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Heaven's Slice

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Artwork by Sa-Dui

 


Nia stood close beside a lithe nineteen-year-old girl with golden eyes.

“A secret lair,” said the girl to her Weavile. “Gotta find the basement, Nia. That’s where we’ll find our mark.”

Arching her back against the hardwood casing of a door, Nia stood sentry in the opulent hallway, while her dark-garbed mistress devised the plan. As Nia waited, her fluffy crown feathers on her head quivered in the still air. She was on full alert. Being a skilled hunter, Nia could sense the slightest of motion, though at present her skill was hardly being taxed. Guards paced about with heavy footsteps on the interior’s wooden floorboards, making them creak and groan. Their Pokémon made a fair deal of noise, too.

“Back around to the main foyer then,” the girl whispered, her lips concealed behind a cloth face mask.

Acknowledging her, the grown Weavile exhaled a tiny cloud of mist filled with glittering ice. On all fours, Nia concentrated on placing her weight on floorboards where the wood was fastened as not to give away her position, trusting the guard’s rhythmic squeaking to alert her to any that might come her way. Although reflected moonlight glistening off of the polished brass, smooth marble, and blown glass figures decorating the hall kept catching her eyes and stirring within her a primal urge to possess them, she took it as a reminder to stick to the plan. A carpeted path lay ahead, a path welcoming her to move swiftly, silently, and safely to a position where her mistress could see her and receive the information that she needed. Her crest flattened reflexively as she peeked over a railing for a split second. Stepping back toward the hallway, she reached behind herself and raised two claws twice: “Two guards, two Pokémon.”

Cautiously, the young girl peered down the stairwell, inching close to Nia’s cool body. Her long dark hair and sleek black coat covered the two of them as well as any shadow. She caught a glimpse of the four, a man and Pokémon paired, each. The first man had a shaven head and an Electabuzz close beside him; so close that she wondered if he shaved his hair to keep it from standing on end from the amount of static those things can throw off. The second came into view wearing a strange uniform featuring a tall collar and a crimson cape. In his hand he held a chain leading a Druddigon that looked no less fierce than any other and judging by the marks of past battles scarring his neck, he was not just for show.

The man wearing the cape spoke with a threatening voice as the sturdy chains holding Druddigon prisoner jangled. “Slack off a second time and I’ll reassign you to the pyre myself!”

“Won’t happen again, Sir Drake,” replied the man, his broad shoulders pulled back in a hunched gait.

“I don’t expect it to. This is your last chance.” The uniformed man removed his other arm beneath his mantle, revealing a peculiar jeweled staff with a silver ring attached to it.

She felt Nia shudder from excitement at the sight of the glimmering crystals of all colors decorating the rod. Giving her partner a quick pinch on the belly, she signaled to Nia: “Snap out of it!”

He raised the crystal cane, his withered hand grasping the silver hoop near its decorated base. To everyone’s surprise, he smacked the Electabuzz’s temple with the rod.

She and Nia winced in unison, expecting retaliatory lightning to fly from the beast. The man with the shaved head recoiled back, likely from the unwelcome prospect of kilovolts being set loose.

Instead, the burly monster whimpered. No electricity, not even a weak buzz, came from its horns. Its eyes narrowed, helplessly glaring at the mysterious item that struck such a humiliating blow.

“Fool!” spat the caped man. “Have your Electabuzz give you a shock if you can’t manage to stay awake!” Again, he prodded the Pokémon with his cane, boasting domination over the striped beast. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Very.” Doing his best to muster a salute, the guard tried not to lose completely his already shaken composure.

Druddigon let out a cantankerous growl as its heavy chain rattled.

“She grows impatient. And yet, there’s nothing but sacks of spoiled meat.” With a grunt, the mysterious Sir Drake began to turn. “That won’t do…won’t do at all…”

She saw he wore a twisted grin on his face, an ugly, ferocious look. The manic expression dissolved, if only slightly, as he stowed the staff beneath his cloak once more.

“All the meat is the same. All of it. All of it reeks—” He paused, giving the guard a double take. “Something’s amiss.”

“Sir Drake?” asked the guard.

Crap! She yanked Nia away from the railing just in time as the men gazed up at where they had been spying.

From below the floor, Sir Drake gave a rough sigh. “Send out a few more patrols to cover the perimeter. Can’t have anyone upsetting tonight’s plans. Our offering must be without disruption.”

“Understood, Sir Drake!” answered the guard.

Druddigon’s stomping echoed through the vestibule together with its clattering chains, becoming muffled as the men and their monsters parted ways.

She squeezed tightly onto Nia, her fingers squeezing her velvety coat. “Way too close!” she whispered into her friend’s feathery ear.

Smothered by her, Nia squirmed out of her mistress’s arms and got back to her feet. Nia turned her head, her feathers bristling, then leapt forward on all fours. She darted towards a festooned mahogany end table inside a room adjacent to the main hall.

Following Nia, she entered the room. She was greeted by a collection of statues, in the likeness of monsters she did not recognize. Some were spreading grand wings wrought of granite, others raising their limbs in meticulously chiseled battle stances. Seeing the only residents of the room were these stone figures, she let out a sigh of relief, and closed the door behind her to soften any noise.

Nia affectionately rubbed her feathery head against her hip and purred. “Close call.” Though Nia lacked the ability to speak, her mistress understood her catlike noises to the point where she hardly perceived anything save for their meaning.

“What a creep. Good thing we’re not looking for that stick. More importantly, didja see those stairs down near the guard, Nia? We gotta get past him and his ‘buzz. Would’ve been easier if he was still dozing off. He’s on high alert now. Don’t think he’ll be nodding off anytime soon after that stern talkin’ to he got from Sir Drake,” she sneered. “Maybe we can use his paranoia to our advantage.”

Nia picked up a porcelain vase from the posh end table. Clutching the cerulean piece and brimming with a proud smile, Nia revealed her sharp fangs. “How ‘bout this, Syl?”

She held out her hand, covered by a long glove with extendable claws and a silver ring around her wrist, which stretched all the way up past her elbow to her bare shoulder. A circular cluster of hexagons gave off a faint red glow as she took the urn from Nia. “The Armadas is responding,” she whispered. “So, this piece is an anomaly as well. The old man was right about this place. Always is. Or else he wouldn’t be worthy of his title as legendary thief and assassin: Night Blade, Mathias.”

Patriarch of the Nightshade Shadows, colloquially known as the Thieves Guild, Mathias was a broad-shouldered man with receding gray hair. The diagonal scar of a blade, which he claimed was a memento of an old acquaintance, ran under his magisterial nose, across pursed lips to his virile jaw. He possessed charisma, wisdom of a gentleman from a bygone generation, and the mind of a brilliant thief. Despite his purported villainy as a heinous criminal, an assassin no less, his exploits exposed deep corruption within the influential upper echelons of Castelia City. She wondered if he had an origin in those lofty societal ranks. It would explain his charm, courteousness, and diplomatic demeanor – incidentally, all qualities young Syl lacked. Contrary to his old age, Mathias stood tall and proud next his faithful Absol, Dareveth, or Dare, as he often called him. She vividly remembered the golden hour four nights ago, when the four of them gathered on the end of a sparse train platform in Anville Town. It was her sendoff to the outskirts of Orre for tonight’s mission; her bright eyes were fixed in the direction of the late sun descending upon the distant tracks.

“Sylisa,” Mathias had said to her then in his composed, yet stern voice, “you don’t realize it yet, but this mission is more important than me or the Shadows. No matter where you go, it’s a dark world. Yet, even in darkness, find your path under its cover, and carve forward your own path. The decisions you make, the company you keep, those are treasures worth more than fame or fortune.” Mathias looked at Nia and slightly nodded his head. “You’ll only get one chance, but, with her by your side, you’ll only need the one.”

“Why me?” Sylisa wondered. In a mixture of her adolescent uncertainty and veneration of Mathias, she pointed out, “You’re the infamous Night Blade, doesn’t that count for something?”

“Spare me,” huffed Mathias, a dangerous glare on his jagged face. “Remember what I taught you: Labels aren’t important to professional thieves – a good thief is named by notoriety, a bad one by the crime committed. Stealing a treasure, they’ll call it larceny. Breaking into a safe, burglary. Using a little force, banditry. Raiding a tomb, grave robbery. Key difference between us and those thieves: We get away with it.”

“Oh…” A tight knot in her chest from the weight of responsibility made her voice barely audible. She felt frozen in place, unable to answer her mentor, much less say goodbye without tears. The longer the silence persisted, the more her doubts multiplied. Without warning, Dare approached her, in a coy stride he was well-known for when seeking an affectionate pat or delicious treat. Sylisa ran her hand through his shaggy fur much to Nia’s jealousy. She steeled herself with a deep breath, her trembling fingers clasped Dare’s thick mane, mustering every ounce of courage she could. “I’ll be the best thief there ever was with Nia!”

For a split-second she could have sworn Mathias was about to smile. “Now go,” he said, holding fast to his consistently serious aura. “Before I regret bringing you into this twisted world even more.”

Coming back to present, Sylisa forcefully shook her head to dispel the lingering bits of reminiscence. I sounded really stupid. Gotta get results, that’s how I’ll prove myself!

Sylisa scrutinized the vase Nia had passed along to her, trying to cast off the heavy doubt weighing on her heart with her passion for archeology. “Ooh, look!” she exclaimed, studying its intricate design. “It’s baby Articuno taking flight for the first time. Hmm. Judging by the blue porcelain, it’s from special kaolin unearthed by Dugtrio all the way in Kanto. Oh wow! This is one of a kind! Nia, look at this fancy inscription in the corner. Famous craftsmen from long ago used to imprint their work here by the base with this special marking when it was custom made. Made it impossible to forge a replica!”

The reddening collar of Nia and her annoyed purr impressed on Sylisa that she was off-track. “That’s not why I got it!”

“Whoops, erm, I got a’lil carried away there,” replied Sylisa, concealing a sheepish grin.

Nia pouted.

“Shame, this Articunurn must be worth a month’s worth of fancy meals, not to mention its historic value. But none of that’s what we’re here for.” Sylisa sighed, spinning the priceless vase into the air and nimbly catching it. “We’ll use it to draw attention away from the stairwell. Will raise suspicion, but it’ll give us a clear opening. You fling it, and then book it down the stairs while they’re distracted. I’ll jump from landing to landing right behind you. That thick carpet will muffle the noise. Whatcha think?”

“Simple plan. I like it.” Nia mewed in agreement.

“Ready?”

After handing off the vase to her, Nia nodded.

“Here goes nothing. Three, two, one!”

Nia flung the vase in a long arc down the hall and into the next room below the base of the steps.

“What was that?!” blurted the man next to Electabuzz. He and his Pokémon scattered in the direction of the shattering sound, giving Sylisa and Nia the opening they needed.

Sylisa’s boots were made of hard leather and had a soft sole for absorbing sprightly jumps. As she leapt to trace Nia, Sylisa’s featherlight jacket fluttered behind her, its split back forming two obsidian coattails that followed her deft bounds. Following a series of acrobatic jumps, they passed the guard’s post and entered the dark corridor leading down into the bowels of the mysterious mansion.

Having reached the vacant bottom of the spiral staircase, the two of them took a quick breather.

“If I had known we’d be jumping around so much I wouldn’t have worn such a short skirt,” groaned Sylisa, her fingers tugging on her snug black outfit. “Nia, you made my corset way too tight!”

Nia’s cheeks blushed, she held her paw slackly over her mouth, trying to not stare at Sylisa wrenching and squirming in her skin-tight clothes.

“Ugh… Yeeesh, what’s that stench? Smells like garbage day in the city.” Sylisa adjusted her face mask to better cover her irritated nose.

So offensive was the mephitic odor, Nia wore a scrunched up face and covered her nostrils with one of her paws. She hissed and spat in disgust. “Spoiled food?”

“Eww. I think so,” she said, feeling ever queasier. Making dexterous jumps the envy of many a trapezist was nothing compared to weathering the pervasive, rotten stench. The darkness grew along with the rank pong the further down the path they went. The floor was no longer made of hardwood, but large slabs of stone, carved out of the foundational bedrock. “It’s quiet,” whispered Sylisa. “Too quiet. You’d think there’d be guards down here.”

“Feel that?” asked Nia.

Pausing, Sylisa felt a rhythmic vibration in the floor. “Huh. There’s something shaking.”

Eventually the tunnel ended with a landing leading to three hallways. The underground architecture was curved and consisted of dome ceilings that resembled a Kabuto’s shell. Along the corridors there were dim lamps, housed in glass boxes that once held candles prior to electricity judging from the wax remnants present at their bases.

Nia begrudgingly sniffed the foul air and pointed to the passage where the stench was coming from. She pointed. “Thataway.”

Sylisa gave a mute thumbs-up and followed Nia down the very darkest of the three paths. They began to hear heavy breathing. The labored sound shook the entire floor. Even the wall lanterns were rattling. Her eyes frantically scanned to make out what lay ahead in this abysmal, reverberating pit. “What could be making such a sound? Is it a ‘mon?”

“Gonna find out.” When a wall at the end of the hall approached, Nia turned into what appeared to be an archaic underground pantry.

Sylisa held her breath as her best friend disappeared.

However, Nia bounced right out back into the hallway with a look of utter confusion on her face.

“N-Nia? What’s wrong?” Sylisa asked in a panic. And then there was a grumble unlike anything she had ever heard. It was deep, grumpy and brash all at once. Not only that, the putrescent odor was worse than before. “What the heck—!?”

A huge wall of flesh came hurtling out through the passageway. Sylisa could not believe what she was seeing. An enormous Snorlax broke down half the wall charging after Nia.

“Oh shit! Leap to the lamps!” She dodged to the other side of the hall.

Nia evaded, jumping up and swinging from the old lanterns on the wall to dodge the living wrecking ball. But Snorlax was just getting warmed up, tumbling forward with impressive girth in an all-out attack.

“Dammit!” Sylisa helplessly watched as Nia struggled to slide from Snorlax’s wild charge.

The momentum of the beast’s Giga Impact hurdled Snorlax past Nia and into a brick wall, breaking it down, and revealing a hidden area behind it. There were very bright lights coming from within the once hidden room, which caused Snorlax to angrily cover its tired eyes from the blinding light. It growled deeply, slumped backward, and swatted loose bricks with its chubby hands.

Seeing an opening, Sylisa said in a hiss, “Nia, Spite it!”

Nia’s shadow grew and stretched underneath the massive body of Snorlax. The ghostly shadow tugged down on the enormous creature with phantasm energy.

Snorlax rumbled, his behemoth form tried to lift off the ground and roll into another fully charged Giga Impact. When Snorlax realized the shadow had pinned his body, it grabbed onto the broken wall to help leverage itself to its feet.

“Oh no you don’t, fat-ass!” chided Sylisa. “Nia, quick, use Ice Shard like we practiced. Then Low Kick!”

Nia shot multiple shards of ice from under her claws, forming a thin path of ice in front of her. Like a figure skater, she dashed rapidly on the ice path gathering momentum and charging right for where Spite had locked down Snorlax. With a graceful pirouette, the cat ballerina spun into a kick after launching from the end of the ramped ice path and powerfully nailed Snorlax right in the side of the leg.

Snorlax tottered from side to side, trying to balance its absurd girth, it fell flat on its big belly, then rolled into the side of the wall it had not broken down. The Snorlax let out an absolutely filthy smelling belch as its massive stomach pressed against the earth. Finally, it fell back into a deep, noisy slumber.

“Phew, lights out, big boy.” Sylisa sighed, hugging Nia protectively in her arms, close to her pounding heart. “I hope the racket didn’t alert the guards.” The supernatural ice path Nia had made had already begun to melt into an unrecognizable path of water, easily mistaken for drool tracing to Snorlax. “Looks like Chubby had a bad dream, nice work. We better dash, girl.” Sylisa and Nia hopped over the wall Snorlax’s Giga Impact wrecked which led them into a brighter room.

“Wow…” Sylisa said as her eyes adjusted to the artificial light illuminating the huge storage bay. “This place feels like a different era. The architecture is all different. It’s all new construction.” Thousands of crates were kept in this giant warehouse. Aisles held hundreds of metal boxes, rectangle in shape, about three times as long as they were wide, stacked up to the ceiling on either side of the room. “You think this is the place, Nia?”

Nia shivered, her feathers bristled against themselves despite a lack of air movement. “I don’t like this, Syl.”

“Looks like underground storage. Don’t see anyone down here. That’s good for us, right?” However, Sylisa’s intrepid words did not stop a chill from running up her spine as she stooped against a nearby crate and peered around for any signs of life. “Everything’s so still,” she whispered. “What’s the point of guarding all this with a friggin’ Snorlax?”

Nia growled lowly, as she sunk her body onto all fours, bringing her belly close to the ground.

Sylisa quietly snapped another round of pictures on her phone. “These boxes, all identical metal caskets. You don’t think they could be ALL holding treasure? There’s gotta be millions of ‘em down here. We’ll never find the right one at this rate!”

Nia did not have an answer, her crouched body language showed her general uneasiness.

Sylisa groaned, trying to pry open one of the solid crates with her Armadas. It was stubbornly bolted shut like all the others, its construction as seamless as possible. After struggling for a minute to find a keyhole or other access point to no avail, she moved on to another, and another. “Hey, what’s gotten into you? Don’t you want to see what’s inside these things?” asked Sylisa as she squatted from fatigue.

“No way.” Nia sat up, crossed her arms, and shook her head. With her sharpened claw, she pointed at how the crates surrounded them, as though it were a tactical disadvantage on one of her hunts. “Don’t like. Too many.”

“Wait!” Sylisa gasped. “The treasure we’re looking for can’t be inside one of these things.”

Nia’s feathers lofted in mild intrigue.

“Don’tcha see? Would be a real hassle if it got lost in one of them since they’re exactly the same. There aren’t any numbers, symbols, or ID marks on ‘em. So… How would you know which one is holding what unless you grew gray hairs like Mathias trying to open them all?”

Growling lowly, the feline made her attitude clear. “Don’t think they’re supposed to be opened, Syl.”

Sylisa stood back up and ran her fingers over the metal, touching the iron latches. Her hand froze. “Like ice,” she whispered. She tapped on the side of one of the crates. She didn’t know why, but the moment she did, she expected to hear a response. When no noise came, she sighed in relief. That wouldn’t make sense. There aren’t any air holes. Nothing could possibly live in there. Of course not. What a silly thought.

As Sylisa turned around to check on Nia she heard another whisper. Soft, unintelligible sound at first, but then it morphed into louder syllables resembling foreign words. It sounded like a child. No, a group of children. Playing. Or something. It sounded like muffled giggling, but something was off. The noise did not sound human. Their sound was stretched out, distorted, like a warped record played on an old phonograph.

Sylisa was about to scold, “Cut it out, Nia!” before she realized the voices were coming from the opposite direction of her feline, from the crate. She quickly spun around to face the distorted cluster of whispers. They were invisible, but the source was unambiguously coming from the sealed coffer. Sylisa realized she was shaking. Get out of my head! The warped voices grew louder, then there was a bright flash of light. Ahh!

Suddenly the room she was in changed completely. She was somewhere high in the sky, a place only Pokémon with strong wings could reach, and the clouds were all below her at the edge of space. She saw figures in the distance. A woman garbed in purest white vestments hung limply in the air, controlled by an invisible force that held her aloft like a marionette. It was then she realized the woman’s chest was blood red. Stained by a massive, bleeding gash where her heart should have been.

What…what is this!? Sylisa thought in delirium. This can’t be real! None of this is real! Stop! Make it stop! Frightened, she started to walk backward, moving away from the disturbing scene. The distorted voices seemed to follow her, yet she could not turn around away from the woman. As she moved backwards, the back of her ankles ran into a piece of metal and she tripped clumsily despite feeling as though she were somewhere high in the sky. As she fell, she saw from her peripheral vision that it was the spire of a tall tower overlooking a region she had never seen before. Unintelligible sounds and the whistling of air filled her head. When her rear hit the ground, she felt a sharp jolt of discomfort. The voices and visual hallucinations abruptly ceased.

“Huh?!” Her entire body was sweating and shivering. With an unsteady hand, she nervously wiped away the wetness off her forehead. “What just happened? Did you hear that?”

Nia gave a confused head shake. “No.” She brushed her body up against Sylisa, who held her with both arms. Nia wailed, “Why’re you all soaked?”

“Oh God! Am I going crazy? When I touched that crate,” said Sylisa, staring down at her fingers, now impressing her friend’s mink fur. “I started to hear voices. It had to be a hallucination. Maybe it was a psychic’s trap!”

“Told you to stay away.” Nia shrugged.

The bright lights above suddenly flickered.

“Bad news,” Sylisa whispered, coming back to reality rather unsteadily. “We need to hurry before we’re discovered. And catch that eclipse. Only way we’re getting out of here is under the cover of darkness.”

“You better not go anywhere without me.” With a nudge, her feathers tickled Sylisa, causing her to smile.

“I won’t. Thank you for keeping me safe.” After hugging her friend’s velvety coat one last time, Sylisa picked herself up off the ground and pointed to the far end of the underground warehouse which lead to a massive steel door. “Back there. The trap’s voices, the hallucination, was all coming from that way. If it’s any indication, that’s gotta be the place where the treasure is.”

Together they darted down one of many aisles filled with the flush metal containers. Eventually they made it to the rear of the giant room. The hanger was much bigger up close. “A Wailord would be able to fit through here,” mused Sylisa. It was shut tight, chained down to the cement floor; however, there was a regular sized door leading to another room on the left of the garage.

“Break it?” asked Nia, pointing to Sylisa’s special glove.

She placed her palm on the door. “Far too sturdy to break down with the Armadas.” Sylisa pressed her ear against it and her shorter partner followed suit. “Hear anyone inside?”

“No.”

“Me neither,” said Sylisa, grabbing a pick from her belt and getting to work on the lock. “Basic pin tumbler, nothing too special.”

Nia ruffled her collar. “Showoff.”

“Hehe. Almost…got it.” The door’s lock clicked open.

Inside was a darker room. It looked like an office, furnished with several desks and file cabinets with a couch opposite a wall with a mirror. On the back wall, there was a giant painting of a Pokémon soaring high above stone towers on wings made of flame. Sylisa scanned the perimeter and closed the door softly behind her. Walking in, she peered at her reflection in the dim light. “My hair’s a little messy,” she grumbled, running her hand through her long jet-black hair, vainly tucking it behind her ears to show off her earrings, a matching set of dangling hoops with a suspended red feather in each. “Lookin’ good, all things considered.”

“C’mon!” Nia urged, tugging on Sylisa’s coattails.

Sylisa adjusted her black and green Dusk Ball on the back of her mini skirt’s belt above her derriere and walked to the other side of the room. There were no more strange noises, just the dull hum of an air vent overhead. She perused through some of the texts on the bookshelf, searching for a hidden lever while glossing over the various titles to get a better feel for whoever made this their office. “Ancient Pokémon and Ultra Space, Where and When the Pokéball Manipulates Space-Time, A Primer on Apricorn Malfunctions, Horrific First-Generation Mistakes, Not Your Grandfather’s Paradox, Druidic Rituals and Contemporary Scholarship, Psychics or Predictors … Geez, someone needs to lay off the fiction. Reminds me of dad’s old library. Concerning the Paranormal and that sorta stuff… Huh, looks like this old book is not even written in English. All these cryptic symbols on the binding. Spooky. They kinda look like eyeballs.”

“Wrong place.” Nia growled. She pointed to the painting of the mysterious Pokémon on the back wall, jumped up onto a cabinet, and started using her claws to pry the painting loose.

Sylisa assisted her partner, exposing a metal wall safe with a satisfied grin. “There you have it, it’s not just a cliché. Hmm. A cylinder lock…and a number-pad code,” she said, analyzing her opponent. “Tsk, tsk. The buyer’s paying for the novelty of having multiple ways in, which can be taken advantage of. Nia, a gust of Icy Wind, if you don’t mind.”

Nia simpered deviously into her paw, then blew a small cloud of frost on the combination keypad. The shimmering ice powder revealed tiny ridges: fingerprints where numbers had been pressed. Judging by the placement and orientation, it was clear they went straight onto the eight, moved downward to smudge twice on the three, then took a long diagonal turn to press seven.

“8-3-3-7” Sylisa smirked as she entered the combination. “And presto! We’re in, baby!”

Inside the safe, she saw exactly what she had traveled all the way here for. A sparkling translucent orb with a fine ruby crystal in the center. It was partially wrapped by a white silken cloth which it rested in like an egg in a nest.

“Not so fast.” Nia knew better than to snatch the mark the same way she would steal a Pidgey’s egg from an unguarded nest. “First, check for traps.”

“You’re right. Better to be safe. Don’t see any motion detectors, but just to be sure.” Sylisa picked up a snow globe paperweight from the nearby desk and got ready to swap the two items in case there was a pressure sensor alarm. Sylisa deftly wrapped the treasure in the silk it was resting in and proceeded to switch it with the paperweight.

Nia purred, a smug grin on her face. “Well, that was easy.”

Ruffling her corset’s lacing resembling the pinnacles of a crown round her bust, Sylisa placed the loot inside her vest pocket under her breast and turned to face Nia. “Phew. We got what we came here for. Let’s get the hell out of here, girl. We’ll write a spooky story about it online for the laughs. I’ve got some spooky pics here on my phone. Can’t wait to rustle someone’s jimmies.”

“Not-uh.” She did not agree. “Mission first, Syl.”

“C’mon, Nia!” whined Sylisa. “Why are you so serious all the time?” In truth, Sylisa was too afraid to confront, let alone kill anyone. She was even more afraid of whatever horrible power dwelled here. All she wanted to do was run off with the loot back to HQ and show off her infiltration skills online.

Nia shook her feathery head. She then hugged onto Sylisa’s leg, securely clutching her long black stockings so she could not run away. “No running!”

I’d make a terrible Pokémon, I’d cut and run from my trainer at the first sign of trouble, she thought. “Don’t worry, I’m going to stay with you.”

Nia defiantly held Sylisa in place, and nuzzled her crown feathers against her long and warm stockings.

“Fine, fine. You win. We’ll do what we can to put these crazy cultists outta commission. But, no sense following orders to the letter if we wind up dead.” Hmm, best way to handle this by doing the least amount of work possible… Sylisa rubbed her chin, pondering. “Ah-ha! We’ll use the environment against them. The air is very dry here, isn’t it?”

Nia tilted her head. She mewed. “Go on.”

“We can start a fire,” Sylisa explained. “Arson’s a serious crime. It’ll get noticed and that grumpster Mathias won’t be able to say we didn’t try. At the very least it disrupts those robed guys we saw out in the courtyard and we’ll have proof we were here.” Sylisa pointed to her phone. Patting her vest, Sylisa followed up with a toothy grin. “Plus our treasure of course!”

Nia nodded, agreeing with the plan. “Not bad.”

“Let’s go back behind that room with the Snorlax. We’ll start a fire there, on our way out by setting flame to the old storehouse’s wooden pillars.”

Her ice cat’s shoulders slumped. She growled low and set her sharp claws out, unwilling to fight Snorlax again.

“Aw, Nia. Don’tcha give me that cranky kitty look,” said Sylisa. “I bet the big loafer is still knocked out. Don’t worry, we’ll flee before it wakes up.”

Nia tried to force a nod but it came across as half-hearted. “Then what?”

Sylisa winked confidently. “Ahem! Following Shadow, Chaos is a thief’s second-best friend!”

“That’s not it at all.” Nia seemed skeptical of her stitched-together prerogative and even less amused by her butchering of one of the adages Mathias always spoke about as central to the Thieves Guild.

“Blah, blah, blah! Ain’t nobody got time to remember all those old sayings. Hurry up.” Together they raced back out into the hallway, into the big warehouse room. There was an ominous groan from behind the giant hanger. It sounded like metal moving, but the steal door was still tightly sealed shut. Sylisa and Nia picked up the pace and raced for the broken-down wall.

To their surprise, Snorlax was gone. “Huh?! Something that big doesn’t just disappear. You think an investigating guard recalled it after seeing the damage it did to the wall?”

“Don’t care. Glad it’s gone.” Nia sneered, darting to the interior of the underground kitchen that had been blocked by Snorlax before. It was very rustic, and had probably not been used in ages for actual cooking, instead becoming a storage facility.

“Weiiiiird…” Sylisa exhaled dramatically. “Here, the sooner we get out of this creepy place the better. Let’s get this kindling lit.” She gathered some dried supplies and built a small pile near the wooden supports. With a flourish, she lit a long match using the side of her boot. The flames burned brightly as she set the kindling pile alight. In the aridness of the desert air, the flames began to spread to the other parts of the structure. Thick smoke rose beneath the fire, which licked greedily at the combustible material to rapidly spread.

Nia groaned and pointed to her ice claws. “I’m not gonna melt, am I?”

“Not if you’re quick,” teased Sylisa. “Time to make like thunder and bolt! C’mon!”

Before they had gotten too far through the tunnel, Nia made a sharp and perky noise reminding Sylisa: “Smell of fire will alert the ‘buzz.”

“A little too late for that,” sighed Sylisa. “We need to run or we’ll get cooked for real.”

“What’s that? Something’s burning!” said the voice of the man who had been with the Electabuzz. Their heavy steps were approaching.

“Crap,” said Sylisa. “Too soon. They’re going to block our exit.”

Nia gave Sylisa’s jacket tail a tug. “Plan?”

“Stun and run.” Placing her index finger on the control ring of the Armadas, Sylisa felt her synthetic glove purr to life. “You go for Electabuzz, Nia, I’ll stun the man.” Sylisa whispered over the charging hum of the Armadas, “Remember, I only got one shot before it goes idle.”

“The offering pyre is supposed to be outside, dammit!” yelled the guard from earlier. “Why is there smoke coming from inside? Hurry up, Buzz, we need to check it out or we’ll get roasted by Drake!”

As soon as the guard’s bulky profile appeared from around the bend of the twisting spiral stairs, Sylisa stuck out her left arm, palm face-out directly in front of him. She turned her head to the right and covered her left ear with her right hand. Activating the burst, she felt an incredible force of energy from her extended hand, pushing her backwards. It sounded like an explosion straight out of an Exploud.

The guard ran smack into the thunderous blast, and fell back. His shaved head bumped against the stone wall behind him and he collapsed.

Meanwhile, Electabuzz was just as shocked by the ambush. Rounding the corner to follow the noise, it stumbled over the stunned guard’s body. Stupefied by the escalating calamity, Electabuzz let sparks fly wildly from its horns, illuminating the claustrophobic stairwell with bright flashes of pulsing light.

Nia threw a sucker punch, jumping on the stunned guard for leverage, then leaping, landing the hit square between Electabuzz’s eyes. After a sprightly landing on uneven ground, Nia snatched Electabuzz’s yellow and black tail, and forcefully yanked the striped tail underneath the Pokémon’s legs causing it to trip and fall as well.

“Run!” said Sylisa. “Friggin’ blast must’ve alerted every guard in the building!”

After climbing to the top of the stairs, Sylisa saw at least six guards racing in through the front door. They all had their Pokémon with them. Hitmonchan, Granbull, Pawniard, Gabite, Watchog, and Darmanitan, each a significant threat, but together a huge problem.

“Give ‘em the business, boys!” shouted the lead guard to the group of Pokémon.

Throwing one of her special smoke grenades, a prism bomb, Sylisa managed to interrupt Hitmonchan from striking Nia with a speedy Mach Punch. The dazzling light and smokescreen from the bomb created a chance to escape the onslaught of attacks from the other Pokémon. Sylisa did a backflip and Nia used Substitute to dodge several of the Darmanitan’s fireballs thrown wildly at them, however, Sylisa’s facemask fell off.

“Back door!” exclaimed Sylisa. She spun around on her heel and ran down the hallway. The corridor seemed to stretch on forever, and she could hear her pursuers noisily chasing after her. Ahead was a large glass door leading to the courtyard illuminated by the ominous orange glow from outside. Sylisa said between hurried breaths, “Nia – Icicle Crash – through the glass!”

Nia jumped into the air and blew a spear of ice in between outstretched claws. With impressive strength, she flung the icicle javelin at the glass which shattered into a sea of shards.

Sylisa heard a loud thud from the other side of the glass and then a buzzing groan. The ice missile struck something solid. The spike wobbled at a near vertical position. As she leapt through the broken glass, she saw a big Heracross wearing a Choice Band like a bandana. Heracross was illuminated by a red light, Sylisa looked up to see a dark red moon consistent with the eclipse.

Nia didn’t skip a beat. She ripped the Choice Band right off with Thief and hastily tied the item around her arm. “Hurry! It’s almost time.”

To the left, more guards from the estate’s entrance were closing in. To the right was the ominous orange glow from where the cultists had been spotted before. And ahead of them was a huge hedge maze. “Only one way to go,” said Sylisa, dashing into the maze.

Nia twisted and turned through the labyrinth at sharp angles making Sylisa dizzy, but she did not give up or slow down. Just then a massive fireball came searing down from above, burning away a huge portion of the maze right in front of them. Sylisa and Nia stopped and looked up, barely avoiding the towering inferno. It was a Charizard. And a really massive one at that. Its wingspan must have been the length of three city buses.

“Oh…shit.” She gasped, out of breath. “You gotta be kidding me!”

Charizard let out a deafening roar, firing more fireballs at the hedge maze to cut off their exits. It breathed one after another, without breaks between attacks. They were surrounded by the firestorm in no time.

Sylisa stared up at her daunting opponent in an intense mixture of fear and anger. It was then she realized that someone was riding the giant Charizard. She could not tell who it was due to the flames and rising waves of heat distorting her vision like a mirage, but it appeared to be wearing robes like the cultists.

The figure boomed from atop Charizard’s back, “THE MIRARI! WHERE IS IT?!”

“Must be talking about the treasure.” Sylisa looked at Nia.

She returned the glare and tightened her Choice Band.

“The wings,” said Sylisa with a defying point at the gargantuan monster blotting out the bloody heavens. A growing sea of orange wildfire reflected off the hooks on her Armadas and Nia’s claws. “Ice Shard!”

With a twin slashing motion, Nia fired a hailstorm of crystallized ice missiles at Charizard’s huge wingspan overhead. As the blizzard of sparkling shards flew into the cold night air, they reflected the orange glow of the flames below and the blood red sky above, creating a dazzling display.

Charizard breathed out a sweeping stream of fire, a Flamethrower with no end. It melted all the ice projectiles, turning them into harmless steam.

“No!” exclaimed Sylisa. Her heart was pounding, her whole body was sweating. This is the end of the line. We’re surrounded and there’s no way to escape!

“Any last words before I burn you to cinder?!” hollered the voice from above the mighty dragon.

“The thing he wants. It’s our only chance.” Sylisa removed the orb from the pocket inside her corset. Silently, she held it high up into the air for the rider to see.

“Yes! YES!” The voice resounded from atop the enormous Charizard’s back. “THE MIRARI!”

“You want it?!” asked Sylisa angrily. “Or are ‘ya just gonna gawk?”

“Insolent, wretched thief! You have no idea what limitless power the Mirari possesses! Relinquish it from your heinous claws and I shall make your death a swift one!”

Her body felt hotter from anger than from the surrounding flames. She was livid and not about to relinquish her hard-fought prize. A feverish emotion of wrath overtook her and her eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so!” she hollered, glancing down at her left bicep, noting a soft illuminated outline, indicating her glove had recharged. Adjusting the Mirari with her fingertips, she placed it against the amplifier housed in her palm. Staring back up into the face of death she shouted, “Better take a picture, ‘cause it’ll last longer!”

The Charizard lurched, rearing its gigantic head back. In its maw, an inferno of flame grew to a massive proportion.

Sylisa took one last look at Nia and activated the Armadas as the colossal blast of hellfire fell upon them. She intended to launch it straight into the fire. However, as she activated the burst, it emitted a brilliant flash of light.

“AHHH!”

Everything around her started to pull away. Sylisa felt nauseous as the color was drained out of the world. The Mirari shone brightly in her hand, but the strange orb had started to warp light around it. Sylisa saw countless eyes all around her, black, colorless watchers, floating in midair, staring into her soul. What the…! What’s going on?! What’s happening to me?!

Everything blurred together. The bizarre eldritch horror scene around her became a waterlogged sea, leagues under the sea. And then pressure. She began to feel not only the weight of the staring eyes, but the aquatic environment pressing down on her whole body. The sensation only got worse as she felt a terrible migraine. Through dense miasma of the underwater world, she noticed the swirling eyes that had turned into bubbles. Beyond the maelstrom of their chaotic congregation, a bright sun was out exactly where the eclipse had been not a moment ago.

This isn’t right! But the words would not come. She felt paralyzed by an invisible weight pressing her down into the ground. Help! Sylisa’s thoughts screamed. The whole world had changed around her. None of it was familiar. She felt dizzy and sick. Everything distorted beyond recognition. The manor she had just been in was completely gone. The outdoor courtyard where she and Nia had fled had become a sweltering sea of sand. The cool night sky, the bloody moon, all replaced by a scorching midday sun. Even Charizard and the rider were missing from the now clear blue sky. She felt her eyes watering in tears of extreme discomfort. Wherever she was, it was not a place she recognized. Very confused, she tried to focus on simply breathing. She could not remember where she had just been, only what brought her here. “The Mirari,” she rasped. However, her hand was empty.

Sylisa could not even move from the crushing sensation pressing down on her body. If I can just grab my Dusk Ball and summon her to my side!

Her fingers felt like they were miles away. Suddenly there was a loud screeching noise from overhead. It did not sound like any bird Pokémon she knew of, it reminded her of the squealing breaks of an automobile in the city, or the sound of a subway train halting suddenly. The blazing noontime sun made it difficult to see, but she did notice a shadow cast over her paralyzed body. It gave her a jolt of adrenaline. The mirage-like haze of the surrounding world began to dissipate. As the bright sandscape finally came into focus, she felt like she was a part of the world around her again. Her hands started to move properly and she dug her glove covered fingers into the scorching sand in order to crawl her hand to her belt. As her bodily senses came back the discomfort of lying in the desert became too much for her. In every direction she looked, there was nothing. A land devoid of life.

“I have…to fight…” she groaned, trying to push herself out of the pile of sand. Nevertheless, her fatigue was too great to fight the oppressive heat. She could only momentarily lift her head above the scorching earth for a moment before feebly falling back into the sizzling sea. The instant the side of her face hit the sandy grit, she could have sworn she saw a glimpse of her Pokémon. Something about her was different, she did not look like Weavile.

Sneasel? Wait, wait, no. That can’t be right, she thought in a daze. Yet the silhouette above her collapsed body was undoubtedly smaller than Weavile with a single featherlike plume above the ear. Then her body began to fade like a mirage.

“Wait…! Come back!” yelled Sylisa, feeling as though her thoughts had been irreparably muddled by whatever had just taken place. “Don’t…don’t you dare leave me here!” she screamed in feverish delirium. “No! You promised you wouldn’t leave me, NIA! I can’t remember the name I called you! Your real name! The one I called you when we met! What was your—”

Her friend’s shadow vanished into a stream of blackened sand. She was gone.

“No!” cried Sylisa, her parched lips gasping against the burning sands. “Please! Don’t go! NIA! You’re my best friend!”

After Sylisa mouthed those heartfelt words her heavy eyelids closed. In the darkness behind her shut eyes, she saw four crimson lights, a pair of glowing eyes beneath a set of red horns. As her consciousness faded she sensed the shining redness speaking to her, directly into her mind. It sounded like the faint voice of a young girl, yet profoundly more eloquent and melodic.

“Another Child of the Eclipse.”

Chapter Text

“HEEEEY!” A young boy with chestnut-colored eyes and messy hair the shade of beach sand shouted at her. “Liiiiisaaaaaaa!” he complained, stomping his feet angrily. “You stole my Pokémon!”

She twirled her long black hair around her pinky finger, a sinister smirk on her pasty childish face. “You should’ve been quicker, Ted!” said Lisa without a care in the world. “‘Cos there ain’t anyone better at snagging ‘mons ‘n treasure than Alisha West!”

With her hand on her hip, the little girl proudly strapped her newly caught creature to her expensive brand-name belt holster. It snapped in place with a satisfying click. She then winked at her friend, a boy from school around her age.

“It’s not fair!” he protested, shoving his hands into the stitched-up stomach pocket of his baggy, worn sweater. It had a hoodie designed in the likeness of a Ralts. “You said you’d let me catch the next one!”

“Nuh-uh! I said, “I’ll let you catch the next one IF you’re quick!”, big IF,” replied Lisa. She directed her pointer finger around the cave beneath the ravine, full of limestone stalagmites amid the steep slopes, which flowed with underground springs. The sound of the running water was all she heard. “Must’ve scared the rest of ‘em off. Don’t even see any Zubat.”

A troubled look on his weak face, Ted asked, “Why’d you get my hopes up?”

“C’mon, it was only a Dribble! Weak lil’ moles won’t even struggle out’ta gold ball,” Lisa laughed, toying with another Ultra Ball in her tiny hand. “They ain’t nothin’ special to be getting worked-up over.”

“They’re called Drilbur! And I really wanted one!” explained Ted. “It evolves into a really cool Pokémon! Excadrill can dig over 300 feet underground and even through iron! I saw a strong trainer with one on TV and read a book about it!”

“Blah, blah, blah! If you read too much, your eyes are gonna go bad,” chided Lisa with a point, “you already gotta wear thick glasses ‘n you’re not even an old fart!”

“Don’t make fun of me!” said Ted while adjusting his prescription glasses, which looked more like safety googles. “You meanie!”

“Aw, don’t cry. I’m not your mommy!” Lisa sniggered and held her next empty Ultra Ball tight in both her small hands. Its polished glossiness shimmered in the faint sunlight from above the rocks and moss through crevasses in the cave’s ceiling. “That last Pokémon was WAAAAAY too easy to catch with my special Pokéballs! Tell you what: If you beat me in a race outta the cave, I’ll give you this Dribble or whatever!”

“No. I don’t want YOUR cheesed capture, Alisha West!” said Ted, indignantly calling out her full name to express his disdain for her family’s wealth. In his trembling hand, he held a capture ball of his own. It was battered, scratched-up basic model from a few years back, the kind found in the bargain bin at the Poké Mart. The red paint had begun to chip away, so it sort of resembled a bootleg Premier Ball. “I want to catch my own!”

“Tch! We’re on an EX-PA-DISH-ON! For rare treasures and ‘mons. How’re ya gonna see those without ME, Alisha, the famous explorer and treasure hunter? You always miss,” she said pointing out his bad vision. “I think you need bigger glasses!”

“Nuh-uh!” Ted shook his little head causing his glasses to sink down his nose. He pushed them back up and said assertively, “I caught a rare Pokémon yesterday in the forest after school. You missed class again and the teacher was really angry.”

“Oh yeah?” Lisa walked up to him wearing a snide smirk on her smug face. “I don’t care about stupid teachers. Whadja catch? Oh, wait, lemme guess! A sleeping Caterpie?”

“NO!” yelled Ted. “I caught a Psychic Type Pokémon!”

“Oh wooow.” Lisa pretended to be impressed without believing him. “So—” she scanned him head to toe, “—where’s it now?”

After making a frustrated pucker, Ted stammered, “I…we had to sell it.”

“You sold it!?” asked Lisa in alarm. “Why’d ya do that, dummy? Coulda put it in the magic PC like dad always does. Or, PokéBank, ya’know?”

“We needed money.” Ted stood by his story. “Cos it was a really rare Pokémon worth a lot.”

“Izzat so…” Lisa raised a skeptical brow. Then she reasoned, “Well, if it was REALLY RARE why didn’t you train it and become a famous, super-powerful trainer? That way you could have ALL. THE. MONEY!”

“Because…I didn’t…”

“Ah-ha!” Lisa lunged forward and pinched his cheek. “Caught you in a lie, red-handed! BUS-TED!”

“Shut-up! You don’t understand!” said Ted all flustered. “And I told you not to do that. It really hurts my skin.”

“Oh sorry, I forgot you were soooo sensitive!” she jeered. Despite her relentless teasing, down inside she did feel bad for Ted. He had several illnesses with long names Lisa couldn’t pronounce related to malnourishment. Ted was from a very poor family and it made his life worse since they often could not pay for medicine, let alone proper food.

“Grr! Why’d you have to do that with your nails? You got sharp claws like a Krabby.” Ted rubbed his red cheek and pouted. “You’re such a bully!”

“I am NOT a Krabby! Quit being a baby!” she replied with an impish wave. “Gee-whiz. How old are you now?”

“I’m eight n’ a half,” said Ted arrogantly.

Lisa haughtily answered with a hint of endearment, “Well, that makes me your BIG sister ‘cos I’m almost nine!”

“W-what?! W-we’re not siblings,” said Ted, his face redder than when she had pinched him. “I-I d-don’t have any sister,” he stuttered.

“Too bad!” said Lisa rushing at him and giving him a disarming hug, which was more like a Beartic hug considering how frail Ted was. “I’m adopting you! Eehee!”

“Ow! Stop it! You’re hurting me,” said Ted while struggling to break free from her greedy arms.

“Don’t worry,” said Lisa as she squeezed him possessively, “next Pokémon I’ll let you catch, lil’bro!”

“Hey, quit it! Don’t call me that!” Ted wrestled free, gasping for air. “You better not steal from me, Lisa. I only have one Pokéball left. I saved up all my allowance and—”

“—I wouldn’t dream of it. Promise! I’m not a thief who’d steal from her own family,” she said with a mischievous grin befitting her puckish demeanor. “Besides, I’m loaded.”

“Yeah, only cos you got those fancy Pokéballs from daddy’s money!” growled Ted.

“D’aw, are you jealous?” Lisa asked him, all too willing to tease her newest and only friend.

“Of you? NO!” Ted crossed his arms protectively and leered at her.

“Here, I’ll give you one, but ONLY cos you’re my lil’bro.” Lisa reached into her pouch and pulled out a new Dusk Ball as an offering of peace. “These work EXTRA good in caves and the dark!” she explained. “I know from practice, NOT from reading silly books.”

Ted suddenly smacked the Dusk Ball right out of her hand, startling little Lisa. “I don’t want your stupid charity,” he said with conviction, “that’s money from your parents. And everyone knows they got loaded by stealing!”

“How dare you!” exclaimed Lisa, taken aback by his antagonism for her family. She had no idea what her parents did for a living. But she always got the best toys and gizmos on a regular basis. The Dusk Ball Ted had rejected was one of them. Lisa quickly chased after the green ball as it rolled on the uneven floor and snatched it before it went too far. “MY mommy and daddy ALWAYS get me the best balls.” She stood triumphantly with her fists on her hips. “I have a Pokéball for ANYTHING I WANT!”

Ted began to cry. “You’re so mean!” he shouted as he ran recklessly further into the cave.

“Hey! Hey! Wait, come back! It’s too dark down that way, you idiot!” Lisa groaned, hurriedly chasing after her friend.

“I’m gonna catch a Pokémon ALL BY MYSELF!” roared Ted with determination. Something cylindrical fell out of his sweater’s pocket.

Lisa didn’t know he had it in him to be so foolishly brave. However, he was being stupid running into the section of the cave that was closed off. Lisa was quick, but she tripped on the thing Ted had dropped on the ground. An inhaler or something he used to treat his illness. “Grr! Lil’bro, you can’t go down that way!” she commanded, quickly bouncing back to her feet. “It’s way too dangerous! You’ll fall!”

“You’re not the boss of me!” he said distantly. “I’ll show you…I’ll… Waaaaghh!”

“NO! Lil’bro!”


 

Awakening with a jolt though she had fallen down in a dream, Sylisa came to in a surprisingly familiar setting, inside another cave, similar to the memory haunting her in her nightmare.

“Nugh…” W-What… happened? Ted couldn’t be found anywhere after the accident. It’s my fault, I don’t know why I keep on — WAIT! That all happened years ago! I’m grown up. What were those eyes? The red lights? And that voice. Why am I here?

Sylisa realized her limbs were bound, cold steel pressed uncomfortably against her wrists. The air felt thick and dank all around her. An ominous odor of decay hung ominously in the air.

Impossible, she thought, trying to wiggle. With a labored groan, she struggled to move. Her hands were unable to do much and the same went for her feet. Gradually her eyes adjusted to the bleak darkness. Like every muscle in her body, her eyes felt exhausted as a few things came into focus.

Bars of metal. A prison cell? I’m in a cage, dammit! How’d I get captured? Where the hell did that Charizard and the crazy cultist go?

She tried looking around, but her hair was caught on something sharp behind her. Nevertheless, the sight in front of her made her palms sweat with worry.

Lots of other cages in the room as well. Not as sturdy-looking as the one I’m in. I don’t think this is the type of jail run by law enforcement. Looks more like a makeshift base made inside a cavern. I can see some distant light, could those maybe be torches in the distance? Voices too. They sound like men and Pokémon. Wait! What about Nia!?

Frantically she looked around, her neck aching terribly as she did so. “Ahhh…ow ow ow…Nia…” she whispered. As she spoke her head hurt viciously. It felt like a spike being bludgeoned into her brain repeatedly. The pain would not cease, and she could not use her hands to hold her throbbing head. “Uwwaah…my head!” she cried. What’s wrong with me? It’s much worse than any migraine! She wanted to scream out, “Nothing is making any sense!”

Breathing heavily as her head stopped pounding, Sylisa thought about the last thing she experienced before passing out.

The night turned into day, and then I saw …Sneasel? Was that…Nia? No, it couldn’t have been, could it? Why’d I forget her real name? Oh, and there was the treasure I stole. Um, I think it began with M— Miyagi? Mariachi? What was it? The thingy! That cultist riding the giant Charizard wanted it badly. I had it right in my hand. Right here.

Her mind felt foggy on the details, but that seemed to be the best she could do for now. At least the pain in her skull subsided. She looked down at herself. Both her arms were badly burnt from the sun.

Oh, no! My Armadas! It’s gone! Not good. Not good at all. I’ve been cleaned out! All my loot, all my equipment, and Nia’s Dusk Ball… GONE! That last thought about Nia made her head hurt dreadfully again. My skull feels like it’s going to split in half. Why? Why does it happen when I think about Nia—? “Ouch!” she nearly shouted from the piercing agony deep in her cranium.

At the very least Sylisa figured out the triggering condition.

Thinking about Nia too much causes the pain. I should think of something else. These sunburns, they’re from the sun that came out in the middle of the night. How is that possible? I was out there, roasting in the desert sun in the middle of the night. How can that be? Were my memories tampered with by a psychic? Wait! I remember now! This all happened after the treasure starting shining! Could that have something to do with it?

Both Sylisa’s hands were very red from sunburns, which made the metal shackles on her wrists terribly uncomfortable.

Memory tampering explains the eclipse turning into the midday sun, and the disappearance of Charizard. I was out in the sun long enough after to get a bad burn. Maybe all morning? Whatever the difference is between getting tanned and getting burned. Now I’m trapped here, wherever here is.

Sylisa groaned, her back felt stiff from being stuck in an uncomfortable position. Her gaze traveled to the stone walls, in hope they might give her information, but the light was too dim to discern anything interesting.

I have no idea where I am. Or how to escape. My captors are a mystery. Everything is a mystery. I’m a prisoner in a dark cave. It smells bad, like burnt meat mixed with rubbing alcohol. And, worst of all, I’m all alone without Nia.

She shivered, vulnerable and afraid. All she could think about was being home. Going back on the internet and surfing the net with her partner and best friend. She sat in silence for what felt like hours, her lonesome thoughts broodingly leading her to fear. Horribly frightened, and on the verge of tears she said, “I miss you so much Nia!” Another earsplitting headache made her so uncomfortable the metallic chains binding her noisily clattered.

“Oy!” A voice came from down the hallway. It sounded like a man’s, tough and dangerous, yet slightly inebriated. “Heard something rattling, over by the cells, better check it out. C’mon, you!”

Oh no! Here they come, she thought, wishing she hadn’t made noise.

It was too late. A large shadow from the next room over was approaching. Another hulking shadow followed close behind the first. Sylisa wobbled to move, trying to hide near the far end of the cage. However, she was so afraid she had forgotten about the metal leg shackles clasping her ankles. They caused her to recoil back as they rattled loudly.

“Aye, awake are ye?” asked a man.

Now Sylisa could see her captors. A bruiser of a man with shaggy sun-bleached hair slumped through the passageway. Behind him lumbered an unpleasant looking Machoke. They both had tattoos on their arms, wavy jet-black lines that ran up from their wrists onto their exposed chests.

“Machoke, grab the clamps,” the heavily built man ordered.

“Maho-mah!” grumbled the buff creature. It waddled over to a rickety table and picked up what appeared to be torture implements. They jangled, flaking red rust or dried blood onto the ground.

SHIT! Sylisa thought seeing the grim apparatuses.

The man must have seen the terror in her eyes. “Finally come to, are ya? This ain’t no game,” he said threateningly, spitting on the ground next to her. “Before we get to business, you had some effects on you. Might not have been yours to begin. Had a nice set o’ lock picks.”

They know I’m a thief. They’re not with the law. These are thieves in a different sense. Bandits. Her heart sank as she thought how her circumstances had gone from bad to worse. And I’m at their mercy.

The bandit snapped his fingers next to her face in order to get her attention. “Look at me here when I’m talkin’! That glove of yours looked valuable, made of that fine cloth with fancy armor plates and claws. Kept that one for myself. But I ain’t never seen anything like that mysterious orb of yours.”

My Armadas! It must be close by. But that orb, could it be the treasure?

“Oye, you deaf? Or just stupid?” He reached a hand inside the cage and tried to grab her by the bangs.

Sylisa recoiled. His grimy hand still managed to take hold of her hair.

“Not much of a talker, are ya? You got noggin problems from lying out in the sun too long? Or are you pretending to be mute?” he asked.

Sylisa fought her impulses, doing everything she could to remain silent.

“That’s okay lass, it don’t matter to me if you’re hardheaded. You ain’t getting out anytime soon, and I’ve got ways of making you sing. But this’ll go easier if ya cooperate, right Machoke?”

“Maho-ho-ho!” laughed the Pokémon darkly as it pulled on a set of torment chains strapped to a rack, jingling their links menacingly with a look of vile bloodlust in his narrow eyes.

If I start talking, they delay the torture. I really, really don’t want to know what those things are used for.

“So, before I put Machoke in there with you, how ‘bout we have a chat? Yer a pretty girl, don’t wanna ruin that doll face of yours too quick. Besides, not every day we get a victim pleasin’ ta the eyes, eh Machoke?!” He and the Pokémon laughed raucously.

It made her feel sick inside. Never thought I’d get in this much trouble.

“I got me an idea, let’s get ta’ know each other first,” he said taking a swig of something foul from a canteen carried on his belt. “You, missy, you had a lot of interesting items on you. See, me and my boys, we can salvage your possessions for coin, but a few things got us wondering. Figured we’d keep yer body in one piece so you’d tell us about that green ball.”

Green? That can’t be right, thought Sylisa, reminiscing upon the details of her hard-earned prize. The treasure was red because of the ruby crystal inside.

Her confused expression prompted the bandit to be more direct. “This!” The big man opened his heavily scarred hand and revealed Nia’s Dusk Ball. He stared at it in great wonder, like a child who had received a toy he did not know what to do with. “Well? What is it?” he asked finally. “You’d been reaching for it when we found you passed out in the sands. Tell me what it is!”

Is this guy for real? Maybe this is some sort of test? Better say something. “A Pokéball,” said Sylisa shortly.

“Mah?” Machoke noisily dropped something metal on the ground.

“A what now?” asked the bandit, raising a thick, unkempt brow. “Speak up!”

“Poke-É-Ball,” repeated Sylisa. “Or Poke-Uh-Ball if you’re from that region,” she said subtly deriding a foreign enunciation which did not belong to her.

“The hell is that?” he asked. “Ain’t no such thing I’ve ever heard of. What’s it supposed to do?”

How drunk is this guy? Something doesn’t feel right about this. It could be a ruse, she thought feeling her headache throb uneasily. Everyone in the world knows about Pokéballs. How come this bandit doesn’t know, especially if he has a Pokémon? All her thinking made her migraine so much worse. “Capture ‘mons with it,” she explained concisely.

“The hell? Capture them? In this little thing? Har-har! Did the sunshine fry your head-goo too?” laughed the bandit madly.

“No,” she murmured. But it sure feels like my brain is about to explode. Sylisa said, “That’s what you use it for.”

Seeing that Sylisa was not complying with his demands, the bandit radically shifted his demeanor to intimidate her. “Look here,” he said, grabbing her ebony hair and yanking tightly on it through the bars to wrench her close to his disgusting rotted smile. His breath reeked of strong, pungent alcohol. “I don’t have time for your games, wretch. If you wanna lie ta my face, I’ll have ya know I ain’t such a courteous gent. If ya ain’t cooperating nice like ya look, we’ll just get right down to business n’ have our way with you. Me ‘n the boys don’t care if you’re sane or not b’cause ya ain’t gonna live through it. You’ll be begging for death before we’re done with you. We’ll even let our ‘mons in on it. Take bets and see how long you’ll last until you expire like a used-up whore.” He snorted as he snickered.

Oh fuck. I gotta find a way out of here, and fast. Though Sylisa wore a strong face, her body was clearly trembling.

“Maho-Mah!” chimed in the Machoke.

“Ah, so let me ask you again, sweet-cheeks. And this time, no bullshit. What’s this shiny thing do?”

“Does it matter?” She countered with misdirection. “It’s worth a lot to rich folks, it’s a rare treasure,” fabricated Sylisa. Dusk Balls are common, but he doesn’t know that.

“Oh?” The bandit’s glossy, somewhat drunk eyes lit up. “Izzat so?”

“Why do you think I stole it?” she bluffed. He’s really buying it? Moron! All that drink must’ve corroded whatever nugget sized brain he had.

“You don’t say?” he said closing his hand greedily around the Dusk Ball. “Why’s that then?”

“Because you can’t just run to the local store and buy ‘em.” Sylisa reasoned with the bandit. What an idiot, she thought. You can order them in bulk online, dumbass.

“I guess that’s true, little lady,” the bandit chortled. “Never seen anything like this before in the wares of a merchant we’ve held up. Oh ho, and we’ve held up many!”

“Mah-choke!” belted the Machoke proudly, a fist pump shot skyward.

“Say, now—” The bandit scratched her hair with grimy fingers and sniffed it “—You from the High Plains?”

“The what?” Sylisa asked trying to suppress her revulsion at the man as best she could. She hadn’t ever heard of any place referred to as such before. Maybe he’s talking about the hills beyond the distant Great Canyon.

“Joking.” He took another extended swig of the foul liquid in his canteen and let out a filthy belch. “A stupid bitch like you couldn’t have traveled that far a’cross the sands on her own.”

Sylisa reminisced, I’ve been to several regions. I’m capable of traveling all by myself! It wasn’t entirely true because she always had Nia by her side. However, she knew better than to blurt that information to her captor. Instead she quietly watched the bandit fiddle with her Pokémon’s Dusk Ball. She could tell by his lack of dexterity that he was quite inebriated. He can’t even snap the ball open. Wonder if that means Nia’s no longer inside. Damn, I could really use her help right about now! “Why don’t you toss it on the floor?” she suggested to the bandit.

“Why would I do that?!” asked the bandit. “Ruin a shiny treasure like this?”

“Cos if you do, it’ll open,” said Sylisa. Her fingers quivered, her whole body itching to see Nia. “Don’tcha wanna see what’s inside?”

With an irritable grumble, the bandit dropped the Dusk Ball on the ground. The device clicked and opened, revealing a hollow core. A puffy cloud of black dust floated out of the ball, quickly dissipating, becoming part of the pervasive murkiness of the forlorn cave.

Shit. Where is she?

“There ain’t nothin’ in here,” said the bandit, picking up the empty ball and investigating it. “This yer idea of a joke?”

“N-No,” she stammered. “I just thought you wanted to look inside.”

“Hmm. Doesn’t look like you’re from around here.” He pointed uncomfortably close to her eyes. “N’uh. You don’t have dark eyes like most folk. I notice shit like that. Them’s peepers o’ yours’re foreign.” He let out a drunken hiccup. “Where you from?”

“Uhh… Y’know… other side of the water,” she said.

“What? Other side of the water?” yapped the bandit. “You don’t say. You can swim?”

“Can’t you?” Sylisa shot back. “Strong man like yourself isn’t afraid of a little water, is he?”

“Err…o’course I swim! Why wouldn’t I?” he countered, making a protuberant scoff. “Psh, that river’s my bitch. I race Poliwrath there allatime when I’m bored ‘n win errytime!”

He’s certainly lying. Not only did she learn her captor probably couldn’t swim, but there was a river nearby. It could prove useful if I manage to get out of here, she thought. “You the only guy around here who likes to swim?” she pressured whilst glancing over at the dangerous Machoke.

“That’d be me, cos I’m the strongest. O’course, the river’s a tough one ‘cause of them rapids!” His head bobbled, as he slipped into telling an anecdote, drunkenly slurring his words. “Last week, a buddy o’ mine got swept up by the undercurrent while he wuz out takin’ a piss. Made it halfway down ‘round the rocky bank, all the way past the cliffs, flailing and screaming like a newborn babe. Was funny as shit.” The bandit’s expression suddenly turned serious in a moment of clarity. “But then… ol’ Leroy got swallowed up whole by a monster. Poor, poor sonuvabitch…”

“Swallowed whole by a ‘mon!?” exclaimed Sylisa.

“Yehp. Ain’t much else ta say. How it goes. Down it goes.” Swallowing more of the booze, his thoughts trailed off.

What the heck? Maybe crossing that river’s not such a good idea! Wait a second! Pokémon don’t eat people! At least not any I know of. Frustrated, she asked, “You didn’t want to give Leroy a hand since you’re such a good swimmer?”

“Bah! Woulda helped him out, I swear it,” said the bandit in distress as the liquor was speaking. “I’d be damned though, when I saw the size of that ‘mon. Nope, not’uh, I ain’t gonna wind up as the beast’s dinner too. No friend o’ mine – hick! – is worth that sorta trouble!”

Great, Sylisa thought quietly, captured by drunken bandits about to torture me and now there’s man-eating Pokémon. They’re too dumb to know what a Pokéball is, but their stupidity does me no good. Nia’s ball is empty. I’m behind bars guarded by a strong Pokémon like Machoke. Can this possibly get any worse?

The bandit let out another upset hiccup that turned into a grotesque burp. “—Ta make matters worse, there’s a frickin’ dragon that comes out at night too. A real problem that.”

“A dragon?” she replied. Could it be the Charizard?

“Guessin’ you’ve seen it?” asked the bandit. “Looks like you have. Daunting beast, ain’t it?”

“Yeah,” admitted Sylisa. “Huge dark wings and a fiery maw.”

“Aye. That’s the one.” He spoke with a lugubrious tone, his deep voice hollowed out by all the drink. “Didn’t use to be around. We can’t go-a-raidin’ at night no more. Bad stuff, that’s for sure. Hell, after it’s gone the beast’s got a curse that lingers.”

“A curse?” asked Sylisa. “What kind of curse?”

The bandit stared, his drunken eyes gazing vacantly at the canteen in his hand. “Black cloud follows it around and things it covers, they die.”

Definitely suspicious. I wonder if the robed cultist is around. She decided to take a chance and asked, “You ever see someone riding it?”

“Riding it?!” exclaimed the bandit. “Ha! You’d think a smart guy like me would stay around to survey that flying death menace? I like your sense o’ humor. Who could tame, ‘n ride on that big blighter?”

“Well, in theory a dragon rider could,” insisted Sylisa. “Specifically, a man in dark robes with a crimson trim. That’s who I saw riding the giant dragon. He was after the loot I stole. You and your boys better have a way of dealing with him and his giant pet menace.”

“Har-har. You’re full of shit!” said the bandit. “Oof! Speakin’ o’ which, Machoke, keep an eye on the lovely lady while I go take care of business.”

“Gross!” she said watching the bandit hobble out of the room, holding his bloated gut as he left to relieve himself. “Great. Now I’m stuck here with the Pokémon until he gets back,” she whispered, “but at least these bars will protect me from the big guy.”

“Mah hoo!” replied the Machoke. He started beating on his chest to establish dominance now that the bandit was gone.

Sylisa groaned in disgust. “I need to find a way out of here! The meathead is going to torture me if I don’t. I bet I could pick this old lock if my hands could just move. I have a spare hairpin. I can’t reach it while chained like this. There must be another way.” Nothing came to mind. Her heart felt dread like never before. It gave her pause as she realized how fragile life could be. And it filled her with anger she would lose it all to a bunch of drunk bandits. My life’s been one heist after another leading to this. What if I never see Nia again. What about Dare and Mathias? They’re all probably worried about me.

Suddenly there was a loud noise from outside the room where Sylisa had heard voices coming from before. Then there was a disruptive racket that followed, a cacophony of what sounded like multiple Pokémon attacks. The whole cave shook as Sylisa heard the clamors grow louder.

“ARH! WE’RE BEING RAIDED!” hollered a man outside the prison chamber.

“Get to the front! All hands up, in arms!” roared another bandit. “Make ‘em pay with their lives for crossin’ the Dune Devils!”

“MAHO!” Machoke punched its big fists together and ran off in to the direction of the commotion.

An invasion? Now!? She tried to loosen the holds on her wrists but they were just too tight to slip out of. I can’t get out! I hope whoever is raiding these asshats isn’t worse than them. Sylisa listened closely, relying on her hearing to try and figure out what was going on beyond her limited range of sight.

“Argh!”

“No! Watch out!”

“There! Counter the attack, Machoke! Up on your right! Cross-Chop!”

“Maho! Ma-hoke!”

That’s a lot of attacks, thought Sylisa. They sound like energy moves. Wish I knew what was going on. If only I could use this golden opportunity to escape! Sylisa continued to noisily struggle against the binding chains. C’mon if I can just loosen one arm out of these…dammit. Her continued struggles were in vain. Suddenly the cave wall across from the table with the torture implements began shaking. “Oh great, what now?”

There was a tremor and a huge rock pile fell through from the ceiling. The blinding sun came pouring in from above. “No way…” said Sylisa in confusion. “There’s just no way I’m that lucky.”

From the path of light tumbled down two Roggenrola and a nasty looking Boldore.

“Damn,” whimpered Sylisa, “there goes the good luck.”

“Rogga!” cried out the Pokémon as they spun chaotically in a Rollout, destroying parts of the cave in an out of control frenzy. They smashed against the bars of her cell, but the steel was far too tough for the rocky Pokémon to break.

“Get away!” she yelled at the enraged Pokémon. “AHHH!”

The Boldore raised an arm and smashed it so hard into the ground it caused parts of the roof to come crashing down right next to her. Sylisa couldn’t move as the rocks fell around her, this place was about to become her grave.

“Water Gun!” shouted a man’s voice. A hailstorm of bullets made of water came pouring in through the hole in the cave’s wall that the Pokémon had entered in through. Like a Gatling gun, the wild storm of bullets took Boldore by surprise. It was quickly stunned by the attack, the chunks of rock and crystal it was made out of broken up by the water bullets.

Boldore was far too tough to be taken down in a single attack. It reared back and prepared an energy attack, priming the glowing crystals on its body to fire a devastating Power Gem up at where the Water Gun had come from.

“Cut in with Aqua Jet!” said the same man’s voice from before. A blue dart shot down through the opening, followed by an extraordinarily quick Pokémon, cloaked in an aquatic veil and impossible to see.

Boldore had been turning bright orange from priming the Power Gem. However, the wickedly swift blue missile struck the Pokémon right before it finished charging up. Boldore was hit in the arm, and this caused it to tilt its body down unexpectedly. But at this point Boldore had already committed, it had built up far too much energy and was overflowing with internal pressure from preparing to launch a gemstone beam of light. “DORE!” it exclaimed as it released the brutal beam of pressurized force.

The ensuing blast was devastating. Boldore fired its payload right down at the earth beneath it, sending it soaring up into the air and straight into the ceiling. Being such a heavy Pokémon, it naturally fell right back down with a tremendous crash, losing its luster and passing out.

“Rapid-fire! Knock ‘em out of their formation!” yelled the man’s voice. A barrage of aquatic bullets flew through the cave. Like bullets from a Gatling gun, the streams of water traced up toward the remaining Pokémon. The two Roggenrola quickly scampered off toward the cave entrance, the way Machoke had gone to avoid getting shot.

That was too close! Sylisa felt her forehead was wet from perspiration.

An ashen-haired man not much older than her appeared from the dissipating cloud of dust. He wore a pressed blue uniform with and cap that matched, on his chest, a metallic badge with the side profile of a howling Arcanine.

Just my luck, thought Sylisa. Another copper to deal with. All I want to do is go home. Maybe he’ll get me out of here if I play my cards right. She faked a weak cough. “Hey mister…err officer! Thank God you saved me! How can I ever thank you!”

“Young Officer Remington Khachaturian,” responded the fellow in a crisp, well-modulated baritone.

Damn, that name’s a freakin’ mouthful! “Hey…err, Remmy, how about you grab those keys?”

“Remmy!?” He scratched the fuzzy pale facial hair round his chin. “That’s what she —! No, that won’t do. Please, call me York.”

“York? Whatever you say, copper.” Sylisa shrugged, having consigned to calling him the shortest number of syllables possible. “Quick, nab the keys off that desk and bust me out of here while the bandits are busy!”

“Hold on just a moment!” His piercing brown eyes gazed at the scene. “I’m also an investigator, going to make Detective or maybe even —”

“—Doofus!” interrupted Sylisa. “You’re not gonna have a name if you keep yammering; those bandits don’t care about your stupid titles and neither do I.”

York tried to regain his posture, but it was clear that his pride had been injured by her words. Then he saw the clamps Machoke had dropped on the ground near her cage and his cold glare softened. “I can see you’re distressed, being held hostage by this group of savages. I’m officially here to investigate the ongoing crimes of this foul lot, including locking you up!”

“Are you for real?” asked Sylisa. He hasn’t even considered I’M the criminal. Some brilliant detective he is. Suppose his naivety works nicely. Best to play the role of a damsel in distress, least until I’m free. Feebly, she coughed. “You and what army?!”

“Hyde! To me!” exclaimed York with a flourish.

A torrent of water burst through the earthen mound beside the fainted Boldore. And out from the frothing mist appeared an orange weasel with a fuzzy yellow collar and a knotted bandana to match. “Buwee!”

“This is my partner, my loyal cadet, and most faithful friend, Hyde! The two of us solve crimes together,” explained York.

“Crimes huh?” said Sylisa. “That’s great. Just bust me out of here before we both wind up dead or worse.”

York grinned. “Could never turn down the request of a fair maiden!”

“Maiden?!” she said, gritting her teeth and snarling. “Call me that again and I’ll slice you open like a maiden’s purse!”

“Sheesh, calm down.” York recoiled in shock. “Let me get you out from there.” He bent over and started working on fitting the right keys to the right locks. It did not come easy to him.

“No, that one doesn’t go there,” reprimanded Sylisa. “Ugh… Man, what I’d do for a Klefki.”

“You got a name?” asked York. “Milady is far too formal given the circumstances. Married? Perhaps engaged? I’ll be forthright, Mistress or Madam don’t suit you at all.”

“Shut. The. Hell. Up. Lock. Open.”

“What about Miss?”

“It’s Sylisa!” she hissed. “Let me loose already! Can’t you hear? The fighting’s starting to die down!”

“Of course,” said York, his hands still fumbling with the key. “Hyde, how’s our exit looking?”

His Buizel scurried over to the small hole in the wall and nimbly peered his neck out. He gave a benign twirl of the tail indicating that there was no opposition approaching. “Bweee! Weee!”

“Okay, just a moment, almost have it!” York mishandled the key so poorly it made Sylisa want to shout at him in frustration but she bit her tongue.

After what felt like over a minute, Sylisa growled impatiently. “You’re taking forever, you klutz. Haven’t you ever cracked a lock before? You’re turning the key the wrong way!”

“There!” the young detective said after prolonged shimmying of the key to open the locks binding her limbs. “You’re free as promised, Sylisa!”

I’m gonna regret giving him my name. I shoulda made something up, thought Sylisa as she wriggled free of the heavy chains around her. She rubbed her sunburnt arms gingerly after crawling out of the cage.

“Good to go?” asked York over the chaos echoing from the tunnel.

I’ll have to come back to get the rest of my stuff after I find Nia. “Okay, here’s the play,” Sylisa pointed at the daylight through the gap, “let’s get the hell out of here the same way you got in before those assholes finish fighting. Have your Buizel use Water Gun so we can slip on out.”

“Alright, Hyde!” said York. “Burst through the wall and knock those rocks clear!”

Hyde shot a jet of water with enough force to loosen more of the rocks and make a clear exit path to the bright daylight.

“Even more useful than your trainer.” Sylisa gave his Buizel a mischievous grin and hurried up through the exit.

“Hey! Wait for me!” shouted York from behind as he scrambled out of the hole after Sylisa and Hyde.

Chapter Text

“Don’t remember the sun being this bright,” Sylisa said, covering her eyes. Directly ahead she heard flowing water. As she squinted to see, she saw a distant city with bleached buildings carved into the face of a large mountainside. “That’s new.”

Hyde popped his head out of the tunnel, followed by York. “Bubbuwee!” muttered the water weasel, shaking dirt and grime off his sleek coat.

Sylisa, seeking to get away from the chaos, began to walk from the caves. I’ll sneak back later under the cover of night to steal my stuff back. Hopefully those wild Pokémon will tire out the group of bandits. Or maybe they’ll kill them. All I know is I’m not equipped to deal with Pokémon. I’ll need to swipe some Pokéballs and a henchmon until I can find Nia.

York had made it out and hurried over next to her. As he did, she saw on hip he carried a tan holster housing a silver revolver, a magnum caliber judging by its long barrel and rounded grip.

“You didn’t need to use that?” she asked, gesturing at the polished piece. “To stop the ‘mons.”

“Oh, my Gauntlet? Nah. I might be the youngest and best sharpshooter at the Bureau, a distinct honor among my peers, but my bullets aren’t gonna do squat against rocks.” Placing his hands proudly on his leather waist belt, York nodded at Hyde. “The only reason why I keep Hyde around,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.

“We better move,” she said.

“Hey, so, about that…” York started to say.

Sylisa ignored him and made a dash down the steep hill toward the river. It did not take her long to reach the river’s edge. There was an elevated rock ledge overlooking the water which was about twenty feet above the deep and fast-flowing water. There were choppy whitecaps in the river. The current is fast around here, just like the bandit said. I don’t believe a thing about the man-eating Pokémon. Those bandits were drinking heavily. Leroy probably drowned since he couldn’t swim and his drunken buddy made up the ridiculous story. Pokémon don’t eat people. That’s absurd!

York caught up to her on the ledge overlooking the splashing river. “Huff. Ho. Phew. Sheesh, you sure run fast, Sylisa,” he said, out of breath. “Do you compete in races with Ponyta?”

“No. Is that the nearest town?” said Sylisa pointedly. Her index finger locked on to the large city built into the mountainside to the east. “Going to need some supplies.”

“Right over there.” York lit up with a bright smile. “My hometown, Sol de Lune, where the sun is of the moon. Cheery, huh?”

“Sun… and moon…?” Sylisa thought about what happened last night outside the manor, when the moon became the sun.

“Named after the famous eclipse that occurs once every hundred years and its two overseers, Solrock and Lunatone, who keep watch over the city,” explained York. “Although, it has been some time since anyone’s seen them. Anyway, we’ve got a lot of old stories from the legends of the people who’ve lived here for centuries.”

“Old stories, huh?” Being a bona fide treasure hunter, Sylisa felt a little curious, but her priority was rescuing her friend.

“Yeah,” said York, “the heavens have always been important, can predict the future with star charts and the like. Pretty darn useful for predicting stellar events like eclipses way ahead of time.”

“You don’t say. Eclipses. And then that voice I heard. Child of the Eclipse.” Sylisa rubbed her chin. “Didn’t know this place existed. That’s the story of the town and the stars?”

York pointed up into the clear blue sky. “There’s also an old story about an evil black star, representing chaos falling from heaven. It foretells sickness and disaster to all who by chance fall under its influence, surrounding them with shadow in order to form the heart of misfortune’s calamity.”

“That’s a little intense,” sighed Sylisa. “Might want to ditch that one on the tourist pamphlet.”

“Well, it’s not all doom and gloom. Those are just the tales about the stars.” York smiled warmly. “If you’re looking for retail, we’ve got a lot of shops, a huge open market, and people travel from all over to visit and trade. It’s quite the hub out here where there’s nothing else.” The young officer continued to gloat about his hometown with fondness. “It’s a beautiful place, a genuine paradise out here in the badlands. Pass over this river, called Fector’s Run, and hike about two hours through level land. Mind, it’s best to cross the water to the north; upstream, by the source, where it’s shallower. Downstream is where it gets real choppy and dangerous.”

“Sounds like a decent enough plan,” she answered.

“Say, how did you manage to get all the way out here without visiting Sol de Lune?” asked York. “The next closest town is very far.”

“I… really don’t know. All I remember was taking a train that brought me to the outskirts.” She adjusted her clothes to try and feel more comfortable now that she was free.

“A train huh?” said York. “Those’re all the rage out east. Unfortunately, construction of rail lines out here had to be put on hold after a group of ‘mons with strange shadows attacked the crew.”

“If there aren’t any trains, how did I get here?” Sylisa was having trouble figuring out whether it was all just a dream. Could a psychic have altered my memories? Maybe that’s why I can’t remember Nia’s true name and saw her as Sneasel. Would also explain the weird voices in my head.

“You look a little out of it, Sylisa. If you need to talk—”

“Nah, I’m alright,” she replied, noticing Hyde was a dutiful lookout keeping an eye on the cave. “Ya know, must be nice having a ‘mon like Buizel by your side.”

“Don’t you have a ‘mon, Sylisa?”

“I—” Sylisa’s head started hurting again “—had one, yes.” She held her aching head and walked to the edge of the rock overlooking the river. “Whenever I think of you, Nia,” she murmured, “why does it hurt so much?”

“I’m sorry,” said York. He glanced over at Hyde and gave him a satisfied nod. “If you’re looking to make new friends, Hyde warms up to people quickly.”

“Buwee-wee!” Hyde blew a few big bubbles in the air and spun his forked tail.

“Making new friends huh,” supposed Sylisa. She shyly looked at Hyde. Her hands got stiff from nervousness. “I don’t know what to say. He’s got such as silly name, sort of like his trainer.”

York laughed. “You don’t have to say anything special. Just say “Hi” or something, he’ll get the picture. He’s a smart ‘mon, very independent too. Little scamp’s popular with all the ladies – erm I mean, kids around town.”

Sylisa shrugged and waved awkwardly. Hyde twirled his tail and ran up next to her playfully. He put his head to the side of her thigh against her stocking the way Nia used to. “Hey! Stop, that tickles,” said Sylisa, trying not to laugh. She pet him on the head gently to try and get him to ease up. But suddenly his neck collar puffed out, startling Sylisa and making her jump. “Whoa!”

Amused, York grinned and shook his head. “No need to be afraid of that,” he said, “Hyde’s trying to be friendly. He’s one hell of a swimmer, that pouch round his neck helps him always stay afloat. Even the best swimmers are wise to be wary of rough waters. He thinks it’s funny to surprise folks with it though. The little guy’s verve has spoiled more dates than I can remember.”

“You know a lot about Pokémon. You some sort of researcher on the side?” she asked as Hyde playfully blew a few bubbles near her knee.

“Nah,” said York. “What I know I picked up over the years. Hyde and I are Ranger Class, so we get a lot of time out in the field scouting, doing reconnaissance. We’re well on our way to making a bigger name for ourselves. Besides, Hyde is my friend. If I didn’t know his talents I’d be a lousy buddy, wouldn’t you say?”

I felt that way with her too. But now I can’t feel anything when I think of her except for pain. What’s wrong with me? Why is it this way?

“Are you feeling alright, Sylisa?” asked York. “You keep holding your head like a Psyduck. You don’t have any spooky psychic powers right?”

“No,” she said closing her eyes. “It’s a bad headache that started last night.”

“I’m joshing you,” said York. “You’re probably dehydrated and hungry. I’d offer you food but I’m afraid we expended it during our rescue operation.”

“Rescue operation? Yeah right! You took FOREVER to get that lock open,” jabbed Sylisa. “Still, I want to thank you and Buizel for what you did back there. You didn’t have to spring me from that cell.” I probably should have worded that better, she thought, realizing it made her sound less like a hostage and more like a criminal. I hope he doesn’t catch on that I’m a thief. Should be more careful. I can’t let my guard down, like Mathias taught me. If the old man knew I was hanging around a police detective he’d give me a whack for being stupid.

“Yeah, yeah, it was nothing. It’s our job to help those in need.” Casually, York picked up a smooth stone and flung along the river attempting to get it to skip. It bounced once then plopped into the water unsuccessfully. “Even if it wasn’t, what do you take me for, some sorta sleaze? No way we were leaving you caged up in that den of mongrels.”

“You got there just in time,” sighed Sylisa in relief. “Usually my luck isn’t that good. In fact, I’m really unlucky most of the time.”

“Bad headaches and bad luck? Sheesh, I sure know how to pick ‘em.” York tossed another flat rock. This time he managed to get it to bounce twice.

“That’s me,” she replied with a cheery shrug which belied her deep-set insecurities. “One thing doesn’t add up. How’d you know I was being held prisoner underground?”

“Well—” York looked at an old-fashioned pocket watch on a chain, his reluctance all too apparent “—We’re a great team, the two of us managed to make it here on our own—”

“—Wait one second!” Sylisa snapped with a hostile interjection. “If you and your Buizel are the only ones here,” she rationalized bit by bit, “then who the hell are the bandits fighting?!”

“My tactical genius!” York boasted with a wide grin showing his pearly teeth. “You see, earlier while Hyde and I were going through our provisions during our lunch hour, a horde of hungry wild ‘mons appeared, hoping to lay claim to what was rightfully ours all for themselves! Unfortunately, the curs surrounded us in large numbers and we were quickly outmatched by the swarm. It was us or them. Hyde cleared a path through their ranks with his signature move. We maneuvered over crags and rocks all the way up to this hilltop to secure a more strategic vantage. When Hyde’s keen eyes noticed a nearby cave, I reasoned this would be the perfect location to lose our pursuers. And so, I tossed our basket of our hard-earned rations into the dark cavern. Was somewhat surprised by hysteria, the cave appeared empty from the outside.”

“—Let me get this straight,” said Sylisa in a mixture of incredulity and bewilderment, “you were out having a picnic when some wild ‘mons jumped you. You ran for the hills, Buizel saw these caves, so you tossed your food inside, which started a war between the bandits and the hoard?”

“Not just any wild ‘mons, hungry ones, you know, those types don’t show mercy when they see a meal.” York sighed. “Besides, when you say it like that it makes me sound like a frightened Abra.”

“You’re hopeless. At least Abra can teleport.” Sylisa grumbled. “I still don’t get how you found me.”

“Luck,” said York. “As it turns out. That big ol’ Boldore blew open a hole in the cavern’s side then I heard you yell for help.”

“Ya didn’t even consider it might’ve been a trap?” asked Sylisa.

He shook his head. “Nah, well, your really lou— err, distinct voice sounded genuine, Hyde took the initiative, so there you have it.”

Sylisa looked down at Hyde and scrutinized the little water weasel. “He wanted to save me? Even if it meant trouble?”

“You kiddin’? What an understatement! The guy’s a floating charity!” joked York.

“I’m grateful,” said Sylisa, “but I kinda need to be going.”

“Don’t worry,” said York, “we’ll accompany you back to Sol de Lune. We’ll go to the Bureau, that’s our headquarters downtown where I hang my hat. But before all that, you should really get some food, you look starved. Once we make it back to civilization there’s plenty of places to eat. Hey. Tell you what, I’ll take you to my favorite place in town and buy you lunch.”

“You seriously asking me out on a date after all that?” asked Sylisa. Afraid her pale face might be blushing, she quickly turned to the only one there who wasn’t York. “What about your Buizel, can he come too?”

“Oh. Well, in the interest of time,” said York, “I’ll have Hyde run ahead to swiftly file your paperwork and get you back in touch with your family!”

I don’t have a family anymore. And the Shadows sure aren’t going to answer from a man of the law. If he gives my name to the authorities, one search of the bounty list and he’ll know I’m a crook wanted for stealing! Can’t let that happen! She leaned in close to York provocatively. “That sounds lovely,” said Sylisa teasingly before shoving York into the water below. “Whoops! So sorry!” she feigningly cried out.

“Woah!” yelled York, falling into the deeper part of the river. Buizel quickly jumped in after him.

“Watch out for man-eating Pokémon!” Sylisa called out. She quickly turned and ran in the opposite direction to cross the river at a more convenient location to the north. Behind her in the distance she could hear York and Buizel splashing and scrambling as they were carried downstream

“Can’t have those two officers following me around. I’m a thief after all. At least Buizel’s a good swimmer. They’ll be fine, man-eating mon’s aren’t real.” Sylisa swiftly bounded over the rocks in her path. “Okay, I’ll slip into town, steal whatever I need, nab a henchmon, then come back here and get my stuff back from those lousy bandits. I know my mission for the Shadows is the treasure, but I need to find Nia. She’s all I have.”

A stubborn resolve to press on compelled Sylisa forward through the sea of sand ahead of her. She took care to avoid the desert dwellers, however it was much scarier without her partner. A giant Mandibuzz flew overhead, then began flying in circles.

“Oh crud!” Sylisa started running. “I’m being stalked!”

The Mandibuzz swooped down, her huge wingspan casting a dark shadow in front of Sylisa as she plummeted toward her with a loud screech.

Sylisa quickly covered her head, expecting the talons to grasp her at any second. However, she felt a gust of warm air. The Mandibuzz lazily glided directly over her head, and divebombed upon a green little Cacnea, who was stumbling about alongside the tumbleweeds. In an instant, the giant vulture scooped up Cacnea with an effortless pluck from her vicious talons. She cawed victoriously, carrying the squealing victim back off to her nest.

“Yikes.” Picking up her pace, Sylisa muttered from her parched lips, “Nature’s not kind.”

Sylisa’s shadow stretched over the sands, reaching toward the gates of a large city nestled in a mountain to the east. The sweltering sun had begun to dip low in the sky behind her and its afternoon light filled the sky with orange, illuminating the bleached stone buildings built right into the mountainside. Above the vertical incline of the city, a large cumulus cloud hovered lazily against the mountain’s peak, its marshmallow fluffiness dyed a creamy yellow from the light of the sunset.

This is where they’re from? Sylisa thought as she approached the strange city. It’s not much of a city like Unova. Up until now, spending time with Nia was one of the few things which brought her comfort. Unfortunately, those memories were sealed by pain, forcing her to reach desperately for other memories to give her the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“I’m almost there…!” Sylisa gasped for breath. “Nia, I’m going to save you!”

Tired and worn out, she sauntered toward the high bridge as confidently as she could muster. Upon her approach, it became clear the entranceway had been constructed like an ancient fortress comprising of two large gates, a mighty portcullis for each, and a stone bridge built over a steep and jagged incline into the city. Several Pokémon were stationed along with guards along the perimeter. There were a pair of Palossand stationed above both gateways. Things were tense.

Tight security, thought Sylisa, starting to feel nervous. Without her partner in crime, she felt very vulnerable to things she once brushed off by simply having Nia by her side.

One of the watchmen gave her a stern nod as she crossed the bridge. “Glad you made it back before sundown,” he said. The huge Bastiodon next to him grumbled deeply while watching her pass.

Sylisa did not know what to say in response, she strolled in nonchalantly as her thoughts ran wildly. What that guard said was a little off. I’ve never been here before. Have I?

“All clear,” said another man from above her keeping sentry on the fortress.

Sylisa wondered, Do they lock the gate at night? Unsavory types are usually on the inside of a city’s walls. The bandit mentioned the Dragon only comes out at night. Maybe that has something to do with it. I better start my search at the town square.

After passing the guarded keep tower between the two gates, the first district she encountered was conveniently the marketplace. Stalls and shops lined the narrow paths leading up through the city. However, at this late hour in the afternoon most stores had already closed for the day. Sylisa scoped out the various businesses.

Clothing, electronics, medicine, general goods, munitions, and food. I’ll wait until it gets darker before I pinch anything. Then she thought about all the city guards and their tough looking Pokémon. Might need some backup too, a henchmon. To quickly get a Pokémon to comply with my orders and help steal, I’ll need to get my hands on a Pokéball and capture it. Odd. I don’t see any Pokéball shops. Not even a Pokémon Center. Maybe general goods or electronics would have them. Suppose I could ask around up ahead. Looks like there’s a tavern up that hill with a lot of people.

Sylisa walked alone along the stone road leading up the mountainside, passing several small shops with residences on their second and third floors. Everything was built vertically from a similar bleached stone. Windows were made of artisan blown glass paneled with a rich dark-colored wood. Flowers and potted plants decorated the inviting windowsills. People on the street were carrying groceries along with their Pokémon. Everyone in their own little world, enjoying the crisp air of the mountainside town. It was precious in a sense; a part of life she had never experienced. Most strikingly, Sylisa didn’t see a single person with a cell phone. Not like they’d get reception all the way out here, she thought. It’s kind of strange. Like something’s missing.

The road split into two paths after an abrupt turn by some wooden barrels with a few claw marks on their bellies. One path went further, snaking up along the mountain, winding in zigzags along the mountain edge because the city was built steeply. The other went straight to a welcoming building made of brick and bleached stone with a slanted wooden roof. It was a rickety building that jutted out almost out to the edge of the cliff, with a tunnel that allowed for foot traffic through the major road she was on. Its exterior construction was the portion with the main entranceway, a grand set of wood doors. The rest of the structure had been built into the mountainside making the true size unascertainable. Beside it, a small courtyard overlooked the market district, boasting a magnificent view of the city gates in front of the desert covered by the setting sun’s warm orange glow.

“Audernaut—” Am I saying that right? “—Adventure Guild” said Sylisa, reading a sign written in Smeargle green ink on the side of a large wooden plank hanging over the great doors. “It’s almost got a nostalgic feel,” she mused. Pushing open the country doors, she felt like she stepped straight into an old saloon. The tavern had a distinct odor of oak from all the distillery barrels lining the walls. The dining area of the inn was packed; she saw all types of people eating savory meals with their Pokémon.

“Huh?!” Sylisa covered her surprised gapping mouth. A tavern that serves Pokémon! Could never get away with this back home without the Department of Sanitation giving you a violation. I always had to keep Nia in her ball unless we got takeout. Things really are different out here on the Orre frontier.

Gradually, Sylisa made her way through the crowd of people and Pokémon toward the bar, passing a grand piano along the way. No one was playing tonight; the tavern had been quite lively on its own. There were two large, crackling fireplaces wrought of gray stone, and the warm glow from high chandeliers. Everything about the hostelry reminded her of a past she had seen in old photographs.

“Uh-oh,” coughed the burly man behind the counter as he made eye contact with her. He had a thick brown mustache and chops on his big round head. His eyes were grayish brown from age and he looked well over forty or fifty. He wore an apron with several spots on it and rolled up sleeves to show off his muscles. A small Tympole rolled playfully on the counter next to him. Tympole had been spraying scalding hot water to clean the glasses and the man was methodically drying them off with a white washcloth. “Welcome back to Au-dern-ought,” said the barman as naturally as he could, suppressing a cold and distant expression. He looked uncomfortable by the sight of her, yet unable to do much considering he was busy working.

“Excuse me?” asked Sylisa. She skeptically placed a hand over her heart. “This is my first time here.”

“Oh? Right. My apologies,” he replied from the other side of the grand counter. Sylisa discerned a look of mild confusion on his face. “Mistook you for someone else. Thought maybe you changed your hair.”

“My hair?” repeated Sylisa. She clutched her hair in her hands and noticed a golden glow on its once uniformly black edges. “Whaaaa!?”

The bartender gulped, his broad shoulders sunk realizing he shocked her.

Sylisa, in the midst of frantically coiling the strange phenomenon around her palm, sputtered her syllables together. “Who did this?! I don’t remember changing my hair — to this weird color! — or ever being here!”

“Dunno, I’m just the bartender.”

“Whatever. I’ll…get to the bottom of this.” Trying to collect herself, she took a deep breath. “Read the sign outside. Is this some sorta guild?”

“Huh?” He crossed his arms in disbelief. “This really your first time here?”

“That’s what I JUST said,” said Sylisa with an impatient fist on her hip. “Are you slow or something?”

She saw a faint smile on the bartender, but he quickly dispelled it. “Like I said, thought you were someone else. Must’ve been a coincidence.”

“Riiiight.” She wondered silently, Maybe there’s someone in town who looks like me. That would explain why the guard at the entrance gate seemed to recognize me. But… how many people from around here look like me? They all got darker eyes. Having a doppelganger all the way out here in these backwoods is creepy.

“Well! Looks like you landed at the Guild’s HQ out in the frontier. So. What can I do ya for?”

“Looking for information,” replied Sylisa as she leaned against the counter.

Suddenly, a dark-furred Meowth sprung up from behind the counter, with a “Meorroow!”

Sylisa jumped in shock. “Waaah!” she exclaimed in a shout, nearly falling backward. “W-What the heck is a Meowth doing startling customers!?”

The bartender burst into a genuine laugh at the scene. “Ho-ho! This here is Murmur; he gets real feisty whenever there’s talk of coin involved.” With his huge hand, he pet Meowth’s golden forehead coin, causing the feline to growl. He then asked her lowly, “You’re not afraid of a lively cat like Murmur, are you?”

“Oh no, no. I’m okay. Fine. Really. Cats don’t scare me. I was just playing along for fun, heh.” Sylisa sighed and thought, Usually Pokémon are less rowdy, especially indoors. Come to think of it, Buizel was that way too. Pokémon out of their Pokéballs sure are free spirited. It’s so weird how people out here don’t keep them in balls.

The barman beamed. “I’m sure you’re aware, everything has a price, especially information,” he said whilst pouring a glass of wine and smoothly sliding it down the counter to a patron wearing a rancher’s hat.

Well, that sucks. I don’t have any finances, those bandits robbed me. Took all my thief tools too. “Listen, I’m in a bit of an emergency,” Sylisa said urgently.

“Sure, sure, I know,” said the barman, “you and everyone else in the city have problems that won’t go away on their own. Simple fact is: if we did favors for free we’d be bankrupt in a matter of days. Hours even.”

“There has to be a way you can help me,” begged Sylisa. “I’ll get out of your hair if you point me in the right direction.”

“Hah! Don’t got a whole lotta hair on my head left, ’less you count muh’stash,” he joked.

“Come to think of it, I knew a guy who looked like you back home. Mario, cooked with a Torkoal oven, made the best damn pizza in town, no doubt,” reminisced Sylisa. “But home’s a very long way from here.”

“So you’re lost?” reasoned the barkeep. “How about you go to the Sheriff’s Office? Those boys at the Bureau are always willing to help out a fellow citizen.”

“Told you I’m not from around here,” she said.

“Ah, right, right, good, you’re paying attention.” He lowered his voice and cupped a cautious hand next to his mouth and said frankly, “That’s probably for the best. But you might want to act like you aren’t some tourist.”

“Why’s that?” she wondered.

The big man stood back. “You know how folks can be. Shifty Shiftrys. Tell you one thing, do another. Whole lotta them wear these masks, see? Might not cause you harm, still something you can’t trust. Not gonna name names. I’ll just make mention, if you want to get anywhere fast you better be willing to sing their noble praises to high heaven and pay the price.”

“I take it your motley crew of adventurers isn’t like that though,” answered Sylisa with a wily expression, “that’s more my speed.”

He had a deep belly laugh. “You’re wise for your age, lass. Maybe I didn’t give you a proper chance after all.” The barman stuck out a hand. “Bennet, Bartender Extraordinaire. I run the show here for the frontier guild.”

She stared him in the eyes warily before shaking his hand. “Not sure who to trust around here,” she spoke softly and honestly.

“Can understand, gal, but like it or not you’re gonna need connections here on the frontier.” Bennet went back to cleaning glasses and mugs. “It’s your choice who’s side you wanna take.”

Not sure if there’s any rules in the Code about multiple guild memberships. Couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing. I’m sure Mathias will understand this is temporary. If not, I’ll just give Dare a big hug and he’ll calm right down like he always does. “I take it your guild is recruiting new members?” she asked.

“If you got the talent,” replied Bennet.

“What’s in it for me?”

“You’re sharp to ask. Good. We give a substantial discount on relevant info to our members. Free, if it’s related to your current assignment, and we’re flexible with that if you show you’re made from the right grade of stuff. Can hook you up with room and board if you don’t mind being on-call.”

I seriously need a base of operations until I can steal my stuff back from those bandits. This isn’t a thieves’ guild, but it’ll have to do until I get back in touch with my Shadow contacts. “Considering it,” she said without mincing words, “so where do I sign up?”

Bennet studied her, then looked around her. “Hmm, mmm, nuh-uh, nah. Unless you’ve got one of those invisible ghost types, you can’t join without a ‘mon by your side.”

“Seriously?” Sylisa reacted in disbelief, surprised by the low bar to admission. “You’re not joking?”

“No.” Bennet crossed his big arms. “Why would I be? Assignments are risky, don’t want to be liable for some defenseless goof dying on us. You may think it’s tough, but that’s the rule. If that don’t work, you could work the kitchen as our dishwasher.”

“Not at all! That’s WAY TOO easy!” Sylisa replied with a haughty, “A ‘mon by my side! Ha! If that’s all, what a gag!” I’ll run to the nearest store, steal some Pokéballs, and go catch a friggin’ Weedle if that’s all it takes to join!

“Hmm, you have a high affinity with ‘em?” Bennet asked with seriousness in his deep voice. “Gosh. Wouldn’t have guessed that at all, gal, but hey, I’m surprised by lots of folk out here.”

“Is that supposed to be a joke? Even a drooling five-year-old can catch Pokémon. You need to watch more reality TV. I swear, the shows they air with the little kids catching Pokémon keep on getting more and more absurd. On the latest episode of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” they had a toddler boy catching a Pinsir while a little girl caught the Scyther it was fighting in the National Park! Right after the fighting Pokémon were caught, they became as friendly and goofy as the little kids—” Suddenly her head started throbbing again. “Ow…that smarts… you have any water?” she asked, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples to ease the troublesome annoyance inside her skull.

“Sunstroke, huh?” said Bennet. “Folks say the craziest things ‘cause the harsh sun we’ve got.” Tympole rolled over on the bar counter to a large barrel and tapped the wooden latch as Bennet placed a clean glass under the flowing water. He smoothly slid it down the polished countertop as expected from a professional barkeep. “Don’t you worry, water’s always on the house.”

“Thanks.” She quickly gulped it down. “Oh, right on! This is the best water I’ve ever tasted! It’s so cool and refreshing, my whole body feels renewed. I must’ve been really dehydrated!” She was so thirsty from before and being out in the sun she downed it in a matter of seconds feeling revitalized.

Bennet poured Sylisa another glass with the help of Tympole.

Rubbing her sunburnt forearms, Sylisa asked Bennet, “How about you point me in a direction where I can get hold of Pokéballs?”

Bennet made a hand gesture running his fingers parallel to his wide mustache over his mouth to say his lips were sealed. Murmur jingled a fat coin purse. “Water’s free out in the hot desert, but like I told ya, info costs money for non-guild members. If you’re serious about joining our adventuring crew, I can do a little digging while you get your affairs in order.”

In a frustrated voice she retorted, “Then how the hell do I catch a Pokémon?”

“You said you’re good at it,” said Bennet.

“Yeah, anyone is if they got the balls,” she grumbled.

“A colorful way of putting it, suppose it does take cojones.” He smirked.

Sylisa huffed. He’s got no clue how it is to be a thief and not get caught. This is a pretty small place so I can’t rob some ‘mon to pass off as my own. Back to square one: I’ll have to steal some Pokéballs and catch a wild Pokémon. “Fine,” she told Bennet, her expression filled with fiery determination, “I’ll be back. With a Pokémon!”

“Aye, you sure you don’t want a stronger drink?” asked Bennet. “Got this crisp tonic and extra mellow bourbon just the other day from a shipment that only comes around every year. Great stuff, top shelf, I’ll tell you what.”

“Tsk! I’m underage.”

“Blimey! You are?” Bennet gulped in surprise. “You don’t look a day under eighteen.”

“The drinking age is twenty-one,” insisted Sylisa, turning around to leave the bar, gold-fringed black hair and coattails flouncing behind her.

Bennet muttered something along the lines of, “Where the hell is she from then?” Right before Sylisa walked out the front door he called out, “Good luck!”

Stepping out the busy tavern, Sylisa walked a very short distance toward the ledge of a cliff looking out at the expansive desert. She had to catch her breath. “It’s really pretty. Never see this kind of sunset in Unova. It kinda looks like an upside-down, giant Pumpkaboo.”

She silently watched it set. Only a small portion of the golden light remained over the horizon. The sky was canvas of color and light spotted by the distant outlines of a few Flying Pokémon returning to their roosting nests in the twilight hour. Thoughts of her best friend persisted. Sylisa could not recall Nia’s true name, the one which linked the two of them together. She felt as though someone had tried to erase her partner from her mind. Although the prospect of having her mind tampered with was frightening, Sylisa felt in her heart a strange sense of peace as she gazed at the gorgeous sunset.

 “Nia’s going to be okay,” said Sylisa. “Still. I wish we could see this together.”

Chapter Text

Sylisa’s mournful eyes stared at the horizon. The sun had set, twilight covered the sands. The empty courtyard where she stood began to grow cold as an evening breeze picked up.

“Nia…” she said again with a sigh.

The sound of a juvenile voice filled Sylisa’s skull. “Running out of time?” it asked in a sweet, harmonious tone.

“Who’s there?” Sylisa turned around, looking for the source of the disconcertingly familiar voice.

A girlish chuckle resounded in Sylisa’s brain. “Why do you think that is?”

Sylisa desperately spun around, frightened and unsure of who infiltrated her head. “Where are you?!” she demanded.

“Right—” Her telepathy became focused, deriving from a single location “—here.”

Sylisa looked up and to the right, straight at the source. Atop a narrow wooden archway, an arbor covered on either side by pink Bower Vines, sat a Kirlia with her legs crossed.

“You’re not very bright, are you,” she communed, toying with her little gown that had sewn outlines of tropical flowers on its tutu.

“The heck do you want?” asked Sylisa. “I don’t remember letting you in my head!”

“You didn’t.” She leapt from the arbor, landing on the stone patio between two potted blue agapanthus. Two golden ribbons followed behind her like long tails, tied up to a big, sparkling bow she wore on the top of her head between her horns. “I invited myself. Was a lot easier than I thought without her around.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not welcome. Get lost, you lil’ runt, before I kick you.”

“You’re so violent.” She sighed, patting down her dress skirt. As the gentle breeze blew from behind her, her ribbon’s streamers danced on either side of her in the faint moonlight. “And so clueless.”

“I don’t have time for this crap. Would’ve thrown a ball at you by now just to shut you up.”

Her red eyes widened.

“So. You understand what I mean? About Pokéballs? Well color me surprised. You’re the first I’ve met out here who doesn’t look at me funny when I talk about them. Didn’t expect you to be a ‘mon though. Whatever. I need a ‘mon with brains. Either you’re gonna help me, or you’re getting out of my way.”

She shook her head, then used her tiny hands to set the bright ribbon’s loose streamers securely into her long green hair. “On the contrary, you’re the one who will help me.”

“Fat chance,” scoffed Sylisa. “Who are you to make demands from me? You’re a ‘mon. I’m a human. News flash, it doesn’t work that way.”

“Who you are is irrelevant. We share a similar fate. I, like you, was once a Child of the Eclipse.”

Sylisa froze. “What did you just say about an eclipse?”

Kirlia’s pale face revealed a crooked smile. “That’s the reason you’re here, isn’t it?”

“H-How do you know?”

“I don’t know, I feel. You best remember that.” Her horns on either side of the golden bow glowed a deep crimson. “Listen well, Dae-stained-blood: You only have so much time to make your offering to the Altar of Life in the Sea of Eyes.”

“Hold the phone. What?!”

“I sense you care deeply for her, your friend, the Daemon.” Kirlia raised her left palm. “Should you fail to heed this warning, you and her will be dead-set on a future you cannot flee.” She raised her other palm, bringing her two small hands closer together. “It would seek to gradually infect your spirit, invisibly at first, but in time, that same precious time, take ownership of you, tarnishing and twisting your hearts into harbors of vengeance.”

“Hey,” whined Sylisa, “slow down, you’re not making any sense!”

“Let me be as clear as I can,” she said, lowering her interlocked hands to her waist. “A devouring Night fills the hearts of many, turning them into creatures of shadow. Yet, so long as the moon remains aglow, all life always casts a shadow on the earth. Being this shadow, a Shade, is the key to your success, and simultaneously it is the bane of many. Most are made into shadows not by choice when their hearts are sealed. You however have become a Shade through your free will as a Child of the Eclipse.”

“Erm. You’re one of those too? Right?” she asked.

“I was. Until the darkness of the Night came and devoured all shadows. Now I’m neither a Child nor a Shade.” She pointed to the illuminated crescent moon, hanging low in the sky. “As one who honors Lady Lune, I can assure you her influence over the realm will only last so long as she shines her light. As her light waxes, your shadow will grow, as will your strength. But do not make the same mistake as countless other Children of the Eclipse. Regardless of the strength you may gather, impressive feats, miracles even, do not be content with your borrowed power, for as the light wanes, so too does your shadow. Remember, nothing about your arrival here makes you any more special or any less cursed than the other feral shadows you’ll find. The only thing which sets you apart is in your heart.”

“My…heart?”

“Find the Altar in the Sea of Eyes. Return to where you came from at any cost, forget this place exists before the Eve of the New Moon. That, my fellow child, is the only way to purification. I’ll be watching you and your “friend” closely. Hopefully, with any luck, we’ll never see each other again.”

“Wait! Who are you?!”

Her form became hazy, then transparent. With a small pop, she disappeared.

Sylisa rushed over to where she had been, expecting to find a trace of her. Her shoulders slumped when she realized there was nothing but air. “What the hell was that all about?” There was not another soul in the courtyard. Patrons were indoors on this chilly night, Sylisa could hear their muffled laughter coming from the warm glow of the tavern’s dusty windows. Sylisa shook her head, unsteadily coming back to reality. “Why did she say those things about me? Is she trying to trick me into doing what she wants? What did she mean by —?”

“Oy,” said a drunkard wobbling out of the tavern, “you alright? Gonna catch cold out ‘ere, dar’lin.”

“I’m fine,” replied Sylisa with a shiver. She tightened her overcoat, realizing it was not best to be revealing her midriff out in the cold, and especially not right outside a sleazy bar.

The drunken man leaned against his Pokémon friend, a loudly colored Heliolisk, who appeared worn out from either the lack of solar power or chaperoning the inebriated fellow by his side. “Aye, aye, nighty night!” The drunk hiccupped and tipped his hat.

Making a stark hiss, the Heliolisk started to help him walk up the zigzagging road which led to the residential district.

“Kay, bye,” muttered Sylisa.

“OH!” said the intoxicated man, turning back around. “Would you keep a lookout for the Night Dragon! Big, scary, n’ black wings o’ death!” He pointed up with a swaying finger at the star-filled sky.

“Night Dragon,” repeated Sylisa in a whisper. “Charizard.”

“Make shhuure ta tell the guards if ya see it,” he slurred, albeit with concern in his raspy voice. Heliolisk nudged him along. “A’ight, pal, I’m good n’ right, said me peace…hic! G’night, lil’lady.”

Sylisa gave a weak wave and walked back down toward the winding stone road leading back to the marketplace and front gates. “Who cares about that little teleporting brat. The drunk had a point, how could I forget about Charizard? Guards will be extra concerned about a monster in the night skies, presenting a golden opportunity for a night thief to take care of some shopping. Ehehe…” Her thin lips formed a sly smile.


Sylisa’s first stop was the electronics store. It was a two-story building with tall shutters and a wide façade. The guard tower was out of sight due to the billowing cloths covering the outdoor market stalls. “Perfect,” said Sylisa. She snuck around the dark alleyway between the mountain and the stone wall of the building. “Hmm.” She rubbed her hand on the brick wall. “I could sure use my Armadas’ claws. This is gonna be tough.”

Sylisa pulled herself up along the alleyway wall, grasping onto cracks in the stone with her hands for leverage, and using her legs to push herself upwards. As she scrambled to the nearest window to lean on the ledge, she thought, Gotta be careful of alarms. Mm, let’s see. There aren’t any suspicious wires on the panel. You’d think they’d put that there and…hmm, oh, what’s this…? She peered into the window and saw a creature napping in the corner of the floor in a pillowed basket. Crap, a snoozing Torracat!

As Torracat snored, puffs of smoke came out from its open mouth.

Figures. A ‘mon is the security system. When do people find the time to train these critters to do everything? Still, it’s cute. I could just steal you away if I had the Pokéballs! What are you guarding anyway? Looks like transistors, motherboards, an odd-looking terminal and…rats! No Pokéballs on this floor. At least not out in the open. They could be behind the counter. That would require me to break in, and I really don’t want to wake up the kitten since I don’t have a ‘mon to back me up. To the general goods store then.

With panache, Sylisa leapt down from the windowsill. She followed the narrow alleyway further along the mountainside. Those guards will spot a prowler if I follow along the street, but if I can make it to the far wall, I’ll be in a perfect blind spot behind that wooden cart near the side entrance.

Sylisa waited patiently for the nightly patrol to come into view. He was a different man than the one she saw before with the Bastiodon. This new guard had a sturdy Lairon by his side. The Pokémon moved slowly, rumbling lowly with each heavy step.

One big bruiser. Here it goes, she thought. She darted, staying in the blindside of Lairon then hid behind the wooden stall.

Suddenly, the lumbering tank paused to sniff at the air. It groaned and grunted, with a sound reminiscent of an upset stomach growling.

Crap! Sylisa thought in panic, Do Lairon have a sense of smell? I never read anything on that.

“C’mon pal, no time to smell the roses while we’re on duty,” said the guard, urging it along. However, he paused as well and took a whiff of the air, right above Sylisa’s hiding place. “Say, is that…mmm… Roselia? This is a nice flower shop, can smell fresh roses even at night. Should really buy my lady something here when they’re open.”

Lairon began to move again, with the sound of stone and steel rubbing against each other.

Phew, alright. Sylisa’s tense muscles relaxed as the night patrol moved on. Of all places to hide, I picked the dang flower shop.

Grabbing one of her many hairpins buried in her thick hair, Sylisa went to work on the general store’s side door. It was a cylindrical lock, nothing she couldn’t handle. I miss Nia cheering me on. Thinking of her friend caused her fingers to slip and she dropped her pick. With an irritated growl, she started over again, this time with more focus. There it is.

The wooden door slowly opened, revealing a dark hallway. Sylisa slipped through the door. The wooden boards below her groaned as she tiptoed. As her eyes adjusted, she started to see precious merchandise lining the walls.

Ooh! Are those!? Some spheres lined up in a row reminded her of a Poké Mart’s shelves. She ran to have a look. Upon closer inspection, they were not Pokéballs like she had hoped, but mere adornments and home décor. Useless…paperweights. How hard is it to find a darn Pokéball? I don’t need anything fancy, just the good old “wiggle, wiggle, ding” will do.

As Sylisa mused the unforgettable sound she heard something rustling. Oh no, she thought, I’m not alone! It’s coming from the aisles! Could it be another guard Pokémon? Her breathing quickened, she couldn’t see so she tried to listen over the pounding of her heartbeat.

“Nibble…nibble…”

Is that the sound of someone eating? wondered Sylisa. Gradually, she inched along the aisle, moving ever closer to the strange noise. Soon she was right across from it. I think it’s coming directly from the other side! Sylisa pulled a colorful box of cereal out of the way so she could see through the aisle, and to her great surprise, saw a Sneasel with her head inside of a cereal box she clawed her way through.

The noise of her feeding became louder as her paws grappled with the box.

“…!” Sylisa could not help but gasp when she saw her. Her sharp claws were covered in grain crumbs, and her feathers looked rather battered. Dirt covered her dark, velvety fur. Despite how unkempt she looked, there was no mistaken it. NO WAY!

Sylisa’s shock was loud enough for the feasting Pokémon to hear. She quickly turned, her mouth stuffed with food and growled raggedly to say, “Who!?”

It sounded strange, her noises were much harsher and rough. Sylisa could not remember her friend ever sounding this coarse before. “Nia?” asked Sylisa through the aisle.

Her feathers bristled, and she leered. A shrill grunt escaped the side of her crumb-covered mouth.

“Could it be? Is it really you? It must be! You’re — Ungh!” A sharp headache overtook Sylisa, she groaned and held her head.

Seeing an opening, the Sneasel bolted for the exit on all fours. As her claws clopped on the floor, she hissed, “Sucker!”

“W-What?! Who do you think you’re calling a sucker?! Hey, get back here!” ordered Sylisa, chasing her down the parallel aisle. “Nia, come back!”

The fleeing Pokémon burst out the open side door. “Loser!”

“Wait! Why’re you running?!” Sylisa barged out the doorway as well, close on her trail.

The commotion attracted the attention of the nearby patrols. “Hey! Hey, you! Stop! Someone call the captain! Suspicious activity afoot!” yelled one of the rookie guards.

“Great. NOW YOU’VE DONE IT!” said Sylisa angrily as the searchlights homed on her trail. “She’s not as quick as Weavile! When I get my hands on you, Nia, I’m gonna do terrifying things to you as punishment!”

Turning a tight corner, Sneasel lifted her two front claws up to become momentarily bipedal.

“She’s slowing down! This is the opening I need!” With a lunge, Sylisa jumped over the side of the low wall, down to the path below, landing directly on top of her.

Initially the Sneasel was stunned from being unexpectedly smothered by her. However, she started to squirm and try to fight out from under her. Snarling and harshly squealing she cried, “Lemme go!”

Sylisa felt the ridges of her claws rising from her paws. “You’re not really gonna try and slice me, are you?” she exclaimed. Before the nails got close to her bosom, she wrapped her fingers around the precise spot she knew her old partner was ticklish: at the base of her feathers.

Instantly the Sneasel began laughing uncontrollably. Both claws relaxed and she submitted, hissing and purring.

“Gotcha, sneaky lil’ devil,” Sylisa said. She triumphantly picked up the giggling Pokémon and held her close to her chest as she got up.

A group of guards and their Pokémon approached them. “What’s a young lady like you doing out in the dead of night?” asked the head patrol wearing the captain’s hat.

A tremendous Pokémon with a stoic expression stood beside him. It had huge everything. It was a massive Golurk. It was a wall of thick stone, with glowing eyes bright as searchlights, the defining characteristics of a prison.

“I…erm…” Sylisa stammered and Sneasel squirmed in her arms. Then it came to her. “I caught your thief!” she said, glaring down at Sneasel.

“A thief?!” exclaimed the guard captain.

“Golurk!?” echoed the huge golem next to him. Even his voice was frighteningly huge.

“A cereal thief.”

“You don’t say! Caught us a serial thief, didja?” asked another guard.

“Decided to catch the sneaky, rotten thief myself. And would you look at who I caught!” Sylisa squeezed Sneasel tightly round her sensitive feathers, causing the once sly Pokémon to snivel helplessly.

“Wait, you went inside and caught it?” one of the junior guards chimed in. “That’s still breaking and entering. Trespass! A citation at least, jail time, or thirty days community service.”

A low grumbled came from Golurk, who appeared confused.

“Of course I followed her inside!” boasted Sylisa. “Whatja expect? I had no choice but to trail her. If I wasted time and gotten help, she would’ve gotten away with all the food!”

One of Golurk’s lights shined in Sylisa’s eyes. “You’re not from around here, are you?” said a different guard near Golurk.

“Course I am, I’m with the Guild.”

“Oh, the Guild eh?” said the guard. His disbelief was apparent as he shook his head and adjusted his hat. “Those guys are nothin’ but trouble.”

Crap, he’s not buying it. C’mon, hold your bluff. “If you don’t believe me, check inside the shop. You’ll see colorful boxes of cereal all over the floor. And—” Sylisa lifted up Sneasel’s claw, revealing slices of bright cardboard underneath her nail “—You’ll find the same exact boxes were torn into by none other than THIS LITTLE IMP!”

The captain next to Golurk scratched his chin as he inspected Sneasel. “Huh…well, I’ll be a Mankey’s uncle…that’s the same cardboard on my favorite breakfast cereal.” Then he turned to one of the other guards. “Hey, Simon, call up Jones and tell him his shop’s been fraught but we got our culprit. Richie, check inside and gather any evidence. George, go with him and write up a brief report for the guys at the Bureau.”

“Right away, Cap’n.”

“And you… you’re with the Guild you said?” asked the captain.

“Yeah.”

“Hm. Nice work.”

“Know you boys have your hands full keeping us safe from the Night Dragon.” Sylisa held Sneasel even tighter against herself making the little Pokémon struggle to breathe. “You can’t be bothered to chase down every little troublemaker, now can you?”

“No, not with the Night Dragon on the loose,” answered one of the older guards in a hushed voice.

“Enough chit-chat! Third shift is up, keep up the good work,” the captain said with an irritated growl.

Golurk looked at the captain like he was forgetting something. Then he pointed silently.

“Oh, right.” The captain turned back around to Sylisa. “I’ll be in touch with the Guild tomorrow to organize your payment.”

“O-Oh.” Sylisa gulped in a bit of shock. “That’s not necessary.”

“She does it for free?”

She smiled charmingly in response. “Eh-heh, just this once!”

Golurk let out a low and sleepy groan, then made a “Give me” hand gesture pointing at Sneasel with an open hand pulling in fingers.

“You’ll need to hand over our crook,” explained the guard captain on behalf of the unspeaking Golurk.

“See, about this little mischief-maker. Thing is, I won’t accept payment for catching your thief. I’ll teach her a lesson myself.”

“No way,” said a junior guard. “Not protocol to turn a criminal loose.”

“Yeah, we’re gotta make sure it can’t steal anymore,” chimed in another watchman. “Maybe tug off its claws, teach it a lesson for being such a bad Pokémon.”

“That’s horrible! You can’t take the claws off Sneasel!” she said. “Don’t you know a Sneasel uses them for everything? Marking territory, eating, climbing, hunting, cleaning, even communicating!”

“Sheesh woman. You sound a little like Ms. Mullen, the doting old lady who lives alone with all those cat Pokémon. Swear she’s got about twenty of ‘em living with her in her tiny house, Espurr, Meowstic, Purrloin, Liepard, Glameow, Purugly, Skitty, Delcatty, Meowth, Persian…um, did I forget about anyone?”

“I’m not a crazy-cat-lady if that’s what you’re implying!” snapped Sylisa. “However, I think this little one needs a stern, moral companion to look after her, don’t you?”

The captain shook his head, a weary hand over his sleep-deprived eyes. “Just keep the hungry scoundrel out of trouble, would you? We got bigger things to worry about.”

“Thank you,” said Sylisa. She hurried off with Sneasel securely in her arms.

With uncertainty, the feline looked up at Sylisa, nervously shivering.

“And as for YOU,” said Sylisa, “I’m going to teach you a lesson for almost getting us thrown in jail you won’t soon forget!”

“Neeeyyaaahhh!” she squeaked helplessly.

Chapter Text

A cool morning breeze blew through the winding roads. Dawn had broken, the sky had begun to lighten into an indistinct gray. The sunrise was obscured by the large mountain the city had been built into. In one of the alcoves off the main street, across from a modest corner store with a faded burgundy awning, there was a small patch of greenery. There on the grass, Sylisa snuggled with Nia. The two of them had no place to go, meaning it was another night out on the streets.

Sylisa yawned. Her jacket served as their blanket to keep warm. Nia had provided her with much needed company. Her thoughts insisted how strange this was, to be with Sneasel rather than Weavile. And yet somehow, being together with her felt as natural as it always did. She squeezed Nia close and sleepily rubbed her face against hers.

Nia purred groggily, opening a sleepy eye.

They were the only ones awake at this early hour. The night patrols on watch down by the gates had finally begun to retire. There was a distant voice of the dogwatch who said, “All clear to dawn, no sighting of the Dragon tonight.”

Sylisa rubbed her eyes. Charizard must be the Night Dragon everyone’s worried about. But then there was that weird Kirlia I met. She could talk through her powers, and a lot of what she said went over my head. But I’m just happy to have Nia back.

Nia appeared frightened as well, but for a different reason. Sylisa’s method of “teaching her a lesson” for getting caught last night consisted of abundant tickling.

Sylisa gave her a long stare, then said, “I’ve never seen a Sneasel laugh so much. You were in a total daze from laughing so hard, enough to pass right out.”

Nia scrunched her face and rubbed a paw over her forehead. She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” said Sylisa, “why did you run off from me?”

Her question was answered by a shudder and some harsh hissing. “You scare me!”

“That’s so mean!” Sylisa smothered Nia tightly against herself. “You don’t know how worried I was! After all we’ve been through, Nia, how could I scare you?”

Nia rocked back and forth, trapped in her arms. “Noooo!”

“Aw, you’re holding back, that’s cute.” Mischievously, Sylisa ran her hand along the brim of her feathers. Nia’s feathers were her most sensitive region, and even a slight tugging caused her to involuntarily smile. “But I saved your feathery ass, so you better come clean.”

Again, Nia tried to slip out of her hands.

Sylisa effortlessly snatched the feathers on her tail and yanked her right back.

“C’mon, I’m tired of your nonsense! Quit playin’ dumb with me or I’ll have to tickle you again!” threatened Sylisa. “Why’d you go and run away? And how the heck did you manage to de-evolve?”

“What do you mean?!” she cried. “Ow!”

“Ugh.” Sylisa sighed and loosened her grip. “You’re being so difficult! And your hissy language, it’s more than a little tough for me to understand! Nia, I always used to know what you meant without thinking too hard. Now you’re like making me work to not hear all the hissing and growls.”

“Don’t understand!” belted Nia. “Why’d you chase?”

“I didn’t want to lose you, that’s why I chased you down,” explained Sylisa. “We’re a team, you and me. I remember seeing you for an instant right before I blacked out in the desert.”

Nia did not seem to comprehend. The feather behind her ear wilted back.

“You got a lot smaller than you used to be. Eehee, it’s kinda cute seeing you like this!” Sylisa chuckled, reveling how it made her more vulnerable to antics. “But even if you’re smaller, you should’ve been more careful sneaking around late at night!”

Nia growled in an upset manner. “I would’ve gotten away, not for you!”

“Hey—” Sylisa rubbed Nia on the head and scratched behind the crown feather next to her left ear “—we’re partners in crime; we gotta cover for each other!”

Nia sniffled and turned away from her.

“Now’s no time to play tough-girl. You’d be short two pairs of claws if it weren’t for me.” Sylisa clarified by lightly tugging her nails. “You’re in my debt for once. Hmm. And to think of all the times you saved my butt instead. This is bass-ackwards.”

Nia quickly buried her face into Sylisa’s coat.

“Tsk. You’re such a shy girl once you’re restrained,” grumbled Sylisa. “My memories are a bit messy right now too, but let me tell you the truth: you’re the BEST partner a thief could ask for!”

Nia looked up at Sylisa, catching a glimpse of her holding her head as though she were in terrible pain. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine,” Sylisa groaned, “it’s…nothing.”

“Don’t look okay.”

“Said I’m fine.” Sylisa regained her composure and said straightly, “Trust me on that. You’re good. Damn good. And together, we’re gonna get even better! Next time, you ‘n me, Nia, we’re gonna give that frickin’ Charizard and his ridiculous robed boss the what-for!”

Nia’s crown feather drooped, she looked unsure.

“Yep. Believe me. That cocky shmuck and his overgrown lizard are both going down. We’ll steal the treasure and get you back to your old self again!”

All of a sudden, Nia’s stomach made a hungry grumble.

“You too, huh?” Sylisa felt starved as well. “Ah yeah, heh, we’re on the same schedule as always. We really have to do something about our food situation.”

Nia looked in the direction of the general goods store longingly. She raised a paw and pointed with her nail.

“Absolutely not!” scolded Sylisa. “No stealing cereal! You’re better than that! We’re professionals with a notorious reputation, not petty street urchins scavenging for morsels!” She looked around, realizing right now they were exactly what she had denied. Her stomach growled at the thought of food. Nevertheless, she refused to stoop to such a low level of continued existence, in no small part due to her urbane up-bringing. “We’re gonna get a job. We’ll use the money we earn to dine as fine as we want. Hate to break it to you, we’re kinda isolated out here, and until I get back in touch with Mathias, we’re gonna have to make do with what’s around.”

Nia wore a confused expression.

“Oh, the Thieves’ Guild! Our sponsoring organization, the Nightshade Shadows. C’mon, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about grumpy ol’ Mathias and fluffy-wuffy Dare?”

Nia shook her head.

“Wow. Looks like you’ve got head issues too,” whispered Sylisa as she felt her headache return. “De-evolution must’ve rewired your brain or somethin’.”

At this, Nia appeared frightened. She coiled up close to Sylisa.

“That’s alright, Nia, I’m sure you’ll remember when you meet ‘em. Mathias looks mean and scary, he really is, but he’s got a warm look in his eyes he tries to hide. And Dare is that way too, except he’s also the softest doggy you’ll ever find!”

Nia purred happily in her arms.

“Okay, so we’re joining a local guild in order to gather information. They’re this ragtag lot of frontier adventures, working straight out of an old saloon you’d see in Westerns, would you believe it?” she laughed. “And now that I have you, we’re about to become their newest members. That’s right, the two of us! A couple of crooks without any reputable contacts. What a racket. Still can’t believe I only needed to catch a Pokémon to join up. I guess I didn’t capture you in the conventional sense – like, in a Pokéball – but you probably prefer this way, don’t you?”

Nia appeared confused. She tilted her head as if to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I could always steal back your Dusk Ball from the bandits if you want.” Sylisa grinned playfully and snuggled Nia close to her. “But I kinda prefer you out here with me! Eehee!”

For the first time Nia didn’t struggle with all her might to try and escape Sylisa’s tight hugging grasp. She quivered softly and nuzzled close to her body.

“Tsh, aw! That tickles. Nia…I think we’re going to be okay now that we’re together. Let’s head over to register at the guild so we can earn our keep and score some grub.”

The tavern was unexpectedly open at this early hour. To further Sylisa’s surprise, Bennet, the big barman, was still standing at the counter. He looked weary and had large bags under his eyes. She wondered, What’s his deal? Why’s he staying up all night?

Meowth and Tympole were sleeping in small pillowed baskets with fuzzy blankets. They both look really comfy, like they’re having pleasant dreams. Huh?! That’s…different. Something doesn’t seem right about this scene. Meowth has a lighter fur than before. There’s no mistaking it! The Meowth that startled me last night had a solid, dark gray coat. This one has a reddish-brown highlight on the Pokémon’s curled tail and on the claws of its hind legs. Bizarre. Maybe it’s another Meowth, like a friend of the dark-furred one?

“Back,” she said plopping Nia down on the worn barstool, “and I’ve got a Pokémon.”

Bennet raised a sleepy looking brow. “Sheesh. Amber-eyes, you weren’t kiddin’ around. Didn’t reckon you’d be back this soon. Hmm, yeah, you’re pretty efficient, that’s good for business.”

“So…am I in?” asked Sylisa as her stomach grumbled.

Nia rubbed her own belly.

“You stay up all night and forget to eat?”

“Could ask you what you’re doing yourself, being up this early. You haven’t budged since I left last night. Don’tcha have a soft pillow with your name on it?”

Bennet yawned. “Been expecting someone important to show up but she’s running late. Luckily, I’m a pro who can sleep with my eyes open. Haha, can you pull off a stunt like that? Tougher than it looks.”

“Never tried it personally.”

“Anyway, I got some leftovers from last night if you want to eat. I don’t mind sharing while we get your application squared away.”

Nia happily squealed. “Bring it!”

“She sounds excited,” said Bennet.

“No way! You can understand her too?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “those are happy noises, right?”

“I…guess so. Used to take it for granted, but now it’s tough to block out the fact she can’t talk like a human.”

His eyes widened. “A ‘mon like her talking? You best eat something.”

“Thanks, for the offer, we can discuss business over food.”

“Oh. Would you look at that, Murmur’s ears are perking up. This cat loves his lasagna.”

“Huh?! Murmur?!” Sylisa felt a rush of dissonance boil to the forefront of her mind. “Did you…just call that Meowth Murmur?”

“Sure did, that’s his name.” The beige Meowth sprung out of the basket and back onto the table near Bennet and rubbed against his giant arm.

Sylisa bit her tongue. That is NOT the same Meowth! Murmur was the dark-furred Meowth from last night. This is a beige Meowth Murmur! They can’t be same Pokémon, doesn’t he know? Why would they have the same name? That’s just confusing!

Tympole also woke up and joined them on the counter. Bennet pet him as well and went to the kitchen.

Once on the counter near Nia, the new Murmur uncoiled, producing a crackling noise somewhere in its spine. He was friendly, without much hesitation had warmed up to Nia.

“Are they old friends? Maybe I’m not thinking clearly since I’m hungry,” rationalized Sylisa. She stretched her back, looking up she noticed two wooden figures suspended over the bar in the likeliness of a Solrock and Lunatone. Oh, now I get it, she thought, Sol de Lune. Solrock and Lunatone. Duh. Can’t believe that literally went over my head last time.

Bennet brought out a large pan half-full of pasta. He set down some plates on the bar counter for everyone and some utensils for Sylisa. “Cheesy Meat Lasagna,” he said.

Sylisa and Nia did not waste any time, they were both famished. The food was a bit cold, but nourishing.

Nia purred happily. Murmur’s paws were full of cheese. The two felines seemed to get along rather well, they shared the food without fighting by taking turns.

“They both seem to like each other,” said Sylisa between bites, trying her hardest not to show too much emotion in response to the cute scene unfolding right in front of her. It makes me so happy inside to see Nia making a friend, even if it’s a different Murmur from last night. “Must be cos they both got shiny gold objects atop their heads.”

Bennet smiled at the similarity. “Yeah, they’re two cool cats, aren’t they?”

“Nia likes the food too,” she said warmly.

“She does? Hope you aren’t fibbing for her.”

“See for yourself. Bet she’ll clear the plate at this rate.”

“I’m not the chef, so don’t pay me any complements or complaints, Though I can fix up any drink you can dream of.”

“Coffee…” Sylisa mumbled as she ate another bite. “It’s been a real long night and we didn’t get much sleep.”

“Righto!” Bennet went to brew a fresh pot, with Tympole’s help. “Could use some myself. Your preference?”

“Black, c’mon, like, darker than Nia’s fur,” said Sylisa. I gotta be cool. “Is there any other way?”

He grinned. “You’re a tough girl. I thought for sure you’d go for the sweet stuff.”

“Gee, thanks, you’re SUCH a sweetheart I might puke,” said Sylisa. Her comment was more acidic than the brew he poured.

After they ate, Bennet got the small amount of paperwork in order. “Here you are, take your time,” he said giving her a light stack of papers.

The first page consisted of basic stuff: age, height, and general physical information. Once she arrived on the second page, it began to request things that made her uncertain. “What’s this thing about sign?” she asked.

“Oh. That. What constellation are you born under?”

“Constellation?” repeated Sylisa. “Like stars? You got to be joking. You don’t really believe that nonsense about horoscopes, do you?”

“It’s tradition around here. Our people used to create images by connecting stars, to guide them in their travels across distant lands. Over time, these sparkling eyes in the sky became the constellations of the night. While each star is separate, together, they form something greater with meaning.” He pointed to the large canvas behind the bar, between the shelves of drinks. She originally thought it was just a decoration. However, upon closer inspection it appeared to be an actual map of the night sky. “At the peak of this mountain is a large zodiac, made from stone. You should check it out if you feel like hiking up to the summit. According to legend, our ancestors used this replica chart of the night sky to predict cosmological events before they happened, among other things. Over the years, the signs of the zodiac became a staple for people and Pokémon living here. And, at the very least, it’s given us something to gossip about with the folk around town.”

“Don’t care much for impractical gossip. I’m an Aries,” she said hastily scribbling it down. She vaguely remembered the Unova zodiac. At the very least, she knew her Pokémon associated with the constellation. “Where I’m from, that’s Whimsicott.”

“Clever and ambitious,” Bennet said with a smile as he looked over at Nia. “That’s just what I expected from your tenacity when you told me you’d get a Pokémon last night. You’d prefer to leap before looking if there’s a temptation of excitement or adventure.”

“You might want to stick to bartending,” Sylisa suggested, however she felt as though Bennet had just read her with surprising accuracy given his brief assessment based on the stars she had been born under. “Astrology’s not exactly a lucrative business. And you sure as hell can’t tell what a person’s destiny is from a bunch of dumb lights up in the sky.”

“Haha. Spirited too. You’ve got that rebellious fire, can see it burning in your bright eyes,” insisted Bennet. “How about Sneasel here?”

“She’s…umm…I dunno actually.”

“When’d you two meet?”

Automatically, Sylisa answered, “My birthday, on the first day of spring.” She realized her mistake as soon as the words left her lips. The first time I met her as Sneasel was last night. But I met Nia as a Weavile on my fifteenth birthday four years ago. They’re the same Pokémon…right? If I remembered her true name then I’d know.

“The vernal equinox then? Maybe she’s an Aries too?”

“Heck if I know; she didn’t hatch from an egg,” said Sylisa, glowering, feeling as though her mind had been playing tricks on her. “Why do ‘mons need human horoscopes anyway? That’s so cheesy.”

Bennet had a deep laugh. “See here? It’s only an optional survey, astrology happens to be one of our member’s thing. No need to get all on edge.”

“You’re right,” grumbled Sylisa. “Hey, uh… what’s this part about a class? I’m so DONE with school!”

“Don’t sweat it. That’s something you get to decide,” explained Bennet. “The long and short of it is, you and Sneasel are a unit. The two of you have strengths and weaknesses based on what you do in and out of combat. Class is a way of differentiating certain skillsets from others. It helps other members of the guild cover the areas you don’t excel at. Basically, think of it as your role on a team.”

“Hmm. Oh! Sort of like a ‘mon’s role in a trainer’s party?”

“Party?” He then pointed his finger at Nia and Sylisa to emphasize. “You two ARE the role. The party is who you’re working with.”

“Huh…? Bennet, are you implying people don’t have more than one ‘mon on their team?”

“Well, it’s not impossible.” Bennet smiled at Tympole, who understood his gesture and rolled lazily twice over to the wooden keg of water on the end of the counter. Tympole tapped the lever and fresh water quickly poured out into a glass, from which Bennet took an invigorating sip. “Ahhh,” he supposed, “You’d have to be a mighty strong warlord to sway the will of more than one to join your cause in combat and still be effective. Doesn’t come easy to most.”

Leaning over the counter, Sylisa scrunched her face between her fists. “That’s so weird. I could have sworn the norm is a team of six.”

“SIX!?” exclaimed the bartender as he nearly knocked over the foggy glass. Tympole snatched it with his tail before it spilled. “That’s stretching it. Most people only manage to befriend one or maybe two at a time outside battle as a match to their potential in combat. It all depends on your skill.”

Sylisa gave Nia a nervous glance. Her expression said, “Our skills aren’t legal. We’re thieves.”

“You look a little lost. If you need a quick refresher, here are the six basic, well-known classes. Assault are runners of close-quarters-combat and physical moves making contact. Guardians focus on physical defense and blocking attacks directly, the opposite of Assault. Ranger, reliant on long-distance attacks and energy moves, which do not require contact. Curator, a bastion against energy moves, opposite of Ranger. Hermes, depending on raw speed to out-maneuver the opposition. Essence, a class defined by their constitution to mitigate damage.”

“In other words, Attack, Defense, Special Attack, Special Defense, Speed, and Health.”

“Right you are,” he replied. “When we get intel on threats, they’re assigned a class based off their general fighting style. Guild members also have classes so you can work well together during the mission at hand. If you become famous enough you can come up with your own class to suit your unique style.”

“Really?” she asked. “I’d like that. Most of those class names sound boring.”

“Hey now, don’t get ahead of yourself, rookie. Having a class indicates your abilities in a concise format for others to understand quickly. It details your general attributes, what you’re good at. You need significant fame to make up a class of your own!”

“Ugh. Lame. I can’t get a cool name being low on the totem pole. Pfft. I guess we’re Assault, ‘cause it sounds the coolest,” she said checking off a box next to an insignia of a circle with an arrow pointing out at forty-five degrees to the north-east. “Any reason why this symbol is the same as the sign used for male?”

He nodded, and pointed to the list of other basic classes, each of which had a symbol. “Back in the old days, each of the original six classes had been assigned a celestial object. Six planets were the old names for each class. Assault used to be called Mars; named for the red planet and associated with fire. The shield and spear being symbolic of attack power.”

“No kidding. Everything around here has to do with space, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. You can see the night sky exceptionally well out here in the desert. The heavens were really important to our ancestors and studied intensely, almost religiously, by the first people who settled here hundreds of years ago. They were called the Stargazers of Centennial. An enigmatic group, despite pieces of their history being carved into the stones of our city’s mountain.”

“Like that zodiac you mentioned at the peak of the mountain?”

“Good, you were paying attention. Not only our ancestors, but also the Pokémon they befriended, had profound connections to mysticism as well as practical astronomy. The original class system is based off their astronomical observations and applied it to training a certain way.”

Sylisa peered at the rest of the symbols next to the classes. Adjacent to the class Hermes, associated with Speed, she saw a familiar symbol used for denoting the female gender except it had what looked like horns. “Mercury.” Then her nail traveled up one line to Curator, or Special Defense. This symbol did not have horns. “And this must be Venus,” she assessed.

Bennet nodded. “Mercury’s symbol is the caduceus of the messenger, an enchanted rod with twin snakes. Venus’ is her necklace, or the symbol for femininity.”

“What about these others?”

“Mars and Earth are solid opposites, representing Attack and Defense for Assault and Guardian respectively. Venus is Earth’s mysterious twin, and therefore the Curator class has its roots in being the patron for Special Defense. Venus’ mysterious beauty has an opposite in Saturn, which is symbolic of Special Attack, now called Ranger. Jupiter’s lordliness is the benefactor of Health or Essence. Finally, swift Mercury is, as you mentioned, associated with Speed.”

Sylisa carefully thought before responding, “You know, she’s able to do a lot of damage, but she’s also very quick. Does that mean Mercury…err Hermes is a better class?”

“Check ‘em both if you’re not sure. Mars and Mercury, Assault and Hermes classes, have exceptional synergy together. Don’t feel like you’re locked into a single class. There’s plenty of hybrid classes, and newly discovered classes. Our guild’s intel will keep you up to speed on those. Classes are useful for our organizational purposes on paper, but out on the battlefield you better do whatever you can to win. Don’t forget, once you get strong enough you’ll be able to create your own class to reflect your unique abilities.”

I’m only here for as long as I have to be, she thought. “Kay.”

“Very good. Now, like everyone else, you’ll be getting an assigned code name. This is for you and your team, of course. I erm… had it somewhere. Gosh, where’s that old hat of mine…” Bennet stumbled around, inspecting the shelves of exotic booze. He moved a few bottles out of the way and came across a high-crowned, wide-brimmed, felt rancher’s hat. “Ah hah! Here you are then. Draw two slips of paper outta the hat, and there’s your name.”

“Whaaaat!” she exclaimed. “Leaving a special thing like a team name up to chance!?”

“Relax, consider it a rite of passage, it shouldn’t be too embarrassing if you have decent luck.”

“I have terrible luck! Nia, you do it!” Sylisa said, crossing her arms.

With her retracted nails, she touched her small golden amulet on her chest. “Me?” she purred.

“Oh-ho, I like that! Tempting fate by leaving it up to your partner to decide. Very well.” Bennet moved the old cowboy hat over toward Nia and motioned “two” with his fingers, pointing at the folded sheets of paper within.

Nia stuck her paw gently into the dusty hat, careful not to cut at its already well-worn fabric and patched-up areas. She gradually drew out two pieces of paper, one on each nail of her claw.

Chapter Text

“Okay, let’s see, your crew’s new name is—” Bennet looked at the papers after taking them from Nia and paused dramatically as though he expected an accompanying drumroll “—Rift…Fortune!”

“Dead ass! Are you for real right now?” said Sylisa in a choppy Unova accent. She scowled at her Pokémon seated next to her on a barstool. Nia still had a bit of lasagna on her cheek. “Nia, what the heck? You had one job!”

“That’s the way things go, ahem, Miss Fortune!” laughed the barkeep.

“Oh God. No way man!” Sylisa wore an expression of pure trauma on her pale face. “I don’t want to be called that!”

Nia wore a mischievous smile, happy to have gotten back at Sylisa after all the tickling she put her through earlier. Nia’s new friend, Murmur, the beige Meowth who stayed with Bennet by the bar, helped wiped the piece of cheese off.

“Aw, c’mon, it’s not as bad as some of the others I’ve seen pop out of that hat,” said Bennet.

“I…I hate that name!” said Sylisa. “It’s mad dumb. C’mon, you can’t give me that lame name! Shit’s whack.”

“Those are the rules you signed up for,” said Bennet to her distress. “If something as simple as a name’s gonna give you problems, maybe this ain’t the right job…”

“Uugh! Fine! At least lemme switch the two words around,” Sylisa bargained, “Fortune Rift is much better than Rift Fortune.”

“Haha,” laughed Bennet. “Whichever way you want to order it. Fortune Rift is fine for you and Nia. But since you never bothered to give me your name, I must insist on calling you Miss Fortune. Miss Rift sounds like you popped out of a hole, amongst other borderline lewd things.”

“You’re…! Insufferable!” Sylisa grit her teeth together angrily behind her sullen lips. Nia sniggered from the barstool next to her.

“Well, that’s all there is to it. Sorry for the letdown. Welcome aboard.” Bennet said with a tired, less than enthusiastic expression, “I’d have you meet your fellow adventurers stationed here, however it’s too freaking early.”

“Yeah. Says the bartender waiting around for a mysterious visitor all night,” she said subtlety searching for information. She saw he did not wear a wedding band. “You get stood up by a date or something?” she perceptively asked.

“Naw, nothin’ like that,” he said nonchalantly. “All business.”

Sylisa looked over at the Meowth playing with Nia. “He looks well-rested at least,” she said. “You woulda thought catching some Z’s would be a better use of your time.”

“Hey, at least my eyes are open, aren’t they? Let me tell you, when you’re as talented as me, you’re able to mix drinks in your sleep. Call it Sleeptending.”

Nia poked Murmur sharply. “Meorroow!” squealed the Meowth.

Sylisa sighed and lightly smacked Nia’s crown feather to get her to quit upsetting him. “Uh huh. Sure that’s gotta be rough. Your Meowth here probably thinks you’re awake keeping watch.”

“You know, he’s notorious for staying up later than me most of the time,” Bennet said. “Little guy never sleeps the whole night, only closes his eyes for cat naps.”

“Come to think of it, Meowth did look a little different last time I was here,” she pointed out. “Is this his friend?”

“Who, Murmur?” Bennet smiled at Sylisa, and then went back to cleaning glasses. “Heh. Scamp’s been this color his whole life.”

“…!” Sylisa’s shoe fell off the barstool’s footrest in her shock, kicking the counter. “I didn’t say anything about the color. Erm,” Sylisa anxiously coughed, “I dunno, it could’ve been the heat getting to me. Phew, I’m feeling stuffed. So, what can I expect now that I’m part of your band of adventurers?”

“Well, in exchange for your services to the guild, you get a safe place to rest, delicious food, fine drink – Of course! –, odds-and-ends, and even,” Bennet paused a dramatic second, “a Communications Terminal!”

“Sweet! You got a phone?” asked Sylisa with a grin. “Nice!”

“A phone? No, no, the Com. Terminal is a secure radio frequency. Don’t want any unauthorized interception of our audio. Too risky.”

She waved her hand in dismissal. “Give me a break dude! Big Brother doesn’t care, especially way out here in the sticks. I just want to get in touch with the outside world.”

“Mmm. You haven’t even run a mission with us yet,” he replied.

“I see how it is,” she said leveling with him. “Tit for tat. You got a tight ship to run here, I get it. How ‘bout you at least show me how it works since I’m working for you?”

“You can communicate using messages. Sharing info is instantaneous.”

“Uh-huh, like texting. Do you have internet?”

In a hushed tone, he repeated, “Internet?”

“Like broadband, ya’know,” Sylisa rolled her eyes, “the global system of interconnected computer networks. Internet protocol suite. TCP/IP. C’mon man, don’t make me feel like I’m revealing my power level just by talking about it.”

Bennet paused, taking in everything she said. “Unfortunately, our communications aren’t exactly global,” he replied. “Don’t think our Com. Terminal even covers the entire region. Lots of interference in the wastes.”

“What kinda dumb communication is that?” she said, thinking back to all the times in Unova where she effortlessly accessed every part of the world with just a few clicks on her computer. “I need to access the WORLD WIDE WEB! Not some crummy regional network with dead zones.”

“It’s a Com. Terminal,” he replied. “I don’t think we’re on the same page at all.”

“You got that right,” she said, looking at Nia. “Thought we caught a break from being stranded out here in the boons. Can’t even update my blog or hit up the boards on this lousy network unless the transceivers are strong enough to access a distant cell tower. But, whatever, we’ll make do. Where’s it at, Bennet?”

“Stubborn, as always. Hey, Murmur, keep an eye on things, would you? We’ll be back in a few.”

“My stubbornness got me a Pokémon,” Sylisa said, picking up Nia and placing her on her shoulder. “FYI.”

Bennet did not understand her lingo. He quietly led her to the rear of the tavern, to the left and down a hall up a short set of stairs. It appeared to be a short hallway. However, he pressed on a wall fixture appearing to be a hollowed-out horn with a candle inside. There was a click and suddenly a fake wall shifted out of the way to the right, revealing a long hallway.

“Oh neat! The building goes deep into the mountainside. Just like a secret base!” she said feeling rather excited.

Nia growled loudly, equally as thrilled and playfully snatching at Sylisa’s twin coattails behind her collar.

Bennet gave a nod and motioned with a gesture to follow. It was a dim passage, branching out into rooms and corridors.

Nia jumped from her perch and crawled on all fours down the hallway to investigate.

Peering into the rooms passed with open doors, Sylisa saw many Pokémon were still sleeping on beds fit for their various physiques. “Whoa. I’ve never seen a setup like this before. Usually Pokémon are in their Pokéball when recovering stamina.”

Bennet put a finger to his lips. “Shhh! Make sure to keep quiet. These are guild member’s Pokémon, they’re not exactly early birds like you and me. Don’t want to be rude.”

Telling a pro thief to keep quiet. That’s rich, Sylisa thought. I can’t tell him, but it should become clear that I’m talented at stealth. Especially now that I have Nia with me.

Nia returned to following her closely on the floor between her dangling coattails.

Bennet kept going down the long hall, beyond the resting Pokémon, and toward the main living quarters. At this early hour, the main room was vacant, but it looked exactly like a cozy secret base being on the inside of the city’s mountain. The furniture had a rustic look; a bit old, but of high quality. The chairs, long tables, and benches were all hand-carved, perhaps by a skilled Pokémon or craftsman. Rugs were fashioned from thick hides like those of a ski lodge she had been to as a child. There were a few fireplaces with late embers still glowing in them and Pokémon cozied up near the soothing warmth. After journeying along the long passageway branching off to occupied lodgings, they finally arrived at the rear of the complex. There was a small isolated room; it resembled the interior of a Packet Radio Van. There were shelves of wires and coils all attached to several black boxes, really old servers judging by their dust.

Bennet proudly cleared his throat. “Here it is!”

“Sheesh,” said Sylisa, looking at the technical equipment, “it’s friggin’ archaic! Did you pick this up at the junkyard?”

“Had to order all the special parts and hire a tech guru from our main HQ assemble it.”

“I wasn’t being sarcastic. Everything is wired up I see. But… Where’s the transmitter?”

He pointed up. “We run cables to the top of the mountain through these tunnels. At the summit, an amplifier helps us boost the signal to send a message across the desert. Works fine in town, without the boost. In the old days, we had to use smoke and fire signals, from Koffing and Torkoal. By comparison, this is a right magical marvel, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” muttered Sylisa, “belongs in a museum.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Never mind. Can this console connect with people who aren’t members of the guild?” asked Sylisa.

“No idea. Only guild members carry receivers, and our other branch on the other side of the wastelands recently installed a similar system so we could communicate with them as well. Saves time and effort of getting a Flying Pokémon to deliver an urgent mail message over that distance. I mean, wow, it’s like being a psychic! You just send a message through the air and – Bang! – it appears in another place. Magical.”

“Whew, magical messages, …great, just great.” Sylisa sighed. “Speaking of psychics, have you seen a Kirlia wearing a golden ribbon around here?”

“A Kirlia?”

“She’s got green hair, a set of red horns, with eyes to match, and a big ol’ bow on her head with long streamers.”

Bennet shook his head. “No. Why? Are you looking for her?”

Sylisa hesitated. “Sorta. Saw her outside the tavern last night. Told me some strange things.”

“You understood her too? Like, talking?”

“She’s a psychic, Bennet. She was in my head.”

“Right. Of course.”

“Then she teleported away in a flash, without a trace.” Sylisa snapped her finger. “I’m wondering if anyone else has seen her.”

“That does sound strange. I’ll see what I can dig up. She say anything interesting?”

“I don’t get what she said, something about Shades, an Altar, a Sea of Eyes, and Eclipse Children.”

Bennet scratched his head. “She was outside the bar late last night?”

“Yeah, in the courtyard. She was in a hurry and told me I should be too. If she decides to stalk me at least I have Nia to protect me.”

“True.” Bennet smiled at Nia. “She’d give a psychic headaches as your backup.”

“So, speaking of backup, what about the PC transfer system? Do you have a connection to that?”

“Never heard of it. Sounds interesting though. What’s it do?”

Seriously? I feel like I’m buggin’ out right now. Should I even be telling him this? “Erm, it’s like a terminal,” she said trying to use words he would understand in her analogy. “Same as transferring data messages around, but with, you know, Pokémon. Sorta like sending a message using this…um…museum artefact you’ve got here. Capiche?”

“Oh! I get it, it’s like a Teleport!”

“Yeah. A teleport. Same way that snarky little runt escaped from me last night. If you find anything you’ll tell me right?”

“Course, it’ll be an ongoing assignment for the security of the guild.”

“Alright.” From the corner of her eye, Sylisa saw Nia was playing near some wires. “Hey! Be careful with your claws around those!” she warned.

Startled by the scolding, Nia crawled away from the cables.

“I’ll be honest,” said Bennet, “we’re understaffed as it is. We have to keep all hands stationed close by in case of an attack. Dragon only comes out after sunset, reducing our total operational forces.”

“You ever think about fighting it?”

“The Dragon?”

“Yeah,” she said twirling a lock of dark hair round her finger. “Sure, it’s huge and scary, but it’s just an overgrown lizard when you think about it. If you have enough Pokémon, bet you could take it down.”

Bennet thought for a moment. “Your optimism surprises me.”

“Tsk. It’s your town, not mine,” she shrugged, “but, if you don’t want bad luck to spring up at the worst possible time, best keep me out of the operation.”

“On the contrary. I think you might be just who we need.”

“Don’t like the sound of that one bit,” she answered. “Better up my pay or gimme some good info. Whaddya know ‘bout it?”

“The Night Dragon,” said Bennet. “Do you know why it’s called that?”

“No. Why’s that?”

“It only appears after dark, during the reign of the Night.”

“Could be nocturnal,” she answered warily, “guessing you already considered that.”

“We’ve deduced its strength grows in the domain. From our distant observations of the fiend, the strength and size of the miasma cloud surrounding it correlates to the duration of darkness. In other words, its blighting cloud is weakest after dusk, growing until dawn.”

“Think I follow,” she said. However, she had never heard of such a phenomenon before and the mystery captivated her. “Nighttime and the Dragon are related somehow, hence Night Dragon.”

“No, not Nighttime. Night itself. Nighttime’s duration measures the power of the Night’s Domain. A Pokémon’s influence on nature is called its Domain.”

Sylisa furrowed her brow. “So, the Night is what makes the Dragon dangerous.”

“Correct,” he said.

Sylisa shrugged. “Why not fight it during the day?”

“It disappears at dawn.”

“Disappears? Like that Kirlia did?”

“Perhaps. It’s certainly supernatural. If the Dragon is a part of the Night, it cannot be slain conventionally. The Night’s darkness always returns without fail.”

“Never thought of darkness that way,” replied Sylisa, feeling more than a little skeptical. “Could make it an immortal adversary if it keeps coming back.”

“It’s not a possibility we’ve been able to rule out. As the Night grows, so does the Dragon’s influence. People refer to its powers as the Night’s Blight.”

“Simple enough. Forget obsessing over the whole Night thing, and undermine it when it’s most vulnerable. Make a move before the Dragon decides to, preferably when it is at its weakest, right after twilight,” Sylisa concluded. “You got a plan, bar genius?”

“Gosh, you’re bossy. Plans in the works have been keeping me up late every night. We’ll need some creativity for dealing with codename: Nemesis,” said Bennet with a scowl. “Scourge hasn’t made any direct attacks on the city, but that’s not to say it hasn’t done damage. Five patrols sent out, total of thirty people and their mons. Only two managed to make it back.”

“Only two? Yeesh. It killed all the others?”

“Well, not killed in the traditional sense of the word.” Bennet wore an expression as convoluted as the wires coiled about the communications room.

“Whadda mean?”

“It’s in a different class of danger all together, because its power derives from the Night itself. Hence the code name Nemesis; we’re in deep if it decides to raze our city.”

“Mm. I took note of the city’s layout and composition. You basically have an earthen fortress here; the city is built into the side of a mountain and your buildings are made of flame-resistant stone,” Sylisa detailed her observations. “Dragon fire isn’t going to raze your city very easily.”

“Dragon fire. Humph. If only it were just that.” Bennet lowered his voice. “The beast has a far worse power. The dark cloud strengthened by Night’s Blight, has the power to erase life.”

“Erase life?” Sylisa repeated, perturbed by the thought. “You for real?”

“Yeah. Gone. I haven’t seen it personally, so I can’t verify. Yet there’s evidence we can’t easily write off as superstition.”

“Geez. How credible are the witnesses?”

“Difficult to say,” he said. “The Dragon breaks the minds of those who see it do this erasing up close.”

Sylisa thought about her chronic headache problem. “It…breaks their minds?”

“Aye. Those two scouts I told you about. City guards found ‘em halfway in their own graves outside the gates. They had been wandering in circles for hours judging by their footprints. Lips parched, skin all cracked and blistered from the sun, eyes as bloodshot as the red moon.”

“Red moon huh…sorta like an eclipse?” she said thinking aloud.

“Hmm?”

“You woulda thought they’d be fine that close to the gate.”

“Right… they were out there, in the scorching midday heat, making circles in the sand when the city was right there within sight on a clear day? Something ain’t right about that.” Bennet shook his head. “Took ‘em straight to the infirmary. Forced ‘em to drink since they were severely dehydrated. And they kept saying it, mindlessly, obsessively, over and over. None of it was right. No. They were talking like they weren’t even there. Kept repeating, “Erase the world.” Unwilling puppets of a psychic is all I could think of. Muttering in gibberish at first, then biting on their own tongues like enraged madmen as they spoke ever louder. Truth be told, it shook me up.”

“Where’re they at now?” she asked.

Bennet lowered his voice. “They’ve been in comatose, they’re barely holding on to life, too exhausted to speak. Quarantined down near the morgue because everyone’s afraid they might be cursed.”

“Okay,” she said trying to put on a strong face, “let’s think this through rationally. There’s got to be a reason that would explain all of this.”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Call it a hunch, but I think there might be a psychic involved. Thing is, I dunno any psychic dragons. A Charizard definitely isn’t that type.”

“Charizard? Wait, you don’t mean…! You’ve actually seen it up close?”

“Well, I think so,” said Sylisa, now feeling somewhat skeptical of her own experiences. That whole showdown at the manor felt like a lifetime ago, she thought. My head’s all foggy like when I saw Nia turn into Sneasel. “Oogh…ow!”

“You got a headache?”

“Yeah,” said Sylisa. She looked at Nia, who was no longer was in the nest of wires, but curled up next to one of the servers giving off heat from a noisy fan.

“Hey. You gonna be okay? Can hardly believe you actually saw it with your own eyes.”

She squeezed her temples in contemplation. “It’s difficult to say how Charizard got so gigantic. I’m no Pokémon expert. But, that’s a fact, covered by the same weird black cloud you were talking about.”

“Then that would make you the third person who has seen it and gotten away. I regret to inform you the other two witnesses who saw it up-close went mad in the head before falling into stasis.”

Nia, again exploring a cove near a tangle of cords, hissed as her tail feather got nipped by one of the fans.

“Eh-heh,” Sylisa nervously laughed. “Nia, c’mon, stop fooling around in there.” She turned to Bennet. “I’m a tough cookie. Besides, I still got my wits about me. So don’t sweat it, Benny!”

“You don’t have any obvious signs of mind-control. Guess that’s good.” Bennet took a deep breath. “The strangest thing was how they mentioned the names of their group being erased. Like their spirits were still able to remember something from before they got cursed.”

“Did you find any evidence at all of the missing members of teams?” she asked.

Bennet shook his head ominously. “No hard evidence,” he started to say. “Found these dark shadows in the sand. Outlines of people and teams that were on the expedition. Shadows without bodies in the middle of the day.”

“Shadows? Like that Kirlia said!”

“The weirdest thing, no ash or dust like there would be if someone got cooked by a fireball,” he explained. “The remnants were mixed in with the sand and ground itself, like shadows were once in motion, frozen by time. Same eerie color as the dark cloud swirling around the Dragon.”

“There’s the connection, must be the dark cloud around the giant Charizard.”

“Now, I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had seen it for myself,” he said candidly. “I had my doubts. But when I saw the scene with my own eyes, it was as if they had been straight burnt out of existence and left behind a shadowy scar right into the sand and rock. The scene matched up with the two now-comatose scout’s story about their teams being erased by the Night’s Blight, that’s for sure.”

“Erased from existence. That can’t be easy to do.” Sylisa had been rubbing her head again. “How does something disappear from the world entirely? Stuff doesn’t just up and vanish unless it’s teleporting or going in a Pokéball.”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” replied a grimacing Bennet. “I’m just as floored by it all as anyone. Makes no sense.”

“I take back what I said earlier. Fighting the Dragon is a death wish. We need more information,” concluded Sylisa.

“Information—”

“—Has a price, I know. Dragon was looking for something I think I know where it might be.”

“Then you have a lure?!” Bennet asked in a hushed yet excited voice.

“You bet I do,” she said confidently at first before realizing that the Mirari was no longer in her possession. “Err, I mean I used to. Don’t worry. I think I know where it is. Probably. Maybe. Some bandits took it from me yesterday.”

“Bandits?” Bennet shook his head.

“Yeah, real nasty lot too. They’re holed up to the west, over the river and up by the caves.”

“—Oh, that reminds me, before Nemesis became our top priority, there were stories circulating about a man-eating monster somewhere down that very river.”

“WHAT?!” exclaimed Sylisa in absolute shock. “W-Wait. They don’t really eat people, do they? Like, we’re not their food, right?”

Bennet gave her a puzzled look. “How’d you get all the way out here without knowing that?”

“You’re lying. This has to be some sort of sick joke!” Sylisa recoiled and picked up Nia, holding her defensively in her trembling arms.

Nia squeaked in a high pitch, unsure if she was in trouble.

“They don’t eat people!” insisted Sylisa. “It doesn’t work like that!”

“Whoa, whoa, take it easy now,” said Bennet. “It’s not like it happens here in town. But out in the wild, yeah, anything’s possible.”

“No they don’t… They do that! They treat people well and don’t let harm come to them when we capture them. They’re supposed to be our guardians! Our loyal protectors!”

“You come from a sheltered household? Cause you’re starting to not make a whole lot of sense. They’re like animals out in the wild. They think, react, and behave in ways that have nothing to do with people.”

Sylisa thought she was seeing stars. “How…?” she asked dizzily while clutching tight onto Nia’s soft mink fur like she was a therapy pillow. “They’re only pets…our pets.”

“For God’s sake, pull yourself together!” implored Bennet. “You’re starting to worry me. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Not all are gonna kill and eat you. But many won’t hesitate to if you aren’t careful.”

“…!” Sylisa gasped.

“I’m sorry,” Bennet said realizing what he had said was somewhat morbid. “There’s a reason why having your own partner is so important,” he said speaking more sympathetically. “Can’t be on your own, otherwise it’s rules of nature. And people just aren’t equipped with fangs, claws, and powers. That’s the stone cold truth.”

Nia squirmed in Sylisa’s arms and purred. Sylisa’s thoughts felt a million miles away from her body. The world she knew so well had been exposed as a falsehood. Everything she had been told was a great big lie. Her body was shaking. The only thing that kept her from breaking down in tears right there on the spot was the little Pokémon in her arms.

“They can become your friends though, they’ll look out for the humans they bond with like their own family. If they love you, they’ll protect you from those who would do you harm with their own lives.”

Sylisa tried to not sob or show emotion, yet what she learned rattled her up inside. The world she knew was gone. She wanted nothing more than to just head back to Unova to curl up with Weavile in their relatively safe little studio apartment. In all her missions as a thief with the Shadows, stealing never carried such morose consequences. Getting caught was one thing, but being eaten alive just for being a human made her feel incredibly upset inside. But then she quickly started to sober up as guilt flooded her mind. I might have killed York by shoving him in that river! This feeling…! It’s happening to me all over again!

“You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Tell me what you know about the man-eater living in the river.”

“Strange stuff that. Code name: Orcus, Devourer class. It started feeding on human flesh about a month and a half ago. After someone from town went missing, maybe its first meal? Orcus is surrounded by a white mist of water from the river, which makes it difficult to see even on a clear day. It’s got a long body, some kind of serpent. Obviously, it has developed a taste for humans. However, the Pokémon’s a picky sort. Only eats men for some reason,” said Bennet with a confused expression, “isn’t that weird?”

It didn’t make Sylisa feel much better. “Has it had the chance to prey on women?”

“No one’s gotten close enough to find out. We’re not sure if it’s related to the Dragon, but it might be a good place to start. Besides, as a girl, you’ll be fine. Ahem! I mean, it might still be dangerous, but you need to acquire that lure of yours so we can effectively bait the Dragon.”

“Right. I have to go back there anyway.” I can’t be responsible for another death. I won’t let that happen. Not again. I can’t bear the regret. Buizel and York better be okay.

“You sure you’re able to handle this? You’re in a rush suddenly. I do make my coffee extra strong. Heh heh.”

“I don’t have much time. Bennet, can we get there quickly?”

“Yeah, I’ll hook you up. However, I don’t want to send you out there by yourself. Hmm… Only a few Pokémon around, they’re all especially winded from yesterday. I could see if one of our newer members could lend you a hand—”

“—That’s good enough for me,” she quickly interjected.

“Figured you’d say that. Once you get something in that head of yours you don’t know the meaning of the word quit, do you?”

“Been told it runs in my family. Need to deal with Fighting types and the wild Rock types with energy attacks.”

“Perfect, I’ll send you out with Daphne.”

“Daphne? Is that a plant or some sorta naiad?” she asked cynically.

“She’s the other rookie. Code name: Blossom Gale. Curator, that’s Venus, a Special Defense focused class. Be warned, she’s a bit of a, what’s the word, distant at first but warms up once you get to know her.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t care about her deal. I’m taking the assignment.”

“I’ll brief her over the guild radio. You go on ahead, she’ll know you’re coming. Head toward the market square if she’s not around here in the building. I’ll have her meet you over by the flower shop.” He sat down at the Com. Terminal’s pilot seat and put on a headset. “She’s got a good partner to help you out. You’ll work well together if you remember the importance of teamwork, balancing attack with defense.”

“Whatever. You let her know Nia’s no slouch,” said Sylisa crossing her arms. “C’mon, Nia, let’s hit the road!”

“Oh boy.” Bennet sighed, muttering something along the lines of, “Why do I get the feeling this is a bad idea?”

Chapter Text

“Partnering us with a girl named Daphne for our first mission.” Sylisa walked towards the old saloon serving as the guild’s front. “What do you think, Nia?”

Nia mewed indifferently. She leapt up on the wooden railing, scurrying next to Sylisa.

“I guess you’re right. It doesn’t matter.”

As Sylisa and Nia approached the front doors of the bar, a young woman came rushing in with a stack of papers in her hands.  

Realizing the brunette was not looking where she was walking, her bronze eyes focused on the documents in her hands, Sylisa called out before a collision, “Oh, hi, are you Daphne?”

“N-No,” said the woman, adjusting her dark-framed glasses on her narrow nose. 

Behind her, a Tranquill, with a scroll held in one of his talons flew above the swinging doors of the saloon and a Nidorino holding a girly pen decorated with a pink feather in its mouth scampered in below the wooden doors. 

“Oh,” said Sylisa, moving out of their way.

Tranquill landed on her shoulder, near the woman’s cream color turtleneck under a woolly brown business jacket with a subtle plaid pattern.  “Please, excuse us.”

“Wait, what’s your name?”

“Je…Jennifer Rees,” she answered, her meek and shy voice barely audible. “But please, I’m just a local reporter. A nobody, really.”

She’s a little on the weird side, Sylisa thought. Maybe she has trouble meeting new people? “Oh! I like your Nidorino, that’s a cute feathery pen he’s got,” she said trying to make the situation less awkward.

“Umm, actually, she’s a Nidorina,” she explained, hugging her papers close to her chest.

“Ooops, sorry!” said Sylisa as the Nidorina growled. “Aren’t Nidorina blue though? This one is purple!”

“Don’t apologize. We get that a lot,” said Jennifer.  Nidorina sat restlessly next to her dark black pants.  “Um. By the way, have you seen Bennet? I need to talk to him. It’s urgent.”

“Oh yeah, he’s in the back working on the Com. Terminal.” Sylisa pointed with her thumb.

Without delay, Jennifer rushed to the right of Sylisa and toward the back of the tavern. Her Tranquill and Nidorina followed close behind.

“Not even a goodbye,” muttered Sylisa. A sly smile came to her. “I wonder if she’s who Bennet was staying up all night for. She had a pretty face, maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

Nia wailed, her feathers drooping on the wooden floor.

“Aw, don’t feel bad that they brushed you off,” Sylisa told her. “They were a weird bunch, that’s for sure.”

Nia meowed in a content manner.  “So are we.”

Together Sylisa and Nia left the main hall and went outside. They walked down the city’s narrow cobble stone street snaking around and down the mountainside. Nia happily raced about out in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air. Despite the chilly morning, it had turned into a beautiful day.

Nia edged close to Sylisa and snorted. “Where we going?”

Sylisa said, “We’re supposed to meet at the marketplace by the city gates ‘cause Daphne wasn’t at the tavern. By the flower shop. Just so happens to be where we broke in to the general goods store late last night. Talk about a cliché, returning to the scene of the crime.”

Nia shot her a cold glare, she had become the scapegoat for the two of them.

Sylisa could understand her frustration. “Sorry, Nia. It was unfair to you,” she said, “I did the best I could to keep us from getting locked up or worse. At least those guards with the Golurk didn’t take your claws away. Not only would that’ve hurt, you’d be useless!”

Nia didn’t like hearing that, she buried her head in one of Sylisa’s coattails, wrapping the narrow cloth around her eyes.

Ignoring pity, Sylisa gave her a stern glare. “Hey, c’mon, that’s not like you. You’re cute enough where the deception worked. I like that about you, Nia.”

Nia squealed, her embarrassed face hiding under the fabric.

Not far ahead, the outdoor marketplace had been bustling with activity with all the stores. There were people trading with merchants under colored tents and awnings waving in the pleasant breeze. By the far market stall to the right of the general goods store, right where she had hidden from Lairon, Sylisa saw a group of people. In the center of the crowd behind a counter decorated with all sorts of colorful flowers, a bright white sun umbrella stood out.

“Who’s that short blonde with the big sunbrella? Are those real flowers in her hair?  How gaudy,” supposed Sylisa.

The blonde twirled around, her dress a mixture of cloudy white and sky blue – as frilly and flashy as her parasol. Lace, bows, and ribbons made her look very much like a porcelain doll. As she bopped around the flower stall, her milky-colored shoes with two straps running up her legs around her stockings, clapped like those of a dancer.

“—Why not? C’mon, I’ll never hear the end of it!” complained one of the patrons, a man wearing a beige collared shirt and a matching pair of leisure shorts. By his side stood a burly Granbull with a disinterested expression on his chubby face.

“I’m so sorry for your heavyheartedness,” said a serene girl’s voice from under the white parasol, “but, unfortunately, we’re closing early today.”

“Daphne, you can’t do this to a guy in need! I’m relying on you,” insisted the man next to the hefty Granbull.

Granbull appeared less than interested in what the man wearing flashy sunglasses was saying. He crossed his arms, his broad stance that of a grumpy bodyguard, while series of aggressive grunts and whimpers sputtered from between his tusks.

“Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned, or so they say,” said Daphne, adjusting the straps on her top, which resembled a white and blue petal tulip wrapped around her torso. “Hm. Hm. Lovely. Which is why you shall tell your beautiful, on-in-a-million sweetheart you ordered a very special bouquet, just for her.”

“What?” exclaimed the man, his brown hair disheveled by the breeze.

Daphne extended her arm to the man.  Dangling from the lacy straps on Daphne’s pasty shoulders, leafy garlands bellow the elbows of her cerulean sleeves drooped onto the countertop.  In between her gentle fingers, she held a strange azure rose.

Granbull let out an undulating howl.

The man recoiled. “This is—!”

Daphne drew the blue rose back to her bosom. Twirling her brolly in her other hand she went on to say, “I’ll be sure to collect some exquisite flowers with Rapunzel while we’re on our mission today. Mmhm! Rare, mmm – Exotic! – forms. Mysterious varieties you won’t find lingering around the shop.”

The man and Granbull watched her closely as she pranced around her stall rambunctiously.

Daphne gestured with her paroral in the general direction of Sylisa. “What better place to encounter a peculiar sort of flower, than out in the desert? You understand?”

“Ah!” The man wearing shades nodded. “I see. Very good. I’ll leave it to you.”

Daphne giggled. “But before you go, a free sample for being so patient!”

A small Roselia blending in with the vases of flowers on the counter suddenly puffed a cloud of purple fragrance from her hands, shaped like roses, straight into the face of the man.

“Whaa!” Suddenly, he didn’t look sad. In fact, his glum face began to smile. His tense posture relaxed, his shoulders slumped, and his knees gave a slight wobble.

“There, there, Edmund,” said Daphne from under her sunbrella as she rubbed her Roselia’s dew-covered forehead. “Please do not trouble your heart any longer. The striking bouquet I assemble shall be every bit as wonderful as this indulging aroma. Yes, it shall be spectacular, chimerical, romantic, and MAR-VEL-OUS all at once! She’ll be swooned, overwhelmed, starry-eyed in wonder at the breadth of your love for her! And moreover… You’ll be sure to find yourself back in her good favor by demonstrating such gentlemanly generousness!”

“You…you’d do that? After all you’ve been put through?” Edmund looked like he was about to collapse, his resolve overcome by the sickly-sweet cloud of Roselia’s fragrance. All his concerns evaporated and he was no longer worried at all. “Daphne…you’re—!”

“—An angel from heaven?” answered Daphne from under her shade with a cherubic chuckle. “Oohoho, yes, I know, I know.”

“I hate her already, Nia.” Sylisa crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Manipulating people’s minds with plants is the work of a witch,” she whispered to her friend.

“You’re beyond words, Daphne! How can I ever thank you for your assistance?” asked Edmund, smiling with a relaxed, toothy grin.

Granbull, rattled by what had happened, made profuse grumbling noises and stomped his feet.

“I’m sure I’ll think of something in return,” said Daphne. “What you’re asking for is my specialty. I’m simply the best when it comes to winning over everyone’s hearts!”

“I’m convinced,” replied Edmund.

Daphne, wearing a victorious grin, twirled her parasol, and took a long sigh. “Ahhh… It’s my angelic aroma.”

“Pfft,” huffed Sylisa. “No wonder that guard’s Pokémon smelled something suspicious around here last night, her rose practically has its own atmosphere!”

Waving to Edmund and Granbull Daphne said, “Hurry along now! Don’t delay, you must tell her!”

“I’ll be sure to. Thank you again, Daphne! You really are a gift from heaven!” said Edmund, stepping away from the counter and turning to Granbull. “C’mon, Grim, we’ve got great news to tell Allie!”

Grim’s grumbling and grunting had become so loud and rolling he had to take a deep breath. He followed the cheerful Edmund at a distance with a very weary expression between his two tusks.

Seeing her chance, Sylisa walked up to the flower stall to introduce herself. Her boots treading over fallen leaves near the boutique created a conspicuous rustling.

“Oh my!” said Daphne from under her white parasol. In a mature cadence, she spoke, “An acrimonious shadow sinisterly approaches! With hair as dark as a starless night! Her avaricious heart flutters with the same acquisitiveness hidden deep within her golden eyes!”

“You’re from the guild right?” Sylisa tried to get a better look at her. She’s not from around here either, she has blue eyes.

“Ah! That I am!” exclaimed the girl with a smile of pearly whites. “Daphne Abagail Gates! To whom do I owe the pleasure?”

“…” Sylisa did not answer. What name should I use?

“Humph! How rude!” Daphne formed a sour pucker on her pink rose lips. “A cruel thing indeed for you to demand my name without offering the same courtesy. My, my. Such insolent boorishness! Have you no manners? No respect for the fundamental virtues of civilized interaction?”

“I uhh…” mumbled Sylisa. She can’t be older than me, but why do I feel like she’s more mature? She dresses like a child! Could easily pass for eighteen if she weren’t wearing that ridiculous doll outfit.

“Come now, speak up! It’s harmless to share your name, is it not?” said Daphne, waving her hand expectantly. “Oh! Unless you’ll fall over dead if you tell me. Wouldn’t that be something awful!”

The other people around started murmuring to each other.

“Who’s that sullen girl talking to Daphne?” asked a brawny man with a chubby Makuhita next to him.

“She looks dangerous,” said a young woman.

“Why are her eyes yellow, mommy?” asked a cute little girl. “And the back of her hair is sunny too!”

A middle-age woman quickly pulled on the little girl’s delicate arm. “Stay back sugarplum, that lil’ devil with her looks dangerous.”

“Wait a minute,” exclaimed another man, “isn’t that the clawed crook that got caught stealing cereal from Jones’ shop!?”

Sylisa, suddenly feeling shy from all the onlooker’s attention, lowered her voice and leaned close to Daphne. She gagged, her perfume was way too strong. “I’m with the guild,” she said almost mutely, trying not to choke from inhaling Daphne’s floral fragrance. “Just joined.”

“OH! HA HA!” Daphne had a truly boisterous laugh which belied her diminutive frame.

Sylisa pulled away.

Daphne in turn, raised her voice even louder for all to hear, “YOU MUST BE MISFORTUNE!”

“Keep it down…!” Sylisa hushed urgently. “Not so loud…! Not good with crowds…!”

“What’s that? Louder? We’re on stage, all the world’s a stage, my dear!”

“S-Stop it!”

Despite Sylisa’s pleas, Daphne was on a roll. “Heavens! You certainly look the part of calamity: gloomy, glum, dressed in all black on such a pretty day! My, my, you’re a miniature storm cloud.”

She looked down at her dark clothes, feeling self-conscious in front of the large crowd. “Q-Quit making fun of me in front of people!” she demanded.

“How could I possibly make fun of “you”?” asked Daphne. She spoke innocently at first, but as she spoke her voice grew in steady crescendo. ““You” are an unidentified Shade who never gave me her name. You know, they say a name is the sweetest sound to a person’s ears, but you seem to be lacking mellifluousness altogether.”

Daphne, in an aggressive gait, rushed up to Sylisa.  Sylisa had no time to react to her sudden advance and suddenly she was right in her face.

Closing her eyes, Daphne sniffed the air.  “Hmm …A trace of muskiness, as one would expect from a cave. There’s a perturbing aroma about you, it certainly isn’t floral. Perhaps, paradoxically given your sobriquet, you ARE fortunate to have arrived at my perfume emporium!”

The people nearby started laughing. Nia covered her face out of embarrassment for Sylisa.

“…!” Sylisa’s pale cheeks turned beet red. I didn’t think she’d be this much of a bitch, she thought unable to come up with a response. The laughter continued all around her. No! This feeling! It’s worse than my stage fright I could never get over!

“Anyway, it’s not like I care who you are!” Daphne crooned in an overly-dramatic sing-song, “TRA-LA-LA, let us be on our mission, like canorous Nightingales, my dear undertaker!”

“Wait, I’m not an underta—” Sylisa started to reply, but by now the jeers coming from around her were simply too much.

“Misfortune, do hurry up,” chided Daphne as she waltzed from the shop, dancing past people and Pokémon with hasty aplomb. “If there’s one thing I cannot stand – besides no-good, double-crossing psychics – it’s belatedness!”

“Hold on!” Sylisa yelled racing after her with Nia in tow. “Stop bossing me around!”

“Hmm?” Daphne deftly spun around on her cream-colored shoe’s heel. With inhuman quickness, she snapped closed her parasol and pointed it like a lance directly at Sylisa who had been rushing after her, poking her right in the chest.

“OUCH!” Sylisa shouted in pain. “That hurt, you brat! What the hell is that thing made of?!”

“You joined this morning, didn’t you?” said Daphne, raising her umbrella from in-between Sylisa’s breasts to under her chin. “That would mean you are MY junior. And I will not tolerate insubordination.”

“Fuhgeddaboudit!” said Sylisa, angrily swatting the umbrella’s top away. “I’m not working with you. And neither is Nia!”

“Is that so?” Daphne spoke with a weight of authority that did not befit her diminutive frame at all. “Has the mere derisiveness of onlookers to my facetious performance truly broken your spirit? Has my discursiveness utterly shattered your soul? Ahh! Ohh!” She gasped and flourished theatrically. “To know that it is I, nay, my innocuousness, which has brought about such misfortune to Misfortune herself!”

“Quit your yattering with big words and go back to selling stinkin’ flowers to losers,” said Sylisa. “C’mon Nia, we’re getting out of here!” Nia did not respond with so much of a purr however. “Huh? Nia?”

To her surprise, Nia had coiled up near the vibrant flowers of Daphne’s Roselia. Like Daphne, her rose exhibited a similar haughtiness, her conceit smirk fixed on a captured Nia.  She rubbed her leaves and petals together to create a pleasing hum.

“Enraptured by beauty, compelled by splendor, the little imp is captivated by the marvel of my darling Rapunzel!” said Daphne. With a flick of her wrist she pointed her parasol back at Sylisa like a baton. “And you, my icy shadow, have the gall to complain that my profession is incommodious!”

“You gotta be kidding! Nia! What are you doing?!”

“Oh my, oh my, what does it look like, sweetie?” Daphne trotted over to the two Pokémon, her frilly white skirt swaying with her buoyant stride. With an elegant curtsy, Daphne pet Nia on the head.

Nia purred softly and nuzzled closer to Roselia. Judging by her glossy eyes, she was on another plane while inhaling her scent straight from the source of the petals.

“Nia, stop foolin’ around!” barked Sylisa.

“She’s not the fool here,” whispered Daphne, mollycoddling the back of Nia’s neck, “that privileged honor would belong to a conspicuous shadow of mine unable to grasp the patrician pleasures of aromatherapy.”

“Nugh!” Sylisa couldn’t even find words since she was so angry. Daphne had insulted her, but the worst part about it was how effortlessly she controlled her emotions. Not to mention her partner in crime, Nia.

Nia’s head buried into the sweet flowers.

“NIA!”

Blushing from all the attention, the rose tugged away, but Nia was very insistent on staying close.

“I didn’t expect a little thief to be so adorable,” said Daphne, rubbing the intoxicated-looking Nia on the belly.

“Huh?” Sylisa asked in bewilderment, “How do you know Nia’s a thief?”

“Truth be told, I didn’t. I merely had my suspicions based on what the commoners recently said.” Daphne pertly smirked. “But now I know for sure, don’t I?”

“Guh! You’re much sneakier than I gave you credit for. You got the wrong idea, Nia was hungry!”

“Oh, pishposh, aren’t we all, Misfortune?” Daphne through her aloofness reasoned, “Nevertheless, just because one’s belly tells them to do something doesn’t mean we should listen to it and steal something of value from others. Would make us no better than the beast we’ve been assigned to subdue.”

“You’re REALLY pissing me off!” Sylisa fumed. “All you do is make assumptions! Nia was only eating cereal, not humans! Big difference!”

“Ahem! So then, the mission. We’re to investigate a certain man-eater, are we not? A much more, mmm, villainous food-thief, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah. We have to hurry because—” Sylisa paused, she did not want Daphne to know that York might be in grave danger due to her recklessness when she shoved him into the river to lose him. “Erm… uhh…”

“Hmm? Cat got your tongue?” Daphne asked.

“No.” Sylisa shook her head, her hair bouncing on her shoulders. “I’m feelin’ antsy, t’is all. Don’t want to lose my nerve. Capiche?”

“Bravado, is it?” Daphne gave her a judgmental glare. “I should have known.”

“My first mission,” said Sylisa, “it’s that simple. Don’t overthink it.”

“Very well!” Daphne hummed airily. She spun around, springing along down the dusty path leading out of the town. A wake of fragrance from the flowers in her hair followed her, stimulated by her movements. Roselia and charmed Nia trailed her buoyant footsteps as obedient entourages.

“I can’t believe she stole Nia from ME.” Sylisa begrudgingly shadowed at a distance thinking, It’s impossible to tell if she’s serious or not. She hides under that stupid sunbrella. Can’t get a good read on her. What lousy luck to get partnered with her.

“Ah ha, look who we have here! My two favorite identical twins!” said Daphne, frolicking over to the city gates and approaching two tall guys waiting near the open gates by the stone bridge.

“They look like lumberjacks,” muttered Sylisa.

The twins had the same reddish-brown hair and brownish-hazel eyes, with shallow, tanned faces and bristly beards. Next to them were two Pokémon, on one side a strong, sturdy looking Carracosta and on the other an agile, floating Drifblim. Carracosta wore a helmet made of rock. Drifblim had been carrying something judging from the ropes tied up near its base.

“Blossom Gale, reporting for duty!” said Daphne, running up to them with a fresh smile. “And this bleary gloominess tagging along is Misfortune!”

“Hi!” said one of the twins. He had more freckles on his face and nose than his brother. “You’re the girl Bennet was talkin’ bout? Fortune’s Rift, was it?”

Sylisa felt relieved to be called that goofy name after the relentless hounding Daphne had given her new nickname. She nodded quietly.

“Nice ta’ meet ya’. Name’s Dale, and this is my lil’bro, Marvin.”

Lil’bro, thought Sylisa. The same name I gave Ted, my briefly adopted friend. Her remorse caused her mind to travel somewhere distant while Dale continued to speak.

“We help out guild members with their jobs,” Dale explained, “me ‘n Marv handle acquisitions.”

“She prefers tiny words,” interjected Daphne. She turned to Sylisa with a hand on her hip, as if she were speaking to a child. “If you need something special for a mission these two fellows make sure you get it! Simple, right?”

“I know what acquisitions means!” retorted Sylisa, bitterly snapping back to reality. How embarrassing. I’ve gotta stop checking out like that.

“My, my. Your vocabulary is growing like a fertile bed of marigolds!” teased Daphne. “Impressive. Must be my nurturing influence. The next phase to make you more sophisticated like myself is to use my signature perfume! Mmm, I can see it now. You’ll be oohing and ahhing like a refined princess, charmed by the flowery trance of an evanescent ecstasy. “Daphne,” you’ll say tenderly inhaling my special fragrance, “please teach me the blissful delights of enamor for all things beautiful!” To which I shall reply with aromatic vim, “All in due time, my Black Rose!””

“What. A. Freak.” Sylisa chose to ignore her. There’s no winning an argument with this one, she thought with arms crossed.

Dale sniggered, and Marv hid a smile.

Sylisa pointed at the big eggplant colored Pokémon hovering off the ground and asked, “Who’s he?”

Dale gave Drifblim a pat and uncoiled the rope tied to his tendrils. “This is my business partner, Drifblim. We call him the Big Daddy. Ol’ Daddy-o swoops down when he goes out late in the evening and gets hold of all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t believe. The desert is loaded with cool things adventurers leave behind.”

“You’re saying you salvage stuff from guild members who didn’t make it in the desert!” she asked.

“Whoa, whoa, easy does it.” Dale defensively put his hands up in the air. “I ain’t saying anything requiring testimony, if you catch my drift. Sure, some of the stuff we find might’ve been…you know… abandoned. Don’t sweat the details. All you need to know is that if you need stuff then we’ll supply you.”

“I don’t trust this one bit.” Even the Shadows, assassins, never went after their own for salvage, considered Sylisa.

“What’s on your mind?” asked Dale.

“You woulda thought their jank equipment is why they failed,” said Sylisa, “I don’t feel like winding up like the last schmucks to use whatever stuff you’re recycling.”

“Yeah, that’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.” Dale smiled. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” asked Sylisa.

Daphne predictably chimed in. “Honestly, Misfortune, have you been listening at all to the man or are you still daydreaming about my lovely plans for you? It’s all rather simple: If you don’t want to wind up in a position where your belongings are recycled for the next adventurer who comes around the block, YOU must make it back in one piece! Understand? It’s all up to Y-O-U! And Nia too.”

Dale nodded. “Right on. Blossom’s spot on the money.”

“I always am!” said Daphne, flourishing cutely. Roselia acted in kind. “Besides, you have me and Rapunzel by your side!”

“Great,” said Sylisa, “so not only are we using questionable hand-me-downs, but if by some bad luck we don’t make it back, we’ll get written off as salvage sources for Big Daddy Drifblim?”

Dale gave a nervous laugh. “Ah ha haa…ha. Geez, this girl’s sense of humor is raw,” he said anxiously scratching the back of his neck.

“Tell me about it.” Daphne let out an exacerbated sigh. “She’s a comedy routine.”

“Excuse me.” Sylisa pouted. “I’m not from around here.”

“Me neither!” said Daphne. “But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to be rude to our suppliers!”

“Naw, I ain’t takin’ offense. It’s a rough world out on the frontier,” Dale explained to Sylisa. “Sol de Lune is a nice pocket of sanity and peace, but step away from civilization out there it gets ugly real fast. Faster than an Unburdened Drifblim. That’s for sure.”

Marvin gave a mute nod. Carracosta let out a low grumble to agree.

Those quiet two are a little unusual, thought Sylisa. She looked back over at Dale and Drifblim to ask, “So what exactly did you…acquiesce?”

“You mean “acquire”, dearie,” Daphne pointed out, snobbishly correcting her.

“Glad you asked. Wait until you see this!” said Dale. He went over to a plastic tarp. Carracosta followed him. With a slash using his fins, Carracosta undid the tarpaulin covering a dune buggy.

“Whoa! Drifblim could carry that!?”

“TA-DA!” exclaimed Dale. “A Desert Patrol Vehicle! A DPV! Gosh, I love these things. Ain’t nothing in the world like flying through the desert cooled by the open air whipping by. This one’s not in terrible shape either, looks like she’ll maybe, possibly, probably run!”

Sylisa inspected it with a grimace, half-expecting to find the sun-bleached skeletal remnants of the DPV’s former owner still sitting in the driver’s seat. The passenger compartment was more like an open cage with a windshield attached as an afterthought. The metal bars where the headlamps were housed were very worn down. Even the bull bars in the front had tumbleweeds stuck in between their rusty tubes. “Um. Don’t know much about automobiles. Dad sold his collection before I learned how to drive. But I can tell this is a piece of junk. Look at this frame, the suspension’s ready to buckle, these giant four wheels are probably the nicest lookin’ parts.”

“Those big wheels will getcha just about anywhere,” said Dale. “Um, provided she runs. Hey, uhh, Marv, that’s your cue.”

Marvin quietly walked up to the DPV and gave Carracosta a hand gesture. The Pokémon responded in kind, and then rolled underneath the DPV’s frame to help prop it up using his heavy-duty shell as a lift. Marvin quickly slid under the engine and got to work on something having to do with the vehicle’s main drive transmission. Sylisa couldn’t be sure what he was doing, she didn’t know very much about mechanics or cars. There were a few gears and belts scattered about near Marvin’s toolkit so she assumed it had to do with the DPV’s gearbox.

“Ahem!” coughed Daphne, starved for attention since everyone had been focusing on the DPV and not her. “This mission has my poor heart worried sick as can be! For shame! My signature joyousness has been stifled! No thanks to the dreadful risks we must face together over yonder creek. Specifically, MAN eating monsters! Heavens, despite being of the fairer sex, the thought of such persnickety beasts when it comes to human food engenders ample distress at the outrageous absurdity of it all!” She then lowered her chirpy voice just enough to murmur within Sylisa’s earshot, “It doesn’t help being partnered with the embodiment of doomful pessimism herself.”

Sylisa groaned. “Do you EVER shut up?”

“Ahh! Such impertinence!” gasped Daphne. “I’m gravely wounded by your crass words, my unpleasant Shade!”

“Tch. Look who’s talking. You’re always in the shade under that dumb umbrella!” Sylisa snapped back. “Quit being a hypocrite.”

Glowering, Daphne flippantly twirled her paroral over her shoulder. “My gorgeously fair complexion demands such sacrifices!” she said. “And you should consider applying my signature Aloe Vera to those painful sunburns on your arms.”

“Ladies,” Marvin finally spoke up. His was a low voice, but he had been so quiet up until now it surprised everyone. He rolled out from underneath the vehicle. Carracosta turned on his side and let the vehicle back down on its big wheels. Marvin stepped up to the helm and turned the key. Nothing. He tried it again. Nothing. Then Carracosta smacked the base of the steering wheel with a blunt blow from the side of his fin and the machine hummed to life. “Your chariot awaits,” he said over the motor’s steady hum.

Chapter Text

“Onward we ride!” cheered Daphne, seating herself comfortably in the patrol vehicle’s passenger side. Her Roselia, Rapunzel, leapt onto Daphne’s lap with a bubbly bounce. Nia, still captivated by the lovely scent of flowers on Rapunzel, curled up warmly near Daphne’s hip on the seat. Daphne smirked haughtily, closed her frilly white parasol with a snap and pointed its tip at Sylisa. “Ah-ah, my dear shadow, it is high time you assume your chauffeur duties! Chop-chop!”

“Don’t “chop-chop” me!” Wearing a grimace on her pale face underneath her messy bangs, Sylisa exclaimed, “I’m not your dang taxicab!”

“Pardon my insolence,” Daphne replied, waving her closed sunbrella like a Braixen’s wand. “However, you cannot expect a lady to operate such a coarse piece of machinery through the desert.”

“What the hell are you implying?” Sylisa growled with plain ire in her golden eyes.

“Please, perish the thought, ehehe!” Daphne chuckled as she rubbed Rapunzel’s green leaves. “Be reasonable. How could I possibly steer with these two delightful darlings resting so comfortably upon my lap?”

“I wouldn’t want a ditz like you in charge anyway,” mumbled Sylisa. Wearing a grimace, she inspected the slightly corroded contraption, noting the shift lever. A quad with manual transmission. Learned to drive with a clutch that time I flew in to Icirrus City and all they had to rent was a manual. “I can handle it,” she said, her fingers gripping the worn wheel tightly.

“Nya…” Nia gave a pleased purr as Daphne coddled her with a happy smile. Rapunzel also gave a content nod.

Glowering, Sylisa looked helplessly at her spellbound Pokémon. “Better hold on to something that isn’t Nia,” she grumbled to Daphne. She turned to see Dale, Drifblim, Marvin, and Carracosta waving goodbye from the city’s gates. The engine roared as the vehicle took off heading west.

“And so we set off!” said the pampered little princess with a grin. “On wings of wheels, with the thunderous howl of an Exploud! An angel of blossoms and her misfortunate sidekick together make way to solve a great mystery! Was it fate that crossed the threads of our paths? Will my beatific providence counteract the shadowy murk at my side?”

Sylisa griped, “The engine isn’t loud enough.” She did her best to focus on controlling the swift DPV instead of being distracted by Daphne’s larks. The route back to the caves over the river is a straight run across level ground, Sylisa thought, I walked the distance yesterday while dehydrated and it took almost two hours. With a DPV souped-up to meet racing speeds of a Ponyta, the journey will probably take twenty minutes. Then we need to find the man-eater lurking downstream. I hope that detective and his Buizel are okay…

“You suuure you know the way?”

Sylisa nodded her head calmly and explained, “I came from this way yesterday. Not a moron. I know the route.”

“Thank goodness! Don’t go falling into any Trapinch pits!” warned Daphne. She scooped up Rapunzel and held her close against her bouncy bosom. “Phew. It’s so very hot, but this breeze feels fine. I must be careful Rapunzel is not to suffer windburns.”

“Why don’t you keep her in a ball then?” said Sylisa.

“Hm?” Daphne tilted her head.

“Never mind.” Don’t have time for this nonsense.

“Say,” said Daphne, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

“Don’t like the sound of that.”

“Oh, quit being so abrasive. It’s just a question. Nevertheless, a philosophical one.”

Sylisa shook her head. “I don’t do that. Boring and doesn’t mean crap at the end of the day.”

Daphne cupped her hands around her mouth. “What a bore!” However, she then said quite seriously, “Still, even a Shade like you must have an opinion of her own.”

“A Shade?” Like that Kirlia with the gold ribbon said! “Why the hell you callin’ me that?” demanded Sylisa.

“Force of habit,” chirped Daphne. She smiled brightly and waved her hand dismissively. “Besides, you’re dressed just like a shadow!” Her excessively cheerful demeanor evaporated as she placed a hand on Nia’s head and said, “But you know, you can prove you’re more than that. I’m open to hearing what you think.”

“Why would I care what you think?”

“You’re pricklier than I thought you’d be,” puffed Daphne.

“Yeah, you’d be too if someone got your best friend sozzled.”

Daphne slumped her shoulders, and coddled the two Pokémon. “I’ll just ask: Why do flowers flourish in harsh places?”

“Don’t care. Why do orange lizards spit fireballs?” she remarked, thinking of Charizard.

“Mmm, good point. Plants are versatile too. They’ll adapt and alter their form based on the environment they live in. A lot of animals do that. Even humans change how they look and behave to suit a situation. I’ve always found flowers which manage to overcome a harsh, inhospitable land are especially beautiful when they succeed. They’ve got character acquired through perseverance. Some of them are helped along the way. Whoever helps make the flowers beautiful in their environment are the unsung heroes of something wonderful. That in itself is romantic.”

“Mhm. Shuuure.” Sylisa stared at the wide-open desert without really listening. Daphne’s voice reminded her of a radio talk-show host droning on the air. It was not long before she started rambling about when in the morning it is best to feed Roselia because of lower temperatures and less evaporation, how much water her Pokémon’s roots needed, the influence of bright sunlight and stress on Rapunzel, her growing season, etcetera.

“By applying fertilizer in the morning, there’s the benefit of cooler temperatures and reduced winds. Evenly spreading her nutrients throughout topsoil, I give her fresh well water, high in mineral content, so necessary elements reach the roots quickly and trigger absorption almost immediately. This helps her with the stress from midday heat, she’s much more receptive to absorbing the nutrients as they move down through the soil than when she’s busy with photosynthesis.”

Sylisa kept trying to tune her out unsuccessfully. The DPV had an exposed passenger cabin, so the wind was very loud as she sped along under clear blue skies. If Daphne opened her sunbrella, she might be carried away. Then I wouldn’t have to put up with her. The thought of this brought a spontaneous, girlish laugh as Sylisa imagined it. “Eehee.”

“What’s so funny?!” Daphne asked over the breeze.

Sylisa quickly put on a straight face. “Was just thinking: This sure beats walking. We’re almost to the river already.”

“Told you! You can count on Dale and Marv! The two of them are great.”

After traveling a fair distance in a short amount of time, familiar scenery consisting of a craggy cluster of hills on the other side of a rushing river, came into view.

“There are caves in the distance. Our priority is investigating downstream— Sylisa paused and considered the worst. If they got eaten I can’t let Daphne know it was my fault. Her slumped posture straightened up as she found her buried courage. No! It’s not going to turn out like that!

Daphne spoke up as the path adjacent to the river turned too narrow for the DPV to handle. “We should proceed on foot from here, Misfortune.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sylisa, making a swerve. She parked the vehicle in the shade, near a small pool of clear water by a sandbar with palms.

Daphne waved her hand up and through her hair, causing more of her strong, flowery perfume to waft through the air. “Your driving, mmm, a solid B.”

“I didn’t ask for your evaluation.” Sylisa agilely sprung out of the still vehicle, escaping the magnified Roselia scent in the process. “You gonna give back my friend anytime soon?” she asked concerning Nia.

“She’s such a sweet little rapscallion when enchanted by Rapunzel’s perfume!” Daphne chuckled.

“Enough already.” Sylisa tapped her foot impatiently on the ground. “You’re holding her hostage.”

“I can see why you like her.” Carrying Nia and Rapunzel like two little babies, Daphne exited the DPV as well. Once Daphne’s shoes were on the pebbly ground she squeezed Nia’s belly causing her to purr.

Sylisa looked up at the tall cliffs surrounding both sides of the river. “The river that flows through here used to be a lot deeper,” she said. “This isn’t safe.”

“Oh?”

“See for yourself.” Sylisa pointed. “Level lines along the cliff. Means the river once filled up the entire basin. Over the years, the water’s current carved out the sides of this sandstone cliff before it receded. The rock walls of these cliffs are weakened enough to pose a danger of landslides. This place is perfect for an ambush, cos there’s a group of bandits nearby. We need to keep our guard up.”

“My, Misfortune, you’re simply full of surprises. Hehe, I expected you to be well-versed in underhanded tactics, but your considerable knowledge of geology is a pleasant shock. I must concur with your judgment.” Daphne delicately said, “Rapunzel, darling, let Nia be.”

Her fragrance subsided and Nia groggily came back to her senses again. She looked up at Daphne’s close face with wide-eyed surprise. She groaned as though she had been roused from a pleasant dream. “What’s going on?” is what she seemed to say through her mewing.

“There, there little one,” said Daphne. She gently let Nia down on the ground. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from.”

“Hopefully not,” said Sylisa, gesturing to draw Nia away from Daphne. Once Nia was safely out of Daphne’s clutches, Sylisa asked, “What’s your angle anyway? Why’s a flower girl running bounty hunter missions for an adventure guild?”

“Oh! I thought you’d never ask!” Daphne smiled, her pearly teeth glimmered with sparkling glee. “Rapunzel and I joined this merry band of adventurers after we first arrived here in the desert from far away to the north. The two of us were rather desperate when we came to this strange place. It was all so unfamiliar, so foreign, and terribly worrisome. Even a little sad at times, I must admit. Luckily, we found a home at the Audernaut Guild and could even drum up business on the side. Say, since you asked a question, so now it’s my turn. Why did you join, Misfortune?”

“Why does it matter? Just here to get a job done,” said Sylisa. Her body cagily tensed up, she felt caught off-guard by her numerous similarities to Daphne. Could it be coincidence?

“Good grief!” Daphne exhaled. “You’d go so far and question a trivial request for your background. No less after asking the same of me. You won’t even tell me your name. How can I ever hope to trust you?”

“Truth is: You probably shouldn’t.” Sylisa thought, I didn’t come here to make friends. I’m a thief with dangerous associates. Need to get back in touch with the Shadows as soon as I can. Dammit. No doubt Charizard and his goons are searching for the treasure. This whole situation is messed up. My partner isn’t the same form. What happened to her?

“Aw, you’re giving me the cold shoulder. You’re so unfriendly,” muttered Daphne. “Brooding and conniving too. Boohoo! I divulged my inner secrets so carelessly to a total stranger. Have you no heart?”

“It’s not like I don’t have a heart.” Sylisa crossed her arms guardedly. “I’m new around here. Haven’t figured out who I can trust.”

“Honesty causes loyalty, silence suspicion. You can certainly trust me; this lovely lady wouldn’t tell you a lie,” said Daphne.

Sylisa flinched as Daphne squeezed and nudged her on the arm playfully. “Who ever mentioned anything about lying? How VERY suspicious of you to say that.”

“Would this pretty face tell you a lie?” Daphne began batting her eyelashes.

“You know, people who tell you they don’t lie are usually the biggest liars.”

“Aw, you’re way too cynical,” complained Daphne, “Lighten up, will you? I know you’re going for this cold-as-ice façade, but you could stand to be a little warmer to me since we’re working together as partners on this mission.”

“Yeah, doesn’t that worry you at all?” asked Sylisa, raising a brow.

“Hmm? What exactly are you implying about our relationship?” said Daphne with a confused look on her face.

“Isn’t it obvious? We’re both rookies sent out on a dangerous mission,” explained Sylisa, “we’re going after a man-eater with zero experience and next to no intel.” Ever since the botched heist I’ve been beyond worried. Sylisa’s body, especially her stomach, felt tense.

“Speak for yourself. You’re the new one here,” she said with a coy look. “That’s how things go out on the frontier. One minute you’re alive, the next you’re dead, toodle-oo! Are you afraid of a little danger? Some risk? Are you the type of girl who lets getting her feet a little wet scare you?”

“Not at all.” Sylisa shook her head. “On the contrary, I’m being cautious. We only got here because Drifblim salvaged another adventurer’s DPV. Let’s be real. Doesn’t the very nature of our throwaway employment concern you?”

“I see it as an opportunity. Therein lies the quintessential difference between us two—” Daphne pointed her parasol emphatically at Sylisa “—you are the pessimistic sort whereas I am overflowing with optimism! You seem all calm and collected, but I know the truth, you know.”

“W-What truth?” Sylisa questioned with sweaty palms from Daphne getting up very close to her. Something about her scent makes me feel weird. I don’t like it. It’s so pungently floral. It brings back weird memories every time I smell it.

“You’re obviously worried about something!” Daphne replied with a smug grin.

“Yeah right!” Sylisa scoffed. Sheesh. Didn’t expect her to be so blunt about it. I’m not only concerned for York and Buizel. I’m really worried about Nia too, why the heck did she de-evolve anyway? She’s not as strong as she once was, how’s she gonna be able to battle?

“If you keep making that glum face, it’ll get stuck like that, wrinkles and all!” teased Daphne. “Wouldn’t want your charms to be lost, Misfortune.”

“Will you quit it?” Sylisa bumped her away with her hip. “That’s not my name!”

“Touchy, touchy,” chided Daphne as she backed off and went next to Rapunzel. But then she and Rapunzel rushed close to Sylisa with the narrowing path. Shoulder to shoulder with Sylisa, Daphne leaned in uncomfortably close once more and supposed, “Come to think of it, I’ve never encountered someone with your type of portentous demeanor so bothered by a silly nickname. Say…does it have anything to do with why you’re here in the first place?”

Is she a damn psychic type? Sylisa wondered and swallowed dryly. She’s reading me like a book. I don’t get it. She’s the outgoing one, always babbling about herself, yet I still don’t know a single important thing about her.

“Humph! Fine, ignore me,” replied Daphne as she adjusted the fresh flowers in her long blonde hair, “I don’t really care, it’s not like I’m your friend or anything!”

Sylisa sniggered, and coughed to try cover it up. There it is, she thought, concealing a spontaneous smirk with her palm. I’ve been expecting her to say something like that ever since Bennet told me about her.

“What’s that simper all about?” Daphne asked without missing a beat. “Please, don’t tell me you don’t have any friends because you’re too cool!”

“That’s not it at all. Weav— ungh! — Nia is my friend,” she said rubbing her forehead from the headache.

Human friends,” Daphne emphasized. “A gloomy girl like you needs to have companionship. It’s good to have company in traveling and in life. It’ll make you feel better, guaranteed.”

“Nia’s good company,” insisted Sylisa.

“Hmm.” Daphne studied Nia, her suspicious glare unyielding.

Nia hissed. “Why’re you staring?”

“She doesn’t like the way you’re gawking,” Sylisa told Daphne.

“H-Hold on!” Her jaw dropped. “Can she… talk with you?”

“Not exactly. I get what she’s thinking. It’s been this way ever since we met. We’re always together, so we understand one another really well,” Sylisa explained. The weird thing is she devolved and I still understand her like the good old days. I don’t think she remembers being evolved though.

“Really? You can understand that!? All I hear is purring, mewing, and hissing!”

“Words aren’t everything when it comes to communication—” Sylisa pointed at Daphne “—besides, you talk too much about a whole lot of nothing.”

Daphne rebuked with a predictable, “How rude!”

Meanwhile, Rapunzel and Nia skipped along together on the narrow rocky shoreline between the shallow part of the river and the steep cliff wall.

“Look there, the river is starting to get rough,” said Sylisa. “A thick fog is forming further downstream. We must be close to the place.”

“Thank you, Misfortune, for stating the blatantly obvious,” sneered Daphne.

Sylisa gave Daphne a mild shove on the shoulder. “Stop calling me that already!” she said, pressing two fingers to her forehead in irritation.

Nia growled from tension in the air.

“Better cross your fingers, or whatever you do so our target shows up,” suggested Daphne. “Oh! And maybe your toes too! That’s double — no wait, quadruple the luck if we both do it!”

“Crossing your fingers is pointless,” said Sylisa, “it won’t change anything if you’ve got bad luck following you around like a ‘mon.”

“Oh right, ahaha, look who I’m with!” Daphne laughed. “I’ve been wondering: Have you always been unlucky?”

“Some people are born with more luck than others,” said Sylisa, “and some people have all their luck taken from them. I’m in the second group.”

“Oooh, woooow, that’s like, sooooo dark and onerous!” Daphne sniggered.

“Shuddup.”

She grinned and poked Sylisa. “Why don’t you write a story about it?”

“Already got a blog online. It isn’t really a story. It’s a persona.” Haven’t updated since I was on that train. How long has it been? Two or three days? Haven’t gone this long without internet in my life. Better update my status ASAP or my peeps might get worried.

“A persona, huh?” Daphne rubbed the petals of a large lily in her hair as she thought. “Oh! I know, how about you call it “Misfortune’s Misfortune”? No, no!” She energetically rebounded, impetuously skipping along the trail. “Scratch that. Sounds too much like a double negative, which would imply good luck.”

“A-HEM!” Sylisa coughed. “You really won’t take a hint when someone doesn’t like being called something. Are you sadistic?”

“Mmm.” Daphne placed a fist under her chin and extended her pinky to look posh, as if she had been sipping a fine cup of tea. “Nope!”

“Somehow, I’m even less convinced,” sighed Sylisa. “I wouldn’t be so bothered by the nickname if bad luck wasn’t real.”

“Is that so?”

Something skittered nearby. The approaching sound of claws on rocks grew louder, and Sylisa realized she had jinxed herself. “You gotta be kidding!” she exclaimed, turning about.

Nia raised her claws as two Pokémon aggressively approached from behind. One came out from the water, and the other from the sandbar. They were both reptiles, though not very large, they had cunningly planned an ambush. A light tan colored Pokémon with dark set eyes slithered forward on all fours from the dry bank of the river. Another smaller Pokémon jumped out from the shallow water, standing upright on hind legs with wet blue scales glistening in the midday sun.

“Ooh wooow! Look at this dynamic duo!” said Daphne. Excitedly, she danced on the spot, swaying her hips as though she were performing on stage. “They’ve managed to corner us.”

“Why do you sound impressed?!” asked Sylisa. Her muscles tensed up, causing her to quiver. She held her trembling arms close against herself and walked back a few steps. “We got jumped!”

“They must be jealous of our own duet,” said Daphne as the two creatures approached Rapunzel and Nia. “I bet this Sandile and Totodile are partners. One by land, one by sea, together in har-mo-ny,” she sung.

“Now what?” Sylisa inched away as the two wild Pokémon opened their large jaws, revealing rows of razor sharp teeth. They started making clicking noises with their tongues, as if they were laughing together.

“I think they’re taunting us,” Daphne guessed with an intense look in her eyes. She threw open her parasol to her side. “Come, let’s teach them a lesson in pain!”

Rapunzel positioned herself to the right of Nia, staring down the amused Totodile with a flowery hand on her hip. She pointed at the blue alligator and let out a puff of pollen from her hand as if to identify the Totodile as her mark.

“Be careful, Nia,” said Sylisa. You don’t have the same strength you did before.

Nia put her back to Rapunzel as the Sandile circled around them, forming a pincer formation with Totodile. Surrounded and defenseless, Sylisa retreated further back, but soon hit a steep wall. Her heart started to race. Without her equipment and unable to escape, her only hope was relying on her Pokémon.

With a growl, Totodile moved in first. It dropped onto its belly and charged forward through the water like a torpedo. Hissing, Sandile also jumped forward, its darkened eyes narrowed and focused on its prey.

“Oh darling,” said Daphne, “it’s time for a lashing.”

Daphne’s Pokémon hopped and dug her roots into the earth. Sylisa saw them boring into it, kicking up loose gravel into a plowing path resembling the trail of a Diglett. Her two streams of vines traveled under the shallow water and erupted out underneath Totodile. They splashed water in every direction as they shot up like ferocious weeds, knocking the gator to the side and onto dry land. Totodile defensively covered its belly, bright red with lash marks from the whipping.

“Nia, watch out!” shouted Sylisa.

The Sandile flung a large glob of sandy mud at Nia with its front paws.

The muck nearly hit Nia straight on, and though she was a smaller target than before as a Weavile, her dodge was not good enough. The muck got on her feathers, staining and dragging them down its weight and disorienting her. She went from an agile dodge to clumsily trying to catch her footing on the uneven terrain.

“Damn, it got you,” cursed Sylisa. “Strike back!”

Nia lurched forward, but her movement was not the same without her chief mechanism for balance. The feathers aided her in sensing the environment; they were like a sixth sense to her kind. From slight changes in the wind to maintaining a handle on the terrain while shifting around the battlefield, Nia’s feathers were like an extra set of eyes on her back for detecting motion all around herself.

“To the left!” said Sylisa, guiding her. “Wall!”

Nia understood, she backed up on her rear leg, and pounced backward. With her claws, she clasped onto the side of the rock in the nick of time and Sandile lunged directly underneath her with a powerful Bite. Sandile could not climb after her, so Nia thought she had gotten out of its range.

“It’s not done yet,” warned Sylisa. “Don’t move.”

Sandile turned around, its tail glowing silver. A powerful Iron Tail broke into the bottom of the stone wall Nia hung on to, causing it to collapse.

“Get outta there!”

“Nyaah!” Nia shrieked as she hopped from rock to rock while the weakened wall fell. Though her balance was impaired, she managed to avoid being crushed by rolling forward.

Sandile hissed and turned to give chase. Its jaws snapped viciously, rushing after Nia. Sandile moved quick, sliding on its slick belly and using its stubby legs like oars. It soon caught up to her, and began making swipes. The brawl continued, with Nia barely able to avoid its slashes with short dodges. Nia was not agile enough to completely out run the crocodile however; her movements were slowed by the grime. A few times she tripped over rocks she could not properly sense as she tried to evade.

“This isn’t good,” said Sylisa. “She’s running out of steam.”

Meanwhile, Totodile had been taking a sound beating from Rapunzel’s vines. Her quick attacks with substantial reach left the gator unable to advance into biting range. After a large root slammed into Totodile and knocked away, Daphne looked over at the difficult situation Nia was caught in.

“This has gone on long enough,” said Daphne. “Time to end it.”

“You got a plan?” asked Sylisa.

“Watch and learn.” Daphne’s parasol had on its top a round, reflective circle. She aimed it at her Pokémon, but raised slightly skyward. Like a mirror, the reflective circle running around the crown of her brolly shimmered with a dazzling light from the concentrated midday sun.

That’s why it hurt so much when she stabbed me in the chest with the damn thing. She’s got a freaking reflector!

“Charge up!” yelled Daphne. The bright light focused on Rapunzel, and her body began to glow.

“What are you doing!? You’re gonna set your ‘mon on fire!” shouted Sylisa.

“Tell Nia to withdraw,” replied Daphne, her eyes focused on the light shining on her Roselia’s leaves.

“The hell?” Confused, but unwilling to argue, Sylisa said, “Get out of their way, Nia. Move to your right.”

Nia clumsily rolled to the side, her tiny body splashing in the shallow water and out of the way.

“NOW!”

There was a brilliant burst of light as not one, but two bright beams shot out from the Roselia’s pink and blue flower hands. The two bursts of concentrated light almost hit both targets dead on, but they managed to avoid the full brunt of the attack. Even still, the blasts sent Sandile and Totodile sailing through the air in opposite directions. Their scaly hides were badly scorched by the Solar Beams grazing them.

“God!” Sylisa gasped. Her eyes hurt from the flash of light. “What was that?”

“That, my dear, is what you’d call a two-for-one deal! We don’t even charge.” Daphne chuckled. “Impressed yet? Or still doubting our bounty hunting skills?”

The two injured Pokémon scurried off at blistering speed. Instinctually, Sylisa reached for her belt. No Pokéballs! Watching the Sandile and Totodile scamper off, Sylisa frowned as her empty hand closed into a tight fist. “Dang. Could’ve used more Pokémon.”

“Oh?” Daphne looked at her curiously, then at Nia. “Fancy that dark type, did you?”

“Ehh, I’m not a gym leader, I don’t care much ‘bout types. Would’ve thrown balls at ‘em both, to be honest,” said Sylisa. “Need more muscle with Nia the way she is now.”

“The way she is now?” Daphne asked her, an intrigued glance aimed at Nia. “Can’t help but wonder what you mean by that. Did something happen to her?”

“Yeah.” Sylisa hesitated. Her gaze dropped to Nia. Daphne did help her out. I’m not sure if I can tell her.

Sylisa waded into the shallow water and knelt down next to Nia. Gingerly, she wiped the mud off her feathers with hands soaked from the clear water. It tickled Nia, and Sylisa smiled at the memory it jogged of giving Weavile a bath. Rubbing Nia’s bruises with her palms, wiping off the dirt, Sylisa could not escape reality and her smile evaporated. That battle was rough on her. She’s too weak, and it’s all because of me.

“Well?” coughed Daphne. “You said something happened to her?”

“I…can’t tell you the details. At least not right now.”

“Pft. You’re like a stubborn Shellder. I’ll figure it out on my own if you won’t tell me.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Sylisa said almost hopefully. Wish I had the answers. Her condition really worries me.

“I never back down from a challenge,” Daphne said seriously. Then her whimsical, carefree laughter dissolved the tension. “Unless it involves dealing with my three least favorite things. And I won’t be telling you any of those secrets, so there!”

“Whatever you say.” Sylisa sighed. “Ya’know, for a girl who carries around a death ray, you sure act childish.”

“Hah!” With a self-satisfied smirk, Daphne said, “A death ray! I rather like that. Alas, my death ray only works in the bright midday sun.”

“If there’s clouds, all you can do is hide under it?” Sylisa smirked. “It may be powerful in direct sunlight, but it’s awfully inflexible. You better hope we don’t get any rain.”

“Where do you think we are?” Daphne said smugly, “A DES-ERT! Literally the sunniest place on planet Earth.”

“Sure. Provided you don’t stay out after dark,” said Sylisa.

“I’m never out late. Raising a healthy plant takes more effort than you think. Rapunzel loses energy when the sun goes down, so she has to work twice as hard. No late-night escapades if we can help it.” Daphne went over to Rapunzel and lifted her up.

Sylisa started to walk again, following the river. “Those limitations will make you weak,” she insisted. “Especially when things don’t go your way.”

“Spoken like a true pessimist,” answered Daphne, brushing off the criticism. “There are plenty of ways for us to prevail without sunshine. Yet having mother nature on your side makes for an easier skirmish. You saw how quickly Rapunzel dealt with those troublesome reptiles once she was powered up.”

“Humph.” She saved Nia’s ass. I’m grateful for that. “Those two were a couple of small fries.”

“And they still gave Nia trouble, didn’t they? Looks like you two need to work out some more,” Daphne suggested. “Oooh, I know! How about I draft you a proper training schedule?”

“No thanks.”

“You’ll never get better by denying my guidance. How come you’re so obstinate to improvement? Don’t you want Nia to become stronger?”

“That’s the thing. We used to be on top of our game,” Sylisa said in her defense. Oh crap! I see what she’s doing. She’s trying to wrestle out information about what happened to Nia.

“Hmm. Perhaps these types of errands will help you get back there,” said Daphne.

“I hope,” replied Sylisa, adjusting her short skirt. Her clothes had gotten damp from cleaning Nia up after the fight, plus her chest felt sweaty. She moved uncomfortably, walking along further into the canyon. Suddenly, there was a hand on her wrist. “Ow, hey, that hurts,” Sylisa told Daphne, who had grabbed her tightly. “Lemme go!”

“I think it has something to do with why you two showed up here!” Daphne declared. Her strong hold released Sylisa’s hand.

“You’re cunning like a Delphox,” said Sylisa, rubbing her arm’s tender sunburn.

“Don’t compare me to devious psychic types,” remarked Daphne, her lips puckering in an upset scowl. “I’m the real deal.”

“Why’re you getting all flustered?”

With a wave, Daphne shooed the air in front of her. “Don’t care for psychics.”

“Huh.” Sylisa considered bringing up the psychic she met, the mysterious Kirlia wearing a golden bow who had used telepathy to speak with her, but decided against it. Shrugging, she asked, “Any reason?”

Daphne’s cheerful gaze darkened. “All of them.”

“Okaaay…” Sylisa again adjusted her clothes, this time her damp top. The splashing water from the nearby river made it felt too tight on her. She decided to change the subject as they walked through the valley. “Do you think it’ll show up?” Sylisa asked. “Or is it hiding from us cause we’re chicks?”

“The man-eater?” Daphne sighed. “They say three things never remain hidden for too long: the Sun, the Moon, and the Truth.”

“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” asked Sylisa.

“It’s an old proverb. Usually it means you just need to look up.” Daphne gestured skyward with her parasol.

“Huh?” She looked where Daphne was pointing. “Oh!” At the top of the ridge was a man she recognized. He had a bare back and tattoos all over his arms. She saw his shaggy sun-bleached hair was in a grubby ponytail from behind. “That’s—!”

“Shh!” hushed Daphne with a finger over her mouth. “I think he’s relieving himself.”

“What? Eww! That’s so gross. He wasn’t lying about pissing in the river. Nia, cover your eyes and don’t look at that jerk,” she whispered.

Daphne giggled softly into her hands and whispered, “So, Misfortune, you know this flower-waterer?”

“One of the bandits I had the displeasure of meeting,” she explained. “He’s the jackass who locked me up and threatened to have Machoke torture me.”

“Oh my!” exclaimed Daphne as the earth shook violently.

“What’s going on?!” asked Sylisa. She fell to her knees, hugging Nia to protect her from falling rocks.

A huge torrent of water came rushing upstream. It was a white misty spray that went against the river’s current. Suddenly what looked like a long jet surrounded by a tornado spun high out of the aquatic maelstrom. There was a scream from atop the river’s edge. Sylisa looked up to see the man had been pulled down from the cliff and straight into the mouth of the tall water spout’s vortex.

“That thing! It just ate him!” Terror gripped Sylisa, and she pulled Nia closer to her shaking body, her arms locked tightly around the Pokémon, horrified at what might happen if she let go.

Chapter Text

“Looks like we found our man-eater,” said Daphne brusquely. “Rapunzel, set up our Toxic Spikes! Keep our opponent locked down in that corner of the stream!”

Roselia jumped into action. She quickly set up a ring of poisonous barbs around the surging water storm.

Oh crap, we’re really doing this. “What is it?!” Sylisa shouted as the mysterious body within the fog moved closer to the floating purple perimeter.

“I’d be a rotten psychic if I knew!” Daphne retorted with an uncharacteristic vulgarity. “Why the hell aren’t you letting Nia fight? Have her use Foresight to see through the mist!”

“Sorry!” Sylisa let Nia go and had her follow Daphne’s suggestion.

Nia’s eyes glowed bright and the glimmering gem on her forehead radiated an impressive burst of silvery energy, clearing the mist.

The Foresight revealed a Drampa the size of a school bus. Its big, lumbering body was pricked by a few of the purple barbs as Drampa rammed forward with an aggressive Dragon Rush. Drampa barely missed Roselia with its initial assault. However, it managed to smash into the side of the cliff by the river causing rocks and debris to fall dangerously close to them.

“That’s Drampa!” identified Daphne. “Look out!”

“Oh no! Use Substitute!” Sylisa said.

She did not use the move, Nia jumped out of the way as rocks fell from the sides of the cliff. Her movements were quick, but her dodges covered less ground.

“What’s wrong with her?! I taught her to use that TM yesterday!”

“C’mon, Misfortune, snap out of it and support me!” Daphne emphasized, “We’re a team here!”

“Right.” Sylisa shuffled to the side, following Nia at a distance as she worked on flanking Drampa. How’re we gonna intimidate something like that? Nia isn’t as strong as she used to be! And Drampa is so powerful! Maybe misdirection? Sylisa called out, “Get it to turn, use Screech!”

Nia made a shrill scream to try and direct Drampa to the side. However, Drampa did not have to move, it used its long neck to track Nia’s movements while remaining stationary.

“Screech!? What the—!? A shriek isn’t going to do squat when you’re our vanguard!” Daphne shouted. “Drive in an attack! Take advantage of an opening!”

“O-Okay!” Daphne’s a completely different person in battle, thought Sylisa. Not to be outdone, Sylisa called out, “Nia, help Roselia by closing in on Drampa with Fury Swipes!”

“Rapunzel, we’re setting up a barrage! Pin Missile for multiple strikes, rapid fire!”

The two small Pokémon faced the goliath Drampa unafraid. Roselia launched her barbs in an impressive five-round volley. Three jabs nailed Drampa dead-on in the side of the cheek, in the snout, and near the bottom of the creature’s body by the cloud. Two of the bullets flew by, one managed to still strike the creature’s tail, but the other missed. “Four hits!” Daphne cheered.

Meanwhile Nia had maneuvered into a flanking position parallel to Roselia’s line of fire. Seeing an opening, Nia rushed in at the wounded Drampa. Her twin claws extended from her paws like icicle blades. She raised them and began eviscerating Drampa’s side in a cascade of swipes. The first slash broke flesh, the second tore through a layer of sinew, and the third caused bright draconic blood to sputter out.

However, before Nia could strike with a fourth blow, Drampa retaliated with a howling Dragon Rage. The blue and scarlet flames spewed down at Nia and though she desperately tried to protect her face from the serpent’s flame, the attack left her badly hurt. With no access to first aid, she could not weather another gout of flame.

“NO!” I can’t expose her to an attack like that, her body’s already at her limit. “Pull back, Nia!” Sylisa told her. “Use Assist to help Roselia with her attack!”

“Keep the pressure on it. Rapunzel, Seed Bomb, low trajectory and minimal velocity!”

Roselia fired a pair of two tulip-sized seeds from the centers of her flower arms. Like cannonballs they arched above the retreating Nia. Nia employed her Assist technique to leap into the air in an agile front-flip right before the projectiles passed her by. Using her claws, she hooked onto the two Seed Bombs in midair, spun about and flung them at Drampa with twice the force.

A crackle of sounds and spores followed as the Seed Bombs shattered against Drampa’s body leaving behind huge bruises and inflamed flesh. A squall soon surrounded the injured Drampa, who had its eyes dead set on Roselia.

“It’s charging Razor Wind! Rapunzel, quickly, Double Team!” A mirage of copies formed by flowers that looked like Roselia sprung up like weeds around Drampa. It lashed out in every which way with its whirlwind attack, trying to strike them all. “Great, now a retribution Venoshock!”

The real Roselia launched a powerful florid wave of Venoshock at the poisoned Drampa, mixing bright toxins on its withering skin. The poison seeped into its body through the open gashes, reacting with the toxins and boiling inside the creature’s veins.

Drampa growled loudly and started to channel its inner energy to build up power by using Work Up. Its serpentine body began to radiate a yellowish glow.

“It’s plenty powerful already; don’t let it further enhance its strength!”

“Taunt it, Nia!” Sylisa shouted. Nia slashed at the shallow river water, spraying Drampa with her attack. Getting the Pokémon’s attention was half the move; Nia then made an obscene gesture, understood only to the Pokémon present, at Drampa. Unsurprisingly, this enraged Drampa.

“Shit! It’s pissed!”

“It’s distracted! Ice attacks!” Daphne instructed.

Drampa brought its large tail out of the raging water and prepared to swing it forcibly at Roselia with a Dragon Tail in order to bat her away downstream.

“Ingrain!”

Roselia’s roots barely managed to take hold in the shallow water, but it was enough to not get battered away by Dragon Tail. The force knocked some of her petals off, and she looked as though she was in serious pain from suffering the impact.

“Is she alright?!” Sylisa asked.

“Don’t worry about us, focus on Drampa! You need to deliver burst damage pronto!” Daphne said hurriedly. “Rapunzel, recover with Leech Seed!” Twirling her petal arms, Roselia spread countless spores at Drampa. The seeds burst to life upon coming into contact with Drampa. Their vine tendrils latched onto the lower body of Drampa, their roots furrowing down into the riverbed and reemerging beneath Roselia packed with absorbed nutrients.

We’re a team. I need to attack Drampa with attacks while Roselia is taking hits and covering, Sylisa thought. “Nia, Ice Shard!”

Nia’s claws turned a chilly blue. She cut through the shallow water to give her talons an additional coating of flash-frozen ice. Swinging her claws forward, she launched the ice missiles like daggers at Drampa. The two blades slammed into the Pokémon’s body, dealing intense damage as they pierced through the serpent’s thick rubbery skin. Drampa’s high internal body heat melted the icicles, the puncture wounds opened in their stead and blood poured out.

Sylisa didn’t even have a chance to congratulate Nia for the impressive hit before Drampa reared its serpentine body back. With a mighty howl, it swung its whole cloud-like body down into the water to create a massive wave.

“It’s trying to flush us downstream with Surf!”

The wave was cascading right at Nia, the closest to Drampa. She jumped out of the shallow water at the dragon. Her leap carried her over the wave before it had gotten too massive, and her sharp claws hooked into Drampa’s side, effectively anchoring her.

The huge wave of Surf came rushing toward the rest of them. Sylisa spun round and brought her hands to clasp the side of the rock wall before the wave hit. She looked over her shoulder right in time to see Roselia covered by water, but unmoving thanks to Ingrain. Two of her vines had whipped back, racing along the riverbed, and had wrapped around Daphne’s ankles to keep her stationary as well. Daphne opened her parasol as a shield.

The water then hit Sylisa, and knocked her against the rock wall she was holding on to at the side of the river. It hurt, and she lost control as her muscles seized from the pain. Her head narrowly missed smashing against the stone. The water stung her eyes, drenched her whole body, and made it difficult to hold on. Still, she refused to let go, her knuckles a defiant white. She cried out as a second aftershock wave slammed into her.

Daphne had been shouting something at her but the water in her ears had muffled it. The Surf retreated, and Sylisa let go of the rock wall and landed on unsteady feet, her vision obscured by darkness. She pulled her drenched black hair away from covering her eyes.

The first thing she saw was Drampa’s large, bloodied maw opening wide. Nia had been shaken off to the side of the dragon, and Roselia was right in front of Drampa’s line of sight. Drampa unleashed an earsplitting Hyper Voice and shook the entire riverbed with a robust barrage of soundwaves from deep in its throat. The initial burst of noise disoriented Roselia and knocked her down. Using her claws to pull herself around Darmpa’s body, Nia barely managed to dodge the attack by getting behind Drampa where the reverberating uproar was less intense.

Daphne’s yells were drowned out by the din. The noise echoed to become even louder in the canyon. Rapunzel and Daphne were brought to their knees holding their ears.

Nia had barely enough stamina to stay clear of the falling debris from the dragon blasting the region with noise. She looked to Sylisa in a mixture of despair and fear.

Momentarily uncovering her ear, Sylisa lunged forward, threw her hand into a fist and made an uppercut gesture.

Her crown feather twitched in understanding. She darted through the foam and mist deftly avoiding Drampa’s thrashing tail. From the right, she flanked Drampa and cut into the Pokémon’s side with a Slash. Drampa lurched to the left from the attack, but its Hyper Voice was not abated in the slightest. It howled even louder, trying to find the source of the attack that just sideswiped it. By the time it had managed to locate Nia, she was right under the Drampa’s neck.

Sylisa ran her hand across her throat.

Nia spun with a pirouette, freezing the splashes of water below Drampa to form ice ledges to rush up at the Pokémon’s vocal cords. Nia raised her claws and with an uppercut she nailed Drampa. The noise immediately stopped and Drampa’s head was knocked backward from the impact.

Nia managed to land on her feet, but Drampa was quick to retaliate with an Aqua Tail.

“NO!” Sylisa yelled as the bludgeoning force of Drampa’s attack sent Nia soaring into the air. Landing far out of melee range and obstructed from reentering the fray.

“Rapunzel, recover with Giga Drain!”

Roselia slammed her petal hands into the river. From the point of impact, a wave of vibrant green energy reached out from the ground and pulled at Drampa’s life force. The dragon scoffed.

“Even with Ingrain and Leech Seed we aren’t getting enough health back,” Daphne mused. “Poison isn’t going to work fast enough either. And we can’t take another direct hit.”

“I’m on it,” Sylisa said bravely. Nia can’t close that distance in time. Even if she did, she’d be in too close. She’s on her last legs, she can’t take another hit. She has to use a distance attack. But if she misses, Roselia is in deep trouble. What can I do!? Sylisa felt panicked, starved of options. However, something that Daphne had told her earlier stuck out in her mind. She quickly looked up. The boulders! If she can loosen them! “Look up! Aim your Icy Wind at the rocks! Use the attack’s power to push yourself back!”

Leaping into the air, she blew a gale of wintery wind up past Drampa. The cloud of frost battered the boulders already disturbed from Dragon Rush and Hyper Voice; the surrounding ice particles made the rocks heavier, and soon there was a loud crumbling noise as the stones gave way.

Daphne saw what she was doing. “Don’t let Drampa dodge those rocks, Rapunzel! Release a burst of Sweet Scent!”

Roselia pushed her petal hands out in Drampa’s direction. So fragrant was the Sweet Scent it could actually be seen in the air as a vivid cloud of pink. The wafting odor engulfed Drampa, and for a brief instant, its eyes turned soft and the Pokémon appeared stupefied. That little delay in reaction time was all those tumbling stones needed to come smashing down on Drampa. Water splashed high into the air, and when it settled, revealed a pile of rocks where Drampa once hovered.

“What a sneaky use of those stones,” Daphne murmured, clapping her hands at the pile of rubble with an impressed expression. “Well, that seems to have worked—”

Daphne had spoken too soon. There was a tremendous burst of surging energy that split its way out from the rubble. Drampa’s whole body glowed with a powerful light.

“What’s happening?!” Sylisa asked frantically as the riverbed shook from a mild earthquake.

“Oh no. It’s gone Berserk!” Daphne called out through the raging chaos of falling rocks from the ridges on either side of the river and debris once covering Drampa that had been blown away. “You have to drop it fast or we’re done for!”

“Berserk?! What does that mean?!” Sylisa frantically questioned.

“It’s boosting all its power!” Daphne explained as Roselia and Nia barely dodged the collapsing environmental hazards.

Drampa leaned backward, its heavy body spent from the numerous attacks and damage sustained over time from Roselia’s Toxic Spikes and Leech Seed sapping its health. It coiled up, tucking its head under its long-coiled body defensively like a death adder. This appeared to be a sign of its submission, but Daphne knew better when she saw its skull glowing.

“It’s winding up for a final attack by boosting itself further with Calm Mind!” she said, pointing at its head. “You have an opening. Execute it!” she commanded to Sylisa from afar.

Execute?! Sylisa’s whole body froze up thinking back to what her mentor, Mathias, had once told her. How she had opposed him because she did not want to become an assassin. Mathias, the Torn Thorn, the Night Blade, the legendary assassin. He wouldn’t flinch at executing a target. But he’s not here. Which means…I have to slay this enraged Pokémon.

“What are you waiting for!?” Daphne hollered.

Drampa’s mouth opened wide, its neck raised towards the sky, obscured between the two ridges of the valley.

“Misfortune!” Daphne shouted, desperately trying to get her attention, “Are you trying to get us all killed by fire and brimstone? Wouldn’t make for a very good ending!”

“Execute…” she said indecisively. The word was so distant. Nia was in the midst of a combat maneuver to avoid the thrashing monstrosity’s glowing tail. Drampa had uncoiled itself, raising its head high up to the heavens. All she had to do was give Nia the order. The order to kill. She knew the one. “Mathias’ hidden technique,” she told herself, “the move used by the Torn Thorn!”

Drampa was turning red its entire body swelled with power. The sky above started to grow large glowing cracks of light as Drampa prepared to use its ultimate move, a dreadful Draco Meteor.

“We’re going to die!” Daphne cried as the fissures in the cliffs ripped open. Flame and magma spewed from not only the sides of the rock but also the crimson maelstrom forming in the sky.

“I won’t let you!” she yelled. “Nia, hidden technique: Punishment!”

Nia hissed loudly as she rushed at Drampa with her palms glowing. She dashed up to bottom of the dragon with her palms out and both her hands collided with the beast’s belly as its head roared at the heavens. At the twin points of contact, two dark voids opened on Drampa’s glowing form. These black circles widened, converging into one massive shape covering most of Drampa’s underside. Nia tugged an ethereal power straight out of Drampa through the gap, stealing the creature’s draconic strength in a devouring motion. Her fragile body glowed with a shadowy aura and two augmented claws of clear crystallized ice shot out from her palms, surrounded by diamond dust and a nebulous black glow. With a vicious uppercut, Nia’s blades slashed straight up through Drampa’s belly and neck.

It had no chance to scream. The whole length of Drampa’s neck had been vertically split into a slit. Nia landed in the other direction, facing away from Drampa’s carcass as the power she consumed vanished along with Drampa’s life. From the now visible intestines of the dragon, a man’s unconscious body, coated in slime and gall, rolled out into the river.

Daphne huffed. She wiped down her white dress to pull together her ladylike composure once more. “That could have gone better, wouldn’t you say? For your battling assessment today, I’d give a C-minus. And that’s only because I’m a very generous lady.”

The wind had been knocked out of her. “W-What…What have I done?” Sylisa gasped. Her vision clouded as guilt and pain racked her body. The rush from fighting had vanished, leaving behind only the consequence of her choice. I had Nia kill another Pokémon. It was us or Drampa but…I… “I… I… killed it…”

Sylisa looked at Nia’s victim, an expression that betrayed guilt, disgust, and self-loath. The disarray written all over her face could not define the depth of her miserable feelings. Her body shook, her knees wobbled uncontrollably at the sight. And then she felt her eyes sting from the bitterest of tears.

“You killed a monster,” Daphne said, squeezing the water out from the bottom hem of her frilly skirt. “Drampa won’t be eating any more people thanks to our work today,” she explained in a surprisingly sympathetic manner. “That was an effective move Nia pulled off at the end. Using Drampa’s power against it. Not bad. Not bad at all.”

“No…” Sylisa whispered. “You don’t understand…” Punishment isn’t just a move, it’s an assassination technique. Mathias and Dare use it to kill targets that fight back or resist. When Dare is in trouble, Punishment changes the odds. It’s a siphoning attack, taking advantage of a bad situation. The ultimate table-turner. Takes away an opponent’s power and turns it against them with a spike of lethal damage. It’s how Mathias got his nickname, the Torn Thorn.

“What? It worked well enough to stop the dragon. It was life or death.”

“Something terrible came over me when I said it. I felt it in my heart. That power was supposed to be his. Not mine.” Clutching her hands to her chest, Sylisa shivered. “I didn’t want to become like him.” I just wanted to be a professional thief, an infiltrator…not a killer…not an assassin. “But now. Now, Nia and I are no different.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Somebody I once knew. I stained my best friend’s claws with another’s life.” Sylisa whimpered, “I had her kill him. I killed Drampa.”

Daphne coughed loudly over Sylisa’s distresses and trotted on over to her, picking up Nia and Rapunzel along the way. “What’s gotten into you, Misfortune? This is what you signed up for, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know, Daphne. I didn’t want to turn Nia into a killer.”

“There was no other way. You made a decision to save us.”

“There might have been another way,” insisted Sylisa. “What if we stole its will to fight instead? Like, make it not have the heart to fight all the way to the death.”

“You’re talking nonsense, Misfortune. You can’t steal a monster’s heart if it has been sealed away.”

“No. Drampa’s heart wasn’t sealed. It was there. I saw it.”

“How do you know?” Daphne pressured her with a glare. “Are you able to tell? See anything different than the rest of us? Hmm?”

Sylisa shook her head. “Your Sweet Scent did the trick. I saw the look in its eyes. Its gentleness was buried inside.”

“My, you’re observant. Its spirit’s anger was suppressed for a moment. Emotions are tied to the senses, my dear.” Daphne winked at Rapunzel. “Her aroma caused a happy memory to resurge. Meaning it must have felt happiness at one point for it to have worked. But we didn’t really steal anything.”

“I disagree. You took away its ability to feel hatred. What if we could have done that instead? We were supposed to stea—” Sylisa paused “—steer ourselves in a better direction,” she finished the near-confession smoothly.

“Riiiight.” Daphne shrugged, overlooking her chance to further pry. “Well, thanks to you the world has one less man-eating monster. That is a better direction, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah.” Her voice was weak and rasped. I didn’t expect Daphne to be the one trying to make me feel good about this. “It didn’t shock you?” asked Sylisa.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“What Drampa did. Eating him like he was food,” said Sylisa, squeezing water out of her soaked hair. Drampa didn’t have the same shadow aura as Charizard, so it couldn’t have been related to the Night Dragon’s Blight. “I can’t quite explain it, but something about it isn’t right…”

“Oh please! If I got shocked by things like that I don’t think I’d be able to keep on going in this crazy world,” said Daphne. “Yes, it was outrageous, but, here, don’t worry, it’s over now.” She handed Nia over.

Sylisa held her seriously wounded Pokémon gently in her arms. “You were so brave,” Sylisa sobbed, hugging her close to her heart.

“Aw, c’mon Misfortune, cut it out!” Daphne twirled around like a top and faced the other way under her umbrella. “You really shouldn’t cry. It’s totally not your thing if you’re going for that cool, shadow girl mien.”

Sylisa sniffled and tried to bring herself back. Fear, guilt, disgust, and relief, all those feelings caught up with her at once. I was so worried, she thought, trying to hold back a cascade of tears, so worried about you Nia. My heart feels dizzy. The whole time I wanted to run away somewhere safe. But I’m happy we didn’t lose. I’m happy we’re together.

Nia purred softly in her arms and closed her battle-weary eyes.

Meanwhile, Daphne was applying some sort of oil to Roselia. It looked like suntan oil, but smelled fragrant like healing balm. She was rubbing it on Roselia’s torn petals and on her scratched up leaves while humming a sweet summery song. “La de da, la-da-da-dum-dum.”

“What about the half-eaten bandit?” Sylisa finally asked after regaining her composure. “He — this thug wanted to do terrible things to me while I was locked up and vulnerable.”

“Did he now? I guess messing with Misfortune really does have dire consequences,” Daphne said with a facetious smile.

She’s bugging me, but a plan is more important. Mathias always said the trick to making good plans is to not stay anywhere too long while you’re making them. He’s not here, so it’s all up to me. I don’t think I can make the Night Blade proud until I return home with the treasure, but I can keep us alive until we do by getting out of this dangerous ravine. “We need to move quickly, flowers. We’re sitting Duckletts at the bottom of the canyon.” Sylisa gestured at the unconscious bandit. “Suppose we gotta leave him for dead.”

Daphne frowned. “Tell you what, I’ll have Rapunzel keep him knocked out until we return back to town for an interrogation.”

“You’re jokin’ right? You think the two of us can carry a big bruiser like him? You’re no heavyweight and our friends are too hurt to help!”

“True enough. I’m much too delicate for menial labor,” whined Daphne. “Getting him back to the vehicle is going to be a real hassle.”

Just then, from the top of the ridge, a familiar voice shouted, “SYLISA!”

Chapter Text

“Hey! Up here!” The man’s voice echoed through the canyon.

Sylisa, Daphne, and Rapunzel looked to the top of the cliff. Near the edge was ashen-haired York with his partner, Hyde. York’s uniform appeared scuffed up, but judging by his content gait he didn’t look any worse for the wear.

“Imagine seeing you again!” exclaimed Sylisa. The surprise caused her to nearly drop Nia who had been resting in her arms.

Hyde peered down, stretching his neck over the cliff as he gazed into the basin, blowing big bubbles upon seeing Sylisa.

“You’re alright Sylisa!” York grinned. “Had Hyde worried for you.”

“AH-HA!” Daphne snapped her finger and pointed her closed parasol at Sylisa. She wore a victorious smile, spreading ear to ear. “I knew it! You DO have a name!”

Grumbling, Sylisa swatted her sunbrella away. “What are you doing here?” she asked York.

“Investigating.” He put his fists on his belt proudly. “Thought I lost you when I took a dive in the river. Luckily Hyde’s a good swimmer.”

You idiot, I shoved you in! He’s so far up there, I can’t tell if he’s just pretending it was an accident. Still, something doesn’t add up. Why didn’t he travel back to town after getting knocked into the river? Maybe heading back wasn’t his plan after all. “That’s nice, but you didn’t answer my question, York.”

“Right to the point.” He gave a satisfied laugh. “You know how it goes. Always another lawbreaker at large, meaning I’m always the case. What about you? Didn’t expect to see you around here again.”

“I—” she paused “—came back here when I heard there was a man-eating Pokémon in the river. But I see you’re okay so that’s good.”

“So that is why you wanted to come back! How scandalous!” Daphne puckered her lips. Then she began chuckling into her hands. “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend, SYLISA!”

“He’s not my—” Sylisa started to say, realizing her obvious taunt a bit too late. “Shut the hell up, flower girl!”

“You alright?” York asked.

“We’re alive.” Sylisa shook her head. Her damp hair flopped about, so she pulled it back out of her face as she spoke. “Had a run-in with trouble.”

“Trouble? Hyde ran off in this direction. I heard a commotion and the sounds of battle from a distance.” York peered further over the edge to see the remnants of Drampa. “…Hell! What a mess!”

“Come down from there and I’ll explain,” said Sylisa.

Daphne called out, “Mind yourself on the way. The slope is unstable from the battle.”

Once York and Hyde made it down from the steep incline adjacent to the river, he formally introduced himself to Daphne as a young officer while displaying his badge with the iconic profile of an Arcanine roaring to the sky.

“You know, you’ve got some sense of timing, I’ll give you that.” Sylisa shrugged. “Maybe even too good.”

“That’s thanks to my pal.” The young man beamed. “Hyde’s got what you’d call a sense for trouble and I’m usually running close behind.”

“If I didn’t know better I’d say this lil water weasel was stalking me, looking for trouble,” she replied.

Hyde scurried up to Sylisa and rubbed his collar against her leg. His floatation sack popped open against her knee. However, this time it didn’t startle her.

Sylisa’s shoulders slumped as the tension in her body evaporated. “At least you’re cute,” she said.

“Hello there!” Daphne excitedly waved as she greeted Hyde as well. Kneeling down, she clutched onto the back of his head in a forceful caress. “How MAR-VEL-OUS! Your coat is so soft, yet water-resistant, ideal qualities for a gorgeous fur coat!” she exclaimed.

Hyde shivered and tried to scurry away from Daphne but Rapunzel cut him off.

Daphne stood back up. “I can hardly believe my eyes! A detective and his loyal partner, true fighters of crime and pursuers of justice! Is the profession truly romantic as the countless novels I’ve read portray?” she asked in starry-eyed enthrallment.

“What sort of question is that?” York nervously scratched his neck, taken off guard by Daphne. “I do work mostly to help people in need.” He regained his mojo with a confident smile and pointed to his badge. “I’m still a young officer, but well on my way to making it as detective!”

“A junior officer.” Sylisa scowled. “Not even a legit detective yet. Had me fooled. Thought you were the real deal.”

Making a sheepish grin, York said, “Well, with any luck, Hyde and I will make the grade. Won’t we, buddy?”

“Bwee!”

“We all start somewhere!” Daphne buoyantly bounced up and down as did her Pokémon. “I’m delighted to make your acquaintance! And oh, so is darling Rapunzel!”

“I’ve seen your face around before…oh! And your rose!” The young man sniffed the air. “Ah, yes, of course! I’d recognize that fragrance from anywhere! You must be Daphne, the florist who moved here not long ago. Tundara was it?”

Daphne winked. “Goodness, your sleuthing skills are rather impressive, detective.” She raised her arm into the air, her flourish followed by a gust of colored petals from Rapunzel’s bouquet.

York and Hyde both recoiled, the wave of petals flying right in front of their faces.

“Daphne Abagail Gates!” she said, blowing an effeminate kiss. “And this of course is the star maiden of the tale, Rapunzel. Our team’s name is Blossom Gale, so don’t you forget it, mister.” She chuckled as Rapunzel curtsied.

“Quit gloating.” Sylisa tapped her foot impatiently. “Remember, we’re here on business.”

“And this is Misfortune, the sinister Miss of Rift Fortune! It seems you two have already met!” Daphne giggled.

“The name of our team is Fortune Rift actually,” Sylisa clarified. Gosh, it’s such a stupid name but anything is better than being called Misfortune. I hate that. “We’re here on the guild’s orders. Had to deal with a man-eating monster named Orcus. Turns out Drampa was the beast, but there’s something not right about it—”

“—Hang on a sec, you joined the Audernaut Guild?” York asked with a slightly puzzled look.

“Right, right.” With a snap of her fingers Sylisa said, “That’d be the one.”

“No kidding,” replied York. “Heard they were understaffed after a series of mishaps. They’ve been around forever. Seriously, I figured you didn’t know anything about my hometown. Now you’re working for them? Crazy. I mean, Hyde’s happy you’re sticking around.”

Hyde nuzzled close to Sylisa’s leg. He curled up affectionately round her tall boot with his long and slightly damp body.

“I needed a job,” Sylisa explained, “so I’m not unemployed. And with her in this condition…anything would do.” She squeezed Nia’s unconscious body close.

“Wow, and you even got a ‘mon!” York beamed at Nia. “See? I knew it when I told you you’d be making friends in no time.”

“She’s a real bundle of joy.” Sylisa sighed, holding Nia’s worn body tightly against her beating heart. I wish I could remember her name! Why she devolved! She’s really hurt because the devolution made her weak. As Sylisa thought, her head began to hurt. Upset and helplessly worrying, she looked at Hyde and asked, “How’s he doing?”

“This champ is fine! Aren’t you, Hyde?”

Hyde rubbed his collar and nodded.

“Righto!” York gave a thumb up. “His swimming skills are second to none!”

Sylisa lowered her voice, feeling the pangs of guilt deep in her gut. It could’ve been them instead of the bandit who got eaten. “So, he got you out of the river before it carried you off downstream?”

“In no time. Turns out we found an important clue while on the bank. Talk about a stroke of good luck.”

“A clue?” Sylisa asked. Could it be related to our mission to uncover the man-eater?

“Yep. Has to do with our investigation. Classified, I’m afraid. We made camp last night after exploring the caves on the opposite side of the river. We’re thinking about heading back to town soon to make a report.” With a tired hand, he rubbed his stomach between two buttons on his collared shirt. “And get some food too.”

“Detective, you and Hyde appear a bit peakish,” said Daphne. “Luckily, I made sure to bring along some provisions. Oh, oh! I have a brilliant idea! Why don’t we all share a meal together before returning to town?”

“Bweee!” Hyde’s forked tail spun happily around.

“For real? We’re famished!” York exclaimed.

Daphne pointed with her parasol over at the collapsed half-eaten bandit. “But first you’re going to have to work for it!”

“Huh?” York looked over at the bandit that had fallen out of Drampa’s open innards. “What?”

“You’re a would-be detective, why dontcha figure it out?” sneered Sylisa.

“It appears Drampa nearly ate this man…”

“Bingo,” said Sylisa.

“Aw c’mon, you can’t call that detective work, it’s blatantly obvious!” replied York as he studied the scene. “However, there’s more here than what meets the eye. Those wounds, and those claw marks. It’s that type of blood. I see it now.”

“Y-You do?” Sylisa felt small beads of sweat on her forehead as York studied Nia. Her arms clutched her fainted Pokémon closer to her heart.

“An attack like that is incredible coming from such a small ‘mon—” York shook his head “—is she alright?”

Sylisa looked down at Nia, and some of Sylisa’s hair covered Nia face. Her eyes were closed, her breathing shallow. “She’s going to be okay,” Sylisa insisted. “She’s just really tired. With a bit of rest and a trip to a Pokémon Center to heal I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

York gave her a confused look. “Uh-huh, sure thing.”

“Helloooooo! What about my poor darling Rapunzel!” Daphne complained. “Isn’t anyone worried for her glossy, succulent sheen?”

Sylisa huffed. Attention whore.

York walked over to them and his Pokémon followed. Hyde playfully sprayed Rapunzel’s face with water.

“Zeala!” squealed Rapunzel as her cute face blushed. She put her flowers on her leafy hips and chided Hyde.

Seeing the two Pokémon playing together like cheerful friends brought a smile to York’s gaunt face. However, there was still a hint of prolonged worry in his weary, set-back brown eyes. “What I want to know is why a peaceful ‘mon like Drampa is eating people to begin with.”

“That’s the million Pokédollar question, isn’t it?” Sylisa sighed. “I dunno. Starting to think maybe it was just hungry.”

“But why only men?” asked Daphne. Gracefully, she picked up Rapunzel. “Drampa didn’t desire to eat the two of us because we’re girls. Our friends are too.”

“Correlation doesn’t imply causation,” York replied. “Might be another reason.”

“C’mon, aren’t we overthinking this a bit much?” Sylisa shrugged. “Like…maybe Drampa doesn’t like the taste of girls.”

“Tsk! Stop it with your devious sexual innuendoes!” Daphne admonished.

“W-What!? N-No! I-I didn’t mean anything lewd—” Sylisa’s face turned bright red.

Daphne laughed very loudly. “You’re so easy to embarrass, you perv.”

Sylisa growled. “Dammit! I didn’t mean it like that, you idiot!”

“Hmm.” York scratched his unshaved chin in contemplation. “It’s quite the mystery. There must be some evidence explaining Drampa’s behavior. I wonder if it’s related to—” York broke off, his stomach growled obtrusively.

Hyde sniggered at the noise, but then held his own tummy too.

“Haven’t eaten in such a long time, I can’t think clear,” admitted York.

“Well, detective, the food is back with our ride, stashed in a hidden compartment so no wild monsters can get to it,” said Daphne. “We’ll need your help to carry this bandit back.”

“Yep.” Sylisa nodded. “How’s this for a coincidence, he’s one of the bastards who had me locked up back when you sprung me from their hideout’s prison cell.”

“Is that’s how the two of you met? Ah, what a lovely fairy tale! It sounds like you were rescued by a knight in shining armor!” Daphne inhaled the aroma of Rapunzel’s petals. “So romantic…” She exhaled airily.

“Get real.” Sylisa scoffed. “York’s way too clumsy to be a knight. Couldn’t even handle cracking open a simple lock with the friggin’ key.”

“How do you suppose I could have cracked the lock without the key?” he asked innocently enough.

“Erm, forget it,” Sylisa replied. Her palms felt wet. Can’t let him know I’m a thief. “Y’know, I was really worried when I was in those chains,” she said, twisting her mouth into a nervous grin. “That’s all.”

York looked down at the unconscious, slime-covered man. “I see. It’s all starting to come together. He looks terrible, but I guess he’s fortunate to have come out the end he did.”

“Out the butt would’ve been totally gross,” said Daphne. She stuck out her tongue. “Bleh.”

“Did he have any ‘mons with him?” York asked Sylisa.

She shook her head. “No, didn’t see any before Drampa swallowed him whole. Woulda seen a big guy like Machoke.”

“Okay, so no reinforcements, that’s good,” said York. “Still, the battle was loud enough to attract attention. We must be vigilant.”

Sylisa squeezed Nia’s body in her embrace. “What’s the plan?”

“You mentioned a vehicle. I’ll carry him with Hyde’s help.” However, as York and his Pokémon tried to lift the man up, they struggled quite a bit. “Oof, geez, this guy’s like three-hundred pounds of dead weight,” he said out of breath. “Covered in Dragon-goo too.”

Hyde splashed river water to rinse off the muck.

“Heeey.” Daphne’s heels clapped on the pebbles ever closer. “Oh, Syyyliiiisssaaa!”

I bet she’s up to something. Sylisa, who was staring at Drampa’s carcass with a worried expression, put on a neutral mien and turned around. “What do you want?”

“Gotcha!” Daphne snatched Nia out from Sylisa’s arms.

“Whoa! What the HELL are you doing?!” yelled Sylisa. “Give her back!”

“Shh. Shh.” Daphne hushed. “Hey, no need to shout, you’ll disturb her while she’s trying to rest. I’m going to help her.”

“Aw hell no!” Sylisa leered at her, waving a fist. “You are not stealing her again with your flower voodoo!”

“Take it easy,” said Daphne. “I’m going to apply some of my Roselia balm on Nia’s wounds so they don’t hurt as bad when she comes to. It’s the least I can do after she saved us from Drampa with her attack.” Then she tilted her head crookedly to the side. “I have an idea! You go be useful. Why don’t you go help the detective carry the loaf?”

“Fine, you’re gonna be like that huh.” Waving Daphne off, Sylisa walked over to the boys.

With a strained grunt, Sylisa hoisted one of the bandit’s tree trunk arms over her back. York looked embarrassed that she was helping him, but she refused to let it bother her. Hyde kept the bandit’s legs from dragging while York took the man’s other arm over his shoulder. Together the three of them pulled the deadweight along the winding riverbank.

“It’s not too far!” Daphne said, skipping ahead with Rapunzel by her side, holding Nia like a small child in her other hand under the shade of her sunbrella. “Oh goodness, I can’t wait for our splendid picnic! It’s going to be so MAR-VEL-OUS!”

Sylisa was winded by the time the beaten-up DPV came into view on the rocky shore by the palm trees. I can’t take another step. This is so heavy. My whole body is about to collapse… I … can’t… I can’t go on…

They set the bandit’s body in the cargo trunk with a loud thump. Sylisa groaned, bashing her fist against the side of the convoy to dissipate the aching pain in her back muscles.

“Thanks for the help, Sylisa,” said York.

“It… was nothing,” she replied, trying to pretend she was not completely winded. “Besides, you offered to help out. If you hadn’t show up, would’ve left him there for dead.”

York shook his head in disagreement. “Then how would you get any answers?”

“Fair point,” she said. I know my stuff is in the cave, but this guy is going to be unconscious for a while. Need to get the Armadas, her Dusk Ball, and the treasure we stole from the mansion. One less bandit guarding my loot, Sylisa thought, rubbing her sore arms. She then folded her hands and said, “His story will prove we accomplished our mission.”

“I’d vouch for you too.” York smiled.

“The Guild and the Bureau aren’t on good terms,” said Sylisa, recalling what Bennet had told her.

“Heard about that, huh.” He exhaled and scratched his temple. “Guess there’s no sense hiding it. This gang of bandits, calling themselves the Dune Devils, have been on the wanted list for a while. His interrogation falls within our jurisdiction for investigating their ongoing crimes.”

Tugging anxiously at her slightly sweaty black collar, Sylisa said, “Don’t feel like arguing with you. If he doesn’t cooperate your police friends can put the pressure on him.”

“Maybe he’ll rat out his other buddies too,” said Daphne, mashing a closed fist into her other hand, chuckling in a devilish fashion. “I love it when little piggies squeal.” Rapunzel also wore a devious expression, smacking the earth with two barbed roots.

Wide-eyed, Sylisa asked, “W-What are you, a sadist?”

“Hmm? Me? A sadist? Goodness, not a chance!” said Daphne. “Why would you insist on such an accusatory thing?”

“That wasn’t very convincing at all…” she gulped.

“I’m still worried about Drampa,” said York, interrupting their exchange with a serious expression.

“Why? It’s dead now,” replied Sylisa. “Can’t eat people anymore, even if they’re scumbags.”

York shook his head. “No, it isn’t that. It’s just strange. Every story I’ve read about Drampa has them portrayed as friendly to humans. For one to start eating humans alive is beyond unusual.”

“Maybe the stories you heard were all wrong and you got duped,” Sylisa supposed. I sure felt that way when Bennet told me Drampa ate people. That shattered my view of the world.

“The folklore about Drampa’s kindness isn’t easy to dismiss,” said Daphne. “Drampa is one of the closest and kindest to humans from the Dragon Tribe. Their strong bonds with humans have been well-documented for centuries.”

“Exactly. I’m worried there’s a serious reason for this dragon’s contrary behavior,” said York. “Was there anything unusual about it when you fought it? Anything at all that stood out?”

“Sylisa’s new to battling,” explained Daphne. “I doubt she’s ever fought a dragon before.”

“No. That’s not true. Another dragon. Just like before. However, this time I didn’t see a shadow aura—!” Sylisa covered her mouth and anxiously coughed. “It’s troublesome all the same, I agree.”

“Shadow aura?” York repeated. His glare was like ice.

Dammit. I gotta keep a lid on it around this guy. Sylisa shook her head and said, “Nothing really.”

“What did you see?” he asked.

Glaring back, Sylisa said, “I told you, I saw nothing.” At least not this time.

Daphne jumped between them. “Hey, hey! No more worrying allowed you two! Now is not the time for arguing. You’re both tired and hungry, let’s enjoy our well-earned banquet!” Chuckling gleefully with Rapunzel, Daphne swiftly gathered the provisions from a stowed basket under one of the panels by the passenger seat and organized an appetizing spread.

The shade from the palms coupled with the cool splashing of river water flowing nearby made a very pleasant oasis. Sylisa helped Nia lay down on a cushion stolen from the inside of the DPV. Then she took heed to her sore back with a few stretches she had learned from Mathias so she could stay nimble. She couldn’t help but feel like York was glaring at her, she was far too uncomfortable to say anything. Instead she walked toward the riverbank and proceeded to finish her stretches there.

“Isn’t aromatherapy lovely?” Daphne sighed as Sylisa returned from her exercise. “It can turn a simple meal into a kingly banquet! The sense of smell is intimately tied to the perception of taste.”

Sylisa sat down at the picnic and rubbed a resting Nia with her hand.

A feeble smile came to Nia’s mouth as Sylisa stroked her feathers.

“No kidding.” Sylisa’s mouth watered from looking at all the food and taking in the fragrance of Rapunzel’s pleasant bouquet. Geez, I feel so hungry. I wonder if I can force Nia to eat even though she’s asleep. She rubbed her belly.

Nia made an endearing purr and opened an eye under her scuffed-up crown feather.

“You should eat something, Nia,” whispered Sylisa. “You need to regain your energy.”

Nia let Sylisa feed her small portions of food, mewing with content.

“Eating is truly the most fundamental element of life itself!” Daphne grinned. “And look at how beautiful the weather is! Those hills in the distance make for a pictorial view. Why I’m sure an artist would be swept away with passion at seeing that pretty sky of purest blue!”

Sylisa raised a brow. “I had you pegged for an artist. You fit the bill. Eccentric enough.”

“Do you paint, Daphne? Or is 3D more your thing?” asked York.

“No, no! I am neither a painter nor a sculptor! Flower arrangements are my specialty!”

“What’s the difference?” said Sylisa. “You get paid money to make people things.”

“How uncouth! Art is about more than merely making money,” replied Daphne. “It’s about finding beauty, love, the aesthetic! Anyway, there’s a vast difference, a canyon of varying talent between the arts, which no soul can possibly cross.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, you think you’re someone special.” Sylisa grumbled, eating some roasted berry fruit dip. “Mmm. Good for you.”

“Indeed, I am someone special. I’ll have no substitutes! Because I am one of a kind!” Daphne vociferously insisted.

“That’s a relief.” As Sylisa chewed a thought came to mind. Nia forgot how to use Substitute, but I remember teaching her with a TM on the train before our mission. She used it back at the manor just fine to dodge those fireballs from Darmanitan. How come she forgot? She asked Daphne, “Do your ‘mons ever forget the moves you taught them?”

“No,” answered Daphne. “We train to use more powerful techniques, but older skills can serve a purpose in a pinch. It goes beyond the dogma that some moves are good, others not so much. In the right situation, all moves have an advantage to capitalize on. For example, a strong opponent can be mitigated by a weaker move used properly. The same way Nia used Icy Wind to change the battlefield instead of as an offensive strike.”

“Makes sense I guess,” said Sylisa. “Is that the way it’s always been?”

“Of course! You’re talking to an expert after all!” she bragged.

Sylisa snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far. But what you’re saying is if a ‘mon uses a technique, they can use it later?”

“Don’t see why not. It might not be as strong as techniques it practices with most often,” she explained. “However, under the right circumstances, an old technique could be the linchpin of a proper strategy. That’s why training is so important, experience brings with it more options.”

“People on the Battle Subway always bragged about their ‘mon’s battle potential ‘cause of their options.” Sylisa’s shoulders slumped. “I never gave it much thought. Wasn’t ever a battler. Figured they could handle fighting on their own, same way she used to hunt on her own. The move I had her learn that night… I thought she mastered it, and then I was sure of it when she used it flawlessly to avoid a fire attack. And now it’s like she never learned it. I can’t figure it out. It might be linked to what happened to her when she lost her strength.”

Daphne gasped. “She forgot how to use a move? I didn’t think Nia had Amnesia in her repertoire!”

Sylisa glared at her. “That’s not funny.”

“Aw, lighten up.” Daphne frowned. “I’ve never heard of a ‘mon forgetting how to do a battle move.”

“Me neither,” said York. “However, a serious injury could cause problems with using the move.”

It must be because of her devolution! “That has to be it. She became weak very suddenly.”

“She didn’t seem very weak when she used Punishment,” Daphne pointed out. “Rather frightening such a little critter could cause such carnage. Yet the consequence of using it seems to have left her crippled.”

“That’s true.” Sylisa worriedly considered her best friend’s condition, and felt her head spinning. There’s no other explanation, her “injury” is her devolution! But how…? How come she could use Punishment like Dare and Mathias? Why the Punishment assassination technique and not the Substitute TM I taught her? It doesn’t make sense. How…? How is this possible? Sylisa hugged her knees. “I want her to become strong again. How can I help her?” she asked in a weak voice.

“Why don’t you train together? Then you’ll master new skills,” suggested Daphne. “Maybe she’ll even learn it again one day!”

“You’ll become stronger too,” interjected York. “Because you’re their partner, their techniques are related to your will.”

“My…will?” Sylisa spoke unsurely.

Daphne snickered. “Yeah, like, your soul – or whatever it is you’ve got as a Shade. You get that magical thing attuned to your knifekitten in a fight and you’ll improve tremendously!”

Sylisa wore a puzzled expression. “I don’t get it. During the fight, I was just telling Nia where the openings were. There wasn’t anything magical about it. And quit callin’ me a Shade!”

“Oopsie daisy! Forgot being a Shade bothers you oh so much, must have slipped my mind,” Daphne mused before humming a carefree tune. “Shay-dy and not a proper lay-dy.”

“Well, I don’t know about Shades, but I can tell you about battling alongside a friend.” York, in his deep baritone, responded more seriously. “When you work with a ‘mon long enough, you’ll start to fight on the same wavelength. At least, you try to. No one’s perfect at it. You’d have to be a mind-reader or something to really ace it without effort. Key is: Anyone can get better at communing with their partners over time. Experience, that’s what counts. Battle moves are one part of it, a really important part, the difference between life and death. Your will is what brings your spirits close in the thick of combat to overcome impossible odds and adversity!”

Sylisa scratched the side of her head. “Um… Now I’m even more lost.”

“Put simply: Strengthening your bond toughens you both up. In different, yet related ways,” he said with a hand on Hyde’s head. “By working together, you both become stronger than if you were alone.”

“Gee, that seems obvious,” muttered Sylisa. “Why’d you have to make it all complicated-sounding?”

“Mmmhm.” York went back to stuffing his face with food. “You can tell that this bread was made with the best ingredients. The flour is perfect and the water must have been pristine to deliver such a delicious flavor!”

“Oh ho! A gastronomic connoisseur, are you?” Daphne grinned happily. “That fills me with joy to hear! Making appetizing edible arrangements is just as challenging as creating pleasantly aromatic flower arrangements. Palate! Fragrance! Emotion! It’s all in how the individual parts blend together to make a better whole.”

“Hyde sure loves his Sitrus and Tamato Berries,” he said indulging in the food, “and so do I!”

Daphne shook in distress, rustling Rapunzel’s leaves. “Were you even listening to a word I said? Don’t you see? There’s an ancient formula to provisioning! It’s the everyday alchemy of modern life!”

“Mhmhmm, whatever you say,” he said, piling food in his mouth.

A relaxed smile formed on Sylisa’s lips as she ate some fresh bread with salted meat and cheese. “I dunno about callin’ it alchemy,” she replied between bites, “this is a good recipe. I prefer to cook heartier meals for us. Y’know, she’s a big girl, she sure loves her meat. …!” Her expression froze and she dropped the bit of crust she had been holding between her fingers, realizing what she said did not make sense. I never cooked a meal for Nia as a Sneasel! Only when she was a Weavile!

Food in his mouth, York asked, “Something wrong?”

Sylisa shook her head. “No. Just had a strange thought.”

“What kind of meat dish does she like to eat?” he asked.

Sylisa felt her lips form into a smile, and her cheeks warmed at the thought. “My signature Pasta Carbonara with extra meat is her favorite.”

“SYLISA!” Daphne exclaimed. “Don’t tell me! Are you a sous chef as well?!”

“Sous chef?” She rolled her eyes. “You kiddin’ me? Do I look like someone who wears an friggin’ apron and works in a royal kitchen?”

“Not at all, but the fact you can cook and enjoy it speaks volumes about your unique personality!” Daphne rubbed her palms together. “You know, some people wouldn’t be bothered to cook, considering it a task too beneath them. I’m surprised you’re not like that to be perfectly honest.”

“Why would I be? Everyone’s got to eat. Bet those types go hungry a lot on their own,” Sylisa remarked with a scowl.

With little warning, Daphne burst into a genuine laugh. She clutched the flower hand of Rapunzel as she chuckled. “Your slights are as sharp as a proper cooking knife. The fundamental tool and arsenal of any chef worth their seasoning salt! If you have the aptitude, you can certainly achieve your flavorful dream! Tell you what, from this day forward, I shall be your cooking cheerleader every step of the way on your road to the culinary championship!”

“The heck are you going off about?!”

“Place all doubt on the side,” she winked, “and stay true to the main course!”

“Ugh. You are the worst. Think I’ll pass.” Sylisa arched her back and firmly tapped on her stomach with both her hands. She had done her best to get Nia to eat, but she was still too tired from the fight to be as active as Hyde and Rapunzel. Nevertheless, it meant Nia was close in Sylisa’s arms and she liked the sensation.

“Oh man, I’m stuffed.” York rubbed his stomach and Hyde rested leaning on his side, both of them worn out from eating the food. “Got any desert, Daphne?”

Daphne’s blue eyes glimmered with excitement. “As it just so happens, yes,” she replied. “For what is a meal that lacks that climatic finality of savory sweetness? Alas! That is no meal at all I tell you!”

Looking down at Nia, Sylisa said, “I don’t particularly care for sweet stuff. She loves to eat that sugary cereal they make for kids. What’s it called again? Sneaky Stones? I don’t know, Something Pebbles, marketed as bad as it sounds. Bleh, I don’t know how she does it.”

“How could you not fancy a delectable strawberry crêpe in the morning with frosted sugar and syrup?” Daphne asked.

“Yeah…Nah,” said Sylisa. “Sounds sweet to the point of gross!”

“Humph! What do you know about eating anyway?” Daphne stroked Rapunzel on her head. “You and Nia are much too lean; maybe a bit of Rapunzel’s pleasant aroma administered around mealtime would fix that.”

“Um. No thanks.”

Together, they continued to enjoy the pleasant picnic out in the wilderness. Everyone seemed to forget about the troubles of the world as they shared a happy meal with each other’s company. Eventually the food ran out and their idle conversation turned serious once more.

“We have two options,” he said, “either head back to town now or see what those bandits have been up to.”

“I’m going to the caves,” Sylisa resolutely declared. “Need my equipment. My cell phone is my lifeline and I gotta get her Dusk Ball back.” The Armadas too. Mathias will kill me if I lose that. And the lure for Charizard, the mysterious treasure the Night Dragon is after. That’s what got me into this whole mess in the first place.

“Oh boy.” York’s answer revealed worry on his face. “You’re planning on going straight back into the den of demons?”

“Demons don’t scare me.” Despite Sylisa’s pertinacious statement, her voice sunk from the weight of what she had to do without Nia. “I don’t have a choice. You two can hightail it back to town if you want. I got unfinished business to take care of.”

“Ooooh, now I’m waaaay too curious to leave!” said Daphne, excitedly bringing her palms together and clapping. “You simply must include us on your adventure! And before you say it, we won’t take no for an answer.”

“Likewise,” replied York. “Hyde and I will lend you our assistance since this is an ongoing criminal investigation. Hah. We’re fueled up and ready to go, aren’t we pal?”

“Bubbbweee!” Hyde blew extra-large bubbles to express his enhanced vitality.

“I…erm thanks.” Sylisa felt her stiff shoulders relaxing in relief. “It would be tough without Nia to back me up.”

“You bet it would be!” Daphne scolded. “It’s terrible that you’d even think of doing something so dangerous on your own!”

“Reckless and irresponsible.” York added, “Especially after Hyde and I rescued you from them!”

“Sheesh, okay mom and dad,” muttered Sylisa, rolling her eyes. They’re treating me like I’m their darn kid.

“Goodness, now that’s settled, what shall we do about the half-eaten man?” asked Daphne.

“He’s hardly of use to us here. Mm. Maybe use him as a hostage?”

“No way, Sylisa,” said York. “We’re dealing with bandits, I doubt a hostage would work. Besides, he’s too dang heavy to easily move around.”

“Then we’ll leave him here?” she said skeptically. “What if he wakes up?”

“I’ll have Rapunzel use her Sleep Powder to keep him in wonderland,” Daphne suggested. “Should give us at least a few hours to explore the caves while he’s busy exploring fantastic dreams. I wonder: What do thieves dream about?”

“Treasure, obviously,” Sylisa answered automatically. “All the time.”

The two of them looked at her suspiciously.

“Err, isn’t it obvious? C’mon, use your noggins. Anyway, the last thing we need is for this jackass to escape with our ride.”

“We’ll take the keys just in case,” proposed York. He also grabbed some rope from the side of the cargo hold. “And tie him up for good measure.”

“Bondage! Lovely!” Daphne exclaimed with wild excitement in her voice.

Sylisa flinched. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s serious.

After York had tied his wrists up behind his back, Rapunzel splashed the already unconscious bandit with a flower hand filled with sleep-inducing spores. She smacked her arm’s petals in a forceful kiss right up into the bandit’s face causing him to groan and snore all the louder.

“Sweet dreams!”

“Nia will be staying here too. There’s no other way. She’s out of stamina.” Sylisa stroked her velvet fur, curled up into a ball under the shade, her body resting in a little nest of cushions and supplies where she could keep an eye on the tied-up bandit while recovering. “You’re going to be fine, girl. I promise to be back soon.”

“Nyyyaaaaah!” Nia yawned, sleepily pawing her claw over her crown feather. To everyone other than Sylisa her purring signified a drowsy content. Unbeknownst to them, her gentle purring expressed more of an endearment for Sylisa and a wish to return safely.

“Okay, time to move out,” said Sylisa, taking charge.

“Wait, wait, wait!”

“What is it now, flower girl?” asked Sylisa, impatiently crossing her arms.

“A-HEM!” Daphne coughed. “We require a cryptonym!”

“The hell is that? A crypt toe what?”

“Good God, please, no mortuary digits! Hm. I suppose it would be similar to last offices tagging a cadaver by the toe. But never mind that, Sylisa! I’m talking about a name for our mission! You know, something special.”

“A special name…” Dammit Daphne! Nia has a special name, but I can’t remember it! Sylisa wanted to shout. Suppressing her inner concerns about Nia, she said, “Grown-ups don’t need code names.”

“No, no, she’s absolutely right,” said York. “Considering this is a joint venture between the Guild and the Bureau, our mission needs a name for my status report when I return. Our operation needs a good name!”

“Operation?” Sylisa shook her head in frustration. “Are you for real? Listen to how ridiculous you sound! Like a bunch of kids trading around nicknamed Pokémon on the playground. So childish.”

“How rude! I am eighteen years of age!” said Daphne, proudly puffing out her chest. “An adult in full bloom, thank you very much!”

“Seriously? We’re only a year apart.” Sylisa raised a brow. “Why do’ya dress like a little girl?”

“So judgmental!” Daphne booed, “You’re no fun, Sylisa.”

“When did our responsibilities as guild agents become having fun?”

“Can’t you see how important this is?” York asked. “This is our first collaborative mission between the Guild and the Bureau. A historic undertaking. It’s quite significant, so let’s be sure to give it a special name we all can remember fondly!”

“God!” Sylisa huffed. “Who the hell cares what you call it! We’re stealing my stuff back from those jerks!”

“Ah-ha! Perfect, let’s call it that!” said Daphne, snapping her fingers and squeezing onto Rapunzel tightly enough so she let out a faint hum.

“I agree. “We’re stealing my stuff back from those jerks!”” York joked, doing an impression of Sylisa much to her chagrin.

“Argh! Quit foolin’ around!” Sylisa ran ahead to lead the way.

“Even better,” snickered Daphne from behind. “We’ll call our mission into the caves full of nasty bandits Operation: Fool’s Errand!”

“I like the sound of that one too,” laughed York.

Their teasing is really annoying me. I should be angrier, Sylisa thought. That’s odd. Does that mean we’re friends? Can I have friends and run with the Shadows? No. Someone might end up getting killed. Still— she stealthily raised her hand to touch her warm heart —this feeling inside is almost…nice.

Chapter Text

Nia’s going to be okay. Sylisa marched forward with conviction, taking the steep path through the badlands near the bandit’s hideout. I can heal her. I’ll find her Dusk Ball. Then she’ll finally be able to rest. Her injury, being devolved, means she doesn’t have the strength she did before. Nia’s attacks were just as much a danger to herself as they were to those around her.

A dry breeze picked up, the gusts blowing sand. Crossing over the rough terrain, Sylisa whispered under her breath, “I’ll make things better for you, Nia. And I’ll remember your real name.”

Sylisa clenched a tight fist and peered ahead, the horizon forming a heat illusion in the distance. Her thoughts traveled to the times where she had used this very familiar muscle action to recall her friend back into the Pokéball. Feeling the tension in her joints as her knuckles whitened, her breathing became erratic and she gasped the arid air.

Climbing higher, Sylisa steeled herself for the challenge ahead. “At least I have a plan.” A softer breeze blew through her hair, her breathing become calm as the warm desert air ruffled her locks. Her vision focused clearly on the dusty pathway. Having taken point, the cluster of caves at the top of the hill came into Sylisa’s view. The rocks and crags along the path were covered in damage, chipped and fragmented by an iron fist.

“We’re almost there,” she said to her companions. “Looks like a Geodude went to town around here. That or… Machoke.”

“This the place?” asked Daphne. Sylisa saw she was playing with her blonde hair, twirling it around one of her fingers anxiously.

Rapunzel noticed Daphne’s nervous tick and poked her on the side of her stockings to get her to stop.

“Yeah. Looks like no one’s home,” replied Sylisa as York and Hyde caught up.

“No way,” said Daphne. “You’re serious?”

“Do you see anyone?” she asked York.

“No. Been up this way before,” said York, catching his breath. “Saw a couple of Graveler holding up around this ridge.”

“Don’t see them around either.” Sylisa’s wary glare saw nothing but tumbleweeds and cacti. “I thought you said you got ambushed by a hoard of ‘mons while having a picnic.”

“That I did,” he said. “We came up here, Hyde got nervous. Can tell when he gets that lost puppy look in his eyes.”

Hyde crossed his arms and wore a stiff lip.

“Looks like you upset your buddy,” said Sylisa.

“Nah,” said York, “he just knows I’m right. We got close before taking a sharp turn up the hill. Found a wide-open patch of land, made the mistake of thinking it was safe. That’s where the gang of Roggenrola jumped us. Came from the top of the elevation, used Rollout to chase us down. Forced us to run back this way.”

“So, you passed here twice already,” said Sylisa.

“Right.” York nodded. “Second time happened so fast, we went that way there, then tossed the food into the mouth of the cave to lose most of ‘em. Still, the big one followed and managed to burst through one of the rock walls during an attack. Heard you yelling and, well, we had to help.”

“Wow, you’re such a helpful soul,” cheered Daphne.

“Are you mocking me?” he asked.

“Not at all!” Daphne impishly shook her head.

“Hm. No sentries and it’s the middle of the day. That’s odd, isn’t it?” Sylisa pondered.

“Maybe they went to check on the guy who went missing?” suggested York.

“Mm. Maybe.” Sylisa walked slowly up the hill. Each heavy step through the rough terrain felt foreboding. Her leather boots kept her from slipping on the steep incline and she clutched the rocky outcrops on the side of the path to steady herself. Eventually her progress brought her to the cave’s wide mouth. Silently, she crouched in a squat close to the entrance. Can’t see inside, too dark. Nia’s vision would help.

Daphne gave her a curious glance. She stayed quiet as Rapunzel inched close to Sylisa.

Sylisa bit her lip. Everything’s so still. Before the ambush the bandits were very loud. Could they have left? We didn’t cross paths. Feeling unsure, she turned around.

York and Hyde nodded. The young officer had drawn his sidearm, a polished revolver. A look of grit on his face he mouthed the words, “Ready when you are.”

Time to make a move. Until I get inside my eyes won’t adjust to the darkness. I need to keep going to help Nia!

Sylisa slipped through the entrance. Surrounded by inky blackness, the torches she saw yesterday from a distance while held prisoner had been extinguished.

Could they have abandoned their hideout? No, something feels off. I can’t quite explain it…something isn’t right—

“JUMP EM!”

Light flooded the cave, blinding her momentarily. Sylisa jerked her head back as a burning stake covered in rags lit on fire smashed into the wall right next to her face.

“Damn! We walked right into their trap!” exclaimed Sylisa. Another fiery javelin soared through the cave, whizzing right past her neck and into the clay beside her. She fell backwards between the two arrows, feeling their heat as she sunk to the floor.

“Get some, fools!” yelled a man as he loudly smashed an iron club against a makeshift shield he was holding. “Everybody, ATTACK!!”

A giant Machamp appeared from around the corner, smashing his fists through everything in his way, breaking down rocks and makeshift camping supplies like a living wrecking-ball. His body was covered in tattoos, worn by other members of the outlaw gang. In his arm, he held another spear tipped with a burning rag and was priming a throw.

“That’s—! Machoke evolved!”

With a battle howl, Machamp flung the fire spear at Sylisa. She could not move because she was pinned by the other two spears.

A jet of water from Hyde shot the missile off course, causing it to just miss nailing Sylisa in the head.

Sylisa’s heart was pounding, the flames all around her continued sear and scorch. She smelled the strong odor of the alcohol being used to keep the rags on the spears alit. Just when fear had gripped her, there was an earsplitting squeal.

A bulky pig monkey, a Primeape, tumbled forward into the fray, swinging his arms manically, howling in feverish rage. His bristly body her rushed at her, forming a pincer formation with Machamp to try and surround her.

“AHHH!” yelled Sylisa. “We’re surrounded!” As the two monsters got closer, she felt something slick brush past her.

“Bunch ‘em up!” York’s voice echoed from the mouth of the cave.

Daphne called out, “Rapunzel, Thorny Spikes!”

Skipping in front of Sylisa, Rapunzel spread her roots, burrowing them into the ground. They traveled up and along the narrow corridor in front of them, erupting into a thicket of briars on either side of the cave. By filling the narrow passage with thorns and vines, everything closed in.

“Sylisa, get out of the way!” cried Daphne.

Scrambling, she tried to roll to the side. Her foot slipped on one of Rapunzel’s roots and she tumbled onto her stomach. She barely caught herself with an outstretched arm before eating dirt. Hyde rushed underneath her to join Rapunzel on the frontlines. Again trying to retreat, Sylisa found herself on her side against a thorn-covered wall. The two fighters were closing in on their cramped vanguard. One of Machamp’s four fists, the one closest to Rapunzel, shimmered like steel.

He’s gonna use that same punch Hitmonchan tried! “Watch out, he’s gonna lunge at you with a fast punch!” exclaimed Sylisa.

Sure enough, Machamp shot forward with Bullet Punch. His burly body barged straight through the brambles of vines on the walls of the passage, cutting and chipping at his thick hide covering his muscles. The spikes did not impede, Machamp already had plenty of battle scars, many of them blending in with dark tattoos running along his skin.

“Dodge it with a pull!” shouted Daphne.

Rapunzel’s root embedded into the ground yanked her body abruptly to the side. The force brought her to one of the walls where the spike barricade had been set up.

Machamp swung down in a brutal pummel where she had been, the sound of a sledgehammer accompanying the smash, his metal-coated fist blasting a sizable crater into the bare earth and scattering dirt in his face. His opposite rear arm quickly wiped the debris out of his eyes.

Meanwhile Primeape had crossed partway through the passage covered in brambles. However, his bushy, fur-covered body had gotten caught on the spines. He shrieked angrily, bashing his fists manically at the thorn covered vines, becoming increasingly bloody as he violently squirmed.

Machamp extended his rear set of arms back. Primeape grabbed hold with blood-drenched hands. In a single tug, Machamp pulled his pal through the thicket. The tremendous force was enough to rip off a layer of skin along with a lot of hair. Primeape squealed, his rage building to dizzying heights from all the pain.

Terrified, Sylisa crawled back, inhaling a thick coppery stench permeating in the cavern’s air from the bloodshed. “Get out of here!” she yelled to her companions.

“Rip off their fucking heads!” roared one of the bandits. “Don’t let ‘em get away!”

Oh no! Locking eyes with Primeape, fear overtook Sylisa’s body. Too scared to move, and unable to escape the brambles even if she were, her thoughts could only think of her best friend. Will I ever see her again?

Primeape shoved Rapunzel aside with ease, his bloodshot eyes targeting only Sylisa.

Will she ever remember the times we spent together?

Advancing with a powerful charge, Primeape was right in front of her. The bloody creature raised his arms, eager to maul her.

No. I won’t leave her alone! I have to see her again! In a last-ditch effort, Sylisa kicked at the dirt by her feet, and scooped up sand in her hands, hurling it all at Primeape.

Her assailant squealed in such a high pitch. Garbling, snarling, grunting, and thrashing, the pig monkey was enraged to the point of no return. He dove at her, gore and dust in his enflamed eyes.

Sylisa closed her eyes, her body flinched, anticipating the pain as she heard the creature’s wicked screech.

Nothing. She timidly opened her eyes, and saw total darkness.

Wha—? Who turned out the lights?

Primeape had disappeared. Hyde and Rapunzel vanished too. The whole cave was gone. Sylisa sat exactly how she had a moment ago, yet in an unnerving emptiness.

Where am I?

In front of her, she saw a distant light take form. It resembled a distant star, a solitary light in the otherwise nebulous void.

A light?

With her fingernails she tried to clutch at the loose earth, but it was now a solid floor beneath her. It felt cold, smooth, like tile or ice. She couldn’t bring herself to look down, her neck would not budge while her eyes were fixated on the distant light in front of her. It grew brighter. Larger. Expanding until it was the size of the full moon. Its hypnotic hold over her did not abate.

Am I… dead? Is this what death is? Is this the light people go into when they die?

She could not be sure. The approaching light reminded her of waiting on the platform for the subway when she lived with Nia back in Unova.

Is that a train? Am I at the station by home?

As the mysterious light brought itself towards her, she saw there was a black dot in its center.

Like the pupil of an eye.

The glowing eye was staring not at her, but through her. Its gaze pierced her spirit.

Her breath felt frozen inside her chest. Never had she felt so vulnerable. So exposed. Who she really was on display for the gazing eye. Her soul felt on display.

Who are you?! She wanted to yell, but she had no voice.

Nevertheless, her thoughts caused the enigmatic eye to lower its upper lid, shaped like a crescent. It did not cover the pupil, only the upper half.

What are you?

The floating eye did not answer her. Sylisa felt something warm inside her head. Like a headache at first, but then the sensation of dunking her head in a warm bath. The tingling irritated, when she sensed vibrations being pushed into her ears she fought against it.

No! Stay out of my head! You can’t go there!

The eye seemed to pull back. Though it remained at the same distance, something in the air shifted when she refused its psychic prying. There was no longer uncomfortable pressure on the sides of her head. It continued to gaze with an unblinking, perplexed stare.

I have to go back! I have to save her! My friend! I have to save — …!

The real name of her friend would not come. Tears clouded her vision. The eye blurred as she cried.

No, please. Let me go back. I’m lost without her. Without my best friend, I can’t be myself… by myself…

Salty rivers ran down her cheeks. Her whole body shivered from raw emotion. And then, there was a flash of light. The whole room illuminated for an instant. Sylisa’s vision was still foggy, yet she saw from the edges of her sight the interior of a massive basilica, filled with sparkling gold treasure from floor to ceiling. There were large, tall and narrow windows revealing a pristine blue sky, with high towers in the distance, on either side of the floating eye. The eye itself now had a body. Or rather, it had appendages. They were jet black arms, bent into a shape around the eye which resembled a hieroglyph. The left arm bent down from the top-left, and the right bent up from the bottom right of the center eye. As everything became distorted, Sylisa realized it formed the letter “N” but then there were more of the eyes behind the one in front. Five in total, but the distorting made the shapes of the letters they represented impossible to distinguish. Even though she could not see them clearly, she felt, deep in her heart, they were trying to tell her something.

Her name! It starts with N, like Nia.

Again, Sylisa found herself in a place she did not belong. The mysterious eyes and piles of treasure vanished. Inches in front of her, a snarling Primeape covered in thorny briars was about to ravage her with a flurry of punches.

“Water Gun, full force!” yelled York.

Instead of shooting a barrage of water bullets, Hyde launched a single stream of water. The powerful jet nailed Primeape right in the snout. He spluttered and coughed, taking in even more water to his lungs as he snorted in anger.

Seeing Primeape had fallen back gagging, York called on his pal to seize the opportunity. “Drench the floor, Hyde!”

Hyde shot a burst of bubbles and covered the entire cave in a swath of water. Then for good measure, he let loose a stream to blast all the targets in the confined space, forming a big puddle beneath them.

“Alright!” In a swift motion, York aimed his revolver and shot at the ground. There was a bright spark, the cave illuminated when the electric round struck the wet patch with a zapping burst. The gang of brigands convulsed, their bodies stunned.

However, Machamp managed to avoid the attack by using his top two arms to grip a stalactite and lift himself out of the water before the projectile hit.

“No!” said Sylisa. “Look out!”

Machamp lunged forward, aggressively leaping with the momentum from jumping clear of the hazard. His back’s arms caught onto columns in the cave as he advanced, pushing off them for leverage to dart side to side and avoid Hyde’s stream of Water Gun.

York called out, “Hyde! It’s closing in for Close Combat!”

Hyde dashed in with an Aqua Jet and slammed his head into Machamp’s brawny abdomen.

Machamp was hardly bothered by the strike. In fact, it looked as though he did not even feel anything through his muscles. He snatched Hyde with one of his four arms. With the other three, he proceeded to pummel Hyde with a flurry of punches from all directions.

“HYDE!” shouted Sylisa. Machamp was throwing so many punches her eyes could not keep up. “Oh no!”

“Hyde, fall out of Substitute; strike from behind where his arms can’t reach, up and over with Natural Gift!” said York.

For a moment, Machamp appeared confused as Hyde appeared behind him. The illusion he held disappeared. Bellowing, he realized he had been fooled.

Hyde navigated behind Machamp, dodging the brute’s flailing arms with short dashes. When he got past the second pair of arms, he leapt over Machamp’s crown with a bright yellow Sitrus Berry from the picnic in his paw. Hyde looped down, right in Machamp’s face, crushing the Berry into the monster’s eyes. It splattered purple goo all over.

Machamp covered his head defensively with two arms, screaming in pain, and stumbling backwards. Rubbing only spread the aggravating reagent further. His agonizing yells were worse than Primeape.

“There’s your opening!” exclaimed York. “Knock ‘em out!”

“Time for a nap!” shouted Daphne. “Sleep Powder!”

Using the opportunity to focus her incapacitating move, Rapunzel blew forth a huge cloud of glowing green pollen into the cave. It stuck to everything, coating the whole interior of the cramped space.

One by one, the bandits collapsed from the spores. Soon their snores echoing sounded like the rumbling of a volcano.

“Phew… What a cacophonous lot they are!” said Daphne, pleasingly clapping her hands together.

“Ouch…oww.” Sylisa groaned, slowly getting back to her feet, rubbing her bruised palms. The heck was that?

“Hyde, are you okay?” York helped Hyde up. “Nice work with the deception.”

“Thank you,” Sylisa pet Hyde on his head, “for stopping them. Your Substitute even had me tricked.”

Hyde smiled at her. Flushing, he rubbed his collar against her palm and purred proudly.

I was so scared, I couldn’t move. And then, there was that floating eye! The letter N. It looked so familiar. Could it have been another psychic? I felt something like it trying to push into my head before on the night of the eclipse. But this time it reacted when I tried to remember her name, like it felt my sadness. She raised a dirty finger to gently touch her pale cheek. Under her eye was dry. To her surprise, there was no evidence of the tears from mere moments before. What the…?!

“Aww! What about Rapunzel?” complained Daphne. “She’s the reason everyone’s in La-la Land! My little heroine!”

“Yes, she’s to thank,” said York. “Hyde might have been able to get the drop on Machamp, but they had numbers and an ambush set up. We were lucky no one got hurt.”

“What were you thinking?” Daphne asked Sylisa. “Rushing in like that! You didn’t have your ice-kitten!”

“I wasn’t thinking clear,” said Sylisa. “I had a one-track mind to help her. That’s all I could think about. I was stupid for barging in to their trap.”

“Don’t you dare do it again, or you might never see her,” said Daphne. Then her seriousness evaporated into a sunny smile. “Besides, we might not have your back next time, and then you’ll be stuck with your bad luck all to yourself!”

“That wasn’t my curse. Or bad luck.” Her lips curled, at first struggling to take responsibility. I need to be honest. They risked their lives for me. “I…messed up.”

Daphne huffed. “Whatever you say.”

“Learn from your mistakes, so you don’t make them again,” said York.

“I know.” Sylisa considered how close she came to death. It made her chest hurt to think about never seeing anyone again.

“They’ll be out for quite a while,” said Daphne. “Did you know a Roselia’s spores are twice as effective after a nutritious meal rich in nitrogen?”

Sylisa sighed. “If anything, you’re consistently eccentric. Even in times like these.”

“Oh ho ho, flattery will get you nowhere!”

“That’s not what I meant,” grumbled Sylisa. Nevertheless, she felt better inside knowing she had been given a second chance, and one without their resentment. “I’ll be more careful.”

“Good!” said York. “We ought to make use of the time we’ve got. How long you reckon they’ll be out for?”

“Hmm…” Daphne pawed her chin in thought. “I dunno, how about a few hours? Sound good?”

“I thought you knew how the pollen works!” Sylisa said in surprise.

“Well, usually her victims aren’t electrocuted before getting hit with the snooze button.”

Sylisa tried not to smile at the joke. She turned to York and asked, “Some quick thinking back there, combining the water with your gun. Were those electric rounds?”

“Long-range electroshock projectiles,” he explained. “They’re special copper bullets with Electrium cores. Impact compresses the copper bullet around Electrium crystal to create a strong discharge caused by high voltage when the Electrium is disbursed.”

“Crystals huh…neat.” Sorta like prism bombs.

“Can’t spend the ammo too recklessly either,” said York. “The company who makes these elemental bullets uses scraps of unprocessed crystal. The Electrium is destroyed, which makes them expensive considering how rare those crystals are. However, mixing it with water from Hyde makes the current carry like an electric fence.”

“Gotcha,” replied Sylisa, “you get more bang for your buck.”

“Aren’t you a smart cookie!” Wearing a grin, Daphne knelt by Hyde and pat his head. “Maybe it might be worth keeping you around as a water hydrant. Though I still think you’d make a lovely fur scarf!”

With an unnerved look on his face, Hyde scampered over to York.

Inspecting his revolver, York gave a nod. “Alright, even though I think we got them all, can’t be too careful. There could be more hiding in the back of the cave.”

“Right,” said Sylisa, “either way, don’t want this opportunity go to waste. Let’s go.”

“Cautiously,” emphasized York.

“Okay, okay,” said Sylisa. Each step felt heavy. Eventually there was a dim light near a stash of loot. A torch glimmered like a beacon, a lighthouse in the shadowy depths.

Hyde growled softly.

“Looks like nobody else is down here,” said York.

“Thank goodness!” said Sylisa, upon seeing her equipment on the table. “My Armadas!” she exclaimed, snatching the fabric possessively between her battered fingers.

York looked surprised by Sylisa’s joyful reaction. “Uhh, come again? Your Armadas?”

“Interesting… very… interesting,” murmured Daphne. “I’m rather curious as well, Armadas may refer to a large force if we’re going by loose definitions.”

“Sorta, but I dunno.” Sylisa fidgeted with the glove, suspiciously eyeing Daphne. That’s keen of her to figure out. Her ditziness really could all be an act. Problem is she’s only serious when she’s about to beat someone up.

“Don’t leave us hanging!” said York.

“So.” Daphne leered. “What’s this Armadas of yours do?”

“It—” How do I explain it to them? I don’t want them to know Mathias pinched a classified military tool. “—It’s got a special power,” she said. Crap, now they’re both looking at me like I’m crazy. “Erm, I’d show you but that might not be such a good idea right now.”

“Why not!?” they both asked in interested unison.

“Because—” she studied it and noticed how grimy it had gotten. “—It’s filthy, that’s why! I need to get it cleaned before I can wear it.”

“Hmm. Why not have Hyde clean it?” suggested York. “How ‘bout it, pal? A little hot water and a soft rubdown from his fur will clean it up in no time.”

“I wonder if it would damage the circuitry. Never washed it before.” She tapped her finger on one of the cells and noticed it had been completely drained of electricity. “Damn. Going to need to find a way to charge it or a new battery.” She looked over at Hyde, who was ogling the device curiously. “Ya’see this? There’s no red glow on these seven hexagons. It’s got no juice left, so it won’t shock you.” She handed it to him.

“It’s electrical? Can it shock like a bolt of lightning?” asked York. He gestured to his holstered revolver.

“Closer to the thunder part,” replied Sylisa. “Stored power can make a loud bang. I dunno too much about it, it reacts differently to different things.”

“So—” Daphne’s eyes narrowed “—you’re still trying to figure it out?”

Sylisa’s shoulders slumped, she thought about her mentor Mathias and Dare his Absol. “Um, yeah. There’s honestly a lot I don’t understand. Didn’t come with an instruction manual, that’s for darn sure.”

“Huh. Imagine that.” Daphne pouted. “Then again, your typical ‘mon doesn’t come with instructions either. Speaking of, there’s an uncanny resemblance to your little imp’s claws.”

“Right. It’s drained of energy so only the claws work.”

“Oooh! I have an idea! I’m going to try it on!” Daphne squealed, snatching it from Hyde’s paws.

“No! It’s mine, you’d stretch it out!” barked Sylisa.

“How rude of you! My arms are not chubby,” she said, tugging at the black silk. “Stretchy! Stretchy!”

“Cut it out, will you!” scolded Sylisa. If she breaks it, Mathias will kill me! “I’ll never get another one!”

“Okaaaay, fine, if it’s one-of-a-kind. You win this time, shadow girl.” Daphne grumbled, passing the glove to Hyde. “Isn’t flowery enough for me to wear anyway!”

Hyde sprayed it with water, and cleaned it off with a few rubs of his paws. He used the fur on his belly to dry it.

“Wow, you’re even better than the cleaners down the block,” Sylisa said with a smile, reminiscing Unova. “Thanks.”

“Bububwee!” Hyde happily blew bubbles and spun his forked tail around. The orange weasel handed her the Armadas, inflating his neck sack cheerfully as she took hold of it.

“That feels much better,” she said, putting it on. Still is a little wet on the inside, so it feels kind of good on my sunburn. Sylisa adjusted the clammy fabric into a snug fit. Now if I can just find a way to charge it, I’d feel a heck of a lot safer in a bad situation. I won’t be so useless when I need to help Nia.

“An audacious piece of equipment, fitting for your alleged “bravado”. Claws too, like the little knife kitten.” Daphne pooh-poohed with a wave of her hand. “Isn’t that a happy coincidence.”

Sylisa could see Daphne’s eyes were laser focused on the Armadas’ ring.

“And that…the arm you wear it on…sinister, I see.”

“Sinister?” Sylisa clenched her left hand into a fist. The two claw hooks she used for climbing protruded. “Whadya mean?”

A soft laugh, and then a smile. “Oh, it’s super-duper sinister. It’s black like your hair and outfit, why am I not surprised.”

“Bladed shadows in the night you’ll never see coming until it’s too late,” said Sylisa in a grave tone, trying not to smirk. They don’t know that I’m misquoting some old saying from the Thieves’ Code.

“Pst,” whispered Daphne, “detective, I think we have a wanna-be Grim Reaper in our midst. Her kitty devil isn’t even with her and she’s acting like the Princess of Darkness!”

York rocked his head. “And she’s the one who claims we’re immature.”

“I can hear you teasing.” Sylisa huffed. “Count your blessings we’re on a timeframe.” With that, she began searching for her other possessions, rummaging through all sorts of loot. None of it was hers, nevertheless she decided to take what she found if it appeared valuable.

“Get everything back?” asked York.

“Can’t find a few of my things,” she admitted.

“Really? You seemed to be grabbing a whole lot of stuff,” he pointed out.

“Hey, not my fault I was loaded when I got kidnapped,” she said, pocketing another jeweled trinket. The bandits don’t deserve these treasures. It’s MY right to take them! Sylisa told herself as her pouches became heavier. She had to use a sack to store some of the goods.

With a drawn-out sigh, Daphne said, “Oh brother, you’re making me feel like we’re the bad guys here, Sylisa.”

“Cool your jets, flower girl. I’m still looking for a cell phone, a Dusk Ball, and a clear sphere with a red diamond crystal inside.”

“Um…” Daphne coddled Rapunzel close to her bosom. “Well, good luck! Don’t dawdle too long!”

“How about you, York? You see any of those?”

“I only know what one of those looks like because you happened to describe it,” he grumbled.

Figures. Without my cell phone I’m stranded. Without Nia’s Dusk Ball, I can’t be sure — “Ouch!” The sharp pain in her head returned. —she’s okay. And without the treasure, I failed my mission. I need to find where it went! Or else—!

“Um, hey, Sylisa,” said Daphne. Her tone was unusually serious. “Your nose is bleeding.”

“My what?” She put her hand above her lip and sure enough there was a small river of red liquid flowing. “I…uhm… I have a headache,” she said, feeling woozy.

“Here,” said Daphne, handing her a petal from Rapunzel’s blue flower, “pinch your nose with this. …Yeah, like that, you got it.”

“Why’s this work?” Sylisa spoke very nasally.

“It’s a holistic remedy passed down for generations,” explained Daphne. “Her blue petals secrete a naturally curative ointment. Her pink flowers have stronger aroma, but these blue ones contain a healing oil. Because of this, azure roses are considered key to health and, in some circles, immortality.”

“No way,” she said. The tip of her nose started to feel numb. It manifested in a weak gasp then a frail sneeze. Sylisa sniffled, embarrassed by the girly noise. “…I don’t buy the immortality part. That’s silly.”

Daphne chuckled. “Aren’t you cute. Now, be sure to keep your head tilted forward so you don’t swallow any blood.”

“Hate to break up your little chat, but there was something in that prison cell where I found you.” York’s grim expression did not bode well.

“Oh right, good thinking! We didn’t check there,” replied Sylisa. “We better go have a look. Who knows, there might be more stuff—”

“—Not so fast.” York put out an arm to stop her. “There was something there. Something terrible. After what you told me, I get the feeling it’s related to Drampa.”

Now I’m curious. She adjusted the flower on her nose and asked, “What do you mean?”

He lowered his voice. “These bandits did something awful. When I rescued you, I noticed it in the corner of my eye.”

“Uhmm. Y’know, I was really out of it. My head felt like a warm bowl of soup from being out in the sun,” said Sylisa, “so go ahead and spill it.”

“That’s what I figured when we met. You had no idea. Kept my mouth shut and focused on getting you out of there,” he said. “Saw the torture implements on the table and… I started to put the pieces together. But I knew I had to come back here to investigate. The only question was whether I needed to call for backup first.”

“You’re killing me with suspense, geez!” complained Sylisa. Guess it explains why he didn’t return to town.

“I started putting the pieces together yesterday. I was hoping the two weren’t related, but now there’s little doubt,” explained York. He put his steady hand on her shoulder and said evenly, “Sylisa, it’s something we have to investigate. With your bad headaches, causing you physical symptoms from distress, are you certain you’re okay with this?”

“I’ll be fine.” Her nose had stopped bleeding. “What’s the big deal?” She looked over to Daphne. She isn’t her usual self. Got real quiet after what York said. I caught her glaring at the Armadas, then she quickly looks away. But now she’s just staring off into space.

Sylisa followed York down the dingy hallway leading to the cells where she had been kept. With a heavy sigh, York lifted the torch he was holding high in the air to illuminate the prison.

Her mouth fell in shock. On the ground in a cage were the remnants of a body. A tiny human skeleton. “This…” she started to say, but the words would just not come. She felt herself shaking. Her heart felt like it was being tugged out from her chest by barbed wires.

“Oh no…” Daphne gasped. She held Rapunzel tightly. The little rose whined at the redolence of decay in the still air.

York knelt and inspected the body. “The mystery of the man-eater. It all makes sense. The boy from town who went missing. His name was Trevar, and his parents were worried sick. He had with him a trinket, a unique round toy of some sort. Said it was his best friend’s wagon. The last thing he said to his friend at school was that he was going to visit his friend by the river.” He gestured to a small orb, tired onto a broken piece of string, handing on a crooked nail near the foul implements on the table. His hand closed around the amulet.

With a mournful expression, Hyde’s tail drooped. He let out a whimper.

Slumped over the victim, York spoke with distress in his voice. “This is his body. That I am sure of. Same age. Same physique. And the amulet he had. This can only mean one thing. Drampa was not eating men. Drampa was eating bandits, and all of them happened to be men. Drampa changed, falling into an outrage. Drampa, Trevar’s friend, wanted revenge. All the bandits were men, and so the creature in the river became a man-eater. In other words, monsters created a monster.”

“Why would—?” Sylisa began to speak, but her voice got caught in her throat. “How would—?”

“Drampa is of the Dragon Tribe, Draco, the Great Dragon of the North.” The wind had been knocked out of Daphne’s sails, she spoke with seriousness not befitting her usual demeanor. “They are said to be fiercely loyal through their bonds due to the mystical power they command. Some say it’s an ancient power from the heavens above. From the great constellation which spans the northern heavens. Their power has been around for time immemorial and allows them to see things from across vast distances, like the stars in the night sky.”

“You mean Drampa could see the boy was suffering from here?” With a frown, Sylisa admitted, “I really have trouble believing that.”

“Why’s that?” asked York. “When you form a bond, you have a kindled union of spirit. A bridge between souls.”

“You said that before,” whispered Sylisa. “About moves. About battle.”

“Those are ways to become closer,” replied Daphne.

Does that mean I bonded with her before? Did I destroy our bond by causing her to devolve?! Her legs began to feel unsteady, not just from the scene before her, but the revelation of what she did to Nia by activating the treasure they stole. “You sure it’s not some bogus science?”

“No. It’s not scientific at all,” said York. “You’ll understand what I mean once in time. There’s a connection there. A link that goes beyond physical bounds. A bond is as real as the two souls it connects.”

At first, Sylisa was speechless. Despite what little sense it made, the longer she brooded over it, the more the dark truth dawned on her. That’s why not being able to remember her name hurts so much! Her hand tightened into a fist, cold nails pinching against already sore palms. Finally, she spoke in a subdued response. “Bridges between souls. I didn’t expect a detective to be the religious type.”

“It’s not religious either,” answered York. His facial expression was somber, but his eyes seemed to convey an inner peace, sympathetically reflecting the orange light of the fiery torch. “There’s a God out there. You ask me, the world’s too complex to have happened by chance. However, the spiritual part of life is reflecting on our meaningful experiences. That is about finding, not what, but who we treasure. Seeing a friend, feeling as though you’ve known each other forever, despite “forever” being a foreign concept to mortals. These limitless friendships we’re able to foster in the limited time we’re given. They make miracles possible, by their own existence.” He bowed his head. “I’ve said enough. We should say a prayer for Trevar, his family, and Drampa. They were the victims of truly heinous acts.”

As Daphne and York closed their eyes, Sylisa could not help but keep hers open. Fixated on the little corpse, she found herself unable to even blink. Her vision clouded, then swayed with her unsteadiness. No matter how hard she tried to escape the thought, it kept ringing in her head over and over, relentlessly tormenting her worse than any headache.

I’m part of these heinous acts. I had her take a life. The life of someone who cared about their friend so much — I told her to kill… and she listened. Nia listened. To me. And, for the first time, we killed together.

The pain did not relent. Now it was in her heart too.

Nia wouldn’t do it without me telling her to. It was never like that before. She’s different now, as Sneasel. Our bond changed. Was the old Nia erased by the eyes? If what York said is true, about bridges between souls, I cut off my bond with her, broke us apart and caused her to forget who she once was. I even forgot her true name after she devolved. Which can only mean…

Sylisa’s whole body trembled violently once more. Desperately, she tried to bring her name back. The mysterious eye reappeared in the back of her mind.

I lost — I lost — I lost N—

Ice filled her veins.

No. I killed. I killed my best friend…!

Chapter Text

“What’s this?”

The young man’s deep voice startled Sylisa. She saw York by a faintly illuminated the corner of the underground room, adjacent to a row of empty iron cells. Those cells could hold a few small Pokémon or a crouched human, Sylisa had firsthand experience.

“What’s it now?” said Sylisa, trying not to sound as tetchy as she felt inside.

“Looks like there’s a message here,” said York. The ashen haired investigator pointed to a piece of parchment resting on a table where Hyde perched himself. “C’mon over.”

Hyde tapped his fluffy tail on the wood boards, still winded from the fight, he did not waste any energy to blow bubbles.

Unsteadily at first, Sylisa hurried over, her body readjusting to the metal claws of the Armadas as she moved. How does Nia manage with claws all the time? Arriving next to Hyde’s side on the table, Sylisa investigated the paper. “Erm,” she said hesitantly, “it’s written in curly letters.”

“Cursive,” said York.

Daphne frolicked over in a resilient stride, her tulip dress swaying, and rose close beside.

As Daphne approached, Sylisa detected Rapunzel had a more pungent scent coming from her flowers. This whole thing must’ve upset her too. She scratched her itchy nose. Got a different smell than before.

Daphne pointed to the thick parchment. “Unlikely a bandit’s handwriting. Even less likely fine vellum would be an oaf’s first choice of parchment for correspondence.” With a finger on her cheek, she conjured a perplexed expression. “I wonder who the sender could possibly be?”

“Doesn’t have a name,” replied York, lowering his glare. “It’s addressed to the Scholar’s Lodge.”

Sylisa scrutinized the paper even closer, but the intense waviness of the ink, how it ebbed and flowed like water made her eyes dizzy. “I can’t read it. It’s like watching a Spinda run a mile,” she groaned.

York pointed to the bottom of the page. “There is a curious signature at the end. Looks a bit like the letter P, doesn’t it?”

“Wha? No way! That’s…!” In shock, Sylisa cupped her hands over her mouth. “That’s the Pokédollar symbol!”

“What?”

“Pokédollar?”

Their responses did not bode well. Steadying her thoughts, Sylisa took a deep breath. “Y’know, the…um thingamajig. Next to the price numbers when you gotta buy your Pokéballs. C’mon, ain’t like you’ve never bought something before at a Pokémart!”

“Wait, really?” said York.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Sylisa in a flustered tone, slipping back into her Unova street accent. “Quit messin’ wit me. You guys’ve gotta know. Like, seriously, you must be trippin’ if you don’t know. When you buy stuff, in stores, shops, businesses, it’s always on the pricetags, na’ mean?”

“You feeling alright?” York’s concerned gaze did not waver. “Truth be told, I haven’t seen this symbol in any store.”

“Me neither,” chirped Daphne. “We prefer silver. But make no mistake, none of our flowers are fit for two-bit cheapskates!”

“Silver? Like, literally chunks of metal? Impossible…everyone…they use Pokédollar…” said Sylisa breathlessly. “How? How do you not know?”

“You said you couldn’t read it though,” replied York.

“I can’t read the words, but that symbol is one-hundred-percent currency.” Holding her head, she growled in frustration. “You can’t be THAT crazy isolated out here!”

“Pull it together, Sylisa.” York held her shoulder. “This symbol here. When was the last time you saw it?”

Staving off her feverish anxiety, Sylisa’s thoughts were all scrambled. When I was in the store where I met Nia, did the price tags have the right currency symbol? I’m so used to seeing it, I didn’t notice if it was missing. But why? Why don’t they know? Something isn’t right. Her eyes narrowed. “I dunno when, buddy. I remember it bein’ there allatime, ‘n that’s a fact.”

“Curious,” whispered Daphne.

“Nuh-uh. You two are the weird ones. What’s the rest of it say anyway?” Sylisa asked York.

He cleared his throat and read the letter.

Scholar’s Lodge,

With renewed confidence, we anticipate your continued cooperation despite the nightly disturbances. Know this, your latest find has our finest minds impressed. The specimens you obtained are especially fascinating, far more so than any rare creature or paired bond procured for our purposes. Consequently, our prior misgivings following the occurrence involving the Dragon Speaker have been alleviated. The unfortunate incident has, shall we say, been eclipsed, though there may exist local contingencies. They are of an inconsequential nature. You will have no difficulties subduing the savages who call this place home. While you continue to gather anomalies, their antiquated technologies are not worth commandeering. Nevertheless, these people are different, their peculiarities worth studying because, make no mistake, in time, under pressure, even filthy coal produces brilliant diamonds. For this reason especially, beware the remarkably close bonds between man and beast, present here with little doubt due to the conspicuous absence of our miracle device. It would seem time still has a few tricks up her sleeve. Fortunately, without question, the same Time of Legends is almost within our grasp. Time’s grace is your fate. Ours, the power to change fate.

Evil Cannot Necessitate Ending Divine, Infinite, Virtuous Order.

Remember,

P

Sylisa’s horror-struck lips distorted with each word. “This is sick,” she said. “Talking about bonds between people and ‘mon’s like they’re specimens. Miracle devices. Subduing savages and gathering anomalies. This whole thing sounds like a cult, it wouldn’t be the first time I came across one of those in Orre.”

“A cult huh?” asked Daphne. “Out here?”

“Well eclipse worshipers, technically,” clarified Sylisa. “Didn’t know people got all excited about the stars and crap enough to make a ritual out of it.”

“You think this is related?” York asked her.

“I couldn’t say. Was um, you know, by standing. The cult people disappeared before I could find anything useful about them. The Blood Eclipse drew them out of hiding and they had an offering pyre for some dragons.”

“Dragons, huh,” replied Daphne, “that’s what the letter talks about too.”

“Kinda hard not to with the Night Dragon still at large,” said York.

Sylisa shook her head. “The dragons were in chains. There was a man named Drake leading them somewhere they didn’t want to go. They weren’t free. And the more I think about it, the less I think the Night Dragon is free either.”

“So what do you make of this?” he asked.

“It reeks of trafficking. Or something worse.”

“Trafficking?” asked Daphne with a confused expression.

Sylisa glowered. “Exchange of live bodies. I dunno, it’s cryptic.”

“Hold on,” said York. “If that’s the case, why’d they kill the boy?”

“I-I don’t know,” stammered Sylisa. “Don’t try and get inside their heads! These are rotten people we’re dealing with.”

“It doesn’t make sense, Sylisa.” York reasoned, “The letter, we don’t know who sent it. We don’t even know who it was originally addressed to.”

“Scholar’s Lodge?” said Sylisa. “Sounds like the book store I walked by every day on the corner of Narrow Street next to Cafe Sonata.”

Daphne shrugged. “Never heard of it,” she murmured.

“These bandits called themselves the Dune Devils,” recalled Sylisa. “Maybe it’s a different alias.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” replied York. He nodded to Hyde, who stood tensely upright with his arms crossed. “As it stands, we don’t have concrete evidence this group of bandits is the same as those taking orders from someone referring to themselves as P. For all we know they could have robbed the messenger of this letter. We don’t have a bead on the sender OR the receiver and we won’t until the bandits come to. Even then, I doubt they’ll cooperate with our investigation.”

“Read b’tween the lines. That P is the symbol for Pokédollar,” insisted Sylisa, shaking her head. “I’m telling you, buddy, where I’m from, that P means cake. Put it together! They’re bandits. The cages. The body. They’re gettin’ dough for their victims or — Hey, why are you so quiet?”

“Hm? Oh, me?” hummed Daphne, clearly in another world.

Sylisa frowned. “Uh-huh, you. What is with you and spacing out on Zel’s buds?”

Daphne wore a plain smile. “Zel?” she repeated, holding her Roselia closely to her chest. “Didn’t realize our Princess of Darkness gave out nicknames after that little speech she gave about how juvenile it is.”

“Shuddup,” said Sylisa, her checks felt flushed from being called out. “Don’tcha do business? You got a flower-selling gig in town. Whatddya you make of it?”

“Tsk. Certainly not this type of unsavory business,” said Daphne with a puckered scowl. “However, I do find it incredulous this particular P symbol means currency to you. Presuming you’re not mistaken, which I’ve yet to determine, it lacks an amount. THAT is suspicious.”

“Huh…” Sylisa inspected the signature again. “You’re right! Doesn’t make sense to write a goofy letter. Whoever could’ve paid ‘em for whatever and been done with it without the stupid note.”

“Precisely.” Daphne shook her head, a rather serious expression on her face. “A covert exchange is not befitting such a well-penned, fine letter. Let alone the embellished verbatim at the end. No. This correspondence does not have the curt manners of an invoice. It seems to me more like a gesture of gratitude.”

“G-Gratitude?” repeated Sylisa, feeling a mixture of emotions welling up in her gut, most of them angry. “What for? Killing this kid?!”

“Beats me,” Daphne said with a deep exhale, which almost sank her chin right into Zel’s head. “Something must have really sent the writer of this letter into a tiff, but all’s been forgiven because of something special discovered by Scholar’s Lodge.”

Sylisa’s heart raced. Could it be the treasure!?

Daphne kept talking. “Furthermore, I believe the line at the end constitutes a secret signature. A riddle paired with an innocuous character. Alas, for what purpose?”

“Who does that?” Sylisa grumbled. “I mean, let’s be real. Who signs off as the Pokédollar symbol?”

“You’re familiar with it, why don’t you tell us,” replied York.

She growled, biting the side of her lip. “Not even the mob would. It’s stupid ‘cause anyone’d recognize THAT calling card! Unless it’s you two, I guess.”

“Humph, you couldn’t even read it!” said Daphne.

Hyde growled, sticking himself between the two arguing girls and raising his arms to try and get them to stop bickering.

“C’mon, we need to work together,” said York. “There has to be a hint. Or something we missed. The last line doesn’t sound normal like Daphne mentioned. It could be a clue.”

“I’ve seen hieroglyphs less cryptic.” Sylisa puffed out her chest, pretending to sound important as she spoke with a haughty tone. “Evil Cannot Necessitate Ending Divine, Infinite, Virtuous Order. Remember, P.” Sylisa’s shoulders slumped as she respired. “Seriously? What. The. Frick. Does it mean anything at all?”

“Not on the surface,” answered York. “But I will find out.”

Hyde gave a serious nod, a bob of the head with a furrowed brow.

“This whole thing stinks.” Sylisa bemoaned, glancing at Zel. “And it ain’t her buds.”

A puny smile appeared on Daphne’s face. “You can sense it too then? There’s a difference in her aroma based off her feelings. Right now, as you can imagine, she’s troubled. Less floral, and a bit more bitter.”

“It’s…weird. I guess – join the club,” said Sylisa with a crooked expression.

Zel rubbed her leaves together to generate a soft hum.

She really is on the same wavelength as the rest of us. Sylisa thought about Nia. I miss feeling that way with her. Now every moment I’m with her it’s all new. Will we ever have that close bond again? How? I can’t even remember her name.

Daphne explained, “They feel for those around them. It should come as no surprise: our sentiments are often shared.”

“In any event, there’s more going on here than we thought,” said York. “Sylisa, what about the items you couldn’t find? Think anything mentioned in this letter refer to those?”

Dang, he doesn’t miss a thing. “Dunno, one had my Dusk Ball, he was eaten by Drampa. But —” Sylisa grimaced at the thought of the powerful treasure in the hands of someone even worse than the bandits. “There’s also the Dragon Speaker. Could it be related to the Night Dragon?”

“—Or Drampa,” interjected Daphne.

Sylisa raised an eyebrow. “Wha? Drampa? What’s the bandit-eater got to do with anything?”

“The beginning of the letter already addresses nightly disturbances, attributable to the Night Dragon,” said Daphne. “Then, wouldn’t you know, something else happened. Both parties knew enough to not discuss it in detail. The letter seems to be more about addressing misgivings associated with that incident.”

Impressed, Sylisa admitted, “That’s shrewd.”

York nodded. “Right, so they’re unlikely the same dragon. But why Drampa?”

“Paired bonds,” replied Daphne in a more fragile voice. “The little boy’s body we found here. If he was Drampa’s friend, he could potentially be the Dragon Speaker mentioned in the letter. His death may have something to do with the incident recalled by our anonymous sender.”

“Tch. Something ‘bout that letter rubs me the wrong way.” Frustrated by how little she understood, Sylisa blew her hair out of her face and turned away. “Only corpses here. We shouldn’t stay. Gotta do something about those sleeping bastards.”

“Agreed,” said York. Taking the mysterious letter, the group headed back toward the main entrance of the cave.

Sylisa walked ahead at a brisk pace. Her thoughts were racing with all she had been through.

What’s happening to me? Am I starting to lose my grip on reality? I almost got killed by an enraged Primeape. Then I saw a weird floating eyeball shaped like an N. Those same weird eyes were there that night when it turned to day under the Blood Eclipse! Now P is sending creepy letters. Nobody remembers it’s the Pokédollar symbol! The Time of Legends. The signature. The cult in the desert. And to top it all off, the treasure took her away from me!

Soon she would see the bandits who were passed out. Her muscles wrought with an awful tension.

Gotta prepare myself. What they did was terrible. I’m so powerless without Nia. And because of me, she’s lost all her power. I’m such an idiot. I should have just been Alisha, the stupid spoiled brat! Sylisa isn’t suiting me or her.

Angrily, she kicked a small rock and it ricocheted against the cave wall. She wanted to scream. To vent. To let out all her feelings at once so she did not have to hold them inside any longer.

I don’t have Nia here to make me feel any better. But would she? Who is she? Is she really the same friend as before, just in a different body? Will we ever be close like we were before? Did she forget me? How can I bring her back? Without her ball! Without her name! I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do! Maybe I should have died from Primeape. I’m so useless… so alone.

Daphne and York had fallen behind. They were conversing, however Sylisa did not care to speak with them. She already had her own thoughts to confront.

They saved me. But I can’t show my true feelings for Nia or they’ll think I’m even weaker than I already am. Have to be strong. Tough. Brave. If I don’t show courage, I’ll start to second guess myself. Rethink my actions in battle, the old man’s teachings, Dare’s Punishment technique, and what Nia had to do. We need to be Shadows, professional Night Thieves. Now more than ever, I must be Sylisa. That’s the only way I can get her back. The only way to save my best friend.

There they were, the group of thugs, snoring loudly by the alcove nearest the cave’s entrance.

“These monsters,” whispered Sylisa. The boiling anger in her chest made Sylisa want to lash out in every direction. “They turned me into a killer. Turned her into someone I don’t even recognize all because of what they did to —”

The four others walked into the cavern’s antechamber.

“—What’re we going to do next?” asked Sylisa, barely suppressing an outburst.

“Too many,” replied York. “Six, seven, Primeape, and a Machamp. Can’t arrest them all right now.” Assessing, he and Hyde walked past the sleeping group of bandits. “Her powered-up Sleep Powder really did a number on them. Buys us valuable time to plan our next move. Let’s have her bind the bandits’ arms and legs with vines so they don’t get away. We can’t fit them on your convoy, but maybe —”

“—We would be better off without them,” said Sylisa. She icily unsheathed her claws. Their glistening edges shone orange in the dim torchlight, reminding her of the last night she had spent with Weavile. A night they battled the Night Dragon, the massive Charizard whose wings blotted out the Blood Eclipse. Simply staring at the blades gave Sylisa an empowering sensation in her arm. She clenched a tight fist, remembering her vanished friend. I can channel my anger into the sleeping murderers with these claws.

Hyde growled. “Buhwe!” He darted in front of Sylisa and shook his head, stretching out his little arms, as if to somehow block a fully grown human through sheer force of will. His tail smacked against the ground to say quite clearly “No!”

“I can’t let you kill them. Not until they’ve stood trial,” said the detective by Hyde’s side.

“Oh really?” Sylisa tilted her head. “It’s okay for them to torture an innocent soul to death, but slitting their miserable gullets while they peacefully sleep is where you draw the line?”

“Listen to yourself. Killing people in their sleep!” York shook his head and stubbornly stared her down. “No matter how awful these men are, that’s not the right thing to do.”

“It isn’t right!? This whole thing isn’t right!” she snapped back. “I didn’t realize we were being right by treating those who showed no mercy with compassion. They don’t deserve it!”

Daphne spoke out. “Sylisa, you’re acting like a different person since you found that glove with a Z-Ring.”

“What do you know about it?” asked Sylisa, looking at the Armadas curiously.

“I recognize Sparkling Stone alloy anywhere. Besides, you said, “It’s got a special power,” didn’t you?” recollected Daphne. “Sparkling Stones are psychic crystals – prisms – of unrefined black crystal in their original form.”

“Sparkling Stone?” she repeated, mystified by the name of the alloy covering her hand.

“Right. Over your hand, see? Crafted in an unconventional design, but I’m convinced it’s intentional. Considering how difficult black crystals are to come by, let alone properly smith, whoever made it had an intent to shape it this way no matter the price. So, Sylisa, I can’t help but wonder a simple thing. Why on earth would someone shady like YOU be carrying something so rare, it’s one-of-a-kind around?”

“You don’t know me at all, flower girl!” sneered Sylisa.

Daphne glared at her. “I’ll be more direct. What does a Shade need a Sparkling Stone for?”

“Where do you get off callin’ me a Shade?”

Daphne’s shoulders slumped. “I happen to see it all the time, though some people around here would too if you turned your back on them.”

“Pfft, ‘cause of my ass?” Scoffing, Sylisa said, “I got news for you, I’m not who you think I am. Neither is Nia.”

“Oh, so that’s how it works, is it? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say, “What’s Nia got to do with anything?” but she’s the reason you wear those special claws, isn’t it? To feel closer to her.”

“So what!?”

Crossing her arms, Daphne pouted. “I know you’re a little dark and cold to begin with, but Sparkling Stone isn’t meant to be so refined. This one, the Armadas, is precisely modeled to promote a single form of strong resonance instead of a generic assortment. Without Nia near you, it’ll channel your feelings into whatever it is being worn as.”

“That’s why the ancients wore them as unadorned armlets.” York added, “There’s an old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It probably helps a great deal when the two of you are close, but stray and it’ll take more willpower to control it from reflecting your feelings as the shape it was formed into.”

“Mathias knew I could handle it!” yelled Sylisa. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have trusted me with it. This is my Armadas, not yours! I’ve got enough strength to bend it to my will! You hear me?”

“Even if you can find a way to bend the psychic prism to your will,” said Daphne, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who didn’t so much as have a heart to temper that will.”

“I’m NOT here to make friends!” she explained, firmly holding her hand on her trembling wrist where the bracelet rested. “I came here to do a job.”

“The job was to investigate, not to kill,” insisted York.

“You don’t get it,” said Sylisa. Her mind painted the picture so clear. Vengeance was the only power she had left after being robbed of her friend. “They killed. Tortured and murdered. That’s what they did to the little boy, detective. And you’re going to let them go free.”

“Not going to let them walk,” he said sternly. “Need to mobilize a larger task force. As it stands, we can’t transport all these sleeping bodies back to town in the DPV. You know that won’t work.”

“You’d risk them running away? Who will their next victim be?” Sylisa’s voice quivered along with her glove’s blades. “Another child? Maybe a son or daughter, perhaps even someone’s best friend.” Her eyes started to water uncontrollably. She quickly turned away to cover her distraught face. “Dammit. Goddammit, you —”

York interjected, “— Slaughtering them arbitrarily doesn’t get us any closer to solving the case. It just puts you in the same league as them.”

Sylisa, her voice broken by short, gasping breaths responded, “These monsters they tried to murder me! Then I’d never see her again!” At this point, she was desperately trying not to lose herself to tears. Her despair had given her an uncontrollable sense of self-loathing. “I ordered Nia to slay Drampa, who was innocent! He was eating the murderers! Givin’ the assholes who tortured and killed his friend their just desserts! It might have not been the nice thing to do, but to me it makes sense at least. The things they did… they don’t make ANY sense!”

There was a lull, save for Sylisa’s panting and the heavy snores echoing.

Then York spoke. “Those who fight monsters should tread cautiously lest they themselves become a monster.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” croaked Sylisa. “You tryin’ to be a shrink?”

“A consideration,” he answered curtly. “We’d all feel a lot more at ease if you’d put your claws down.”

“I…I —” Sylisa could see Hyde was really tense. His whole orange body seemed caught in a knot. Her heart started to cave. “I know they’re rotten,” she said, pointing the blade away from the group of outlaws and toward the torture room. “And all we have is the stupid letter.”

“The evidence is out there,” said York. He spoke calmly. “But their punishment is not for you or me to decide based on our emotions. They’ll be judged according to law.”

Sylisa’s whole chest felt feverish, yet for him to state the obvious to her made her even more agitated. “Emotions?” She repeated the word, scathingly thinking to herself, My ugly feelings. All out on display for everyone to see and judge me by. I can hide in the shadows, but I can’t even hide the way I feel? I’m a failure.

“Sylisa, it’s okay to be upset. But you don’t have to be upset on your own,” explained Daphne. “We’re all with you. Even Zel.”

York nodded. “So how about we think this through? No more carnage. You have the power to defeat your anger. Temper your feelings and win the battle you’re having with yourself. These men will face justice. I can assure you.”

Sheathing her blades, Sylisa rested a clenched fist against her hip. “You really are a noble, upstanding citizen, aren’t you? Or maybe you’re simply naïve. Mathias was right all along. Nia and I know the world’s a dark place. We’ll never be the jury, just the unlucky executioners.”

“You’re still upset about Drampa,” said York.

“Sylisa, I’m really worried for you,” said Daphne. She tried hugging her from behind.

“Psh!” Sylisa lithely squirmed out of Daphne’s arms. “Keep your stupid worries to yourself, flower girl. With monsters like these running around loose, you’ll need to,”

“Sylisaaa!” Daphne cried out. “Wait!”

“Let her be for a moment,” said York. “She needs to cool off. Even a girl with her icy demeanor isn’t immune to the flames of sentiment.”

“It’s not her proclivity I find worrisome,” replied Daphne. “It’s her disregard for herself! She isn’t acting right. You don’t think it has anything to do with the Armadas’ Sparkling Stone?”

“She almost got killed, Daphne. Saw a scene no one should. She misses her injured friend. That’s a lot for anyone.”

“Even a Shade.”

Storming off, Sylisa left the cave.

Chapter Text

Sylisa trudged to the entrance of the cave, a weariness in her heart and a heavy conscience.

Why am I letting myself get emotional? So unprofessional. So… Goddammit! I feel like I was the one who devolved, not Nia!

The bright desert sunlight hurt her eyes. She swung her arm at the wall, scraping her blade against the rock wall the same way she had seen Nia mark her territory countless times while she was a Weavile.

Now I’m all alone. I know why I’m pissed off, but I can’t fix it! My heart feels like it’s on fire! First my head, and now my heart. That scene. I felt something terrible inside. Vulnerable. Sorrow. Abandoned. Pain. The same way I felt when I left being Alisha behind. The same when I lost my best friend.

In contemplation, she leaned against the side of the wall she had scratched. She took a deep breath, trying to control her breathing as her eyes adjusted to the harsh daylight. At a distance ahead, outside the cave’s mouth, she saw two human figures walking along the riverbank.

“Huh?” Sylisa darted behind a large boulder by the cave’s entrance to better observe. Peering out, she watched with anxiousness. A man and a woman! That thing he’s carrying looks familiar.

Should I go back and tell them we’ve got more company? No, they’ll see me if I do, but they’re walking so if I hang tight they’ll pass by the cave without noticing.

Silently, she breathed shallowly through her nose and watched.

They look so out of place in the wilderness, but I guess the same could be said for us. He’s got a cane of some sort of cane in his hand. Like that weirdo Drake at the mansion. But he’s not as old as that maniac, got short brown hair. He’s gotta be around thirty and real muscular, which is even weirder cause why would he need a stick to walk? Maybe he’s a hiker. Dressed like one, got two tan belts over his big shoulders like suspenders.

As the strangers walked along, Sylisa saw more of the frail woman hidden next to the large man.

Whoa. Get outta town! What a bright yellow cowboy hat she’s wearing! Does she think she’s a cowgirl or in a rodeo? Naw, she couldn’t be a rider, not with a skirt like that. Makes mine look short. Though those cowboy boots of hers are seriously high.

She skipped along next to the large guy, reddish hair flowing in the breeze down to her waist and her western hat keeping her bangs from blowing in her fair face. The woman had a soft, mellow voice. “We’ve gone over this area already,” she said. “It’s all sand. This whole place is nothing but sand.”

“It’s a desert,” replied the man. His voice was deep and intimidating, yet ironically his posture made him seem less than threatening.

He looks and sounds like the type of enforcer the mob in Unova would hire. For such a strong guy, he’s hunched over the walking cane like his life depends on it.

She stomped the ground with her high, laced up boots. “I’m tired and my feet hurt.”

“Your fatigue is of no concern to the mission at hand,” said the man, stopping briefly. Holding something reflective in his hand he said, “We must retrieve it. It is imperative we do.”

Is that a compass he’s got? Can’t tell, but it sure is shiny.

“Yeeeaah,” said the girl anxiously. “Um, I’ve been wondering about that. If we don’t, then what happens?”

“No hypotheticals,” he said flatly. “There’s no logic in doing so when we’re starved for information. Wouldn’t want to arrive at the wrong conclusion for lack of good reason.”

“Geez,” she sighed, “you’re as taciturn as ever.”

“You still have the ability to feel things, do you not?”

“I’m…sorry,” she replied, her shoulders slumping. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Apologies are worthless,” he said. “You can’t offend me. It’s impossible, I assure you.”

The rodeo girl placed her hand, sparkling with a ring, on his waist and urged him, “I understand why you’re this way, War. But not how. Until then, the you I remember is somewhere else.”

“The way you word it makes my circumstances sound merely inconvenient, as if I’ve gone on vacation,” he replied dryly. “I can’t say that I like it this way. I can’t like anything. Can’t care about anything. The only thing left is the mission at hand.”

“Can you tell where she is then?” asked the girl. “By sensing where that missing part of you went, presuming it’s still with her?”

“That’s the only way I can effectively track her down,” he said.

“Then we must quit dawdling and move forward,” insisted the girl, the wild strings under her hat bopping around her neck.

“You read my mind.”

The pair continued to walk along the sands under the clear sky.

What a bunch of weirdos. I wonder what they might be looking for. Hopefully not the treasure! That might spell trouble, better go back and tell York and Daphne about them—

Suddenly Daphne came charging out of the cave, loudly speaking. “—Sylisa, the bandits are all knotted up! Why, oh why, are you hiding?”

“Shhh!” Sylisa whipped her head around and tried to hush her with a finger gesture over her lips.

But it was too late.

“Someone’s there!” exclaimed the female down the hill. “Up there! Is it a monster?”

The burly man quickly positioned himself in front of the young woman. The way he scrambled he appeared blinded, though his goal was clearly to defend the girl.

“Dammit. That’s why,” grumbled Sylisa, “way to blow our stealth, idiot.”

“Oopsie!” Daphne sheepishly lowered her voice, “Eavesdropping, were you? There are other ways of obtaining information. Such as talking, you know, like normal people.”

“You’re not normal,” hissed Sylisa as Zel brushed against her leg.

“Hellooooooo!” Daphne opened her lacy white parasol and gave the two strangers a friendly wave.

Sylisa jumped up and snatched her waving arm. “The hell you think yer doin’? That’s exactly the type of carelessness that’ll get us killed!”

“But those two don’t appear too dangerous,” said Daphne with a point.

The rodeo girl was waving, however the man just blankly stood there staring.

“Looks can be deceiving,” insisted Sylisa. “There’s something…off about the guy she’s with.”

“Hmm,” supposed Daphne, “indeed, the man does carry a stick. However, it appears we have friends and they do not. An inherent advantage for us, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Pft!” Sylisa scoffed. “Easy for you to say. You got a ‘mon if things go south. Nia is still recovering!”

“Wherever would we be without your nefarious imp? Ahh well.” She sighed. “I suppose fighting is out of the question. We’ll have to make do with having a pleasant conversation.”

“Don’t forget about the bandits,” said York. Walking out from the cave, he and Hyde observed the scene. “We’d best keep our introductions brief so we have enough time to head back to town and send out a posse for an arrest.”

Sylisa rolled her eyes. “We’re currently surrounded thanks to Daphne ruining our cover,” she said in a cold whisper. “Bandits inside the cave and two mysterious strangers down the ridge blocking our exit. I don’t like this.”

“Heyo!” called the female again from down the hill waving both her hands in a sign of distress. “Yoohoo!”

“We’ll be right there!” responded York. He lowered his voice and asked Hyde, “Hey buddy, you see any ‘mons nearby?”

Hyde shook his head “No.”

“Okay.” York nodded. “Keep a sharp lookout for an ambush. Can’t rely on Zel’s Sleep Powder being as effective out in the open as it was in the cave. Our contingency plan is to break up into two groups, snake around them, over the ledge, and head for the DPV as our rendezvous point.”

“I call going with Sylisa!” said Daphne. She fawningly grasped the back of her coat the way Nia did, albeit from an elevated height.

“Ungh.” Sylisa groaned. “You’re impossible, loudmouth.”

“Hurry up!” Daphne gave her a push.

Sylisa took point. York and Hyde backed her up on either side. Daphne cavorted in the rear along with Zel.

When Sylisa had gotten close enough to see facial features of the man. Unlike his companion, who had these bright, honey eyes, the man’s eyes were devoid of any color at all. His irises were completely grayed out like an old faded photograph. He didn’t appear blind, but had a sort of empty look.

Sylisa cleared her throat and addressed the man. “Hello. Who are you?”

“Warren,” he said vacantly without so much of a greeting.

“Hi,” said the significantly more animated woman next to him. “You’ll have to forgive Warren; he’s not himself as of late. Oh, sorry where are my manners? My name is Theresa, but Tear is fine too. The two of us are searching… we lost track of a mon and—”

Warren nudged Tear with his elbow, cutting her off. “A missing ‘mon,” he said flatly.

Hyde gave the area a scan with hands held above his eyes as he rotated, his tail slumping when he did not detect any signs.

“Missing, huh? I’m York. I’m an officer working at the local Bureau. Do you know when —” However before he could start asking questions he was interrupted.

“— And this is… dadadada! Blossom Fortune!” Daphne said in fanfare, jumping next to Sylisa and wrapping an arm around her warmly. Zel rushed up between their legs and posed with her flowers held high like pom-poms.

“B-Blossom Fortune? Are you kidding me? Why?!” Sylisa exclaimed, untidily squirming. “Stop being so clingy, it’s freaking me out! Hey, stop that! She’s scratching my leg!”

“Aw. Don’t scare them away with your shady antics! We’re working together for the Audernaut Adventuring Guild. My name is Daphne, and this is Sylisa!”

It’s bad enough you know cause of York but you’re ruining ALL my stealth giving out my thief name to these total strangers! “I can introduce myself,” rebuked Sylisa sourly. “I’m, uhh… Ali.”

“Apparently not. It took AGES for me to discover your real name!” scolded Daphne as she squeezed Sylisa’s glove. “Besides, Sylisa is a cute name!”

Sylisa isn’t even my real name, you dope. It’s Alisha. Sylisa twisted out of Daphne’s grip and brushed off the perfume and pollen smudged on her fabric. “That’s because you’re you. An annoyance. I’d rather play Voltorb Volleyball.”

Daphne gasped. “How could you say such a callous thing after all we’ve been through? You’re too coldhearted, even Nia will get the shivers from you.”

“Whatever, ignore this one,” grumbled Sylisa.

“Ah ha. It seems you’re all friends,” said Tear with a warm smile.

“AB-SO-LUTE-LY!” cheered Daphne.

Sylisa crossed her arms. “—Debatable.”

“These two are clearly twins separated at birth,” said York.

“You’re part of our family too, detective!” implored Daphne. “We’re companions! Allies! Friends till the end!”

York did not seem too amused, but still smiled.

Tear gave a joyous laugh.

Sylisa felt embarrassed, she was almost getting used to Daphne being a thorn in her side. She looked around, trying to appear distant from the cheerfulness. Yet she saw even Hyde and Zel wore matching grins, which instantly softened her jaded heart.

Warren however seemed to be completely checked out. He was paying attention, there was a consciousness apparent on his tan face, yet there was no emotional reaction.

His face is like the stony side of a mountain. Not even I can pull that off around happy Pokémon. Cuteness is too infectious for me to keep a cool head.

Speaking to Tear, Sylisa gestured at Daphne. “I know this one can be overbearing. She manages to piss me off whenever she opens her mouth. But enough about her. Is he gonna be okay?” Sylisa pointed at Warren’s stoic face.

“We’re trying. War’s a trooper. He might not look it in his current state, but he’s tough as nails and never gives up,” explained Tear. “That’s why I fell for him, truth be told.”

“Uh-huh. He looks tough enough to defeat any of us at a staring contest,” noted York.

“Heh, he’d probably laugh if he heard you say that and promptly challenge you on a dare. But no. Not anymore. Now he’s only indifferent. You see, Warren lost his ability to feel things. Or rather, he had it stolen from him.”

“Are you for real?” asked Sylisa. “I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“No, it’s true.” Tear wore a sorrowful expression. “I have to be emotional for the two of us. It’s some type of curse that’s afflicted him.”

“A curse?!” Sylisa repeated in disbelief.

“What else would you call a phenomenon that can’t be explained by reason?” asked Tear.

“A…MISS-TUR-REE!” said Daphne. In singsong, of course.

Warren, who had been very quietly watching Hyde and Zel with his colorless eyes, began to speak. “I can’t feel anything. Sadness, happiness, struggle, ambition, they used to mean something more. Now, no, all blank words to me.”

“Oooh! How about pain?” Daphne rather excitedly raised a clenched fist.

“I sense pain.” Warren answered indifferently, not even flinching at Daphne’s willingness to hit him. “My body repels from it. But in my head, I could care less.”

“Boooring!” Daphne booed, lowering her hand. “And here I thought we’d stumbled upon the perfect punching bag for training on! …Aw, c’mon, it’s a joke! Laugh! It’s funny!”

“Telling people you’re joking means it isn’t funny,” Sylisa told her.

“How rude of me! This poor fellow has lost his soul, his vim to live! We simply must restore the cherished gift of vibrant emotion. Darling Zel, how about you give Warren here an ample dose of your aroma. Something to liven the senses and clear out the depression perhaps? Prepare to be enraptured by the beauty this flower has to offer!”

“Wait—!” exclaimed Sylisa, realizing a little too late she had been standing right next to Warren.

“NOW!”

Zel’s two flowers fired a sickly-sweet volley of mortars. Twin yellowish bubbles of the substance lobbed right at them, exploding into pink puffs of intoxicating richness.

Sylisa started coughing as the clouds surrounded her.

Like…evaporated honey…

In an instant, the world was a tender haze all around her. Her foggy eyes could barely focus and she grew weak in all her joints.

“I’m …so tired.” Sylisa felt herself collapse with a light thump.

Her cheeks felt puffy with warmth and her nose tingled as though she had to sneeze. She tried wiping her runny nose with a limp wrist. The oils from the blue petal she had on her nose earlier had mixed with the airborne fragrance, dousing her senses further by gluing the sweet scent to her face. The more she fought to get rid of it by rubbing, the worse it spread onto her face. Soon not even her hands could move, her fingers limply falling next to her.

“The sun feels so nice,” she moaned, sinking low to the ground. “Mmm…warm sand…so relaxing.”

“What did you do to her?” inquired the monotone voice of Warren through the dense pink fog.

“Oh brother.” Daphne sighed. “Not even an augmented Sweet Scent worked against Mister Poker-face.”

Tear’s sweet voice resounded through the fading cloud of pretty, sparkling mist. “I think it worked on your friend.”

A familiar posh clap of Daphne’s hands, followed by that buoyant voice of hers. “OHMYGOSH! It did! Bravo! Zel, my dear darling, you are the finest aromatherapist!”

“Zelia!”

Sylisa felt something leafy brush against her kneecap, melting as it rubbed against her. All her senses felt incredibly magnified and mushy. Through her glossy eyes she saw the outline of Zel, resembling a puffy green cloud. “Stupid…flower.”

“Huh. That’s strange,” said York. “If the Sweet Scent worked on Sylisa but not on Warren, then we can deduce his condition is not ordinary.”

“Right you are, detective!” Daphne wore a bright grin. “Be careful with your praise or I might start charging for my brilliant ideas.”

“I…ung…hate you so much…why’d you have to test it on me?” Nothing seemed more appealing than a siesta on the warm sand. “Y’know, I wish Nia were here,” she yawned. “How ‘bout we go. I wanna go hold her and take a nap.”

“Hush, hush. Grownups are talking.” Cheering in a mocking tone, Daphne turned to the bruiser unaffected by the pollen. “Warren, my dear, you have an abnormal condition. Congratulations!”

“Thank you.”

“My word! He doesn’t understand sarcasm!” exclaimed Daphne, covering her mouth in shock.

“More importantly, what can we do to help him?” asked York. “Those colorless eyes are ominous. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Maybe we should bring him to a doctor in town.”

“No doctor has been able to diagnose him. But I appreciate your concern,” said Tear. “I’m sure, wherever he is, Warren does too.”

“You said that before. Mmngh… You don’t think he’s really here?” Sylisa groggily pointed out. Her vision begun to clear up a bit but her body still felt like dead weight.

Tear looked gloomily at Warren. “He’s like an empty shell. His strong spirit from when he was a fighter is gone. Even his pupil left him.”

“A best friend, yes.” Warren showed no sign of endearment, his words did not match his acknowledgement. In fact, his best friend sounded like a mere passing thought.

“He’s a fighter?” asked York. “Interesting.”

Hyde put up his dukes to say he understood.

“Maybe that’s got something to do with his condition,” said Daphne, finishing the young detective’s thought process.

“Warren is – used to be a talented martial artist,” Tear explained. “His skill was peerless. Could win against all odds, claimed victory from the jaws of defeat through sheer force of will. An indomitable spirit who fought alongside the best of the best —”

“—Okaaay, we get it, he fought real hard,” interrupted Sylisa. Then she yawned, asking, “Mmm…aaah, what made it go away?”

There was a flash of pithy ire across Tear’s face as she said one word, “Sybil.”

York asked, “Who’s that?”

“She’s the one who stole his spirit.” Tear’s voice wavered unevenly. “S-Sybil drained it all away. Her curse was what weakened Warren.”

“Uh-huh,” replied York, “okay, we need a description. Physical details of the perpetrator.”

“She’s about this tall,” Tear said with a hand at waist level. “She has two horns upon her head, and eyes of the same redness.”

York nodded. “Another monster then.”

“Naturally,” said Daphne, spinning her umbrella. “Don’t see too many folks with horns, other than demons in the storybooks.”

“Mmm… I bet even with their horns they’re soft…” mumbled Sylisa. Despite the haziness around her, she vaguely recalled the Kirlia from the night she reunited with Nia. Wonder what that little runt is up to anyway. She couldn’t be the same Kirlia, could she? I think Tear would have mentioned her golden bow.

“Sybil didn’t have to do it though,” said Tear. “She wasn’t like this always. Something snapped inside her, made her different, she changed overnight.”

“When did it happen?” asked York.

Tear lowered her rodeo hat. “It was on the night of the Blood Eclipse. It was like she became someone else, and that’s…that’s when she did what she did to Warren!”

“…!” Gasping, Sylisa almost blurt something about the eclipse, but she bit her tongue in time.

“I’m getting a clearer picture of what happened, Tear,” replied York. “Unfortunately, our present obligations require us to return to town to deal with a situation involving a group of highwaymen.”

“Bandits!” exclaimed Tear.

Again, Warren appeared compelled to protect her by interposing his cane and body in front of her. His quiet responses to Tear’s reactions reminded Sylisa of a dutiful Pokémon guarding a trainer.

“Yeah-huh. Good thing you ran into us and not them, huh? Hmmm…aaaah.” Sylisa started to speak, but her speech trailed off into another drawn-out yawn.

“Oh goodness!” cried Tear. “Were they in that cave you came from?”

“Mmhm. Bingo, Teary.” Sylisa bobbed her head drowsily, barely able to find strength in her neck muscles.

“You’re handing out pet-names left and right, Sylisa. A little catnip goes a long way.” Daphne smirked victoriously. “Anyway, the bandits are asleep. For now. We’d be imprudent to leave them there for an extended time lest they wake. Tick-tock.”

“We’re heading back to town, you’re welcome to come along and file a statement,” York suggested. “Might be a bit of a squeeze on the ride.”

Tear looked at Warren, as if expecting him to say something. The man did not so much as move a muscle however. “Actually, that sounds like a great idea,” she said.

“Nugh…oougghhhh…” Rubbing her tired eyes, Sylisa groaned. “Are we done here? I’m soooo ready to crash.”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Daphne held out a hand to help her up.

“If you ever do this to me again… I’m… I’m going to kill you.” Sylisa tried to sound threatening, however, her voice was far too airy, calm, and tranquil to be taken seriously. She told hold of Daphne’s outstretched hand and unsteadily wobbled to her feet again.

“Upsy-daisy.”

“Wooow…the ground. It’s so far away.” Sylisa felt dizzy simply from standing.

“If you got it deep in your nose, it’ll effect your space perception,” explained Daphne. “It wears off after a half-hour though.”

Sylisa rubbed her sinuses, she was not sure if the petal she used to stop her bleeding nose earlier made it worse. She grimaced in the direction they were heading. “And Nia…she’s so far. So, so far away…”

York said curtly, “We’re not going to get there any sooner by complaining.”

With a sniffle, she lackadaisically stretched out her arms. “I wanna lay down. And hug Nia. She’s like a velvet pillow. Even nicer than fluffy Dare.”

Daphne reminded her, “The sooner we get back, the sooner you can see Nia.”

“Mmmkay,” she mumbled.

The group made it back to the DPV without incident. The bandit they had captured was still passed out in the rear cargo hold, the vehicle’s open trunk. Nia however was awake and alert again. She held out her paws and scurried atop vehicle’s hood upon seeing her.

Sylisa, feeling exceptionally torpid, stumbled down the hill, barely able to keep from falling. She greedily hugged her Pokémon as though she were a soft pillow. “Mmmm! Nia, you’re so soft…!” she said holding her close to her heart. “Make that purring noise for me, pretty please!”

She yelped, unsure of what happened to the regular, cool-headed Sylisa. “What’s wrong with you?!”

“I’ll squeeze you ‘til you make it!” Sylisa squished her in a tight hug.

“Neeeyaaah!” cried Nia.

“That’s it! I’m gonna call you that. Neeeeeeyaaaaaahhh!” Sylisa buried the side of her face against her feather. It felt very soft, almost as soft as her velvety fur covered head.

“Oooh, aren’t they sweet together?” said Daphne with an impish smile.

Tear put her hands together and murmured, “That’s so precious!”

“I think she’s too far gone to drive us back.” Daphne nudged York. “How ‘bout it, detective?”

“I don’t mind,” he answered, taking the driver’s seat. “No way she’s going anywhere but la-la land.”

Everyone else piled in as well. Daphne sat up front again with Zel and Hyde in her lap. Warren sat in the backseat, with Tear close beside, between him and Sylisa. This left Sylisa smothered against the side of the backdoor, but she did not mind because it meant she could feel cozier with Nia. Though she could not read Nia’s expression from cuddling with her, Sylisa felt in her heart how close they were. “I’m so happy to be with you again, Nia,” Sylisa crooned over the engine’s start.

Nia purred again in her arms.

As York started to reverse out of the shaded grove, he turned to Daphne. “I didn’t expect a girl like her to be such a softy. It’s a bit unsettling what you can do with plants.”

“Indeed.” Daphne pet Zel on the side of her cheek. “But understand plants can only bring what’s buried on the inside out of the soil and to the surface.”

“So she’s kept these feelings for Nia inside all along?” asked York.

“You can’t force someone to feel love. Look at how cute they are! A moment ago, she’s the self-proclaimed Princess of Darkness, on a dubious mission of vengeance, and now, hah, completely helpless, clearly enjoying the simplest things life has to offer: Warmth and company. You see, everyone under Zel’s enchantment becomes like this. Even a Shade, it makes no difference. Spellbound, enraptured, beset by the absolute, undeniable love of all things beautiful!” Daphne frowned at the martial artist with colorless eyes. “Except for you of course, Warren.”

“Sheesh. You’re one terrifying flower arranger,” admitted York. He adjusted his officer’s cap so the strong wind would not take it. “Remind me not to cross you two.”

Daphne laughed mischievously. “Your astute reservations are noted, my dear detective. Now, do us all proud and take us home!”

With that, the group of unlikely adventurers began their journey back to town.

Chapter Text

The group continued to traverse a desolate sea of sand, covered by clear blue skies. Sylisa found the bumpy, cramped ride back to town became more bearable with Nia in her arms. Resting her weary eyes, she rubbed Nia’s head, her fingers tickling the feather behind her ear.

“Nia…” she said, her voice drowned out by the loud roar of the DVP’s engine.

Nia’s feather perked slightly.

“Is it really you?” she asked in a whisper. “Ever since that night, I couldn’t be sure. You changed. I didn’t know Pokémon could do that. But, more importantly, I never knew you as a Sneasel. If I could just remember your real, true name, Nia, then I’d know it’s you without any doubt in my heart.”

Nia sighed, nuzzling Sylisa.

“I’m closer to uncovering it than before.” Sylisa pressed her face close against her friend’s feather. “I was really scared, Nia, I could have died.”

The ball of mink in her hands shuddered.

“It’s okay, they saved me. But when it looked like my time was up, all I could think about was you and…I saw the floating eyes, those same eyes as the night we were separated under the eclipse. I’ve seen them before. They looked like letters, Nia. I want to… no, I have to believe, they’re your letters.”

Nia purred in a low growl which made her spine vibrate.

“I’m not sure like I used to be, my head is foggy after what happened. It’s not just Zel’s perfume. You can’t even remember yourself. It makes me sad. I misplaced part of you. Not your powers, not your evolutionary strength, YOU, Nia. Your name is something special you share with the world. My real name—” Sylisa realized she could not trust the company she was with. York worked for the law, Daphne’s eccentricities made her unlikely to keep a secret, and the two strangers, Warren and Tear, she had just met. She refrained from revealing to Nia her real name from before she became a thief, which was Alisha, and instead said to her friend, “—I promise you’ll remember my name. Just like I’ll remember yours. Okay?”

Nia’s head rocked back and forth quickly, causing her crown feather to brush under Sylisa’s nose, making her want to sneeze.

Her breath heaved, as though she were about to, but then Sylisa fell into a carefree laugh instead. “Eehee…” she giggled, stroking Nia’s tail feathers. “You’re so cute, you lil’ devil!”

Suddenly a hard jolt shook the vehicle. Sylisa clasped Nia close. A grating, rattling sound filled the air.

“What’s going on?” asked Tear as she clutched on to Warren, who unsurprisingly had a near total lack of reaction to the cacophony.

Daphne turned to her side, peering to the right. “Look! Over there!”

Sylisa followed where Daphne pointed. She saw a group of massive boulders surrounding a vessel, the huge stones tied together, forming complicated knots amid their moiling over the steel hull. As they rushed up and down, in and out of giant dunes of sand, huge clouds of sand would follow them, creating an enormous sandstorm around the giant ship in the sand. Every time the rock coils burrowed underground, their giant stone tails would produce the awful noise, which proliferated through the air and violently caused everything to vibrate.

“It’s an earthquake!” screamed Tear, hiding under her bright hat as she curled up.

“No! Those look like ‘mons!” Sylisa pointed at the center of the ruckus. “They’re wrapping around that giant ship!”

“Of all the rotten luck!” shouted York, veering the DPV off the trail to avoid the group of giant rock snakes. “It’s a Rhumba of Onix!”

“A what!?” yelled Sylisa over the noisy clatter of sand and rocks spraying the side of the vehicle from the tires digging into rougher terrain.

“Rocky, giant rattlesnakes!” hollered York. “We gotta avoid ‘em or they’ll chew us up into scrap! Hold on to something! I’m taking her down!”

Sylisa grasped Nia close in her arms and curled over her to cover. She felt Warren’s big arm reach around her as he held on to the handrails of the rear compartment. The DPV started to tip to the side, the left wheels were completely off the uneven ground.

“HYDE!” yelled York.

Sylisa glanced up to see Hyde had jumped out of Daphne’s lap and was riding on the edge of the front hood’s windshield. Another blast of noise sent vibrations straight through everyone and the ground shook beneath as though there was an earthquake. The whole vehicle began to sway further into a ditch, unable to balance on only half its wheels.

“Now’s good a time as any, pal!” shouted York.

At the last second before they toppled into the gulch, Hyde fired a strong stream of water from his mouth. The force of the water pushed the half-airborne vehicle back to center. Following a wallop, the DPV landed once again, this time on all four wheels. The bouncing and chaos persisted it drove through the vacant wilderness. Hurtling along through the hilly underbrush, over rocks and cacti, many small critters darted out of the way.

Eventually, the DPV came to a stop by a large dune spotted with boulders. Smoke rose from the sides of the hood. The distant screeching subsided.

“Ooughh. Wow. That was…something.” Tear coughed.

Sylisa groaned. “What the heck was that all about? Those weren’t there before!”

“No idea, can’t recommend we get any closer to find out,” replied York. “What’s got them riled up? Why would they even be here?”

Crossly seated on the dashboard, Zel pouted, her dissatisfied growling a clear indication she had enough excitement.

“That last bump almost sent her through the windshield!” Daphne huffed, and coaxed Zel back into her arms.

Sniffling, Sylisa said, “Huh. Come to think of it, those rock snakes shook me out of that dang pollen haze.”

Amid a short laugh, Daphne tilted her head and hovered her hand over Zel’s petals. “Oh, what a shame!”

“I’ll have Nia clip Zel’s stinkin’ flowers right off if you try anything funny like that again!” snarled Sylisa.

“Manners, manners,” chided Daphne in response. “We’re all okay, right?”

Everyone in the convoy confirmed they were alright. Warren turned, checking to make sure the bandit was still in the trunk. “Appears there is no permanent damage,” he said flatly.

“We’re all okay, but our ride took a beating from that.” York grumbled, “Our engine’s in bad shape. Think she’s overheating.”

Squeezing Nia close, Sylisa exhaled in relief. She peered over the side of the DPV, at the tall dune obstructing their view of the Onix. She noticed that some of the rocks buried in the sand were not in the same place as a moment ago. With a frightened yelp, she pointed at the hill.

“What is it now?” asked Daphne.

“Something’s moving!” shouted Sylisa. “There! In the sand!”

The rocky outcrops in the dune began to roll, closing in on the stalled vehicle. Suddenly a wall of sand was tossed up from the hill, directly obstructing the path of the rocks.

“Getting real tired of your showing-off,” said Warren.

“Huh?” Sylisa turned, surprised to hear such an expression come from the apathetic man. “Who are you talking to?” she asked.

Warren bowed his head, hunching over, his hands atop one another on the cane he held. His head shot up and he uttered but a single word. “Kahlo.”

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“He’s the friend I spoke of earlier.”

“Warren’s pupil,” said Tear.

“Your best friend?! He just happens to be here?!” exclaimed Sylisa.

“Kahlo is not content with his powers yet,” said Warren. “Until he is, he will always follow like a shadow.”

“You serious?” Sylisa looked back at the hill. “Sure hope he’s not a dud.”

Uncoiling from their rounded forms, the group of rocks grew feet and arms, their heads peeking out from their hard shells in search for the origin of the sand divider interrupting then.

“Golem! Least seven of ‘em!” shouted York.

To the side of the Golem, a Mienfoo rocketed down the hill, riding on a plank of wood. He surfed straight at the nearest boulder monster.

The Golem flung rocks from his hide. Each crashed leaving a huge crater.

The surfing Mienfoo stayed true on course, weaving back and forth to dodge the artillery. Each sharp turn down the hill furthered his momentum.

Seeing he was not slowing down, the closest Golem stomped the ground, throwing debris and sand around his body. The other six Golem scooped up sand, spinning their arms rapidly to whip up a cloud of sand.

“He’s going straight into their Sandstorm!” exclaimed Sylisa.

“Kahlo has the strength to stand up to them,” said Warren. “They have yet to realize it. But, then again, neither has he.”

“Wha, that lil guy? If he charges into the storm, how’s that gonna help? The dust will blind him!” said Sylisa.

“It’s his nature to confront odds right in someone’s face,” replied Tear. “Like War taught him to, when the enemy goes on the defensive.”

“He won’t listen to anything. His resolve is his own. Watch,” said Warren.

Kahlo lowered his body to the wooden board. The instant the tip of the board entered the sandstorm, he kicked down hard on the rear of the plank. This shot him up, straight above the cloud.

Golem stomped even harder, trying to toss as much sand as it could to conceal its body in the maelstrom generated by its Stomping Tantrum.

Kahlo had ridden up the side of the sand cloud, the board shielding his body as he descended into the chaotic atmosphere.

With a powerful slug, Golem punched up at Kahlo with a surprise uppercut.

Kahlo’s board splintered and he barely avoided the tortoise’s other hand trying to grapple him. Falling into the pit of swirling sand around Golem, Kahlo looked to be in trouble.

Two of the other Golem closed in forming a tight triangle, with another four rolling around the perimeter to surround.

“He needs our help,” said York.

“Go get ‘em!” yelled Daphne.

Sylisa felt anxious sending her friend into the fray. “Nia, can you handle it?”

Her partner nodded, and leapt into action.

Meanwhile, Kahlo was holding his own against the first Golem. The rocky beast continuously beat down with powerful punches, but the Mienfoo was too quick. Evenly matched, the two were locked in a stalemate which gave the other reinforcements on both sides time to advance.

“Aim for the weak-point, Hyde!”

As Hyde shot a blast of water, one of the Golem in the rear with a conspicuous pair of black rocks above his head bellowed. On the inner edge of the black rocks, three golden dots illuminated with yellow light. And then a thunderous explosion came from the creature discharging a Thunderbolt right into the water stream.

Hyde convulsed from the shock, collapsing. Though Hyde’s attack managed to strike three of the seven Golem, the surprise electrical counterattack proved to be too much.

“Dammit!” cursed York.

“We’ll handle it,” said Daphne, “give em hell, Petal Dance!”

“Nia, use Icy Wind to boost her attack!” shouted Sylisa.

As Zel fired off a torrent of leaves, Nia’s gem sparkled and an arctic gust of wind coated the storm. The leaves became sharp as daggers, and flew straight from the combined force of the two Pokémon.

Bombarded by three separate waves, the Golem began to break rank. Their rocky hides, heavily chipped from the blades of grass and ice, began to fall apart. The Golem sparring with Kahlo turned to see the disarray that had befallen its companions, roaring in rage.

Kahlo took the opportunity to spring over the lead Golem and land a Mega Kick right to the back of its head. The impact made a dreadful snap, and the creature went limp.

The electric Golem angrily howled, taking over for the fallen leader. It threw jets of sparks across the sand, forcing Nia and Zel to dodge.

The other five Golem, wounded but not defeated, sluggishly lumbered towards Kahlo and surrounded him. Their bodies were broken and littered with frost tipped leaves, but they were still massive in comparison to Mienfoo.

Kahlo took a sharp turn and sprayed the Golem with a wave of sand.

They cut him off and closed in, growling and grating with petrifying sounds.

Sylisa saw Zel was weakened after using Petal Dance, her dodges were barely getting her out of the electric Golem’s range.

“Nia!” yelled Sylisa. “Run a distraction!”

Nia dashed at the electric Golem, darting in a zig-zag pattern as countless bolts of lightning flew at her. She sprung into the air, extending her claws after closing in.

The electric beast did not relent, it threw a Thunderpunch skyward, which barely missed her. Seeing Nia was too quick, the monster unleashed a Discharge to shock everything near it.

Two vines shot out from the ground as the Golem charged up. They tripped it, causing the electricity to ground.

“Thanks! Nia, give ‘em the ice missile!”

Nia fired icicles from her paws, striking the Golem right in the center of mass. It grumbled, plucking the blades out from its chest, causing the rocks it was made from to tumble apart.

But then, it started glowing. It gurgled like an earthen rumble.

“It’s gonna explode!” hollered Daphne. “Get her out of there!”

“Pull back, Nia! Dash with all your might at the others!”

Nia, on all fours sprinted toward the other five Golem surrounding Kahlo.

Though Nia was quick, the flashing Golem, curled up into a ball, chasing her with a Rollout.

“Try and stall it,” yelled Daphne. “Spikes!”

A bramble of spines sprung out from behind Nia, but the Golem had built up enough momentum to plow right over them unimpeded.

“Oh no, she’s not gonna make it!” Sylisa watched helplessly as the rolling Golem closed in on her friend. The flashes of light became shorter and shorter intervals as it spun nearer.

Kahlo lofted himself into the air with a Jump Kick, stunning one of the five surrounding him. In midair, he spun and charged a Swift attack. The bladed stars of energy fired one after another with his continuous punches, becoming more precise with each throw. They crashed into the earth right behind Nia, creating a glowing gradient.

The rolling time-bomb was unable to change its course. It shot up on the slope of stars, sailing high into the air over Nia and directly at Kahlo. It started flashing like a strobe.

Kahlo spun round once more and used his momentum to deliver the death knell. Slamming the rock creature with a wallop of a spike, his attack sent the Golem straight down into the middle of the group of five.

There was a heavy thud, followed by an earsplitting pitch of rising hissing. The shadows of the five Golem became brilliantly contrasted as light rivaling the sun shone between them.

A massive explosion lit up the entire field, as rocks, sand, debris, and Golem parts were scattered in every direction.

Sylisa covered her face, the ensuing shockwave from the deafening blast nearly tipped the DPV over.

“NIA!” As the dust settled, she gasped, searching for her friend amidst the ruin. “…!”

To the side of the crater, Kahlo had landed next to Nia and stood beside her, covering her from the blast.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “You’re okay!”

Kahlo gave a nod, his whiskers quivering as he did so. He helped Nia to her feet, and then turned to check on the others who had been safely out of range.

Sylisa exclaimed, “Jeez, he kicked those guys into next week!”

Kahlo did not stick around. In fact, he dashed away as fast as he could.

Nia raised her paws, but that did not stop him.

“Wait!” called out Sylisa.

“And…there he goes,” sighed Tear.

“Why’d he cut and run?” asked Sylisa. “Kahlo’s a boss, he totally just chewed an entire gang of friggin’ Golem like they were breakfast cereal.”

Warren’s stoic face watched the trail of sand left behind by Kahlo. “He’ll be fine. He needs to prove himself. But he cannot prove anything to me. Not as I am now.”

“Umm, okay, that’s super strange. You sure he doesn’t get stage fright?”

“You’re one to talk, Sylisa,” sniggered Daphne.

“Quit it! I don’t like crowds, but ‘mons are different!”

“Keep telling yourself that, scaredy-cat.”

Nia and Zel helped bring Hyde back to the DPV. After making sure he was not gravely injured, York had a sigh of relief.

Sylisa held Nia tightly, her body was still cool from using her ice attacks. “That was one hell of a fight.”

Tear laughed nervously. “Are all your adventures this exciting?”

“Well, we ARE on a trip with Misfortune,” said Daphne.

“You kiddin’?” Sylisa scowled. “The real misfortune is NOT rollin’ over in this old death trap, or getting’ crushed, and instead gettin’ stuck listenin’ to your whining.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” grumbled Daphne. “Weren’t you crying for help a moment ago?”

Sylisa scoffed. “Psh. It was no sweat. I just wanted to make sure everyone saw Kahlo kick ass.”

“Hm. The Onix—” Warren did not show any amount of excitement as he evenly spoke. “—They were gathered in a close group. A ritual.”

“A what now?” Loosening her protective hold on Nia, Sylisa exhaled in relief. “They were crawling like a den of snakes over the ship. Think it’s why they were makin’ such a racket.”

“But why?” asked Tear.

Sylisa shook her head. “I wanna know what a giant ship is doin’ smack in the middle of the friggin’ desert in the first place!”

“Well?” Daphne prodded York.

With his cuff, York wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Don’t know, barely saw the ship they were circling since I was busy driving us AWAY from it.”

“The ship was covered by their Sandstorm,” said Warren. “They were feeding on the metal. The ore.”

“Ore, huh? What do you know about Onix in this region, gray-eyes?” asked Daphne.

“I know they’ve got nests, deep underground, where no man could survive. Guided by mineral veins, they build huge, subterranean labyrinths. They only surface from their dens in great numbers after the rain season passes. You can tell where they feed from the huge clouds of sand they toss when they surface. Unprotected mountains and mesas are swallowed up by the group tunneling beneath them.”

“Warren’s got a point.” York adjusted his hat. “They’ve got defined locations, hunting grounds where people know to avoid. Thing is, the nearest one is a long journey away. That doesn’t add up. They’re not naturally migrants, their food supply doesn’t move.”

“So, something made ‘em travel all the way here in a huge group?” wondered Sylisa.

“Couldn’t say for sure, that ship is definitely suspicious in more ways than one,” said York. “Onix tend to be predictable because their offspring follow their parents closely, use the same hunting grounds and underground tunnels. Some say they’ve got a sense for magnetism on account of all the iron they consume. They’re like living compasses, they just don’t get lost. One or two may break the mold once every couple decades and venture out of their established territory, but that’s quite rare. We just saw something even stranger, an entire Rhumba in an unprecedented location.”

“I’d say you know more than you let on,” said Daphne.

“It’s gotta be the ship, that’s why, they’re hungry, or something,” said Sylisa.

“I’m not sure about that,” replied York. “Onix wouldn’t migrate such a distance for a heap of metal. Their metal sensors don’t have that kind of long-range aboveground anyway. You managed to get a better look at it. Anything interesting about it, Sylisa?”

“Well,” she sniffed, “it was kinda like those container cargo boats I always see in the harbor back in Unova. Big hull, strong keel, steel plates, way outta place though. Those things are built for crossin’ the ocean. Don’t belong here, that’s for sure.”

“Who brings a ship to a desert?” asked Tear.

“Hmm. Maybe they brought the desert to the ship?” supposed Daphne.

“Gimme a break. That’s mad dumb,” moaned Sylisa.

“Regardless of how it got here, we know it doesn’t belong,” said York. “And there may be more than a coincidence those Onix showed up as well. I’m theorizing they were also brought here somehow. Or manipulated.”

“Is that possible?” asked Sylisa.

Warren spoke up. “Lots of local stories, ‘bout the great rock snakes who carve the earth. There’s one about a great, coiled rock serpent, the grandfather and King of Snakes who can cause fair winds or stir a tempest of sand. Some call the King a temple guardian, representing the latent powers of the underworld. Others believe the King’s duty is to protect a portal between two worlds. The King delves with twelve coils deep into the earth, which reach down into the abyss.”

York nodded. “You know your stuff, Warren. We have a lot of old legends, sometimes they don’t have any clear origin other than the ‘mons they resemble.”

I don’t like snakes. Sylisa hugged Nia close. “Do you think this King Snake is real?”

“I wouldn’t doubt it holds some truth,” replied York. “Told you about the eclipse foretold by Solrock and Lunatone. And the evil black star, chaos from heaven, the heart of misfortune’s calamity.”

“Right. How could I forget THAT lovely tourist attraction?” Sylisa mumbled sarcastically.

“Oh, there’s one other snake legend,” said York, “about a monster serpent who swallows his victims alive, while their light burns brightest. His kin are foretold to one day swallow the stars as well, one by one, until there is perfect darkness. It’s foretold on this eve, there will be blood in the heavens, and it shall be the black star’s dawn.”

“Seriously?” asked Daphne. Under her breath she whispered, “Too coincidental.”

“These stories have been passed down for generations, it’s tradition here,” said York. “Don’t believe me, ask anyone who lives between the four sacred mountains.”

“You’re starting to lose me,” said Sylisa. “Still, that does sound like a match for the man-eater, Drampa. But the heart of misfortune’s calamity? Swallowing the stars? And blood in the heavens symbolizing the dawn of the evil black star? Gives me the creeps.”

Daphne clapped her hands on her kneecaps. “Enough storytelling. Taking this detour is going to slow us up.”

“I just hope she makes it back,” said York. “Took quite a beating back there.”

Daphne encouraged him. “Marv fixed this piece of work up fine. Don’t worry, he’s a pro mechanic along with his Carracosta pal.”

“Better to be safe than sorry,” replied York. “I’m gonna have a peek at our engine.”

While York checked on the motor with Hyde perched on his shoulder, Daphne and Zel gathered some bright colored flowers nearby. Sylisa continued to sit in the backseat next to Tear and Warren, watching Nia groom her disheveled feathers.

“She sure is hygienic,” said Tear.

Sylisa looked at Nia, a perplexed glance on her face. “She’s been like that since I’ve known her.”

“A ‘mon who cares for its tamer, cares for itself,” said Warren, who seemed to be quoting something.

Sylisa frowned. “Tamer? You mean trainer. Been mistaken for one a couple times, but I’m not much of a trainer, Warren. Pretty bad at it actually. There’s an awful lot of boring rules to follow.”

“I can see how you could pass for one,” said Tear, “especially with her at your side.”

“Hmm, I guess it’s possible. However unlikely.” I’m a thief. Getting a real license would be tough. Although, I once held a junior license as Alisha before I became Sylisa. I wonder if that could work? Ali and Nia… Nia and Ali… Sylisa hummed contently. “Maybe one day, if I ever get back home to Unova.”

“You might consider it,” said Warren. “If the two of you are close enough, then in battle your spirits will burn as one.”

Nia mewed.

Sylisa nervously smiled. “Gee. Are you always this serious?”

“Since he’s lost his spirit from Sybil’s curse,” explained Tear. “Although, every once in a while, War shares a nugget of wisdom from his training days.”

“Oh right, you’ve trained ‘mons too!” said Sylisa. “I mean, besides the one who attacked you. Um…maybe Nia could learn a thing or two?”

“Kahlo.” Warren nodded. “A best friend, yes.” He showed no sign of endearment, his words did not match his acknowledgement. In fact, his best friend sounded like a mere passing thought.

“Riiiight…” Sylisa grumbled as Nia swayed back and forth on top of her knees. I guess I tried. But it seems like Warren is really not himself and that’s why he and Kahlo aren’t on the same page any more. Still, Kahlo had some sick moves. If Nia could use even a few of those, I wouldn’t be so worried about her.

Tear broke the silence. “She seems mature. Outside her den and with a human she doesn’t want to carve up into confetti.”

Sylisa scoffed. “Cos I’d give her a tickling torture like none other if she tried.”

Nia hissed loudly in protest.

“Nia wasn’t always like this though,” admitted Sylisa. “Clean, y’know? When I first met her, both times, she was really dirty. Didn’t care about how she looked, her fur was all messy, and her feathers were really soiled, not this nice, bright red you see now.”

“…Both times?” Tear seemed confused.

“Hm. I guess it feels like we met twice, somehow.” Sylisa shook her head and scratched Nia’s back. “I duuno. Maybe it’s ‘cause we’re weird.”

“You’re more like best friends who’ve been through lots! You know? Once you get close enough to be real with one another, it feels like you’ve met someone new.” Tear chuckled. “I don’t think you and Nia are weird, Sylisa.”

“Close enough? With this little ice devil?” Sylisa’s cheeks flushed. “S-Stop it,” she said, waving her hand in dismay, almost smacking Nia in the process. “If I say we’re weird, means we’re weird. End of story. Capiche?”

Again, Tear laughed, placing her head against Warren’s broad shoulder. “What do you think, War?” she asked him.

Warren looked blankly at her and Nia. “They’re totally weird.”

The engine began to rumble. “Looks like we’re ready to roll,” said York.

After the least eventful leg of the journey, the caravan rolled into town, crossing the large stone bridge spanning the steep ridge leading up to the mountain. It was late afternoon, but the streets were still crowed.

It’s all the same as when I first arrived here. Sylisa peered around watching the hustle and bustle around the market. It’s a nice enough place, but something always feels off. Like I’ve been here before.

“We’re FINALLY back!” exclaimed Daphne, a sizable bouquet in one arm, and Zel in the other. “Now I can give Ed the bouquet we promised him.”

York turned to her. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Our guild mission, ditz,” hissed Sylisa from the backseat.

Daphne grinned as a puff of pollen shot out from Zel’s buds. “I have an idea! Why don’t you report it to the big barman, Sylisa?”

“Me?!” she said. “Why? You’re the one always moaning ‘bout your seniority. Shouldn’t you give the report?”

Daphne chuckled. “It is BECAUSE I am your senior I’m leaving this to you. You and Nia are the heroes of town! You managed to defeat the man-eater of the legend! Where’s your pride? Go on, tell Bennet how you stopped the monster serpent who swallows his victims alive, because, obviously the legends are true and misfortune’s calamity shall follow!”

“You’re such a pain,” griped Sylisa. “Quit being sarcastic. Why won’t you give the report?”

“I have obligations.” In her arms, she squeezed close a bundle of desert flowers she had gathered not too long ago. “Yes. They have super-priority. I pride my business of delivering the freshest flowers to clients, quicker than a Quick Attack, you know?”

“Ungh,” growled Sylisa. “Do what you want. I don’t care. I’m so, so done.”

“Then I’ll accompany everyone else to the Sheriff’s Office, and round up a posse,” said York. “Let’s get a move on, people!”

“Sylisa! It was nice to meet you! We hope to see you again! Nia too!” said Tear.

Warren silently stared, his aloof expression the exact opposite of Tear’s kindheartedness.

“Yeah-huh.” Sylisa hoisted herself out of the vehicle and placed Nia on her shoulder. “Um, good luck with everything, that curse of his, the missing ‘mon, Kahlo, and all.”

After saying farewells, the group parted ways. Sylisa and Nia walked back along the stone path, through the market neighborhood, beyond some statues and fountains along the way.

“Back again,” sighed Sylisa. “At least you’re here with me.”

Nia jumped up and nuzzled the side of Sylisa’s neck.

“Ow, hey! What’re you doin’?”

Nia giggled, and buried her paws in the fabric wrapped around Sylisa’s neck. She then purred affectionately.

“Ungh…” Sylisa grumbled. “You think you’re sooooo cute just ‘cos all the weirdos I’ve met like you.”

Again, Nia mewed at Sylisa, this time resting her belly on her shoulder. Her meows said quite clearly, “I AM cute!”

“Well,” supposed Sylisa, facing the steep path leading to the guild’s tavern, “I guess they’re right.”

Chapter Text

An arid breeze of the late afternoon rustled Nia’s feathers.

Sylisa, holding her friend close, walked tiredly along the incline leading up to the center of town. The crowds of people and their Pokémon begun to dissipate, traveling home in smaller clusters from the market. Watching them go about on their short journeys to homes higher up along the slope of the mountain, she began to feel wistful for a sense of belonging, which she missed more and more.

I remember living each day without thinking about where I was. Took it for granted. When Nia came into my life, the whole world became smaller.

Continuing to people-watch, Sylisa’s melancholy got the best of her, as her thoughts longed for the same comfort of finding her place, the same ease she once felt without even acknowledging it in Unova.

This isn’t my place. But there’s something nagging inside. Something pulling my head hard, trying to convince me this is where I’ve always been. I don’t like it. This isn’t our home. It’s not where I met Nia…at least I don’t think.

She tried to dismiss the dissonance, knowing all too well this was in fact where she met Nia the other night, albeit as a Sneasel.

Is my mind playing tricks on me? We met in Unova on my fifteenth birthday, and Nia was a Weavile then. Something funny is going on, and my mind is trying to make sense of it all. Maybe. What I don’t get is why I feel so connected to this place out in the middle of nowhere. It’s effecting my instincts. And it gets worse each day. My body thinks it’s natural to be here, but my heart knows it isn’t.

Beyond the marketplace, the structures along the incline were quite venerable, constructed from the bleached stone of the mountain, decorated with fine hardwood thresholds. Sylisa wondered what treasures lay hidden inside, how their owners locked them away. As her thoughts mused, she felt an uncanny pang of guilt.

I don’t remember feeling bad about stealing. It’s my job as a Night Thief. But this is weird. I got the shivers just thinking about it. As if it’s wrong for me, almost as if my body doesn’t like it. How could that be? I’ve always done heists with Nia.

Sylisa peered around, expecting to discover an onlooker, perhaps a psychic, manipulating her.

Nobody. They’re all heading home on the main avenue further up the hill.

Despite the branching path she took to the bar leveling off, each step along the cobblestone trail felt more exhausting than the last.

“Ooof.” Carrying Nia and this sack of loot is really rough on the back. I need to train more, I feel out of shape. I can’t let myself be a weakling like Nia turned into, cos I’d have no one to blame but myself.

Struggling, Sylisa eventually came to the two large stone fountains in front of the tavern. They were statues, built in the likeness of two large Pokémon she had not seen before. One with broad, kitelike wings and the other a quadruped with a flowing mane. The quiet trickling gave her a sense of tranquility and a hint of nostalgia. She rested herself on the stone wall surrounding the pond of pristine water.

Home. I remember the park had one of these fountains. Always passed it. But I never stopped to sit by it. Now I wish I had.

Nia adjusted herself, her tail feathers twitching as Sylisa leaned back, dipping them in the water. The motion flicked three streams at the lion-shaped statue in the center of the pool.

Sylisa asked Nia in her ear, “Hey, Nia, does this remind you of the big fountains in Central Park?”

She squirmed a little bit in her arms to get a better vantage of the springs. And then her feather drooped.

“It’s okay,” replied Sylisa, suppressing the sinking feeling in her heart. “You’ll get there. And when we do, you’re gonna smile at all this.”

Her friend purred in response, nuzzling her cheek.

Exhaling, Sylisa looked over to the guild’s building between the two fountains. To the left of the covered wooden porch wrapping all the way around the exterior of the building, was the empty courtyard overlooking the desert. And in its center patio, the arbor covered by pink flowering Bower Vines between potted blue Agapanthus.

The Kirlia wearing the golden bow with ribbons of gold in her hair. What did she mean by saying I was a Child of the Eclipse? I thought she was trolling me, but after everything that’s happened, I don’t know who – or what – to believe. If only I had caught her, found out her name, then I’d feel less nervous about who she is and what’s happening to me.

Feeling an earnest nudge, Sylisa sensed Nia’s body pressing into her.

“You remember when my hair was all black like your fur, Nia?” she asked, rubbing her velvety back.

Nia mewed. She pawed at her long locks with retracted claws.

Sylisa’s shoulders slumped. “What am I saying, you forgot you’re an evolved ‘mon. Sorry. It’s just…I don’t recognize myself.”

Nia growled in an upset manner as her body’s support shifted.

“I’m still the same person, right?” Sylisa stared down at the Armadas. “You changed, Nia. And I changed a bit too. Not just my hair. I feel less confident than I once was. I dunno, weaker, less experienced, like I got taken down a few notches. If you could remember being a Weavile, I’m sure you’d feel the same way. Nia, we’re still those two professionals, aren’t we? Before all this happened, back when we were infiltrating the toughest of estates. That’s who we really are. Who we could be. Who we once were. Except…we got a bit mixed up along the way, didn’t we? If what York and Daphne said is true, the Armadas’ Sparkling Stone may have answers. It might explain why you and I are both like this. It’s worth considering since we don’t have good leads.”

Nia’s stomach vibrated on her shoulder as she gave a low purr.

“I’m anxious too,” confessed Sylisa. “About a lot of things. The treasure that disappeared, the cult in the mansion, dragons, ancient legends, and those weird eyes for starters. Then how the moon turned into the sun and changed us. Now we have to worry about the Night Dragon and ships in the desert. We learned Drampa’s friend was held prisoner, tortured and killed because of his bond, the letter by his corpse signed off by someone using the Pokédollar symbol. And Warren’s curse, which —”

Nia placed her paw atop the strap of Sylisa’s corset. She kneaded her paw on her collar bone. “—What about you?” she interrupted.

Sylisa’s eyes closed, and she felt sick to her stomach from worry. “You saw right through me, Nia. I was focusing on everything except me to take my mind off it. Whoever I am, it doesn’t mean much until you remember, but I’m the same girl as before. And the reason is simple. The eclipse, it didn’t change me enough to forget how much I need you, Nia.”

Nia’s feather quivered happily. “Good.”

“Maybe it caused me to forget your real name, but you’re still here with me. And that means we can work together to uncover things.” Despite the comfort of companionship, the heavy weight in Sylisa’s heart would not abate.

Nia stirred, she scampered off Sylisa’s shoulder and stood next to her on the stone wall. When Sylisa did not give her any attention, she played with her hair, bopping the golden ends over her shoulders and in front of her.

“The same color,” whimpered Sylisa as she gazed upon the inconsistent part of herself. “The same as Kirlia’s bow. Which means, either she’s right about the eclipse having power over us or she’s more conniving than anyone I’ve ever met…”

Making a guttural groan, Nia asked, “What’s wrong?”

Sylisa twisted the amber tips of her hair into a tight knot round her finger. “Feels the same,” she said softly. “Maybe I could pass it off as weird side-effect, of being a Child of the Eclipse. But I can’t. Because, it’s just, Murmur changed colors too after the eclipse. Yet Bennet kept calling him Murmur. Even made mention that the color of his fur changed. Did he become a different Murmur? Or were there two Murmurs?”

Her head began aching but the twitching of Nia’s feather swatted her ear, snapping her back to reality.

“Warren got drained of his spirit by a Kirlia named Sybil after the eclipse. She wasn’t wearing a ribbon on her head at the time according to Tear. Shame, would’ve narrowed things down. Now we’re either on the lookout for the same Kirlia or two different ones. Damn. Right back at square one again. So, what if the Kirlia wearing the bow, the self-proclaimed former Child of the Eclipse, is right? Am I supposed to be worried about the coming New Moon? What’s so special about it?”

Nia did not have an answer for her. She gently bunted her shoulder with the side of her head.

To the west across the desert, the dying light of the setting sun led the faint crescent toward the horizon. Sylisa shook her head and pulled her hair back.

“I can’t worry about things I can’t change. We need to focus on getting home. That means running jobs for the guild. If we keep on getting stronger, we’ll soon have enough money to leave this place and travel back before the month is over.” Sylisa squeezed Nia. “Mathias, Dare, everyone, they’re all waiting for us,” she whispered.

After reminiscing, Sylisa hoisted herself back to her feet. She walked the remaining distance to the guild.

Parting open the saloon doors, a familiar sight greeted her. A large crowd, enjoying the dinner hour and lively atmosphere of the cozy tavern. Unsurprisingly, Bennet, the burly bartender behind the counter was busy mixing drinks for the patrons congregated under the carved Solrock and Lunatone figurines hanging from the ceiling.

“Pft. Nothing’s changed here since last time at least.” Sylisa wiggled past the crowds towards the bar. She noticed Murmur was nowhere to be seen, though Tympole was rolling around on the counter near the tap of the water keg.

Bennet waved her over to the side of the counter away from the congestion. After setting down a foggy glass, he cupped his hands and called out to a thin young man, who had just been running tables, “Cedric! Oy! Help tend the bar for a couple minutes!”

Shuffling to the side of the bar, Sylisa saw the barman had a grin on his face.

“Well would you look at that! Throw me a bone and call me a Marowak!” he said in his booming voice. “Amber-Eyes, she’s back again, a right demon of efficiency!”

Her cheeks felt a flush of embarrassment as some of the patrons looked in her direction.

“Part-timer I had to hire,” Bennet said pointing to the young man who was busy squeezing berry juice into the drinks he was mixing. “Mus say, business has been good.”

Sylisa nodded quietly as he leaned on the other side of the counter.

He cupped a hand round his mouth, and spoke with a sense of urgency in his lowered voice, belying his jolly demeanor. “Account of the Dragon no less, people love to get liquored up, right fearful each night might be their last.”

“Mm.” Wearing the strongest expression Sylisa could muster, she told him, “Job’s done. The man-eating monster won’t be eating anyone else. Wasn’t easy, but we did it.”

He smiled bigly under his mustache. “I knew you would.”

“So.” She straightened her posture but he was still taller even while he leaned over the counter. “You want the details?”

“Later,” he waved nonchalantly. Then his hand stopped. “On second thought, you’ll need some arrangements for the evening, won’t ya?”

“Don’t like sleeping outside, that’s for damn sure.” Crossing her arms, she asked, “You got a room for me ‘n Nia?”

“Well—” Bennet scratched the back of his neck “—a room, yes.”

“What’s that weird look for? You a co-ed dorm or something?”

He laughed nervously. “No, not that. It’s just the room you’d be staying in already has an occupant.”

“What?” Sylisa pounded a fist on the counter. “I thought you said I’d be getting a room by joining up and working hard!”

“Well, technically it’s still a room.” He grunted. “Gotta be honest, wasn’t expecting you back in town so soon.”

“Oh, that’s super simple, I’d much rather sleep in a bed than out in the wilderness,” she retorted. “And anywhere but the street. So, who do I hafta to put up with as a roomie?”

“Well, the thing is, the room I have is for the newbies. And, well, I even figured I might’ve been able to make a tidy sum of rent while you and Daph were out on your dangerous assignment.”

Did he seriously just imply he wanted us both to go on a suicide mission just so he could rent another room?! Following her initial shock, a realization hit her hard. “No way. Nuh-uh! NOT rooming with her!” shouted Sylisa.

“Can’t be helped,” he shrugged.

“Bennet, Daphne is a crazy person. Not exaggerating. She has a sadistic streak, vine whips and violence excite her. She’s a witch with all those perfumes and concoctions she brews. I’m losing count of how many times she tried to steal Nia from me. And she has a creepy, obsession with this thing on my Armadas.” Sylisa pointed at her left arm. “Said it’s got a Z-Ring or somethin’ made with a psychic crystal.”

“Oh, that’s…?” Bennet gave the glove an intrigued glance. He then caught his breath, and swallowed dryly. In a raspy voice he said, “Not bad. Where’d you get it?”

“Bandits took it from me right after I got here, managed to get it back after we searched their lair. It’s really special because my mentor gave it to me. He’s really strong and told me I needed to grow stronger with Nia. I think that’s the reason why he wanted me to have it.” Sylisa flexed the piece with her wrist, causing the claws to benignly extend above her hands.

“Hoo-wee,” he whistled. “The craftsmanship is stellar. Reckon the best smiths would have made that. Your mentor must care about you and Nia a lot to part with such a piece. Incredible.”

“Yeah. Whoever made it spared no expense, ‘cept, well, it doesn’t work like it used to. Power is drained and without an adapter to charge it the Armadas is only good for its claws,” she explained. “Guessing you don’t have any batteries that’re small enough to wear.”

“No, nothing like that I’ve ever seen. Those blades look like they’d pass for a Sneasel’s,” he said as she retracted them.

Nia purred happily. “Yeah!”

“I’m not anywhere near as strong as her,” replied Sylisa, shaking her head. “Her claws were what saved us from the man-eater, a Drampa who lost control of its power after its friend was killed.”

“Blimey! A Drampa?” exclaimed Bennet. “That means Orcus was another dragon!”

“Yeah.” Sylisa spoke in a hushed tone. “According to evidence we found, some sick bastards tortured and killed the boy it formed a bond with. Called the kid a “Dragon Speaker” or something. Apparently, he could communicate with them over distance somehow.”

She watched the color quickly drain from his face. “The man-eater was acting out of vengeance?”

“Maybe, I dunno.” Sylisa shook her head. “Nia’s the only ‘mon I can sorta understand, but it sure looks like that’s what happened. And Drampa was really strong, it didn’t hold back at all, not even at the end. It fought us with everything, even if it meant its own destruction.”

“A hellbent dragon? How’d you handle that?”

She pointed to Nia. “She’s got a lotta power for such a little squirt, dunno where she hides it.”

“So, she felled a raging Drampa.” Bennet scratched his chin. “She’s packing energy in that little body of hers.”

“You think so?” asked Sylisa. She did have so much strength as a Weavile. But I think Mathias and Dare’s Punishment technique was the real trump card.

“How ‘bout Daph?

Sylisa pouted, imagining having to share a living space with her. “She and her Roselia helped out in the battle, but the final blow was Nia’s.”

“Then there’s no mistaken it,” replied Bennet. “She’s something special. Like those claws you’re wearing with that special ring. You need a rare shining stone to forge ‘em.”

“Oh right, the Sparkling Stone everyone keeps talking about. What’s a Z-Ring anyway?” she asked.

Bennet rested a glass on the table near his Tympole. “There are legends of heroes who used the power of the rings to bring their hearts closer to their friends. Together, they were able to move mountains like they were nothing.”

“Closer…to friends?” Sylisa rested her chin on her fist.

Bennet looked Nia over. “Isn’t she your friend?”

“Of course she’s my friend,” blurted Sylisa, “but how’s this thingumajig make me any closer to her?”

“That, I’m afraid, is a question I don’t have the answer to, Amber.”

Sylisa pouted. “Psh. Some help you are. At least you ain’t calling me that other dumb name.”

“Oh right, what was it, Misfortune?” he laughed.

“Right. I shoulda kept my mouth shut,” she grumbled. At least Amber is a girl’s name I can take seriously.

“Whoa, hey now, if it’s part of your assignment, loosely speaking, you get free intel.” He winked. “You’d want to seek out the Star Songbird.”

Her feathers fluttering, Nia made a high-pitched meow.

“A song-star-what-now?” asked Sylisa.

“The Star Songbird,” he repeated. “Legends speak of an ancient grove, high atop the Amber Mesa, where the Star Songbird roosts. From there, it divines the future, through the past pattern of stars. Many pilgrims have sought the Star Songbird’s guidance, yet the bird’s divination is never without cost.”

Sylisa grumbled. “Sounds like some muscle-head bartender I know.”

He grinned, flexing his biceps proudly. “Carried twelve barrels of fresh bourbon all the way up the hill this afternoon, no sweat.” After a good laugh, he went on to say, “Still, that climb up the hill to the tavern is nothing compared to the pilgrimage to the Star Songbird’s mesa.”

“Suppose if it helps we don’t have a choice but to meet this bird.”

His eyes narrowed. “If you’re thinking about heading up there, to the golden mount, there’s a mission I can send you on as well.”

Sylisa sighed. “Yeah, I’ll run your errand. Long as I’m getting paid.”

“Splendid,” he said with a firm clap. “I’ll iron out the details. And have your pay for dealing with Orcus ready in the morn.”

“Okay. And you’re suuuure I can’t get another place to stay?” pleaded Sylisa.

Accompanied by contemplating rub of his jaw, Bennet started to reason. “Well, let’s consider things. You’re lucky to have gotten back your special glove. Gotta wonder how you’d managed considering your bad luck.”

“Uh-oh, you’re scheming somethin’ up. I don’t like where this is going.”

“Mm. Maybe you’re only lucky – or rather, not unlucky – ‘cause of the people who helped you out.” Bennet continued to systematically connect the dots much to Sylisa’s chagrin.

“Oh no, I know where this is going!”

“— By that logic, you owe it to Daphne to give her a chance.”

“Nooo!” she exhaled weakly, feeling soundly defeated by her reliance on others.

“It’s not that bad,” said Bennet. “She’s right about your age. The two of you can enjoy the time you have, talk about girl things. Doesn’t that sound nice at all to you?”

“I can’t stand her.” Sylisa crossed her arms. “Daphne is made of three ingredients, each more toxic than the last: Frills, flowers, and powders. Freaks me out. Really clingy too.”

“She’s probably worried for you since you’re not from around here.”

“Why’s a ditz like Daphne care where I’m from?”

“Mmm.” He mumbled, “It’s gotta be the way you carry yourself.”

“That’s weird. I haven’t seen anyone else here from the big city.” Surprised, Sylisa arched back against the stool and asked, “She can really read things like that?”

“Yeah…” he sighed. “Must come natural to her by now. She’s been through a lot but doesn’t talk much about it.”

“Daphne? You gotta be joking. She’s like the most carefree thing there is until she’s about to beat someone up.” Sylisa paused. “Huh. Maybe that makes some sense after all. What’s her deal?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” replied Bennet. “But if you’re staying with her, why not talk about where you’re both from sometime?”

“Mmm. I don’t exactly trust you,” said Sylisa. “Or Flowers for that matter.”

“You never did trust easily, Amber,” Bennet pointed out. “However, you can trust the Guild’s five-star lodging. Up the stairs, second left, down the hall, past two doors, on your right. This is your home now. You’re one of our own.”

“Five stars? Doubt that too. This ain’t the Skitty Suites, or Le Chateau Furfrou. But I won’t complain, gonna save my energy. Thanks.”

“I’ll catch you later, Amber. Stay outta trouble,” he said.

Sylisa adjusted her bag of loot, a sly smile on her lips. “We’re heading out. See you.”

Chapter Text

Shuffling through the busy tavern, Sylisa made her way outside, doing her best to avoid running into the drunken patrons as well as their companions. The side of her leg bumped into the elastic body of a Wigglytuff, who angrily inflated in response. Startled, Sylisa backed out of the balloon creature’s way, but hit right into the large, scruffy ear of a Diggersby. The grubby looking rabbit let out a huge yawn, scratching his chest with mild indifference while the Wigglytuff continued to huff and puff in an irritated fashion.

Two of the men with the Pokémon took amusement to the happenstance, raising their mugs high into the air with a cheer, clashing their glasses with a loud “Hoorah!” and spilling some beer on the unfortunate Diggersby beneath their toast.

Sylisa ignored the jovial men, opting to use the lull while they drank to slip past them. “Phew. Everything in Orre is so different,” she mumbled to her friend, her arm reaching out to the saloon doors. A breath of cool air filled her lungs. “No one has capture balls, it’s chaos cos ‘mons are all out in the open.”

Nia, following her close behind, scurried under the swinging door leading to the porch. She let out a catlike sigh of relief once they were out in the night air.

Sylisa glanced over her shoulder to the right, at the courtyard, which overlooked the desert faintly illuminated by the stars. With an incredulous glare, she scanned the lonely flower-covered arbor in the center of the courtyard.

Empty. I keep expecting Kirlia to be there though. She made it clear she didn’t want to meet again. Rude little twerp. Shouldn’t she want to help another Child of the Eclipse? Why’s she avoiding me? Is it something I did?

Nia growled. She scampered up onto the wooden railing surrounding the porch, blocking Sylisa’s view of the courtyard with her bobbing feather accompanied by an incessant mewing. “What’re we gonna do?”

“We’re gonna go hava look ‘round town for a spot to unload our loot.” Sylisa pointed down the mountainside. “First, we’ll look for a sketchy area, ya know, a place where we’d find a black-market.”

Nia groaned in response. The lids of her eyes closed slightly and she feigned a sleepy yawn.

“Humph. There’s no way I’m going anywhere seedy without you to back me up!” Sylisa took one last look at the arbor and proceeded to stealthily make her way beyond the darkened fountains, on the road leading to the town’s main artery.

When the two of them reached the major incline connecting the vertically-built settlement, Nia sighed. She followed in a slow march, whimpering while her drooping feathers dragged along the stone path behind her. She meowed. “I’m tired.”

“We’ll sleep good tonight,” encouraged Sylisa. “I know it’s rough, Nia, but you gotta keep moving. Think of it this way: We’re building stamina, it’s like working out!”

Grumbling, Nia made it no secret she disagreed with the incentive.

“You gotta get stronger, Nia. You have it in you, I know it, that’s a fact,” Sylisa told her. “When you ‘n me were top of our game, we were the best around, hands down.”

Nia curiously wondered. “Whaddya mean?”

A snarky laughter spontaneously slipped out from her lips. “We were the cat’s meow getting hold of shiny things, girl!”

Mewing, Nia raised a paw under her mouth, a perplexed expression on her gloomy face.

“You had a lotta power back then, Nia. I gotta trust you’ve still got it buried inside after what you pulled off out in the desert. Umhm, not like I wasn’t scared though. You need to learn to use it properly as a Sneasel. Then one day you’ll learn your moves again and evolve!”

Nia grumbled. “Whaddabout you?”

“Huh, I guess I’m in the same boat,” she confessed, expressing her vulnerabilities to the only friend she could trust. “Not like you could tell anyone else. I try and keep it a secret, like how we used to be professional thieves. The less people know, the better. Really, it’s got me worried York ‘n Flowers know my thief alias, ‘cept I think what’s worse is not knowing inside if I’m still the same Sylisa.”

Nia dipped her head in a slight nod and then made a low purr.

“Yeah,” she whispered, feigning a laugh to suppress her self-doubts. “Got a bad feeling this Eclipse Child nonsense messed me up somehow. My senses aren’t sharp like they used to be. I even lost my balance when I put on the Armadas again. Pathetic, right? Some joke I am. At least you’ve got a good reason to be less strong as a Sneasel.”

Rubbing the golden gem on her chest, Nia’s face scrunched in contemplation as she listened.

“At first, I thought it was nerves, Nia. This new place, so far from home, getting caught, seeing what happened to you. …Made me scared.” She shook her head. “I know something changed, my body feels different. I can’t point out what other than this hair. With you, it’s obvious, at least to me, your form changed.”

“A lot changed?” she asked with a soft cry.

“Definitely,” replied Sylisa, “and I’ve got a suspicion it’s not just you ‘n me. Something about this whole town is, y’know, different. No Pokéballs, no Pokédollars, not even any cell phones. It’s weird, isn’t it?  ‘Specially wouldn’t trust the barkeep and his color-changing Meowth. Only ‘mons like Keckleon oughta be doin’ that kinda foolin’.”

Nia rocked her head fitfully.

“Oh yeah, forgot you didn’t see Murmur the first night ‘cos you were busy stealing cereal. You missed out on getting your jimmies rustled. Lucky girl.”

“What ‘bout us though?” meowed her friend.

“We’re…um…you know, figuring it out.” Sylisa forced a fragile smile. “At least we can blame the Eclipse and that weird orb for our troubles. Doubt Murmur was involved at all with the treasure.”

Nia’s eyes lit up, her feathers bristled in the cool night air, hearing the word treasure must have evoked a primal desire.

Sylisa smiled more genuinely, happy to see her friend retained the excitement of treasure hunting. She jingled the sack of loot in her hand. “So, let’s make some extra casheesh the old-fashioned way. Selling what we snatched!”

They wandered past the market, over towards the lowest area of town. There were smaller shacks, bunkered close together on the side of the road, well hidden from sight of the main path opposite the shut entrance gate. The sloping way turned to dirt, and the faint odor of kerosene hung in the air. It was dark in the shadow of the mountain, narrowly hugging the rock wall leading into the slum. People had begun to retire for the evening, nevertheless, there were a few stragglers they passed up by the main road near the market. However, from the corner of her eye Sylisa thought she saw movement of an unfamiliar shadow.

“Whaa…!” Sylisa quickly turned around and Nia followed suit. “Nothing but an empty street. That’s so weird, for a second I thought someone was following. How ‘bout you Foresight?”

Vigilantly, Nia stared up the hill, her red eyes glaring and her forehead gem emitting a dim glow. Yet there was no movement along the lonesome path. The cool wind from further down the road blew Sylisa’s coat and ruffled Nia’s feathers.

Gathering her courage, Sylisa turned her back and continued to walk, deliberately slower. “Shady enough place to find a fence,” she said peering at the dilapidated structures on the sides of the hill. “This place has got an underground too. Let’s ask around. Please, stay close to me, Nia.”

Nia growled. “Okay.”

Ahead, by an old structure made of scrap metal in an alcove of the mountain, Sylisa saw a man slouched at the corner of the street, perched on a wooden stool by a small gas campfire with a pot of what smelled like bean soup simmering atop the flame. He wore an oversized tan coat, and a stained wrap around his head like a bandana to keep his mop-like hair out of his set-back eyes.

Sitting next to him, a two-headed beast with a blue body and black fur wrestled with a slab of jerky. After tearing the meat in two, the Zweilous’ left head kept nipping at the right’s antenna protrusion. The right head rumbled, slithering its head away and under the bar of a wooden plank supporting the low steel roof.

Sylisa approached, cautiously keeping her distance from the Zweilous, who was as tall as the seated man. She noticed Nia stood up on her hind legs as she walked to appear larger, though not by much.

“You!” said the man in a raspy voice. His face was worn and wrinkled from the sun like tanned leather. As he spoke, his eyes darted nervously at a satchel of what appeared to be bone meal next to his feet.

“Do you know me?” asked Sylisa, pulling back in apprehension.

He studied her, squinting his dark eyes. “No,” he said finally. “Sworn something’s off. Your hair or maybe —” His glare turned to Nia, and the color seemed to drain from his face.

“Dead ass! Again with my friggin’ hair? What’re you talkin’ about?” she said squirming.

The disheveled man slouched forward, while his bony fingers kneaded the Zweilous’s back. “Saw a girl – I think – who looked like you from afar. Quick, agile, her movements cut through the night.”

Pawing her chin, Sylisa considered the possibility she had been noticed before the guards gave chase. I was scoping out the stores the other day. Maybe he caught a glimpse of me then?

As the wind picked up ruffling her strands, he snapped his finger and let out a shallow wheeze. “Ah, that’s it, ‘cept she had pure black hair.”

Cold sweat formed on Sylisa’s palms. “What? No way!” My hair used to be that way before everything happened to me and Nia. Glancing down at a perplexed Nia, Sylisa clutched a clump of fluttering hair in her hand and asked, “You’re saying she had all black hair and looked like me?”

“Exactly so.” The man’s expression turned sour. “Could it be ’ánti’įhnii?” he asked his Zweilous in a muted voice.

The beast whimpered in response like a sad dog. Both its heads drooped low.

“Come again?” she asked. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

“Witches,” hissed the man. His shaking hand coiled around the base of Zweilous’s necks on the creature’s back.

“Huh? Witches?” Sylisa raised a brow, clenching a fist tightly around her bag of loot on her hip and waving her other hand in the air. “Like, ya’mean, voodoo and magic spells?”

“I’ll have no dealings with that evil.” The man cagily closed his eyes. After a long exhale he said, “Speak of evil things, brings evil inside you, a witch brings evil out into the world.”

“I’m really confused, ‘cos whoever you saw couldn’t have been me. At least not recently. Actually, not at all since I got here.” Then she snapped, “Sheesh. Does it look like I’m a witch to you?”

A short nod, and then he looked her in the eyes, his irises as dusky as the Zweilous’s fur. “You don’t have the same air about you either. There’s something else, your ‘mon, it’s different this time.”

“Different? That also doesn’t make sense. She was with me the other night. Was the same—” Her throat choked on the word “—Sneasel.”

“No, no. I’m sure of it.” He pointed to Nia, then raised a hand above his waist to gesture. “Couldn’t’ve been. The one I saw was larger.”

A terrible knot formed in her stomach. So not only did she look like I used to, but she had a larger ‘mon too? Could it be…? No. It couldn’t. Nia’s right here with me. Sure, he could be a crazy hobo. ‘Cept, he’s not the first to mention I was in town before arriving. There were those guards at the gate, and Bennet the bartender, they said they recognized me! It gives me the creeps! And for the phony to use a disguise from before the Eclipse, something’s so wrong about all this. “Imposters…” her voice weakly croaked.

“If a copy is good enough, it can fool its original,” he said in a cryptic manner.

Shaking her head, Sylisa said, “I don’t understand. Why would someone want to steal my identity? I haven’t been here before, got no real ties to this place, I’m trying to leave!”

“Hm. A girl who visits the city twice goes unnoticed,” he suggested. “By fluke, she appears in the same place at the same time, and her distinguishing traits become apparent like spots on a Spinda.”

“How?!” Grumbling, Sylisa considered the illogical nature of it all. If she wanted to pretend to be me that’s one thing, but the fake actually took AWAY my old self and possibly Nia too. The two of us became different and she’s running around looking like our originals? WHAT! THE! HELL! Anger filled her chest with heat. “The nerve! When I catch this witch bitch, I’m gonna give her such a beating she’ll wish she stole someone else’s shoes!”

“Don’t,” he said gravely. “Don’t chase her. It would mean death.”

“I don’t think you get it.” Sylisa huffed. “Who you described WAS me until a few nights ago. How do ya expect me to let a trick like that go? No one steals me from me.”

“It would be a foolish undertaking,” he said in a muffled voice.

She shook her head, her attention focused. The knot inside her felt worse. “You’re saying she’s possessed my original body. How’s that possible?” she said to the man, anxiously wringing her fingers. “She couldn’t have robbed my identity so easily! I’m me! I’m—”

“—Just a visitor?” The derelict gave her a curious stare. After Zweilous growled he asked, “How can you be sure you’re not the fraud?”

“Pft! I know I’m the real deal.” She lowered her glare, her thoughts swimming with uncertainty. “I got memories of Nia when we were younger. Those aren’t fake, no matter what tricks anyone pulls. Turning her into a Sneasel, stealing my identity, those are physical things. Disturbing, but still only physical.”

Nia set her paws on the side of Sylisa’s boots. She coiled her body close.

Shivering, Sylisa swallowed hard, unprepared for any of this. Nevertheless, feeling Nia close by gave her strength. “Whether she had my hair or not, you saw an imposter.”

“Aye, her hair was black as night,” replied the man. “But the air around what I saw, it felt dangerous. Evil…a thick, perilous evil surrounded her. The way she moved, how she sprung through the darkness like a feral, it made me second-guess what I saw. Sought to look away, what I saw seemed to defy sense, unless it was only a nimble girl. That in mind, blotted it out from my thoughts, forgot what I saw… until you showed up, looking exactly like her.”

“You’re not the only witness,” replied Sylisa. “I need to figure out what’s going on. Can you tell me anything else?”

“It’s not proper to speak of such things to outsiders,” he explained, stirring a ladle in a pot above the tiny campfire. He glared at Nia and then pointed at Sylisa. “I’m telling you what little I know, because if she’s chosen you, your body, your identity, you must stay away. The moment she realizes you’re on to her charade, she won’t hesitate to kill.”

“Huh? Why’d you give her that weird look just now?” she asked.

His face twisted into a taut scowl directed at Nia. “Seen their kind do terrible things. Kill without hesitation. Those daemon cats would make a fine companion for a witch.”

“You’re wrong. Nia’s not like that,” insisted Sylisa, suppressing the grisly memory of Drampa’s execution. “Don’t judge her by what other ‘mons do ‘cos it isn’t fair when you don’t even know her.”

“You don’t deny she’s a daemon though,” the man pointed out. Tilting his head, his crooked teeth formed a smirk. “I’ve lived on the streets long enough to make assumptions.”

“Psh, I don’t know what that even means. Nia’s a caring ‘mon, if you want to call her a daemon for being real strong when she needs to, then whatever, we got thicker skin than that. But you can look us in the eyes and see we’re not witches out to cause harm. We do our own thing, it ain’t for evil or anything else as stupidly grand!”

“Hmm…” His silence signaled he did not anticipate her response, or he was further contemplating. “Didn’t get a clear look at her face but I don’t sense —”

Suddenly Zweilous looked over in Sylisa’s direction and both its heads started barking loud and uncontrollably.

Nia jumped between them and raised her claws. “Back off!”

“Whoa, wait!” said Sylisa, leaning forward to hold Nia back. “We’re not here to cause you any trouble.”

Nia continued to glare at Zweilous. The two heads returned the glower twice over. All three growled as tension built.

“Enough,” yapped the destitute man. His open palm landed firmly on the Zweilous’ right head.

The beast whined, then slowly lowered its scowling gaze. The right head nibbled on the left’s neck.

“Told you what I saw,” said the man. “Don’t think it’ll be much help. Might end up dead or worse. Girl like you ought to run while she’s still got legs.”

“I’m not running away. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. If there’s a witch pretending to be me, how’d she know who I was before I got here?” She might have stolen more than my identity. Maybe the treasure gave her the power to devolve Nia. Could that give her the strength to steal my appearance? Making a pout, she said, “To keep my old features while making the real me look different, that’s some kinda of magic. There’s only one thing I can think of. Could it have to do with the Eclipse?”

The man shrugged. “Legends of the Eclipse don’t involve witches. Only Solrock and Lunatone, and the Black Star.”

“What if she has something to do with the Black Star?” she mused, having a hard time admitting that meant it would be herself, or a replica resembling how she used to look. “Wouldn’t that be a fulfillment of the local prophecy about calamity or misfortune or whatever it was?”

“The Night Dragon would be the least of our worries if a witch turns out to have the power of the Black Star,” he said.

“Why’s that? Isn’t the giant flying monster carrying the Blight worse than a witch running around pretending to be me?”

“Witches channel spiritual energies you ‘n me can’t see,” he said. “If one were to hold the power of the Black Star, it would truly be an omen of the end times.”

“If they’re related it’s not good for anyone,” she said. I have to find out more information before I go hunting down any dangerous witches. Maybe the Star Songbird will have answers. I need to hurry, there’s less than a month until the eve of the new moon, and this new intel is real unsettling.

“You’ve chatted quite some time. Most folks don’t take kindly to us street-dwellers.” The old guy glowered at her. “But that doesn’t mean I like your company. You got troubles, deep ones, I don’t want to get involved in. So, what does someone like you want?”

Sylisa straightened her posture. “Here on business.”

“Business?” He spat on the ground. “What the hell’s a broad like you got to do with our part of town?”

“Not THAT kind of business.” Huffing loudly, she crossed her arms. “First mistaken for a witch, and now a prostitute.”

“Hold on,” said the man. “You had something to say. So spit it out. What sorta business you lookin’ at?”

“Got some trinkets for sale. Y’know, sparklies I found lying around while adventuring with my ‘mon. Trouble is, looking to sell ‘em discrete, n’mean? Know anyone who’d be interested in trading for Pokédol—” Sylisa caught herself “—I mean silver?”

“Trinkets…trinkets…” he muttered. His hunched back stooped forward. He placed his hands together, fingers dangling under his shallow chin. “Aye.” He looked at Zweilous, who had stopped snarling, and then back at her. “You’d be wanting to go down to the Gully.”

“The Gully?” she asked.

“T’ats what I said,” he replied in a wheeze. His gaunt arm directed her to a dark passage at the end of the road leading into a valley. “Gully’s got folk you’re lookin’ for. Maybe more than you bargain for.” He coughed again, this time with cloying mirth.

Zweilous’s two heads cackled as well.

The way the two heads bobbled in tandem back and forth made Sylisa feel dizzy. She nodded, offering a quiet “Thanks.” If Nia wasn’t here, I’d be scared. But with her by my side, I don’t have to be afraid.

“—In return.” The old man pointed at Nia. “Keep that ugly mouser away from me. Sick of their kind stirring up trouble.”

Nia growled and flicked her claws out. “Who ya callin’ ugly?”

“Let’s go,” said Sylisa. “We learned what we needed to.”

One of the Zweilous’ heads hissed as they left, its wide body stomping, and the other head yowling in a victorious cry.

The two of them walked further down the dark street. Eventually, they reached a steep slope that lead down into a dusty hollow, dimly lit by torches. Nia’s feathers ruffled against her as a chilly breeze blew up from the gorge.

“Time to be brave,” said Sylisa. She placed her hand on the rocky wall to steady herself on the abrupt hill of sand leading down into the deep gorge. “Huh? What’s this?” Her fingers ran across some etches on the sandstone. She extended the claws on her glove and noticed the markings looked as though they were made by something similar. “They look like claw-marks.” She gestured. “Nia, did you make these?”

Nia looked at the marks, and then vehemently shook her head. She snarled and hissed angrily.

“Jeez, calm down. I was only asking, not like I was accusing you of stealing cereal,” Sylisa replied with a shrug. “It doesn’t bug me if you hung out in a seedy place like this when we got separated. All that matters is now we’re together again. C’mon, let’s keep going, Nia.”

Raising her feathers, Nia growled uncomfortably.

“Is something bothering you?” Sylisa asked her.

A few mews, and another hissing bout translated to “Don’t like it here.”

“We’ll leave soon then.”

The passageway leveled out, revealing a wide area half-underground. There were many natural stone pillars supporting the rocky overhang. Some had lights, crude torches, half-buried into the sides of the earthy columns. Her footsteps felt heavy on the shadowy sands.

“Like an underground castle,” she said in a soft voice. “It looks like the Gully used to be a place of shelter before the city was built. Now it’s the shabby underside of town. Not even the guards patrol down here. Stay close, Nia. No telling what we’ll find.”

Nia snarled. “Trouble.” Looming ahead in the dim light, a presence caused her feathers to rise on their ends.

From the murky shadows came a figure about half Sylisa’s height. That’s no human!

Out from the dusky underground, the shady figure started to take shape. When it did, Sylisa found herself paralyzed. Shocked. She felt as though her eyes were playing tricks on her.

“W-Weavile?!” exclaimed Sylisa. Her arms started shaking from shock. “No…it can’t be! She looks just like Nia!”

The murky creature in front of her had bright red crown feathers, the color of blood, which stood out in the darkness. She was a female judging by the way the crown feathers on her head were less erect, and the feathers by her ears were both short and curly. Her posture was aggressive, she walked forward with a certain swagger, bearing her claws and teeth, sharp as knives. She communicated through her language to Nia. A few guttural growls, a proud grunt, and then a threatening snarl.

“Why? What’s wrong with me? I used to understand her when she was a Weavile! Why can’t I understand you?!” Sylisa’s posture collapsed as fear of the unknown overtook her. It only emboldened Weavile, who continued to advance.

“Stay back,” warned Nia. She set her front paws on the ground, and lifted her tail feathers high. “Back off!”

“Nia?!” Sylisa looked at her friend anxiously. “You know her?”

Nia nodded shamefacedly.

“How?”

Nia pointed to the gold jewel on her forehead. Then to Weavile’s. The purring noise she made sounded like “Fam.”

“Family?” asked Sylisa.

Nia mewed. “Yeah.”

Sylisa saw Weavile had paused. Pointing her Armadas at the replica of who she remembered Nia as, she asked, “Why would family want to hurt you?”

Nia drew with her claws in the sand, a quick and hasty depiction of an enclosed object.

Despite how her heart was pounding, Sylisa tried to figure out what she meant. “A…treasure box? No? A house? No?”

Nia began to draw what looked like jagged lines around the casket with two claws.

“Um, when you do that, it kinda looks like ancient cave drawings.” Sylisa frowned and she scratched her scalp. “Like the one on the tablet at the museum…about the legend of an ark to survive an ancient flood. You drawing a boat?”

Nia nodded her head eagerly.

“There was a boat that appeared in the desert!” Sylisa’s knees gave a wobble and she staggered in disbelief. “Why didn’t you say something? You were on a ship with Weavile? What? Why? How? When?”

Quailing her feathers, Weavile laughed. She licked her talons, her fangs glistening white with stains of fresh blood on their tips. Then she dashed forward viciously with both her ice claws extended.

“NO!” Sylisa dove and threw herself over defenseless Nia to protect her. “Please! Don’t hurt her!”

Sylisa clenched her eyes shut tight and coldness surrounded her. However, she refused to expose her friend to the gale of attacks.

Chapter Text

Her body seized with fear, Sylisa expected Weavile’s sharp blades to impale her back at any second. Huddled over Nia, the temperature seemed to plummet around her, her worried exhales turning to clouds of mist.

“I won’t let you hurt her!” Sylisa gasped, her teeth rattling from the biting cold.

Weavile’s razor talons were mere inches from Sylisa’s face. An uncertain lull grew as she locked eyes with the splitting image of her former friend.

“…You stopped?” whispered Sylisa. She’s not attacking me. But why? Why spare only me? Why would she want to hurt her but not me?!

Her crimson eyes glowed with power, the same way Nia did when using her powers. The feathers on either side of her head trembled from the invisible cold air emanating from her shadowy form.

The tense standoff continued unabated before Sylisa spoke rather unsteadily. “You’re not the real Nia.”

She tilted her head slightly, an indication of incredulity washed over her face. The feathers above her head flattened back against her ears, her pupils dilated, and her tail feathers swished back and forth.

“You look like her, but you’re a fake! Nia wouldn’t hurt her own family!” insisted Sylisa. Her heart still racing, she felt Nia squirming from under her.

“Get offa me!” squealed her friend.

Jutting up with a start, she tried to release Nia from cover. “I had to protect you! She was gonna jump you!”

“Pft! You did it for her!” she hissed.

Weavile let out a snarl, her glistening ice blades reflecting the unsteady scrambling of Sylisa and Nia. She gave a peevish grunt, huffing and narrowing her eyes in an irritated manner.

After leveraging herself off the ground with her arms, Sylisa felt a kick to the side of her ribs. Although it was not a mortal strike, Weavile’s attack still hurt badly enough to make her moan in pain and fall over, spinning over the sand like a tossed ragdoll. “Ough! That…really hurt.” She coughed weakly, the air had been knocked out of her lungs and the entire side of her abdomen stung worse than any bruise. “She’s so strong even without using her claws.”

Hearing Nia growl in what could only be some foul expletive, Sylisa managed to catch a glimpse of her squaring off with Weavile. The difference in their height made for a nerve-wracking clash before it even began. Nia’s tallest feather, now fully rigid from adrenaline like the rest of them, barely reached up to Weavile’s neck.

“Nia!” exclaimed Sylisa. “Don’t…!”

It was too late to stop her. The instant Weavile feinted, posing her claws and rearing her head forward, Nia took the initiative. Dashing, she swung at Weavile with an uppercut. However, Weavile countered the swipe with a gleaming, well-placed nail. Foiling her attack, Weavile proceeded to stomp Nia straight in the chest, knocking her prone on her back.

“No!” yelled Sylisa. “NIA!”

Weavile’s dark red eyes focused on Sylisa, glowing with an eldritch light.

“Why…?” Sylisa forced herself up, the pain in her side throbbing. Once unsteadily on her feet, the blades of her Armadas extended with a resolute snap. Simply looking at Nia in the dirt caused her vision to distort in a mixture of anger and tears. She raised her blades at the Weavile and shouted, “I don’t care who you are! Even if you look like Nia once did! You’re not going to get away with hurting her!”

Flouting, the dark-coated creature flicked back her tall burgundy feathers before advancing on Nia as she struggled back to her feet.

I have to pull her away from Nia! But how? I know! I’ll grab her weak-spot, her feathers!

Sylisa saw her chance and seized it. She ran headlong at Weavile’s blindside. Her feathers were almost in her grasp. “C’mere, you!” Her fingers passed right through Weavile’s thick crown feathers. “W-Whaa!” In shock, her balance was all but lost and Sylisa found herself overcompensating for not connecting with her target. A blunt force slammed against her back. “Aaargh!” she cried as she was kicked right into the apparition of Weavile. She felt supernaturally cold as she fell through the illusion of her former friend’s form. Smashing into the sand headfirst, she ate dirt and her spine ached from the blow. “Substitute? How…careless of me.”

Nia’s claws clashed loudly against Weavile’s. Their razor nails locked in a draw, tossing sparks and bits of ice in what sounded like a sword fight.

Coughing, Sylisa tried to get back up, her entire body shaking from pain. The two of them were exchanging blows right in front of her, yet her arms were wobbling uncontrollably, she was too winded to do more than crouch, let alone move. “Dammit,” she cursed. “Fend her off, Nia! Outmaneuver her!”

Nia positioned herself on a small hill of sand to gain some leverage. She avoided Weavile’s slashes with short jumps and side dodges, but her technique started becoming predictable as the contest raged. Nia’s ripostes showed less force, her fatigue all too apparently drained by efforts to evade longer distances than if she were sparing a Sneasel. Weavile began taking advantage of the turning tide, her momentum increasing, each blow pushing Nia back further than the last.

“You gotta mix it up!” shouted Sylisa. “Nia, she’s not fighting back! She’s wearing you down!”

Nia somersaulted backwards, barely escaping a powerful burst of swipes. Her crown feather twitched as she made a snapping noise in response to the setback.

“Flank her right after the next attack!”

Rolling to her side, Nia evaded the charging Weavile’s heavy strikes. She skirted around swiftly on the ground, managing to close the distance by twirling her body, planting her feet, and pouncing.

“There! Uppercut!”

Weavile leaned backwards just as Nia entered the gap between her attacks. She dug her claws into the earth and twisted her figure in an unprecedented motion. Culminating in a vicious roundhouse kick, Weavile batted Nia away.

“What?! She predicted your move!” Bewildered, Sylisa reached for Nia, who had landed not too far away. “Nia, you can’t get near her, use ranged attacks!”

Nia shook her head, the side of her jaw bruised an unsightly red. “I won’t give up!”

Weavile scoffed, her feathers slick with a coating of ice surrounding her like a cloud of mist. The glimmering residue sparkled around her body like powdered snow.

“She’s not where you think she is!” warned Sylisa. “Her Substitute isn’t obvious, I fell right through it.” Her body shivered as she reminisced passing through the decoy. “You need to spot her before you can counter!”

“I got it!” Nia’s growling lead to her jewel shimmering brightly with a Foresight.

The fog around Weavile began to dissipate.

“Behind you!” Sylisa shouted. “Look out!”

Spinning around, Nia barely managed to have her claws up in time to deflect Weavile from diving into her back with her blades. As their talons clashed noisily, bits of ice and nail clouded their stalemate.

Weavile hissed and growled, bearing down with an incredible strength.

Unwilling to give in, Nia pushed back against her.

“Nia!” shouted Sylisa. What can I do? How do I stop Weavile from crushing her under those huge claws?!

The ice coating Nia’s claws began to lose its form, the icy swords became shaved and whittled simply by crossing blades with Weavile. Bit by bit, chunks of ice fell from the cracks in her weapons, chipping from the downward pressure Weavile was exerting.

Dammit! C’mon, think of something, Alisha! I can’t let Nia lose here! She’s my best friend!

Amid her anxiety, Sylisa noticed a faint reddish glow on the sand beneath her. “This is—!” She gasped, realizing the Armadas had a dim light. “Impossible,” she said, “it doesn’t have any power! How did—?”

Grunting, Nia shoved Weavile, daring to strike with her elbow while their blades were locked. The following moment, Weavile hissed, riposting with a jab. There was another clatter as the two of them tumbled back into a wild standoff with their ice blades.

“Hold her there, Nia!” Not wasting any time, Sylisa sprinted at the two of them. I’ll hit with a blast from the Armadas to break her guard and open her up to Nia’s counterattack!

As she approached, Weavile turned her head and glared. Still locked in Nia’s claws, her feathers flared defensively.

“I’m coming for you!” Sylisa extended her arm and dove. She twisted the switch on her Armadas and focused her palm on Weavile’s forehead jewel. “Aargh!”

Weavile’s fangs shone as she opened her mouth in a howl.

Nothing’s happening! Having already committed to her jump, Sylisa fell onto her target. Her outstretched hand smacked Weavile’s gem. “Oof!” That didn’t go well at all.

Snarling, Weavile wrenched Nia back and forth trying to force her claws out of the deadlock while also struggling under Sylisa. She raised her rear leg and let out a shrill shriek.

Oh crap, now she’s freakin’ pissed. Realizing Weavile was going to kick her again, Sylisa rolled. Tumbling off Weavile, the hooks of her Armadas became stuck on Weavile’s nails as she went for the kick. No, my hand got caught!

Squirming, Weavile managed to push back onto her other leg before falling over. Fending off Nia while trying to balance herself she went to headbutt Sylisa.

“Ahh!” Sylisa recoiled from the hit against her shoulder. The hooks of her claws shot back from the impact, freeing Weavile from their clutches. “She’s loose!”

Nia valiantly threw both her paws up with a circular motion, bringing herself close to Weavile to swing her blades to the side.

Weavile went with the motion, her icicle blades tracing Nia’s movements. However, the moment they reached the highest point where Nia’s strength was its weakest due to her smaller body, Weavile retaliated in a brutal Crush Claw.

“Look out!” yelled Sylisa.

Weavile’s blades slammed into the ground, knocking Nia back while throwing dust and ice into the air.

Nia tried to regain her composure, but the force of the shock wave placed her on the defensive. She moved left, then right, then left again as Weavile advanced madly swinging her blades.

The fully-grown demon’s attacks increased in speed and ferocity with each swipe. Soon Nia could not break through the momentum, let alone dodge the waves of dark-imbued ice that followed each swing. Unable to counter with an offensive move, instead she was simply trying to escape Weavile’s extensive reach now followed by a shadowy aura.

“Nia, she’s using those aftershocks to pelt you with hits you can’t dodge!”

The rhythm of Weavile’s attacks ramped up incredibly fast. Following her swipes, she incorporated kicks and punches. The variety of Weavile’s assaults coupled with her sheer speed was simply too much. Each strike, regardless of physically connecting, shoved Nia with ethereal power.

“She’s giving everything she’s got! This isn’t good!” Swearing, Sylisa helplessly watched Nia take a brutal hit to the jewel on her chest from the backside of Weavile’s claw. The crushing impact made her go completely limp and she fell back into the sand, thoroughly defeated. “NIA!”

Weavile brushed a bit of dirt from her ear feathers, scoffing in her feline language. She stood tall, dominating over Nia and Sylisa both. Her feathers had a shimmering afterglow to them. Having been coated with ice, they glistened in the orange light.

“I can’t— I can’t hear what she’s saying…” groaned Sylisa.

She elegantly shook her head, resting her blades on Nia’s shoulders.

Unable to save her by recalling with a ball, Sylisa pleaded, “No, don’t kill Nia…!”

Nia whimpered as Weavile’s feathers lowered, ominously bowing along with her head.

“NO!” Suddenly Sylisa heard a faint vibration, a strange buzzing sound she did not recognize as human. “What the—? What’s that noise? It’s coming from up there.” Strangely, the effervescent noise morphed into distant echoes of a chant. She turned to look for the source of the monophonic echoing, up at the steep hill she had taken leading out of the Gully. It was hypnotizing, her sense of time began to evaporate. “This music, it’s like what they play when someone dies,” she whispered. “No! You can’t take her! Please, anyone but Nia!”

Looking back towards Nia, much to her surprise Weavile vanished. Another trick? No, I don’t see her Substitute. But why? What’s going on? Where’s this sound coming from?

Her love for Nia overcame her fear, and Sylisa crawled on hand and knee to her, setting her palm on Nia’s trembling head. “Nia, it’s okay, I promise!” The water in her eyes made it difficult to see, but she felt warmth and the softness of her feather. “You’re gonna be okay…!”

Suddenly, the melodic air was cut short by a female’s tranquil voice. “She’s piteously weak. Even with her.”

Sylisa’s eyes widened. Her breaths became erratic and her heart pounded as she realized the voice was inside her brain. “Wha—!? That voice! It’s— urgh! Get outta my head!”

“I don’t fully understand either.” The female’s telepathy continued to tunnel into Sylisa’s cranium. “But the legends of two, those precious stories of yore, I treasure more than any jewel. There are the two Dragons of Dimensions, with the physical weight of the world resting on the shoulders of both Time and Space. The two Dragons of Form, harbingers of this corporeal reality, comprised of both Truth and Ideal. Two heavenly lights, Sun and Moon, Day and Night, speakers of Dawn and Dusk. And two children of the Eclipse. The Ultimate Draconic Power which binds them all. There are always two. Two brought to face One.”

Sylisa could not tell whether the voice was even speaking to her. Nevertheless, it felt closer than her own vocal cords.

“…I agree,” said the feminine voice. “Alas, until the Full Moon, her power is naught but a reflection born of the Chromatic One. A poor substitute, barely made malleable by the power of Sparkling Stone.”

I’ve heard that before. The Sparkling Stone is part of the Armadas! Sylisa sat upright and listened. The periodic breaks in her telepathy indicated the presence of another who Sylisa could not hear.

“Yes, you’re quite right,” said the voice. “Until then, she’s little more than a frail Shade, bumbling around in the dark, unaware of her potential. However, when the time comes, will she bloom into an unrecognizable spirit of hatred as the other Lost Ones to Shadow? We’d have no trouble putting her down here before that transpires.”

Sylisa tried even harder to make out a response to the strange voice, however she heard nothing save for the distant noise from earlier.

“No? It would be so simple to end this now and wait for the next cycle.” The female gasped through the telepathy and Sylisa felt an uncomfortable throbbing in her head. “Huh? Her weakness, THAT word, is special? …You’re convinced that word, that weak, pathetic, little word, that weakness, is both her flaw and fortune? How? Why would she have intended this? For what purpose other than to ultimately sabotage herself? Unless… she was never the sacrifice to begin with—”

“—Stop!” cried out Sylisa. “We won’t sacrifice anything. I’m not letting you anywhere near her!”

There was a short and haughty laughter, which dwindled into girlish chuckles. “I see. So she can hear these thoughts even as we are now. How interesting. It must be through our connection. …No, I was simply careless to not foresee this consequence, but maybe it is for the best if we are to test her worth. She has the pieces, will she put it together? Or is she too broken herself? I wouldn’t know, I’ve only glimpsed at her spirit long enough to savor the aroma of her soul.”

The imposter! It must be her! Grasping her skull in her hands, Sylisa forcefully shook her head. “Get out of my head, you witch!”

“A witch?” The effeminate voice echoed a dry laughter through her telepathy. “So that’s what they call me now. It’s strange, I once called her that too. …I suppose it’s the same as always. The heavens never change, and neither do those whose paths are illuminated by Light, hunted by Shadow. As above, so below. Come. Let us leave these two reflections to the perils of their Night.”

“WAIT! Just what the heck is going on?!” Sylisa looked around, but saw no one in the dim depths of the gorge. “Who’s there?!”

Nia craned her neck to scan the area, her shoulders slumping after realizing the sudden retreat of Weavile. “What’s wrong, Syl? Why you shouting?”

Sylisa’s strength began to return. Drying her eyes, she rubbed Nia’s chest and pulled her close, her soft, velvety fur and fluffy feathers were remarkably comforting. “I shouldn’t have let you fight her,” she whispered. She’s way too powerful for a Sneasel to face. I knew that about her, about Weavile. After all the strange stuff happened, I should have known this was a cunning set-up. Sniffling, Sylisa said, “I’m sorry, Nia. I just…I didn’t want to lose you.”

Nia did not respond with so much as a purr at first. She sat in Sylisa’s arms, cuddled against her body. Her feather twitched and quivered as the harmony from above died off. Eventually she did meow a nonchalant, “Kay.”

“Where do you think the witch was hiding?” asked Sylisa.

Nia shook her head. “I dunno what you’re talkin’ about.”

“The only telepath I know is Kirlia, but she sounded way too old to be that little runt. Then again, it was also weirdly familiar. There was that strange song that filled the air. Could it be why Weavile left?”

Nia shook her head. “Didn’t hear nothing.”

“For real?” Cupping her hand to Nia’s ear, Sylisa said, “You got better ears than me! That’s strange you didn’t hear it. It’s gone now, wonder where it came from? Wait! How’d Weavile hear it if it was only in my head? Argh, this doesn’t make sense!”

Nia’s eyelids closed partially in suspicion and she pawed Sylisa’s temple. “I dunno. You got knocked in the noggin, didn’t you?” she meowed.

“Yeah.” She shrugged, however the motion caused her shoulders to ache. “Took a tumble, but it’s not too bad.”

Nia pointed to her heart. “You’re not bleeding, right?”

Sylisa looked down at her body. Though her clothes were scuffed up, her skin showed no cuts only bruises. Oddly, the glowing light of the Armadas had faded completely. Another mystery. I swear I saw it. The Armadas came to life for an instant, just like old times. In her worried thoughts she let slip, “I should’ve known she’d be every bit as tough as I remember”

Nia croaked a weak growl. “Why? You haven’t met.”

“Well, um, she’s your evolved form, right?” Nervously, Sylisa rationalized to her partner, “Those are always stronger, aren’t they? You’re a smart cookie if you understand that.”

Poking her, Nia grumbled. “You’re not telling me something!”

“No, no! I’m…uh, thinking about what you’ll be like all grown up.” I don’t have the heart to tell her Weavile looked exactly like Nia did before the Eclipse. It could really upset her since she was trying so hard to beat her and because she lost her memories it’s not like she’ll understand. Dismissing her worries, Sylisa turned to the satchel that had fallen. “I can’t believe how quickly she showed up and left. And we didn’t lose our loot. I’m sure she coulda snatched it while we were knocked down. Guess Weavile didn’t really care for treasures. Weird, don’tcha think? And what’s weirder is why’d she’d want to hurt you if she’s family. Why’s that, girl?”

Nia nuzzled herself against Sylisa’s arm and purred. “You’re keepin’ secrets from me too, ya’know.”

“D’aw. Not really. It’s nothin’ but ol’ me worrying ‘bout you like always.” Sylisa hummed and scratched Nia behind the ear. “I can tell something’s bugging you about it, Nia. But we should head back and get some rest. Are you feeling okay? Can you walk?”

Nia nodded, placing a paw on her torso under her corset where Sylisa had been whacked.

“Ah!” She mustered a feeble laugh. “Just a teeny bump, nothin’ too serious.” She tugged the corset’s fabric down, to cover the black and blue.

As a matter of concern, she brushed her belly on Sylisa’s side.

“I’m fine, girl,” she said wrapping her arm around Nia. “I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t even feel it anymore.”

“Liar.” Her friend groaned, her feathers wilting. “You got hit hard with that kick,” she mewed.

Sylisa scratched Nia’s tummy. “Yeah, so did you,” she said, “Just remember, I can take it cos I’m not a tiny snow-kitty like you.”

Nia grumbled then gave a hissing snort. “Meanie.”

“Hm.” Sylisa rubbed her head. “We gotta get stronger, don’t we?”

“Yeah. —Someone’s coming!” warned Nia as her feathers stood up. She pointed her claw in the direction of a faint crunching sound on sand.

“Good ears,” replied Sylisa. She got to her feet, feeling stronger. “That’s the way out. We’re gonna run into them unless we hide.”

“Smart idea.” Nia crawled out from her arms and silently slunk into the shadows.

She followed Nia to the far side of the Gully, against a wall behind a cluster of rocks. Crouching, Sylisa waited for the echoing footsteps to pass. When they did not, the two of them moved further along the edge of the gorge.

Nia worriedly pulled on Sylisa’s coattail. “No good. They’re coming right this way!” she squeaked.

“Oh crap, how’d they spot us?” she whispered. Could it be the voice from before? No, she said they were leaving. Then who—?

“Two walkers on two feet.” Nia gestured with her claws. She pointed deliberately at herself and Sylisa. “It’s like they can see us!”

“Rattats! How can they see through boulders? Did we leave any trails?” Sylisa was beginning to feel claustrophobic. “We’re cornered here. Let’s pretend we’re leaving. Hiding isn’t gonna help if they’re already onto us. It’ll only make things worse if we’re pinned.”

Nia nodded. “You’re right.”

“Okay, follow my lead, and whatever happens, Nia, don’t leave my side.” Sylisa took a deep breath, and steeled herself for the approaching uncertainty.

Chapter Text

Ahead approached a tall man, garbed in a dark blue uniform. In his wake flowed a wide crimson mantle, along with a bipedal creature nearly half his height. Atop the man’s graying flaxen hair he wore a vintage officer’s cap. The sound of his heavy boots echoed in the gorge.

Sylisa let out a short gasp under her breath, her fears of being arrested had her heart pounding. Crud. I thought things couldn’t get any worse! Who’s he? Another lawman? Did York spill the beans about my alias?

The man walked with an imperious gait, a sort of grandeur all too telling he held no paltry amount of influence over the world he surveyed. Resting on his narrow nose, a pair of silver-rimmed, round spectacles reflected the orange light of burning barrels in the underground. The faint light illuminated a circular steel talisman on his left breast pocket.

That’s a big badge he’s wearing. It’s different from York’s Arcanine. Some sorta bird with large feathers… Could it be a mythical Pokémon? I haven’t seen it before.

He was clean cut, pale, and well into his prime. His imposing dignity contrasted the shaggy, somewhat scrappy beast beside him, who wore a similar circular insignia on the clasp of his short shoulder wrap beneath a metal collar.

A Lucario? No capture balls on the guy’s suit, bet he’s got it trained by that collar. Sylisa looked around anxiously. We’re cornered and they look like they mean business. No one else is around. Oh no, what if that old guy with the two-headed dragon was part of a sting operation?!

Though his posture was unquestionably daunting, the man’s stride presented a slight imbalance.

Why’s he got chains wrapped around his right arm? Is it some sorta leash for the dog? Wait, I’ve seen this before! Drake from the mansion was taming a ‘mon that way. Hm, no, can’t be him! Drake had a dragon tied up and didn’t have glasses or that hat. But he did have a cape just like that. This isn’t looking good. I don’t think this guy’s with the city guards. We better run. Nia’s badly hurt, I don’t think she’ll be able to keep up on her own. I’ll have to grab her and dash.

As Sylisa started to move to pick up Nia, the Lucario barked loudly, startling her. She looked up to see the beast pointing at her with something unsightly in his hand.

W-What’s it holding? It looks almost…alive!

Something black and blue, a bit deformed but still cylindrical and round, wriggled in Lucario’s paw. The canine held it out like a trophy. He gave it a good wiggle and it began to drip.

A gasp slipped from Sylisa’s lips. “That’s—!”

Crumpled in Lucario’s outstretched hand, shook a severed head of Zweilous. The blood was still fresh and flowed freely. Along with the vile fluid, bits of gore oozed out, staining the canine’s legs.

Sylisa covered her mouth. I’m gonna be sick!

Nia raised her battered claws defensively, chipped bits of ice fell from her extending blades. “Same one from before!” she hissed.

The uniformed man smirked unpleasantly. Winding his wrist, he tightened his chain on the proud Lucario causing it to lurch, bringing it to heel. Then in a gravelly voice he said, “At least one of them had sense to head us in the right direction.”

Thoroughly shaken, Sylisa stammered in a taut voice, “Why’d you —?! Who’re you?!”

His upper lip stiffened with disgust. The man tugged on the beast’s chain again and said, “My eyes see a girl dressed in all black, a daemon critter by her side, brandishing claws of steel. How very suspicious. Tell me, what is your name?”

“And who are you to ask for my name?” she shot back. “I’m shocked you chopped off that dragon’s head!”

“It had to be put down.” He scoffed. “Your opinions are irrelevant, however your familiarity with the felled dark creature is noted. I recommend you answer my questions.”

“You expect me to answer someone with blood on their hands?!” exclaimed Sylisa. “Who do you think you are?”

“As per the codified rule of title thirty-five, chapter seven, subsection E-four, the Seal of the Rising Phoenix tells you who I am,” he stated, pointing to the emblem over his heart. “This is the Seal of Might.”

Psh, rules are for fools. Sylisa shook her head. “A Seal of Might? And a Phoenix? Sorry, I dunno what that all means. Not from around here.”

“A tourist, are you?” he asked studying her.

She shrugged. “Something like that. Cut me some slack why don’tcha.”

“Ignorance is no excuse,” he said. “Since you’re clueless, I will inform you.”

The Lucario at his side began barking, bearing its sharp fangs. Using his steel wrapped arm, the man placed a firm hand on the beast’s head, to which the response was a submissive series of whimpers.

Whoa! He’s got complete control over that monster! I’ve never seen something so ferocious become so obedient outside a ball.

In a stentorian fashion he introduced himself. “I am Deputy Warden of Heaven’s Might, bearer of the Steel Seal, Commander Vance.”

Never heard of him or Heaven’s Might. He’s got such a cocky attitude it makes York look humble. I don’t know anything about the Phoenix Seal he’s wearing or Heaven’s Might, but they must be dangerous. Why would he do something so terrible to Zweilous? Even if it was a stupid and annoying ‘mon, it wasn’t like it was feral, that old homeless guy was taking care of it. It didn’t deserve that.

“Speak!” ordered Vance. “Tourist or not, by the authority vested by the Concordant of Centennial, I possess plenary power to demand the identities of all within my jurisdiction.”

Centennial? Didn’t Bennet mention something about that? I dunno what he’s referring to but it’d be dicey to stick around to find out. Sylisa, trying to slip away, said, “Riiight. We were just leaving your juris—”

Repugnance all too apparent on his crumpling face, he said sternly, “Negative.”

Using the spike on its hand as a wedge, Lucario plucked one of the vacant eyes out of the Zweilous’ decapitated head. With a fearsome roar, the beast tossed the eyeball at Sylisa and Nia’s feet. It bounced once, its tail of severed nerves causing it to quickly roll to a stop and look up in their direction in a vacant, empty black stare.

“Rethink your response. Carefully.” The commander taunted with a flick of his wrist, uncoiling more of the metal rope, allowing the creature to rear its head back and bark dominantly.

Nia sniveled, arching her back defensively. Her scuffed up feathers wilted as she huddled close to Sylisa’s leg. “Syl, I’m scared,” she cried.

Sylisa, appalled by the ghastly sight, could not filter herself and her emotions got the best of her. “The hell you want with us?!”

“You’ve got a sharp tongue, termagant. Ought to have Briggs pry it straight from your mouth. He’d tear all your venomous words away.” The commander’s steady tone while describing the punishment belied the ire evident in his piercing eyes. “Yet it would hardly be worth the trouble.”

Hearing what must have been his name, Briggs raucously bayed at the commander’s words, spitting and snarling like a feral once more. He spiked the severed head of Zweilous into the sand with a fearsome howl.

Damn, it’s getting all worked up, foaming at the mouth whenever he takes his grip off its head. I bet it’s got something to do with those chains he’s wearing. Nia’s in no shape to fend ‘em off. “Then, if we’re not worth the trouble, we’ll be getting outta your way, Commander,” she said.

Vance raised his coil-covered arm and the beast beside him throatily rasped, snapping his jaw up at his master, begging for air. “I keep Briggs around to ensure my orders are obeyed. You are not free to leave until you answer my questions.”

We’ll see about that. Gonna have to make a smooth break for it. Sylisa bent her knees, lowering herself slightly to the ground, getting ready to sprint. “What’s this about?” she asked.

She saw a conniving smirk on his thin lips. “Before you consider fleeing I will warn you, the penalty is often fatal. I won’t warrant what he’ll do.” With an agitated huff, he let the chain slack.

Gasping air once more, Briggs howled in evanescent freedom. He eagerly dug his heels into the sand, gaining traction for when it came time to pounce.

Nia hissed loudly, she swiped at the air as Briggs lunged as far as he could on the leash.

Sylisa gave a small laugh. “Think I’m gonna run from you? Where’d you get that idea? I get antsy around dogs is all.”

“You make a poor liar,” said Vance. “Your stance is laughably pathetic, all too revealing, severely lacking discipline at best, common sense at worst.” He cut at the air in front his arm, the metal wires rattling and causing Briggs’ yelps to become hoarse choking. “Body language speaks volumes, about your intent, your capability, and, yes, even your potential to act. Strong sentiments prevent a rational course of action, ultimately leading to your ensnarement in a natural chokehold. Don’t think for an instant you were wandering around here undetected. You failed to evade our gaze.”

Despite the obviously painful pressure on its neck, Briggs’ eyes began to glow, the black appendages on the sides of his face stirred even though there was no wind.

We can’t let ‘em scare us, but we’re not able to defend ourselves. Clearing her throat, she said, “We’re going for a walk. What’s wrong with that?”

Gripping the chains around his arm, the commander shook his head, his expression ripe with discontent. “You’re foolish expecting me to believe that. No one strolls these malevolent streets for pleasure.”

Briggs barked, its repeated guttural noises sounded much like menacing laughter.

Recoiling, Nia shifted closer. Sylisa felt her feather twitching against her leg above her stockings. “What’re we gonna do, Syl?” she mewed. “I’ll do whatever I can.”

Nia…I can’t let her fight. Not against that. Even if she was at full strength, it’s just too powerful. Mustering courage, Sylisa said, “Look, wasn’t gonna get involved in any of this ‘til your dog decided to throw trash at us. I don’t need to be an Alakazam ta’ figure you’re lookin’ to stir up trouble.”

“Impudence,” said Vance. “Here you stand, in the foul underbelly of society, carrying a peculiar satchel, and armed with curious blades. However, these observations are ancillaries, the demonic creature by your side is evidence of corruption I need to draw conclusions.”

Nia growled. “He’s got alota nerve.”

“You’re quick to judge.” Sylisa dug her sole into the earth. Tiny beads of sweat were forming on her forehead despite the cool climate in the valley. We need to break past him. How about a distraction? Maybe Nia can use a Fake Out to stun ‘em?

Briggs tousled under Vance’s loose grip, its fangs exposed. The beast lurched forward, ready to spring. When Sylisa froze, Vance lowered his hand and the creature, momentarily controlled, began loudly snapping his jaw open and shut.

He knows. I dunno how, but he knows what I’m thinking. It’s not like telepathy, but he’s reading me somehow. Can’t startle it if it’s sensing my intentions. …I really drew the short straw running into them while Nia’s weakened. She won’t put up much fight after saving me from Weavile, she needs rest. It’s my turn to protect her. Holding her ground, Sylisa addressed the commander. “What gives you the right to judge?”

“The very same Concordant.” The commander’s brow furrowed into a misshapen hill between his eyes. “The sacred light, wrought by the flames of the eternal Phoenix, shall be judgment to purify the darkness.”

“Err…Good luck cleaning that up, it’s the middle of the night,” she said pointing at the large opening in the gorge’s ceiling revealing the starlit sky.

“Physical darkness has little to do with it,” he said gravely. “There is another darkness, it consumes its victims, casting a shadow on their actions, even in the midday sun. Our Concordant with the Phoenix is a measure to purify it.”

“Well, why?” asked Sylisa.

Briggs growled impatiently.

Tugging on the chain, Vance said, “Once the shadow consumes its host, it seeks to propagate and spread its blight further beyond, as a virus would.”

“Blight, huh?” Sounds a lot like the dark cloud the Dragon has swirling around it.

“Blight’s incubation takes place within the sickened spirit.” After a deep inhale, Vance respired, a severe glower on his face matching the menacing Lucario at his side. “…It all has the same malodorous, vile, toxicity of the misery decaying here. Look around you. A tainted mess, a sewage of wickedness, tramps, beggars, thieves, dealers, parasites, and smugglers, all smearing their degeneracy, their atrocious waste, in a sunless hovel. My patience grows thin. If you wish to separate yourself from such malevolence, I demand you answer.”

Yikes, he’s pissed off. I gotta stall him till I see an opening for me to grab Nia ‘n run, his pet isn’t letting up ‘cos he can sense my inner motives from my body stance. But the commander slipped up when he said it can only sense my potential to act. …I got it! The trick is to act like I believe his lies to fool my body language so his pet lowers his guard. Sylisa straightened her stance and wagged her finger. “Uh huh, you got a point. This place, it’s the pits, innit? Maybe we got off to the wrong start. I ain’t gonna bolt, haven’t done any harm. Tell you my name, y’know, ‘cos I’m cooperative. It’s …Noire.”

“So, you have some sense—” Vance gazed at her suspiciously “—Noire.”

“Right,” replied Sylisa. “Must’ve taken a lot to bring a commander to a lousy place like this. I’ll help if you’ll promise to let me go without any trouble.”

Nia hissed in a concerned manner. “What are you thinking, Syl?”

Vance nodded and then said, “Very well. I shall set you free if you cooperate. Let’s begin with the obvious. What are you doing here?”

I don’t trust this guy one bit, but what choice do I have? That hound is ready to eat me and Nia! Mathias always told me to play to my strengths. He isn’t easy to fool, especially with that pet, he’ll catch on to my lies and I don’t want him to know I’m staying at the guild. I gotta try something else ‘n sell it to him. What am I good at? …I got it. Confidently, Sylisa pointed to the ground beneath her. “I’m actually studying geology. Earth science, y’know? Plenty of interesting things buried underground when you know where’ta look.”

“That seems obvious to any layperson,” said Vance. “You’re an aspiring archeologist?”

“Naw, you got me all wrong, it’s a bit of a hobby,” replied Sylisa. “But see, stuff gettin’ buried, that’s only half the story. There’s another thingy that happens out in the desert: erosion. Sometimes things buried long ago come back to the surface without warning.”

“Hm. I see.” Vance rubbed his chin. Speaking to his companion gruffly he said, “Then it’s possible what we’re searching for has already been unearthed.”

“Yeah, or a ‘mon scooped it up.” Come to think of it, maybe that’s how the ship appeared outside town. Sylisa shrugged. “Archeology’s all about finding clues, ‘n geology is being a detective. Might hafta think outside the box if you wanna track it down. Whadya looking for?”

He hesitated for a moment. Then a smile appeared on his face. “Orre is rich in both minerals and ancient lore, where they intersect we will find what we are searching for on behalf of the Order. Long ago, the province used to be referred to as the Glittering World because it was home to a treasure, related to what some call a Sparkling Stone.”

Her breaths suddenly felt very heavy. The treasure from the cultists! And the Armadas with the Sparkling Stone! Why does my head hurt so much when I think about it? Her hands involuntarily traveled up to ease her throbbing headache. As she rubbed her temples, the stone set on her glove glimmered. She quickly hid that part of her hand under her hair.

“Remarkable.” Vance wore a wry expression. “I’ve never encountered anyone familiar enough with the legend where it affects them. Yet those light eyes reveal you’re not from around here.”

“Just a headache…been out all day inna sun. Why’re you telling me this again?” she said, doing her best to steady herself while Nia looked up at her worriedly.

“Something about you seems off, Noire. My companion sensed it,” he said motioning to Briggs.

I feel so useless trying to figure this stuff out without grownup Nia to help me out. Sylisa pulled her hair back and clasped her hands behind her back. “You’re concerned for me? Sweet of you, but I’m fine.”

Vance scratched his jawline in contemplation, the side of his hand ruffled his tall collar. “What intrigues me is your familiarity with Orre’s treasure, considering it is guarded fiercely by those who live here.”

“Ohh.” She lowered her voice. “Ya think it’s smart to be telling strangers that? What if I decide to go looking for the treasure myself?”

“Don’t toy with me. You know something, your reaction made that much clear,” he said as Briggs growled threateningly.

I messed up when he mentioned the treasure and the Sparkling Stone. It was like my body responded on its own. I gotta think fast. “Local legends are tough to follow ‘cos being an outsider means you don’t have a connection to the tale.” Sylisa took a breath to help her focus. “Who knows, maybe legends about watching the stars began with growing crops at the right time of year. Turns out Orre’s got some mad whack stories, ‘specially out here in the boons. You woulda thought stars and superstitions were yesterday’s news.”

“Despite your curious accent you have a point. Superstitions flourish on the frontier. On the other hand, Orre’s heart, the capital, is an oasis of advanced technology developed by science. Even the architecture is engineered to defy nature.” Vance shook his head slowly. “The irony is that line of thinking led to the catastrophe plaguing the province: the Shadow Pokémon.”

Briggs yapped noisily in response.

“Shadow Pokémon?” Sylisa felt her stomach knot at the term, she tried to appear unperturbed.

“Surely, you’ve heard the stories of the creatures of darkness, made strong by an unseen hatred surrounding them,” said the commander. “Originally reported in the capital, however, with the current embargo in effect, their spreading is either taking place outside the capital or they’ve found a way to reproduce.”

Like the shadows York and Bennet mentioned! The ones that attacked the train crew and the scouts outside of town! Maybe even the Night Dragon too! That also explains why the capital is locked down! Curbing her excitement, Sylisa nudged Nia with her leg.

In response Nia’s feather quivered against her indicating she understood. “Someone’s setting them loose?” she meowed.

“That’s why you’re here,” rationalized Sylisa. “You’re on the frontier to find out about the Shadow Pokémon and stumbled across more than you bargained for.” Kinda reminds me of what happened to me and Nia.

He nodded. “It is part of our mission on behalf of the Order. Certain legends are pertinent to our task. Which local superstition about the stars were you referring to?”

“Hm, well, there’s a story about a dark star falling from heaven,” she said. Maybe the Black Star is related to the Sparkling Stone. A rock can look dark, and if it’s sparkling it could be considered a kind of star.

“The legends of dark stars from the heavens seem to have emerged after a certain event took place.” Vance paused. “…An eclipse.”

“Ooh, that,” she mumbled. “Can’t say much about it, ‘cept the people here get excited ‘bout it.”

“One thing is odd,” said Vance. “According to the star charts, the Centennial Eclipse hasn’t taken place for quite some time, which would explain why no one remembers seeing it. Yet there are rumors circulating around town that a girl saw it recently.”

He’s not wrong. What do I say to that? “Uh, well, ya’know, don’t always believe what you overhear. I haven’t seen an eclipse if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Those who do remember seeing it, they’re called something special,” he said. “Not only that, there’s always something unique about them.”

Kirlia said we were Children of the Eclipse. Could that be what he’s talking about?

“Most importantly, there’s a different aura around them, not dissimilar from the shadow aura plaguing the Shadow Pokémon.” Vance gestured to Briggs. “While he cannot directly see shadow aura, he can sense anomalies in a lifeform’s energy.”

Sylisa’s lips frowned. “Sorry to disappoint, can’t be much help. Geologists aren’t experts on star stuff, y’know.”

Leering, he responded, “Tell me what you know, Noire. As a reward, I shall set you free. I always keep my word.”

Like I’m gonna trust you. “Tough luck, commander,” replied Sylisa, careful to keep her back to the cave’s wall for fear of him seeing her discolored hair. “I dunno anything except there’s a connection to the region.”

Briggs grumbled, displaying his fangs.

“A shame,” said the commander.

Judging by that look he’s giving me, he doesn’t buy it. “What would it even lead to? Some shiny rock and an eclipse aren’t exactly what I’d call related.”

“You’re mistaken,” said the commander. “A story is written in the fabric of the stars. It is the flow of time, which the heavens are governed by. This stone is a fragment of that power.”

Sylisa glanced down at Nia. “Time huh?”

Vance looked up at the long stretch of night sky. “Countless civilizations worshiped the sun, stars, and moon. The celestial lights were treated like gods by both man and monster alike, keeping a steady pace so that they could live, staying on course so they would not lose their way. They represented Time and Space, Truth and Ideal, Day and Night.” His head lowered. “It was only recently that balance was disturbed.”

His cryptic, yet ardent words made Sylisa feel uneasy. “You’re losing me,” she said.

“I was charged with investigating the Shadow Phenomenon,” explained Vance. “I learned I could not see these creatures cloaked in shadow, nor could my companion detect their presence. The locals claim it is because we were not born under the same stars. Fate, as it were, would not allow me to see the monsters that terrorized the land. From that day forth, for the sake of our future, I vowed to change that.”

I’m pretty sure I can see it. Charizard and Weavile both had those clouds of shadow around them. I wasn’t born here though. “That’s a bummer. Wait, how can someone not from around here know they’re real?”

“There is another way,” said Vance. “It involves the Sparkling Stone.”

“Got it,” she said placing her hand against her hip, concealing the section of the Armadas containing the stone between the ruffles of her skirt. “You’re looking for the treasure so you can see the shadows. See, I like that, nice ‘n simple.”

“Until then, Briggs will root out the sources of darkness before they can become Shadow Pokémon,” said Vance.

Nia whined. “That’s not right at all.”

“How do you know if a ‘mon is gonna turn?” Sylisa shot back. “What if you kill innocents in the process?”

“That is a necessary risk until we secure the Sparkling Stone, it makes our mission that much more urgent,” he said resolutely. “The sacrifice of potential hosts to shadow is justified for the sake of far more innocents.”

She felt angry at what he was saying. “Justified…?” she repeated in disbelief. “What gives you that right?”

Vance answered in a hollow voice, “It is the Phoenix’s will that death be overcome. The dead must be removed from the realm of the living because they can only infect. Likewise, the unjust will spread their maladies if not for the duty of the just to burn away their wickedness.” Vance looked to Briggs, who nodded in agreement, and then back at Sylisa.

Fed up with his analogy, Sylisa struck straight to the heart of the matter. “Who are YOU to decide who’s dead or not? You said you can’t see the shadows.”

The commander smirked at her passionate reply. “The Rising Phoenix of Orre is a master over death by repeatedly overcoming death. So too is the Order of Heaven’s Might. All who bear the Seal of Might are granted power through the Concordant to act as representatives of the Phoenix. Our sacred duty is to purify the dying on behalf of the Phoenix.”

Sounds as crazy as the cultists worshiping the Blood Eclipse! We gotta get away from this psycho. She struggled to maintain her focus on the commander. “You still haven’t told me WHY you do it. What if a ‘mon ain’t a shadow? What if that dragon you slayed was innocent?!”

“It is the responsibility of our Order to make difficult decisions no one else will,” said Vance. “Justice is excellence of the spirit. And injustice, a terminal defect of the very same spirit. The two are opposites, and, like day and night, cannot exist simultaneously. Either a creature will let darkness into its heart or not, but never both. Until they are seen exhibiting feral behavior coupled with devastating strength, there is no way to tell short of seeing the shadow. However, some creatures are predisposed to an outcome. Call it fate, the same fate which prevents me from seeing the Blight. Our mission is forming the nebulous into the definitive – Heaven’s Might is tasked with collapsing chaotic possibility to into universal reality.”

I’m totally lost. He’s taking the lives of others into his own hands ‘cos some bird said he could? She gave Nia a troubled glance.

Briggs snarled, his eyes tracing the two of them. His stance withered from being subject to the chain’s control.

“I digress, our task is of little concern to the unjust crawling the slum.” Vance’s gaze dropped below the brim of his cap, peering at the dusty ground in front of him. In a low voice he spoke to Briggs. “You detected an anomaly through your aura-reading. And its source is?”

Briggs howled at the sickle shaped moon overhead.

“I see.”

Now’s our chance. Sylisa scooped up Nia while Briggs was not looking. “Told ya all I know, chief. Simply strolling around. That ain’t a crime.”

“The time for pleasantries has passed,” said the commander. He yanked hard on Brigg’s chain causing the beast to sputter and whine. “You’ve presented no useful information, Noire, despite the chance I gave you. I believe further interrogation is in order.”

Dammit! “You said you’d let me go,” she protested. “You gonna go back on your word?”

He leered. “I said I would set you free, didn’t I? I shall keep that promise to you, Noire. However, we’ll be taking what we need. Do not stand in the way of our justice.”

“Me? You’re the one standing in MY way!” Sylisa’s blood felt heated. She squeezed Nia tightly in her arms and spoke from her heart with reckless abandon. “I don’t get you. “Justice this!” and “Unjustice that!” I can see plain as day you’re crawling the same slum, looking for something like everyone else. You learned about the legends already, I got nothing else to tell you. Reckon this is an excuse to bide time for your ‘mon to do some sniffing while you cook up a reason to do what you want. With the insane gang you go to bat for, wouldn’t be surprised if you never planned on letting us go from the start!”

Commander Vance straightened his neck, his vertebrae making an intimidating series of cracks as he did. “Insolent wretch. Take her!”

Sylisa saw where Vance’s bloodshot eyes were fixed. I won’t let ‘em take Nia! Throwing her friend as far as she could she exclaimed, “Nia, run!”

“Don’t even try it!” Vance raised his chain-covered arm, releasing Briggs from the restraint. With a ruthless yell he gave the order, “Pulverize her!”

Chapter Text

Nia barely landed on her feet, tumbling slightly from being tossed.

Sylisa exclaimed, “Alright, run!”

Vance smirked, his cold glare following Nia. He let slack a lengthy line of the chain binding his arm to Briggs. “Give chase and crush,” he ordered.

The air snapped as Briggs rushed in a brilliant flash of light, an Extreme Speed. So quick was the strike Sylisa could not mouth a single word. In the blink of an eye she watched Nia dart a meager distance from the commander before his beast caught her.

Brigg’s iron paw slammed Nia in a brutal uppercut, launching her high. With a huge jump, he chased her frail body in midair, adding to the assault with a Vacuum Wave combo. The repeated percussion of his strikes sent concussive shock waves down through the valley.

The forceful waves knocked Sylisa on her rear. Her jaw dropped as she witnessed Nia’s body crater into the sand.

Nia’s head twitched, whimpering, her paw lifted for a moment before weakly falling limp next to her collapsed form.

“NIA!” she screamed.

Briggs huffed, lowering his palms as he gracefully landed on his feet. The beast then kicked a mound of sand spraying Nia while she was down. It gurgled incomprehensibly through its raspy throat in a revolting mirth.

I’m powerless! I can’t protect her! He’s gonna kill her if I can’t do anything! Her body began to shake from anger, growing within her was a fury she could not convert to action soon enough.

“Exorcise the daemon!” ordered Vance.

Snarling, Briggs punched his fists together and approached Nia, his eyes glowing from inner might.

“You blue BASTARD!” Sylisa charged at Briggs, extending her Armadas claws. The weight of the blades caused her to weave as she recklessly dashed in a last-ditch effort to save Nia.

The creature turned with a look of confusion. He flinched, noisily jangling the chain leash.

“Catch these hands, why don’tcha!” taunted Sylisa.

As she approached the beast, she heard the commander utter a contemptuous laugh. “She thinks she’s a cat too.”

Her claws raised, Sylisa felt ferocity deep in her gut. The claws of her Armadas were dead-set on the jackal’s throat. Twirling her body for added momentum the way she had seen Weavile do before, she raised her left arm over her head to swipe down on the back of the creature’s neck with all her might. She hollered, swinging down.

“Break her will!” boomed the commander. On his wrist, beneath the coils of chains, a silver metal band glowed, radiating blinding rays of what appeared to be white daylight. The uncanny light arched along the leash, causing Brigg’s collar to glow like a halo.

Briggs locked eyes with her. The appendages on the sides of its head floated up ominously.

He cupped his bloodied paws against his snout, opening his fanged maw wide.

That light! I’ve— “Aaaaugh!” Sylisa was suddenly besieged by a horrendous screeching of groaning metal. The sound tore at the inner walls of her skull, scraping every inch of her brain with savage vibration. “That noise! Make it stop!” she choked through the strident turbulence. Her muscles froze mid-swipe. She tried to clutch at her head, where she felt the worst of the pain.

“Your will, Noire, is too weak,” mouthed the commander. “You’re defenseless. Unsurprising. You’re susceptible to foreign influence like that daemon.”

“Let…me…go!” she gasped. Her hands trembled, managing to cover her ears, yet she could do nothing in her struggle against the blare while Nia lay unconscious.

“Those shackles can’t be seen or touched.” Vance slowly rocked his head back and forth. “They’re made of pure will. …Our will.”

That band he’s got on! His ring is glowing and so is the chain tied to the pooch! That must mean… “You’re using the Sparkling Stone too!” she exclaimed.

Briggs clamped his maw shut, and the amplified Metal Sound dissipated. In its wake, the beast’s eyes glowed an orange color with power, shimmering like the chain linking him to the commander.

Sylisa collapsed, her lungs gasping for air. Her strength and resolve had been torn apart by the assault. The world around her wobbled from the unsteadiness of her perception. The stone walls and ground wriggled like oscillating waves from the post-concussive shock.

“Piece it together?” sneered Vance. “The Steel Seal, granted by the Phoenix’s provident grace, binds our will together. There are Seals of every type, a pantheon of relics from a long-lost age.” The band around his wrist shimmered and another burst of supernatural light illuminated the leash tied to Briggs like lightning. “A crude invention, it lets us fight together by physically connecting our spiritual energies through willpower.”

“Spiritual…energy?” Like what York was talking about when ‘mons use moves? He said will brings your spirits close in the thick of combat, and battle moves are part of it. “Working together, you’re stronger than if you were alone,” she said in a hoarse whisper.

“Correct. The traditional mount for Sparkling Stone, a blank armband, accepts one Seal at a time. It transmutes human willpower to concede with the Seal, then channeled by the monster. However, the frequency – the Quintessence – must be consistent for both members of the spiritual pact. Ancients once maneuvered their bodies in unusual ways as a conduit to align themselves with the proper Seals beasts could conduct.” Vance’s hand gripped the leash. “Yet, with this, our spirits are tethered by a physical bond, there is no need to gesture a metaphysical link into being.”

“Then the power you’re after…it’s not just the Seals.” Sylisa gripped the unsteady ground, trying to regain her equanimity. “They’re just a means to an end.”

“The more Seals collected, the more potential power one has.” Vance glared at her Armadas menacingly. “It is possible to gather enough to amplify a creature’s every move. Then the ability see Shadow Pokémon would be an easy task even for an outsider.”

I don’t need any Seals to see ‘em. Sylisa clutched her bicep, leveraging herself off the ground by extending her claws.

Vance leered. “From the moment we met, your curious device caught my eye. Its unique glow an unmistakable product of the Sparkling Stone. However, it is not like the rest I’ve come across on my journey. No. It’s not an unadorned ring for housing the Seals. The glove sewn to the ring and the mount means it’s part of your body.”

“Pft. It’s just a lil’ tool for climbing,” she spat.

“Lies,” said Vance making a scowl. He walked a few paces, towards defenseless Nia. “Would a climbing apparatus shimmer when I do this?” With his boot, he kicked Nia right in her stomach, sending her rolling.

Her whimpering caused Sylisa to seethe with anger. “Don’t hurt her!” she yelled. The piece in her Armadas opposite her palm sparkled as she spoke. A faint red light flowed through the channels stitched into the cloth on her bicep, illuminating the sand.

“There is a connection. Yet no chain. No gesture. Remarkable.” Vance planted his boot next to Nia’s inert feathers. “Noire, you’ll cooperate so we can learn about your device, modify, and replicate it.”

“You wanna take it there? What makes you think mine’s any different than yours?!” she yelled.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked. “Yours has similar claws to match that particular monster. If ours were refined, tailored to a specific beast, we would evolve. By combining the human will with the strength of these creatures, the powers of the Stone and the Seal by their nature surpass our respective limitations. Working together, we can perceive the incubation of Shadows and detect their Blight in time to stop it.”

So that’s how…! It’s our connection! Daphne was right, that’s what makes Nia strong, even as a Sneasel! These blades tie me to Nia, my closest friend. That’s why the Armadas is shaped like her claws!

“To think,” said the commander to Briggs, “we traveled to this pit seeking to unearth a piece of the shattered Fire Seal, but stumbled across a synergistic miracle instead. …It’s true. We’ve been blessed by fate. Noire’s design will accelerate our objective without the need to gather more Seals.”

“Whoa, what? A Fire Seal? Here?” interjected Sylisa. Is that what the old guy was talkin’ about?

Vance did not answer her, instead he spoke to Briggs. “Should a creature of darkness be involved in the Quintessence chain, the unholy link would eventually usurp the Phoenix’s edict to purify all Shadows beneath the stars.”

“Hey, wise guy,” she said, “you can’t do squat ‘cos it won’t work for anyone else. This was made for me ‘n Nia. Capiche?”

“We’ll find a way to reform it so it can be used by a monster not born in darkness, such as Briggs. With the assistance of the Lodge of Scholars, we’ve reverse-engineered other technologies, including this one,” he said shaking the chain in his hand.

Scholar’s Lodge was in the letter from the cave! They’re in on this too! She shouted, “You already know! Scholar’s Lodge is responsible for the death of a child! They killed the Dragon Speaker!”

The commander hesitated. For the first time he seemed genuinely upset by her words, enough to wince as though he had swallowed something unpleasant. Stiffening his composure to overcome the uncomfortable look in his eyes, he answered in a low voice, “Impossible…how are you aware of any of that? Is this the power to see beyond?”

“In yer dreams, pal. I know what it means from good ol’ fashioned gettin’ the drop on the whole sitch-e-ation,” said Sylisa. “Pride yourself being just, do ya? Sure as hell can’t be just if you’re working with them. There’s proof out there and if word were to get out…”

She could tell she struck a nerve. His expression turned hostile. He pointed to Nia. “I wonder what would happen to your device if one of you were to perish? Would it serve to domesticate you?”

“Fuhgeddaboudit! You don’t scare me,” she belted. “Nia! Get up!”

Nia’s feather shook, and bits of sand poured off. Yet she was too weak to move her body.

“If you won’t agree to a lawful interrogation, then we have no choice but to deal forcefully with your obstruction of our justice,” threatened Vance. He stomped down on her crown feather and twisted his jackboot into the sand with a gravelly noise.

Nia squealed in pain as the boot pried her feather loose from her ear.

“Hell no!” Sylisa fired back. “Nia! C’mon!”

“Then we’ll render judgment here and now,” said Vance with a twisted expression. “You sought to flee, being the unjust vagrant I suspected would travel alongside a dark creature, lied to that effect. But know this, I am a just man. You’ve been deceived by the darkness. I do not lie. I shall keep my promise to you, Noire, by setting you free. Free from this daemon’s accursed power.”

“NIAAA!” she hollered. “GET! UP!”

Vance kicked Nia to the side. “Bury her,” he told Briggs. “Crush the profane menace beneath the earth where it belongs!”

Briggs’ eyes glowed red, an ominous blue cloud surrounded the horn on his chest. He extended his paw where Nia lay collapsed while his supernatural powers kept Sylisa trapped in place.

“No! I can’t…let that happen! Ain’t gonna get beaten by some friggin’ jackal!” Sylisa wheezed as pressure welled in her chest. “Grownup Nia would never forgive me if I let her down here! I WON’T LET YOU!” The warm glow around her began to vibrate. She looked at Nia and saw her beginning to stir once more. Upon realizing her friend was resisting defeat, a strange heat haze surrounded Sylisa’s body. She exclaimed, “Nia, we can break it! C’mon fight it!”

“You’re mired in delusion,” sighed the commander. “Watch, let the spectacle shatter the rotten creature’s hold over you once and for all.”

Briggs dashed at Nia, and jumped high into the air. Spinning from momentum, his fist glowed with tremendous power right before his heavy pummel bore down on her. He was going to slam her underground right in front of Sylisa.

Desperately struggling to gather enough will to move, Sylisa yelled defiant words. “Not yet, you SONUVABITCH!”

Briggs did a second spin, gathering his energy in midair for the final blow. His paws were a bright blue, the rest of his body surging with the power of aura manipulation. But he delayed in releasing the burst, his bewildered eyes focused on Sylisa who had broken free from his powers.

“What are you waiting for? Crush her!” yelled Vance.

Both of Briggs’ arms swung in a ruthless spike with more devastating power than a sledgehammer.

“NOO!”

Six claws of darkness shot straight out of the earth in front of Nia. The sharp nails rose like jagged pillars of shadow. Briggs realized the hazard and fired off an explosive Aura Sphere above Sylisa’s head to push himself back away from the talons which had risen to cage and protect Nia. However, it was not enough, two of the sharp blades shot out, reaching and slashing Briggs as he tried to avoid them.

“What?!” roared Vance.

“Nia?!” exclaimed Sylisa. She expected to see her friend, but instead saw the Weavile from earlier along with a Sneasel on either side of her. The three of them had their paws on the ground and were channeling the protective Shadow Claws. “What are you doing?!” she asked them.

The Weavile proudly ruffled her crown feathers and made an incomprehensible hissing noise. Her two cohorts sniggered.

“I don’t get it!” exclaimed Sylisa. “You were gonna hurt Nia, and now you’re protecting us?! What’s the big idea?”

Weavile smirked wily at Sylisa and gave a wink. Her icy claws glistened, her crimson feathers fluttered from the heat of battle. She gestured with her claws at Nia.

Sylisa turned and saw Nia had regained her strength.

Nia got back to her feet, effectively trapping Briggs in a pincer formation. “You’re going down!” she hissed.

Two more Sneasel slipped out of the shadows next to Nia. The critters were so stealthy, they were hardly visible but for their blood-red feathers. And still more of them slithered from the darkness, multiplying exponentially.

Briggs lost his aggressive stance, his base instincts kicked in and he hunched low peering back and forth at the growing group surrounding him, trying to work a way out of the snare. He kept circling his tail, trying to keep his sights on all of them at once as best he could.

Sylisa looked at her newfound allies, a cocky smirk on her face. “How ‘bout you ‘n your stuck-up jackal get loss, while you still can.” Her blades raised the same way as the Weavile and Sneasel by her side. “Cos if you don’t, bet he’ll make a nice scratching post.”

“Blasted devils,” cursed the commander. “Should have anticipated an ambush.”

“What’ll it be?” taunted Sylisa. With her shimmering claws, she pointed at the cornered Briggs. “Tail between the legs or toy on the end of a string?”

“Resist and you’ll all perish together!” bellowed Vance.

“Fat chance, you’re all talk! You can’t even see the Shadows!” shouted Sylisa.

“You unjust fiends,” said Vance. “The law of the Phoenix’s Order will purify your collective malevolence, lest you warp into Shadows riddled with Blight!”

“Pah! Law of nature says, you corner a cat, you’re gonna get clawed!” she shot back.

“Spare me the flannel, vagrant filth,” spat the commander. “Judgment awaits you and your den of daemons!”

“Yeah-huh, sure,” she derided while catching her breath. “Judge away, s’all ya know how ta do! Once you’re revealed for who you really are, it’s gonna be you who’s judged! You’re outnumbered big time, you’re not gonna win against them. Why don’tcha piss off, Commander Jackass.”

His fists trembled, the livid expression written all over his face coincided with an abrupt threat. “You’ll rue those words.”

“I ain’t ruing a damn thing!” she snapped. “Surrender. Before you get sliced to ribbons.”

“NEVER!” His voice soared into yells of unhinged anger. The Seal he carried sparkled and his uniform seemed to glow from its radiant aura. “The Order of Heaven’s Might WILL NEVER SURRENDER TO DARKNESS!”

She recoiled. “What the heck—? Where’s he getting this energy from?”

“You leave us no choice!” bellowed Vance. “You unjust fiends will perish in holy light! The light of Heaven’s Might!”

“No way!” exclaimed Sylisa.

“FLASH CANNON!” yelled Vance.

From between his palms, Briggs fired a concentrated beam of brilliant light in a wide arc. The laser of light split rocks in two.

Weavile and her gang rushed to the side to avoid the death ray. Some of the Sneasel got seared by the beam, their feathers shaved down by not fully avoiding the assault.

“Nia! Behind him!” shouted Sylisa. “Go for the choker!”

Nia jumped up on his back while he was attacking the group. Her claws homed in on the beast’s collar. But Briggs started to grapple her before she could make it.

“No!” yelled Vance. He activated the Steel Seal once more, this time there was significantly more energy in the form of a heat haze spreading from it. “Remove her!”

“Another Steel Seal attack? So soon?” exclaimed Sylisa. “No, it’s different!”

As he set the Seal on the arm piece, a stunning flash of redness raced down the chain turning the metal bright orange. “Unleash its true power!”

“NIA!” Sylisa ran forward. As she did a powerful gale of cold air pushed behind her originating where Weavile managed to recover from the interrupted Flash Cannon. Snow and ice gathered on either side of her as the Weavile’s Blizzard sent her hurtling. Every time she lifted her boots off the ground the force of cold air pushed her lunges to the point of making her feel like she was capable of flying. Moving faster than she thought possible, she was suddenly right beneath the chain. Shouting as the tailwind lofted her one last time, she swung up on the middle of the tether connecting Vance to Briggs just as the light from the Seal reached the center.

She barely felt any resistance, the hooks of her Armadas sliced clear through the chain. There as a massive flash of color as the light broke out of the shattered chain between the two pieces and dug into the ground with a tremendous explosion, spraying dirt and dust in every direction. The earth shook violently, absorbing the expelled light from the broken chain’s Seal. A massive crack began to form in the ground where the light had gone. Sand and rocks were swallowed into the widening crevice.

“What…What have you done?!” roared Vance.

Blowing her messy, ice covered hair out of her face, Sylisa grasped her slicing arm tightly. “I set you free.”

Using her Crush Claw, Nia smashed the collar on the throat of Briggs. However, the splintering echo of the metal was barely audible over the intense earthquake.

Vance nearly toppled from the violent shaking. “You fool! You released the energy of the Seal into nature!”

“And that’s a bad thing?” she asked. “Sounds like you’re a sore loser ‘cos we cut your cord.”

Vance’s cap fell off his head. He picked it up and held it close to his chest. “You destroyed the chain…AND THE CITY!”

The group of Pokémon around her lost their formation, scattering from dense black clouds of foul sulfur rising from the crevasse. The earth coughed with lobs of lava, the smoldering crack spewing out giant globs of magma.

“Oh shit. Pull back!” Yelling out to Nia, Sylisa fell to her knees from the cataclysmic shaking. She tumbled to her side, avoiding the falling rocks from the walls and rolled to her feet.

Briggs jumped up, firing two beams of aura energy out from his palms to push his body away from the hole forming in the center of the gully.

Sylisa heard a loud thumping noise, the sound of deep, heavy drums. The rhythmic noise beat in a march, brought forth by something massive climbing to the surface world.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me!”

Out from the deep earthen gash a molten monster slithered to the surface. It walked on all fours and had a reflective steel hide covering its magma body. The beast moved slowly, each of its burning footsteps transforming the sand beneath it into puddles of glass.

“That can’t be!” said Sylisa as fear gripped her. “W-What the hell is that thing?!”

“It can’t be! The Fire Seal was here, after all! Drawn out by the Steel Seal! The legendary Heatran!” Vance scrambled to his feet, tripping over the lose wires of the broken chain on his wrist as the earthquake knocked him to the side.

The monster belched a whole payload of molten rock from its giant mouth. The glowing sludge covered the ground as it spread in all directions. As Heatran drooled more magma, its eyes glowed bright orange, they traced the closest being to it, Nia, with a hungry craving.

“Nia, get away from the lava!” she cried out.

Taking a leap, Nia managed to avoid the beast’s spreading pool. Hurtling over Heatran in a corkscrew, she made a daring swipe at the creature’s steel spine. Her claws snatched something sparkling and the newly opened blowhole in the Heatran’s back erupted with magma in her wake.

“Oh my God! Nia, what are you doing?! Get out of there!” Sylisa looked over at the other Pokémon.

Weavile fired a windstorm of Blizzard at the magma monster to distract it.

The sharp icicles dug into its huge body. It slowed its procession but for a moment, then the ice missiles turned into a cloud steam. From the cloud, it spat a huge clump of lava at a tremendous velocity. The piece of molten earth flew at Briggs, he could not fully avoid it and the appendages on the right side of his head were incinerated as the gooey meteor hurtled past him. The liquid rock slammed into one of the Sneasel, leaving nothing but ash as it blew a crater through the valley wall.

Nia wailed, witnessing the cruel ruin and destruction as she tried to escape from the indiscriminate doom.

Briggs howled in agony, part of his face was badly burnt. He painfully ran into the ground multiple times as he attempted to flee, his balance all but destroyed from losing half his appendages.

And still, the metal monstrosity fired another meteor after another, covering the valley in ash and death.

Weavile lost part of her crown from the discharge, a Pokéball sized hole seared through her feathers. Though it was not fatal, it seemed to cause Weavile excruciating pain. Frozen tears gathered in the corner of her eyes as members of her den were incinerated.

Meanwhile, Nia dashed through the chaos. She sprinted over the sinking sands, jumped over rivers of lava, dodging shards of crystallized mantle rising out of the earth and cannons of magma.

Suddenly, the pools of lava under Heatran were drawn back inside the beast. It inhaled and absorbed the molten rock through its belly. The beast’s steel skeleton started to glow a with a pulsing white light.

“Not this again!” Sylisa scrambled to the side of the crevice. “We ain’t stickin’ around for the fireworks, c’mon!” she yelled.

Nia sprung into her arms. She was holding something sparkling like a red diamond between her claws.

Without looking back, Sylisa ran towards the hill leading out of the Gully as boulders fell from above. The structural integrity of the valley was compromised and with Heatran about to detonate there was little doubt it would be nothing but ruins in a matter of moments. “We’re not gonna get wrecked by an Explosion!”

A tremendous burst threw her and Nia into the air as they cleared the valley’s exit. Dense clouds of black smoke poured out of the gap as it filled with dirt and debris. There was one final earthquake followed by a landslide swallowing everything below the surface.

Chapter Text

Fleeing deadly clouds of ash, Sylisa dashed as fast as she could up the incline leading out of the valley. In her arms, Nia wheezed from dense plumes of soot billowing up from the depths of the gully. Sylisa’s eyes were tearing from the smoke, she could barely see her friend.

Not good, the smoke is rising and we need to go up to get away from it!

Nia coughed loudly, her body shook violently, and her fur bristled.

“Hang in there!” Setting her friend down, Sylisa snatched her jacket’s tails. Thinking fast, she rubbed her soaked hair from the melting ice of Weavile’s Blizzard against the cloth until it was damp. She picked up Nia and used one piece of the fabric to cover her nose and mouth and placed the second coattail over Nia’s mouth. “Here, Nia, breathe through this cloth so you don’t suck in the smoke!”

She obliged, nodding faintly.

Ahead a clearing came into sight. “We’re gonna make it, Nia!” she insisted. “One last push! C’mon!”

When they finally got over the steep path they could breathe clean air once more. Panting and wheezing, Sylisa slumped to the side of the rock wall, her hand searching for support as she continued to escape the foul sulfur dioxide spewing from the earth.

Nudging her, Nia pointed straight ahead. The recent commotion had people running out from their residences to investigate and a group of guards were heading their way from the main bridge’s keep.

Damn. We gotta avoid them. Sylisa turned, judging the steep retaining wall of a higher elevation to town. “Nia, I’m gonna scale it, hold on tight!”

Nia weakly mewed, her paws clasped onto Sylisa’s shoulder tightly.

“Ow, you’re pinching me!” she complained, moving Nia’s paw to the side so her claw would not jab at her shoulder blade.

“Sorry,” she meowed through the damp fabric.

“Don’t you dare let go, we need to hurry!” Using the hooks on the Armadas, she maneuvered up the wall and out of sight. Giving a final push, she rolled over the top of the wall, landing in a mound of loose dirt with a soft thump on the other side. “I…I’m beat…” she whimpered.

Nia’s breathing gradually returned to normal realizing the danger had passed. Her cute face popped out from beneath the makeshift smoke filter. “Syl!” She meowed.

A weak smile came to Sylisa’s lips as her arms drooped, her hands rubbing Nia’s back. “Phew. Okay. Made it. The quakes finally stopped.” Still breathless, Sylisa cautiously peered over the wall at the onlookers. “Looks like the ash is blowing the other way thanks to the wind.”

“All that smoke! It’s a fire!” yelled one man near the valley’s entrance.

“No way!” exclaimed another guy standing next to a Donphan who anxiously swept his trunk and drawing lines in the sand. “Didn’t you feel it? The whole earth shook! It must have been an earthquake!”

“Could it be a volcano?!” One of the larger guards inched towards the slope. “Never seen anything like this!”

“Clear out of the way.” The guard captain and his Golurk lumbered as close as they could to the smoldering gap. Coughing loudly, the captain gestured with an open hand. “Embers in the soot…”

“What’s it mean, Cap’n?”

He lowered his hand as Golurk’s eyes beamed down the hill. “Means this was no ordinary tremor. Simon, make sure none of the shops have caught aflame.”

“Right away, sir.”

“Captain,” asked another guard, “What about anyone down there?”

The captain heaved a heavy sigh. “Curses. No way to tell. Unless…” He turned around to the group that had gathered in a wide semicircle. “Palossand, burrow underground below the smoke and scout the entrance to the valley!” he said to one of the town guardians. “Everyone else, stand back and let us handle this emergency.”

“Geez.” Sylisa sunk into the shadows on the other side of the wall in a small alcove. “Looks like they’ve got their hands full.” She could hear the town’s people murmuring from below, undoubtedly unwilling to leave the curious scene. Her heart was racing, the velvety kitten she caressed was her only comfort. “Nia,” she said weakly, “we’re super lucky to be alive. Don’t you dare tell anyone I said this, but that was really scary.”

“Yeah, what about who helped us?” she purred.

“Your family?” Sylisa heaved a sigh of partial relief. So Weavile wasn’t a doppelganger after all. Still, the old guy mentioned she was with a girl who looked like me before I got here. “Does Weavile have any human friends?” she asked.

“None I know.” Nia shook her head. “You’re the only one any of us trust. Syl, at first she didn’t want me to go with you. I was sad. I told her we were friends and didn’t want to abandon you. She kept saying you were dangerous. But dangerous for one of us? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Oh. I see.” With her dust covered palms, Sylisa squeezed Nia’s coat and put on a strong expression. “You had to make your choice, and stick with it. I’m glad you did.”

“Syl,” she tilted her head and wagged her ears, “how did you know?”

“I know how you are.” Sylisa sighed. “You know, you looked just like Weavile before. And you’re as strong as her too.”

Nia kneaded her stomach. “Think so?”

“KNOW so,” insisted Sylisa. “They must’ve been testing us. I know they helped us ‘cos they wanted to. They could’ve easily done nothing and let us lose to Vance otherwise. Nia, I think you earned their respect.”

“What good is it if they’re dead?” Nia hissed.

An apprehensive silence followed, broken only by the muffled calls of people on the other side of the rock wall. What happened back there was so terrible. I hope Nia can become strong enough to return to her old self. I gotta focus on being here for her. Like York said, we’re a team. “We got away in time. They could’ve too, Nia,” she told her friend. “Maybe they went the other way. Could’ve led to another exit.”

Nia’s eyes narrowed as her mouth formed an irritated sneer. “What ‘bout him?” Her fangs flashed as she spat.

 
“Yeah, that Vance schmuck.” Sylisa fidgeted with her corset’s hem. “I still can’t believe Heaven’s Might has something to do with Scholar’s Lodge! I saw the look of guilt in his eyes. He knew about what happened to the Dragon Speaker! How dare he call himself just!”

Nia tilted her head. “Huh?”

“Oh, right,” Sylisa spoke lowering her glare, “you weren’t there for that. While you were resting earlier we found a strange note next to my Armadas. York said it had to do with a kid from town who went missing. Apparently, he could communicate with Dragons and…and…he didn’t make it. Scholar’s Lodge botched up something important they were looking into. After those animals got to him there was hardly anything left.”

Nia’s feathers wilted.

Oh no! Now she’s even more sad. God help me. I should be trying to make her feel better, not worse! What have I done? This all went so wrong! Sylisa took a deep breath and tried to steady her muddled feelings. “Listen, Nia, promise me, you won’t try to fight them again. Not until you’re big and strong like Weavile. His hound was so dangerous, much tougher than Kahlo even! I dunno if Mathias and Dare could take ‘em on.”

Nia pouted and made an annoyed purr. “Hm?”

“Of course they could, they’re our mentors: the Night Blade and his fluffy sidekick,” she fondly reminisced. “They’re plenty strong when they use their skills to undermine. Like, the Punishment technique.”

Silently, Nia gazed at her.

“Geez, quit givin’ me that thousand-yard stare. They’re way outta everyone’s league ‘cos they’re old pros. But they’re all the way on the other side of the continent. We won’t be seeing them anytime soon.” She gave a dejected tick. “Psh. Mathias always said to even the odds, undermine the opponent. Winning isn’t everything, sometimes it’s just about making your opponent lose. We managed to survive ‘cos we got lucky with numbers. Until you get your strength back, Nia, we can’t risk fighting those types of opponents.”

“How’d they get so strong?” Nia gestured to her neck. “Cos of the chain?”

“That chain definitely helped channel their powers.” Sylisa rubbed Nia’s head. “But I think there’s more to it than that, girl. You’re strong even without the Armadas. Remember, you defeated an angry Drampa without it.”

Nia huffed. “Had help from Petals.”

“Right.” Sylisa felt a soft smile grace her cheeks. “We rely more on our friends than our tools.”

Nia nudged her arm affectionately. “That’s why he’s chasing Seals.”

“His chain and this glove are similar, which is a little weird,” said Sylisa. “They both seem to use the Seals to help in battle. But his needed a physical link, ours doesn’t.”

“He was totally jealous.” Nia rested her nails atop the Armadas. Something sparkled near Nia’s chest. She held her claws close to her body.

“Whatcha got there?” asked Sylisa. “That the thing you snatched from Heatran’s back?”

Warily, Nia nodded. In between her blades was what looked like a seal.

“Ooh, can I see it?” Sylisa reached out her hand. It’s really bright and— “HOT!” she yelped, dropping the piece.

In a nimble save, Nia caught it with her nails. “That jerk had one too,” she growled. “This is like the thing on your claws, Syl.”

Sylisa peered at her Armadas. “You’re right, it does look like it’d fit on top of my hand next to the band. But it’s way too hot to hold. I’d get burned if I set that on my glove!”

Nia juggled the piece between her claws so it would not touch her paws.

“Showoff,” said Sylisa with a smirk. “The commander used a Steel Seal to link himself with the hound. This one must be the Fire Seal he was looking for. Hmm. That’s strange, don’t you think? Why would Heatran be wearing a Seal? Isn’t a ‘mon?”

“Dunno.”

“That one the commander was wearing, the Steel Seal, Weavile’s help let me break its power over his hound, but the light released brought Heatran to the surface.” Sylisa frowned. “Stupid. So stupid. I shouldn’t have broken the chain without realizing the energy they were using to do their special moves had to go somewhere. It went right into the earth, woke up that horrible monster…” Her eyes grew watery, saturated from her remorse. “It’s my fault… It’s all my fault –”

“You didn’t know, Syl.” Nia growled in response. “Neither did the others or they wouldn’t’ve helped ya snap it.”

“The commander and his dog fought together for what they believed in, but that doesn’t make it right.” Sylisa shook her head. “What they did to Zweilous was awful. Even if it became a Shadow after we left, he shouldn’t have done what he did just to make a point. Vance, he’s claiming he’s fighting Shadow ‘mons, but he admitted he can’t see ‘em without gathering more Seals.”

Nia’s crown feather bristled. “Maybe different Seals have different powers?”

“Huh. That’s possible…” Sylisa looked at the Armadas. “I don’t see a Seal in mine. Do you think the Fire Seal you nabbed will fit here?”

“Worth a shot, Syl.” Nia gingerly attempted to set the Seal atop the mount on the Armadas opposite Sylisa’s palm.

To her surprise it would not set in the slot. “What the—?”

“Huh?”

“Something’s blocking it,” said Sylisa.

“I don’t see anything.” Nia withdrew the Seal and the heat dissipated.

“Weird. The piece should fit. But it’s hitting something.” Sylisa ran her fingers over the back of her hand. “What’s this?” Her fingers touched an invisible block on the back of the glove.

Nia’s eyes widened. She clutched the Fire Seal close to her chest.

“I think—” Sylisa tapped it “—there’s something here already.”

“No way!”

Sylisa pried the corners with her fingernails. “I can’t remove it. Looks so clear, didn’t even notice it. It’s the same shape and size as that.”

“Maybe it’s another Seal?” suggested Nia.

“Which one though? It has no color or presence.” She shook her head. “Don’t think Mathias ever mentioned it. That’s not like him to pull a trick on me, giving me something important like a Seal and not saying a word about it.”

Nia rustled her feathers. “That guy wanted it. You messed him up good, standing up to him.”

“Knowing you were fighting with me gave me the strength to be brave,” answered Sylisa. “Seems like Heaven’s Might is a load of crap he’s using as an excuse to hunt down the Seals without anyone getting in his way. Never heard of a Phoenix in Orre. Or one that’s worshiped by purifying Blight. We need to sniff out some answers.”

“What do you think?” Nia pressed her head close against Sylisa’s side.

“We’ll ask Flowers about it,” she said cuddling her friend. “She seemed to know a bit. At least about the Seals anyway.”

“Duh.” Nia purred. “So, what now?”

“Oughta head back to the guild.” Sylisa peered over the side of the wall and saw Bennet among the onlookers. “Looks like the barkeep is in the crowd. Gives us a chance to slip back to base.”

Nia nodded her agreement. “I’m real hurt, Syl.”

“You ‘n me ain’t going anywhere but a place to rest, don’t you worry.”

“If you say so,” she mewed, her palpable fatigue coupled with a doleful expression.

“Nia, I’m so glad you’re okay.” Sylisa sniffled. She looked up at the steep heights of the mountain beneath a blanket of smoke and stars. “You stopped Heatran by stealing away its Fire Seal, it couldn’t keep going after that and blew itself up.” Rocking her head in disbelief, she whispered, “Vance said it would destroy the whole city. If it weren’t for you the whole place might be toast by now.”

Nia blushed. She batted Sylisa’s hair playfully. “Was a cinch.”

“You’re a hero, Nia!” She squeezed her friend tightly.

Growling in an embarrassed manner, Nia pointed at the trail leading back. “How ‘bout you carry me the rest of the way?”

Laughing softly, she hoisted herself up from the ground. “Fine, you’ve earned it.”

Sylisa carried Nia up the slope of the mountain, following a twisting alleyway leading back toward the main square. Along the way, they passed parallel to the commotion occurring in the lower quarter. Walking up the incline, they made it to the fountain with the two statues. It was very still. Sylisa set Nia down on the side of the pond. Next to her, she plopped down the sack of loot they were unable to sell.

“Phew, need to set this down for a sec, my arms are really sore,” she mumbled.

Nia glanced at the tavern. A tired look in her eyes, she mewed, “We’re almost there.”

“I know, girl. Just need to catch my breath.” After stretching her back, Sylisa looked at her reflection in the pool, illuminated by the crescent moon above. “We look like we’ve been through a war zone.”

Hearing no response, she turned to her. To her surprise, Nia was soundly asleep on the ledge. Her tail feathers dipped in the moonlit water as she snored.

“Aw, how cute are you —” Reaching out her hand, Sylisa’s palm hovered over Nia’s forehead, about to pet her when suddenly she saw a flash of pale light from the corner of her eye. Thinking it to be an attack, she tumbled to her side off the ledge, rolling onto the ground.

“That light!” she exclaimed. “There! It’s coming from the courtyard!”

Sylisa tried to wake her friend, but she continued to be passed out.

“What? Getup, Nia!” She nudged her again and again, yet she did not wake. “What’s wrong?! NIA!”

Another pulse of light flew skyward like a searchlight from the courtyard.

“Dammit!” cursed Sylisa. “I’m gonna check it out.” She darted toward the source of flickering luminosity, rounding the corner of the guild’s tavern in frantic haste. “I bet it’s…” she caught her breath as the light faded. “…Kirlia!”

Chapter Text

Seated on the top of the arbor with legs crossed was the mysterious fairy wearing a large golden bow in her hair.

“You!” Sylisa pointed at her perch. “Shoulda known it!”

What followed was a distorted chuckle, a sign of the telepathy locking on to her. “Ooh! Aren’t you scary!” Kirlia’s puckish voice echoed inside her head. “What frightening claws you’ve grown!”

Crossing her arms defensively, Sylisa winced from the discomforting strangeness. Hearing a voice in her head which was not her own sent a shiver along her spine. Muttering a displeased growl, she said, “Coulda sworn you said you didn’t wanna see me again.”

She peered inquisitively above Sylisa’s head, in the direction from which she had come. Rocking her head as the wind blew from her back, she twirled a ribbon of her bow around her tiny hand. “With any luck, I said. Appears we’re sorely lacking such convenience since you’re still here, huh?”

“Course I’m still here, runt!” declared Sylisa. “I need to help my friend, something crazy happened to her. Not going anywhere until she’s back to normal!”

“Back to normal? What’s considered normal for someone scary?” She giggled.

“You little jerk.” In a steadier voice, Sylisa asked, “Who are you?”

“Mirana.” She dipped her head above her steepling hands, her ribbon bobbing behind her horns. “Call me Mira. I am, quite literally, charmed to meet you again.”

“Why’d you bolt last time?”

“Mmm, can’t say, had some important business to tend to.” Mirana looked her dead in the eyes. “Didn’t want to hold you up meeting your friend either.”

“Wait a sec.” Sylisa recalled the perpetrator who had stolen Warren’s emotions matched Mira’s description. “Sybil. Do you know who that is?”

Mira shook her head, her ribbon fluttering as she did. “No.”

“Never mind, Tear would’ve mentioned THAT.” Sylisa’s eyes narrowed on Mira’s bow. “Is that big gold thingy attached to you or what?”

“You like my ribbon?” Mira tilted her head. As she did the bow shifted, revealing a portion of her green hair beneath the fabric had become the same golden color. “Or, my Marking? Funny, isn’t it? We share a similar style.”

“…The Eclipse did this!” exclaimed Sylisa.

“You think?” Mira sarcastically sneered, righting her head once more, the large bow covering the strange phenomenon.

“Then this is the Marking of an Eclipse Child.” Sylisa held a clump of hair in her hand. “I didn’t know. It changed when Nia devolved.”

Mira lifted her chin in interest. “She devolved…?”

“Yeah, wasn’t pretty.” Her shoulders wilted. “She can’t even remember how strong she used to be.”

“Hmm.” Mira was lost in thought. “Could it have been…that?”

“You wanna know what this is?” asked Sylisa. Though Mira had not said it explicitly, a foreign pressure in Sylisa’s skull seemed to prod her in the direction of the Armadas. In a restless manner, Sylisa blurted, “H-Hey! Are you asking or trying to force me with those powers?”

Mira withdrew and so too did the unwelcome energy. Shyly, Mira rubbed her skirt over her legs. Her glare fell to her feet dangling over the flower urns beneath the arbor. “Can’t always help it when my powers do that.”

“You almost sound frustrated,” replied Sylisa.

Her lithe body shivered. Then her red eyes looked back up at Sylisa. “Aren’t you?”

“You bet your ass,” said Sylisa making a scowl. “Didn’t tell me jack last time, you little tease, only dumb riddles!”

Waving the ends of her bow’s ribbons as if they were extensions of her hands, Mira asked, “What did I riddle you do last time we met?”

Thinking back did little to relieve her aggravation. “You said some nonsense before you popped away. Like, find the Altar in the Sea of Eyes.” Unease quickly spread over Sylisa, her skin felt cold and she suddenly realized. “Whoa, wait, THOSE eyes?!”

Swooping the ribbon around her narrow neck like a makeshift scarf, Mira said matter-of-factly, “The Unown.”

“Who –err– What are they?” Sylisa adjusted her posture, frowning and quite uncomfortable with her ignorance.

“They’re quite a mystery.” Mira tugged on her bow’s ribbon, loosening it from her neckline. “Even for other psychics like me!”

“They’re psychics too?” She rubbed her temple with the side of her hand. “Tsk…Figures. That’s how they got in my head. A bunch of them came out of nowhere in some sort of temple. I saw them on the night of the Eclipse.”

Mira leaned forward, craning her neck in to tilt her head, indicative of her inquisitiveness. “Well, what did they look like to you, Eclipse Child?”

A distrustful glower formed on her face, nevertheless Sylisa recognized Mira was her best chance at getting answers. Facing the guild’s stone wall running adjacent to the courtyard, she drew a circle in the air with her finger and pointed a dot in the center. “Looked like floating symbols made outta eyeballs—” she traced the appendages she had seen of the one resembling the letter N “—with weird pieces tacked on.”

“Ooh, interesting. You found them or they found you, there at the Altar of Life, in the Sea of Eyes. Yet here you remained.” Mira respired, a troubled look on her face. “Why? The Eve of the New Moon approaches for those not purified.”

“Eve of the New Moon?” Annoyed by Mira’s obscure response, Sylisa looked skyward and tried to piece it together. “It’s obvious the Eclipse caused all this, it’s gotta be related to the moon. It’s a bit more than a crescent moon. Does that mean I have about a month to—” She had trouble saying the word, not because it sounded grim, but because she realized it was what Commander Vance had so adamantly fought for “—purification?”

Nodding contemplatively, Mira lowered the lids of her large eyes. “I do believe so. But since you found them, why did you choose to stay?”

“Wasn’t my choice. They showed up when I was about to die!” exclaimed Sylisa.

In disbelief the fairy shook her head. “Your destiny, the outcome of the foretold Eclipse, all an elaborate prophecy wrought within the Sea of Eyes, by the Watchers of the Stars – the Unown. They’re getting better at stargazing.”

“The Unown are also stargazers?” Sylisa pawed her chin. “Could they be the Pokémon that worked with the people from long ago: the Stargazers of Centennial?”

Smiling softly, she acknowledged they were one and the same. “Their numbers follow the stars, eyes fixed on movements and patterns in the heavens. They see frequency, light, energy, and form a song in a language only they can understand. The legend goes, over time they developed mutations so that they could communicate to the human stargazers in a language they would understand.”

“So, they’re like, doing this why?” asked Sylisa.

“To foresee the future.” The fairy shook her head earnestly. “To truly see it – not as possibility nor forecast as psychic powers allow, but as absolute fate. Omniscience at the cost of choice.”

“That’s a little spooky. Why should they be in charge of what happens? I mean, I can’t exactly trust what you say, could be making this up.” Sylisa huffed. “If you’re lying to me, I’ll slice that bow right off!”

In her palm, Mira held a sphere of made of swirling dark clouds dotted with flickering lights. “When you saw them, were you scared of death?” She appeared to be searching for something as she stared into the nebula. “Didja feel it in your bones?”

“No shit I was scared. A frickin’ Primeape was going ape and about to murder me!” rebuked Sylisa.

“Stars gravitate together to form galaxies, likewise the Unown grow in brilliance when congregated,” said Mira, toying with the orb floating above her hand as it had suddenly changed color from a murky purple to a deep crimson after Sylisa spoke. “When gathered, their powers are capable of miracles. Their predictions begin to become real, making it possible thwart death. It’s happened before, however, not without its price – every consequence that follows is a result of forcing an outcome.”

“Huh, that why Unown show up in groups?” Sylisa pouted. “Pretty sure the first go-around there were more than a measly five of ‘em!”

“Maybe they were trying to tell you something this time.” Mira spun the orb as though it were a globe, revealing more sparkling stars beneath, the cloudy blankets dissipating into a stream of mist in front of her after it slowed. “Any idea what that something could be?”

“Something…” Sylisa excitedly snapped her fingers. Oh that’s right! Nia’s real name. I couldn’t remember it after the Eclipse. That might be a clue!

Mira smirked, vivaciously flexing her legs through the plume of magical dust as it descended. “Something the Unown would recognize: You didn’t escape in a time of peril, proving your resolve.”

Sylisa looked where the trail of mist vanished. “Why me though?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t know.” She glanced at Sylisa as the wind picked up. “Why did you refuse to leave?”

Sylisa swallowed dryly. “Wasn’t gonna leave Nia in this hellhole all by herself!”

“Hm. You came from someplace, far, far away, didn’t you?” The fairy stared intensely at her, it felt as though she was looking through her, at her spirit. “…I can see it in your eyes. So far away, you barely recognize anything about this place.”

Sylisa nodded.

The sprite raised her arms, accompanied by an innocuous huff. “Well then, distant traveler, who’s to say the same Unown who brought you here would not have returned you from whence you came?”

“N-No way. No way. That’s bullshit!” Sylisa stammered as a torrent of emotions overwhelmed her. “The Unown can do that?”

“Did you really doubt their power after witnessing it the first time?”

“No. This time, there were fewer, they reached out to me.” Stretching out her hand, Sylisa clasped a fist and shook her head, her voice caught in her throat. “They were trying to tell me something. I didn’t… didn’t know if they were gonna send me home. Would that have brought Nia back to how I remember her too?”

Following a sigh, Mira responded, “Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. The only way is to see for yourself, but, by then there’s hardly a choice, is there?”

“I couldn’t have gone back without her.” Sylisa bit her lip in frustration. “I convinced myself, I convinced the Unown, I needed to stay for her. If there was a chance to return home, to the place I recognize, should I have taken that chance for Nia!?”

“How puzzling.” Mira sat up slightly. “You wished to stay then for the very same reason you now wished you left.”

“Dammit! What now?” she wondered.

“You’re asking me?” The fairy shrugged. “Do whatever you like, this is what you decided.”

“Why didn’t you explain it, Mira? I could’ve used the Unown to help me if I knew what they were capable of!”

“If I told you what to expect through clairvoyance, it would undermine your passion-driven freedom in the heat of the moment.” Mira’s legs dangled from the arbor, she leaned forward hands on her head, crouching over the aromatic flowers below. With a smile she added, “Wouldn’t that be disingenuous? You may have not met them had you expected to, your reaction would be anything but sincere – your choice, which must remain pure to be considered freedom, would have been tainted by forbidden knowledge of what the future would likely bring. Ironically, my distrust of prediction assures the Unown’s prophesy is unfurling.”

“Ugh! I don’t have time to be screwing around, no more riddles, no more mind games!” Sylisa clenched a fist. “My best friend’s in trouble! She’s lost her strength, her evolution was undone! Some Heaven’s Might jackass tried to take her away. Now she’s passed out cold. I can’t—!”

“Don’t get so heated, it’ll sour your emotions.” Mira sighed, slumping her head further upon the support of both her arms. “She’s under Hypnosis.”

“You put her to sleep?!” exclaimed Sylisa. “What the hell?!”

Nodding, Mira’s horns appeared to flicker in the moonlight. “It just so happens Hypnotic sleep brings repressed memories to the surface. A deep slumber correlates to deep memories. Sometimes, important things are recalled through a vivid dream, though not always in the form one would expect!” She giggled. “As for me, there’s the siphoning Dream Eater to go straight for the source!”

Anxiety overwhelmed Sylisa. “Stay away from her!” she ordered. “You’re nothing but trouble.”

“Trouble? Me?” Shaking her head, Mira clutched her hands together and snickered. “Don’t worry, I don’t care to draw from HER dreams. Something tells me it’s dark and shadowy and scary – doesn’t suit me one bit. You’re the unlucky one who bears the challenge. Hm. Hmm. Maayybee I’ll help you though.”

“You’re not making sense.” Sylisa scratched her head. “Why’d you do that to her?”

“I sought to have a private chat with my favorite Shade of course!” Mira’s puckishness made it difficult to tell if any of her words were genuine.

Growling, Sylisa felt herself losing patience. “Riddles again? I’m so sick of it! Answer this: Shade, what’s it mean?”

“You can figure it out. An Eclipse brought you here. Marked you as a Child of the Eclipse. However, since a lunar cycle has yet to pass, you’re still a Shade,” stated Mira.

“I think…wait no, now I’m more confused.”

Her eyes traced Sylisa from head to toe. “Mm. Hmm. I think I can work with this. But let’s be clear, you’re nowhere near as cute as me!”

“Can’t you be serious?” scolded Sylisa. “Tell me what it is so I can help Nia!”

“Clearly she’s not herself.” Wearing a wry look, Mira added, “You’re not yourself either.”

“Clearly,” said Sylisa with no small dose of sarcasm. “You claim I’m an Eclipse Child, and you got the upper hand ‘cos you know what that is!”

The smirk vanished on her pale face, replaced by a solemn expression. “I didn’t until it was too late,” she said. “In fact, that’s when being a Shade stopped mattering at all.”

“Huh?” Thrown off by Mira’s uneasiness, Sylisa urged, “Then, help me out, wouldya?”

“Why should I?” asked Mira, her composure gradually building back up along with her posture. “Better yet: What can you do for me in return?”

“I…uhh…” Crap. That’s an old trick Mathias pulled whenever I asked him for favors. Following her reminiscing, Sylisa smiled. “Shouldn’t ask what I can do for you, since it’s what I can GET for you.”

A perplexed gawp and then Mira said softly, “Go on.”

“Ever want something you just couldn’t have?” she said, selling her talents as best she could, pretending this was an audition for a new job, albeit an illicit one. “That’s where we come in. We’re professionals at –ahem– acquiring.”

Mira’s impish grin returned. “I see. You’re a thief, how useful.”

“You better believe it,” she proudly answered.

“Still, there’s little sense trusting you as you are. …What to do. What to do. Oh! I’ve got it. Given the circumstances, a leap of faith is in order.” With a sudden hop, Mira spun down from the arbor, twirling the two ribbons around herself. As she landed, the petals of the flowers in the urns on either side fluttered like feathers blown by an invisible force emanating from her.

Sylisa took a step back, startled from witnessing the magical power. “W-Wha?”

“Don’t be a coward,” she chuckled, “my powers could be all yours.”

“I’m not a cowa—”

Mira reached out a hand, interrupting her, “I’ll work with you, thief, under one condition.”

Good. Wonder what she wants. Sylisa pointed back to the fountain. “Hold on. Nia’s part of this too.”

Keen as ever, Mira traced a ring in the air above her, which began to ripple with psychokinetic power. “Of course she is, but she’s fine napping where she is.” She leered. “You wouldn’t want to suddenly fall asleep too, would you? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t DARE alert the guards.”

“No way, you little jerk.” She shot the pixie a venomous glare. “Sheesh. How do you expect me to trust you if you’re threatening to knock me out ‘n get me arrested?”

Mira burst into a childish laugh. “You can’t, silly. That’s why it’s called a leap of faith. You have no reason to trust little Mira. Yet, trust you must in order to accomplish your goal. Quite a predicament. It’s almost as if—” she gasped playfully, covering her mouth as more laughter bubbled between her words “—this is exactly the way I feel about you!”

Groaning, Sylisa pinched her nose bridge. “You’re just like Flowers, knocking out poor Nia.”

Mira blinked twice in succession. “Who’s Flowers?”

“Mira, can you read my thoughts, not my memories?”

“I read EMOTION of those close to me.” The fairy folded her arms, a tight grimace forming beneath her bangs. “And, while I’d love to do more, I’m not evolving anytime soon.”

“Ooh! You want to evolve too?” Nodding her head, Sylisa considered how much she wanted Nia to evolve. Mira wants the same thing? Evolution, huh? Wonder why she—

“—Brilliant!” Cheerfully skipping toward her, Mira interrupted Sylisa’s thoughts. “The answer to the predicament is so simple, you’ll evolve, she’ll evolve, we’ll evolve.”

Sylisa scowled. “Wha? Wait, I ain’t some ‘mon.”

“I know, I know. That’s gonna make it difficult.” Mira made a petulant huff. “Still, you have some growing to do. I can sense the potential.”

“I can tell you’re cookin’ up something, ‘n I don’t like it cos you aren’t sharing. You want to hire me ‘n Nia, you’re gonna have to come clean. No matter what, I don’t want you screwing with my head or Nia’s. That said, what’s your condition?”

“Aww…shame!” Mira’ shoulders slumped. “I’ve a fair amount of tidying to do. Humans are useful to keep in a house so no one gets suspicious. The estate in question has been abandoned for the longest time, the last owner had an overwhelming urge to skip town, and visitors always seem to forget why they showed up to assess the premises. I could really use someone to stay at home, cook and clean for me. I even have an outfit picked out for my new servant. A cute Kirlia like me wouldn’t be caught without a maid to match!”

“Dead ass.” Sylisa rolled her eyes. “You’re looking for a maid?!”

Snickering, Mira replied, “I’d love to make you my maid, but, you said no messing with your head, which means no new mind-maid for me.”

Feeling though she had just averted an unpleasant outcome of mandatory domestic servitude, Sylisa sourly glared at Mira. “Y’know, only things I’m good at cleanin’ are safes.”

“Very well. I want us to make a connection. Think of it as a bond of friendship.” Mira nodded mischievously. “And since you’re my friend, I’ll ensure you get results instead of bumbling around. Your gains, Nia’s too, would be in my best interest if we work together.”

“Friends huh? How irritating, I barely know you. What’re you gonna do, make me like you?” she asked, raising a brow.

“If it’s not part of the deal means I can’t do it.” Mira shook her head. “You don’t have to do much except be yourself. Tell you what, since we’ll be friends, we can go on a heist together! Help me take something. You’re real good at that, right? It’ll be fun. Promise!”

“Shuure,” croaked Sylisa. “Plenty of time for fun.”

Arms drooping, Mira peered up at the sky. “Your time is sailing by, isn’t it? Well, what are you waiting for? We gonna make a deal or what? My humble services in exchange for yours, a pact most certainly—” Mira’s grin resembled the sliver of moon “—uncertain!”

“Cut the chatter already, this is important so I’ll make a deal!” said Sylisa. “You know about this place, the Unown, the Children of the Eclipse! So, if we’re friends, you’ll spill it! Or else—” She locked eyes with her, suddenly Sylisa felt a fair bit lightheaded and her legs wobbled.

“Or else what?” Mira gave a knowing smirk, her powers rippling a haze near her horns.

Trying to shake off the lethargy, Sylisa focused on raw ambition. “I’m here for Nia, and you better remember that. I’m going to bring her back to the way she was. If that means working with you, so be it.”

Below Mira’s glowing eyes her smile widened. “Right, the daemon. She’s why you’re so bullheaded, huh? Must admit, I can feel something awfully nice from you when you think of her. Like, how she’s so peaceful when she’s asleep. Mmm. That calm look…those sleepy purrs…very sweet nuzzling… Really brings out those maternal instincts. You know, those sensitive feelings you try to bury way down inside.”

 “That’s not—!” she gasped, her cheeks blushing. “No, no, no!”

“You’re so embarrassed!” Mira wagged her hand to-and-fro. “I can read your feelings. It’s easy enough, but it’s about to become a whole lot easier.”

“You little brat!”

“That’s not all. As a token of my good will, I’ll predict the way your dominant emotions will guide your course.” Mira closed her eyes.

Sylisa saw a rosy, heart-shaped cloud in front of her. It glittered with a paranormal pulse, sections of it glowing brighter as it expanded. She leaned back, hoping to escape it, however it quickly engulfed her. There was a heaviness in her center as she struggled to peer through the strange fog. The horizon blurred, the guild’s façade vanished, and Sylisa found herself in a strange realm. “What’s this!? I can’t see!”

There was a snap as Mira tapped her heel on the ground. She opened her eyes and disappeared in the mist.

“Where’d she go?” wondered Sylisa.

Suddenly she was face to face with Mira.

“Waah!” Sylisa yelped, falling backwards as Mira pelted her with both arms on the collarbone. Landing on her rear, Sylisa watched Mira gracefully land by her legs. Her arms radiated the color of the sparkling cloud.

Bringing the two together, Mira hummed aloud, producing an euphonious sound that was clear, light and pleasant. It rose and fell with soulful loveliness as she danced in a circle under the arbor.

Sylisa’s astonishment from the melodic tune left her breathless. “Her voice…it sounds so familiar.”

A brilliant ball of light and what looked like stars appeared between Mira’s arms, radiating a supernatural glow all around Sylisa and Mira both.

“Whoa! What’s she doing?!”

Mira nodded, her eyes intensely focused despite the lilting song she sung.

There was a flash, the orb expanded outwards. As it passed through Sylisa, her body felt a second wave, an aftershock. But this one was quite different, she felt the tune Mira was humming. Her whole body seemed to reverberate with it as it moved beyond her. She turned to see where the expanding sphere had gone, but saw nothing in its wake.

“What was that?” she asked Mira after her melody ended.

Mira beamed. “I scryed your heart while making our pact.”

“What?”

“Heart scrying. It’s simple.” Mira pointed to her center. “I read your emotions and get a good sense for what they’ll lead you to do. It’s the least I can do for my sneaky friend.”

“So,” Sylisa coughed, “what’d you see?”

“Your heart is far from pure, yet harbors a certain luster within. A flame, a cruel vengeance should you fail. A hearth, a warm comfort should you succeed.” Mira pawed the base of her chin. “…Very interesting.”

“You mean that?” Sylisa did not know whether it was a good reading or a poor one.

Laughing to herself, Mira placed her hand on her hip and stood upright. “I do! You are an interesting Shade if nothing else.”

Sylisa held her stomach and groaned. “I feel all weird inside. Is this a side-effect?”

Her petite gown swaying, Mira took a few steps forward. “I also formed a Harmonic Bond with you while I was scrying your heart.”

Sylisa recoiled. “A WHAT?!”

“A way to attune the bond you share with your daemon friend to me.” Mira uttered a satisfied hum. “You really do care for her. Your emotions, they’re a lovely source of power. I figured you didn’t want to make a bond with me, so I decided to latch on to a preexisting one. And a remarkably powerful one at that. Looks like I’ll have to work harder to control my abilities while we’re together.”

“I didn’t want you leeching off my connection with Nia, you little pest!”

“We made a deal, and it was you who insisted, “Nia’s part of this too!”” Clasping her hands, Mira sniggered. “You humans have so many good expressions, the apt one for this situation must be: Careful what you wish for!”

“Why?” Baffled by what Mira had done to her, Sylisa found it difficult to articulate the concerns running through her head. “Wh-What’s the point?”

“I have my reasons,” said Mira doggedly. “Figured you’d be great for the job, considering your motivations to evolve your friend.”

“Evolution? That’s what this is about?”

Mira’s cheeks flushed. “It’s not a big deal or anything, right? Will that stop you?”

“I… don’t care what you do,” stammered Sylisa. “But I can’t have you following me like a creepy psychic stalker!”

“Aw, well, too bad, I’ll try to stay out of your way.” Mira giggled. “Truth be told, I didn’t think you’d so readily agree. You might be short on brains, but at least you’ve got guts. I can feel how important saving your friend is to you.”

“Dammit,” gripped Sylisa. “You’ll hold up your end then.”

“Naturally, we made an agreement.” Mira gave a sly look, her eyes wandered to the Armadas. She waved her arm in a wide sweep and glittering powder followed her motion. “However, first we ought to see what this Arm-a-dust can do!”

“It’s AR-MA-DUS,” groaned Sylisa, coughing on the fairy dust. “And don’t count on using it. It only works ‘tween the two of us, see. You’re not Nia.”

“I’m not, am I?” Mira laughed mischievously.

“What’s so funny?” she asked with no small amount of apprehension.

Chapter Text

Mira’s horns shimmered brightly, the bow she wore fluttered like a sail in a raging storm as psychokinetic power enveloped her tiny body. The force blew Sylisa’s hair in front of her eyes. She fought to see through the gale, and at where Mira once stood. Her jaw dropped in disbelief. In front of her stood none other than the Weavile she had been with since her fifteenth birthday, on that unseasonably warm March day.

“N-Nia?” she stammered.

She heard Mira’s buoyant laughter. “Guess again, thief!”

Sylisa lurched forward and fell to her knees. Her quivering hand reached out to touch her friend’s fluffy collar. Instead of her fingers touching the soft down, they passed straight through and ran smack into a solid. “A trick?”

The grown Nia shook her head. Meanwhile, Mira’s telepathic voice in Sylisa’s head said, “Ow! It’s me. Mira.”

“Mira?” Sylisa put the pieces together. “Did you mind control her—?”

“Nope, promised I wouldn’t.” Nia raised her claw and pointed at the Armadas. “You said you can only get it to work with her.”

“Not what I meant, but, my God, you look just like her—!” Sylisa’s hand fell through the image of Nia at certain parts of her body. Other places, her hand contacted something in midair. She curiously reached around, trying to wrap her head around the illusion of her friend. Her hand landed on something soft and smooth like silk, but she could not see it. “What’s this?”

“Hey! No no no! Not there! That tickles!” squealed Mira.

“Eek!” Sylisa recoiled. “Was I just touching your dress?”

“NO!” belted Mira, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“Erm, didn’t mean to. I really want to hold her, I—” Her cheeks felt warm from embarrassment. “How is this illusion so strong?”

“A visceral mirage is almost always based off your feelings,” she replied. “It’s tricky to do, thankfully not too tough to explain. First, accept that what you’re looking at doesn’t nearly matter as much as what you SEE.”

“What I want to see—” Sylisa repeated, holding her hands close to her chest.

“Every fiber of your being wants to see Nia back to her grown self, and so my mirage morphs to convey that image. You are unable to distinguish it from the real thing, because it is rooted so firmly in your deepest desires. I for one like to think of it as the power of wishful thinking!” said Mira with a wink.

The disorientation really set in when she did that as Nia. “You even move like she does,” remarked Sylisa. “Exactly how I remember!”

The Weavile pointed to her head. “In case you haven’t figured it out, this ruse is specially tailored for you. My powers allow me to reshape perception by conjuring images and scenery that resonate with feelings. Get it? The things people’s hearts want them to see most, I show them! This one is really good because of your strong emotional connection to her.”

“Dead ass!” exclaimed Sylisa. “Your powers seem so useful, but being the victim of it really sucks. If I didn’t touch you I would’ve been duped.”

Mira, as Nia, grinned, her sharp fangs flickering in the moonlight. “It’s much easier when there’s only one desire to focus on. Oh, and more minds are tougher to fool, because they all have different things they want. Big illusions cost lots of psychic energy, I don’t have that kind of power as I am now. But… I have a feeling it’ll get easier.”

“For who?” asked Sylisa in a confused manner. “I don’t like you pretending to be her. Had to deal with enough imposters already. What’s your reason?”

Without clarifying her motives, Mira replied, “I’m so glad we agreed to this! You’re going to be a great help, Shade.”

Sylisa crossed her arms. “Not if you keep callin’ me that,” she grumbled. “My name’s Sylisa.”

Mira’s eyes glowed red, briefly breaking the fantasy. As the illusion reformed, a crooked look formed on the face of grown Nia. “Suuure it is,” she sneered. “You can lie with words, but you can’t hide your feelings. Something about it makes you feel remorse.”

Sylisa felt a tight pressure in her heart. All she could do was shake her head in silence as the memory of her best friend calling her Alisha, softly with affection, late at night when they were not worried about working or anything else save for spending time with one another and watching videos online. Peering up at the sky, she exhaled a heavy breath, her worries for her friend as numerous as the stars.

Mira’s gaze wandered to her side, at the swaying flowers decorating the courtyard. Touching her chest, she looked down at her body. “Bet you’d love to hear her call you it again.” She too gave a sigh, adjusting herself. “I can do that for you, you know? Let you see, hear, and feel what you miss most. I bet it would make you feel really good inside. All you have to do is tell me your name and I’ll handle the rest.”

“No,” said Sylisa firmly.

Wearing a playful smile, Mira bounced up and down, a trail of glowing stardust followed in her wake. “You really don’t want to hear me say it?” In a hushed tone she asked, “What if I whispered it in your ear?”

“You’re a phony, Mira.” Sylisa swiped at the air in front of her. “I don’t want you to pretend to be – uhm… Nia.”

“Sounded like you were about to say something else,” noted Mira.

“Naw, you’re just freakin’ me out is all,” denied Sylisa. “Besides, we use our aliases while working. I’m Sylisa, and she’s Nia.”

Mira did not miss a beat. “You don’t remember her real name. How sad.”

“How’d you figure?” grumbled Sylisa.

“Secret. Tell you what, I like you enough to be your friend, I’ll call you by your alias. Sylisa, Sylisa.” Mira giggled. “It’s kind of girly when I say it. Does it sound that way to you too since I’m in your head?”

“No!” belted Sylisa, now self-conscious.

Mira tilted her head to the side, her feathers slightly drooping as she did so. “What’s it mean?”

Stunned by how accurate Mira’s rendition of Nia was, Sylisa covered her gaping mouth. She blinked in quick succession, trying to focus. “None of your dang business, copycat.”

“Your business is stealing, this isn’t too different,” replied Mira. “My illusion steals a feeling deep inside you, makes it all you can see.”

Grumbling, Sylisa said, “Gotta admit, never met a thief like you.”

“Is there a name for it?” asked Mira.

“Can tell you’re new to this type of thing,” she said, a pang of endearment welling up inside her since Mira reminded Sylisa of her naïve self when she went on her first heist with Mathias and his Absol, Dare. “Labels aren’t important to thieves.”

“Why?”

“Stealing a treasure, they’ll call it larceny. Breaking into a safe, burglary. Using a little force, banditry. Raiding a tomb, grave robbery. Key difference between us and those thieves: We get away with it.

Mira nodded.

Thinking back to her mentor, the legendary Night Blade, Sylisa recited his words, ““A good thief is named by notoriety, a bad one by the crime committed.” …I’m starting to realize, that’s life too. It isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.”

Mira hummed an acknowledgment. “Never expected thieves to give life advice.”

“I didn’t get it until my life fell apart. Let’s get this over with,” insisted Sylisa.

“We’re going after something important and hunted by others, so there’s no sense stalling.”

“Uh, what?” Sylisa let her incredulity be known with a squint.

“You and I—” Mira peered down at her illusion, her eyes lingering, “—or rather, you and Nia, are going to steal something ancient together.”

“That’s what you wanna do?” Her mind raced with questions. “What about the real Nia? We’re pros, I don’t need you to sub in for her.”

“You WERE pros,” emphasized Mira. “She can’t come where we’re going if you value her well-being. We’re going to a vault. A very special, very dangerous vault.”

Sylisa raised a brow. “Special and dangerous? Sounds mad sus.”

“If we work together, it’ll be doable for sure.”

“Nothing’s for sure when it comes to heists, Mira.” Slumping her shoulders, Sylisa said, “Our last job landed us weakened in the middle of nowhere. You already know that’s how I became Marked by the Eclipse and Nia’s evolution was undone. Since then we’ve been working as a pair of desert bounty hunters while trying to figure it out.”

“Don’t be so down,” scolded Mira, “you’re killing the mood!”

Sylisa grimaced, all she could think about was Nia being herself again, to her chagrin like the imposter in front of her.

Mira poked her thigh. “Don’t give me that look either. I’m real sensitive to those feelings.”

“Who cares?” She wanted to tell Mira off for bossing her around, but could not find the strength. “When we take what you want from the vault, you’ll explain what a Shade is?”

“Mmhm. In fact, that’s the reason why this chore is worth your while in the first place.”

“Huh?”

“You’ll see. It’ll be simple.” Mira pointed. “Using your glove.”

She glanced at her hand. “The Armadas? Why?”

“I intend to test its capability. And, maybe you’ll learn something useful for your friend you can’t seem to stop thinking about too.” Hopping from side to side, Mira waved her three claws in the direction where the real Nia was resting.

“You want to help her? How?” asked Sylisa, letting her guard down.

“I’ll show you.” Mira dipped her head and two red lights glowed above her head, where her horns would be if not for the illusion. A haze obscured the air above her, warping the stars and twisting the massive arm of the galaxy along with the moon.

“WHAT THE—?!” Sylisa cried out in surprise. In panic, she pulled away from the rushing power of Mira’s distortion. However, the disguised fairy leapt at her. Seeing this, Sylisa turned, but stumbled to her side as the floor beneath her gave way to a featureless void.

“Hold still!” Mira hugged her from behind. Her lithe arms, which did not feel anything like Nia’s velvety fur wrapped tightly around Sylisa’s neck.

Sylisa felt her horns against the back of her head become scalding hot. Worse still, the heat transferred, infiltrating her skull, making her feel feverish. Trying to throw Mira off, Sylisa squirmed to break away from her in a frenzy. “GET OFF ME!” she yelled.

There was an intense flash of light and suddenly the once star covered blanket of sky became a rocky ceiling low to the ground. The distant horizon morphed into a wall of old bricks. A small orb hovered above Mira’s body, flickering like a lantern to illuminate the cavern.

Panting heavily, Sylisa shouted, “Wha— the hell was th—?!”

Mira, still appearing as her Weavile, put her hand on Sylisa’s mouth. “Not so loud!”

Sylisa’s cheeks turned beet red, her heart fluttered. It felt like such a long time since she had been so close to her best friend in her normal form. Trying to not give in to her urge to hug her tightly, she had to remind herself. She’s not Nia! She’s a stupid mirage in my head!

Mira’s lighthearted smirk at her susceptibility served to further irritate.

Wincing, Sylisa took her eyes off the Nia-lookalike, and peered around the cavern. “Where’d we go?”

“Outside the vault.” Glancing at the tunnel ahead, an expression of doubt crept onto Mira’s face. “I think. Keep your voice down just in case.”

“No way!” whispered Sylisa. She snatched at Mira’s arm and gripped it tight, her fingers passing through her deception. “How the heck did we get here?”

“Teleport obviously.”

“T-Teleport?” Feeling queasy, Sylisa held her stomach. “I’m gonna be sick.”

“Don’t you dare puke on me!” warned a wide-eyed Mira.

“I can’t believe it.” Letting go of Mira, Sylisa reached out to the smooth walls. They felt cold to the touch. “Not an illusion!” she remarked. “You really did Teleport us!”

“It’d be tough to maintain this and another trick,” said Mira. “Unless escaping with Double Team, a single disguise is more effective than a bunch of illusions.”

“And what about Nia? How do I know she’s okay?” Breathing the still, musty air, Sylisa felt like she was Mira’s prisoner.

“Aww, am I not good enough for you?” Mira rocked her head as if she had been shunned. “I make a great Nia.”

“Ugh, I don’t get why you insist on imitating my best friend.” Her shoulders sunk. “Preferred it when you were a bug-eyed runt wearing an obnoxious bow.”

“Quit making fun of me or I’ll stay this way!” snapped Mira.

“Fine!” huffed Sylisa. “How ‘bout you explain this whack plan of yours to me!”

Mira squatted on a small bolder in the alcove, crossing her legs. “You saw the Unown.”

Sylisa nodded. Her fingers traced cracked mortar joints on the nearby wall.

“How they came to be is a mystery, but their purpose isn’t nearly as opaque once you do some digging.” As Mira spoke she raised her head and the mystical light followed her glare.

Beholding the moss-covered ceiling, Sylisa exhaled. “How far down are we?”

“Couple thousand years, maybe more.”

She froze. “What?”

“The era.” Mira gestured to the ancient walls using the levitating lamp. “When the moon and the sun were worshiped by an ancient civilization.”

“Ancient civilization?” She saw the etchings of what looked like the Unown on the walls. However, upon pressing her fingers on the wall she realized that the shapes were recesses in the wall. Furthermore, there was a strange resin in the cavities she had never seen before. It was highly reflective like liquid mercury, felt cold like ice to the touch. Sylisa had pulled her hand from the outline in the wall, her fingertips were coated in a fluid mirror. Brushing it on her skirt, she gave Mira a distraught look as the viscous substance refused to easily rub off.

Mira’s bemused smirk did little to comfort her anxiety. “Humans and Unown, stargazers, molded the destiny of the ancient civilization. They left all sorts of stuff behind, treasures and traps included. Might want to be careful what you touch.”

“Yeesh! What IS this stuff, Unown goop?” she exclaimed, squeezing the ruffles of her skirt.

Mira shrugged. “You’d have to ask the stargazers. Too bad they’re long gone. However, they happened to leave behind some clues pertaining to our mutual condition.”

“You mean the Eclipse?” wondered Sylisa. “How it Marked us as Children of it?”

“Mhm, you catch on fast,” said Mira as she tapped the stone floor with hardly a sound. “Glad my fellow Eclipse Child isn’t a total fool.”

“Psh, please!” she huffed, still wiping her hand. “If we had anything else in common I’d be an annoying twerp.”

“We ought to hurry. Time wasn’t my friend, and it certainly won’t be yours.”

The shift in Mira’s tone unnerved her. “Why you’d get all serious?”

Mira looked her dead in the eye. “I told you I was once a Shade. The reason I’m not anymore is because I ran out of time.” She turned her back rather stiffly. “You and me, human, monster, we’re not different in the eyes of the stars.”

“Your Marking makes it hard to deny.” Though Sylisa could not see the Kirlia’s golden streak of hair through her disguise, she felt a profound connection to Mira because of it. Though Sylisa initially found solace that she was not the only one Marked by the Eclipse, something about it made her uneasy: being in the same position as a monster.

“You sound upset.”

“Mira, if you’re no longer a Shade, why’s it there?”

“I was wondering when you’d ask. The only thing I’ve learned is it’s a side-effect from contact with something the ancients called Heaven’s Light.”

“Heaven’s Light—” repeated Sylisa, thinking, Almost sounds like Vance’s group, Heaven’s Might.

Peering up at the ancient wall covered in recesses that would hold hundreds of Unown, Mira continued to explain, “You can see for yourself the Unown existed during the reign of this civilization.”

Sylisa pointed at a cluster of Unown imprints clustered close together. She then said the obvious, “They look different than the ones I’ve seen.”

Mira nodded. “That’s because the Unown shape their bodies to the language of humans. Unlike my illusion, these physical changes can be recorded.”

“Hmm. Pretty sure if I had my cellphone I could snap a pic of you Mira.” Sylisa rubbed her chin in thought. “Come to think of it, I wonder what that would look like.”

“What do mean?” asked Mira.

“Wondering whether I’d still see your illusion if it was recorded by a camera.” She pointed at the wall. “It’s the same principle, the Unown shape to the language of the time, so these etchings are their bodies from back then, and this wall is like the camera’s timestamp. If they were recording something modern, I bet I’d be able to read it.”

“Parts of the ruins recently inhabited would be legible to you,” replied Mira, a faint gleam of hopefulness in her voice. Directing the beam of her lantern at a worn cave drawing. “I can only understand general idea in this mural, the feelings that went into it, despair and grief.”

“Looks like the Unown were surrounding something,” said Sylisa as she observed the faded dyes. “And then there was something really bright like the sun that scattered them.”

“That must be the Heaven’s Light,” said Mira. “When we Teleported, you caught a glimpse of the strong Light, central to what connects the dimensions of time and space, for a split-second. However, teleportation is nothing compared to the forces it takes to be Marked.”

“I saw it. On the night of the Eclipse there was a huge flash too. Then this heavy pressure, like I was getting crushed. That’s when the Unown showed up, Nia devolved, and I passed out.”

“Gravity and Light. Only rare celestial events, eclipses, planetary alignment, produce the amount we were exposed to, where it changed us.”

Trying to read Mira’s convoluted look, Sylisa asked, “Is there something wrong with it? Like, besides Marking us as Eclipse Children or whatever. Why would the Unown be guarding it?”

Mira paused. She fidgeted with her feathers.

“Y’know, Mira, your illusion is good, maybe too good. Nia always did that when something was eating her.”

“I’m just adjusting my skirt!” denied Mira. “You’re seeing things! Crazy things!”

“Can’t fool me.” Sylisa shook her head. “Why’s the flash we saw got you all in a tizzy?”

“You’ll soon see for yourself.” Mira sat up and raced for the corridor. As she did so, the illusion dissipated for a moment, and Sylisa caught a glimpse of her wringing her short skirt.

“Wait up,” hissed Sylisa. As she started to walk, a substantial feeling of vertigo overwhelmed her. “I really feel like I’m gonna hurl,” she said planting her hands on the wall, gingerly navigating her way toward Mira.

Mira bounded outside the corridor and into a vast underground cavern shaped like an oblong arena. “Hurry up,” she called.

Sylisa, following at a shrinking distance, remarked, “Woow! This place is huuuge. Reminds me of those domed stadiums back home for sports or tourneys.”

“The ancients did those things too,” said Mira.

“What makes you think that?” asked Sylisa. “Thought the ancient stargazers were obsessed with the predicting stuff, not playing games or battling ‘mons.”

“They were still human, they had their entertainment.”

“Oh right! Like, ancient colosseums!”

Mira scowled at her, and continued to move. “Unfortunately that means there are obstacles—” she paused “—engineered for entertainment.”

“From a thousand years ago?” wondered Sylisa. “I guess that’s possible, it’s all preserved underground. But, Mira, how do you know what people did here thousands of years ago?”

“Call it a hunch,” she said walking along.

“I thought you didn’t do predictions,” sneered Sylisa.

“I wouldn’t trust them to guide my fate is what I said,” replied Mira.

Chasing her, Sylisa tried to figure out what she meant. Is it bad to use predictions if you’re a psychic? Why would it be wrong? What’s it mean to see the future? When does it stop being fortune-telling and become real? Hmm… Mira kept stressing freedom to decide, that’s why she didn’t guide me about the Unown. But, it doesn’t make much sense to me.

“Trap!” warned Mira.

Sylisa nearly fell over, avoiding the pressure plate by only a hair. She gave Mira an icy glare. “Coulda said something sooner!” she grumbled.

“Assumed you knew all about booby-traps,” said Mira as she frolicked along.

Growling in displeasure, Sylisa forced herself to pay more attention to the patterns on the ground, avoiding the oddly shaped blocks of stone at a conspicuously raised elevation. “Floor’s sunk due to time,” she noticed, “but the springs still got support ‘cos it’s built on top of a different material than the rest of the floor.”

“You’ve got a keen eye when you know what to look for,” replied Mira. “Are you a fan of places like these?”

“Duh, I’m a thief. Ancient treasures are always my speed.”

“This is perfect for you then.”

Sylisa rushed up to Mira and placed her hand on the illusion’s head. Her fingers fell through the feathers and landed with a bounce on her invisible hair.

Mira turned, a perplexed expression on her disguise’s face.

Clutching Mira’s silky hair between her fingers, Sylisa said firmly, “We’re doing this to help Nia. Better remember that, ‘cos crossing a thief’ll be the last thing you do.”

“I told you we’re partners in this. You gotta trust me!” She squirmed about. “When we find the source—” Mira froze mid-stride.

Sylisa followed suit. “Something wrong?” she whispered.

“No.” Her light traced a wide sweep. “You hear that?”

“Be quiet and I’ll tell you.” Sylisa cupped her hand around her ear and closed her eyes. Gradually, the muffled sound of a flowing river became apparent. “Sounds like water.” She craned her neck in various directions. “The noise is echoing from somewhere over there.”

Mira pointed her light where Sylisa had gestured. The underground room was so large, the light did not reach the far wall, instead fading into inky blackness.

“Look!” Sylisa directed down. “The floor stops, the light drops off over there.”

Mira’s light tilted low. “Could be a pit, maybe a collapse?”

Carefully, Sylisa made her way closer to the ledge followed by Mira. The sound of flowing water was louder, but still very distant. She pointed her blades along the edge.

Mira aimed her light down across the gap, it met no obstruction. Tracing left to right, there was nothing but darkness.

 “This isn’t just a hole, it’s a ravine. Can’t see the bottom and it goes on in both directions real far, like a fissure made by an earthquake. Hey, c’mon, where are we?” she asked Mira.

“Underground.”

“No shit,” growled Sylisa. “Be more specific before I toss you down there to see how far it goes.”

“You don’t have to do that.” Mira shuddered. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re in a place whose people sought answers in the stars at first, then through the Eyes, but met a bitter end when their prophecies brought about an unavoidable calamity.”

“Yeah, that explains the odd Unown-shaped recesses down here and the ancient mural, but how’d they doom themselves?” wondered Sylisa.

“I don’t know specifically what caused it, only stories.” Mira spoke quietly. “There are legends of a Black Star following the Eclipse.”

“I heard about that story from a guy in town. He thought it was a future prophecy, but you’re saying it’s actually ancient history?”

“Is there much difference?” asked Mira. “History is full of repetition, as is the nature of the universe. The moon circling the earth, the earth circling the sun, aligning in a cosmic dance. You and me, we’re part of that too.”

“Destructive cycles ain’t gonna fix themselves.” Sylisa paused, gathering her thoughts. “I want Nia to return to normal, go back to living in our Unova apartment together. What if we change it so the whole calamity thing doesn’t happen again?”

“That’s why I like you, you got your heart in the right place,” said Mira.

“So how do we do that?” urged Sylisa.

“By starting with what I brought us here for. The ancients’ final technique, called by a name I did not understand, would grant the wisdom of gods. The source of this information was clear about one thing: It was contrived within a heinous machination: The Vault of Souls.”

“Oooh.” Sylisa’s heart quivered from excitement. “Sounds spooky.”

“Mhm. It’s down here, untouched since the catastrophe.” Mira waved her arm, the glittering dust following in the wake of Nia’s claws. “This is as close as I could get to it without risking both our lives.”

“Why?” asked Sylisa, resting near the ledge.

“Can’t Teleport to a place I haven’t been to or at least seen. However, it’s possible to Teleport using Sight-Sharing to reach to a place I haven’t been. Unfortunately, anyone here is probably dead or worse.”

Sylisa tilted her head. “Uh, if everyone’s dead, doesn’t that mean we’re alone?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Mira. “Besides, I’d be more scared of being near YOU alone! That look you gave me after the Teleport, was like you wanted to squeeze the life out of me!”

“Then how ‘bout you don’t impersonate my best friend!” rebuked Sylisa. She wrung her hands together longingly. “Nia used to be my Weavile, I miss her big fluffy body!”

“You miss an illusion,” said Mira. “The real Nia is a Sneasel. Until you grasp that, this illusion – and others you have yet to realize – will have power over you.”

Cursing under her breath, Sylisa wobbled from side to side, her concerns eating at her from within. “Tsk. You don’t have to make it more difficult for me.”

“I did the difficult part by Teleporting us here.” Mira huffed. “Any idea how difficult it is to warp yourself and a squirming tag-along through the space-time continuum while making sure our bodies aren’t disarranged, mixed up, or half-buried in stone on the other side?”

“Uh-huh—” Sylisa nervously twirled her hair around a finger “—that does sound real bad.”

Mira appeared strained as she explained, “When I Teleport, I must visualize the destination as clearly as possible. To Teleport you too, I need to focus much harder than I’m used to. Problem is the smallest of distractions is catastrophic.”

Sylisa gulped. “Almost wish you didn’t explain it. Teleporting sounds like an awful idea with you.”

“A lot can go wrong, it’s not something I’d make a habit of, especially after how tough that was,” said Mira reticently. “I should’ve gone about it differently, surprising you wasn’t worth the risk. Had you squirmed any more, I’m sure something unpleasant would’ve happened.”

“You’re kidding.” Sylisa’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t even warn me, jerk!”

“Hey, it worked without disaster this time.” Mira shrugged. “And it was fast.”

Clenching a fist, Sylisa spoke angrily. “What if something terrible happened, Mira!? How could I get back to Nia if you didn’t get us here safe?”

Mira’s magical lamp flickered as she heaved a sigh. “It would be a terrible fate, I agree.”

“Like you’d know,” rebuked Sylisa. “Having your best friend lose her evolution is one thing, but not being able to see her again? I don’t think I could do it.”

“No, I understand,” said Mira. “It was risky. You have more to lose than me.”

“When you say it like that, it sounds sad.” Sylisa’s nails loosened from her palm. “Don’t you have friends you care about seeing again, Mira?”

The fairy’s illusion shook her head, the feathers on Nia’s crown that usually rustled did not make a sound.

Sylisa pouted. “No friends?”

“No.”

“Geez.” The sadness she felt for Mira took her by surprise. “Never?”

“Had friends, long ago,” said Mira. “It was nice while it lasted.”

“Hm.” Pawing her chin, Sylisa asked, “Other ‘mons?”

“Not really,” replied Mira. “I’m used to humans.”

“Oh, really?” Sylisa was surprised. “Guess being a psychic helps with the language barrier.”

“You don’t need to be,” she said with a flippant gesture.

“Me ‘n Nia, we’re best friends, so of course we understand each other,” said Sylisa, a warm joy in her heart as she reminisced. “It’s sorta like your telepathy, ‘cos no one else can understand it. I don’t really know how it works, but I’m thankful for it.”

Mira exhaled. “That’s a relief.”

“What? Something I said?”

Mira hummed to herself, a subtle, pleasant tune as she spun around. The amber light guided her through the sea of darkness like a dim lighthouse.

“You’re seriously gonna ignore me?” wondered Sylisa, following along. “Sheesh. No wonder you don’t have friends, Mira.”

Chapter Text

The light of Mira’s magical lantern proceeded ahead of her, bobbled above the splitting image of grown Nia. The desolate underground field stretched out, and scattered debris cast lengthy shadows. Mira’s path forward paralleled the chasm, her sprightly movements across the field of debris and ruin cast a myriad of shadows. But then, Mira skipped over a large fallen rock, and her shadow was not that of a Weavile. Instead, Sylisa saw the fairy and her large bow.

Thinking to herself, Sylisa pondered the peculiarity. Mira’s illusion isn’t prefect. Broke before when she was toying with her skirt. She’s using memories of Nia, my emotions, to impersonate her. It’s all a trick that preys on my feelings. I don’t understand why though. Just what is she trying to do?

Mira continued along, gracefully skipping and slowly descending from her bounds.

“Hey, Mira?” asked Sylisa.

Mira continued to tread lightly ahead of her without so much of a response.

“Hey!” she said, a brusque pique leading her voice. “I’m talkin’ to you, runt!”

Mira spun around. Nonchalantly, she waved down at the ground beneath Sylisa’s feet. “Focus on the what’s right in front of you. Unless you want to spring one of those.”

Sylisa looked at where Mira gestured in panic. Sure enough, the edge of her boot had caught part of a pressure sensitive mechanism made from a conspicuous block of stone. Fearing for her life, her eyes widened, and she desperately fought the urge to bounce off from the triggering apparatus.

“—That work,” said a smirking Mira, evidently amused at her expense. “You should see the look on your face.”

Gingerly lifting her foot off the depressed panel, Sylisa exhaled in relief. “Why didn’t it trigger?” she asked. “You do some psychic magic?”

“Of course not,” replied Mira, haughtily placing her arms on her waist. “Look where we are. Close to the edge, huh?”

Peering at the ground, she began to piece it together. “The chasm. And the water flowing. This part of the field got eroded from bellow, wrecked the underground mechanisms that’d spring the trap.”

Mira, without so much as a laugh, spun around to festinate on her way once more.

 

Craning her neck, Sylisa gazed upon the lonely expanse, which could have held exhibition matches on a scale she was used to seeing on television. Her eyes spotted on the right along the wall opposite the gorge, what appeared to be huge stairs of stone. She immediately recognized it as tiered, stadium seating. Turning her gaze down as she walked, refusing to be shamed a third time by Mira, she pondered, “Ancient Unown, traps, and spectators. Just where the heck are we…?”

Mira hopped along, nimbly jumping over suspicious elevations on the ground. “A better question is when.”

Perturbed by the fairy’s remark, Sylisa commented, “Those stands can hold thousands. No way all the people in Sol de Lune could ever fill those rafters. Something really bothers me about this place.”

“Why’s that?” Mira spun around, her lantern bouncing as she did. “Thought you’d want to focus on getting to the vault.”

“Who built the vault?” she asked. “Same folks who built this ancient colosseum?”

“We’ll find out when we get there, won’t we?” replied Mira. “The key is the Unown.”

“Why would they name it the Vault of Souls? Sounds mad sus.”

“A mystery—” Mira shook her head. “—I’m as stumped as you. Yet here we are. Is that a coincidence?”

“What is it with you?” grumbled Sylisa. “Every time I think you’re gonna say something important, you always bring it back to the two of us and that damn Eclipse.”

“It’s the reason we’re here,” acknowledged Mira. “We’re both Marked by it as Children of the Eclipse.”

“Whatever that means since you won’t explain it. It sucks to be here with you,” she muttered. “Much rather be with the real Nia. Bet we’d figure it out no sweat.”

“Let me ask you something. Which Nia is the real Nia?” Mira gestured benignly to her illusion. “The one you see here, or the one asleep by the fountain?”

“Psh! I’d never let you replace her!”

“Fun as it would be, that wasn’t what I asked.” Mira’s feathers shuddered. She then spoke more earnestly. “Which Nia is real to you? Or rather, is one Nia more real than the other?”

“What the hell?” Sylisa felt her jaw drop. “Why would you say something like that? They’re both real!”

Unperturbed, the fairy’s musing continued, much to the distress of Sylisa. “You have compelling, real memories she’s your Weavile. They’re undoubtedly true, otherwise this illusion would be all but useless, yet, the truth is she’s a Sneasel with no recollection of her evolution. Do you not see the problem? Which Nia is the real one?”

“I…I…” Feeling as though she were hyperventilating, Sylisa paused to catch her fleeting breath. “I’m gonna train her back. Until she evolves. That’s the only way, right?”

“Like you,” said Mira, “I want to believe more than anything evolving again restores everything. And yet, evolution takes time, it takes being in time, living in the world. Not necessarily as a specific type of being, but existing being. …So, what would happen to new memories – those feelings formed while building towards an evolution? In the end, the dread is simple logic: Would one of those real Nias be overwritten or irreparably changed?”

“You’re asking the wrong gal. I don’t really know.” After focusing once more, a revelation dawned on Sylisa. “Hold on! How do you know Nia can’t remember being evolved at all? I only told you she didn’t remember her strength!”

Impersonating one of Nia’s expressions, Mira wiggled her ear feathers.

“Stop doing that!” ordered Sylisa. “Seriously, what the hell are you hiding—?”

Suddenly, a loud clicking noise echoed in the distance. It was harsh, accompanied by a fair deal of grating, and the sounds meshed together unlike anything she had ever heard.

“Did you hear that?” Mira’s feathers perked up tall the way Nia’s used to.

“Yeah,” whispered Sylisa, rubbing her weary eyes. “Could it be a trap that didn’t break? Maybe something fell?”

“Shh. Shh.” Mira leaned close to the earth, kneeling on the stone floor as the clattering continued unabated. The glowing light above her head dimmed to a weak amber.

Following suit, Sylisa knelt, trying to be as quiet as possible. And then, strangely, the sound of water no longer flowed in the background. Instead, it lapped against something.

Mira tilted her head, a look of worry on her face. Her illusion faded, her green and gold hair became visible to Sylisa once more.

“Uhh, Mira, you’re looking a lot more runtish.”

The fairy ignored her, focusing on the sound.

Inching closer to Mira, Sylisa gestured to an old wooden bridge spanning the canyon where the light dropped off. “That where it’s coming from?”

“Below. In the hollow ground. We’re not alone.” Mira shuddered, her telepathy distorted into a static. “Sense…life. Lots … it.”

Sylisa pulled close. “Whaddya mean?”

The clicking noise returned, as well as the flow of water. And there was another din which joined in. A heaviness of rocks moving, first being hit by something sharp, followed by splashing in the water.

A strained look on her face, Mira struggled to form her telepathy into crisp words. “They’re coming.”

“Who’s they?!” Sylisa gripped Mira’s shoulders in a panic.

“Something… been here… longer …the ruins.” Broken telepathy did not bode well.

“Aw, hell no! You brought us here, you get us out!” demanded Sylisa, pressing herself against the pixie.

“Can’t!” exclaimed Mira.

Another rockslide alerted Sylisa that whatever was rising out from the gorge possessed incredible strength. And yet she could not see it, only feel its earth breaking power through the floor’s vibrations as dust fell from above.

“Teleport us or something you little shit!” she commanded.

Frantically, Mira shook her head. “Can’t! Run!”

“Run? Where?!” When Mira did not respond, Sylisa begrudgingly looked to the auspicious bridge leading across the divide. “I’m gonna e’fin kill you!”

As she got to her feet, a hunched shadow pulled itself up from the gorge. It had bright red, ovals on the part that looked like the head. They glowed like Mira’s eyes without pupils. The beast shook feathery protrusions along its tall back, knocking dirt free from its serpentine form. Two chitin coated arms, each easily the size of a fully-grown person jittered on the belly of the ancient Armaldo.

Rather than observe a remarkable living fossil, Sylisa scooped up Mira and ran as fast as she could. The light of Mira’s lantern floated overhead as Sylisa focused on fleeing. From behind her, she heard the beast charging, its heavy stomps growing ever closer, leaping with increasing speed. Under her arm, Mira began to feel warm. She glanced to see the fairy was firing discuses of light from her horns at their pursuer.

“What’re you—?!”

An earsplitting shriek cut Sylisa off. A second monstrosity she had only seen fossils of in museums swooped down out of the darkness. Its broad wings unfurled as its talons reached out directly in front of her.

“AHH!” Sylisa desperately tossed Mira to one side and dove in the opposite direction.

The Aerodactyl flew between them, its pointed tail lashing angrily in every direction having missed the opportunity to pluck two easy meals. Instead, the winged monster kept going and slammed into Armaldo.

The force of the collision was so brutal, Sylisa heard what sounded like bones shattering against rock. She turned briefly to look.

Armaldo punctured one of Aerodactyl’s batty wings by drilling an arm into it. Though it locked Aerodactyl down, the winged creature clawed manically at the chitin of Armaldo, its oversize talons swiping with an incredible speed and ferocity, ripping thick plates of the shell apart. In response, Armaldo coiled and curled then slammed its head into the other beast’s dangling lower jaw when it went to bite.

“Mira!” she yelled. “They’re distracted!”

Mira rose upright and begun firing a chromatic barrage of light from her horns at the two mangled beasts on the ground. The beams of Mira’s Confusion attack caught them both, surrounding them in what appeared to be warped air that filled with a myriad of fantastic color.

“Why’re you attacking? Let’s go!” exclaimed Sylisa.

Mira shook her head.

“What?” Sylisa moved closer and poked her head. “Telepathy not working?”

Mira nodded. The ribbon tails of the bow she wore whipped back and straight away from her skull. Her green and golden hair rose like static electricity as another blast, in the form of a wide wave rather than a focused beam, expanded from her horns, knocking Sylisa uncomfortably onto her rear.

“Are you insane? You can’t kill these things!” she cried out over a gale of psychic energy. “They shouldn’t even be alive!”

Again, Mira’s assault slammed the two tangled monsters. With vicious glares they shifted their attention from each other. For a few seconds after the artillery strikes, Mira would have to pause, presumably to dispel high temperature. A heat mirage surrounded her propagating from her cranium, where her horns were the color of brilliant rubies.

“MIRA!” Sylisa struggled to lift herself up again, but the lateral force of the fairy’s Psychic was like pushing against a hurricane’s winds. “You’re drawing them toward us!” she bellowed, wide-eyed in panic. “STOP!”

Armaldo gasped a hiss, and Aerodactyl screeched in a dreadfully high pitch. Boulders tumbled from the ceiling, their devastating impacts creating craters all around them.

Seeing the beasts now focusing on Mira, and beginning to separate their bodies, Sylisa decided she had enough. I can’t let her keep this up!

Mira launched another burst of light from her horns, rocking the entire floor as more energy slammed into the ancient creatures.

“Quit trying to be a fricking hero!” Sylisa yelled, taking the initiative after Mira’s attack. She caught the pixie as her horns were cooling down, being prudent enough to snatch her by the body rather than near her overheated head. “We’re getting the hell outta here!”

Squirming beneath her arm, Mira flung another blast at the creatures. The recoil from her ranged strike pushed Sylisa forward with a jolt, and she nearly fell over. A gust of searing heat buffeted her back as well. Holding Mira was what she imagined carrying a portable cannon would be like.

“Quit attacking or we’re gonna eat dirt!” scolded Sylisa.

Looking over her shoulder as Mira recharged, she saw the two creatures had unknotted themselves and were closing in. She turned back around to see where she was going. Picking up the pace, the bridge did not seem to be getting closer while the two pursuers certainly were.

“Dammit Mira! Why’d you keep attacking them?!” reprimanded Sylisa, her long stride only able to carry them so fast compared to the giants who would easily outran her. “Shoulda let ‘em fight each other instead of—”

Another unexpected blast from Mira hurtled Sylisa forward, causing her to yell out an exceptionally colorful expletive. Sylisa managed to get her foot placement right this time while landing, which kept her momentum up. A guttural groan of one of the monsters from close behind made every step even more urgent. Ahead, the bridge spanning the ravine stood out like a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness.

A deafening, high-pitched screech came from directly above her back. Feeling downward wind from Aerodactyl’s mighty wings, she knew it must be close. However, when she saw the creature’s talons reaching down directly in front of her she panicked.

Yelping in surprise, Sylisa did the only thing she could think of: she extended her blades and interposed her left claw facing outward to block her skull from being tugged off her torso by the horrible monster. As the airborne terror closed in, she winced, expecting to be assailed by heavy talons rattling her last line of defense. Close as the talons were, they slowed to a near halt. She looked up to see Aerodactyl moving torpidly, as though the air had become dense gelatin. Its wings flapped so slow, she was amazed it remained aloft.

Sylisa dodged the sluggish Aerodactyl, sidestepping its nails with ease. “What’s happening? Why’d it almost stop?”

Mira did not answer, yet from her horns came a steady surge of heat. It indicated her powers had something to do with the condition afflicting Aerodactyl.

Emboldened, Sylisa rushed forward with renewed endurance. But as she outran it, she heard its wings flap at a greater frequency and felt downward gusts of wind once more. She quickly turned to see it was above a clear barrier with distorted, hazy limits she had not previously noticed. A Trick Room. By flying above the bubble surrounding her and Mira, the beast broke free from torpor.

Realizing it could not enter the field without being slowed to a crawl, Aerodactyl screeched louder than ever, producing an ear-shattering wail of rage. Cleverly, Aerodactyl corkscrewed to a higher elevation, gathering momentum to break pieces of rock from the ceiling of the cave. It proceeded to drop them directly in her path.

Sylisa tossed Mira trying to avoid a massive bolder, which was not slowed in the slightest by the Trick Room. She tumbled to the ground and almost got crushed by another had Sylisa not rolled into her, shoving them both clear the Rockslide. Together they leaned against the bunker of stone and caught their breath.

Overhead, Aerodactyl shrieked victoriously. Behind, Armaldo roared, hurtling a Rock Blast at the boulders Aerodactyl dropped, cracking the fortification.

“Think they’ve got us pinned,” said Sylisa. “Could dump you as a distraction and make it off alone.”

Mira worriedly made eye contact. Her fearfulness was palpable. The barricade flickered.

Sylisa tugged her close to her side once more, and through an anxious smirk said, “Lucky for you, no frickin’ way I’m leaving my shield-runt behind!”

Dust denser than coastal fog filled the air, the fallen boulders serving as a temporary defense were smashed by tons of stone. Ancient Power came from both directions.

“Cover me!” Sylisa shouted, bolting from refuge.

Armaldo charged in using Headbutt with the force of a steam train, tearing up solid ground in its wake.

As the beast closed in, Sylisa backflipped out of its path. Armaldo smashed into nothing but air. It quickly stood up and swiped repeatedly at her using Fury Cutter. She managed to dodge its first two blows by jumping back, almost landing off-balance. The heavy third strike came as a surprise and she tumbled into a roll to avoid it. Seeing her prone, it raised both claws to cut twice. Sylisa dodged left and right, causing both swipes to dig into the earth. Armaldo momentarily paused, sinking in its gait, spent from using all its energy in a burst.

Meanwhile, Mira threw sparks up at Aerodactyl. After being struck on its wings, it howled in a bloodcurdling shriek. The persistent bright flashes of lightning caused it to retreat to further heights.

“NOW!” exclaimed Sylisa. Springing atop Armaldo’s lowered head, she surfed down along the creature’s spine to double backed toward Mira, who had begun channeling a charging attack. Dazzling light gathered all around Mira. Merely looking at Mira below where the illumination coalesced was tough, the radiance made her difficult to see. Still, she trusted Mira could hear her, and raced beneath the pillar of light. Sliding quickly, Sylisa flew off the critter’s back and snatched Mira as the light above her began to pulsate with unstable power.

A luminous explosion followed the collapse of the column. Incredible surges of sunlight flashed out in every direction. Sylisa turned her back to the detonation, her mind set on reaching the bridge. Though the living fossils were wracked by a strong Flash, their persistence was undeniable. They followed at a distance toward the bridge spanning the divide – partly blinded, but certainly not deaf to Sylisa’s dashing.

However, upon making it to the bridge crossing the ravine, Sylisa saw an enormous shadow blocking the way. It lurched, grumbled, then uncoiled to become an even more unbelievable size. A massive Tyrantrum took up the entire path. Worse still, it had just woken up.

“A Goddam T-REX?!” she gasped. Short of breath, she watched in petrifying fear as Tyrantrum slowly lifted its head, the size of a dumpster, with gleaming teeth as large as traffic lights. However, absolutely nothing in the city, not even museums, could have prepared her for coming face to face with it.

Mira, well past the point of terror, flung countless bursts of light at the other two dinosaurs. Pounded by her flares, they roared from a daylight they were not accustomed to. They continued to howl in primal instinct, unaware of Tyrantrum.

Tyrantrum’s attention shifted from the measly fairy and her human companion to the other creatures. Considering its gargantuan size, the principal beast retained a guise of innocuousness as a motionless hill. A shrewd predator, Tyrantrum did not so much as growl, instead prostrating low to the earth, its snout sniffing deeply at the intruding activity.

It was then Sylisa realized Mira’s plan was to lure Armaldo and Aerodactyl to the goliath. However, her strategy presented an obvious problem. “Frickin’ brilliant,” she muttered under the roars of the two chasing creatures, “put us between three damn dinos.”

Aerodactyl swooped down, eager to snatch the source of the strobe light.

Tyrantrum’s reptilian eyes traced the pterodactyl as it dove. Its colossal mouth opened ajar and its tongue licked hungrily. Hunching on its mighty legs, it sprung into the air, an impressive jump for a beast of its magnitude. Its jaw opened wide, and with one gruesome crunch, bit down on the illuminated wings.

A fountain of blood gushed out both sides of Tyrantrum’s jaw as it saddled back to the earth, drenching the area in a shower of slaughter. After a few more grisly chomps, the remnants of Aerodactyl were either unrecognizable bits of gore or wriggling down the beast’s gullet.

Armaldo reeled backwards and raised its claws to appear larger. Yet there was no way to threaten the king of terror. The entire underground shook from Tyrantrum’s roars.

Sylisa took their standoff as her cue to run. She and Mira made it halfway across the dilapidated bridge, the sounds of the two dueling beasts in the background. However, their noises were getting closer rather than further. Turning just in the nick of time, she saw both creatures chasing her. Armaldo sprung first.

“Oh shit! It’s gonna snap the bridge!” she yelled to Mira. Clasping onto one of the fraying rope supports with her hand, she insisted, “Hold on!”

When the hefty Armaldo landed, it splintered the rickety bridge in two. It sent Sylisa and Mira sailing toward the other side of the ravine and against the cliff, old pieces of wood breaking upon impact with the stone and lessening the blow.

Sylisa dug the claws of her Armadas into the rock as the pieces of bridge fell down the crevice. She could hear the planks impacting something soft. Looking down, she saw Armaldo had done something similar, using its arms to grasp the wall. The noise she heard did not make sense since Armaldo was coated in hard battle armor. But that became the least of her worries as Armaldo began to climb toward her and Mira.

“Hop on my back!” ordered Sylisa.

Piggybacking, Mira shot more flares at the creature, pelting it atop the glowing head and producing weighty ringing noises.

Sylisa hurriedly spent what little strength she had left to climb the vertical cliff.

From the other side of the canyon, Tyrantrum howled loudly. Though no longer within range, the beast stomped repeatedly, creating a mild earthquake.

The shaking rock and falling debris halted Sylisa’s climb mere feet from the top. She cursed angrily as tumbling bits of the cliffside forced her to hug the wall close and put her head down, which caused her to face the approaching Armaldo. It was able to muster through the collapse, its sturdy body shrugging off repeated bricks that stuck its larger form. Though Mira had been barraging the beast with her attacks, its battle armor served to deflect her blows too. Mira’s flashes ricocheted off its plate mail, illuminating the depths of this part of the canyon. Bellow Armaldo, Sylisa saw the base of the canyon was closer than before, yet still deep enough to be fatal. However, what alarmed her was that the floor appeared to be stirring.

“What the?!” she yelled over the chaos. “Why’s the ground moving!?”

Mira squeezed her shoulders and pressed her head against Sylisa’s. The heat from her horns was palpable though they did not touch her. And suddenly, Mira’s telepathy returned: “Quick! Force an emotion, anything, it’s gotta be strong!”

“I…” Sylisa stammered for a second, coming to terms with her survival being contingent on this. “Okay!” Closing her eyes, she tried to focus on the strongest desire she had: To be with Nia once again.

A rush of energy pulled at Sylisa’s heart, and she felt an internal warmth that melted away the calamity all around her. The balminess felt much like being under Zel’s spell, yet her mind became lucid and clear. Her senses felt sharper. Time seemed to dilate, every inhalation she took was long and drawn out. The roars of Tyrantrum stretched on for what felt like minutes. And then an overwhelming vigor overtook her body. In this meditative state she pushed herself, allowing her spirit to ride the wave of supernatural energy flooding her consciousness and climb above the mayhem. Her ascending swipes at the stone sliced stronger than ever. Each pull felt nearly effortless and as simple as breathing.

Reaching the top, Sylisa tumbled up and over to solid ground. The link between her and Mira was severed by doing so and she felt racked with exhaustion. Time returned to normal, her short gasps and Tyrantrum’s bellowing indicative of a second being a second once more. All the pain and fatigue which had been eliminated a few moments ago caught up with her too. As she caught her breath, she saw Armaldo’s head peeking up over the cliff.

Mira was out of commission, she collapsed in Sylisa’s throbbing and sore arms.

“I gotta stop it!” Sylisa set Mira down and charged to the edge. Raising her claws in a last-ditch attempt, she swung at the beast’s hardened skull. As her desperate arm swept down, she felt an invisible force guiding her. Her tendons and muscles followed the trajectory, swinging all the way through past her other shoulder.

Sylisa’s initial thought was the cut did not meet resistance, so she must have missed. But then the right eye of Armaldo split cleanly in half. The beast thrashed in agony, and Sylisa sprung back while it tried to pin her with its pointed arms. In doing so, it dug into the ground the lower half of its body was using for support. The earth cracked loudly. And then the whole piece of the cliff fell on top of Armaldo. With the armored beast plummeting down into the gorge, she expected to hear a hard impact. However, again she heard a soft thud.

On the other side of the cliff, Tyrantrum ceased roaring. Tucking its small arms close to its chest, the beast curiously peered into the pit where its next potential meal had fallen.

Interested as well, Sylisa looked too. She saw Armaldo landed near the flares Mira shot earlier. The lights were growing dim, were nearly spent, but still provided enough illumination to see the fate which had befallen the creature. Its starshaped body appeared covered in fleshy green tubes. On the heads of the tubes, pink tendrils appeared to be tickling the creature’s unconscious body. These wormy tendrils prodded Armaldo, secreting a purplish goo that coated it. Steam began to rise from the plates of the unfortunate creature, as the Acid burned through. The wormy creatures greedily probed the new orifices, suckling juice and blood from it.

Sylisa had heard about these supposedly extinct monsters dwelling in ancient seas: Cradily. Armaldo fell into a bed of at least twenty of them. Though she wanted to look away, she could not help but watch their feeding ritual. In a matter of minutes, the carcass folded in on itself like a rolled magazine, becoming part of the wriggling cluster.

Tyrantrum, who had been watching the feeding as well, looked up and made eye-contact with Sylisa from across the divide. Her heart skipped a beat, she imagined it trying to jump over the gorge to eat her now that the Cradily took its food. Instead, it shrugged, then turned to go back to munching on the scraps of Aerodactyl.

Sylisa exhaled a huge sigh of relief, eager to escape the ancient history which had come to life.