-It's the demon from the Abyss!" and "He's here to destroy us all!" sailed through the air, leaving a little Deino stumbling around confused and disoriented by the tumult around him…

Hold on a minute! That Deino was-

"Daraen!" Pleo squawked, and drew a stunned yelp from the little dragon.

"H-Huh?!"

Only for the creature to turn and try to run, which lead him to stumble over a sagging plank in the platform below his feet and pratfall. As the creature picked himself up, Pleo flew after him, crying out and begging with him all the while to stay.

"Please don't go! We need you to-!"

A loud roar and a blue and black blur suddenly swooped down between Pleo and the Deino. The little bird hopping back with a squawk as he came face to face with one of Margi's snarling heads.

"Stay away from him!"

Only for her growling to suddenly be upstaged by another roar from behind Pleo.

"Na litość boską! GIVE US OUR REWARD!"

Everyone flinched and turned around slowly to see a glowering Growlithe with his paws stubbornly dug in into the rough wooden planks underfoot, prompting Nida to clutch her ears and mutter an exasperated "En serio?"…

That roar was… Elty's?

"You're not stiffing us again!" he growled. "We went to bed hungry last night and slept on mats under the stars thanks to you!"

The Hydreigon blinked and craned a head down at the Fire-Type, was this really all about…?

"Did you seriously come all this way for a few berries?" she grunted unimpressed.

Elty's determined leer wavered as he saw Margi's snout meeting his, the much bigger Hydreigon's much bigger teeth coming into clear view, her growling breaths reaching his nose and his ears. Nonetheless, he still attempted to muster the bravest face he could find. After all, food and shelter were at stake here.

"Th-That's right! We did!" he insisted. "I-Isn't that right, Nida?"

Nida shot a glare at Elty for getting her involved and hopped forward as Elty inched back away from the Dragon-Type's head; she then began to explain their predicament to the mother Hydreigon.

"We really didn't come to cause any trouble!" she assured "We just need a signature to show the guild that we did Daraen's request yesterday!"

"Um, but didn't Margi come while we were still-?" Pleo murmured, only to be met with a simultaneous pair of hisses from his teammates.

"Not now, Pleo!"

"Th-Then why did you lie to me?!" Darean cried from behind the Hydreigon's legs. "Why did you tell me you were a Goélise when you were really a monster?!"

"Er, technically you thought that Pleo was a… whatever a Goélise is," Nida replied. "We just never corrected you."

"And I'm not a monster, I'm a Protector!" Pleo protested. "Why you keep saying I'm supposed to do awful things?!"

"It's because of what you are," Margi growled back. Pleo froze, and unconsciously shifted back a couple paces from the big and belligerent-sounding dragon. "It's a part of your nature, as it was for the old Fiends in the old world!"

"The old world?" Nida asked. "What would be wrong with it? It was supposed to be a better place than ours all the way up until the old gods died!"

"It was that way because the humans and Pokémon of that world constantly clawed their way to having that better past!" the Hydreigon thundered before she trained a leering gaze on Pleo. "An era when humans and Pokémon lived together, combining their cleverness and strength to form a better age that existed long before things like that came along from the Abyss."

Pleo began to shrink back uneasily from Margi's glare, but still, there was something that he needed to know. What was this…

"Abyss?"

"Pleo!" Elty complained. "Don't let her change the subject! We were going to get that signa-"

The Hydreigon growled at the little Fire-Type, who quickly bit his tongue and as Daraen continued on after his mother.

"It's a space between worlds where dreams sometimes come to life and enter worlds like ours," the Deino explained. "That's why in the ancient times, both Pokémon and human knew better than to get too close to any entrances to it, and to avoid anything that came from it."

"Wait a minute… This 'Abyss'… it's a world of dreams?" Nida wondered. "But I've never heard anything bad about such worlds before! Why would you want to shut it out?"

"Because along with good dreams, nightmares would come to life from it! Without regard to how ready our world was! Why, this whole mess is due to such nightmares coming to life during an age of weakness like the one we live in!" she glowered. The dragon moved forward, Team Traveller uneasily backpedaling as the dragon's voice and demeanor began to shift to one of bitter consternment. "An age where hardship and despair lurked around many a corner and life struggled just to get by. It bred yearnings for stability and a defender. And in response, the Abyss created the archdemon that you call 'Arceus'."

Nida's jaw slackened and dropped at Margi's venomous gall. Arceus, the god whom the Cradle owed its very existence to, an archdemon? Why-? How would she even-?

"Are we seriously putting off getting that signature for this?" Elty grumbled. The Growlithe looked back and saw that they had backpedaled a ways back to the bridge already, and from the look on the Hydreigon's faces, she seemed to be keenly aware of it.

"B-But that's not right at all!" Nida cried. "Arceus created the world!"

Every so often, one of their number would dig in with some attempt to hold their ground, only to cede further ground after another growling push forward by the large, intimidating Pokémon

"You're wrong! That's a history that's been fed to you!" Margi growled. She shot a glance over at the rope bridge, which in between chunks of story and continued backpedaling, drew closer and closer to Team Traveller. "By the archdemon himself after he conquered our world and fashioned servants like that bird from the nightmares of the creatures that live here! After that, they spread lies such as that one to exalt themselves and keep simple-minded and easily cowed creatures from questioning them!"

Pleo curled in his head uncomfortably at the Hydreigon's cutting words, and Elty and Nida traded incredulous glances with each other. The Nidoran was sure that Margi couldn't be correct, and what she was saying seemed to be so obviously detached from reality.

But no matter how she tried, she found herself drawing blanks again and again for forming a counterargument, and Margi's tirade went on uncontested.

"It's a falsehood that blotted out the truth for many eons, consigning it to be forgotten entirely, until the humans chanced to discover great magic," the dragon continued. "A magic which enabled them to fashion great cities made of metal and glass, boxes that shared sounds and pictures across space and time, and allowed for an age of unparalleled prosperity."

"Hey, this is a wonderful story, but can we get our-" Elty began, only for his teammates to both swiftly meet him with a stern…

"Shush!"

"I-It was that same magic that would've let the world know the truth again, and the demons knew it!" Daraen added. "They became afraid of being exposed, and time and time again attempted to destroy everything that the humans and their allies had built!"

"Daraen, that's crazy!" Nida spluttered. "The gods are Protectors! Why would they want to destroy anything?"

"Oh really now?" Margi asked. "Is that why they sent storms to wipe their towns away? Why they stirred up land and sea against them to try and burn and drown their nations? Why they lent their power to fiendish devices to try and annihilate entire swaths of the world in a fell swoop? Why they even attempted to unmake our world from the archfiend's throne? That's what you call a 'Protector'?"

Nida winced and lowered her ears, "Uhm… well, no, that's not- but-"

"Nida," Daraen explained. "That's what really happened. The Pokémon you call the old gods really did all of that… I mean, even you have to admit they'd have the power to do it, right?"

It wasn't like they didn't have the power to do that… While they weren't favored by anyone for obvious reasons, Nida herself had heard of legends of calamities brought about by spurned Protectors in the old world. But, those calamities couldn't have happened maliciously as Margi was alleging, could they?

"When they made all those attempts, they led the generations of the past to discover the truth and brought the humans to war with the parasites from the Abyss. With the great magic that had been discovered, they fended off the demons and their deluded cronies, before finally attempting to put an end to this madness with mighty blows from the heavens," Margi muttered. "It was our world's moment of victory, our emancipation from these tyrants! But before the archdemon could finally be cut down, his servants in their dying rage brought destruction on our world."

Pleo turned nervously to his teammates and saw that while Elty and Nida both were visibly uncomfortable, they seemed entranced with the story, to the point where it seemed they scarcely seemed to notice that Margi had all but herded them back to the platform at the entrance of la bastille! Were… were they also worried that somehow, this awful story might be true?

"What happened next?" Nida asked reluctantly.

"That left Arceus free to reshape what was left of the world, forming what you now call the Cradle. He put an end to the presence of humans in our world, which is why their magic has been forgotten with time and why the feeble resistance our ancestors could muster afterwards came to naught," Margi explained. "There, he spread his spawn like that thing, ensuring that one day the world would be theirs to subjugate once again-"

When suddenly, a stammering squawk cut off the Hydreigon's words mid-sentence.

"But- But- I don't want to be mean like that!"

Everyone blinked and all eyes turned to Pleo. Daraen and Margi were at a loss of words… Here they were with a 'demon'… who didn't want to be one? A thought crept into the Deino's mind, as he realized a simple enough explanation for Pleo's outburst.

"But don't demons like destroying things?" he murmured. "It's what they do, so it wouldn't be mean to you!"

"But I don't want to destroy anything! I like this world!" the little Protector cried out, hoping to communicate his earnestness by beating his wings. "I like Seahive and Bluewhorl! I like being able to play with other Pokémon like we did yesterday! Even if there's bad Pokémon in it, there's nice ones, too! Like Hatteras! And Kiran! And Crom! And-! And-!"

The little bird shook his head and, with the loudest voice he could muster, blurted out his feelings.

"I want to be their Protector!"

The two Dragon-Types stared blankly as voices began to murmur. One by one, their neighbors uneasily returned from their hiding places among the huts and the branches of the surrounding trees, carefully maintaining their distance. Whispers of confusion and incredulity floated around as Margi paused, and craned a neck down to her son.

"Yesterday, out in that clearing," she began. "Did- Did he try to hurt you, ma petite?"

Daraen paused, and as his mind floated back to the day before, and the fun he had had… the Deino had to admit:

"He didn't, no…"

"Doesn't really sound like a 'monster', if you ask me," Nida said.

"So… can we finally get our reward now?" Elty asked hesitantly.

"Er… I mean, you technically still owe me one more match, but," Daraen murmured to himself. "I mean it went well enough… And if maman is okay with it…"

Some uneasy whispers went about the watching neighbors as all eyes waited to see what the Hydreigon would do, until finally, she spoke up.

"Fine," Margi grumbled, training a focused gaze on the little white bird before her. "But if your intentions are as pure as you claim, you will leave this island as soon as you hear of somewhere else you can shelter."

"H-Huh?!" Pleo squawked.

"Look, Pleo, there's obviously some things about you that don't match with what we've been taught," Daraen explained. "But those teachings obviously must have some truth to them, otherwise maman would have never known about what you are!"

More murmurs of "That's right!" and "We can't get too close to the thing, no matter how nice it seems!" went about the crowd. Pleo's head and wings drooped, before he had his attention drawn back to the Deino as he began to speak again.

"In that case, we have to stay careful," he said. "You understand, don't you?"

"I… I guess," Pleo replied. "But I really don't-"

"It's good enough, Pleo," Nida sighed. "We'll be headed home soon enough anyways."

"And besides, we need to get some food in our stomachs! We haven't eaten since last night!" Elty cried, as he dug a paper from the satchel on Nida's back and slid a dog-eared sheet of paper in front of Daraen.

"So… about that signature?"


A few moments and a dusting of Daraen's foot in some charcoal powder later, the mission listing was finally signed with Daraen's footprint. Team Traveller gave their thanks to Daraen and Margi, and turned to trek down the rope bridge for the thick woods outside the Marked neighborhood, now with two Oran Berries, a Rawst, a Pecha, and a Chesto in the team bag. The guarding Croconaw and Forretress warily returned to their posts, and the other Pokémon slowly returned to their day's routine.

Daraen and his mother remained at the platform's edge, wondering just what to make of the exchange they had just gone through.

"Maman…? If a demon doesn't want to be a demon," the Deino murmured. "Will it really still be one?"

"I don't know, ma petite," the Hydreigon sighed, as she watched Team Traveller slip into the trees at the end of the bridge. "But… part of me hopes it won't."


Unbeknownst to Team Traveller as they made their way back to the guild hall in high spirits, the skies and seas around Boisocéan had fallen into a precarious tension. Pokémon flew and swam along the loose cordon that Lyn had enacted- far enough from the island to elude suspicion from watchers on shore, but sufficiently close for Lyn's spotters to make out the Pokémon that came and went. And most importantly, still near enough to ferry word to prowling pods of lackeys lying in wait to pounce.

At the hub of the operation was Lyn's still-stricken vessel, the Samurott taking some time out from inspecting the half-done patchwork on his sails to press a group consisting of a Ninjask, a swimming Furret, and a Fearow of their findings.

"I want a status report, now."

"Well, he wasn't by the gummi fa-," a Ninjask began, only to clamp his mandibles shut, grimace, and hastily amend his words. "Er… we didn't see him in town today!"

"So then one of your squads on the cordon caught him, then?" Lyn demanded. The otter hardened his gaze at the three Pokémon, who gulped and paused noticeably before continuing.

"I didn't see anything on the far side of the island when the dive team there took me down," the Furret bobbing in the water said. "And there were no signs of the Lugia at the end of the Subway path offshore-"

The Surfing ferret was interrupted by the sound of a sudden commotion and splashing further away from the ship.

"Ack! Bird! Bird!"

The group turned to see a Goldeen thrashing while a group of irked-sounding blue and teal seabirds were pursuing and pecking her. Lyn's Weavile first mate chanced to pass by after an inspection of some recently untangled rigging, and sent a frigid, cutting gust of wind just overhead of the birds. The Icy Wind quickly sent them flying away in a panic, much to the Dark-Type's smirking amusement as the red-and-white fish sidled up against Lyn's ship.

"Well, we found some white and blue birds," the Water-Type sighed, shaking some sensation back into her pecked fins and flank. "But they were just feral Wingull. Nasty little buggers, too!"

Lyn's face fell, and the Samurott growled and seethed. Picking a crew on short notice and drastically changing their orders would lead to some degree of sloppier work, but this was ridiculous! What sort of cordon was ringing this island?

"Do you mean to tell me that an overgrown seabird and two landlubbing runts slipped past us again?"

"I-Impossible! I caught a glimpse of the target just half an hour ago on the fringes!" a Fearow nervously stammered. "The group looked about as prepared to leave as an Ingrained Oddish! I would've swooped in, but there were some tough customers around them and I lost them as they went through Seahive..."

"They could just be doing work in the Mystery Dungeon, Captain," the first mate added in between disinterested picks at his claws. "After all, even amateurs need to put food in their stomachs."

The Dark-Type's words made Lyn pause, and his posture slackened from resignation.

"That's… true," he admitted, even if it was not the least bit reassuring. He could tighten the cordon and whip the current shifts into better shape, yes. But even sharp and focused spotters would get worn down if pressed for too long… Bah, this ought to be simply going ashore and claiming his prize! Why couldn't the Guardian have tumbled down onto an island that wouldn't have geopolitics to complicate the matter?

"On the other fin, we'll have some more help with this cordon soon!" the Goldeen piped up in a cheery tone. "One of our ships was looking for your coordinates earlier!"

"One of our-?" Lyn asked. The Samurott scarcely got in a couple puzzled blinks before he heard a buzzing voice call off from behind.

"Lyn!"

After turning towards it, he saw a Mothim flitting from a two-masted ship with the patterns of a Second-Rank captain on its sails further out at sea… heading directly for his deck.

"Of course," the Water-Type sighed, as Ellsberg flitted over the deck and came to a fluttering rest on the railing beside the Third-Rank. The moth's expression betrayed an uneasy and exasperated impatience. It was no secret to Lyn what the culprit was…

"I thought you said that the Guardian of the Seas was facing imminent recapture!"

"For crying out loud, it's the second day," Lyn growled. "How much more imminent do I need to get with a potential diplomatic powderkeg like Boisocéan?"

"You didn't include that in your message!" the Mothim cried back, hopping up and down on the railing with idle flutters. "Is it my fault that the Board wound up coming to their own assumptions with such an evasive account?"

Ellsberg shook his head, drew in a deep breath, and calmed himself. Impatient Administrators or not, Lyn did have a point. Even if they wouldn't be pleased, they would surely understand the delicacies of the situation, wouldn't they? And it wasn't as if he only had bad news to deliver to the Commissioner…

"On the positive side, I think the Board must have anticipated that this mission would potentially run into trouble. They seem to have been able to put together a second crew quietly enough to help you after all," Ellsberg buzzed. "Why, I heard from a spotter that one of our own ships pulled out of Tromba last night. It could be a coincidence, but-"

Ellsberg flinched as he saw Lyn tense up and sink into a crouched pose that the moth normally saw whenever the Water-Type was about to pounce at an opponent while training. The Samurott twitched his whiskers, shook his head, and grumbled back in a low tone.

"That's not a coincidence. That's a sign we're running out of time."

"E-Eh?" the moth asked. "How do you figure-?"

"Think, Ellsberg!" Lyn roared at the Bug-Type, startling him off his perch on the railing and into the air. "Who is on Tromba and what's happened there lately?"

Tromba? But the only Pokémon there were the locals, Osmund, and Hatterby… Wait a minute, surely Lyn didn't mean that he expected them to somehow be involved.

"You can't honestly be suggesting that those rubes would try and-"

"That's exactly what I'm suggesting, Ellsberg!" the Samurott cried. "From all the runs I've made to that accursed sea rock, I know it's exactly the sort of stunt that Hatteras would try and pull!"

Lyn looked out at the sea. He had already stretched his numbers thin with the cordon, and leaving his ship to be a sitting Ducklett without defenses during any move on Seahive would be asking for trouble. The cordon could be condensed around a narrower portion of the island if he had an idea where Pleo would try and fly off from, but too many unpatrolled patches raised the risk of the Protector slipping away under his nose.

The Samurott then cast a glance over at Ellsberg's craft in the distance and, after pausing in thought, spoke back to the waiting notary.

"We're going in."

"Eh?! But your sails are still half-torn!" the Mothim spluttered. "You'll wear out your escorts just by having them help you limp into port!"

"I said we're going in, Ellsberg," Lyn corrected. "You have a ship and I can lend a few paws already out and about to it."

The Mothim stared back blankly at the Water-Type. It explained the look at the craft, but Lyn couldn't be suggesting that he use it like he would his own, right?

"You can't seriously hope to intimidate a town into submission with my ship!" the moth protested. "It's got half as many cannons and crew members as yours!"

Indeed, Ellsberg's craft was very much like the Mothim himself. None too imposing or spectacular on its own, but rather reliant on the unstated threat of bigger problems coming in its wake to arm-twist locals into compliance. How would he be able to apply that to an island that wasn't even under Company jurisdiction?

"We won't need to, Ellsberg."

"But what are we supposed to do otherwise, Lyn?" the Mothim pressed. "You can't quietly snatch Lugia away without good intel on his location! What are we supposed to do if not use brute force?"

"Tell me, Ellsberg, what do you do in our ranks?" the Samurott barked.

"Deliver and notarize messages of importance to our realms, of course!"

"Such as say, extradition notices?"

Ellsberg paused. That… actually made quite a bit of sense. He supposed he had underestimated Lyn as merely a more accomplished brute. An extradition notice provided a decent cover, it was something that he as a notary could do, but there still was something that di