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Fanfiction Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Beyond the Sky

Discussion in 'Literature Library' started by SkyBlueFox1, Jun 18, 2017.

  1. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Five years after the Temporal and Spacial Crises, an old loose end finally reveals itself. The heroes of time and darkness act, visiting places old and new and bringing along new friends of their own. All the while, a traveler without a past begins to rediscover something lost to him long ago. What adventures will an exploration team get into this time?

    -----

    I'm finally getting around to posting this! This is a story I started aaaall the way back at the beginning of 2013, and I ended up working on it on-off for the next three years afterward. I finally finished it in January of last year, so I'll probably be posting a new chapter in here every couple of days. Once I've posted more than a couple chapters, I'll probably organize a chapter list in order to make everything easy to access.

    Also I figure I should mention that I've done a lot of worldbuilding, expanding and the like for Explorers of Sky and its world and lore, so small things might pop up here or there related to that. It's usually minor stuff, though, and written in a way that's easy to understand without needing to read supplements. :3 That said, if anyone's interested in my worldbuilding (it's very extensive), I can link that, too!

    Anyway, I'm rambling. Here's hoping you all enjoy Beyond the Sky!

    [​IMG]

    "Mint, how far away is this place again?"

    The sun beat down mercilessly on the two little hedgehogs, the unusually-hot day blazing across the valley. The grass was dry and beginning to look brown, and even the branches of the trees drooped from exhaustion, their only movement coming from the force of a rare gust of wind. Even the tops of the peak, capped with the last dusting of winter's snow, were beginning to lose their luster. A flock of Spearow flew across the field, catching an updraft and soaring away, crowing merrily as they took to the skies. With an exasperated sigh, the leading Shaymin turned around, doing nothing to hide the bags under her eyes. Her long white ears wiggled.

    "In case you hadn't been looking, Fern," Mint gestured backwards with her head, wincing as the rough basket hanging from her neck dug lightly into her fur. "We've just arrived at the flower patch. Please. Stop. Asking."

    "Sorry..." Fern stared down, finding his nose particularly interesting. "We're just so far from the village, and-"

    Mint trotted over and placed a paw on Fern's mouth, muffling the rest of his words. "It's our turn for gathering duty, alright? Just put one foot in front of the other and we'll both be back a lot faster."

    "Alright..." Fern hesitantly nodded, and the two quietly made their way into the middle of the field. A veritable sea of Gracideas bloomed vibrantly, the smell of fresh pollen and fragrant flora hanging in the air, and the two Shaymin breathed deeply, digging into the dirt and uprooting the flowers. The soft loam came free without much struggle, and slowly but surely the basket began to fill up with a modest bouquet. It wasn't until a few hours later when the pair finally stopped to count their haul, resting underneath a large tree, surrounded by rocks.

    "Thirty-three, thirty-four..." The Gracideas rustled as Mint poked at each one. "Thirty-five. I think that's a good amount for now."

    "Are you sure?" Fern circled around the basket before peering timidly out at the horizon. "The last time someone went out for gathering duty, we ran out of Gracideas the next day-"

    "Don't you think I've prepared for that?" Mint grunted irritably, shaking her head. "We've got way more than before, we're fine."

    "If you say so..." Fern yawned loudly, leaning backwards against a large, dark gray lump. "Who knew that picking flowers could be so tiring? I feel like I just want to... doze..."

    "Hey, don't go napping on me now, we've got to get back-" Mint called, leaving the basket of flowers alone. The warning was to no avail, though, and Fern's head hung loosely as he nodded off, a soft snore leaving his lips. Mint frowned. "Hey! Did you hear me, you dimwit! Wake up!"

    Mint charged, crashing into her partner with a mighty shove. Fern yelped in surprise as he tumbled up and over his perch, opening his eyes to find his vision completely dark. Something surrounded him, something soft and... fabric-y?

    "Hey, Mint, what's the big idea?" Fern said, struggling to find an opening in the cloth. A small hole caught his eye, and he poked his head out, glancing at the fancy, star-patterned robe he now adorned. "Wait, what is this? Mint?"

    He turned to face his friend, who gaped at him, her expression a mixture of shock and fear. A chill went down his spine. "M-Mint? What's with the look?"

    She replied with an indecipherable sputter before turning around and bolting away, knocking over the basket of Gracideas as she took to the sky. Fern leapt forward instinctively, only to flop over into a messy tangle of limbs and clothing. He regained his bearings faster than before, though, and he sighed unhappily as he stared at the pile of flowers, already beginning to drift away on the breeze. "Aw, Mint, why'd you leave me to clean up the mess alone..."

    "Ah... excuse me, I believe this is mine."

    Fern froze as he felt something grasp at his back, pulling the robe off of him. Time seemed to stand still as he inched himself around to look at the newcomer. The Gracideas lay forgotten.

    A pair of icy blue eyes stared at him questioningly. His mind went blank, and he tried to speak, the words catching in his throat.

    "Well? You can talk, can't you?"

    "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

    * * *
    Mail! No News... or Good News?
    * * *

    "Bill! Come on!"

    I groggily opened my eyes, scrunching them shut moments after as the harsh sunlight cut through the jagged teeth of the bluff. Rough waves crashed up against the side of the cliff, the smell of salt wafting in on the breeze, and I could hear a fire crackling close by. Rolling onto my back, I stuffed my face into the pile of loose hay, grinning inwardly as Rose padded up to me, the telltale sound of paws against stone signifying her arrival. A fuzzy appendage poked at my shoulder tentatively before the rest of the body decided to slam hard onto me, and I yelped in surprise. "Okay! I'm up, I'm up!"

    "Good morning, sleepyhead!" Rose chuckled, stepping off me as I sat up, wearily rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Quickly adjusting to the morning light, I got to my feet, brushing an aura tassel out from in front of my shoulder. "If you'd slept in any more, your breakfast would have gotten cold!"

    "Breakfast?" In hindsight, the comment was somewhat rhetorical - I blame the rude awakening. Rose slowly ambled away, biting onto a thin stick and jabbing at the fire, gently navigating the tool through the legs of the cooking grate. The logs shifted, crackling as they turned to charcoal, sending small ashes into the air, a couple of them sticking to the bottom of a cooking pan. "Cyan left me to cook while he and Erin went to check for jobs at the guild, so don't expect anything spectacular."

    "Don't be so hard on yourself," I replied. Rose shot me a grateful smile, dropping her makeshift poker as I drew to her side, peering at the food. The pile of apple slices seemed slightly charred and a couple of them were beginning to look like slush. The fragrance of boiling juice mingled unpleasantly with the sea smell, and I grinned cheekily as I quickly threw out an addendum. "I mean, it could be me doing the cooking."

    "Now who's being hard on themselves?" Rose rolled her eyes, grasping the pot's handle and setting it down on the stone floor. As soon as the metal had cooled I reached down and plucked a pawful of the food and hungrily crunched into it, ignoring the quiet giggle of amusement I received from my partner in the process. Rose delicately served herself a portion of the fruit, nibbling at it every so often, her nine tails drifting up and down absently.

    "...Wait, back up a sec," I said, mouth still half-full. "Cyan and Erin went to check the job postings?"

    "Uh-huh," Rose nodded her reply, fidgeting a bit as she worked out the stiffness in her joints. Her fur tickled my legs, and I resisted the urge to scratch. "What about it?"

    I frowned briefly, closing my eyes in deep thought (though I'm sure the image was ruined by my bulging cheeks). "But Wigglytuff dragged the guild off on the expedition to Midnight Forest, remember? The guild's been locked up and unattended for a few days now."

    Rose's eyes widened, and she rubbed at her face in an attempt to hide the blush of embarrassment forming under her fur. "Oh, shoot."

    I barked out a hearty laugh - and immediately regretted it as I briefly choked. Rose was at my back in moments, drumming her paws hard down my spine, and with no small amount of effort I gulped down the food. The two of us breathed hard, shaken but none the worse for wear.

    "Blaugh," I managed to say, half-grinning at my own foolishness. Rose gave me a worried look. "I never thought you'd quite have my back so literally."

    "Are you sure you're okay?" She asked, and I smiled, wrapping an arm around the fox's side and pulling her close, eliciting a surprised yelp. Undeterred, Rose nuzzled cutely into my shoulder, her nose cold against my chest, and we snuggled together as our gazes drifted past the teeth of the bluff, out towards the sparkling sea. "What about Cyan and Erin? Shouldn't we be going and getting them?"

    "Probably," I answered, squeezing her a little bit tighter. "Before Cyan decides to turn himself into a battering ram."

    I chuckled, and Rose sharply turned her head to look at me. "You don't seriously think he'd try that again, do you?"

    A peal of loud, boyish laughter, along with the sound of wood scraping against stone, broke our concentration, and we glanced over at the steps leading outside. A soft pink blur sped past the dying fire and pounced, belly-first, onto the pile of hay I had recently occupied, wriggling energetically as her fuzzy sleeves and thin tail flailed about. Behind her, a large blue sea lion stomped into the room, his large hiking pack grazing the sides of the stairway.

    "Man, you two're never gonna lemme live that down, are ya?" Cyan asked grumpily, unceremoniously dumping his bag onto the ground and taking a seat opposite Rose and I. Spearing a couple fruits with the horn on his helmet, he slouched forward, mustache drooping low, as if it shared its owner's lack of enthusiasm. "I swear, that made me swear off of sentry duty for life."

    "You can't say you didn't work hard at it," I pointed out, memories of shattered iron and wrong calls filling my head. "I think Diglett, at least, appreciated it."

    The Mienshao suddenly hopped up, flinging a bit of grass into Rose's headfur. I chuckled as the fox grimaced. "And now the gate's way stronger than it was before, Cyan! Everything turned out okay in the end!"

    "Easy for you t'say, Erin," Cyan folded his arms, gripping the handles of his seamitars tight. "You didn't get yelled at by a bundle'a feathers and a guy with a mouth too loud for his own good."

    "Aww, c'mon!" Erin bounced over to her friend, hefting off his helmet and gingerly rubbing at his stubby ears. Cyan's unhappy look briefly turned goofy, and he didn't seem to notice the slender weasel munching cheerfully on his food. "They mean well, you know that."

    "You know, you could do much worse to have to deal with Chatot and Loudred for a few days," Rose chimed in calmly, her head nestled comfortably on my chestspike. I busied myself with pulling the straws of hay and other bits out of her fur. "I'm pretty sure that breaking and entering is a felony."

    "Yeah, yeah, I got it," Cyan waved Erin away from his food, the Mienshao chuckling lightly at the Samurott's expense, and he began to chomp down greedily into his breakfast. The three of us watched as the water type practically inhaled the rest of the meal, and once he was finished he haphazardly spat a blast of water into the flames, dousing them completely before he continued speaking. "Sentry duty's still a heckuva lot less interestin' than going on a job with the rest'ya."

    "Speaking of which," I smoothly switched gears, softly nudging Rose off of my lap before standing up, striding over to the babbling spring and picking up the strap of the treasure bag. Our Exploration Team badge gleamed in the light, the black metal and blue inset clinging loosely to the bag's side. "Since the guild's closed up for their expedition, we're pretty much free for as long as they're gone-"

    "Wait, expedition?" Erin blurted out, bouncing over and leaning at me in a gross violation of any and all definitions of personal space. I stumbled backwards and pressed myself up against the wall, resisting the combat instinct to send the poor girl flying. That would certainly be bad. "I thought everyone was just sleeping in today!"

    "Nuh..." I stuttered, taken aback at the ridiculous claim. Only Erin would come to a conclusion like that. "No, Erin, this is the year they're going on an expedition. Last year Corphish graduated from the guild. You were part of the team by then, remember?"

    "Oh..." Erin began to rock back and forth on her heels, looking... somewhat lost in thought. "I guess you're right, I do remember that."

    "So since they're gone, we can do just about whatever we want to do for the next week or so," Rose picked up where I had left off, sticking her nose into the bag and drawing out a light blue scarf. I knelt down and began to tie it around her neck, to which she smiled gratefully. "Do you two have any ideas?"

    Cyan let out a low hum, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. "How 'bout the Fogbound Lake? You've been meanin' t'take us there."

    "I don't know, I don't think we should head too far out," I reminded him, and he sighed unhappily. I lightly bopped his arm, giving him a reassuring smile, and he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. "We'll go there someday, don't worry."

    "What about spending the day at Serenity River?" Erin tossed out. "I bet today a water day would be really nice!"

    "We're supposed to be working, not playing, Erin," Rose replied before throwing a wink my way. "Though I wouldn't mind spending some time there myself."

    I grinned, slipping the treasure bag onto my back. "I guess that's settled, then?"

    All four of us perked up as a soft, almost-inaudible sound drifted into our ears from above. Fluttering wings masked a meek knocking at the trapdoor into the bluff, and Erin peeked her head into the tunnel, gently lifting up the hatch. She smiled, her eyes lighting up as she pushed the door fully open.

    "Hi there, Marill!" The Mienshao moved backwards into the room, and down the steps came a little blue mouse, yawning into one of his stubby paws as he descended. A bouncy ball sat in between his round ears, attached to him by a thin black tail. As Erin let the entrance close, another, white-plumed Pokémon swooped through the toothy gap in the cliff, the deep-billed bird hovering close to the floor, his blue-tipped wings nearly touching down.

    "Good morning, Team Returners," Marill greeted us cheerfully, seating himself next to Erin, who began to affectionately toy with the boy's ears. "I'm glad we were able to catch you in time!"

    I chuckled, rolling my eyes. "I can see this going somewhere."

    "What's goin' on, kiddo?" Cyan asked, going straight to the point. "And where's your little bro today? You two are always stuck together."

    "Er... that's why I'm here, actually, mister Cyan."

    "Oh no," Rose said, cocking her head in confusion. "Azurill didn't get himself grabbed again, did he?"

    "It's nothing like that, ma'am," The Pelipper spoke up, finally perching atop a soft flower patch growing through the cracks in the stone. "Though I do hope you give him a firm scolding when you find him!"

    "Scolding?" I frowned, folding my arms. "Slow down there and tell us what the deal is."

    "Don't worry, mister Pelipper," Marill thankfully cut in, and he turned to Rose and I. "Er... I guess I'll start earlier this morning."

    "Alright."

    "Well, Azurill and I were just leaving the house to pick up breakfast for mama..." Marill began. "She hasn't gotten sick, but we've just stuck to the habit."

    "Can't stop, won't stop, huh?" Erin remarked with a giggle as she walked over to the spring and picked up a small pouch. "You two are so sweet."

    "Er, yeah... anyway, we were on the way back from Kecleon Market when we saw mister Pelipper at our mailbox!"

    "I had some deliveries to make here in town, you see," Pelipper added, picking idly at some of the grass growing on the floor. "Along with my bag of mail, I had a package for missus Kangaskhan, and a shipment of berries for Spinda."

    "Anything for us in there?" Cyan asked.

    "Yes, actually," Pelipper spoke his confirmation, and I crossed my legs, tapping my toes impatiently. "But it'll have to wait. Mister Marill?"

    "Anyway..." Marill nodded at his companion before continuing. "Azurill and I stopped to talk to mister Pelipper while he was delivering the mail. We had been chatting for a few minutes when... well..."

    Marill trailed off hesitantly, his tail nervously swinging from side to side, and Rose smiled warmly. "Well?"

    "Azurill..." Marill let out a sigh of frustration. "He... he just grabbed mister Pelipper's mail bag and ran off!"

    I heard Rose gasp lightly, and both Cyan and Erin recoiled in surprise, the latter nearly dropping her bag. "He what?!"

    "I don't know why!" Marill backpedaled, waving his paws around in a panic. "He's been acting strangely lately... he's been constantly nagging me about the mail the past few days and avoiding answering when I ask him why."

    "Where'd he run off to?" Rose spoke soothingly, calming the mouse's nerves. Pelipper floated a little bit higher, clearing his throat to get our attention.

    "When the boy ran off, sir Marill and I chased him to the crossroads and onto the beach," The mail-bird explained. "We had him cornered at the entrance to the Beach Cave, but he ended up running inside."

    "I had wanted to go after him myself, but I didn't want to worry mister Pelipper or mama, and you had helped us before, so I was hoping that you would-" Marill stopped speaking as Erin patted him playfully on his head.

    "It's good that you came to us instead of rushing in on your own," I said, adjusting the straps of the treasure bag. "We'll gladly help you out, Marill."

    "What's that kid thinkin', swipin' stuff and runnin' off like that?" Cyan murmured, looking over one of his seamitars for defects, and with a flourish he slid the blade back into its scabbard on his arm. Slinging his hiking bag onto his back, he gave Marill a confident nod. "Don't worry, we'll find your little brother."

    "I'm up for it," Rose agreed, winking at me. "Besides, he's got mail that's meant for us, right?"

    "Alright then," I turned to Pelipper. "Marill, Pelipper... we'll be right back!"

    * * *

    I knelt down, running my paw down the cavern floor, brushing away shells and clumps of seaweed to reveal the smooth stone hidden underneath. My eyes narrowed as the trail of tiny footprints, stained by wet sand, faded into nothingness, headed nowhere but deeper into the salt-smelling, dark passage, lit only by the occasional strand of sunlight sneaking in through holes above us. Distantly I could hear the crashing of rough waves into the shore.

    "Yep, he's definitely been this way," I remarked dryly, dusting my legs off and continuing to stride forward. Cyan and Rose trotted their way through the sand, while Erin obliviously sat atop Cyan's backpack, tying one of her sleeves together into her makeshift sling. "We're going in blind from here, though."

    "Uh oh," Rose said, running up to my side and sniffing at the trail, trying to pick up the boy's scent. "I can't tell where he's gone from here, either. The sea's too strong here."

    I reached over and playfully flicked her ear, a tough task indeed given that we were all moving. "I guess it's not too big of a deal. Only two ways to go from here, and we just came from one of them."

    "At least'e didn't run off somewhere further away," Cyan shook himself suddenly, sending Erin to the floor. As she picked herself up, she stuck out her tongue at him, pouting. "The Beach Cave's pretty tame."

    Endless blue-gray walls twisted and turned, finally giving way to a large room, water flooding in through a large gap in the corner, the shallow, muddy lake glimmering as the sunlight bounced off of its surface. I slowed my pace, holding out an arm and grunting as the other three crashed into it, nearly sending all of us into a pile. I looked at Cyan - or his mustache, at least - out of the corner of my eye. "Tame or not, you had better hush up, and quickly!"

    "What? What's wrong?"

    Rose peeked her head out from under my elbow and nervously sucked in a deep breath. "Sleepers."

    Cyan and Erin both lifted their heads over my arm, staring at the sight. A large clan of smooth brown stones chittered softly underwater, emitting tiny bubbles with every muffled snore. The Mienshao let out a coo of curiosity.

    "Woah... I've never seen so many Kabuto in one spot before!" She attempted to break through the blockade and see the wild Pokémon up close, but I held firm, straining against the force. Rose noticed and helped, sneaking under my arm and tiptoeing through the water. Cyan glanced at me, then at Erin, and gave me a toothy smirk. Covering up Erin's mouth, he hoisted her up above his head. Amidst her muffled protests, he began to shamble across the room, gentle waves rocking against the sides of the cavern.

    "Alright..." I breathed in, gently stepping out into the room, doing my best to wade as quietly as possible. Erin continued to yelp under Cyan's grip, and I frowned deeply. "Erin, shh!"

    "Mmmph! Mmph mm!"

    I froze as the Kabuto suddenly shifted, a couple of them rising up out of the sand. They idly tapped their claws against the floor, turning around to find the source of the waving water. I didn't move a single muscle, my chest starting to hurt as I continued to hold my breath. The Kabuto's beady black eyes watched me, unblinking.

    Erin let out another grunt, kicking Cyan hard in his side, and as he grunted in pain, his grip slackened. Freeing herself, she ran past him, calling out to me as she drew a pebble from her pouch. "Bill! Above you!"

    As Rose and Cyan swiveled around, my gaze shot up, a feeling of dread forming in the pit of my stomach. A sleek, brown-shelled body looked back at me, six menacing spikes protruding outward from the Pokémon's spine. Its twin sickles dug deep into the roof. "I should have seen that coming."

    As I rushed for the safe passage, the Kabuto began to hiss irritably, rousing each other from their slumber. With a hop, skip and jump, Erin let the stone fly from her sling, waving her arms as she nearly lost her balance. The projectile bounced harmlessly off of the tip of the Kabutops' blade, and the shellfish dislodged from the ceiling, touching down with a mighty splash. I exhaled, sharpening my mind as shimmering white claws sprouted from my pawspikes, and my opponent faltered, shifting his attention from me to Rose, to Cyan and Erin, and back again.

    "Four against one," I smiled confidently, and Rose stepped up next to me, embers slipping through her clenched teeth. "You sure you want to do this?"

    Without warning, the Kabutops let loose an ear-piercing screech, whipping its children into a frenzy as the cave began to shake. Dashing forward and swinging at me, I barely had time to duck, the sickle just grazing the tips of my ears. I peeked up; it had thunked into Cyan's seamitar. Lashing out, I slashed hard into the armored shell of the wild Pokémon, the metal claws leaving a nasty gash. I slipped out from under the yellow blade, running over to Rose, and another pebble bounced off of our enemy's head.

    "I really don't think that's helpin', Erin!" Cyan pulled hard with his stuck sword and landed a vertical blow with the other, sending the Kabutops stumbling backwards a few steps. One of the Kabuto skittered out of the pool and pounced, grabbing onto Cyan's arm and biting down. He let out a groan of pain, dropping both of his seamitars and glaring at the little Pokémon. "Try keepin' the little guys offa me instead!"

    "Got it," Erin called, and as another one of the Kabuto leapt for the Samurott she sent a third pebble flying. The smooth stone crashed neatly into its underbelly, knocking it out instantly as it clacked onto the floor. Slamming the first one into the floor, Cyan growled, butting forward with his helmet to deflect another blow from the Kabutops. I knelt low and watched as Rose opened her mouth, a swirling green ball of energy forming in front of her jaws, and I closed my eyes, focusing my aura into a small sphere that I held in one paw.

    "Incoming!" I yelled out, and the Samurott looked over, whacking his horn into the Kabutops' neck. He had little time to notice our attack as he was knocked over by a trio of leaping Kabuto, and Rose and I seized the opening, the energy ball and aura sphere orbiting each other as they collided with the large shellfish's midsection, sending him careening into the wall. He slid down the rock and crumpled into a heap on the floor, completely unconscious.

    "Get 'em off me, get 'em off!" Cyan writhed around on the stone floor as more and more of the Kabuto hopped onto him, nibbling angrily as they defended their turf. Erin, Rose and I all ran up to him, yanking off the brown-shelled children and throwing them into their little pool. "Agh, just gettem off!"

    "Hold still, you goofy guts," Erin chided playfully, tickling the last Kabuto's underside before she put him down. I knelt down, running my paw over some of Cyan's wounds, the small teeth marks having punctured in a couple places, the trickles of blood already dried. I shook my head, cracking a grin.

    "I think you're going to be just fine, Cyan," I remarked dryly, rolling my eyes as Erin pulled out a small roll of bandages from her pouch. Pushing her loose sleeve out of the way, she hummed a tune as she set to work, wrapping up the bites, and I turned to glance at Rose, catching her attention with a wave of my arm. "Mind scouting ahead for a bit? I'd rather not deal with any more interruptions."

    "I'll be right back," Rose nodded with a smile, bounding down the corridor and out of sight. Satisfied, I looked back to Cyan, leaning against Erin as she pushed him onto his feet, and I picked up his seamitars, handing them to him. He grunted grumpily as he looked at the cut one of the blades had taken, running a finger across the line.

    "Sheesh..." He sheathed the weapons and threw his paws up in exasperation. "I thought this thing'd last longer than that."

    "The last thing to worry about in combat is a fancy weapon," I pointed out, folding my arms, and the Samurott shrugged, adjusting the straps of his hiking bag. Erin tightened the strings of her belt pouch, a spring in her step as she rocked back and forth on her heels.

    "I guess that's why my sling's always been in top shape!" She giggled, giving her throwing arm a few more spins before resting.

    "Bill!" Rose's voice echoed through the hall, catching our attention, and the nine-tailed fox skidded to a halt as she returned to sight. "I think I found Azurill!"

    I pumped my fist, walking over to her. "Then let's go!"

    The four of us followed Rose down the pathway, passing through a couple, safely-empty rooms, before finding ourselves at a dead end, a small and seemingly-insignificant chamber topping the hallway off. I sneaked a glimpse from a good distance away, spying a blue blob digging through a bag, envelopes scattered all around the sand. Fortunately, the cave had no water, a fact I attributed to luck.

    "No... no..." Azurill muttered to himself, flinging papers every which way. "Not this one either... where could it be?"

    "What's he doing, what's he doing?" Erin inquired. I didn't need to look to know that Cyan, Erin, and Rose had all followed my lead and peeked into the room.

    "He's making a mess, that's what he's doing," I answered flatly, and Rose laughed softly.

    "Well, c'mon!" Cyan said, boredom ringing in his voice. "Let's go get him and bring him back."

    "Alright, alright, cool your jets," I replied, and I lead the team into the room, the sound of our footsteps shaking the young boy out of his work. "Azurill?"

    "Huh?" He lifted himself out of the bag, a couple more bits of mail spilling off of his head, and turned around, flinching in surprise when he saw us. "T-Team Returners!"

    "Heya, kiddo," Cyan stomped around me, gruffly staring Azurill down. The boy quaked timidly under his elder's watchful gaze. "What're you up to today?"

    "I'm... um..." His eyes flicked from wall to wall, trying hard to make himself look as small as possible. "Um..."

    "Cyan, don't scare him," Rose clicked her tongue, pushing past the both of us and stooping low, giving Azurill a tender, disarming smile. I walked over to some of the envelopes, leaning down to gather them up. "Azurill, why did you steal Pelipper's mail bag?"

    "Hmph..." Azurill screwed up his face, debating his choices. "I... I'm waiting for a reply, that's all."

    I lightly poked at Cyan's side, roping him into gathering up the letters as Rose continued to coax out information. Erin stepped up next to Rose, keeping silent. "A reply from who? Marill said you've been anticipating the mail recently."

    "My brother?" Azurill's voice grew even more nervous. "Oh... well, I was with Marill one day in town, and I overheard an explorer talking about how they'd found a letter in a bottle on the beach. So maybe a few days ago, I-"

    I exhaled quietly, the pieces beginning to fall into place, and Cyan paused in his work to interrupt. "Y'sent a bottled letter out t'sea and expected a reply in the mail?"

    "Yes... is something wrong?" Azurill asked innocently, bouncing on his large tail. Erin struggled to contain a giggle.

    "Of course there's somethin' wrong, kiddo," Cyan bluntly stated, and I winced, incredulously, as I kept filling the mailbag up. "Pelipper doesn't deliver replies to letters in bottles. Heck, the bottle might not have even made it to land yet."

    "Oh!" Azurill cocked his head in confusion, thrown for a loop. "Oh..."

    "I mean, it might not even get t'land at all," The Samurott obliviously continued, drumming his fingers against the sand. "The seas're always rough and bottles're fragile, and-"

    "Cyan!" Rose yelled, giving the teen a scolding glare.

    "What?" He replied stubbornly, and he quickly blanched at the sight of Azurill, who looked about to burst into tears. "Erk..."

    "Hey!" Erin swiftly jumped into the conversation, shoving Rose away and giving the child a wide, gleeful smile. Azurill sniffled, looking up at the bubbly Mienshao, his eyes still watery. He blinked as he felt a paw briefly poke his belly. "Boop!"

    "B-boop?" He stuttered.

    "You're it, right? Now you gotta catch me!" Erin darted back a few steps, goofily waving her paws around as she beckoned to the young Pokémon, and she dashed down the hallway, headed for the cavern's exit. Azurill stared blankly, and I chuckled.

    "You better go after her, Azurill," I gave him a thumbs-up. "She'd be pretty unhappy if you didn't want to play."

    "Al... alright!" Azurill slowly adorned a small, happy smile, and he began to bounce after his prey, getting faster and faster until he, too, was out of sight.

    * * *

    "Bye, Marill! Bye, Azurill!" Erin yelled a farewell to the two brothers, who waved back from the path leading to their home, Azurill looking far more enthusiastic than before. The warm sun was high in the sky now, and just over the hill I could hear Treasure Town buzzing with activity. We had long since returned Pelipper's mailbag, and the bird was likely far away by now, continuing on his delivery duties. I furrowed my brow and leaned against the watering hole, looking at our letter: a weathered envelope stamped with the image of a familiar pink flower. The wax seal seemed like it could have melted from the heat alone.

    "So this is what was sent to us..." Rose murmured thoughtfully, pacing back and forth, her tails drooping so low that they could have swept the dirt path if they went any lower. "A letter from the Shaymin Village..."

    "No use just standin' around'n lookin' at it," Cyan said, popping his helmet off and wiping the sweat from his brow. His ears lay flat against his head, buffeted by the mild breeze. "Open it up, let's see what it says."

    I nodded, lightly pressing my pawspike just next to the wax, and I gently cut a line through it, not stopping until the flap popped off. Discarding the envelope, I unfolded the rough paper, skimming over the hastily-scrawled message. My breath caught in my throat and I could feel my eyes widen. An excited smile dawned on my face, growing bigger and bigger as I passed the note to Rose, who fumbled to keep the wind from blowing it away, finally pinning it down under her paws. "It looks like we're going to be going to Sky Peak."

    "Huh?" Erin hopped onto Cyan's backpack, laying on her belly as her chin rested in her paws. "What for?"

    Rose tore away from the letter and looked at me, disbelief, anxiety and joy swirling in her eyes, her tails beginning to wag furiously. "A sighting... a sighting, after so long!"

    I grabbed her paws and lifted her onto her hind legs, the two of us moving back and forth in a little jig. Cyan's eyebrow quirked upward as he grabbed the letter. "Sightin'? Sky Peak? You've gotta keep us in th'know, y'know."

    My partner and I quickly came to our senses, and we dropped to the ground, laughing through our embarrassment, too thrilled to care about our outburst. Dusting myself off, I turned with Rose to look at Cyan and Erin, the tension palpable.

    "They've seen him... they've seen Darkrai at Sky Peak!"
     
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    #1 SkyBlueFox1, Jun 18, 2017
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2017
  2. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Second chapter!

    I feel the need to note that these next couple chapters are probably the weakest of the entire story (unfortunately). From Chapter 4 onward is when things really pick up, so bear with the story, eheh.

    (Also sorry if this counts as double-posting oops)

    The next morning...

    The dirt path was hot, rough and worn under our feet as we trekked along merrily, the wind picking up as a comfortable breeze swept across the trees. Rose and I matched our stride easily, the two of us vigorously marching through the forested trail, the sound of flowing water growing louder and louder as we neared our first destination. Behind us, I could hear Cyan stomping along, weighted down by his pack of supplies, not to mention the passenger that was hitching a ride on top of the bag.

    "Oi, Bill!" The Samurott yelled out, his voice ragged as he gulped down air. "Hold... hold up'a moment!"

    We slowed to a stop, turning around to watch the sea lion dramatically drag himself a few more paces forward before crumpling to the ground, his tongue lolling out as he wheezed heavily. Erin let out an amused giggle as she hopped off of her perch, poking playfully at Cyan's mustache with her paw.

    "Aww, are you tired?" She teased, receiving a mild grunt in response. She stomped forward a few paces in an imitation of the teen, raising her arms high as she flexed. "The big, tough, Heatmor-trained mercenary, defeated by an hour or two's march!"

    "'Ey!" Cyan frowned, curling his head up to look at Erin. Rose and I walked forward, and I stretched my back, ready to interject as soon as the argument got heated. "We spent th'whole evening yesterday packin' and we didn't even eat before leavin' at the crack o'dawn! I might be trained, but I've still got my limits!"

    As if to punctuate the statement, a loud, collective rumbling sounded out, and the four of us glanced at our stomachs. I felt my face flame up a bit, and I scratched idly behind my ears, the aura tassels bumping against my shoulders. Erin seemed to be having trouble containing a fit of laughter, and Cyan was resting his head in his paws, drumming his fingers against his cheeks.

    "I guess we did forget to eat," Rose said, clawing a thin trio of lines in the dirt. "We rushed out and everything."

    I nodded, shooting Cyan a look of embarrassment. "It's just a few more paces until we get to the fork in the road. Should we break for brunch there?"

    "Nooooo!"

    "Wait, what?" I blurted out in surprise. Cyan pushed himself back onto his feet, his eyes narrowing. "Why not?"

    "Geeeeeet back here, you... you rapscallion! You scalawag!"

    "Above us!" He yelled out, drawing a seamitar as he shoved past us. "Over the hill!"

    Erin paused to tie her sleeve into a sling, and Rose and I ran after Cyan, skidding to an abrupt stop as we reached the apex of the rising soil. Below, to the left of a small clearing, sat a statue of a Kangaskhan, the monument to traveling obscured by thick clumps of shrubbery. In front of the statue, two Pokémon played tug-of-war with a bright and shiny coin charm. One was an old, brown duck, holding a leek in his beak as he tugged doggedly on the necklace. The other was a mass of discolored vines with two stubby red feet. Neither had the upper hand.

    "No way, old timer! Don't think you can beat me!"

    "That's mine, you fool, and I will not stand for you taking it!"

    Cyan brandished his weapon and let out a mighty battlecry, the roar startling both of the Pokémon, and he leapt from the hill, slamming hard into the clearing. He eyed the two warily, holding his blade in a defensive stance. Erin bounced over our heads after him, and Rose and I carefully slid down the hill.

    "Alright, hold on," I said, stepping past and eyeing the two Pokémon warily. "What's going on here?"

    "He's trying to steal my lucky charm!"

    "What'd you say!? That's-"

    "Shaddap!" Cyan bellowed, drawing his other seamitar and pointing both at the feuding Pokémon. "Drop it now, both'a ya!

    The Tangela was too surprised to respond, its vines hanging loosely as they began to uncoil, and the Farfetch'd yanked the coin away with enough force to send him stumbling backwards. The grass-type yelped and ran, wading into the water as he escaped into the mystery dungeon. Cyan growled, about to give chase, and I lashed out, grabbing him by his tail.

    "Woah there, now," I cautioned, standing my ground as best I could as Cyan struggled to break free. "Cyan, hold still! Let him go!"

    The Samurott thrashed for a few more moments before settling down, stabbing his sword into the dirt and shaking his fist in the direction of Serenity River. "And y'better not come back!"

    "Hoohoo... achoo!" The Farfetch'd sneezed, covering his beak with his wings. "My goodness!"

    "Are you alright, mister?" Erin tottered forward, squatting to the old bird's level.

    His stomach rumbled. We all let out a round of nervous chuckles.

    "We should probably get some food ready."

    Departure! Fording the Serenity River!

    "Alright, sir..." Rose started, looking up from her bowl of soup at the strange Farfetch'd. The bird had let his leek rest inside of his own bowl, not noticing that the broth was staining the vegetable bright red, preferring focus on vigorously shining his necklace. "Could you repeat that one more time... now that your mouth isn't full?"

    "Mmumph!" He peeked his head up, letting the charm rest against his downy chest as he finally took a gulp of his soup. "Yes, ah... what was I saying again?"

    Cyan grunted, picking a bit of a berry out of his teeth. "You were tellin' us who y'are and what you're doin' here."

    "Oh! Uh, yes," The Farfetch'd backpedaled a bit, chuckling absentmindedly. "Silly me. My name is, ah... Hermit! Yes, that's it. I'm the lucky Hermit!"

    I folded my arms, lifting a bowl to my lips and taking a sip. Tamato's familiar, spicy heat washed over my tongue before quickly being neutralized by a chunk of a potato, and I licked my lips, savoring the various flavors before continuing the conversation. "So, Hermit. You live around here?"

    "Yes, old boy, I live near a cave just over that way." Hermit stretched out his wings before pointing vaguely in the direction of the woods. Four pairs of eyes followed, and I stifled a skeptical snicker as an awkward silence fell over us.

    "R-Right..." Rose's tails lay low to the ground as she cocked her head in mild confusion. "Around the Drenched Bluff... then."

    "But if you live over there, what are you doing out here, mister?" Erin asked. "Are you going on a trip?"

    "Why, yes, actually!" The Farfetch'd nodded, turning around and jabbing his now-very-red leek towards the path leading away from Treasure Town. "I'm going to visit a friend of mine, he lives near the Waterfall Cave..."

    He hopped onto his feet in a sudden panic, startling everyone as his head flicking every which way before settling on the exact opposite direction. "Er, that way! Yes, that way, across Serenity... River?"

    We all let out a long sigh of frustration, and I leaned backwards against the Kangaskhan Stone. "You're off to visit a friend, eh... us too."

    "Really?" Hermit's head perked up. "But where's your good luck charms? You aren't traveling without them, are you?"

    "Luck's nice, but we've got plenty'f experience under our belts," Cyan boasted, nonchalantly dipping his bowl into the pot of soup and serving himself a second helping. Hermit shook his head in surprise, gaping at us. "We're guild graduates, y'know! Team Returners!"

    "You're... you're are four explorers?" He asked lamely, light glinting off of his lucky coin. His grasp of his leek slackened, just a little. "I used to be a warrior myself, back when I was your age..."

    "So this coin of yours is a good luck charm?" Rose swiftly changed the subject, nodding towards the Farfetch'd with a wave of her head. The old bird nodded, removing the necklace from his head and passing it over. The unremarkable accessory went back and forth along its string.

    "Yes, missy!" He explained, trying to act informal but clearly keeping a close eye on the treasured possession. "I've owned that lucky coin as long as I can remember!"

    "Ooh!" Erin piped up, scrambling over and yanking the thing away from Rose, pressing her nose against the metal. Hermit squawked irritably, and I took the necklace out of Erin's paws, returning it to its true owner. She shrugged innocently. "So this must be worth a lot of money, then!"

    "No, no, nothing like that," The Farfetch'd snapped, huffily wrapping the necklace back around his head. "My old pappy told me a story about this coin once, back when he gave it to me. It's special!"

    "So it's got some kinda magic power?" Cyan stroked his mustache thoughtfully, his mind drifting away as he began to daydream. "Does it let ya find lotsa money?"

    "Or does it make you super-strong?" Erin joined in, rocking back and forth on her heels as he brought her paws to her chin in excitement.

    "Does it let ya stay healthy and never get sick?"

    "Or poisoned?"

    "Or frozen?"

    "Guys, let him be," Before they could crowd around the small bird, I pushed them both away, sending them both a scolding look. Rose padded up to us as Hermit took a series of deep breaths. "Besides, it's probably just something with sentimental value and the outlaw thinks it's valuable. That's always how it turns out."

    "Er, yes..." Hermit mumbled, embarrassed. Cyan and Erin both promptly faceplanted into the ground, and I shrugged. Rose chuckled, walking over to my side, and I reached over and tousled her headfur. "It really is just a special family heirloom, nothing magic about it."

    "You could have told us that before getting our hopes up!" Erin jokingly complained.

    "Oh! That gives me an idea," Hermit's eyes brightened, and he turned to Rose and I, extending his wings in an open gesture. "If you're explorers, would you mind helping me pass across Serenity River?"

    "Eh?" I felt an eyebrow quirk upward, and I took a step backwards. Rose and I both glanced at each other, wearing a look of mutual apprehension. "Er..."

    "Please help an old Farfetch'd, would you?" He gave us a sad, pleading look, holding his leek close to his chest; the pressure sent excess broth running down the bird's feathers as it exited the vegetable's fronds like a sponge. "I wouldn't have been able to fend off that outlaw without you four, and I certainly don't think I'd be able to get there on my own if he's going to follow me."

    "Well, heh, uh," I let out a short, hasty laugh, folding my arms and crossing my feet. Something felt off. "This is kinda out of the blue, here-"

    "I don't think that it's too big of a deal," Rose cut me off, pushing past me and placing a paw on top of Hermit's head. "We were planning to go to Tiny Town anyway, so fording the river is just the long way around."

    "Does that mean you'll help me?"

    "Guys, could we just wait a moment-"

    "Yay, a water day!" Erin cheered to herself, bouncing excitedly around the clearing. Cyan was already packing up the supplies, the soup long finished and the pot long cooled. The sun was past its highest point, finally arcing into the afternoon. The dry heat suddenly felt a lot more obvious, and I unconsciously stared at the Kangaskhan Stone, the sound of the running water filling my ears.

    "Oi, Bill," Cyan brusquely grabbed my shoulder, breaking me out of my trance. "Are we helpin' the old guy'r what?"

    "The heat's getting to him," Rose laughed lightheartedly, sending a wink my way, and I felt my face flame, rubbing at my cheeks to try and remove the blush under my fur. "Shall we head out, then?"

    "Haah..." I exhaled heavily, pushing my concerns to the back of my mind. "I guess that's fine. Off to Serenity River, then!"

    The river carried a strong current, the knee-deep water swirling and twisting around our legs as it threatened to sweep us off of our feet and send us floating away. Hermit perched atop Rose's head, nestled snugly in her headfur, and I watched as Erin skipped around, curling up as she cannonballed into a deeper pool. Cyan stomped after her, wincing as a stray wave of water hit him head on, and he slowly eased himself into the river, kicking against the pull.

    "C'mon, Erin!" The Samurott called, watching as the lean pink mink flung her arms about, the thick fur quickly becoming sopping wet. With the added weight, Erin struggled to fight against the current. "I know you can do better'n that!"

    "Cyan, Erin," I yelled, cupping my paws to my mouth. "You two go on ahead, and keep an eye out for trouble! I'll send up a signal if we find it first."

    "Fine, fine!" Cyan replied, paddling over to his friend and lifting her onto his back. She wheezed heavily, wringing out her sleeves on top of his bag. He grimaced. "C'mon, Erin, let's roll!"

    The pair swam off, turning a corner near a thick wall of plants and disappearing from sight, and I looked over at Hermit, who was waving goodbye to a thick tree root in the opposite direction. Rose noticed my annoyed look, and peered upward, sighing as she noticed her passenger. "Other way."

    "Oh!" Hermit hopped a good few inches into the air before turning around and waving. "Ahem, yes."

    The two of us waded through the stream in silence, the babbling brook belying the tension that hung in the air. Schools of Barboach fluttered by, content to leave us alone in their search for food, and the occasional Lotad sprang out from the depths, basking in the warm, springtime sun.

    "For wild Pokémon, they seem pretty tame," Rose remarked, the tips of her tails dragging through the water. "I've got an idea. Hold up, Bill."

    "Huh?" I blurted, watching as the fox trotted up to a large Quagsire that lay, half-submerged, in the river. I blinked in mild confusion. "What now?"

    Rose prodded the water type with a paw, prompting him to roll onto his back, sitting up slowly as a dopey grin spread across his features. "Excuse me, but we're looking for a Tangela that ran through here earlier today. Have you seen him?

    "Er?" The Quagsire cocked its head, his eyes briefly widening at Hermit, the old bird shrinking under its gaze. "Hm? Mm-mm."

    "Well, uh, he attempted to steal a coin from our client here," She gestured towards her passenger. "Would you mind keeping an eye out in case he passes by?"

    "Coin... round coin..." The Quagsire looked at the shiny charm, his eyes clouding over as his head slackened. Without warning he lunged forward, wrapping Hermit into a death grip, and Rose jumped backwards with a gasp. I ran to her side, watching closely as the oversized salamander roughly yanked the amulet coin off of Hermit's neck before winding his arm up. "Round!"

    "Not even fifteen minutes in and we already found trouble," I quipped dryly as I curled my paws into fists. "Maybe we should've had Cyan and Erin just stick with us."

    "Too late to worry about it now," The Ninetales nudged me to the left, keeping a close eye on the enemy. "You head that way, I've got the right!"

    We both bounded out of the way as the Quagsire flung Hermit towards us, sending the duck skimming across the river, his leek nearly flying out of his beak. Rose dashed at the water fish, tackling him and sending them both into a heap. As she let loose with a blast of fire, Quagsire submerged himself into the muddy depths of the riverbed, smearing his body with a coating of mud. Strangely, the amulet coin seemed untouched.

    "Mine!" He slammed a scoopful of the glop hard into Rose's head, and she yelped as she was forced into the water, temporarily blinded. I ran forwards, forming two tiny spheres of aura in the palms of my paws, and the Quagsire turned to face me, shifting his weight to the back of his feet, bracing himself for an all-out attack.

    It never came. I skidded to a stop and sprang into the air, somersaulting over his head and stomping hard on his tail, slapping both aura spheres into his uncovered back. Quagsire didn't even flinch, immediately pulling his tail out from under me. My eyes widened as I felt the movement, and I waved my arms wildly, trying as hard as I could to keep my balance.

    "CoiiIIIIII-" A sudden blast of energy came from close by, toppling Quagsire over once again, and I felt soft fur press against my sides, gently breaking my fall. I playfully tugged on one of the tails in thanks.

    "Thanks, partner," I said, taking a deep breath. "Is Hermit alright?"

    Rose took a brief glance at the old bird as Quagsire got to his feet. "He's... he's headed this way!?"

    I snapped to attention, watching as the Farfetch'd brandished his leek with both wings, the vegetable glowing brightly. Quagsire was too dazed to notice the little Pokémon, only noticing him as he let out a battlecry. "Ruffian!"

    The leek flashed, the fronds merging into one long strand, and Hermit brought the weapon down, landing a clean cut on the water type's body. The pain quickly brought Quagsire back to attention, and sunlight danced off of the lucky coin as he dabbed at the gash, getting mud in the wound (and probably making it worse).

    I quickly charged up an aura sphere and sent it towards the outlaw. Booting Hermit away with a gentle flick of his tail, he looked to the sky, spraying out a concentrated blast of water into the air, catching the aura and sending it high into the air, where it let out a flash of light before dematerializing. As the makeshift rainstorm pitter-patted down, Quagsire dove into the river, making a hasty retreat towards a gap in the thick, overgrown walls.

    "You're not gonna get away that easily!" I yelled, tightening the straps of the treasure bag before slamming my feet into the ground and pouncing forward. As Rose and I chased fervently after the escaping Pokémon, Hermit hobbled behind us, casually pushing through the water with his webbed feet. He let out a chuckle.

    "Cyan, hold up a second!"

    "If it's 'nother half-buried orb, then jus' forget 'bout it," The Samurott replied grumpily, pushing through the deep water, and Erin let out a joking pout as she examined two other orbs, giving them a quick rub with her sleeve. The early shrubbery had given way to a thick orchard of willow trees, their branches dangling low to the ground and dappling the river with their fallen flowers. "'Sides, you've got plenty of 'em already."

    "Doesn't mean I can't stock up, doofus face!" Erin slipped the magical items into her pouch before patting Cyan's side, rubbing small circles on his arm. "None of the ones I have right now are good for keeping wild Pokémon away, and what if we run into Tangela?"

    "Then I'll deal with 'im, and you'll back me up, like we normally do-" Cyan paused mid-sentence, his gaze tightening as he pushed a few lily pads from his path with a seamitar. "And I think I hear something right now..."

    "You do!?" Erin scrambled onto his helmet, seating herself in front of the first spike and brusquely pushing Cyan's face into the drink. The Mienshao's head twitched from side to side as Cyan let out a bundle of bubbles from underwater, staring up at his partner with an irritated expression. "Which way?"

    "No way, if you keep chatterin'!" He gave a sharp shrug with his head, sending Erin toppling backwards onto his backpack. "Now shush it! Lemme listen..."

    Erin let out a brief huff before growing quiet, the pair clearly hearing a voice over the gentle stream.

    "Don't come any closer!"

    A chorus of burbling noises rose up, and a vine reached up towards one of the willow branches. It stopped just short of grasping it, instead tensing up before falling to earth. The voice called out again, much more frantic.

    "Let go of me! You and your boss aren't gonna get me, I mean it!"

    "Boss?" Erin cocked her head, leaping off of Cyan's back and swimming towards Tangela. "C'mon, let's go, Cyan!"

    "W-what? Erin!" Cyan yelled, kicking hard after her. They swiftly made their way into the room, only stopping once they really saw the crowd of Pokémon that sat in the shallow pool. "Wait, Woopers!?"

    A good seven or eight blue salamanders turned around and stared listlessly at the newcomers, letting out a low, screechy noise that made everyone around wince in pain. A couple of the Wooper were biting down hard on Tangela's vines, keeping the outlaw from escaping, and the grass type sucked in a fearful breath as the Samurott and Mienshao came into view. "You... you two! Please, help me!"

    Cyan unsheathed his second blade, clasping the two together in a two-pawed stance. "You'll need a lot more help where you're goin', outlaw!"

    "Heeeeey!" Erin let out a loud whine, nearly as ear-piercing as the Woopers' screeching, and she bunny-hopped forward, bouncing on one foot and then the other as she lightly flicked her sleeves at the group of Wooper. "Let him go, you big bullies!"

    A large spout of water erupted from far off in the distance, with a bright flash of light following, catching the attention of the water fishes. Like clockwork, they dropped everything, rushing frantically towards the signal, obliviously trampling and knocking each other over as they fled. Tangela slumped over, breathing heavily as Erin flashing him a giddy smile.

    "I can't believe that really worked!" She pumped a fist in the air, jumping for joy. "I guess I should try doing that more often!"

    "No..." Tangela managed to spit out in between gulps of air. "Don't celebrate... yet..."

    "He's right, Erin," Cyan stomped up to the two, pointing his seamitar loosely at the outlaw. "We got lucky with th'small fry, but there's one other Pokémon to take care of!"

    "Wait, n-no!" Tangela rose to his full height, wriggling around in a panic. "Just hear me out, please! The waterfall, wait!"

    "A real good excuse for'real bad outlaw," Cyan fired back, raising his sword as it glowed a drab green. "I hope you're ready to get stuck in a pris'n sphere!"

    "Cyan, will you calm down for a minute!?" Erin yanked the Samurott's helmet right off, dumping it unceremoniously into the mud, and pulled his ear wide open, moving her head mere inches away before screaming into it. Cyan dropped both of his seamitars, dazed by the loud noise. "Didn't you even look at that water? There was an aura sphere up there! Bill and Rose need our help!"

    "But we've got th'outlaw right here!" Cyan shook his head, moving his partner out of the way as he retrieved his helmet. He growled angrily as he looked at the grime that covered the inside of it. "We jus' bag him here, go help Bill 'n Rose, and drop 'em with the guards at Tiny Town! We finished the mission!"

    "Forget the mission! Bill and Rose might be hurt!"

    "And we let th'outlaw go free? Great plan!"

    "Oh, forget it, I'll go myself!"

    "Forget what? The outlaw? No way, Erin!"

    "What?" Erin blinked, her temper cooling. "No, I didn't say that!"

    "You said somethin'!" Cyan took a deep breath and ran his paw down his face, turning away from Erin to scoop river water into his helmet. After a few seconds of washing the mud out, he looked at her again, his expression much calmer. "You said to forget somethin', right? What didja mean?"

    "No, I never said anything like that!" The Mienshao shook her head, hiding her face in her sleeves. "Um... sorry about the helmet."

    "It's fine, don't worry 'bout it," Cyan shook his head. "Sorry for snappin'."

    "But if I didn't say it... and you obviously didn't say it," Erin put the pieces together in her head, the gears turning and turning. "Then Tangela..."

    The two of them whipped their heads around just in time to catch a glimpse of Tangela's foot disappearing down a narrow passageway in the riverbed, the same one that the Wooper had taken.

    "Dammit all!" Cyan swore, slamming his helmet back onto his head and sheathing his blades. "C'mon, Erin, you're gettin' your way after all! Followin' Tangela should bring us right t'Bill and Rose!"

    "All righty!" Erin gave a thumbs-up, nodding cheerfully. "Let's go!"

    Everything was a blur as Rose and I made a mad dash through the forested path, the roar of falling water growing ever louder as the lush grass gave way to smooth sandstone. Quagsire had already disappeared from sight, but there was only one place that you could get to by swimming up the river, and soon enough the Waterfall Cave came into sight, white waves billowing down from the hilltop, masking the tunnels that lay within. As the two of us slowed to a stop, I leaned down, taking a couple deep breaths through my nose.

    "He's got to be inside by now..." Rose paced back and forth, her tails wagging up and down. "Let's rest our feet for a little, and then get him."

    "We should have Hermit stay outside." I puffed, reaching into the treasure bag and pulling out an apple. One deft flick of the wrist later, I took a bite out of a half, handing the other to Rose. "Something about this whole thing doesn't feel right."

    "Wasn't that just the heat getting to you?" Rose said, arching her back in a stretch.

    "No, that's just what you thought aloud," I shook my head, gulping down the quick snack. "No, this isn't some passing thing. Something about this whole thing is just off. I'd rather not have Hermit with us in case something happens, with Quagsire or with him himself."

    "He pulled a neat trick before, though," The Ninetales replied, her words muffled by fruit bits. "If he can handle himself like that, I don't think he'd be in too much danger if he went along with us."

    "If he can handle himself like that, he wouldn't have gotten his coin..." I paused, furrowing my brow in concentration. "Stolen... in the first place..."

    A chill ran down our spines, and Rose stopped chewing, the logic break processing. I frowned, surveying the area, and the brown bird was nowhere in sight. "Where... is Hermit, anyway?"

    A veritable bomb went off behind us, and Rose cried out as a concentrated torrent of water spiraled into her from through the waterfall. Taking the attack dead on, she dug her claws into the stone, holding her ground as best she could. I turned towards the hidden cave, preparing to dive through the cascading falls, but a sharp, stabbing pain at the back of my head sent me to my knees. I reached around and pulled the attacker off of the treasure bag.

    "Hermit..." I growled. "You set us up, didn't you?"

    "Too little, too late, explorer!" The bird cackled, his voice no longer old and wheezy. His leek glowed again, the leaf blade held straight from his beak. "You should know better than to trust random Pokémon in the wilderness!"

    A trio of strange, silver pulses surrounded the Farfetch'd, tearing him from my grasp, and I glanced over at Rose, her eyes burning angrily as she sent the psyshock into his body. Her legs trembled violently, still frail from taking the brunt of a hydro pump. "And you should know better than to even try and mess with an exploration team like that!"

    "Awk! Stop it, you twerp!" Hermit screeched as he fluttered high into the air, and Quagsire jumped out from the entrance to the Waterfall Cave, catching him mid-leap. "I might be an outlaw, but I still demand the respect an old Pokémon deserves!"

    "Forget it, outlaw!" I shot back, flashing him a grim smile before wincing in pain, my head aching. "You lost any chance of respect the moment you started playing dirty!"

    "It wasn't a request," Hermit poked my nose with his leek. "I don't think you or your stupid little friend would benefit from any more of Quagsire's ground attacks, hm?"

    "I..." He had a point. "...agh..."

    "Good boy," The brown duck said mockingly, and he extended a wing towards his partner-in-crime. "Now, Quagsire, would you give me the amulet coin back?"

    "Round."

    The Farfetch'd's smug smirk faltered. "Excuse me?"

    "Mine!" Quagsire brought his arms up, slamming them into the bird and knocking him out instantly. As Hermit flopped limply to the ground next to me, a chorus of screeches cheered the wild Pokémon on, and I sucked in a breath, my head and heart pounding, as I turned around and stared a small mob of underlings right in the face.

    "Rose..." I gasped out. "Next time we go on a long trip... remind me never to let us get distracted..."

    "Remind me..." She replied quietly, breathing raggedly. "Remind me to never get too suckered in... deal?"

    Despite everything, I still cracked a smile at her, the both of us curled up against the rocky cliff. "Deal..."

    She returned my smile before slumping over, the powerful hydro pump having finally taken its full toll on her, and I felt the feet of some of the Wooper crawl up onto my back and head.

    They stomped down hard, and I blacked out.
     
    Stop hovering to collapse... Click to collapse... Hover to expand... Click to expand...
  3. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 3!

    A harsh wind had begun to blow in from the north, whipping the trees into a frenzy as they hung over the edges of the cliff, the grand waterfall plunging down from the top of the small mountain and crashing into the ground. The bushes rustled as a bundle of vines rushed towards the hidden cavern, squatting low to inspect the rocks, gingerly brushing away dust and dirt with a few deliberate strokes. Behind him, Cyan and Erin ran out, panting heavily as they slowed to a stop. Erin looked up at the sky, letting out a coo as she gazed at the stars that were beginning to appear, escorted by a full moon.

    "Wow... you can see so many of them here!" The Mienshao reached for the sky, her paw twitching as she began to count. She quickly gave up, turning to her friend. "Cyan, look!"

    "The sun's fadin' fast, Erin," Cyan replied, looking at the top of the waterfall. White foam floated lazily down the river. "We need t'find Bill n' Rose and jus' get outta here."

    "I'm already too late..." The two explorers turned their heads, giving Tangela a look of skepticism. The Vine Pokémon drew himself up to his full height, exhaling in frustration. "If you two hadn't spent your time arguing, maybe we could have helped your friends, and I could have gotten that outlaw to boot!"

    "What!?" Cyan drew forth one of his seamitars, gritting his teeth angrily, and he lowered his head, aiming his helmet's horn at the grass type. "What did we do?"

    "Does this look familiar, kid?" Tangela snapped, lashing out at Cyan and Erin with a clump of vines, wrapped around a leek. Erin let out a short gasp, squishing her paws into her cheeks. The Samurott tightened his grip around the blade. "Your two friends and that birdbrain are already hostages."

    "Hostages? Of those li'l Woopers?"

    "Not just a few, a whole tribe of 'em," Tangela pointed at the waterfall. "The Farfetch'd made the mistake of trying to make a deal with the boss."

    "You mean Hermit, mister?" Erin bounced forward, leaning over to Tangela's level, and she rolled her eyes in thought. "But he said that you were trying to steal his coin!"

    "I don't care about whatever lies that outlaw told you, missy." Tangela wriggled around irritably, and a vine spun around the pink weasel's mouth. After a few seconds, he released his hold, and Erin rubbed at her sore nose with a soft whine. "If you four hadn't come along this morning, I would have brought him in and this whole mess wouldn't have happened!"

    "Brought 'im in?" Cyan furrowed his brow, keeping a close eye on the grass type. "So you're workin' with Officer Magnezone and the rest o'the police?"

    "If freelance bounty hunting to get some money counts as working with the police, then sure!" Tangela said angrily, and he let out a sigh of resignation, letting himself slump forward. "Look, you two... sorry. You did sorta help me out back there, so thanks for that."

    "Er..." Cyan reared back, eyes widening a little. "You're welcome?"

    "No problem, mister!" Erin said with a chipper smile. "We were happy to help!"

    "Are you two at least willing to pipe down for a minute and listen to me?" Tangela began to pace around the outcropping. "We've got the same basic goal now, so you're going to have to deal with me anyway."

    "Hrrrmff," The Samurott let out a grumpy grumble, sheathing his weapon and sitting down. "Fine, I guess. If you were really an outlaw, you'd've attacked us already, I reckon."

    "See, Cyan?" Erin rocked back and forth on her heels happily. "I knew he wasn't so bad!"

    "Don't rub it in, Erin." The sea lion tugged gently at one of Erin's whiskers. She giggled and flopped onto her backside.

    "Thank you, miss..." Tangela nodded at the Mienshao, taking a seat himself. "Now, here's what the deal is..."

    Outlaws! Tribe of the Waterfall Cave!

    I awoke to a throbbing ache in my back, mild jolts of pain running through my body as I rolled onto my side, stretching my legs and arms. I winced as I opened my eyes, a mishmash of fuzzy reds and grays playing in my sight, and an unpleasantly acrid scent burned in my nostrils.

    "Bill? Are you awake?"

    "Ugh..." Rose's voice might have been a wonderful sound to hear, but the way it boomed around in my ears didn't help in the slightest. I rubbed my eyes and forced myself up into a sitting position, the feeling of damp clay irritating my fur. "A little quieter, please..."

    "Sorry about that," She whispered, and I felt her cold nose against my neck. I reached back and brushed my paw against her muzzle, and she nuzzled it affectionately, giving it a lick. "How do you feel?"

    I blinked a couple times to focus my vision, feeling myself over from head to toe. Backache, earache, everything-ache. "Pretty terrible."

    "Here." She placed a small, yellow berry in my paw, and I greedily gobbled it down. The Sitrus's latent healing ability kicked in quickly, and I moaned as the pain began to melt away. "They looted through the whole bag, and I think all they left us with was our exploration team badge. That and the berry was all I found so far."

    "Are you doing okay?" I asked, and Rose trotted around to face me; her fur was matted and frazzled, the treasure bag hung limply from her neck, and her blue scarf was stained with mud and clay. Her eyes looked tired, and I reached out, pulling her into a tight embrace. "You look pretty awful yourself."

    "Gee, thanks," She replied with a chuckle, resting her chin on my shoulder. "I can't tell how long we've been in here, but I think we've only been asleep for an hour or two."

    "Where are we, anyway?" I looked around the cavern. There was a small torch stuck loosely into the gray, stone wall, illuminating the floor of clay and the jagged rocks that stuck downward from the ceiling. Tiny puddles of incredibly dirty water sat near the end of the room, close to a heavily fortified wooden gate that somehow still looked like it could burn to ashes at the slightest provocation. Four of the Woopers balanced precariously atop the gate, watching us intently, and the walls of the tunnel outside were lined with rickety wooden barriers. "A prison cell? This feels familiar."

    "No kidding," Rose said, stepping backwards and looking around, her nine tails waving back and forth as she began to pace around the room. "It looks like the Wooper dragged us into the Waterfall Cave, so we're probably somewhere deep inside. Probably near the deepest part of the dungeon."

    "Oooooarrrgh..."

    The two of us spun our heads around, and I frowned deeply as a brown bird slowly wobbled up onto its webbed feet, holding his wings to his head. Rose took a tentative step forward, an unhappy expression on her face. "What... what happened, ooh?"

    "Early to catch the Caterpie, Hermit?" I quipped dryly as I stood up, and I tapped my feet against the floor, my own tail beginning to wag alongside Rose's. The Farfetch'd turned around, grimacing angrily when he saw us.

    "You two!?" He reached for his side and took an aggressive stance. Rose tensed up a bit, but I gently patted her shoulder to calm her down. Hermit quickly did a double-take, and then a complete circle. "Wha- where's my leek? What did you two do with it!?"

    "You must have dropped it when Quagsire knocked us all out." Rose muttered, and Hermit childishly stomped his feet in frustration. "Hermit, why did you lie to us?"

    "Aaaargh! This is all your fault! You could have just not helped me and we would have been on our merry ways!"

    "Maybe trusting you was our fault, but you could have easily just," I continued to goad the bird, who seemed angry enough to explode. Like an Electrode, but with way more feathers. A remaining twinge of pain ran down my neck, and I rolled my shoulders in response. "Y'know, not stabbed us in the back? Both literally and figuratively?"

    "S-shut up, explorer!" The Farfetch'd squawked, fluttering over to me. "If you didn't look like good marks, I'd have left you alone in the first place!"

    "Sure, of course." I shook my head, flashing the bird a smug grin. He reared up, ready to throw a tantrum.

    "Stop it, both of you," Rose ordered firmly, moving between the two of us. Hermit shook with anger and stomped past me, and I shrugged at my partner, who fixed me with a hard stare. The duck strode over to the gate, kicking it to get the guards' attention. The group of Woopers looked blankly past him, and the outlaw let out a cough to clear his throat.

    "Hmrhm! You two!" Hermit jabbed a wing at the Woopers. "I'm a friend of your leader, and I demand to be let out of this cell this instant!"

    The four fish let out a loud screen and hopped down from their perch, blasting the bird with a series of water guns, and the Farfetch'd zoomed backwards into the opposite wall, letting out a garbled cry as his beak filled with liquid. As the attack ceased, the guards jumped back up to their posts, wobbling as they continued to stare at us with dead, mindless eyes. "Glarg! You and your tribe will pay for this, do you hear me!?"

    "Save your breath, birdbrain." I sat down against the clay, crossing my legs as I glanced over at the now-sopping outlaw. He shook, ruffling his feathers in an attempt to dry himself off, and Rose walked over, wiping him down with her tails. "We're stuck together now, so we might as well get comfy."

    "Hmph!" Hermit shooed my partner away, grumping to himself as he watched the Ninetales sit down next to me. I felt her tails curl around mine affectionately. "Fine company I get to be stuck with."

    "Rose?" I ignored the jab, turning to look at my partner, who looked at me expectantly. "The treasure bag?"

    "Oh! Right..." Her eyes lit up, and she let the bag fall to the ground, sticking her nose into the biggest pocket. "Like I said, I think Quagsire and the Woopers stole most of our stuff-"

    "They're obsessed with round objects, in case you couldn't tell," Hermit cut in snidely. "If you had any kind of useful items in there, they were probably round, and now they're in the hands of those wretched wild Pokémon!"

    "There's at least one thing still in here," Rose replied as she exited the bag, a note of excitement in her voice. A seed, shaped like a dull yellow diamond with a twisted green stem, was held delicately in her teeth. I cupped my paws together as she gently gave me the once-helpful seed, and Hermit perked up considerably at the sight. Rose ran her teeth against the top of her tongue in annoyance. "Blegh. Maybe not."

    "Is that...?" Hermit stood on the tips of his feet, and I moved my paws away from the bird.

    "It's a plain seed, all right..." I scratched one of my ears sheepishly, tossing the useless item over my shoulder. "I doubt it's going to help us out of here, but at least it's something."

    "Don't sugarcoat, explorer, it's just junk!" The Farfetch'd scowled at us, stating the obvious. "Just have your little partner burn the gate down!"

    "Did you forget how you got soaking wet?" I poked him. "Of course, we could just not get the guards to call for help."

    "But how would we do that, Bill?" Rose wondered aloud, peering over at the wooden gate. Her eyes narrowed. "I could easily burn that whole barricade down as long as nobody was around to put the fire out."

    "That's exactly what I was saying." I cracked my knuckles, smiling confidently. "Distract the guards, burn the gate, we're good to go. All we need is how..."

    "Well, I'm going to just wait here and dry off until Quagsire comes around, and then he'll get what's coming to him!" Hermit yanked the empty treasure bag away from us, climbing into it and closing the flap over his head. "Now leave me alone!"

    "Hey, wait a-" I cut myself off mid-sentence and kept myself from reaching over and pulling the outlaw out of the backpack, instead looking at the Woopers one more time. They hadn't reacted - in fact, their count had been cut in half, and the two that were left seemed to be distracted with something else on the other side of the gate, and hadn't even noticed the scuffle. Rose cocked her head.

    "Bill?" She asked. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing, actually," I responded with a cheeky grin, and the Ninetales nodded in return. I leaned in, whispering into her ear. "In fact, I think I just thought of something so stupid and contrived that it'll probably work."

    "So that means it's probably going to work?" She grinned back at me, and I playfully tousled her mussy headfur.

    "Hey now, it's not my fault that wild Pokémon are easy to trick," I replied, roughly grabbing the treasure bag and slipping it over my shoulders. I unpinned our exploration badge, passing it to Rose for safekeeing, and Hermit wiggled around as he felt himself moving, raging incoherently from inside the hefty backpack. "Shut it, Hermit, I've got an idea."

    He made a little more noise before settling down, and I slowly took a step forward, and another, readying myself for a fight. The guards balanced on top of the gate, peering tensely into the dark tunnels for any sight of their friends.

    "Oi!" I called out, waving at the Woopers as they spun around on the tips of their toes, glancing down at me from the top of the large gate. I gestured backwards with a shake of my head. "Maybe you two should try paying more attention to your old friends next time!"

    They looked past me into the cavern and blinked, one eye at a time, vacantly taking in the absence of their former partner, and after a brief moment they hopped down and stepped warily into the center of the room. As they scanned their heads from left to right, Rose drew their gaze away from the exit, watching them carefully as she stuck the team badge on her scarf. I swiveled on my heel, folding my arms and putting on a scolding look as I snuck up behind them."

    "You and your boss really made him angry, you know!" Rose accused dramatically as she figured out the plan, pointing her nose firmly at the two guards, who were beginning to look nervous, their gills shaking. "I bet he's gonna go tell all his outlaw friends about how you treated him!"

    I turned the treasure bag upside-down, and Hermit fell onto the clay with a thump, shaking his head as he regained his bearings. The two guards turned around at the noise, freezing as they realized the trick. I dashed forward, holding the bag wide open. "Now!"

    Rose slammed hard into one of the Woopers, knocking him to the floor, and she stomped on his belly as she made for the gate. The other Wooper found himself abruptly shoved into the treasure bag, and I held the flap tightly closed as he writhed around inside. Hermit sucked in a breath as he saw the commotion, his jaw dropping as he watched me wrangle the water type. "W-what!? What did you-"

    "Hermit, take care of the other guard! Rose is getting us out of here!" I ordered, struggling to keep hold of the bag as I squeezed it into a death grip, wincing as a couple blows struck my stomach through the leather. The Farfetch'd switched his focus back and forth from me to the guard, and the Wooper hopped back onto his feet, making strange noises to himself as he leered at the bird.

    "Bugger off, you traitor!" Hermit flung himself at the guard, sending them both into a heap on the ground as they traded blows. I gritted my teeth and looked at Rose, who was blasting flamethrowers at various dry spots at the wood. A kick in my ribs brought me back to attention, and I grabbed the bag's straps tightly, spinning it around quickly before slamming it into the floor, the Wooper stumbling out of the bag and fainting, a dizzy expression on his face. A quick check of his body confirmed his unconsciousness, and I stood up and ran over to Hermit. "Help me with this ruffian!"

    "Bill!" Rose called out to me as I wrenched the bird and fish apart, grasping both of them tightly as I whipped my head around, staring at the barricade, which now crackled with a satisfying orange glow. My confidence faltered when I noticed the large amount of black smoke that rose with it, and the smell began to fill my nostrils. "We didn't think this through!"

    "No kidding!" I yelled back, flinging the other Wooper farther into the room and running over to my partner, and I slipped Hermit more snugly into the empty treasure bag. "C'mon, let's get moving before the whole cave goes up in smoke!"

    "Are you two insane!?" Our Farfetch'd companion began to rant at us again as we bounded over the now-collapsed gate, and he coughed as he inhaled a lungful of smoke. "Everyone in the cave is going to faint, all the loot and treasure and junk are going to be lost, and it's all your fault!"

    "Not where we're going," Rose said, making a hard left at a corner. The smoke was already beginning to float down the hall, leaving a growing haze in our surroundings. "Hey, Bill. Remember what happened to us at the end of our first adventure here?"

    "Our first..." My eyes lit up. "The weird gemstone thing at the end of the dungeon! We can put out the fire and wash the entire tribe out of here in one swoop!"

    "You've got it!" She replied, slowing down a bit, and I knelt down and hastily returned our badge to our bag. Rose gave me a nod, and I thumbed upwards at her. "Let's do it!"

    We pounded into the tunnels, Hermit screaming all the while.

    "Let me out of here! You two are crazy! Waaaaait!"

    "This was his plan?"

    "For improvising, I think he did pretty good, Cyan!"

    The Samurott swung his blades in an upward arc, slashing at a guard, and he ducked and jabbed his helmet forward, warding off a couple other Pokémon with his strikes. "All we're doin' is fightin' these guys head-on!"

    Erin laughed merrily to herself atop the large hiking bag as she sent a pebble flying with her sleeve, nailing a pouncing Wooper in mid-jump. "Isn't that how you like it, dummy?"

    "I'd like it a li'l more if it were over already!" Cyan growled in pain as a few Woopers slammed their tails into his side, and he levied a strong punch into one unfortunate soul's face. Erin continued to sling stones at the horde of tribal Pokémon, looking around the cavern as enemies poured in from all sides. A vine rose up above the battle, beckoning to the two of them. "Tangela, which way is th'end o'this stupid dungeon?"

    "Just follow my lead!" The walking bundle of vines jumped twice before running into the tunnel, and Cyan clasped his seamitars together, turning towards one of the openings in the wall. As he began to shake, Erin hunkered low, curling her arms around her partner's neck. With a loud roar the Samurott surrounded himself with water, jetting forward at high speed, barreling through the Woopers with enough force to knock them all over, and after moving a safe distance Cyan spun out of his dash. The enraged screeches of the tiny water Pokémon grew distant as the three explorers made a beeline through the mystery dungeon, ignoring the empty rooms and crudely-constructed settlements of the cavern's inhabitants.

    "This place must have seen better days, huh?" Erin remarked idly as she caught a passing glance of a broken wooden table. "How long have these mean old bullies been here, anyway?"

    "The tribe?" Tangela asked, and the Mienshao nodded. "They've been holed up here for a few months now, but they haven't been causing any real trouble. I didn't even think the Farfetch'd would have involved them in this."

    "But if they were workin' t'gether, why'd they take Hermit hostage?" Cyan wondered aloud, briefly slowing his pace to take some time to think. "What gives?"

    "Quagsire like round objects," Tangela said plainly. "The birdbrain was already fairly good at tricking travelers and then stealing their stuff, but obviously he thought he needed backup."

    "So he just didn't think things through, huh?" Erin said to herself, scooting around atop Cyan's backpack. "Heeheehee... what a silly old bi-"

    Erin yelped, bumping into her perch's helmet and falling to the floor, her face covered in dirt. Cyan and Tangela turned around, the former grimacing as a brown glob splattered against his helmet. A couple of the Wooper were running at them from the other end of the long trail, spitting projectiles at them from afar, and Tangela began to quicken his pace, turning a corner at a fork in the hall and leaving Cyan and Erin to fend for themselves.

    "C'mon, Erin, let's get goin'!" The Samurott picked Erin up off of the clay, carefully wiping the mud from the Mienshao's eyes. Erin gratefully booped her nose against his before clambering onto her partner's back and reaching into her ammo pouch. As Cyan began to run after Tangela, Erin flung stone after stone, ducking and dodging the mud shots as she kept their pursuers at bay.

    The tunnels began to blend together as dull rock gave way to shoddy wooden fences, and the Mienshao chuckled to herself as a couple of the Woopers' heads bent backwards from her attacks. The Woopers were unfazed, however, aiming their mud shots at the stones and knocking them out of the air before they could even reach them. Erin's face fell, pouting as her amusement faded. "Man, these guys are good! I can't even get them to slow down a little!"

    Cyan turned his head and let out a sigh of exasperation. "If y'can't get 'em with stones, haven't y'got anythin' else you can throw at 'em?"

    "Ummm... oh!" Erin dug into her satchel and drew out a couple wonder orbs, waving them around in the air. "The orbs I was getting in the river! I completely forgot about these!"

    "Yeah, great," Cyan's eyes widened as a mud shot hit the horn on his helmet, dripping onto his face. "So could ya start usin' 'em?"

    "Oh! Um, yeah, hehe." Erin laughed sheepishly, and she took a peek at the orbs in her paws. "Hm... should I use the purple smoky one, or the one with the bright light..."

    "ERIN!"

    "Purple smoky it is!" She hastily slipped the smoke ball into her sleeve and twirled it around a couple times for good measure. With a goofy grin she let the orb fly. "Take this!"

    The magic item smashed to pieces at the feet of the Woopers, exploding into a fluffy puff of pale gray smoke, and the wild Pokémon let out shrieks of surprise as they vanished from sight, tripping over themselves and aggressively giving up the chase, biting at each others' heels and gills. Erin triumphantly pumped her fist in the air and brusquely grabbed Cyan's head, turning it around to look at her work. "Yeaaaah! It worked, Cyan, it worked! Look!"

    "Ergh, yeah, Erin, I can see it an'it looks great an'all but leggo'me so I can see where I'm goin' pleasepleaseplea-!" The Samurott spoke faster and faster as he continued to move through the cave, unable to see where he was going, and with a mighty crash he ran into a wall, sending the both of them tumbling to the floor. Erin broke into a fit of giggles as she rolled around on the ground, and Cyan groaned as he rubbed at his aching neck. "Never mind... ow..."

    "Sorry, Cyan, heehee," Erin apologized, trying to stifle her laughter. As her partner rose to his feet, she removed her satchel from her waist, opening it up fully and pulling out a small blue berry. Walking over to Cyan, she squatted down and held out the fruit. "Hehehere you go, open wide!"

    Cyan gave her an unamused stare and held out his hand. "Jus' gimme th'berry."

    "You're no fun sometimes!" Erin scrunched up her face in a huff, passing the berry to Cyan and closing up her bag. The Samurott devoured the healing fruit in a single bite, and he sighed as his ache began to fade away.

    "Thanks for getting' us outta trouble, Erin," He reached over and lightly squeezed her shoulder, and Erin smiled happily, hiding her face in her sleeves. As the cavern began to fog up, a line of black smoke caught Cyan's attention, and he scanned his head from one end of the ceiling to the other. "But did'ja have t'use a smoke ball? It's drifted all th'way over here."

    "Huh?" Erin noticed the cloud up above her head, blinking in surprise. "But the smoke from the orb was lighter-colored than that!"

    "It was...?" Cyan stroked his mustache. "But if this isn'from th'smoke ball, then..."

    I turned a corner and gasped in surprise, holding out my paws as Rose and I dug our heels into the clay, skidding to a stop just before knocking the two over. Erin hopped to her feet, running over and dragging the two of us into a hug. "Bill! Rose!"

    "Erin!" Rose yelped as the pink mink ruffled her headfur. "Are you two all right?

    "Us? We're jus' fine," Cyan drawled, flicking my ear. I lightly punched his chest in return. "What 'bout you? We heard you got captured, how'd ya escape?"

    "Will you two just shut up and get-" Hermit popped his head out of the treasure bag to berate us again, only stopping himself when he saw Cyan and Erin. "You two!? You're here?"

    Cyan's eyes darkened, and he aimed his helmet's horn at the Farfetch'd, who sank lower into the bag. Erin, for once, shared a similar angry expression. "You big fat liar bird! How could you be so mean to us like that?"

    "You've gotta lotta fessin' up t'do, Hermit," Cyan said, reaching for one of his seamitars, but Rose stepped in.

    "Cyan, Hermit, there's no time to argue right now!" The Ninetales explained hastily, and I turned to look at where we'd come from – the fire was quickly spreading along the ramshackle fences, eating away at the breathable air. Cyan and Erin seemed to notice, their eyes widening in shock. "We've got to get to the end of the dungeon before we all suffocate!"

    Cyan nodded resolutely, reaching over to Erin and hoisting her onto his back. "Su'prise, su'prise, that's where we an' Tangela were headed, too."

    A loud, discordant screech came from far off down the passageway, and I pointed ahead of us at the barely-visible end of the passage. "If that's any indication, everyone's moving in that direction. C'mon, we can get there first if we move it!"

    We made tracks, uprooting hardened bits of clay from the force of our movement. The sound of a stampede of Pokémon drew nearer and nearer as the lights the end of the tunnel started to brighten. The walls changed from gray to a deeper blue color, and I could hear the sound, the oh-so-sweet sound, of water dripping into water, prompting me to take a deep breath and run faster.

    We burst into the core of the dungeon, the multicolored crystals shedding their light silently as the four of us slowed to an easy jog. A few paces in front of us were two Tangela and Quagsire, and the gigantic pink gemstone sat between them. Both Pokémon breathed heavily, fatigued from battle, and Tangela was the first to speak up. "Forget about the stupid coin! I'm bringing you and that birdbrain in no matter what!"

    "Mine!" Quagsire yelled simply, clinging the coin tightly to his chest, the wound from Hermit's leaf blade attack still looking fresh. I grimaced at the sight and cupped my paws to my mouth.

    "Tangela! The gemstone!" I called over to him, and he looked over at me. Quagsire, however, had other plans, and he took the distraction to run over to his opponent and slap him silly. Cyan and Erin aqua jetted past me, smashing headlong into Quagsire and sending them all into the pool of water. Quagsire tried to retaliate, but Cyan quickly drew his seamitars and dug the blades hard into his opponent's arm. Hermit hopped out of the bag as Tangela came to his senses, and both of them were drawn to the flash of gold color that rose in the air.

    The amulet coin had been flung out of Quagsire's grasp from one of Erin's throwing stones, and with a tiny sploosh the lucky charm plopped into the water, floating atop the surface. Both the Farfetch'd and the Tangela wordlessly eyed each other and jumped into the pool, flailing about as they swam towards the treasure.

    "Didn't he say he didn't care about the coin anymore?" I muttered snarkily to myself. Rose ran past me, throwing her entire body weight against the special gemstone, and I took a step forward... only to trip and fall flat on my face, pinpricks of pain running up my leg. Looking back, I saw clusters of Woopers nipping at my ankles, and I reached forward and began to drag myself over to my partner, who struggled to even move the shining jewel. "Rose! Push!"

    "I'm trying!" She replied, straining against the rock. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and stopped, turning around and charging up an energy ball! "Put your head down!"

    I dug my nose into the dank clay as the green sphere whooshed between my ears, and among a medley of abrupt cries I pushed myself to my feet and practically hurled myself against the gemstone, Rose returning to the same task. I felt the dirt, clay and rock holding the stone in place begin to give way, and another round of Woopers clung to my legs. Rose yipped loudly, crying in pain, as a few of the tribal Pokémon began to bite at her tails. The smoke was finally beginning to fill the room, my breath quickening as the oxygen in the room began to lessen.

    "Not this time..." I growled through clenched teeth, and Rose nodded through her tears, pushing, shoving, forcing the gemstone to move. Little by little, we could feel it moving. "Just a little... bit... more..."

    Click.

    Everyone – literally everyone in the room – ceased their movement as the ominous noise echoed throughout the room, only accompanied by the crackling of the wildfire. Slowly, but surely, the floor, then the walls, and then the entire mountain itself, began to rumble violently. Quagsire's jaw dropped, completely taken aback as he stared at Rose and I. For a few seconds, aside from the shaking cavern, there was silence.

    "Run away!" Quagsire began to panic, whipping the entire tribe of Woopers into a hysterical frenzy, and the entire group of wild Pokémon made for the darkened, hazy tunnel. Hermit and Tangela continued to struggle for the amulet coin as they waded onto the dry floor, and Cyan and Erin scrambled over to us, the former sheathing his weapons as he stared at us incredulously.

    "What th'heck did you two do!?" He yelled. Erin was too busy letting the quake bounce her up and down, and I turned to look at Rose. She gave me a gentle smile, an answer that Cyan wasn't satisfied with. "Don't just smile! What'd you do!?"

    "BRACE YOURSELVES!" I ordered as a torrent of water came into sight, and I sucked in a breath, embracing my three companions. The last thing I saw before the tidal wave hit us was Tangela, prying the amulet coin out of Hermit's beak and tucking it safely into the folds of his vines. I smiled as the water swept us off our feet, rapidly churning as it pushed us upwards, spouting into a mighty geyser. Someone screamed in horror. Someone else screamed in excitement. The sun was starting to rise.

    The next thing I knew, I was face-down in searing-hot water, my ear twitching as a voice drifted into it. "Hey, he's finally waking up!"

    A few bubbles of air escaped my mouth as I let out a response, the hot spring already making every muscle in my body loosen. So warm... so... hot... hot hot hot-!

    My lungs berated me as I swam for the nearest wall, my fur standing on end as my nerves finally noticed the temperature. I bonked my head against damp stone and reached upwards, pulling myself up and out of the spring, collapsing onto the rocky surface. I breathed deeply, taking in gulp after gulp of the sweet, fresh air, and I flopped onto my side as a loud splash soaked me in a fresh coat of hot water. I brought my paw to my mouth, stifling a laugh at the sight.

    Woopers were raining from the sky, some landing in the water, while others unluckily fell into the dirt; Quagsire himself was belly-up in the center of the spring, bobbing up and down with each ripple of impact. Tangela was up to his eyes in the sparkling springwater, and Hermit was nowhere to be seen. "Rose? Guys?"

    "Behind you, silly!" A paw batted playfully at my aura tassels, and I rose to my feet, shimmying around as I flung stray droplets off of my fur, and I turned. Erin looked away nonchalantly, rocking back and forth on her heels, and Cyan had removed his helmet, firmly patting his ears to shake out any water. Rose shook her head, wearing a weary smile, and I scratched absently at a blush growing on my cheeks. Erin began to hop up and down cheerfully. "We did it! We captured the outlaw!"

    "Yeah..." I muttered, and Rose walked up to me, hopping onto her hind legs and nuzzling into my shoulder. I stroked her back affectionately, shooting Cyan and Erin a grin. "I guess we did!"

    "Returners!" A new voice came around, and Rose dropped to her feet as an old, armored Pokémon hobbled over to us, his purple scales just barely catching the dawn's early light. "For goodness' sake, you four! What in the world is even going on!?"

    "Elder Nidoking..." Rose took charge, stepping over to the elder and bowing respectfully. "We can explain everything, I promise."

    "Is that... that Tangela? Ouch!" A Wooper bounced off of Nidoking's back, rolling away as the Drill Pokémon looked, wide-eyed, at the mess that lay before him. "Oorgh... and the outlaw he was hunting... but who are all these other Pokémon?"

    "We can answer ya jus' fine, sir," Cyan replied with a curt nod. "But, uh... let's go an' get th'police first, alright?"

    And in the midst of the falling fish, the five of us began the short walk to Tiny Town.
     
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  4. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    And here's Chapter 4! This one's a bit of a change of pace compared to the others, since it's more calm, slice-of-life-ish stuff. Expect this sort of ebb-and-flow from most of my writing, heheh; alternating between a few adventurey chapters and then going for a cooldown to end the "arc" on is my bread and butter.

    "Hawww..." Cyan let out a loud yawn, stumbling forward into the vacant room, and he dumped his backpack in the middle of the floor, letting it hit the floorboards with a dull thud. "I'm beat."

    "No kidding," I said, dragging my feet as Rose, Erin and I followed the Samurott into the bedroom. A pair of quilt-covered hay bales sat parallel to the walls, and the early morning sunlight began to pour in through a single window across from the door. Erin wandered past Cyan, who had already removed his helmet and crumpled into one of the empty beds, and with a flourish the pink-furred weasel grabbed a curtain of thick ivy and dragged it across the window, enshrouding the room in a pleasant darkness. Satisfied, Erin slapped her paws together and bounced on top of Cyan, wrestling a bit with the covers before settling down. "Good night, you two."

    "Good morning, Bill! Rose!" Erin replied with a breezy snort, aimlessly tossing her pouch and belt through the air and onto the floor, and soon enough both she and Cyan were asleep, snoring loudly. Rose trotted past me, rolling her eyes at the two leather backpacks that sat, lopsided, on the stout wooden planks.

    "For goodness' sake..." She muttered, and I walked over, swiping Erin's belt bag as I passed it. Wordlessly, Rose and I pushed the larger bag out of the way, until it sat just under the window. "They could barely stay awake while officer Magnezone and the rest were bringing the Woopers and Hermit in, the least they could do is keep the peace and quiet."

    "At least Elder Nidoking was reasonable enough to hear us out," I replied, taking a deep breath, and I walked over to the opposite hay bale, the drowsy atmosphere of the cozy little inn already making it hard to keep my eyes open. "We should rest here for the day, and plan out how we're going to get to Sky Peak. Getting from Treasure Town to here was the easy part."

    "We're really doing this, aren't we? We're finally going to meet Darkrai, after all this time..." Rose hopped into the bed, and I slipped the treasure bag off of my shoulders, moving neatly under the quilt as the fox looked at me, expecting an answer to her statement. I snuggled up to her and nestled my head next to hers, and she sighed softly, almost inaudibly in comparison to our companions' noises. We could hear a hustle and bustle downstairs, Tiny Town finally beginning to wake up for the day. "At least, if we get any sleep first."

    "Heh," I barked out a laugh, ruffling Rose's headfur. "Just cover your ears."

    "Easier said than done," She curled her tails over the two of us, purring as her inner body heat rose to a comfortable warmth. She let out a silent yawn, fidgeting a bit before settling into her spot. "Good morning, Bill."

    I closed my eyes, pulling the Ninetales a little closer. "Sleep tight, Rose."

    I fell into a peaceful unconsciousness. Time passed dreamlessly, and the morning was restful.

    Respite! Planning Time in Tiny Town!

    The next morning... er, afternoon...

    Something peeled my eyelid open. It was pink.

    "HEY, WAKE UP!" Erin yelled at Rose and I, the loud shout quickly rousting us from our slumber, and I yelped in pain as the Mienshao let go of me, my eye slapping shut. I rubbed at my face, grumbling in mild pain, but before I could scold the younger girl she scampered out of the room, letting the door swing on its hinges as her footsteps pounded down the stairs and into the heart of the inn. Swinging my legs forward, I stood up, stretching out my joints.

    "Is it your turn to tell her off or is it mine?" I asked Rose, who was carefully pulling the quilt over the hay bale. "I forget."

    "Who cares," Rose replied, slightly irritable as a result of the rude awakening, and she glanced at the window, which had been uncovered to let in the early afternoon sun. "Looks like we slept for a while."

    "Are you feeling any better?" I asked, looking at the fox, and I reached over and tugged lightly on her scarf. It held firm against her fur, and she gave me a reassuring smile.

    "I'm fine, Bill," She said, nodding. Her legs wobbled a bit, and I kept a straight face. "I'm a little tired, but I'm feeling better."

    "Oi, you two." Cyan pushed the door open with his helmet, peeking inside. "Erin's getting' antsy, she doesn't wanna start eatin' without you two. Get a move on already!"

    Rose and I followed him out the door and down into the inn's lower floor, a cool draft hitting us head-on from an open window. Erin bounced in her seat near a round table, and the three of us lounged around in the other empty seats. The inn was surprisingly crowded (for a given value of crowded), with a few other groups of Pokémon sitting elsewhere in the room. Dishes clinked and fires burned, and the scent of baked goods and other cooking hung heavy in the air.

    "Always nice to know that this place'll smell nice," I chuckled, and Cyan nodded in agreement.

    "No kiddin'. This place has good eats," He said, taking off his helmet and setting it at his side, his two tiny ears wiggling as they reveled in their freedom from the heavy armor. "I didn't see miz Blossom anywhere, though."

    "Did somebody call ma name, SLURP?" A throaty voice, along with a lashing of a tongue, came from nearby, and our heads turned to look at the navy-scaled Kecleon that walked through the door to outside, a breadbasket balanced on her head. Her grey frills shook as she spoke, a fragrant flower sticking out of a headband she wore. "It's good ta see ya, Team ReturnerSLURP!"

    "Uwah!" Cyan recoiled in surprise, and Erin, Rose and I stifled a round of chuckles at his expense. "Don't sneak up on us like that!"

    "Sorry ta disappoint ya, sqURP," Blossom let out a hearty bellow and slammed her breadbasket hard onto the table. A thin trail of steam escaped from the wrappings. "But if anything, yer the ones who snuck up on me, SLURP!"

    "We were hoping to get here sometime yesterday," Rose started to explain. "But, ah... we got a little sidetracked."

    "SLURP, I know, with tha outlaw and tha freelance bounty huntaw, right?" Blossom folded her arms smartly, and she shimmied her head around wildly, the flower dropping pollen on the floor. "Don't worry about it, ya hear? News travels fast in a town as small as this one, especially if it involves a buncha Pokémon falling from tha sky, SLURP!"

    "Heeheehee!" Erin rocked back and forth in her chair, her sleeves whooshing through the air as she simulated the fall with her paws. "It was fun! I didn't know there was even something like that in the Waterfall Cave!"

    "It's been a while since we've really had to even think about it ourselves," I said, glancing over at Rose, who nodded in affirmation. "We've never really needed to delve that deeply into the cavern in... years."

    "Ey, Bloss!" A Pokémon called out to the blue Kecleon from across the room, and our heads turned to look. "Mind if we order another round of drinks?"

    "Not at all, not at all, SLURP!" Blossom shot back, standing on her toes to make her voice heard. She turned to us, a warm smile on her face. "Here, these are tha kind of loaves ya like, I know. Call me when you're finished?"

    "Go ahead, Blossom," Rose said, winking cheerfully at the older lady. "Maybe if you can get miss Jynx to cover for you, we can catch up."

    I reached over and dug my paw into the basket, my fur growing warm as I grasped a fresh hunk of bread, and I pulled it out to look it over, spying tiny strings of an strikingly-pink fruit that dotted the hard, brown crust. I passed it to Erin, who took a large bite out, humming a tune to herself as she chewed away. Cyan sighed and shook his head, yanking the basket over to him and unfurling the fabric inside, revealing a small hoard of picture-perfect pastries. His eyes lit up at the sight of the food, donning a toothy, almost predatory, smile. "Wouldja look at that!"

    Rose and I both leaned forward, taking a peek at the generous helping, and I scooped up a glazed scone before tugging the bundle away from the hungry Samurott, passing the basket to Rose. The Ninetales gave the water type a knowing look. "Don't even think about it, buster."

    Cyan let out a quiet grumble to himself, and I laughed, kicking back and crossing my legs. I took a large bite of my treat, the warm, astoundingly-sweet taste of a watmel berry sent shocks through my teeth. I stuck my paw into my mouth, rubbing at my jaw until the feeling subsided, and immediately took another bite of the pastry. It was entirely worth it.

    "So what exactly are we doin' now?" Cyan asked, a couple crumbs of food flying out of his mouth. "I've still got barely any idea 'bout what we're supposed t'be goin' t'Sky Peak for."

    "We told you before, when you asked about the letter, remember?" Rose said, taking a nibble of a yache-jelly-filled roll and then wiping her nose daintily on her scarf. "The Shaymin living at the base of the mountain apparently saw Darkrai around there, and we're going to go investigate."

    "Well yeah, y'told us that," Cyan replied, raising his voice a bit amid the chatter of the other patrons. "But I still don't understand why we're the ones who hafta go get him."

    I gulped down a part of my scone, dusting off my paws as I let the doughy food sit atop the table, and I took a deep breath, trying to focus despite the sugar running through my veins. "Well, you and Erin already know a little bit about Darkrai, right? Most Pokémon now seem to, given that it's been four whole years since we had to deal with him."

    "Ooh, yeah, that's such a great story! Darkrai tried to take over the world, and then you two stopped him, and now he can't cause trouble ever again!" Erin chimed in, taking a break from digging a small crater into her payapa bread, and as she stopped speaking she hid her face in her sleeves, mildly embarrassed from her outburst. "Um... at least, I think that's how it went, right?"

    "That's the long and short of it, I suppose," I quipped dryly, drumming my paws on the tabletop. "Not entirely right, but not wrong, either."

    "Y'never did tell us 'bout what happened with him," Cyan said with a rough cough, trying to clear his throat. After a brief pause, he continued. "For someone who saved th'world twice before, you're both kinda quiet 'bout th'whole thing."

    "It's not really something we talk about anymore, Cyan," Rose replied thoughtfully. "Like Bill said, it's been three years since we last saw Darkrai. It's been four since we saved the planet from paralysis and stopped the future from going bad."

    "Technically stopped the present from going bad, by now," I pointed out with a grin, and Rose nodded in agreement. "Neither of us really like focusing on the fact that we saved the world. It's great and everything, but so did... who was it again, Rose? Over on the northern continent?"

    "Team Shockseed?" She tossed out, and I gave a short nod. "Right, they saved the world from that meteor twenty or twenty-five years ago, but nowadays they mostly just do rescue missions."

    "Exactly." I took a quick nip of scone. "We're just the same way, y'know? We saved the world, and now we're explorers doing plain old jobs. Simple as that."

    "But, um, Bill? Rose?" Erin raised a paw in confusion, and the cream-furred fox gestured warmly at her. "If we're searching for mister Darkrai, then we're not doing a plain old job right now, right? This is some big, top-secret mission, but Cyan and I don't know anything about it!"

    "It's..." I opened my mouth to answer, but the words vanished on the tip of my tongue, and I sheepishly shut my jaw. Rose was similarly taken aback, and Cyan folded his arms gruffly.

    "That's what I was sayin'," The Samurott told us, looking both of us in the eye. "We need y'to tell us 'bout what exactly happened with Darkrai an' why we're goin' t'get him now. We're y'teammates now, remember?"

    Rose was hesitant, furrowing her brow as her mind raced, but I nodded, catching the attention of all three other Pokémon. "You're right, you two."

    "B-Bill?" Rose stuttered, her headfur falling in front of her face. "Are you sure?"

    I chuckled, pinching the ponytail and affectionately tousling it as I moved it back behind her ears. Her ruby red eyes were bright with concern, and I gently rubbed at her ear. "If we're really gonna do this, we need to get our facts straight, right?"

    "Yeah! We're gonna get that mean old guy and bring him in for good this time, right?" Erin flung a few play-punches, nearly flinging her payapa bread across the table. With the moment ruined, Rose peered around the inn, which was beginning to thin out, and she spotted Blossom hard at work across the bar, mixing a strange-looking liquid.

    "Hey, Blossom!" She called, and the blue Kecleon looked over at her, waving. I hopped out of my chair, moving over to Cyan's large backpack and pulling out a leather purse, counting the coins held within. "We're gonna take a quick spin around town; see if you can find us if you catch a break?"

    "That sounds fine, SLURP!" Blossom nodded at us, not noticing some pollen land in the drink. "See ya later, ya four!"

    As I slapped down a few coins to pay for the meal, Erin cocked her head in confusion. "Wait, where are we going? I thought we were gonna talk about Darkrai!"

    "We are, you goofball," Rose chuckled, biting lightly on her sleeve to get her out of her chair. Cyan had donned his helmet and was already headed for the exit. "C'mon. We can talk while we walk."

    The mid-afternoon light caught the domed houses of the town, and the local villagers mingled with passing explorers as the wind picked up, a line of wavy clouds blowing in from the southeast. Far off on the horizon I could pick out the craggy, coastal cliffs that wound their way across the land; one particularly tall mountain beyond them had a ring of wispy puffs circling around its tip. Deftly dodging out of the way of a couple kids playing a game of tag, I reached up to keep the sun out of my eyes, peering intently at Sky Peak. A dirt path, fringed by stakes, wound its way through the town square and out to the hot spring, and the four of us began walking along the trail, simply enjoying the company.

    "So..." Cyan broke the silence, grasping a pawful of thin dirt and letting it blow away in the breeze. "Why exactly are we goin' to meet up with someone who once tried t'take over th'world?"

    "Way to put it bluntly, Cyan," I snickered, putting my paws behind my head. Rose let out a sigh of frustration, digging her claws into the trail.

    "It's... more complicated to explain than either you or Erin realize," She spoke carefully, her voice ringing through the air like a clear bell. "But I can explain a little bit. It was a few months after we had graduated from the guild and done a few explorations on our own. Bill had been having dreams about a Pokémon named Cresselia who said that he was creating distortions in space. We were gonna investigate the issue, but..."

    "Palkia kidnapped us the night before," I finished, the dragon god of space showing up clearly in my mind's eye. "But before we could get some answers out of him and Cresselia, another one appeared! The one Palkia had been involved with was Darkrai under disguise!"

    "Mmhm," Rose grunted. "He told us that he was the one who had been making distortions in space, and had been trying all along to get rid of the two of us, since we had stopped his original plan of stopping time and paralyzing the planet."

    "He was behind both th'Temporal an' the Spatial Crisises?" Cyan exclaimed, bewildered. "That's... a li'l hard t'believe, honestly."

    "He also had tried to get us to, uh, 'make ourselves disappear' at one point too," I added in casually. Rose nodded, if only slightly, trying to keep the memory buried. "Darkrai challenged us to a duel and fled to the mystery dungeon in the Dark Crater, over on the Volcanic Island, and we went along with it, to try and put an end to everything."

    Cyan and Erin seemed to hang onto every word, enthralled by the tale. It was a little amusing. Rose continued. "We were able to make it through the crater and find Darkrai, but when he finally began the duel, he summoned a gang of wild Pokémon to help him-"

    "What!?" Erin blurted out, stomping her feet. "Ooh, that's not fair!"

    "I don't think we ever said anything about fairness, kiddo." I reached over and bopped the back of her head, and she lightly fluffed her sleeves in my face in return. "We were fighting a legendary Pokémon who could put others into endless nightmares. The gang of wild Pokémon was really just adding insult to injury, if you ask me."

    "But that's just mean, then!" Erin stated the clearly obvious. "I'm gonna give this mister Darkrai a piece of my mind when we meet up wi-"

    "No." Rose said firmly, and Erin recoiled, her eyes wide. "No, Erin, you absolutely will not do that, and for a very, very good reason."

    "Yeah, I don't think that'd be a good idea either," I nodded, putting a little more weight to my steps. The hustle and bustle of Tiny Town sounded far away now, and the pleasant hiss of super-heated water was beginning to overtake it. "We weren't exactly done explaining, either, but I guess if you've heard enough..."

    "Bill, jus' get on with it," Cyan replied, and Erin huffily climbed up onto his back, turning her head away from us. "Y'obviously won th'duel with Darkrai, so what happened next?"

    "He tried to escape," Rose interrupted before I could say anything. "He created a dimensional hole and was planning to just warp away before we could finish him off."

    "But?" Cyan immediately said, the logical part of his brain turning. I tapped my paw against his seamitar armor.

    "But Palkia just conveniently happened to pop by, and broke the dimensional hole while Darkrai was still warping around inside of it. Got any idea what that means, wiseguy?"

    I took more enjoyment than I probably should have at watching Cyan squirm as he racked his brain for an answer. It was enough enough to make Erin return to her usual cheery self. "Eh... I feel like I should know what this's supposed t'mean, but I can't think of it."

    "It's the same thing that happened to Bill when he first came here from the dark future," Rose answered, moving a little closer to me and wrapping a tail around my waist. "Darkrai attacked him when Bill was time-traveling here, and then Bill lost his memory. So Darkrai was attacked while he was trying to travel, so..."

    Erin let out a little gasp, and Cyan stopped walking. Rose and I took a few more paces before we noticed that they had stopped. "So Darkrai has..."

    "Heeeeeeeeeeey!"

    We looked behind us to see Blossom running down the path, her tail curling and uncurling wildly as her tiny feet plodded through the dirt. She slowed her pace as she finally reached us, leaning forward and resting her hands against her knees, breathing heavily. "Hold up... hold up, ya hear, SLURP?"

    "I'm glad you were able to find us, Blossom," Rose stepped forward, nodding amicably towards her friend. "Was Jynx able to take over for a little bit?"

    "Yah, the bar's pretty much cleared out 'til evening, so I'm free, SLURP. Glad I found ya early!" As she caught her breath, she shook her head, the flower in her headband wilting a bit in the increasingly-warm sun. "Were ya headed to the hot spring, SLURP?"

    "Looks like we were." I shrugged. "You want to come along with?"

    "Yeah, c'mon, c'mon, miss Blossom, let's have a race!" Erin hopped off of Cyan's back and ran off. "Last one there's a sucker for a grime trap!"

    As the Mienshao ran off, we started to move again, the sound of steam growing louder and louder. Cyan took point, while Blossom kept stride with Rose and I. The blue lizard let out a loud, hearty laugh. "Always the youngun, huh? What have ya four been up to recently, SLURP? Haven't seen ya for a while!"

    "Yeah, it's been some time since we've come around here, hasn't it?" Rose remarked, looking thoughtfully to the sky. "Did the rest of the guild come by? They're on their expedition to the Midnight Forest right now."

    "SLURP, yah, actually, they did!" Blossom nodded. "They didn't stay for long, but they were here maybe just last week! Are you passing through to catch up with 'em, SLURP?"

    "Not exactly, no," I replied under my breath, kicking a small rock down the path. "We're on our way to Sky Peak, for a job."

    "Really?" Blossom let out a low whistle, gesturing towards the mountain in the distance. "Sky Peak, all the way over there, SLURP? Yah've got yer work cut out for ya, huh?"

    "I wouldn't say that, miz Blossom," Cyan answered, turning around and walking backwards to look at the Kecleon. The path began to slope upwards, a hill separating us from the hot spring. "I doubt it'll take that long t'get t'Sky Peak. There's th'path through th'Craggy Coast, right? That'll get us there in no time."

    "I thought of that at first, but..." I rubbed at my nose in mild embarrassment. "Well, given that our little jaunt in the Waterfall Cave pretty much emptied out the treasure bag, and given how unstable those cliffs have gotten..."

    "Ah yeah," Cyan briefly lifted his helmet to scratch an itch on his ears. "I forgot 'bout th'landslides from las' year an' how Mount Horn nearly collapsed on itself."

    "Ya'll are strapped fer stuff, SLURP?"

    "Not 'xactly, Erin's got her medical stuff an' her throwin' stones, an' I've got th'supplies for makin' meals an' settin' up camp," Cyan said, patting his hiking pack. "But Bill an' Rose got int'a li'l predicament yesterday, an' now we're kinda outta food, an' we used what li'l cash I carry 'round t'pay for th'inn an' lunch."

    As he finished speaking, the four of us reached the crest of the hill, spying the brightly-shimmering spring down at the end of the trail. If I squinted, I could see Erin already soaking herself in the mineral-rich water, and Cyan let himself slide down the other half of the hill, quickly reaching the pool himself. Blossom tapped her fist against her headband. "So ya two are strapped fer stuff, SLURP?"

    "Yeah, I suppose you could say that," Rose answered plainly, sucking in a breath and tensing up as she dipped her paws into the water. Blossom, on the other hand, climbed up to the edge of the pool and leaped inside, making a light splash as she collided with the surface of the water. I winced as a couple large droplets hit my shoulder, and Erin giggled at the energetic Pokémon, swimming around playfully in the water.

    "I guess I can imagine why ya'll are a little hesitant to go mountain-climbing if ya lost all ya supplies, SLURP." Blossom emerged from the depths of the hot spring, shaking her head. Her headband and flower seemed to wiggle with minds of their own as they drank deeply of the water. "How are ya gonna get what ya need?"

    "Well, I was hoping that we could try and restock here," Rose eased herself into the spring, her tails floating buoyantly on the water as she paddled over to the edge of the stone circle. "But we don't have much money left, and we don't know how much time we have until... our client is unavailable, so we can't afford to really waste time."

    Blossom yawned, extending her tongue to its full length. "SLUUUUURP. Why not just take tha other way around the mountains, huh?"

    "The other way... what?" I stumbled on my words in confusion, sinking my leg knee-deep into the water. The heat cooked the limb until it finally gave up and relaxed, and I swung around to walk deeper in. "You mean that path through the Labyrinth Cave and across Mount Travail? But that could take... half a week, probably longer. The path through Craggy Coast and across Mount Horn would be much faster, even though-"

    "It'd be way, way more dangerous?" Blossom finished for me, giving me a skeptical look. "How much time do ya think ya'll'd be wasting if ya tried to get through that place right now, SLURP? No matter how good of explorers ya'll are, tha coast's gotten so dangerous that ya'll'd be more SLURPly to get trapped inside the mountain!"

    "But..." I sighed in frustration, sitting down and letting the water cover all but my head, which worked wonders on helping me try to clear my thoughts. "Ugh... I guess you've got a point. I remember having to help rescue Pokémon that got trapped during the first big avalanche."

    "It was horrible..." Rose shivered, her voice somber. "I... you're right, Blossom. We can't risk something like that happening to us."

    "Hey now, ya didn't let me finish speaking, SLURP." Blossom smiled knowingly, wagging a finger at us, and we cleared the memory of Mount Horn away, focusing on the Kecleon. "To get to tha Labyrinth Cave, ya'll'd have to pass through tha Oran Forest and tha Apple Woods, right?"

    Rose perked up. "You're right! We could just head through the wild orchards and pick our fill there! Cyan, quick, get our map out!"

    The Samurott, who had thankfully not gone into the spring, opened up one of the flaps of his backpack, reaching inside and pulling out a worn scroll that was bound with a bright red string. Pulling the string, Cyan unfurled the old map, the paper crinkling at the softest touch. Blossom, Rose and I moved over to the map, looking down at the lay of the land. Erin continued to float around, not paying attention to our musing. The Kecleon drew an arm out of the water, shaking it wildly to dry it off, and slammed a finger down on a small forest north of where the town was marked on the map.

    "Right here, ya SLURP?" She traced a path through the forest and across the pictured mountainside, around and back down to the Shaymin Village and Sky Peak. "If ya'll are serious about getting to Sky Peak tha way ya are right now, this way should give you the least amount of trouble, SLURP."

    "Hm." I furrowed my brow. "I still don't know about this... but I guess it's better than not going at all. Hopefully we can get there in time."

    "What exactly are ya doing there, anyway, SLURP?" Blossom asked, looking at me with questioning eyes. "I know ya used ta go there during the winters, but ya said ya'll were on a job, right? Some client, SLURP?"

    Rose and I looked at each other briefly, mulling the question over, and Erin swam up and out of the pool, her fur soaking wet as she let a trail of pawprints moving towards Cyan. She grabbed the Samurott's helmet, yanking him towards the pool. "Cyaaan, c'mon! You haven't even gotten in yet!"

    "Woah, hey, Erin, wai-" Cyan yelped, and Rose, Blossom and I quickly moved out of the way of the two Pokémon, who tripped over the rocks and piled into the hot spring, sending another wave of water on top of all of us. As the pair surfaced, Blossom let out a loud peal of laughter, her voice ringing through the air.

    "Ya two! Heck, ya four! Ya'll are great, ya know that?" She put a hand on her hip, adjusting her headband and flower with the other. "Forget about my question, ya hear? Why don't we all just relax while ya'll are still here?"

    "I..." Rose began, and I reached over and rubbed at her neck. She smiled, shaking her head. "If you're alright with that, Blossom, then we'll drop the subject."

    "Don't worry about it, Rose," The Kecleon nodded stoutly, shooting us a grin. "Besides, I haven't told ya about my side about how life's been!"

    "Yeah, yeah!" Erin piped up cheerfully, picking herself up and waded over to the older lizard. Cyan grumpily rolled back onto his feet, stomping over and taking a seat next to Erin. "Tell us about how Tiny Town's been!"

    "Yeah, that'd be nice to hear about," Rose agreed, paddling over to her friend, and I followed her, sitting down in the water and poking idly at her nine bobbing tails. "It's been a while, so I bet you've got plenty to tell, huh?"

    "Ya, lemme think." Blossom thought for a moment. "Oh! Did ya hear about tha birthday feast that we had to set up for Elder Nidoking a couple weeks ago, SLURP? Oh that was a disaster and a half..."

    "Fern! Mint! Where are you?"

    The smooth call quickly brought the two Shaymin running at full pelt, tripping over their feet as they tried to skid to a stop. Fern raised his head shakily, looking up at the speaker. "Y-yes, Sage, sir?"

    A much older Pokémon stared firmly up at the two Sky Forme Shaymin, his green fur washed out and his flowers looking wilted, their age only masked by the orange light of the sunset. Time had not been kind to him. "We have heard back from Team Returners that they are going to investigate your... supposed... sighting of Darkrai."

    "What!?" Mint shoved Fern out of the way, her eyes wide. "Sir, Team Returners is coming here!?"

    "I believe I just said that, Mint," Sage glared at her, and the younger Shaymin looked away huffily. "And because of that, I'm putting you two to work before they get here!"

    "Work?" Fern groaned, rising to his feet and dusting off his scarf-like petal. "W-what kind of work... um, sir?"

    "I still don't believe that you just happened to see a formerly-dangerous, and legendary, Pokémon while out on gathering duty," Sage bluntly stated, and his two charges looked at the grass tentatively. "Especially given that you just happened to not come back with any Gracideas in the first place!"

    "You think we're making it up?" Mint shouted, gritting her teeth angrily. "It's true! We saw him, I swear it!"

    "We... w-we did see him, sir..." Fern added quietly, looking away at a particularly interesting tree. "We just..."

    "Enough!" Sage slammed his paw down, though it didn't have quite the kind of impact he wanted it to, either physically or emotionally. "Enough. You two will be going back up to the top of Sky Peak and keeping Darkrai right here where he is!"

    "W-" Mint cut herself off. "Are you crazy!?"

    "No, and I think that you are!" Sage replied harshly, and the two younger Pokémon recoiled at the insult. Fern let out a sniffle. "If you really are telling the truth, and a legendary Pokémon just happens to be up there, then you're going to make sure he doesn't leave! If he's gone and Team Returners gets here..."

    He trailed off, turning a blind eye to the tears that were leaking out of Fern's eyes. Mint walked over to her friend, patting him on the back. "That would be very bad. Am I understood!"

    "Sage..." Mint growed under her breath, but Fern nodded.

    "Yes... s-sir."

    "Good!" Sage let out a snort, turning around. "Now get out of here! And gather some more Gracideas, while you're at it!"

    The old Pokémon left the two Shaymin alone, stars winking up above in the sky.
     
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  5. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 5 - the first to focus on the other group of main characters (sort of).

    "Hellllllllllooooooooo? Where aaaaare yoooou?" Mint yelled at the top of her lungs, the cry echoing around the grassy field, disrupting the relaxing noise of running water and wind rustling the trees. Colorful patches of flowers dotted the peak, dancing in the warm sun as the two Shaymin wandered aimlessly around the mountain. Fern ducked his head into the flowers on occasion, sniffing around for any Gracideas hiding within their lesser brethren. Mint swooped into the air, circling around before returning to her friend's side, causing him to jump. "Fern, c'mon! Quit playing in the grass and help me look for Darkrai!"

    "Mint... um," Fern took one more deep whiff of the flower patch before turning his head, looking at Mint. She hopped up and down impatiently, bouncing on the tips of her toes. "But Sage wanted us to..."

    "I don't care what that... that..." Mint let out a disgruntled groan of anger, taking to the sky and spinning a few loops. Fern returned to his work, slowly making his way through the fields, his nose buried in the soft flora. "I don't care what he said, okay, Fern? Forget that old idiot and help me!"

    "Uff..." Fern sighed, looking away as he collected his thoughts. "But Mint, what if he's already gone?"

    "He can't be gone, it takes way longer than that for anyone to get up the mountain without flying!" Mint replied, flying higher and higher away as she picked up speed, her friend and the field blurring into dots as she passed the clouds that circled the very top of the grand mountain. As she scanned her eyes from one end of the landscape to the other, her eyes widened as she noticed a clump of threatening, gray clouds southwest of the peak, drawing ever nearer as they rode on gusts of wind. "Especially not if he's gonna have to go through that!"

    "What?" Fern strained to be heard, and Mint zoomed back to the ground, wincing as she landed hard in the field of flowers. "Mint, you were... um, y-you were too high, I couldn't-"

    "Stuff it, Fern!" Mint moved behind the other Shaymin and started shoving him along. Fern gulped audibly as they began to swiftly skid through the dirt. "There's a storm headed this way, and we're gonna find Darkrai before we get stuck in it, got it?"

    "A s-storm?" Fern stuttered, beginning to shiver anxiously. "H-how bad of one... um, M-Mint?"

    "Bad bad," Mint answered shortly, gritting her teeth as she pushed her friend harder, quickening their pace. The field became a blur as they rushed through the mountainside. "Bad enough to keep us both from-"

    "Mint, wait! Slow down!" Fern cried out, grabbing fruitlessly at the earth below his feet as he tried to stop himself. "Miiiiiiiiint!"

    "What?" The Shaymin looked up, and her heart skipped a beat as a tower of thick brown bark came into sight. "What!"

    The duo slammed hard into a thick, healthy tree, the impact sending them tumbling over its roots and into a circle of Gracideas. Mint returned to her senses as the touch of the special pink flowers broke her fall, and she hopped to her feet, scampering over to Fern, who wriggled around in the overgrowth, dazed and confused as his brain tried to catch up with him. "Uugh... Mint... the t-tree..."

    "Yeah, yeah." Mint nodded, picking her friend up and brushing bits of loam off of his fur. "S-sorry, Fern. Are you okay?"

    "I think..." Fern closed his eyes and stood still, his dizziness subsiding as he righted himself. "I think... no, I know I saw-"

    "Hello again." Someone interrupted.

    The two Shaymin froze in place as they heard the deep, gravelly voice, and Fern tried to find the speaker out of the corner of his eyes. Where... where was he? "Are you... are y-you talking to us, mister?"

    Mint gasped lightly as she felt a gentle pair of hands slip a basket over her head, letting it hang from her neck. She looked down; it was full of Gracideas – recently-picked. Icy blue eyes looked somberly at her as Darkrai squatted down to her level, his star-pattered cloak ruffling in the wind. "I believe that these are yours, correct?"

    Contact! A Storm to Bring Together!

    For a time, there was silence.

    The tall figure stood firmly against the wind, watching the two Shaymin as they slowly fidgeted under his gaze, clearly anxious to a large degree. Mint looked down into the basket of flowers, counting them in her head, and Fern cleared his throat awkwardly, looking up at the legendary Pokémon.

    "Um..." The boy stopped mid-sentence, trying hard to look as inconspicuous as possible. "T-thank you... uh, sir."

    Darkrai stood silently, blinking as Mint stopped nodding, concluding her counting. "...you are... welcome."

    He turned around and strode back over to the tree, leaning against the trunk and closing his eyes as he began to rest. The two Shaymin stared after him, unsure of what to do next, and Mint leaned in close to her friend's ear.

    "It's all of the Gracideas we gathered the other day, Fern," She whispered hurriedly. "Heck, I can't even tell if they're the ones from before or if he picked them fresh just today!"

    "R-really?" Fern asked in surprise, and he gently took the basket off of his friend, drinking in the scent of the flowers of gratitude. Mint ducked her head in response, the itchy weaving brushing through her fur. "You're... you're right, I can't tell either. Wow..."

    A strong breeze blew in from the south, the storm front sending a chill across the peak as a cloud drifted in front of the sun, and the pair of Pokémon shivered as they were doused in shade. Mint made a rolling movement with her head, eying her timid companion as she gestured towards Darkrai, and Fern cocked his head in confusion. Mint frowned, shaking her head harder at Darkrai, and understanding dawned in Fern's eyes before being quickly replaced by anxiety.

    "Ohh... u-uh," Fern mumbled, his legs trembling. "No, Mint, I-I don't think I could do that."

    "You have to!" Mint replied, trying to keep her voice as low as she could, and she stomped her paw in the grass for emphasis. "You're the one who thanked him, you go talk to him!"

    "B-but..." Fern said shakily, looking away as he fiddled with a few blades of grass. "But you're the one he gave the basket to, r-right? Shouldn't you thank h-him... too?"

    "What!?" Mint yelled, though it was more of a quiet statement than a yell, and she leaned backwards, reeling. "Me? A-are you crazy? I couldn't talk to... to him!"

    "But I already talked to him, Mint." Fern softly sat down in the middle of the field, looking at his feet shyly. "Please? Y-you go talk to him?"

    "Rrrrff, fine!" Mint whispered irritably, and Fern made an incomprehensible noise in response. Turning around and taking a few bold steps forward, she held her head high and called out. "Hey! Big guy!"

    The legendary Pokémon didn't seem to react, his arms laying peacefully in the lap of his cloak as he continued to relax against the thick trunk. Mint halted, her effort seemingly pointless, and she looked over her shoulder at Fern, who simply looked at her from his spot in the field. Grumbling under her breath, she returned her focus to Darkrai, taking another few tentative steps over to the tree. "Hey! Did you hear me?"

    There was still no noticeable response, and Mint jumped up huffily, flying right next to the dark type and taking a deep breath before screaming at the top of her lungs, shaking the boughs of the tree. "HEY! DON'T JUST IGNORE ME!"

    "Why do you stay?" Darkrai opened one eye halfway, gazing hard at the little Shaymin who spoke to him, and Mint dropped to the ground when she realized how close she was. However, the question made her raise an eyebrow, and it was enough of a distraction to help her find her voice again.

    "Uh?" The girl's mind raced in a panic as she tried to come up with a cover story. "I, uh, hm, I didn't say thanks!"

    Mint could see out of the corner of her vision that Fern had gotten up, the flower basket around his neck, and had started walking towards the two of them. Darkrai closed his eye again, letting out a low, long hum, thinking hard about the answer he had received. Mint swallowed, her throat feeling rather dry and scratchy, and the sun began to come out from behind the cloud that had hidden it, dappling the underside of the tree with small sunbeams. "Uh... so, thank you!"

    "I believe your shy young friend already thanked me," Darkrai started, clasping his hands together. It might have been a trick of the light, but Mint could have sworn the pattern of the stars on his cloak had changed. "But you are also welcome."

    Another silence, this one somewhat more comfortable, settled over the mountaintop, the two Shaymin sitting down a few paces away from Darkrai, who returned to his meditation, apparently satisfied. A couple twigs twirled down from the top of the tree, catching the current of the wind and zooming out towards the vast horizon.

    "S-so..." Mint stuttered in a failed attempt to keep her cool. "A-are you here on a vacation or something?"

    Darkrai turned his head to stare at his two newfound guests, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "...Why do you wish to know?"

    Fern seemed taken aback by the curt reply, but Mint picked up the slack, feeling her confidence grow as the muscles in her back loosened, the tension draining away bit by bit. "Well, we don't normally see anyone up here! A few years ago explorers would spend a few days climbing up to the top, but we rarely have visitors to Sky Peak nowadays."

    "Sky... Peak?" Darkrai said methodically, sitting up a little straighter as he rolled the name around in his head. "Is that the name of this place?"

    "The name of- what!?" Mint yelped incredulously, startling both Fern and Darkrai, and the hot-blooded Shaymin pounced to the other side of the legendary Pokémon, her eyes wide as she hovered a few inches above a root. "How can you not know where you are? Did you hit your head or something?"

    Darkrai's eyes seemed to wince in pain, and he turned away from the two small hedgehogs, focusing outwards at the calm, southeastern sea in the distance, and if he squinted Fern could make out what looked like an archipelago beyond the foggy wilderness below. Mint grew impatient waiting for a reply, and she let out a grunt of irritation, flying away to blow off steam.

    "Uhm... m-mister?" Fern tapped a paw against Darkrai's shoulder, looking up innocently at the pair of icy blue eyes. They swirled with confusion, unhappiness, panic, as they sank lower and lower into the collar of his cloak. "Don't... don't mind Mint. She can be a h-handful sometimes."

    The storm of emotions seemed to subside, softening the legendary Pokémon's gaze, and he reached over and took the shy little hedgehog's paw into his hand. Fern froze in surprise, but tried to keep his fear in check, keeping his eyes on Darkrai. The ghostly white wisps that sprouted from the top of his head caught the breeze, waving ethereally in the wind.

    "I... do not remember having a conversation this long before." Darkrai shook the paw softly, but strongly, before letting the little Shaymin drop down. "I am unsure as to what I did to anger her."

    "Oh, she's not angry," Fern replied, shaking his head. His red, petal-like scarf brushed up against Darkrai's hand. It tickled. "She just likes to go quickly all the time. She'll probably be back in a few minutes."

    Darkrai let out a short 'hmph', looking up at the sky. Mint was nowhere to be found, and a couple thin clouds sped across the blue expanse, heralding the coming of the thunderstorm. Fern ducked his head to let the basket of Gracideas slide off of his neck, and he took one in his mouth, placing it into Darkrai's lap.

    "U-um... have you ever heard of Gracideas?" Fern asked, watching as a black, claw-like hand daintily picked up the blooming pink flower, spinning it around to look at it from every side. "They're special... to Shaymin like Mint and I."

    "Shaymin..." Darkrai mumbled, staring uneasily at the flower. "Shaymin... is that what you are?"

    "Is what I am what?" Fern stumbled over his words, trying to comprehend what he had been asked. "Am I a Shaymin? Um... y-yes, that's what I am. Mint is a Shaymin too. And you're mister Darkrai, right?"

    The legendary Pokémon's eyes widened to the size of platters, and he whipped his head around in utter shock. Fern took a few steps back, whimpering quietly as he tried to act small. "How... do you know my name?"

    "Uh?" Fern blinked. "Your name... y-you mean Darkrai?"

    "Darkrai... yes, that is my name." The eponymous Pokémon nodded slightly. "It... is the only thing I can remember."

    "Wh-what?" Fern cried, hopping up and pressing against Darkrai's shoulder. "You mean you... y-you can't remember anything?"

    The whirlpool of negativity seemed to return to his eyes, and he looked skyward, averting his gaze from the small hedgehog. Fern quickly realized his folly and stepped away, twiddling his paws as he looked at the dirt, thoroughly embarrassed. "Oh... I'm sorry. I d-didn't mean to sound insensitive."

    "You..." Darkrai's voice wavered, the gravelly sound becoming slightly higher in tone. "You and your friend do not avoid me. What do you want?"

    "We... w-we don't want anything, mister D-Darkrai," Fern muttered, digging at the dirt absentmindedly. "We just wanted to see if you were still here."

    Darkrai's eyes narrowed to slits. "...do you speak the truth?"

    Fern nodded, looking the legendary Pokémon straight in his eyes. "I promise."

    The two held their gazes, waiting to see who would look away first, the wind picking up again as the cloud cover drifted in front of the sun, engulfing the peak in an eerie shade. A few minutes passed silently before Darkrai returned the nod, looking away. "You... and your friend... are not like the others."

    "Um, who are... the others?" Fern trotted a little bit closer to the legendary Pokémon, stepping carefully onto the star-pattered cloak and sitting down. He shuffled a bit before finding a comfy position, and he nestled his head in the silky fabric, watching in fascination. The stars that dotted the clothing really were moving, shifting around like the cloak was made from the night sky itself. "I thought you said that y-you hadn't had a conversation this long before..."

    Darkrai let out a slow exhale, choosing his words carefully. "I have been traveling for as long as I can remember... yet you two are the only ones who have not avoided my presence."

    "Pokémon avoid you?" Fern felt more surprised than he had expected. "But you don't seem like... a b-bad Pokémon."

    "I never met another who knew what my name was," Darkrai continued to speak, clasping his hands together again, the Gracidea held by its stem. "And even if they did know, they wouldn't have told me as such."

    "What do you mean by that, mister Darkrai?" Fern turned his head a bit, too settled on top of the cloak to move completely. Darkrai seemed to be in a trance, staring blankly at the pink flower, and Fern let out a sneeze as something drifted past his nose. "Nnf... mister Darkrai?"

    "Little one..." Darkrai blinked, reaching over and picking up the flower basket, returning it to its place around Fern's neck. "Aren't you and your friend supposed to be bringing these... Gracideas somewhere?"

    "Oh!" Fern's head clicked into gear. "U-um... yeah, Mint and I are supposed to deliver these back to the village at the bottom of Sky Peak... but..."

    "Go." Darkrai's voice grew firm, and the legendary Pokémon drew himself up to his full height, dwarfing the little hedgehog as his cloak and wispy head whipped around wildly in the strengthening winds. Fern shrank back as Darkrai pointed a finger away from the tree. "You have your own duty to fulfill. I believe you can and will do so."

    "Um... o-okay," Fern sputtered out hesitantly, taking a couple steps away. The sky was beginning to turn very gray as the gusts of wind grew worse, and a low rumble of thunder echoed ominously around the field. Even the patches of flowers themselves seemed afraid, no longer stretching upwards from the thin grass. "Good... goodbye, then. It was n-nice meeting you... Darkrai!"

    Fern turned around and began to trot away, his heart suddenly heavy and his big floppy ears growing cold from the dropping temperature, and with each passing step he moved faster and faster, until he was sprinting as fast as he could from the top of the mountain. Darkrai leaned against the side of the tree, trying in vain to smooth out the wrinkles forming in his cloak as he watched the odd visitor depart. He held the Gracidea he had been gifted tightly to keep it from blowing away. "Goodbye... Fern."

    "Heeeey! Darkraiiii!"

    The dark type looked over his shoulder at the far horizon, another Shaymin rocketing towards him at high speed. Thinking quickly, Darkrai squatted down, hearing the air whoosh past him as Mint dashed just over his head, and he rose one she had passed, folding his arms in mild irritation. "Little Shaymin, you have somewhere to be."

    "Yeah, I know, and it's right here to get you!" Mint replied, looking around, and she drooped a bit in the air. "Hey, wait, where's Fern?"

    "I sent him away with the flowers," Darkrai answered solemnly, eying the young girl with a knowing look. "You two are supposed to be delivering them to your village, correct?"

    "You what!?" Mint screeched, hovering right into the legendary Pokémon's face, and Darkrai stepped backwards and yelped in surprise as he tripped over a tree root that jutted out from the fertile soil. As he groaned in mild pain, Mint landed on top of his lap, stomping a bit to get his attention. "You told him to go back down the mountain in this kind of weather!?"

    "What..." Darkrai began, confused. "What is the problem with that?"

    "Jeez..." Mint paced in circles on top of the starry cloak, trying to collect her thoughts. "You definitely don't know where you are if you pulled something as stupid as that, huh?"

    The frank statement caught Darkrai off-guard, and he shoved the impudent Pokémon off of him, standing up and glaring at Mint, insulted. "E-excuse me?"

    "You big idiot!" Mint shot back at him, returning his glare with a fierce glower of her own. "Shaymin can only fly in Sky Forme, and we can't stay in Sky Forme if it's cold out, or if it gets to be nighttime! This storm is bad enough that neither Fern nor I could get back to our village, we'd get so cold that we couldn't fly through it!"

    "He has legs," Darkrai pointed out, ignoring the prickle of fear that started to run up his spine. "Can he not simply walk down the mountain?"

    "Weren't you listening to me earlier? It takes a few days at the least for anyone to get up the mountain by foot!" Mint yelled, her petal scarf pressed hard against her side from the powerful wind currents. "And there's big, bad, wild Pokémon that live in the mountain, that's why Shaymin fly up here in the first place!"

    "...big... bad, wild Pokémon?" Darkrai's felt something stir in the pit of his stomach. It didn't feel good in the slightest. "...how bad?"

    "Who cares how bad they are!? Fern's in danger and it's all your fault!" Mint started to rile herself up again, but a couple fat droplets doused her anger, the fluffy green line of fur unable to keep the splattering droplets from reaching her scalp. "Uhh? That was..."

    A flash of light split the sky in half, the lightning bolt striking a small outcropping a good ways away, taking both Pokémon by surprise. It was followed by a booming thunderclap that violently crashed through the natural garden. The great tree's branches swung around, buffeted by the gusts, falling water making audible noise against the leaves. Mint let out a grunt of frustration, exacerbated by her inability to fly away again to vent. Darkrai was still, his icy eyes unfocused.

    "Uuuuuugh! Forget it, you obviously don't know a thing about how things work around here," Mint recited testily, her patience stretched to its limit as she frowned at the legendary Pokémon, her previous fear completely gone as she berated Darkrai. "You do whatever the heck you want! I'm going to look for Fern and then get to shelter before the storm gets any worse!"

    Without even a proper goodbye, Mint sped after her, leaving Darkrai alone as the rain furiously pelted down, running down his face and cloak as he felt his body grow colder and colder. The sun was completely gone from the sky, the armada of gray clouds too thick for any sunbeam to possible get through. Despite everything, he still held his Gracidea, wringing the stem as he balled his hands into fists.

    "In danger... and it is my fault..." Darkrai's voice was raised to the barest hint of a whisper, and he shivered, repeating the words over and over and over. Another bolt of lightning struck, this time at a different part of the mountain, and the thunder that followed was even louder than before. His gaze rose up towards the sky.

    "This is my fault..." A strange feeling of strength welled up in him, churning and broiling in his heart. He couldn't tell what it was, or why. "I... I did this."

    Roaring surges of rain cascaded down from the rocky cliffs, forming tiny waterfalls as the path turned to mud, thin and slippery, making it harder and harder for Fern to slosh his way across the mountainside. The Gracideas beginning to float precariously as the tightly-woven basket began to fill with rainwater, working against the Shaymin and weighing his neck down. The storm was fierce enough to create a mist that covered the inside of the crevice, and he could barely see where he was going, a tiny pinprick of orange light guiding him along. "I've gotta... get to the station pass..."

    A flash of lightning ripped across the sky, stopping Fern in his tracks as the following thunderclap made his ears ring in pain. The little hedgehog shivered in fear as his vision readjusted, and he blinked a few times before taking another step forward.

    Something abruptly crashed into him from behind, knocking him over and sending the flower basket into the mud. The collected water gushed out, carrying the gathered Gracideas a short ways down the path. "Fern! There you are!"

    "Mmmph!" Fern let out a muffled yelp as he tried to speak with his face in the mud. Lifting his head, he shook himself to clean his fur, which was matted and dirty from the barrage of bad weather. He felt a paw roughly rubbing his back, and looked over his shoulder at Mint, her body tense from flying, and breathing labored. "M-Mint? W-what are you doing?"

    "Get up, Fern, get up!" Mint yelled, yanking her timid friend onto his feet. "We've gotta get out of here, c'mon!"

    "B-but the Gracideas," Fern stuttered, looking aghast at the pink flowers as they were picked up by a gust of wind, floating farther and farther away. The basket was half-buried in the dirt path, and Fern walked over to it, trying his hardest to pull it out. Mint kicked at the goop, looking disgruntled at the other Shaymin. "Mint, help me!"

    "Forget about the Gracideas, you doofus!" She bit down on Fern's tiny tail, making him let out a yip, and she pried him off of the basket, sending him a short ways away. The basket itself finally dislodged itself with the extra effort - it was partly filled with mud, bits of grass, and rainwater, and was thoroughly ruined. Mint turned around and jumped into the air, hovering over to Fern, who winced as he tried to rub his sore tail. "If we leave now, we can get to the station pass before-"

    A fell wind blew through the crevice, freezing cold as the deluge soaked the two Pokémon to the bone, and they both began to glow brightly. Mint's jaw dropped in shock, and Fern's eyes widened as they were both engulfed by spheres of light, another boom of thunder shaking the mountain cliffs. As soon as it had happened, the glow vanished, leaving two smaller hedgehogs in its place. One of them hung in the air for a scant second before falling to the ground, grunting upon impact, and the other shook his thick coat of green fur, two leafy flowers sprouting close to his cheeks. "O-Oh... oh no, no, no..."

    "Huh-uh?" Mint rose from the grass, only to find herself on the receiving end of an additional gush of water, falling from the edge of a rock jutting out from the wall. Thoroughly wet, she shimmied about, flinging droplets everywhere as she growled irritably. "Oh for the love of Arceus, come ohohoCHOO!"

    "I-I'm sorry, M-Mint..." Fern shrank as small as he could as Mint sneezed twice in a row, and he buried himself in his fur coat. "L-Let's just get the Gracideas a-and-"

    "Are you s-still on about that!?" Mint wheezed between sneezes, scratching at her side with one of her hind legs, and she coughed violently, her lungs unable to take any more punishment as the chilly gusts of wind whipped through the mountain path. She tried to take a few deep breaths, but the thin mountain air couldn't sustain her. "Gagh... Fern..."

    "Mint?" Fern moved over to his friend, who slumped forward, unconscious. He reached out and nudged her, only to recoil with a light gasp as he grazed her belly, which was cold to the touch. "Oh no... this is bad..."

    The shy young Pokémon began to make circles around his fainted friend, trying to think of what to do, on the verge of panic. "C-c'mon, Fern, think... you can't get home, you don't have the flowers anymore..."

    The rain seemed to let up for a moment, and the flickering orange light caught his eye, beckoning him to continue forward. The thought of heat, warmth and a relatively safe roof over his head made Fern nod. He moved behind Mint and dug his nose into the wet earth, gingerly hoisting his friend onto his back as best he could. The water her fur had soaked up made her very heavy, almost as heavy as the basket had previously been, but the little Shaymin began to soldier forth, keeping his eyes on the end of the crevice.

    A wicked wind howled like a banshee, sweeping through the deep canyon and slamming hard into the two Pokémon, and Fern struggled to stand his ground, the flowers in his fur closing up instinctively. Bucketful after bucketful of rain poured from the heavens, the muddy mountainside growing more and more treacherous with each passing minute, and steam and fog blocked the boy's path more and more as his field of sight decreased. His companion felt heavy, barely staying atop his back, and his body beginning to feel like fire, his muscles throbbed in pain. Fatigue began to finally catch up with him, a frightening numbness hitting him.

    "I... I can't..." Fern could barely speak, and his eyes fluttered, beginning to tear up. "I... M-Mint..."

    His mind, in its half-lucid stupor, thought back to what felt like hours before, as the figure of a tall, legendary Pokémon seemed to appear in front of him. Barely keeping himself awake, Darkrai's words bounced around in his head. "A d-duty t-to... he believes I-I can..."

    Shaking his head, Fern forced himself to take another step, then another, and another. The rain mixed with his tears and drool as he continued forward, the sound of the fire finally starting to drift into his ears... but it was no use. His body surged in a massive jolt of pain, and he stumbled, too tired to even yelp in surprise as he slipped in the mud and collapsed, Mint rolling off of him as they both lay close to the end of the crevice. The thunder and lightning began to blind and deafen him, his breathing shallow and weak as his senses finally ceased their function. "Darkrai... Mint... I-I'm... sorry..."

    He felt lightheaded, like he was lifting into the air, and he sighed, drifting into unconsciousness. "I couldn't... do it..."

    Fern...

    Ferrrrr-rrrrrrrrn...

    Hello? Fern?

    The hedgehog's vision was black, stars winking all around him, and he aimlessly floated through the shimmering night sky. Mint's voice, repeatedly calling his name, echoed around, making him fidget as the noise ruffled his fur. Fern's nose twitched as a strange, muggy warmth flowed over him, and a tiny dribble of fluid ran down his cheek. He let out a sigh of relative contentedness, curling up into a tiny ball as the flowers near his cheeks bloomed happily.

    Fern... this is no time to be resting your head.

    Something roughly flipped him over, the soft floor sending a comfortable brushy feeling up his back, and the blackness flushed pink as something – no, a group of somethings – gently stroked his chubby belly, the ticklish sensation making him struggle to keep a calm smile.

    "Fern! It is time to awaken!"

    The peaceful night sky shifted from an encroaching pink to a stunning white to a mottled, flickering grey, and Fern gasped for air, his eyes shooting wide open as he finally came awake. He breathed hard, sleep keeping him from focusing as flowing, crackling, grey and orange all vied for his attention. As his brain tried to sort itself out, the tickling somethings continued to gently rub and scratch at his belly, and he finally let out a quiet little laugh.

    "M-Mihihhint..." He managed to say between bouts of laughter. "Stohohohop!"

    "Fern, stop this nonsense and look around!" A stern voice replied, and Fern snapped to attention, returning to his senses. The familiar ceiling of a cozy cavern came into view, and a fire could be heard crackling over at the opposite wall. He lifted his chin to look around; Mint snoozed a short distance away, warming herself near the small campfire, and a black hand scritched idly at his belly, its attached arm hidden by a starry sleeve. The hedgehog's breath caught in his throat.
     
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  6. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 6! This one's a particular favorite of mine - though I feel like I say that about most of the chapters from now on, eheheh.

    "Goodbyyyyyeeeee! Thanks for the heeeeeellllllllpppp!" Erin yelled loudly as she waved a fond farewell to Tiny Town as the four of us walked further and further away, the domed dwellings slowly blending in with the wide, rolling hills. A strong gust from the south kicked up dust from the trail, the tall grass whipping in the winds, and I noticed a spring in Rose's step as she took the lead. Cyan stomped behind me, occasionally grunting as Erin's sleeves lightly slapped him in his face.

    "So..." The Samurott started, strongly tugging on the loose pink fur, and Erin let out a yip as she fell against the hiking bag. "What 'xactly are we getting' into now, eh?"

    "You worried, Cyan?" I joked, slowing down to walk beside him, and he pulled a face at me. I laughed lightly, patting his shoulder. "There's way less chance we'll get lost in there, at least."

    "Oran Forest is a lot smaller than the Apple Woods, so we should take our time to stock up on the berries in there." Rose trotted along, her tails bobbing back and forth as she spoke. "I bet they'll be pretty ripe for the picking, but let's not take any more than we really need, alright?"

    "Can we eat a few along the way, Rose?" Erin asked, rolling onto her back to look at the clouds. Rose laughed, shaking her head. "Pleeeeaase?"

    "I don't think Cyan would let you ride on his back if you ate too many!" The nine-tailed fox replied, and I let out a snort, stifling myself before I broke into a round of chuckles. Cyan rolled his eyes as his passenger wiggled around, and I took one last look behind us. Tiny Town was already out of sight. I moved up to Rose, the empty treasure bag held securely in place by her scarf.

    "You seem cheerful today," I remarked, and she glanced at me as we continued on the trail. I reached over and tousled her headfur, grinning cheekily as a couple strands fell over her eyes. "I'm glad our chat with Cyan and Erin yesterday wasn't too bad."

    "Oh, please..." She said, blowing her fur out of her face. "It'll take more than a little dwelling on old adventures to get me down, even if I was a little out of it yesterday."

    "Regardless, I'm glad you're happy." I nodded, giving her a genuine smile. "Ready to get into the thick of it, then?"

    "I'm always ready for an adventure." She broke into a run, galloping towards the forest. "Let's get moving, you guys!"

    "Hey, wait up!" I called out to her, bringing a paw to my mouth as I moved into a jog. Erin swung off of her perch and scampered after the two of us, with Cyan bringing up the rear. "It's not a race if you get a head start!"

    A few hours passed as we ran gleefully through the prarie path, our stride broken only by gusts of wind or chirps of Starly that swooped skyward, leaving their nests to hunt for food in the wild, open fields. The four of us drew nearer and nearer to the sea of trees, little spots of blue already visible deep within the thick branches, the fruits standing out against the lush, verdant leaves. A Kangaskhan Stone quickly came into view, sitting forlornly at the edge of the greenery, speckled with a colorful assortment of grime. As we slowed to a stop, Erin wheezed heavily, thoroughly run down, and leaned against the statue. Rose ran a paw against the stone base as Cyan finally trampled into the forest border, breathing hard in and out through his stubby pink nose.

    "Well, this has certainly seen better days," I muttered under my breath, wiping a line down the Kangaskhan Stone, and I blinked as I rubbed the grime in between my pawpads. Erin gasped quietly as I looked over the monument, getting up and tiptoeing away, and Cyan reached up to grab a fruit from a plentiful bush.

    "At leas'..." Cyan took a deep breath and a large bite out of the oran berry, his weariness fading away as a line of drool dribbled from his teeth. "At leas' we'll have plenty t'eat if we get tired."

    "You just like eating, Cyan," Rose chuckled, and she turned towards Erin. "Let's rest for a while, and then we'll head in. Sound good?"

    "Awwww!" Erin cooed, and I looked over at the fighting type, who was intently watching a baby Caterpie inch his way towards a plump berry, curling around the oran and wiggling happily as he started to eat. "All right, little guy! You did it!"

    "I think he probably appreciates the sentiment, Erin," Rose chuckled, moving to the younger girl's side, and I folded my arms, amused. "But you probably shouldn't cheer him on."

    "Ecch... g-guys? I don... don' feel s'good... hee hee!"

    The three of us spun on our heels to look at Cyan, who awkwardly stumbled forward, his eyes glazed over as he chuckled lightly to himself. The berry he had eaten was nowhere to be found, likely already beginning to digest, and the Samurott took a few steps forward before tripping over his own feet, his helmet's horn stabbing into the trail as he tried to steady himself. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as Erin bounced over and opened her friend's jaw, peering closely at the pearly teeth before slapping Cyan's side affectionately. "Did you eat an oren berry, you big doofus?"

    I couldn't help but crack a cheeky grin, and Rose let out a sigh.

    "Oh no."

    Lookalike! Tricked by a Berry!?

    Beams of sunlight cut through the tops of the trees, warming the backs of sleepy cocoons that hung from the trunks, and the relaxing sound of wild Combee filled the air, the honey-makers flitting from flower to flower and fruit to fruit. The tall grass tickled our feet as we trekked through the winding understory, taking berries from the trees and slipping them into the pockets of the treasure bag, which slowly began to fill. Rose slowed down a bit as I lumped a couple oran (I made sure) and rawst berries into the bag, and the Ninetales stretched her legs as the weight of the food began to settle on her back.

    "Heh-hey, there's three'a ya, uhuh," I was quickly brought back to reality as Cyan let out an inane babble, and I turned around, watching as Erin guided the great sea lion along, her sleeves hanging limply as she pressed her paws against his cheeks. "Quit... quit usin' a double team on m... mugh..."

    "C'mon, Cyan, just try and follow me!" Erin chanted cheerfully, getting a chuckle out of the drugged Pokémon. "Don't worry, everything'll be all better soon!"

    "How soon, exactly?" I asked, folding my arms and turning around, walking backwards as Erin looked over her shoulder at me. Rose continued to lead us through the thicket, occasionally nosing off the beaten path and coming back with a berry or two. "He ate the whole oren berry, Erin. He's pretty much totally gone, right?"

    "Yup!" She nodded her head, shrugging at us with a smile. "I tried giving him some of the medicine I keep for emergencies, but it doesn't look like it's working."

    "Isn't there anything else you can do for him?" Rose asked, worry clear in her voice, her tails drooping low to the ground. "I don't know how much progress we can make if he's as, uh, out of it, as he is."

    "Hmm... lemme think," Erin spun her belt around and dug into her medical satchel as her mind raced. Cyan sniffled loudly, slumping forward as he tried to focus. "The oran medicine didn't work, but I only gave him a teeny-weeny bit, just a couple dribbles since it's so strong and everything, so maybe I should give him more-"

    "No..." I shook my head as the Mienshao began to ramble to herself, and I turned to look at Rose, who half-frowned in thought. "No, I think getting him overdosed would lead to an even worse situation."

    "There's not much that you can do about oren poisoning... it's not like actual venom, a pecha berry won't work," The nine-tailed fox said, pacing back and forth and digging her claws deep into the fallow dirt as she pondered what to do. I reached backwards, putting my paws behind my head. The four aura tassels bounced lightly against my pawspikes. "It'd be great if we could just set up camp, but we only just left town..."

    "Why don't we just keep on going?" I suggested, and Rose turned her head to look at me. I smiled confidently, reaching over to tousle her headfur. "We have places to be, so we might as well think on the go, right?"

    "I suppose," Rose replied, stopping at a beam of sunlight that peeked through the trees. Motes of dust floated through the air, and I reached up to pluck a blooming flower from one of the fruit trees. I took a sniff of the sweet-smelling scent as a grunting came from behind me.

    "H-hey, y'hear me..." Cyan stuttered, and the two of us glanced back at the addled sea lion. Erin was still talking to herself, leaving the poor Samurott to get himself stuck in a rut, his helmet stuck in a tree as he attempted futilely to walk through it. "What's with th'damn... trees? They..."

    "Oi, Erin!" I called the Mienshao back to attention, and she perked her head up, scampering back over to her friend and dislodging him from the tree trunk. "C'mon, keep track of him, alright?"

    "Okay, Bill!" Erin yipped excitedly, and she pulled hard on the Samurott's cheeks, bringing him over to Rose and I. Cyan grumbled in mild pain, his belly letting out an irritated gurgle.

    "It's the three of us versus one of him, Rose," I added with a nod, and Erin rocked back and forth on her heels. "We should be just fine as long as we can keep an eye on him."

    "I guess..." Rose was still skeptical, cocking her head in concern at the large Pokémon. "...alright, let's get moving, then."

    The massive, sprawling orchard buzzed with activity as we casually strolled our way through the winding forest paths, only briefly taking breaks to get Cyan and Erin back on the right track, or to pick a few berries from some of the trees. One particular line of bushes was filled with flowering fruits, not quite ready to pick, and Erin had to keep Cyan from burying his face in the foliage and eating the inedible plants. We moved away from the patch as quickly as we could, as various bug types passed us by, content to keep to their work.

    "Woah," Cyan drawled, a stupid grin plastered on his face as Erin pulled on his paw. He continued to be distracted "All... all thish food!"

    "Control your stomach, bucko," Rose warned with a sigh, and I squatted down, slipping the treasure bag off of the fox's neck before returning her blue scarf. She nodded gratefully at me as I slung the leather straps over my shoulders. "If we can just get through the forest and close to Apple Woods, we can take a break for some lunch."

    "Lunch!" Cyan's head perked up, and he nodded wildly, nearly bonking Erin's head with his helmet. The pink mink deftly dodged out of the way, moving left, but she kept holding onto her friend's paw. Feeling the forceful tug, Cyan circled after his friend, laughing childishly as he continued to nod. "Lunch souns... soun's gooooood..."

    "Well, if we get there, we can have lunch sooner!" Erin replied cheerfully, tugging harder on her friend's armored arm. "C'mon, you big doofus, let's go!"

    "Hhhhey..." The Samurott furrowed his brow, looking straight ahead of us. "Lookit... lookit all those berries over on th'trees!"

    Up in one of the trees, on a rather high branch, was an enticingly-plump yellow berry, swaying gently in the breeze. Every so often a Butterfree or Hoppip would flitter over to it, only to quickly pass by, as if they had never seen it. I grinned, stretching my arms and legs. "Eyes of a Staraptor, stomach of a Snorlax."

    "Ooh, what is it?" Erin stood on her tippy-toes, bringing a paw to her eyes as she tried to get a better view. Her sleeve drooped in front of her face, and she let out a huff as she hastily tied it into her sling. "I can't see-eee! Bill, Rose, what's it look like, huh?"

    Rose's eyes widened in surprise, her tails beginning to wag up and down. "It looks like a sitrus berry from where I am!"

    "I can't see any dots on it..." I narrowed my eyes. The oval-shaped shape seemed to glisten with a healthy sheen as a ray of sunlight briefly passed over it. "Definitely looks like something we could use, though."

    "Well, what are we waiting for?" Erin said, slipping a paw into her belt pouch and drawing out a stone. "I'll get it down! Just sit back and watch me!"

    Before either Rose or I could stop her, she had spun her sleeve around a few times and let the stone fly, striking the branch squarely on its tip. It shook a bit, the berry spinning around as it dangled loosely from the wood. A wild Weedle inched down the trunk, settling comfortably on the underside of the wooden branch as it watched us with curious eyes. I reached over and firmly grasped Cyan by his backpack, steadying him as he tried to bumble away, and Erin let off another shot; it missed its mark by a mile, hitting a few inches under the berry.

    "Erin, don't waste your ammo," Rose chided gently, and the pink-furred weasel glanced over at the older Pokémon, her whirling fur coming to a stop a third stone slid out of the sling. Rose shook her head, her headfur waving around as she picked the stone up in her teeth and handed it back to the Mienshao, who returned it to her pouch. "We can just have Bill climb up the tree and get it that way, right?"

    "Eh?" My grin faltered slightly as I looked up at the tall tree. Rose and Erin looked at me expectantly, the latter walking over and squishing Cyan's cheeks together. The sea lion mumbled something inaudible. "Oh, all right, fine."

    I strode over to the tree, aura swirling around my pawspikes as snow-white claws jutted forward, and I squatted a bit before leaping high into the air, lashing out to grab onto a branch. As I briefly bounced downward, I clasped my other paw closer to the base of the tree, pulling myself up and staring at the fruit. The strange, egg-shaped berry beckoned to me, and I jumped from my perch to another foothold, just barely able to graze the Weedle's head with my paw as I reached out. He nipped at me warningly, and I frowned.

    "Bugger off, little guy, it's just a berry," I chastised the wild Pokémon, lightly poking it with one of the metal claws, and he scuttled higher onto the branch, leering warily at me as his pink nose and feet gripped the twig tightly. "Alrighty... let' s see here..."

    Reaching up, I gently felt the large berry, a slick, moist fluid covering the entirety of the pale yellow skin. Odd, round ridges circled around the oval shape, and I leaned in close, taking a deep sniff of the sweet scent, my mouth beginning to water at the honeyed... smell... wait...

    My heart dropped into my stomach as I recoiled quickly, losing my balance as I rocked back and forth on the tree branch, and I flailed my arms around, trying to keep from falling. The claws sprouting from my paws just nicked the bottom of the bug Pokémon's hive as I leaned too far forward, losing my footing and falling a good few feet in the air. I bet the Weedle was laughing at me.

    I slammed hard into the ground, a shock running up my stomach, and the various slivers of honeycomb bounced off of my head as I pushed against the roots of the tree. Rose galloped forward, sticking her head under my arm and helping me to my feet, and Erin led Cyan over, letting out an excited coo as she watched the honey slide down and out of the shredded hive.

    "Wowweeee!" The Mienshao cheered, moving away from her friend as she began to gather the pieces of the dripping honeycomb, cleaning them as best she could before wrapping them up and sticking them in a pocket of the hiking backpack. Cyan held a particularly large piece of honeycomb up to the sunlight, sticking out his tongue and taking a savoring lick of the wax. He let out another goofy laugh, preparing to stick the entire thing in his mouth.

    "Cyan, quit it," I scolded, swiping the thing away from him before he could eat it, wax and all. "Half of that's covered in dirt, you'll just get sick. Er."

    "Whuh?" He cocked his head. "Then... then I'll get ussom' honey thasn't touch th'dirt!"

    As the Samurott reared up, getting ready to charge into the tree, Rose stepped in front of him, hopping up on her hind legs as she mimicked the water type's movements. "No, Cyan, stop!"

    "H-heree go!" It was too late; Cyan dug his paws into the ground and stampeded forward, his helmet aimed straight and true at the tree's trunk, his body swirling with water. Rose shifted her weight to her back paws, holding her ground to tussle with Cyan, but I pounced forward and grabbed her before the charging Pokémon turned her into a fox-kebab. A loud THUNK sounded as the front horn dug into the tree, shaking the higher limbs hard enough to break the bond between hive and branch, as well as sending the Weedle scuttling further up into the canopy. "Y-yeah...! I did-"

    The honey hive skewered itself on top of one of the smaller horns that jutted skyward from Cyan's helmet, the sweet, egg-shaped structure still mostly intact as dribbles of fresh honey started to run down the sides of the shell armor. The Samurott found himself silenced by the impact, even more dazed from the collision, and Erin hopped over to help her friend free himself from a tree for the second time in the day.

    "You big booger!" She giggled, lightly chastising the tipsy water type. "Now look whatcha did!"

    "Whuh?" Cyan grumbled as he reached up with his paw to wipe the honey off of his head. "Whud I do?"

    A low, angry buzzing started to come from further into the thicket, a chorus of irritated chitters and chatters growing louder and louder as the low wind picked up the sweet scent of the honey hive, no longer hanging from its perch in the tall tree. I swallowed dryly as Rose and I spotted a swarm of Combee staring, wide-eyed, at the four of us, their jaws agape at the sight of their precious hive mostly demolished. "Oh, that's not good."

    "Erin," Rose spoke slowly, trying her best to keep her cool. "Erin, I need to you take the Combees' hive off of Cyan and place it on the ground."

    "Oh, okay!" Erin nodded obliviously, humming a peppy tune along with the buzzy bees as she tore the waxy thing off of the helmet and dumped it on the dirt, clapping her paws together as she suckled the glop off of them. "Sorry about that, Combees! We didn't mean to do that, our friend's just a little sick and he knocked it down, so..."

    "Erin, quit trying to start a conversation and get back over here," I gave a firm order, and the Mienshao let out a sigh of disappointment, waving a friendly goodbye to the bees as she plodded over to Cyan, who was looking around the clearing, the noisy swarm setting him on edge. "All right, now get Cyan and follow us... this way..."

    "Eh?" Cyan's head was whipping back and forth, the shell helmet still coated with honey glaze as a few particularly brave Combee flew forward, taking in the smell that wafted off of the heavy armor. "'Ey, get off'a me..."

    The sea lion drew one of his seamitars and raised it above his head, and Rose, Erin and I all jumped forward, hanging onto the drunk mercenary's arm as we tried to weigh it down. The change in balance took Cyan by surprise, and he flopped over onto his side, losing his grip on the shell blade as he closed his eyes, half-conscious as the full force of the oren berry hit him. The heap of us looked up at the swarm of Combee, who seemed to be talking amongst themselves, and I pulled both Rose and Erin close, whispering urgently.

    "Okay, new plan." I kept myself as still as possible, barely mouthing my movements as I played dead. My teammates, sans Cyan, followed suit, and I gave the clearing a once-over, a makeshift strategy pulling itself together. "Rose, help me get Cyan on his feet as quick as we can. Erin, do you still have any of those orbs from the river?"

    The pink mink nodded, rolling her eyes in thought. "Umm... yeah, there's one with a pretty bright light!"

    "A luminous orb?" Rose said in surprise, and I grinned. "Hm... that could work..."

    "I think it'll work fine, if we don't blind ourselves," I agreed, and I rolled onto my feet, pulling the Ninetales and Mienshao up with me. "Alright, now!"

    In the span of a few seconds, three things happened: Erin jammed her paw into her belt pouch, closed her eyes, and smashed the luminous orb into the dirt. As the hive of Combee cried out in shock, Rose and I covered Cyan's head and helped him back onto his feet, readjusting his backpack and dusting him off, and Rose's eyes quickly landed on a small path leading through a rough, untended part of the forest. "That way! Hurry!"

    As the cream-furred fox took point, Erin grabbed onto Cyan's paw, dragging him along as the four of us fled into the leafy trail, ticklish ferns and gnarled roots brushing into us as the sunlight became dimmer and dimmer, curtains of leaves and thinner trees hanging over our heads. A loud, feminine screech shot through the forest, whipping the Combee into an aggressive frenzy, and Cyan looked over his shoulder at the swarm of bug types that were finally breaking out of their stupor, spreading throughout the Oran Forest in search of us. He stumbled over a rock that jutted from the dirt, and Erin had to pull hard to keep him from falling over again.

    "Wha' th'heck's goin'..." He mumbled, and Erin gently patted the sea lion's cheek, ducking under branches and vaulting over fallen trunks. "Wha's with all th'buzzin'?"

    "Why can't we ever just have a nice walk in the forest that doesn't go wrong?" I quipped smartly.

    "It wouldn't be an adventure that way, right?" Rose retorted with a small smile on her face. A couple Combee zoomed past us, catching us in their sights, and they let out a melodic cry, shooting at us with colorful beams of light. I yelped as I nearly stepped into the path of one of the lasers, and I hopped on one foot for a few seconds before dodging, lashing out with the metal claws and landing a small cut across one of the Combees. It whined in pain, losing altitude as its tiny wings stopped fluttering for a moment.

    "That hive must have been reeee-ally important for the Combee to be this mad, huh?" Erin remarked with a spring in her step, trying her best to sling stones at the bug types, warding them away as they attempted to blast us away with their attacks.

    "I don't see why that particular hive would get them all riled up," Rose said, letting lose a psyshock at one of the wild Pokémon. I jumped into the air and spun around, smacking both of the Combee with my tail, and they flew into the trees, knocked out from the impact. "Mystery dungeon or not, they'd have to have plenty more around the forest!"

    A shadowy figure appeared some paces away in the thicket, hourglass-shaped with a large, red glow coming from the top of its head. The Pokémon raised its arms, a swirling ball of orange energy forming from the light of the jewel on its forehead, and I sucked in a breath, pushing Rose and Erin low, ducking under the attack. Cyan yelped as he tripped over us, landing facefirst into the dirt and groaning in pain, spitting out bits of grime as his addled brain tried to pull itself together as best it could.

    "C'mon, c'mon, we've got to keep moving!" I said, running over to the sea lion and yanking on his two front paws. Erin took care of his back paws, resting the mercenary's tail atop her head, and Rose slipped underneath Cyan's belly, grunting as she pushed with her back muscles. "There's got to be a clear spot around here somewhere!"

    "Bill, just keep going forward!" Rose said, her nose poking out from between my ankles. "I can see really bright sunlight a little ways away!"

    "Alright, let's go!" I nodded, and the three of us, carrying Cyan along, hoofed it, the foliage beginning to thin out as more and more beams of light pierced through the high canopy, tree roots and weeds settling more levelly into the dirt. The attacks from the Combee seemed to ease off a bit, most of them striking the ground close to our feet or the branches above our heads. Leaves were torn from their trees and plants were uprooted as the multicolored lights carved their way through the forest, and with a final rush Rose, Erin and I crashed our way into the open spot, the breeze sending rustles through the forest as we tumbled and rolled across the dirt.

    Cyan grunted as he slid on his belly, smacking his lips as he became slightly more lucid, and I pushed off my knees and onto my feet, brushing flecks of dirt off of my shoulders. Erin kept to the tall grass, rolling around in the small field as she basked in the warm sunlight, giggling all the while. A softly-flowing brook streamed westward, Rose already lapping up a drink from the clear, cool water.

    "Is everyone okay?" She asked, panting hard between drinks. "Where's the swarm of Combees? There's no way we threw them off that easilMMPH-"

    A shot of white string launched out from the trees, cutting Rose off mid-sentence as it wrapped around her mouth. Another few strings shot out from the opposite end of the field, tying Cyan down by his paws, and I instinctively stepped away, another orange blast of energy colliding where I was just standing. Erin gasped in surprise, scrambling to get up as we moved back to back, a pair of Beedrill leaving their cover as they circled us. An uproarious screech announced the presence of the queen of the hive, the hourglass-shaped Vespiquen from before. She hovered low to the ground, glowering at us as she stayed to the sidelines.

    "You take the Beedrill. Try and knock them out with your throwing stones. I'll focus on the Vespiquen." I spoke low and quiet, and Erin nodded. I threw her a confident grin. "And use the big guy over there as cover if you need it!"

    I ran forward, brandishing my metal claws as I dashed at the queen bee, and Erin skipped away, slinging stones at one of the Beedrill as it closed in, its stingers gleaming in the sun as it began to rain needles down from the sky. Rose got to her feet, galloping over despite her silenced muzzle, and pounced on one of the bug types, pinning it to the dirt and slashing with her claws. The Vespiquen charged up another power gem as I charged at her, roaring out a battlecry, and she flung it at me with a screech of her own.

    "Nice try!" I snorted, sliding underneath the wild Pokémon as her attack blasted a small crater in the field, and I spun on my heel, leaping onto the bee's back and poking my claw gently at the red gem on her forehead. She tensed up, freezing in place (except for her wings, which kept her afloat, of course), and I wrapped my legs around her arms, squeezing tight to keep her from moving. "Oi, Beedrill!"

    Rose and Erin looked up, letting their foes go as the two Beedrill stared at me, unfazed by their queen's capture. I jabbed my claws a little harder into the shining jewel, a nearly-inaudible 'tink' sounding. "Get out of here. We didn't mean to break your hive, our drunk friend over there is the one who you should be mad at. We plan on giving him what-for once he wakes up."

    The pair of bug Pokémon glanced at each other before nodding at me and slowly flying away, sinking into the depths of the forest. Once they had vanished from sight, I removed my paw from my prisoner's head, jumping from the Vespiquen's shoulders as I walked over to Rose, tearing her bindings off, and she worked her sore jaws, giving me a grateful look.

    "Funny how often you can avoid these things by talking first," She muttered under her breath as she looked worriedly at Cyan, and I let out a round of snickers. Vespiquen shifted between angry and irritable before settling with resignation, clacking her mandibles together one final time before flying away, likely to call her swarm off. Erin was checking her friend over, dabbing gingerly at the string shots that bound the Samurott's paws to the dirt.

    "Bill! Rose!" She called over to us. "C'mon, help me get these things off of Cyan!"

    The nine-tailed fox and I both sighed.

    The next morning...

    "Oooargh... m'head... what's happenin'?"

    Cyan's eyes blinked open as a gust of cool wind blew past his ears, the distinct lack of his seamitars and helmet overpowering the massive ache that throbbed painfully in his forehead. He tried to reach up and massage his temples, only to struggle to even lift his paws. "What? What th'heck's wrong with me!? Aggh..."

    A surge of pain rolled through his brain, sending him to the ground as he groaned in mild agony. "Arghghgh... dammit, Arceus dammit... m'head is killin' me!"

    "Really?" I said with a grin, and the Samurott turned his head around to look at me. Rose was getting another drink from the brook, while Erin scrubbed fiercely at the shell helmet with a wet strip of bandages. I leaned against Cyan's side, tossing an oran berry up in the air. "I couldn't tell."

    "Bill..." Cyan grumbled in annoyance, wincing as his headache took its course. "I... I can't remember anythin' about yesterday. Where are we? What's goin' on?"

    I waited a few seconds before catching the berry, holding it between two of my pawpads for the young mercenary to see. He blinked expectantly, confused by the gesture. "You really ought to check what you're eating before you eat it, y'know? You'd have saved us a lot of trouble yesterday if you hadn't eaten that oren berry."

    "Gah-" He gritted his teeth, trying to fight the aftereffects of the oren berry from the previous day. "What? You've gotta b'kiddin' me!"

    "Nope!" Erin bounded over with her friend's helmet, plunking it haphazardly on his head and childishly playing with his mustache. Cyan grimaced grumpily. Or maybe it was just because of pain. I couldn't really tell. "You were a big goofball yesterday! You said lots of funny stuff and even got your head stuck in a tree!"

    "Wh-what?" Cyan replied, flustered. Rose walked over to us as Cyan sputtered to himself. "You're jokin', right? Bill, she's pullin' m'leg, right?"

    Rose sat down and gave the embarrassed Pokémon an amused gaze. "We all had to pull your legs at one point to keep you moving yesterday, buster."

    I barked out a laugh, bringing a paw to my mouth as I tried to stifle myself, and Erin flopped into the warm, sunny grass, rolling around as she giggled loudly. Rose ducked away, trying her best not to laugh at the thoroughly-humiliated Cyan, who looked over at his paws, still bound by the Beedrill's string shot.

    "Ahah... eheh... we shouldn't be laughing at you, Cyan." I quickly caught myself, letting my aura form a claw as I cut through the bindings, patting his side as he stretched his sore limbs out. "Sorry. Just promise to pay attention to what you pick next time?"

    "Fine." Cyan rolled his eyes, resting his chin in his front paws. "Fine."
     
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  7. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 7!

    The sounds of hushed whispers, mixed with cracking,burbling, and pitter-pattering, roused Mint from her sleep, her droopy eyes fluttering open as she tried to locate the source of the noise. A strong, soothing fire roared a short distance away from her, sending shivers through her body as the heat exacerbated her warm body temperature. She tried to take a deep breath and found herself fully roused by the loud, obnoxious snorting that her nose made, and she stood up, shaking around as she yawned.

    "Ergh, yuck." She grimaced, her stuffy nose completely unable to help her breath, and she took a couple gulps of air through her mouth, her throat scratchy and dry. The two flowers on her cheeks felt slightly wilted. "Drink... something to drink..."

    "M-Mint?" A quiet voice caught her ear, and the Shaymin turned around to look at her friend. Darkrai watched the two of them as Fern plodded over and rubbed at her back, the fire's light reflecting off of the starry cloak and the gray stone walls as wind whistled in from the outside-

    Darkrai!?

    "Uwah!" Fern yelped as he found himself sprawled onto his back, and Mint growled as she stepped in front of her friend, glaring at Darkrai. A few seconds later, she found herself beginning to cough violently, her throat too sore to keep up the act. The legendary Pokémon blinked mildly.

    "Wh-what are you doing h-here?" Mint managed to sputter out as her fit eased off. "D-didn't you hear me? Do what you want to do!"

    "M-Mint, stop..." Fern sighed, rolling back onto his feet and poking Mint's cheek. "Stop it! He helped us!"

    "What!?" She replied with no small hint of skepticism, turning around to stare at Fern. He shook a bit under her gaze. "Helped us? How!?"

    She shuddered as her voice burned in pain, and her mouth watered desperately as she tried to moisten her throat, stroking at her chest as she gestured at Fern. He sucked in a breath before looking past her at Darkrai. She frowned irritably, gasping out a few words. "W-water... w-water, please..."

    She heard a shuffling as the sound of a light splash echoed around the room, and she turned around, watching the cloaked Pokémon dip his hand into a small wellspring that flowed from the wall of the station pass. A couple small boxes and pots sat close by with their lids askew, revealing the dried berries and nuts that sat within. Mint weakly hobbled over, only to find herself held firmly by the scruff of her neck. Darkrai gently squatted down, pressing a hand to her lips. Cool water brushed against the bottom of her nose. "Drink."

    She eyed Darkrai warily, his ice-blue eyes locked with her emerald-green ones. She glared at him for a few moments before she felt her throat begin to burn again, and she coughed into the offered hand, sniffling as her nose began to twitch irritably. She could feel Fern looking worriedly at her from the ground. Left with little choice, she let out a soft sigh of defeat and stuck her tongue out, sticking her mouth into the water and beginning to drink. The crystal-clear liquid was a much-needed balm, washing down her throat and returning her strength, and the little hedgehog kicked about suddenly, wriggling out of Darkrai's grasp and clambering her way right into the font, slurping greedily.

    "Mint, a-are you okay now?" Fern asked quietly, peeking his head over the rocks as he watched his friend chug down her drink, standing underneath the flow of the fountain as she eyed the two Pokémon. Darkrai briefly massaged his hand before letting it fall to his side, standing up and dusting his cloak off. "You really got rained on yesterday."

    "Rained..." The memories came flooding back, and Mint gasped, shivers running down her spine as the water soaked her fur. Moving out of the fountain, she climbed back up onto the rocks, looking around the station pass. "The Gracideas! Fern, where are they? I don't smell any!"

    "We..." Fern shrank back, hiding himself in his bushy green fur as Mint eyed the Shaymin accusingly. "You crashed into me and we lost them... and the basket, r-remember? In... the storm?"

    "I..." The muddy, ruined basket, in her mind's eye, silenced her. "Oh... aaaagh, you're right! What was I thinking!? C'mon, Fern, let's go back to the peak and-"

    A booming clap of thunder rang through the room, and Mint lost her balance in surprise, falling face-first onto the stone floor. She groaned, picking herself up, and as she scratched at her ear, Darkrai placed a handful of food in front of her. She looked up at him, cocking her head in bewilderment. He stared back, unfazed. Rain pounded outside.

    "I think that would be an unwise decision."

    Friendship! The Childish Nightmare!

    The trio of Pokémon sat quietly around the fire, the warmth of the flickering flames enveloping the two hedgehogs and their companion as they ate their meal. The sundried fruits and preserved nuts, old and a bit tasteless from sitting so long inside of a dusty box, did little to help settle Mint's stomach, and she crunched into a particularly hard chestnut with a grunt, chewing with the most bored expression she could muster. She rolled onto her back and kicked her paws into the air, flinging a few half-hearted punches at the ceiling.

    "Are you not hungry?" Darkrai asked, and she turned to look at the tall, legendary Pokémon, who watched her placidly, holding a small cheri between two fingers. She groaned.

    "No, I'm not happy!" She rolled around like a barrel, from one wall to the other and back again, grumbling to herself all the while. "I'm bored! There's nothing to do in here, I can't fly out in the storm and we're just stuck here!"

    "M-Mint, we have to stay here until the last of the storm passes over," Fern stuttered, nibbling on his own helping of preserved food. Despite the weather raging outside, his soft smile seemed abnormally happy. "Besides... it's not so bad in here."

    "Not so bad!?" She scampered over to her friend, knocking his food away accidentally as she leered at him. Fern recoiled in surprise, taking a step backwards, his tail pressed against the stone. "Not so bad? Are you kidding me?"

    "Mint." Darkrai said firmly, causing both Shaymin to turn and look at him. His mouth was full; the girl wrinkled her nose. "This storm would have come to pass whether or not you took shelter here, correct?"

    "Eh?" Mint rolled her eyes upward in thought, scratching an itch at her cheek. "Yeah, this storm was coming sooner or later, so that's why we needed to find you before-"

    "Find me?" Darkrai interrupted, his eyes widening in dampened shock. "For what reason?"

    "You already asked that yesterday, remember?" Mint jabbed her paw in Darkrai's direction, unhappy with being cut off. "We wanted to find our flowers, and then we went to thank you for keeping them safe for us!"

    The dark type was silent, processing her words, and Mint turned towards Fern, who was gathering up his scattered food. With a sigh, she walked away, back to her own breakfast, and collapsed into a frumpy lump on the ground, nibbling at the trail mix absently. It tasted like... well, it didn't really taste like anything, actually, but that was beside the point!

    "No flowers, no basket, no nothing..." Mint complained under her breath, bouncing the shells of a chestnut between her two front paws. She couldn't even wince at the slight pain the prickles sent through her nerves. "We get yelled at by Sage and come back to get flowers and we still can't even do that right!"

    "Sage?" Darkrai chimed in, shaken out of his trance by the unfamiliar name. "Who does that name belong to?"

    "Bah, who cares?" Mint took the halves of the shell in her mouth and spit them into the fire, embers quickly eating through the plant. The fire waved passively as the slightest stormy breeze swirled through the tunnel, the oxygen keeping the flames alive. "He's a jerk, that's all you need to know."

    "Mint, don't... t-talk about Sage like that," Fern's voice faltered, his smile drooping. Darkrai looked at the young boy out of the corner of his eyes, folding his arms as he watched the two children try to continue. "He's just..."

    "He yelled at you and made you cry, Fern!" Mint yelled, the loud noise bouncing around the cavern. Darkrai blinked, sucking in a breath as Fern winced in unhappiness. "He's never been nice to either of us, or to anyone in the village. He's just an old, crabby Pokémon who doesn't believe us and sent us up here to get rid of us!"

    "What does he not believe you about?" Darkrai reached over to Fern and lightly fluffed his fur. The Shaymin sighed gratefully.

    "We got scared the other day when we first found you and went back and told Sage, alright?" Mint exhaled, lowering her voice as she tried to keep her cool. Darkrai's eyes seemed to shift into a suspicious leer. "But he didn't believe us, yelled at us for not coming back with any Gracideas, and then told us to just come back here and stay here for a while!"

    "You..." Darkrai murmured, his eyes flashing briefly as he slipped his other arm deeper into his sleeve, feeling at the petals of his Gracidea. "You were banished from your village?"

    "Nah, not banished, really," Mint replied, shaking her head. "He's a jerk, but he's also one of the elders in the village, so we have to do what he says!"

    "I... see." The legendary Pokémon nodded.

    "M-Mint, he did ask us to bring back some flowers..." Fern added, but Mint silenced him with a wave of her paw, the girl rolling around again on her back.

    "Flowers, shmowers, who cares about that?" She growled through gritted teeth, peering upside-down at Fern. "All he wanted was to get rid of us and you know it!"

    "Get rid..." Fern trailed off mid-sentence, looking down at the gray stone floor and rolling a dried berry around, taking the smallest of nibbles every so often as his hesitation grew. An unspeakably-awkward silence followed, the tension thick enough to drown in, and the three Pokémon stared into the small fire, nobody willing to strike up another conversation. And so they simply sat.

    Seconds turned to minutes, minutes turned to hours as the rainstorm outside the station pass poured down upon the mountain, the crevice pathway leading to the southern part of the peak as foggy as ever as the legion of dark clouds moved along. The sky turned from charcoal to a brighter grey (not that it meant much), the thunder and lightning becoming less frequent as a single beam of sunlight illuminated the mud at the entrance to the cavern. Mint had left her spot near the rest of her companions, struggling to climb into one of the pots of provisions, and with a whooping call she felt both her and the container tip over, the little hedgehog buried under food.

    "Pththtuff!" The girl spat out a string of plain seeds, plink-plink-plinking against the ceiling as she wriggled her way out of the pile. "AaaaAAAAAGh! This is so boring, I swear to Arceus!"

    "I am sorry for what happened yesterday," Darkrai started to apologize, only to find himself getting hit in the forehead with a hard nut. He winced, rubbing the sore spot with a finger as he turned to stare at Mint. Her cheeks bulged with seeds, nuts and other tiny bits of food, ready for her to launch at him.

    "Och, shuh hup!" The grass type managed to say with her mouth full, and she spat a berry at him, which he just narrowly dodged with a twist of his neck. "Ooh hff noff t'hee sorrh frr!"

    Darkrai ducked and dodged a few more projectiles before standing up, letting his cloak flare to its full length before stepping over to the impudent Pokémon, slipping his fingers into her back fur as he picked her up. Placing his thumbs on her cheeks, Darkrai pushed hard, forcefully shooting the food into the floor until the supply had been exhausted. Mint gasped for air, a disgruntled look on her face as she was returned to the ground. "Speak again. I could not understand your words previously."

    I said, 'Shut. Up. You. Have. Nothing. To. Be. Sorry. For!'" Mint enunciated each word clearly and sharply, moving back towards the pot of food as she tried to push it up again. "Heck, you saved us from being stuck in the storm! Who cares if you don't know a single thing about this mountain?"

    "I do not understand why you care so strongly... but that was not what I wished to apologize for," Darkrai said simply, and Mint glanced at him. Fern, who had stayed silent near the fire during the ordeal, peered over as well, his eyes bright and curious. Letting out a long, tired breath of air, the legendary Pokémon gingerly righted the upturned pot before leaning against the wall, looking blankly into the fire. One of the logs collapsed, its middle turned to ash. "I tried to get rid of Fern, and then you, even though the two of you had nowhere else to go..."

    "Huh?" Fern said, his mouth pursing into a perfect circle of surprise. "That's... n-not true, Darkrai. Y-you just wanted us to bring the flowers back to the village."

    "I acted in the same manner as the others..." Darkrai said, more to himself than either of the two Shaymin, and Mint frowned, running forward and bashing lightly into the pair of thin black legs.

    "Will you stop talking like that, you idiot?" She didn't knock the tall Pokémon over like she had hoped, but she had at least gotten his attention, even if he was just staring sadly at her. "Quit being all mysterious and spit it out! Who's these others? What's with you being all mopey all of a sudden?"

    "The others are-" Darkrai's voice was slightly strained, the typically-gravelly tone high as he trembled, warping the stars on his cloak. He seemed out of it, his eyes glazing over as he began to mutter. "Not important."

    Fern toddled over, looking up his nose at the legendary dark type. "Yes they are, D-Darkrai... you were about to talk about them yesterday before you sent me away. What's wrong?"

    "Monster! Get away from my wife!"

    "I have no intention of harming you or your-"

    His legs throbbed as he replayed the smacking sound of a hardwood staff against the bones, swept off his balance.

    "Stay back! I won't hesitate to hurt you again..."

    "Please, I simply wish to talk-"

    A long-healed scab on one of his palms, from a Scyther's blade. He slipped the arm deep into the cloak, brushing past his Gracidea.

    "You deserve to be alone forever, you evil Pokémon."

    "But I don't understand why you think I am-"

    A harsh battlecry. A slap across the face as he was knocked unconscious, without an explanation. He exhaled heavily, his eyes growing wide.

    "I am sorry."

    "Are you seriously still going to go on about that?" Mint replied, her words cutting deeper than she realized. "Do you seriously think that you need to apologize for what you did for Fern and I?"

    "Darkrai, you're not a bad Pokémon..." Fern reassured, moving to comfort the legendary Pokémon. "You're our... friend..."

    "Friend?" The word seemed almost alien at this point. "No... you should not be. I could not let you endure it. It is for the best."

    Darkrai stood up sharply, his cloak billowing outward as it rose from the cold stone floor. Both Fern and Mint recoiled in surprise, eying the legendary Pokémon warily. The wisps on his head seemed to whip around in a panic, like it had a mind of its own, and a storm of emotions swirled around in his eyes, betraying his still posture. "Please."

    Before the two could stop him, Darkrai's arms had dropped to his sides, standing up and making a dash for the crevice path, splashing through the mud and rain as he was quickly swallowed up by the fog. Fern gasped and stumbled over himself as he tried to give chase, and Mint scrambled over to the edge of the station pass, yelling loudly.

    "Darkrai!" Her screams echoed across the trail, and she jumped up, trying in vain to see through the thick mist. The rain was finally, finally beginning to dwindle, having gone from a downpour to a gentle sprinkling, and the sun was beginning to shine brighter and brighter as the clouds reached their end. The heat from the fire seemed to fade as daylight warmed the mountaintop. "Darkrai, what the heck are you doing!? Come back!"

    Something small settled against her back, irritating her fur, and she shook herself around, blinking mildly as a rather roughly-handled pink flower drifted to her feet. "W... where the heck did this come from?"

    "I-It's a Gracidea!" Fern exclaimed, running over and poking it with his nose. "I... I gave Darkrai a Gracidea yesterday! This one must be his!"

    "His or not, I'm glad he was careless with it!" Mint took the flower's stem into her mouth, turning towards her friend and shoving the pink petals into his face. "Come on, Fern, let's use this and go after him!"

    "W-what?" Fern stuttered out. "D-do you think w-we should?"

    "Fern, what choice do we have?" Mint said quickly, closing her eyes as the power of the blooming Gracidea began to flow through her, and in a flash of light both she and Fern had transformed into their Sky Formes. She stretched out her legs and batted at her ears, warming up. "I'd take spending time with Darkrai over going back and having Sage yell at us again!"

    "But he..." Fern looked into the fog briefly. The legendary Pokémon already had a head start, but the look in his eyes pained him to remember. "...no, you're r-right. Darkrai needs o-our help."

    "That's the spirit, Fern!" Mint replied, her irritation turning to a cocky smile as she pounced forward, doing a small loop in the air. "Look, you head to the northern part of the mountain! I'll check the south again!"

    "A-alright!" Fern replied, taking a tentative jump as he hovered low to the ground. The two nodded briefly before splitting up, hurtling into the mist as they swooped upward and across the mountain trail, their paths diverging as Fern slipped into another cavern, while Mint continued through the muddy crevice.

    The eclipse cloak waved in the breeze as Darkrai slowed his pace to a crawl, the water gliding off of the star-patterned fabric as he reached out into the mist. A quiet, far-off rumble of thunder rolled through the valley as the sunlight began to shine through the tail ends of the storm, beginning to dispel the soupy fog, and the southern patch of Gracideas quickly came into view. The foggy forest in the distance was as coated as ever, and the grass and flora sparkled with dew. Sighing in frustration, Darkrai trekked his way over to the large tree near the flowers and stood among the gnarled roots, beginning to meditate.

    Aside from the slowing rain and the sound of the wind, a fresh silence reigned. He was alone again, left to his thoughts and his own devices.

    He replayed the vivid, terrifying memories in his head, deeply furrowing his brow as the various attacks and harsh words stuck him over and over, flinging him out of his peace every time he attempted to center himself. He couldn't tell whether his old wounds were truly in pain or if he had simply dreamed it all up, and he reached over to grasp at his shoulder, feeling down the odd growth that sprouted from the bone.

    He had been able to heal from the near-lethal blow, with time and care, and hiding himself whenever other Pokémon crossed his path. Neither Mint nor Fern could have taken the blow as easily.

    "It is for the best." He told himself. Fern's quiet statement of friendship made the words sound hollow now. "They will be given the same treatment I have if they are my... friends."

    What was he feeling?

    "You're our... friend..."

    Heck, what were they feeling?

    ...He should have asked when he had the chance.

    The warm sun shined down onto the foggy forest below, dissolving some of the low-hanging clouds that clung to the trees and revealing a small mountain that lay hidden underneath a thick cover. Darkrai leaned forward in confusion as he stared at the stone formation, a strange half-sphere with waterfalls running down its sides. It sparkled brightly in the light, and the legendary Pokémon put an arm up in front of his face to keep from being blinded.

    "There you are, you big fat moron!"

    He lowered his arm at the sound of Mint's voice, completely unsurprised. She frowned at him before hitting him with a headbutt, winding him. He flopped over onto his backside, sitting down as he tried to catch his breath, and he glared unhappily at the long-eared Shaymin. "I... hah... I did not want you to follow me."

    "You'll have to do better than coming back here to shake me off!" The girl said angrily, flying over to his chest and standing on top of him, pinning him to the ground. "And you're not going anywhere until you listen to me, got it?"

    Technically he could easily just pick her up and leave again, but the odd, nagging feeling picked at his mind again. "Why do you you keep coming back?"

    "Do you think we have anyone else to hang out with?" Mint left the question hanging, stomping her feet a few times on Darkrai's ribs. Along with the previous headbutt, he winced as air left his lungs again. "You think we can just get some Gracideas and go back and Sage'll be happy as a Clamperl? He'll yell at us for not staying up here and 'keeping an eye on you'!"

    "You... but you said he did not believe I was here!" Darkrai sputtered, briefly dropping his stoic mask before catching himself.

    "He doesn't, you doofus, but he'll yell at us anyway and probably send us back up here," Mint replied, forgetting what she was doing and pacing around atop the silky cloak. His curiosity piqued, Darkrai leaned up, shuffling around a bit to get more comfortable. "Besides, you obviously care about us more than he does!"

    "I..." He was thrown completely off-guard, his eyes growing wide at the statement. "What?"

    "Oh for Arceus' sake, I can understand not talking to anyone but do you really not understand the concept of friendship?" Mint snorted before coughing a bit, having scoffed too hard for her throat to handle. Darkrai frowned, lightly shaking his head.

    "Those who travel together are friends," Darkrai said, thinking back to the Pokémon he'd observed while hiding and healing. Happy, smiling faces that beckoned to him, only to turn on him when he revealed himself. "And strong friends defeat evil Pokémon and protect others from harm."

    Mint grumbled under her breath, rolling her eyes. "...okay fine maybe you do get it kinda."

    "And I am apparently an evil Pokémon," Darkrai continued, trying his best to focus solely on Mint. "And I have... had things happen to me because of it..."

    "You don't seem that evil to me!" Mint interrupted his train of thought, and she poked at the sore spot on his forehead with her paw. He grunted, reaching over and rubbing at the mild ache with a finger. "Heck, I've been saying that over and over, you saved Fern and I from getting stuck out in that storm! Is that evil?"

    "I sent Fern out into the storm," Darkrai said, feeling the odd strength well up in his heart again, and he raised his voice, speaking harder, stronger. "I had to make up for a deed I had done. Nothing more."

    "Yeah, and guess what? That's not evil!" Mint screeched, getting very close to his face before exhaling in frustration. Her breath smelled funny. Darkrai blinked. "You keep doing stuff and apologizing for it and then doing it again! You say sorry for sending Fern and I away and then tell us to stay away from you? You keep saying you're evil even though you saved our lives? Make up your mind!"

    "I..." The legendary Pokémon couldn't think of an answer, and he hung his head in shame. She was right, about everything, and somehow that froze all the energy in his heart that had been boiling hot just before. Even the stars on his cloak seemed to fade out in despondency. "I... I simply do not wish to bother you."

    "Mint!" A quiet voice yelled from afar, and the pair of Pokémon looked skyward as another Shaymin flew towards them, moving up and down the curves of the mountainside as he made his way into the valley. "You found him!"

    "Yeah, he decided to be predictable!" Mint called back to Fern, and the timid boy touched down a few paces away from the tree, walking the last few stretches as he shyly smiled at the two of them. "And I'm telling him a good what-for, too! You missed it!"

    "Darkrai, p-please don't run off like that!" Fern said, sniffing a bit as he dried his dew-coated paws on the cloak. "You could have g-gotten yourself hurt."

    "I would have been fine," Darkrai sighed, reassuring the Pokémon with a wave of his hand. "I am stronger than you may believe me to be."

    "That doesn't matter, D-Darkrai," Fern replied, moving next to his friend and sitting down, curling up comfortably on the dark type's lap. "Even if you don't think so... you're our f-friend. You helped us, and... w-we want to help you back."

    "F-Fern!" Mint said, pouting in embarrassment. "Don't say that kind of sappy stuff!"

    Darkrai looked from one Shaymin to the other before peering past both, looking out at the strange mountain in the distance. It was starting to become fogged over again, the perpetual mist pushed upwards by the currents of wind far below. Soon enough the half-sphere and its waterfalls were out of sight. He sighed, curling his arms up and pulling his companions into an embrace. Fern squeaked in surprise, while Mint wriggled around grumpily. The leaves of the tree above them rustled peacefully.

    "Hey, what gives?" Mint groaned as she ceased her struggles, resigning herself to the hug. The cloak was kinda soft, now that she really felt it. "Darkrai, come on!"

    "My friends," He whispered to himself. Fern smiled, closing his eyes and snuggling into Darkrai's shoulder. "I am sorry for worrying you."

    "Stop apologizing, geeze!" Mint said, and both Darkrai and Fern looked at her placidly. She grunted, turning her head away. "Just don't run off on us and we won't worry, got it?"

    "I..." Darkrai began, but simply nodded, the energy in his chest turning warm. "I understand."

    The feeling of having someone close by was the most wonderful thing he thought he had ever felt in his life, but even then, he eventually let the two Pokémon go, and they stretched their legs, backs and tails in relief.

    "Hah!" Mint chuckled to herself, before going into full-blow peals of laughter. "Hahahahahaha! I want to rub it in Sage's face!"

    "R-rub what, Mint?" Fern asked, and Darkrai sat his chin in his hands, puzzled slightly.

    "We were right! We were right about Darkrai being here all along, and we even made friends with him," Mint explained, a crafty grin on her face. "I just want to go back down there and have Darkrai tag along and show him! Then he'll see!"

    "B-But wouldn't he just treat Darkrai... badly?" Fern said back, recoiling as he looked over at the legendary Pokémon in question. "O-oh, I didn't mean-"

    "It is fine, Fern." Darkrai put his hand on Fern's side, the ghostly wisps on his head calmly moving back and forth as the softest of winds blew it around. The Shaymin blinked, gasping quietly in recognition; the torrent of emotions in the icy-blue eyes was gone, replaced by a strangely cheerful spark. "But it would be wiser to gather some flowers as well, to prove him wrong on both accounts, correct?"

    "You're in on this?" Mint jumped up into the air, hovering low to the ground as she looked at her newfound friend, who nodded in agreement. "But... wait, we can use one of the pots at the station pass!"

    "For what?"

    "Holding the flowers, doofus!" Mint shook her head around, her ears flopping back and forth. "Hang on, I'll be back before you know it!"

    The hotheaded girl swooped up, Fern and Darkrai tracing her movements, before she looped around and sped away, becoming a green-and-white-furred blur as she flew out of the field of flowers.
     
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  8. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Next up, Chapter 8! This one introduces the two on-again off-again, "unofficial" team members; I'm very fond of them, even if it's hard to write them at times outside of stuff focused entirely on them.

    "Are we there yet?"

    "Not if you start up with that," I replied with a nod, wearing a humored grin as I looked down my nose at Erin . She giggled back at me, her whiskers bouncing up and down as she looked at Rose and I from atop Cyan's backpack, her head resting atop her friend's helmet. "And you wouldn't want to give up when we're this close to the center of the woods, would you?"

    "Nope!" The Mienshao shook her head wildly, breathing deep of the earthy forest air. The four of us tracked our way through the wild woods, produce growing from nearly every branch, apples of all shapes, colors and sizes. The treasure bag was heavy on my shoulders, full to bursting with the fruit we'd gathered this morning and the day before, and Rose kept pace with me, her tails wagging and ruby eyes bright.

    "Are we at leas' close?" Cyan asked, arching his back as he shifted the weight of his backpack around. Erin held on tight to her friend's neck, her loose sleeve of fur dangling near the Samurott's front feet. "We've been marchin' since I woke up at th'little brook."

    "We've been making good time, Cyan." Rose sniffed at the ground, smiling as she picked up a fading scent, her ears flicking about excitedly. I playfully reached over and pinched their tips, watching my paws swing up and down, and the fox rolled her eyes at me. "We should be there pretty soon, so we can stop there and have lunch, okay?"

    "Lunch, eh?" The Samurott stroked his mustache thoughtfully before pumping a fist in the air. "Never worked with Perfect Apples b'fore. Bring it on, I'll take th'challenge!"

    "That's the spirit, you goofball!" Erin cheered with him, throwing a few punches skyward. "I bet it'll taste great with the honey we got from the Oran Forest!"

    "Did'ja have t'bring that up again…" Cyan grumbled grumpily, hiding his face in embarrassment. Rose and I took a step back, and I patted Cyan's side comfortingly. He sighed in frustration, wiping his forehead. "Sheesh, I already said I was sorry... still tired, too."

    As he put his foot down on a small lump of dirt, a clear sound rang through the air, startling a few nesting Starly out of the higher branches of the rounded, bushy trees. The four of us stopped walking, peering through the woods in search of the source of the noise, as the tone was followed by a medley of notes strung into a simple song. Rose cocked her head, thinking hard.

    "I think..." She hopped up onto her hind legs briefly, struggling to keep her balance as she peered into the forest depths. "I think it's coming from the center of the dungeon!"

    I grinned confidently, placing one foot in front of the other, posing like I was ready to race off at any moment. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's follow it!"

    As we jogged past the hanging branches and some fallen, rotten fruits, the music grew louder and louder, prompting Cyan to perk his head up, his exhaustion fading away, and I felt my eyes widen in surprise as he soon pushed past Rose and I, his horn deflecting droopy vines and other bits of flora as the end of the trail came into sight. A grand, bulky apple tree sprouted high from the dirt, its leaves a dark spring green that contrasted against the rest of the sunlit forest, our view slightly blocked by an old, curving tree.

    At the base of the plant, among its roots, was a campfire and wooden spit, and a colorful bird roasted a harvest of Perfect Apples over the open flame. At the sound of the commotion, he craned his head around to stare at us. He shot a toothy grin, light reflecting off of a necklace of baby-blue jewels hanging from his neck.

    "Well, well, I didn't expect to see you four kiddos wander into us!"

    "Vale?" Rose poked her head out from under my tail as she heard the scratchy voice, and I gave a short wave as the Archeops turned to look up into the high boughs, flapping his yellow plumage a bit as she began to move towards him. "Hey, Vale!"

    "Wait, don't do-" The bird yelled in a sudden panic, but it was too late. A bump underneath her paws made her freeze in place, and without warning the bending tree swung backwards, trapping the four of us in a thick net of rope that bounced against the tree trunk. I grunted in pain as Cyan elbowed the back of my head, and I heard an unenthusiastic laugh from Vale. "Haaah... Star, should I get 'em down?"

    The music stopped, the last notes of the flute fading softly as a black fox, with thin limbs and a mane of wild red hair, shook the tree as she swung down from one of the branches. She held a small flute in her paws, puffing into it a couple more times before sending a welcoming look our way, fluttering her eyelashes at us as she slipped the simple instrument into a knapsack that hung at her hip. I spotted the star-shaped patches of fur at the edges of her mouth.

    "There's a joke I could make here, but I won't," She said, putting a paw on her hips and wagging a claw at us. The Zoroark smiled coyly. "It's been a while, Returners!"

    Swamp? Battle in the Trapped Trench!

    "What the heck are you two doing here?" I asked, grabbing a skewer of apple slices that Vale swung towards me with his beak. Cyan and Erin had already gobbled down two helpings shared between them, and I slid a couple of the slightly-charred apples off of the stick, passing them to Rose. The nine-tailed fox accepted the food gratefully, nibbling at the tender fruit. The net trap had been sliced to ribbons and sat forlornly near the apple tree, the scraggly ropes never again to scoop another Pokémon into their grasp. "I thought you two said you were headed back to the southeastern islands."

    "We were, actually," Star replied, and I bit into an apple, savoring the crisp taste. "But we caught wind of a treasure hidden around here."

    "Don' tell me your still lookin' for human doodads?" Cyan said, flecks of apple flying from his mouth. "I thought you'd b'tired of it by now. I bet most of th'really good stuff's already been discovered."

    "Ahh, I've missed your naivete, spikes," Star remarked, reaching over and running a paw down Cyan's helmet. The Samurott grunted, rolling his eyes at his nickname, while Erin giggled, sneaking another skewer of apples away from the fire. "And don't speak with your mouth full."

    "Besides, why are you four kids hanging around here, eh?" Vale asked back to us, flapping his wings a bit as he fanned the fire. "We weren't expecting to see any explorers come this way!"

    Rose licked her lips, a trail of apple juice dribbling just down her lip. I reached over and wiped it up with my pawspike, and she winked cheerfully at me before responding. "We're on the way to some work, over at Sky Peak. We were going to take the path through Mount Horn, but... well, it's a long story."

    "Maybe we should have kept you in the net then," Vale chortled, reaching over and lightly tickling Erin with his feathers, making her drop her swiped food. "Lucky for us you stepped into it, hah! One less danger to worry about!"

    "Wait..." I folded my arms in confusion, and Rose looked over at him with a thoughtful expression. "That wasn't yours?"

    "For once it wasn't ours, no," Star answered, gesturing with her head towards the mystery dungeon. "You've heard about the dragon that lives around here, right?"

    Erin stopped just short of retrieving her stick, Rose's jaw dropped in surprise, and I felt myself grow tense as I covertly glanced over my shoulder, looking suspiciously at the empty trail. Both the Zoroark and the Archeops seemed amused by our reaction, judging from their stifled laughter. Cyan's eyes were wide as he spoke our thoughts. "You're sayin' there's a dragon livin' around here!?"

    "Relaaax, relaaax, it's not any kind of super-strong dragon." Star looked nonchalantly at us, leaning back and licking the fruit juice from her claws. Vale moved away from the fire, rolling a raw apple between his wings before digging into it, biting and pecking voraciously. "I'm surprised you kids didn't know, honestly!"

    "Well, we don't really get much of a chance to go hunting for treasure, Star," I said with a shrug.

    "Aww, are the guild-goers always so swamped with work?" She lightly teased us in response, playfully wiggling her paws at us before shaking her head, her hair waving wildly. "It's just a Gabite. He lives inside of the Labyrinth Cave, just close by."

    "And I'm guessing he's the one who guards the treasure, right? Raaar!" Erin imitated her elder, hopping up on one foot and waving her arms around as she roared, playing the part of the Gabite. "Arr! None of you are gonna steal from my hoard!"

    Vale smirked, getting a running start and flapping his wings, grabbing the Mienshao's sleeves with his talons and lifting her up in the air. Erin yelped cheerfully as her feet left the ground, swinging back and forth as her ears blew backward from the force of Vale's flight. The bird laughed with her. "You'll have to do better than that, Erin!"

    Cyan quietly munched on his meal as he watched the two play, and Rose and I gave each other a mutual look of concern before turning back to look at Star. The Zoroark had taken her flute out and was about to string off a few notes, but Rose interrupted as she spoke her thoughts. "So... the Gabite is the one who set the trap? Why does he have them set up so far from the cavern?"

    "To test Pokémon who want to find the treasure, of course!" Star reached for the torn ropes, holding it just under her nose as she tugged it taut. Her eyes flicked towards the Ninetales, who was digging lightly at the dirt. "Why do you ask?"

    "Well..." Rose started, looking up at the older fox. "You and Vale know more about seeing traps than Bill or I do."

    "And all six of us are headed in the same direction right now," I added. "So..."

    "Oh?" Understanding dawned in Star's eyes after a few seconds, and she threw us a seductive gaze, flashing the red stars at each end of her smile. "Ohhhh... I see where you're going with this."

    "Right," I replied, folding my arms as I glanced at Vale and Erin out of the corner of my eye. Cyan had decided to join them in their goofing-off, plucking slices of apple off of the last of the sticks and launching them at his friend, who tried to catch them as Vale flew her around. "It's probably for the best if we work together on the way through the cave."

    "And what exactly will Vale and I get out of this, hm?" Star leaned back until she was laying against her hair, which provided her a cushion against the ground. I rolled my eyes, but Rose gave her a small smile in return.

    "If you want us to help you with the Gabite, we'll be glad to lend a paw," She said, and the two foxes nodded in agreement. "Though, if you don't mind me asking, what treasure is the Gabite guarding?"

    "I was wondering when I'd hear it, hah," Star replied with a chuckle, twirling her flute around in her claws. With a light toss, the spinning instrument flew up into the air, and the Zoroark caught it on the way down. "You wanna know what the treasure is, huh?"

    "You're not old enough to have your hearing going, Star," I quipped, kicking some dirt onto the dying fire to put the ashes out. "C'mon, what's the deal?"

    "I'll tell you kids when you get to the cave, alright?" She played a couple notes on her flute before rolling onto her feet, a grin on her face. "Vale! Let's head out!"

    "Alrighty!" The Archeops bellowed, and with a mighty swoop he tossed Erin into the air. She laughed as she went up and then down, landing on top of Cyan's backpack in a heap. "Grab on and we'll get goin'!"

    The Zoroark did a few quick stretches before striding forward and jumping high, clasping her paw around one of her partner's talons. As the two rose higher and higher above the forest, Star called out to us, raising her voice above the gale. "If you're really going to help out, head to the cave, and we'll meet up there!"

    "But wait! Star!" Rose called back, staring at the receding figures. "I thought we were going to travel together!

    "We are!" She could barely be heard as the pair of Pokémon rose above the canopy. "But you never said anything about the forest!"

    Rose opened her mouth to answer back, but stopped short to consider Star's words, frowning lightly. I chuckled, reaching over to tousle the Ninetales' headfur, and she leaned into my paw, nuzzling the spike jutting out of it. Cyan and Erin both waved quietly, the latter standing on her tip-toes as the center of the woods grew silent. A few, unripe Perfect Apples hung from the very top of the grand tree, waiting for the mystery dungeon to warp itself and force another fresh crop into existence. As I took a step forward, my foot collided with something long and bristled. I looked down at the pile of ropes, a bunch of sticky skewer sticks mixed in with the fibers, and sighed, rubbing at my temples.

    "Nice of them to leave us with the clean-up duty."

    The trail under our paws grew hot as the great trees began to turn yellow, hard rocks and leafy patches marking off pathways through the woods as the four of us made our way through the foliage. The crumbly, dried-out dirt did little to help our progress, as tall, weedy sprouts scratched at our knees, hiding sharpened pebbles that dug into our heels as we waded through the humid understory. Rose and I had taken point, with Cyan and Erin just behind us.

    "Be careful, guys," Rose said, her head flicking about every so often as she peered around the thicket. "Take it slow and watch where you step."

    "But there's can't be too many traps out here, right?" Erin piped up, cocking her head as she pushed some plants out of her way. I looked over my shoulder at the young explorer, who ducked under the branches that glanced against Cyan's helmet.

    "Probably none that are very complicated, anyway," I answered, walking through a pair of snapped, hollow trees, forming an odd, natural gate. Erin leaped over them from her perch, while Cyan simply crawled under them.. "Just tread lightly."

    "I think it'd b'hard t'tread lightly with all this stuff in front o'us," Cyan remarked, his nose twitching as he looked up. A couple Starly snoozed, nesting in the trees above us. "We're makin' more noise than Chatot on a bad day, uurp!"

    He let out a brief belch, and Erin giggled at her friend. Rose peered at the two out of the corner of her eye, sniffing at the dirt carefully.

    "Cyan, could you try to not do that? I'm having enough trouble as it is picking up a..." The Ninetales trailed off as her eyes widened, and she began to sniff deeply at the forest floor. "Wait. Do you guys smell that?"

    "Smell-" I stopped dead in my tracks, touching down on a thin layer of dead leaves. Too thin, in fact, as one of my legs sank deep into the ground, and I fell into a muddy sinkhole, yelping as I slapped against the viscous glop. "Blurp!"

    "Bill?" Rose's voice was muffled as the mud rose above my ears, and I felt two sets of paws yank strongly on the treasure bag, dragging me out of the grime. As Cyan and Erin stepped away, I pushed myself to my knees and shook my body to clean myself off, feeling as the gooey dirt flew off of my tail, ears and aura tassels. "A mud pit...?"

    The stench of the sun-warmed glop made my stomach churn, and I rubbed my eyes, wiping off the rest of my face. "Weeds, mud, hot sun. We're off to a great start!"

    "But this isn't even a very dangerous trap," Rose thought aloud, easing herself into the stinky patch of mud. Her fur stood on end as she grimaced. "And it'd take so long to set one up, especially with the mystery dungeon shifting around."

    "Maybe the Gabite jus' wants t'slow Pokémon down?" Cyan offered. As I rose to my feet, the large Samurott moved past us, bits of grime dotting his armor and belly. More and more sunlight was beginning to shine down on the sinkhole, exacerbating the already-hot temperature, and I began to pant as the heat got to me. Rose pressed up against my side, and we leaned against each other as we began to walk again.

    Time seemed to crawl to a standstill as we forced our way through the forest, which grew thicker and sludgier with every step we took. Leaves and bunches of unripe apples stuck fast to the stuff, sinking into the depths as the mud engulfed them. We traveled single-file, Erin standing carefully atop Cyan's hiking backpack, keeping her eyes low and ahead for anything that could bring on more trouble.

    "This stuff's startin' t'get pretty solid," Cyan remarked idly, strongly striding forward through the shallow trench. "It's gettin' a lot harder for me t'move."

    "We'll take forever to get through here at this rate..." Rose said, nosing at a bit of dirt that clung to her front leg. "The mud's just too thick. We need to make it more watery."

    "Water sounds simple enough," I replied. "Cyan, think you could try and thin up the trail with a water gun?"

    "Th'whole thing?" The Samurott exclaimed, reaching up to stroke his mustache before thinking better of it. Erin noticed, playfully pulling at her own tiny whiskers. Cyan didn't notice. "Well... I could give it a shot!"

    "That's the spirit, silly!" Erin cheered her friend on. "Go for it!"

    As Cyan took a deep breath, Rose and I stepped back a bit to give him room to work. With a puff of his chest and a mighty heave, the water type let loose a concentrated stream of water from his mouth, his eyes narrowed into a focused glare. The pit bubbled and burbled as the water mixed with the gooey sludge, and the engulfed flora floated to the surface. I felt cool, fresh water swirl around my legs, loosening the mud that surrounded the four of us, and after a few tense minutes, the entire muddy trench had become a cloudy, muddy river.

    "Whoo..." Cyan ceased his attack, gasping for air, and I waded through the water to stroke his side. He breathed heavily, wheezing as he reached up to rub at his forehead. "Ugh... m'throat hurts."

    "Then don't talk," I chuckled, and Rose trotted past us, narrowing her eyes as she looked at the path ahead.

    "This can't be the only trap set up here," She muttered to herself, the tips of her nine tails dipping into the river and sending ripples across the surface. "But I guess we've dealt with one now, right?"

    "Right." I nodded, giving her a thumbs up and a grin, and she smiled back at me with confident eyes.

    "Wheeeee!" Erin yelled cheerfully, jumping off of Cyan's backpack and cannonballing into the muddy river, laughing as she flailed about. "C'mooooon, let's keep going!"

    She began to swim away from us, her sleeves dragging through the dirty water as the pink-furred Pokémon kicked her feet, laying on her back as she moved down the river. As Cyan, Rose and I began to follow her, she shot up with a start, wincing in pain as she rubbed her head. "Ow..."

    "Whatcha do, hit a rock, Erin?" Cyan rasped, coughing a bit as he drew his seamitar, trawling it through the water, and it made a soft clink as it hit a large, sunken stone. "Huh! How 'bout that."

    "Be careful..." I started to say, but the Samurott dismissed Rose and I with a wave of his paw.

    "It's jus' a rock, Bill! Lighten up a li'l bit!" He rolled his eyes in a grumpy huff, sheathing his blade and clapping his front paws together. Erin pouted unhappily, frowning at the source of her mild ache.

    "Dumb rock!" She hopped up and childishly kicked the rock, wincing again as she reflexively grabbed her foot, which now also throbbed in pain. "Owww!"

    The Mienshao hopped about wildly on one foot, whining loudly as she bounced through the water, and Rose's eyes widened in fear as the young girl dropped her guard. "Erin, stop! You could set off a-"

    A loud click sent a slight rumble through the river, the ground shifting under our feet as a few bubbles of air escaped from the river floor, popping around the lean pink mink as she immediately came to a halt. Nobody moved a muscle as the river drifted back to its peaceful, grimy self.

    A flash of light suddenly blasted out and the sound of a powerful gust of wind rushed past our ears, and I scrunched my eyes shut, lashing my arms out in blindness. Rose breathed hard, grunting as she stood her ground, and both Cyan and Erin seemed to cry out in surprise, the latter splashing about again as she fell over into the river. As our senses returned, I lowered my paws and cracked my eyelids open, reaching over and tousling Rose's headfur as she let out a concerned sigh. "One thing after another, huh?"

    "H-hey!" Erin called out, blinking a few times as she regained her vision, and she gasped, getting to her feet. "What the heck!?"

    A Breloom and a Pinsir stood wide-eyed in the water, confused and panicked from their abrupt summoning, and their eyes latched onto us, feral growls escaping their throats. Cyan drew his blades while Erin scampered back over to us, trying to wring the water out of her sleeves, and I put up my fists, gritting my teeth as Rose readied a blast of fire in her throat. The two wild Pokémon stomped towards us, sending small waves across the trench as they readied an attack, the Breloom shaking his mushroom cap and the Pinsir gnashing his pincers together.

    The Breloom swung forward, sending a stretchy punch my way, and I hunched low to the ground, ducking under the appendage as it stopped just short of my head. Thinking quick, I grabbed onto the red, pointy claws and let my feet rise from the riverbed, and I sped towards the wild Pokémon as his elastic arm pulled me towards him. We both crashed into each other and tumbled into the water, and I landed a good kick on the mushroom Pokémon's chest before jumping away.

    As Erin hastily tied one of her sleeves into a sling, the Pinsir screeched and began to charge at us, meeting Cyan halfway as he blocked the blow with a swing of his arm, the spikes on the pincers lightly cutting into his paw. Rose spat a gout of flames towards the Breloom, but he simply dove into the river and rose again, having taken little damage from the dangerous attack. He roared angrily, sending both his arms towards us in response, and the two of us found his claws smash into us, sending us onto our backsides. I grunted in pain, dabbing at the bleeding gash at my side, while Rose looked over at our two companions, trying her best not to let any of the dirty water get into the cut on her leg.

    "Cyan!" The Ninetales yelled over the din as the sea lion struggled for dominance against the Pinsir, his blades bouncing off of the powerful pincers as they dug into the Samurott's helmet. "Raise your head!"

    "What?" He replied, confused, and he poked at the bug with stabs of his seamitars. "Why?"

    "Just lift him up before he does it to you!" Rose ordered firmly, and as Cyan hoisted the Pinsir out of the river, Rose roared out a huge line of flames, directly colliding with the bug type's body. The giant stag beetle cried out as his shell was charred, and Cyan stuck his shell blades into the dirt, grunting as he pried the Pinsir off of his helmet.

    Picking myself up, I formed a sphere of aura between my paws, tossing it at the Breloom to ward him off. Erin finally joined the fray, helping me keep our opponent at bay with a volley of pebbles. "Get outta here, you overgrown mushroom!"

    The stones and spheres did little, though, as said overgrown mushroom either smacked the pebbles away with his claws or kept hold of them to toss at the aura spheres, effectively neutralizing them. Cyan let out a hearty bellow, rising onto his hind legs as he lifted the fainted Pinsir over his head. He glared at the Breloom, flinging the beetle's body at him. "Didn't ya hear her? Get outta here!"

    The Pokémon projectile smashed right onto the Breloom's head, the incredibly heavy weight knocking the grass type unconscious instantly, and the two dropped underneath the water, the murky river beginning to settle itself as the skirmish ended. After a few moments, the four of us let out a groan, our adrenaline running out as our wounds began to ache. Erin took a roll of bandages out of her belt pouch, which thankfully had kept them nice and dry.

    "Oooh, that's a nasty one!" The Mienshao cooed as she strolled up to me, and I passed the treasure bag to Rose as Erin wrapped the gauze around my midsection. The faded material was quickly stained red from the blood, but the wound already seemed to feel somewhat better without the swampy air biting at it. "C'mere, Rose, you next!"

    As Erin knelt down to tend to the fox's leg, Cyan took off his helmet, letting his ears wiggle freely as he looked at the armor's horn. He let out a grumpy wheeze of frustration before jamming it back onto his head. "Dammit all, th'Pinser took a few chunks outta the thing!"

    "Relax, bud, you can try and fix it up when we get out of here," I reached over and tapped my paw against his arm, my pawspike dinging on his armor. "As long as Erin doesn't kick any more rocks, we should make it through the rest of this in no time!"

    "Hey!" Erin pouted, and Rose smiled, leaning over and lightly brushing her tails against the Mienshao's back, tickling her. "Hee-eey!"

    "There's no telling what might be coming up," Rose said, and I looked into the thicket, slinging the treasure bag back over my shoulders. The Ninetales moved ahead of us, and slowly we began to pick up the pace. "Let's go a bit more carefully, okay?"

    The sun had long-since vanished behind the rock wall as we trudged our way towards the entrance to the Labyrinth Cave, the sky a dull orange as the last of the tall trees finally gave way to the mountain range. Dry, sand-colored stone rose into the clouds, reaching towards a couple of the stars that heralded the end of the evening. I brushed at my bandages, somewhat wet from the travel, and Cyan and Erin moved towards a Kangaskhan Stone that sat just a few paces into the tunnel, breathing hard as they collapsed against the travel monument.

    "Haah... ugh," Cyan groaned, shaking his head he lay completely flat against the cool stone. Mud and grime caked his paws and armor, and he struggled to even look at us, his eyes bloodshot and his expression tired. "Spendin' time with you three's made me soft... can't even go a single battle without feelin' like th'wind's taken outta me."

    "Nah..." I grinned and shook my head, moving over to the Samurott and sitting down nearby, hissing softly as the bandages pressed against my ribs uncomfortably. My fur was matted and the odd mix of cream and brown made it look like I hadn't washed for days; Rose didn't look much better, her tails not even wagging as they dragged limply against the dusty ground. "I don't blame you. That was way tougher than I expected."

    "Yeah," My partner agreed, giving my wound a once-over before gently pressing up against my less-damaged side. She glanced at the ceiling before turning back to us. "Whoever this Gabite is, he's much more cunning than Star and Vale let on."

    "Oh really?" Star's voice echoed around us from deeper into the cave, and we turned our heads to look into the gloomy darkness. The lanky Zoroark held her flute in one paw and her knapsack in the other, a confident bounce to her step as she came into view. She stopped as she finally began to take in the sight of the four of us, and her eyes widened in dampened shock. "Woah... you weren't kidding."

    "Good to see you and Vale made it here in once piece," I greeted dryly, laying my paws in my lap. Star strode the last few paces over to us, flinging her knapsack onto the ground as she started to root through her supplies. "Where is he, anyway?"

    "Scouting," She answered simply, looking over her shoulder and playing a few strong notes on her flute. The discordant tune rang into the empty passage, and she shoved the instrument into a pocket of the sack. "That should get him back here soon enough."

    "Why's he scoutin' if th'mystery dungeon's jus' goin' t'change shape?" Cyan asked, and the black fox let out a quiet 'aha!' as she pulled out a small leather canteen.

    "Because I'd like to know what else is in there," She undid the stopper from the neck of the rounded bottle, passing it to Erin with a silky smile. "Here, Erin. Have a little and then pass it around."

    "Okay!" Despite her exhaustion, Erin still managed to perk up a cheerful smile in response, and she squeezed the sides of the canteen, tipping her head back as the near-colorless drink flowed easily down her gullet. After a few seconds of guzzling down the drink, I reached over and pulled it back up, gently tugging it out of the young Pokémon's grasp. "Mm... Tastes yummy!"

    I raised the canteen to my lips and took a brief swig of the liquid. Cold tea, slightly sweet and slightly bitter, ran across my tongue, the mild brew helping to ease my mind and relax my muscles. I handed it back to Erin and gestured for her to help Rose get a share. Star leaned back comfortably against her hair, watching as the Mienshao poured the canteen.

    "Star, I'm back!" Vale crowed as he swooped out of the cavern, a nervous smile on his face as he shivered slightly. "And the kids got here too! That's good."

    "Find anything?" She replied as the Archeops fluttered to a stop on top of Cyan's hiking bag, coughing a bit as he cleared his throat.

    "Nothing particularly strange, nope," He said, looking at the five of us from his higher perch. "The traps look like they're not as frequent, so we might have a clear shot for the Gabite's scale-"

    "Scale?" Rose interrupted, cocking her head in confusion. "The treasure you're hunting is one of the Gabite's scales?"

    "Hey, this isn't just any old hunk of junk, missy." Vale matter-of-factly wagged one of his wings at her. "The scales of a Gabite can be used in medicine! It'd fetch a good price if we sold it."

    "Maybe we should use it to heal ourselves after what we dealt with today," I chuckled, patting my side as softly as I could to avoid hurting myself. Star and Vale looked over at Rose and I expectantly. "We really could have used your help, y'know."

    "Looks like you took a beating..." Vale finally noticed our wounds and bandages, hopping to the ground and tapping his talons against the rock. "What'd you all run into?"

    "The net, a mud pit, hot sun..." I listed, counting off my pawpads as I rubbed at my chin in mock contemplation. "Watery mud, wild Pokémon, cuts and bruises, rocks. Rose, what am I forgetting?"

    "Oh, cut it out," She laughed lightly, batting at one of my aura tassels with her nose before looking at the two older Pokémon. "But... well, yeah, Bill's not lying. We weren't expecting to have to go through a swamp today."

    "...sorry about that, you four," Star apologized, reaching over and affectionately bonking me on the head before scratching Rose behind her ear. Vale flapped his wings a bit, sending a cool blast of wind over our bodies. "Tell you what, where are you headed after this? The path through Mount Travail, right?"

    "Right," Rose confirmed, her tails finally getting some life back into them as they began to wave up and down. "We're going through Mount Travail, across the cliffs south to Sky Peak."

    A snore punctuated the end of Rose's statement, and Star smiled slyly as Cyan and Erin snoozed the day's events away. The canteen of tea sat in Erin's lap, and the Zoroark retrieved it and replaced the stopper, slipping it back into her knapsack.

    "Well, then, how about Vale and I help you across the mountain, hm?" She offered, flashing the star-shaped fur patches around her mouth. "You help us through the cave and help us get the Gabite's scale, and we'll help you get to where you're going."

    Rose and I rolled the deal around in our heads; it was a good one, and both Star and Vale knew it. With their help, getting through both the Labyrinth Cave and across the mountain would be a breeze. As the night sky began to shine with the light of the moon, I shot the fox and the bird a nod and a smirk. "Sounds good to me."

    "It'd certainly make up for today, if nothing else," Rose agreed, yawning as she finished speaking. "Hoo... sorry."

    "Go ahead and get some rest, kiddos." Vale smiled kindly at us, flopping over and sinking his head deep into his companion's hair. "We'll need it for tomorrow!"

    "Sleep easy," Star said, snapping her claws, and the cavern entrance was silent, save for Cyan and Erin. My partner yawned again and scooted herself a bit closer to me, her warm body temperature aiding the tea in making me feel incredibly drowsy. I slid down the stone wall until my head hit the bottom, and I closed my eyes, feeling the Ninetales cuddle up to me as her breathing grew stable.

    "We've got a big day ahead of us, huh?" Rose whispered into my ear, and I exhaled heavily, wrapping an arm around her torso.

    "Just don't get up in the middle of the night to worry, alright?" I teased, and she licked my cheek.
     
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  9. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 9! More slice-of-life friendship-building with Darkrai, Mint and Fern.

    The next morning...

    ***

    A few lazy Spearow chirped in surprise as the late morning light rousted them from their slumber, the sun illuminating the remains of the previous day's rainstorm as light reflected off of every droplet. Darkrai didn't seem to notice them, staring up into the sky as he stopped picking Gracideas, and the birds' sudden rush from the rocks in a hasty search for food made the legendary Pokémon jump, ever-so-slightly, in surprise. Mint and Fern gathered flowers just a few steps away, the pot of Gracideas sitting nearby, and the latter gave his friend a soft smile, watching as the flock flew away from the valley into the lower parts of Sky Peak. He waded through the field, his floppy ears waving around, and stopped at Darkrai's legs.

    "Are you okay, Darkrai?" He asked sweetly, blinking at the dark type. Darkrai shook himself out of his stupor, wiping his brow before peering over at the white-furred Shaymin. "How many flowers do you have?"

    "How..." Darkrai muttered before slipping a hand into his cloak, pulling out a small bundle of blooming plants. Fern frowned slightly as he noticed the twisted, drying roots spiraling off of the ends of the stems. "I believe that this is... six."

    "Six Gracideas?" The Shaymin asked, looking up at the legendary Pokémon, who had a slightly-hurt expression in his eyes. Fern shook his head quickly, hovering up to Darkrai's hand and taking the flowers, holding the stems between his teeth. He patted the dark type's shoulder with a free paw. "Mmhm!"

    "Eh? Someone call me?" Mint said at the noise, looking over her shoulder at the two of them. Her friend lowered himself to the ground and trotted over, daintily slipping Darkrai's haul into the ceramic container. Aside from a small amount of dirt that the flowers rested in, the pot was a mass of green and soft pink, the petals soaking up the warm sunlight and the cool mountain air. "Hey! That's a pretty good amount of Gracideas we have now!"

    "I never would have guessed that picking flowers would be as difficult as it seems to be," Darkrai remarked, taking a few steps forward as he adjusted the fit of his star-pattered cloak. "My arms feel weak."

    "You're tired, Darkrai?" Mint said, cocking her head. "Sheesh, why didn't you say so earlier, doofus? Let's bring this dumb old pot back to the big tree and then we can take a break!"

    The trio made their way towards the other end of the valley, the thick, healthy leaves and wide branches creating an inviting patch of shade at the base of the trunk. The cloudless sky gave the bright sun full reign to shine down on the mountain, and as the morning began to heat up, Mint, Fern and Darkrai slipped the flowerpot into a snug gap between a tree root and the loamy soil, and they sighed in relief as they relaxed against the hard bark of the tree.

    "It's really pretty today, isn't it?" Fern remarked, looking out at the sea on the east horizon. "It's like the storm was never even here."

    "It is... quite peaceful." Darkrai closed his eyes and breathed, clasping his hands together as he let his fatigue run its course. "But I believe one of us does not share the same appreciation."

    "Huh?" Fern looked over at Darkrai in confusion, but Mint picked up on the trail straightaway, hopping up and doing a little twirl in the air, grumbling to herself. "Oh..."

    "Hey, shut up! That's a low blow, Darkrai!" Mint replied gruffly, but sighed and returned to the ground, rolling her eyes. "Uurgh... but you're right, I'm bored. You can take a break if you want but sitting like this just makes me feel antsy!"

    As the hotheaded Shaymin paced around, Fern thought to himself, batting at his scarf-like petals with a paw. The Spearow from before had returned to their nests around the field, some resting on the rocks while a few preferred the cool darkness of the great tree, their brown feathers blending in with the bark, hiding them well.

    "Hide and seek?" He blurted out, and both Mint and Darkrai perked their heads up to look at him. He shrank back, sitting down on Darkrai's cloak. "U-um... maybe w-we could play hide and seek?"

    Mint's eyes lit up, a grin forming on her muzzle. "Yeah, that's a great idea, Fern! You be it first, I'll go hide!"

    Before he could protest, the girl had already bounded into the air and flown far away, obscuring herself from view, and with a sigh, Fern turned around and looked straight at the tree trunk, beginning to count off numbers. "One... two... three..."

    ***

    Dreams! Just a Lazy Day...

    ***

    Mint breathed as quietly as she could. The sun was warm, the wind was cool, and the flowers tickled her as she lay as flat as she could on the dirt, the stems brushing against her nose and paws. A slight shadow fell over her face, and she sucked in a breath, holding still. The silence was deafening, and she could feel her heart beating against the dirt.

    "M-Mint...? Is that you?" Fern whispered quietly, and Mint gritted her teeth.

    "Errrgh!" She swooped up, grumbling unhappily as she locked eyes with her friend, who gave her a slight smile. "Fine, you found me!"

    "Alright," Fern replied, the two of them slowly hovering back towards the tree where Darkrai rested. "So, it's y-your turn to seek..."

    "Oh, this stopped being fun real quick! We've already used up all the good hiding spots!" Mint rolled her eyes, frowning as she turned and looked around the field. "Under those roots, hidden in the flowers, up on a rockier part of the mountain..."

    "But what else can we play up here, Mint?" Fern asked innocently, blinking in thought. His eyes trailed on the pot of flowers nearby, still stuck firmly in a tree root. "Maybe we could look out and see if we can see anything in the distance today?"

    "Playing 'I see' isn't fun when we know we'll never get to see it any closer, Fern," Mint said with the faintest trace of bitterness, touching down and stomping her feet in the grass. Darkrai opened his eyes, watching and listening as the two Shaymin began to nestle themselves atop his billowing cloak. "Besides, what else can we do now?"

    Darkrai coughed and leaned back, unfolding his arms to pat Mint's head. "What is the problem?"

    "Hide and seek is boring!" The girl stated plainly, rolling onto her back and throwing a few playful bashes at the air, bopping lightly at the dark type's fingers.

    "So soon after you began?" He asked, the stars on his cloak winking sprightly in thinly-veiled merriment. He could barely feel her soft little paws smacking at his hand. "What occurred to make you bored again?"

    "Um... we both know all the good hiding spots here, Darkrai," Fern explained, curling up on the legendary Pokémon's opposite side, and he looked over at the younger Shaymin. "When you know all the good places already, it gets really silly to play."

    Good places...? Darkrai sat up straighter, his eyes focusing as he looked around the peaceful valley. The flowers, grass and shade waved in the wind, while the higher rocks and unstable cliffs marked the path leading down the mountain. "Where are these good places to hide?"

    "You don't know 'em?" Mint quirked an eyebrow upward in disbelief. "Were you even watching us play?"

    "No, I wasn't," Darkrai replied, deftly dodging one of Mint's play-attacks and reaching down to rub her belly. "I am not sure what you are playing in the first place."

    "You don't!?" The girl screeched, shooting up into the air in shock. Her surprise quickly changed, however, forming into a devious smile. "Man... you really don't know anything, huh?"

    "Mint," Fern chided his friend, looking downward as Darkrai heaved out an unhappy sigh. "C-c'mon, don't bring that up..."

    "No, you two doofuses, this is a good thing!" Mint pressed her face into Darkrai's, staring at him right in his widened eyes. The legendary Pokémon shrank back into the tree, breathing a little quicker as he tried to push Mint away from him. "You can play hide and seek with us, and we'll have a better time since you don't know any of the places around here!"

    "I... I understand?" Darkrai's agreement sounded more like a question to Fern, but Mint didn't seem to care, judging from the competitive shake of her ears. "What shall I do, then?"

    "Okay, here's how the game works, Darkrai!" Mint placed an authoritative paw on her chest, raising her head a bit in the air as she cleared her throat. Darkrai rose to his feet, dusting a few stray strands of fur off of his clothes. "You turn around and count to ten, and don't look back to see where Fern and I go! Once you get to ten, you start looking for us!"

    "You go..." The legendary Pokémon rubbed at his head, taking a deep breath as he calmed himself. The fresh scent of the growing Gracideas soothed his mind. "But where do you go?"

    "Don't worry, Darkrai," Fern said reassuringly, hopping into the air and looking over at his friend. "We won't go very far... we'll stay around in the valley, right, Mint?"

    "Aww, alright, fine..." The girl grumbled to herself before also taking to the wind, doing a loop in the air as she called out to her two companions. "Okay, Darkrai! Turn around and count to ten, and don't peek, got it?"

    Wordlessly, the tall figure turned around, staring unblinkingly at the thick bark of the great tree, and he folded his arms, his thick sleeves catching the breeze as they began to wrinkle and flap about noisily. Satisfied, Mint caught an updraft and swooped away, leaving Fern alone with the newly-appointed seeker, the light beginning to wane a bit as the sun drifted across the sky, behind the heavy branches.

    "Darkrai... you don't have to play with us if you don't want to, you know?" Fern began, but the dark type waved him away, glancing at him out of the corner of his icy-blue eyes. "Uh?"

    "One... two..." Darkrai raised his voice as he began to count, an oddly placid expression plastered on his face. "Three... four..."

    Fern's confusion morphed into excitement and then panic as he scrambled away, jumping a few times before flying around the field, heading every which way as he looked for a good place to hide. Darkrai's voice rang loud and clear across the field as the great tree grew a little smaller in Fern's vision. He couldn't see Mint anywhere. Five, six, seven...

    Ah, there! Near the path down the mountain! That looked perfect!

    Slowly landing on the tall grass, he settled himself into his little hiding spot, pulling his legs and paws in as much as he could as he made himself look as small as possible. He allowed himself a small grin as Darkrai reached ten, feeling the tall grass tickle his fur. "Can you hear me? Mint? Fern? I have finished counting!"

    "Go ahead, Darkrai, you can start looking now!" Fern called back on instinct, yelling at the top of his lungs so his friend could hear him. He didn't realize his folly until a few seconds later, when he heard the sound of shuffling nearby. "Oh..."

    The little Shaymin quieted his breath as the movement grew closer, and he tried to puff out his green fur as much as possible, trying to camouflage himself within the foliage. The bright blue sky hung above him, the sunlight warming him up as the day passed into the afternoon, and he shut his eyes, holding still as Darkrai's wispy head came into view, looking the opposite way.

    "Fern?" He spoke gently, still walking forward as he looked around the small crevice, the path leading to the station pass dry and cracked as the mud baked in the sun. He spun around and looked behind him, not looking where he was going.

    Fern winced as Darkrai's legs bopped into his nose, and he gasped as the legendary Pokémon tripped over him, the thick patch of tall grass cushioning Darkrai's fall as he fell flat on his face. The silken cloak covered up the hedgehog, and Fern squeezed his eyes shut, the shifting cloth leaving trails of lights in his vision. After a few seconds, his friend seemed to stop bumbling around and pushed himself up, rolling onto his side and laying still. Fern peeked his head up from the grass, looking at the dark type, who stared blankly.

    "U-um..." Fern stuttered, sucking in a worried breath when Darkrai didn't response. "D-Darkrai...? A-are you okay?"

    The tall figure slowly rose until he was sitting straight up, and he blinked, turning to look at the Shaymin. Fern gulped dryly.

    "I am... not hurt, no," Darkrai replied, reaching his arms over and picking up the little Pokémon, carefully setting him on his shoulder. Fern held on tightly, digging his paws deep into the fabric to keep himself from sliding back to the ground. "But I believe this means I have found you now."

    "Oh, u-uh," Fern stumbled over his words, embarrassed as his friend gave him a bit of a teasing look; the cheery expression seemed to fit him like a glove. "Y-yeah, you're right."

    "Then," The dark type abruptly rose to his full height, and Fern gulped as the ground became a little more distant. Darkrai started to walk at a thoughtful pace, his eyes occasionally flicking backwards to make sure that Fern wasn't having trouble staying on. "Does this mean that you will help me find Mint? Or are you simply to return to the tree and wait?"

    The innocent question boggled Fern's head, and his mind raced as he tried to figure out how to explain the simple rules of hide and seek. The sheer simplicity of the game eluded him, and he looked over at the horizon, intently watching at the foggy surface below. "Uuuhhhh..."

    "Ah, is that her?" Darkrai cut him off, not that he could have answered anyway, and began to stride across the field. Fern was shocked out of his trance as the speed jostled him around, and he let go of the shoulder of the cloak, catching a tailwind and soaring above his friend's head. His petal-scarf flapped about as he kept pace with the taller Pokémon, sailing up and down in a wavy pattern. Letting the breeze carry him past Darkrai, Fern descended and landed in a tiny circle of pale flowers and flower buds, the young plants seemingly waiting for their time to shine, holding strong against the mountain winds. "Let's see..."

    "Where her?" Fern babbled incoherently, and he lifted up a hind leg, scratching hard at his ear in an attempt to smack some sense into his head. "E-erm, sorry... where did you see her here?"

    Darkrai was leaning forward, brushing back the flowers with his hands as he scanned each and every inch of the lush soil. "I thought I could see something bright red here. Mint must be nearby, correct?"

    "I... don't think so, Darkrai," Fern said slowly, shaking his head as he looked at the flowers, their delicate color becoming blindingly bright from the afternoon sun. Movement caught his eye, and he watched as his friend rose, holding a plump red berry with a curly stem between two of his fingers. "See? It was just a cheri berry. This must be a little spot of cheri sprouts."

    "Cheri berry...?" Darkrai rolled the round fruit around in his hand, and Fern jumped up and hovered near his shoulder to get a better look. "It looks like the fruits from the cavern. I did not realize they could grow up here."

    "They... oh, um, yes, they do. Be careful, cheri are spicy," Fern replied, panting a bit as he lowered himself onto Darkrai's shoulder again, and he took the berry's stem into his mouth as Darkrai passed it over to him for safekeeping. As he rested, Darkrai began to amble away, peering across the valley in search of their friend. "I bet Mint would like it."

    "Where could she have hidden herself?" The dark type muttered under his breath, stopping in the center of the field and slowly spinning in a circle. He rolled up his sleeves and brought a hand to his forehead, narrowing his icy eyes as he searched for any sign of the Shaymin. Green grass, pink plants, slate-gray stone and the massive tree were all that he could see. "Could she have flown up above the cliffs?"

    "I 'unno," Fern shook his head, trying his best to speak through his teeth. "But I bet going up to them would give us a better look!"

    "Very well then," Darkrai said, lowering his arm and taking a deep breath. His cloak billowed in the wind. "Hold on to the cloak as tightly as you can!"

    Fern had no time to respond as the legendary Pokémon broke into a sprint, the air rushing past them, wooshing in their ears as the rounded cliffs slowly overtook the sky, and with a mighty leap Darkrai bounded into the air, landing on a grassy outcropping jutting out from the side of the mountain. Another jump kept up the momentum, bringing them to a higher platform, and the two moved from ridge to ridge. Fern let go after the initial shock, flying alongside Darkrai, and the two swiftly made their way up to the top of the cliffside, the field of flowers far below. The air seemed colder, and thinner, too, and the Shaymin shivered, nuzzling up to his friend's cloak.

    "Ah, you were correct, Fern." Darkrai pointed outward, a note of triumph in his voice. Fern followed the finger with his eyes, settling on a small figure sitting at the very tippy-top of the great tree. "She chose to hide herself in a place we could not find her without climbing up... clever."

    "That doesn't seem very fair..." Fern dropped the cheri berry to the ground as he mumbled, kicking a few pebbles off of the cliffs. They clattered down the ridges. "I could see her if I flew, but..."

    "I did bring us up here, did I not?" Darkrai shot back, squatting down and tenderly stroking Fern's back. "Perhaps she underestimated me."

    Fern nodded, smiling brightly from the ticklish sensation on his fur, and Darkrai cupped his other hand to his mouth, calling out. "Mint! We can see you hiding up there!"

    Mint didn't seem to hear them, continuing to stay still as she stared out towards the far distance, the foggy landscape below mixing with the southern sea. The hedgehog seemed to have seated herself atop a sturdy patch of leaves, simply watching as the faraway waves crashed up against the ground, and as Darkrai's bellow fell on deaf ears, Fern hopped up, hovering a bit.

    "Should I... u-um," Fern began to ask. "I'll go get her and tell her you found her."

    Darkrai nodded firmly, sending Fern on his way over to their friend. He let out a short yell to catch Mint's attention, and the figure at the top of the tree seemed to twist in surprise, turning to stare at the other Shaymin in surprise. The two conversed briefly before Mint pulled Fern over to her, roughly shoving him around and excitedly pointing out towards where she had been looking before. Their chatter could barely be heard above the strengthening winds.

    "Mint!" Darkrai called out again, waving his arms. "Fern! Over here!"

    That worked much better, as Mint zipped right over to the legendary Pokémon, a giddy grin plastered on her muzzle. "Hey, Darkrai! C'mon, follow me, this way!"

    Fern began to make his way back to them as the Shaymin girl tugged hard on the end of Darkrai's cloak, causing his legs to move as she guided them over to the southern end of the cliffs, the grassy knoll widening a bit as a small, flat rock sat at the end of the great wall. The smooth surface was inviting, and the three wordlessly lowered themselves onto it, the cool surface serving as a suitable resting spot. Darkrai coughed a bit as a mild chill slipped through the neck of his cloak. "Mint... what has gotten you into such a riled state?"

    "You can't see it? Look, look!" She leaned forward on her paws, jabbing out into the southern horizon with her nose. Fern let out a quiet gasp as he began to smile broadly, and Darkrai rolled up his sleeves again, making a face as he strained to find what Mint was trying to show off. Just the fog, the trees, and the sparkling water could be easily seen, though a small chain of islands was just barely visible past it all, darker blotches of color against the sea and sky. "Now?"

    "I see nothing but the ocean, Mint," Darkrai spoke quietly, clasping his hands together as he rested them in his lap. "There are islands beyond that, but nothing more."

    "Eh? Oh, not there, you doofus!" Mint flew up and brusquely grabbed the sides of Darkrai's head, forcefully turning it at an angle. The deep green tree tried to encroach on his vision, but a much more interesting landmark finally came into view: the half-sphere from the day before, the waterfalls still flowing over the edges of the stone and the water still shimmering in the afternoon sun. The fog that surrounded it had decreased from the day before, and now the structure was clearly visible, a gravity-defying hunk of rock that rose majestically up from the foggy forest, as if it was the king of the trees. "It's the Fogbound Lake! This is the best view I've ever seen of it!"

    "Fogbound... Lake?" Darkrai repeated the name over and over in his head, committing it to memory as he continued to stare in awe. "It.. looks to be a beautiful place."

    Fern snuggled up to his side, and Darkrai held him close with a hand, keeping them both warm. He could feel the Shaymin's ears through the silk of his cloak, the floppy appendages brushing up against his midsection. "Mint, I thought you said you didn't want to play 'I see'?"

    "But today we can actually see the lake, Fern," Mint grumbled with a roll of her eyes. "I'm glad I decided to hide up in the tree!"

    "Is the Fogbound Lake special to Shaymin?" Darkrai asked, rubbing his chin in curiosity, and Mint shook her head rapidly, turning around to look at him with her bright green eyes. "Then why...?"

    "Ohh-oooooh!" Mint stomped her paws in frustration before reeling herself in, taking a deep breath as she scooted forward and drummed her paws against the rock. "S-sorry, I nearly blew up at you... hmm..."

    "Mint and I always got to see the Fogbound Lake whenever we came up for gathering duty, Darkrai," Fern explained slowly, and Darkrai glanced at the young boy out of the corner of his eyes. "It's special to us... it's our dream to go and visit there someday."

    "You have not been there?" Darkrai raised his head a little in surprise. "It seems odd to have not, if it is as important to you as you claim."

    "Bah, it's not our fault!" Mint grunted testily, trying her best to stay under control. "Shaymin can't leave the village or Sky Peak unless we get kicked out or we leave with an explorer! And Sage is such a cranky jerk that I bet he'd never let us leave anyway!"

    "Could you not defy him?" Darkrai casually suggested, gesturing to the foggy forest with his hand. "Or would that be... an evil thing to do?"

    Mint let out a long, loud groan, rolling onto her back. "Oh, not this again!"

    "N-no, Darkrai, not really evil," Fern picked up where Mint had stopped, peering up at the sky in contentment. "It'd be a bad thing, but not an evil thing. Sage isn't... very nice, but we have to do what he says, or else we won't be able to stay in the village anymore."

    Darkrai let out a low hum, staying quiet as he closed his eyes, mulling everything over in his head as he pulled his two Shaymin companions towards him, embracing them tightly as he thought to himself. Mint struggled to get free, while Fern simply wrapped his front legs around his cloak and hugged him back. The legendary Pokémon felt a pleasant inner warmth, even when his mind drifted to this supposed Sage, causing him to curl his hands into fists.

    A noise took all three of them off-guard, an odd gurgling that made Fern fall backwards onto the grass and Mint freeze in place. Darkrai lifted his arms, tensing up as he looked around for any sign of an intruder, feeling psychic energy pulse through each and every nerve. Mint brought her paws to her mouth, trying in vain to hide her face as she pursed her lips into a grumpy pout.

    "Erk!" She blurted, and her stomach grumbled again, this time much clearer, and Fern peeked his head back up, looking at his friend. She glanced at both of her friends, neither of which seemed to show any kind of reaction in the slightest. "H-hey, stop looking at me like that! It's lunchtime, I'm allowed to be hungry, aren't I?"

    "Oh yeah!" Fern blinked and flew a ways away, picking something up and bringing it over. He set the cheri berry down in front of his friend, who greedily devoured it without a second thought. "We found this, uh... okay... then."

    "Perhaps we can gather some more of the cheri berries from the field and make a meal of them," Darkrai said, watching as Mint finished chewing, wiping berry juice from her mouth with her paws. Fern nodded in agreement, and the two Shaymin took to the air, hovering just above the ground as they watched the legendary Pokémon rise to his full height. "And after our meal, we shall return to gathering the flowers for your village!"

    "So we'll eat, and then we'll go back to picking Gracideas?" Mint muttered, more to herself than her two companions, and she got a running start as she left the cliffside, gliding down towards the great tree. "Hah! Food, a helping hand, a buddy! I can't wait to show Sage what's really what!"

    Bonk.

    The berry rolled down his face, slowing to a stop in the creases of the eclipse cloak, and he picked it up, popping the spicy fruit into his mouth. The heat swarmed his tongue and cheeks as he chewed the flesh, gulping it down as his mouth watered. Opening his jaw, he pointed his head towards the wind that rustled through the branches above, hoping it would do something to soothe the fire the cheri berry had left behind.

    Bonk.

    "Please cease, Mint," Darkrai said mid-chew, and he raised his hand to snatch a third berry out of the air. Fern quietly kept to himself, nibbling daintily at the meager ration of wild fruit as he sat close to the sheltering tree; Mint, on the other hand, had practically inhaled most of her own food, and had resorted to sneaking berries away from Darkrai's pile to shoot at him. "Now is not the time."

    "Hey, I finished first!" Mint chuckled smugly, rolling around as she looked at her friend. "What do you want me to do instead, huh?"

    Darkrai put on a smugger expression, reaching over to the tree's roots and dislodging the flowerpot from underneath it. Passing it over to the Shaymin, he dusted his hands off and leaned back against the tree trunk, a few streaks of sunlight cutting through the shade. "You could begin to gather more Gracideas from the field. If we fill the pot today, we can start our return to your village tomorrow."

    "Eh? Oh, yeah, you're right!" Mint's initial grumpiness turned to giddiness, and with some effort she hoisted the pot up in her front paws. "Alright, I'll go start, then. But if I'm starting, then you two'd better hurry up!"

    She flew off into the field, on the hunt for blooming flowers, and Darkrai took a handful of cheri berries, eating them one by one, their spiciness getting harder and harder to handle. Fern yawned, taking a break from eating as he rested against the dark type's side, his eyes drooping sleepily. "Ooh... s-sorry, D-Darkrai... I'm getting really tired."

    "Do not doze now," Darkrai warned gently, slipping his fingers into Fern's fur and scratching. "Mint would not be pleased if you slept through work."

    "Y-yeah... sorry, Darkrai," Fern sighed, staring blankly out at the field, twiddling his paws as he tried to stay awake. He gently pushed into the legendary Pokémon's fingers, the tickling helping ward off sleep. "H-hey... Darkrai? Can I ask something?"

    "...Go ahead, Fern."

    Fern cleared his throat, licking his lips as the aftertaste of the fruit began to set in. "When this is all over... w-when we've brought the Gracideas to the village and tell everyone about you and how you helped us... do you think you could take Mint and I to the Fogbound Lake?"

    Darkrai breathed quietly, letting the question hang in the air as he picked the little hedgehog up and sat him in the lap of the eclipse cloak, the stars shifting around as he tugged lightly on Fern's two floppy ears, the wind trying to pull them out of his grasp. Fern stared up into Darkrai's eyes expectantly, patiently waiting for the legendary Pokémon to answer him.

    "I would..." Darkrai said, nodding slightly, and Fern watched as his icy-blue eyes filled with confidence. "Yes. I would like that."

    "Y-yeah..." Fern sank his nose into Darkrai's chest, and the legendary Pokémon went completely still as the hedgehog nuzzled up to him. "Me too..."

    "Hey!" Mint yelled at the top of her lungs, and Darkrai sat up straighter, holding Fern close as the dark type gingerly lay him underneath the tree, ruffling his fur before standing up. "Are you coming to help or not?"

    "Please wait for another moment!" Darkrai yelled back, and Mint went back to flower-picking. The legendary Pokémon took a brief look at Fern, who began to eat his portion of berries again, yawning more frequently. "Fern... eat quickly so your strength returns, and then help Mint and I with the Gracideas."

    "Don't worry, Darkrai, I'll be okay," Fern reassured him. "...Thank you."

    "You are welcome... my friend." Darkrai stood up and began to walk away, his head bowed low as his mind focused on searching for flowers. Fern smiled happily... and winced in pain as he accidentally bit into two cheri berries at once. He scrunched up his face as he gulped the fruits down, stems and all, and he felt his mouth begin to water profusely.

    "Blech!" He stuck his tongue out and scratched at it, his breath hot against his fur.
     
    Stop hovering to collapse... Click to collapse... Hover to expand... Click to expand...
    #9 SkyBlueFox1, Jul 26, 2017
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2017
  10. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 10! Halfway through now.

    The next morning...

    ***

    "Aaugh..." I hissed as my side ached in pain, the fresh bandages wrapped tightly around my chest, and I reached over to brush my paw against the gauze, looking down at my midsection. The cut hadn't reopened, but still ached strongly.

    "What's wrong, Bill?" Rose asked, her red eyes filling with concern as she looked up at me. "Is it your side?"

    "Yeah..." I nodded weakly, shooting the nine-tailed fox a reassuring smile. "Geez... Erin, how long do you think this'll take to heal again?"

    The six of us trekked dutifully through the Labyrinth Cave, our bellies filled with a meager breakfast as we pressed our feet into the sandstone floor. The dusty, arid atmosphere did nothing to help our wounds, with another layer of thin dirt caking into our fur and drying out our throats. Star had taken the lead, holding up a thick bundle of burning sticks that served as a torch, casting a bright orange glow onto the pale rock. Behind her flapped Vale, and then the rest of us followed behind them. As I checked over my wound, Erin hopped off of Cyan's backpack, humming to herself as she skipped over to me.

    "Hmm..." She bent over and brusquely yanked my arm out of the way, practically pressing her eyes right up to the wrappings as she inspected her work. "It wasn't a very deep cut, so I don't think it'll take more than a day or two, if you don't accidentally open it up again!"

    "That's good..." Rose added, her tails wagging up and down as she looked up at the ceiling in thought. "But I don't know if you should fight Gabite if that's the case."

    "We'll see what we can do when we get there, Rose." I reached over to gently fondle her ear, and she smiled at the gesture, letting her face drop into my paw.

    "Hey, are you four kiddos alright back there?" Star called to us, walking backwards. Her wild and unkempt hair, just grazing the ground, nearly tripped her up, prompting Vale to flutter down and grasp the ends of it in his talons, his gemstone necklace drooping off of his neck.

    "We're okay, Star!" Erin put her paws to her mouth and yelled, both her sleeves tied up into slings.

    "Oi, Star, Vale!" Cyan yelled back at them from the rear of the group, the supplies in his hiking pack shifting around as he briskly strode forward. "How close are we t'the deepest part of th'cave?"

    "Getting there, Cyan!" Vale answered. We emerged into a small, four-way room, a beam of sunlight cutting through from a hole in the ceiling, riding parallel to a small waterfall that flowed from above. As the sparkling water caught Star's eye, she licked her lips, reaching down into her knapsack and drawing out a pair of silver spikes and the canteen of tea, tossing the latter over to us before returning the former to her sack.

    "Polish that off, would you?" She stretched her arms out, peering over at the puddle that the waterfall poured into. Erin leaped over and swiped the leather bottle away, popping the top off and greedily gulping the liquid down. "But let everyone get a sip first, because once it's gone we're gonna be going with water."

    The pink mink responded only with a noise as she sloshed the tea around in her mouth, and I grabbed the canteen, helping Rose get a share before downing a little of the tea myself. As we finished, Star walked towards the pool of water, ready to take a break herself, but her eyes widened as her legs caught on something, and she lost her balance, flopping forward. Her makeshift torch flew into the puddle, dousing itself as it sank right under the pounding of the waterfall, and the Zoroark fell forward, on a collision course with the pond herself.

    "Woah there, babe!" Vale chuckled heartily, flapping over to his friend and helping her regain her balance by pulling on the dark type's knapsack. "What's with theOOF-"

    A shimmering orb smacked right into the bird's beak, sending the both of them tumbling onto the floor in a heap, struggling as they pushed off of each other. The sphere rolled off of the Archeops' colorful plumage and shattered as it hit the ground, exploding into a web of energy that snaked its way through everyone present. I took a step back, standing my ground as the light painlessly slid through my chestspike and out through my back. Everything seemed to start shaking as the sound of rushing wind flooded our ears. Over the din, I could hear Cyan yell angrily. "Arceus, not another one'a these da-"

    His curse was cut short as the spurn orb warped us away, leaving the cavern silent save for the sound of water spattering into the pool.

    ***

    Labyrinth! Three Degrees of Separation!

    ***

    I bit my tongue as my head smacked against a soft patch before falling to the cold ground, groaning from dizziness as I opened my eyes, letting my arms and legs splay out wildly as the whirling wind subsided. The sandstone was coarse against my chest, and I could feel the exploration badge pressing into my shoulder. With some effort, I pushed myself off of the ground and onto my knees, feeling myself teeter around as I tried to catch my breath. "Oorgh..."

    I rubbed at my temples to soothe my throbbing brain, my vision adjusting somewhat to the darkened cavern as I stood, briefly patting at my side to make sure that blood wasn't flowing again. Satisfied by the dry wrappings, I tapped my feet against the ground, kicking up a small cloud of dust as I looked around the room. It was dark, cramped, and didn't seem to have a single way out.

    "Shoot..." I furrowed my brow, focusing my aura as I formed a shimmering sphere of energy in the palm of my paw. "Am I seriously trapped in here?"

    The azure glow illuminated the tiny, isolated cave, the blue light mixing poorly with the tan-hued rock. Seams of iron ore peeked out of the walls, catching the light and bouncing it back at me, and I slowly ambled forward, the dungeon silent save for the pulsing aura. Some of the walls had crumbled, either from age or from landslides, and I moved over and began to dig into the loose rock, scraping my pawspike against the rubble.

    "C'mon, this has got to lead somewhere..." I muttered to myself, stabbing the metal spike into the wall and carving downward. Rock beget rock as I gradually cut through the broken sandstone, and something dinged loudly after a few minutes of work. "That was...!"

    Quickly bringing my free paw away, I held the aura sphere up to the cavern wall, the light catching on a sheet of iron, revealing a strange circular object welded strongly to the metal. My heart soared and plummeted in the same breath as I peeked out of a small set of holes punctured just above the mechanism. Whether they were eyeholes or airholes, I couldn't decide.

    Frustrated, I reared back to smash the aura sphere into the ancient lock, half-wondering if the sealed chamber would open if I hit it hard enough, but stopped myself just before letting loose with a punch. I sighed, sank to my knees, and took a deep breath to calm my frazzled nerves. The rough, grainy air didn't offer much help, but it was enough, and I stuck my muzzle up to the metal, clearing my throat as best I could before calling out.

    "Hey!" I yelled, gritting my teeth as the sound echoed around the small room and down through the tunnel outside. "Anyone out there?"

    It only occurred to me after I'd yelled that I might have ended up bringing a wild Pokémon over, but given the powerful lock stuck in the wall, I'm not entirely sure that I cared. "Hello! Rose! Anyone! Are you guys out there at all?"

    A dull groan came from behind me, and I froze in place, dispelling the aura sphere and sending the chamber back into the comfortable cover of shadows. Slowly rising to my feet, I narrowed my eyes as I watched a figure shuffle around the other side of the cavern, an indistinguishable blotch among other blotches. I slunk over to the center of the room, putting up a fist as I cradled my bandaged side with my other paw.

    "Who's there?" I said firmly.

    "Bill...?" A female voice called back to me, and I lowered my arms, walking towards the Pokémon. "Was that you that fell on my head, kiddo?"

    "Star!" Relief coursed through my veins as I moved over and helped the Zoroark back onto her feet. The fox dusted herself off and whipped her wild hair around, her bright blue eyes staring clearly at me through the gloom. "I didn't realize that was you I'd landed on. Sorry."

    "Tch." She flashed me a smile as I lit up another aura sphere, tracing one of her claws along my chin. "If you wanted to use me as a cushion you could at least have taken me out for a drink first."

    I rolled my eyes. "You're twice my age."

    "I am not!" Star snapped her arm away in mock offense, tapping her foot against the stone floor. "I'm twice little Erin's age."

    I snorted, taking a few steps backwards to let the older Pokémon get her bearings. Star looked around the small cavern briefly, taking in the sights as she placed her paws on her hips. "Where'd we end up, anyway?"

    "Sealed chamber," I answered bluntly, beckoning her over to the small hunk of rock I'd dug out of the wall. "Locked and left alone. Unless you've got a way out, we're stuck here."

    "A lock?" Star raised an eyebrow, gazing intently at the metal slab that sat snugly in the rock. We both squatted down to look at the circular lock, a series of strange symbols and numbers scratched onto its surface. Set in the middle of the mechanism was a clean cut, clearly meant for a key of some sort. As I brought the aura sphere closer to the metal, the dark type lowered her head in thought, the start of a smirk playing on her features. "Oh, Gabite, you clever dragon..."

    "You're not telling me you've got a key on you, right?" I said incredulously, and she shook her head, reaching into her knapsack and drawing out the pair of silver spikes. My eyes widened a bit. "Hold up a sec, what are you-"

    "Hush up, hotshot, and put a little more light on the subject," Star interrupted, and I nodded, forming a second aura sphere in my other paw, merging the two together as the well-forged metal shined eerily. Carefully bringing the prongs to the lock, she slipped one into the keyhole, then the other just underneath the first. "Good, now... this way..."

    I watched as the Zoroark jiggled the spikes around, moving left, then right, and left again. A few brief seconds past, the tension thick enough to flood the room, and she stopped as a clunk rang from the metalworking. With a grunt, she tried to continue moving the upper spike back and forth, only to find it stuck rigid in the middle of the lock. I peeked my head between my paws as Star struggled against the silver spikes. "Anything I can help with?"

    "Yeah..." She replied with a nod, not even turning to look at me as she held her tools still. "Spin the lock around, would you?"

    Confused, I reached over with my free paw and grabbed the edges of the circle, spinning it to the left. As the symbols and markings moved around, Star pushed again on the spikes, licking her lips in satisfaction as the lockpicks gave way, turning all the way to the right for the final time as the inner workings of the rounded lock clicked. Pulling away, we both watched as the mechanism sank into the sandstone, the loud crunching and clacking echoing all around the tiny cave and the tunnel beyond.

    "Well, if nothing knew we were here, they probably know now." I grinned, turning back to the older Pokémon.

    "Then I'll take the lead, since you've got that to deal with," Star replied with a sultry smile as she pointed at my bandages, and she closed up her knapsack, twirling her silver spikes around before bringing them close to her chest. "Keep that aura sphere bright and cover me from behind, kid."

    "Got it!" I nodded confidently as she briskly jogged into the tunnel, and I quickly followed after her, making our escape from the unsealed chamber.

    ***

    "Hello?" Someone young, gruff, yelled out into the inky darkness. "Anybody down there?"

    The Samurott's hiking pack clanked loudly as he stomped around the cavern, the travel supplies more attention-grabbing than any kind of armor he could have worn. Drawing a seamitar, Cyan held it forward, ready to ward off an attack at any moment. His caution was dampened somewhat by the fact that he could barely see anything. "Rose, where th'heck are you? I could use a light right 'bout now..."

    His grumbling went unanswered as he continued through the dungeon, trudging aimlessly forward, and as the aisle suddenly ended, the boy's helmet and his blade jammed right through a door, the wood so rotted that it tore straight off of its flimsy hinges.

    "What th'..." He grunted, raising his head as the horn crushed the thin planks, and with a push he sent the broken door sliding back the way he came, scraping against the rock as it slid to a halt. "Who's in here?"

    He poked his head through the doorframe, unable to see anything out of the ordinary inside the next room; just more rock all around and up above with not a hint of company anywhere. A cold breeze nipped at his fur, and he grunted as he began to shiver, his paw trembling against the handle of his weapon. Gritting his teeth, he ducked his head against the imperceptibly-soft wind and raised his seamitar, taking a tentative step forward.

    His eyes widened as he finally noticed the lack of a floor ahead of him, and he let out a surprised roar as he lurched forward. "WhaaAAAARGH-"

    The chilly air struck him from all sides as gravity took hold, rolling into a front flip as he plummeted towards the floor, his backpack making a loud racket all the while. The Samurott's heart raced as he tried to stay under control, and as he felt his hind leg graze a surface, he forced himself to turn around until his head stared right at the wall, the sound of armor just barely scraping against the sandstone. With a mighty thrust he stabbed the horn on his helmet into the rock, the heavy crunch sending dusty slivers onto his head as the spiky headgear popped off of his head, lodged firmly into the wall.

    "You've got t'be kiddin' me!" Cyan berated himself angrily as his ears wiggled around in the free air, and he drew his other seamitar, slamming the pair of blades into the wall and gasping as the handles dug deeply into the fur of his paws. His descent slowed significantly as the seamitars trailed down the rock, leaving a heavy gash through the wall. "C'mon, work, dammit!"

    The rushing wind returned to its previously-gentle touch as the bulky water type ground to a halt, and he heaved out a heavy sigh as he peered into the darkness, listening to the ear-splitting screeches above. The ground still seemed to be nowhere in sight, and looking up provided no clues as to how far away he was from his helmet. All he could do was dangle from the ends of his swords. His backpack weighed him down, but he had at least been able to stop.

    "Now all I could ask for is for th'stupid commotion to STOP!" The explorer yelled irritably as he kicked his hind legs around, batting at the back of his tail.

    A chorus of cries responded as a flock of wild Golbat flew straight at him, sounding just as irritated and twice as mean. Their leathery wings flapped through the cavern as they finally came into view, mere moments from sinking their fangs into the sea lion's exposed arms. Cyan growled at them, letting loose a small blast of water from his mouth, but the attack only clipped one of the Pokémon, leaving him completely open to the rest. "Geez... am I really gonna get m'ass kicked like this?"

    As the bats closed in, a few of them retaliated with a throaty, warbling sound, and Cyan felt his head begin to ache, quickly feeling his focus falter. His palms began to slip from his weapons as the supersonic waves sent him further and further into addled confusion. The sound of beating wings seemed to fill his ears as the swarm of poisonous Golbat continued to screech, and a tiny prickle of light flashed in the corner of his eyes.

    "Hang on, bucko!" Vale yelled out as he swooped over the youth's head, the Archeops' body surrounded by bright energy as he broke into a series of acrobatic rolls and pivots, slashing at the feral flock with his talons. Cyan could only wearily nod his head as the supersonic waves subsided, his mind clearing as he felt his seamitars slipping from the wall. "Or better yet, let go!"

    The Golbat moved their attention away from their original prey, following the glowing bird intently, the light revealing their dark wings and tiny eyes. Vale looked over his wings, turning upward and scaling the wall a bit before kicking off into the air again, tearing loose pieces of sandstone from the surface. The rubble plummeted towards the ascending Golbats, colliding with them before they had a chance to swerve out of the way, and the collective pile of bats and rocks smashed loudly into the floor, amidst groans of pain and other whimpers.

    "They landed..." Cyan turned his head and stared at the cold, hard floor, only a few feet away from his paws. He frowned, glared, then sighed before removing his seamitars from the wall and dropping to the ground, sheathing his blades and brushing some of the dust out from between his ears. "Why didn't y'tell me I was so close t'the ground!?"

    "I told you to let go, spikes," The flying type Pokémon replied as he hovered low and landed, perching on top of the hiking pack and ruffling his feathers. The light had finally died out, leaving the mystery dungeon shrouded in darkness once again. "You okay? Where's that oversized hat of yours, eh?"

    The Samurott stuck out his tongue and put his paws to his cheeks, pulling a face at the older bird. "It's stuck further up in th'wall."

    "You should take better care of your stuff, kid," Vale let out a brief chuckle before flapping his wings, running and jumping into the air, using his talons to trace the trail Cyan's seamitars had left behind. "Sit tight, we should keep going together!"

    The Archeops soon made his way up and out of Cyan's hearing range, leaving the sea lion alone to wait impatiently. A shifting in the rock caught his attention, and he heard as one of the Golbats flapped awkwardly into the air, spitting bits of sand and stone from its mouth. He reached out and groped aimlessly for it, eventually grabbing one of its legs and flinging it into the wall. It yelped haplessly as its head clonked against the stone and slid to the floor, completely and totally knocked out.

    "Just stay down, y'pests!" The warrior clapped his paws free of dust before stroking his mustache.

    ***

    Water, cold, wet and heavy, seemed to envelop every inch of Rose's body as she felt the abrupt teleportation dump her into another area of the cavern. Opening her eyes, she found herself completely submerged in a freezing, murky lake, and on instinct the nine-tailed fox paddled towards the surface, her lungs quickly using up what little breath she had been able to hold. Just as she felt herself begin to give out, her nose broke through, taking a deep sniff of the damp, musty air.

    "Bwah!" The fox spat out a tiny stream of water, coughing as she came to her senses, looking worriedly around the room. The grand, underground lake was lit up by numerous glowing mushrooms that sprouted from the walls, and a small shore of loose, broken sandstone beckoned to the fire type. She swam over and pulled herself out of the water, wheezing as she flopped onto the ground.

    "Bill...? Cyan, Erin?" She spoke quietly, flaring up her inner fire as she launched a flamethrower towards the water, the strain of the heat swiftly drying her off, leaving her fur soft and puffy. She could barely feel her scarf against her neck anymore. "Anyone here?"

    Her call fell flat as she was met with a lonely silence, and with a sigh she turned around, circling in place as she peered deeper into the dungeon. The tiny outcropping lead into a steep incline, dotted by smaller growths of the fungi all around, and if she squinted she could see shapes nibbling at the mushrooms, flicking their heads about before scampering out of sight. Taking a step forward, Rose made her way up the passage, guided by the dim light.

    The lake quickly became a distant landmark as the fox turned corner after corner, the stone rough against her paws as she padded through the endless halls. A noise caught her ear, sending her nerves on edge, and Rose slowed to a crawl, listening intently. It was another Pokémon eating something, likely one of the mushrooms, and from the sound of things they were being very sloppy.

    "Okay..." She mumbled to herself, carefully slinking towards the source of the noise. Briefly stopping to prepare herself, she sidestepped into view and pounced at her prey. "Gotcha!"

    The Pokémon yipped in surprise as the fluffy fox trampled it, and Rose grimaced as she felt something gooey splat into her face. Shaking the half-eaten mushroom off of her fur, she felt as her captive slapped its paws against her sides, and she stood firm, glaring as a particularly hard punch hit her wounded leg. The bandages and medicine seemed to do its job, though, as the cut didn't reopen.

    "Heeeey! Get off'a me, meanie!" The unhappy Pokémon cried out, and Rose's eyes widened at the sound. "Big fuzzball!"

    "Erin, stop! It's me!" The Ninetales shouted over the whining mink, and she stepped off of her friend, letting her sit back up and stop flailing about. Erin stared at her before bursting into cheery laughter, hiding her face in her untied sleeves.

    "Rose?" She managed to say between gasps, playfully poking at the fox's puffed-up fur. "Phahahaha! What hahappened to yohohou?"

    "Water," Rose replied quietly, scratching at her belly with her hind leg as she tried to press the fur back down. "Where have you been so far? Did you see Bill or the others?"

    "No, but I found these yummy mushrooms!" Erin shook her head and took a bite of one of the glowing caps, munching away happily as she held it up for Rose to see. "Want one?"

    Rose felt her tails begin to wag as she let out a sigh of relief, shaking her head at the offer. She paced back and forth as the Mienshao slipped the small mushrooms into her belt pouch. "No thanks, Erin, but we should keep moving. I saw other Pokémon picking at those things somewhere else, so we're not alone down here."

    "Really?" The girl piped up, hopping onto her feet. "D'ya think I should pick more mushrooms and let them have some?

    "I think any wild Pokémon that lives in here can do just fine on their own, Erin," Rose smiled gently, shaking her head. "C'mon, let's go."

    Erin hoisted a small bundle of mushrooms into the air as the two began to walk through the passage, their movements made easier with the strange light. Dust fell from the ceiling as low tremors rumbled through the cavern, and Rose felt her tails begin to wave again as the ground grew sharp, jumbled slabs of rock giving way to a set of carved steps. With no small amount of trepidation, the fox and mink hopped their way up the staircase, a frigid gale blowing from the top of the path.

    ***

    As the explorers reached the top of the hall, they found a grand display before them, a mighty metal gate standing proudly in the sandstone, mushrooms glowing dimly as they dotted the edges of the heavy iron. Lines of water trickled through holes in the walls, seeping into the stone and dripping into the lake below. Erin quickly scampered over to the other end of the room, jumping up and down as she tried in vain to reach the top of the gate, while Rose leisurely trotted through the cave, peering in awe at the massive size of the chasm.

    "How... how deep does this place go?" She couldn't help but wonder aloud, and she glanced at her companion out of the corner of her eye. "Erin, do you see anything over there?"

    "Yeah, a big ol' gate!" The Mienshao giggled as Rose walked over, looking over the bars that blocked the entrance. "I don't really see how we can get through, though..."

    As Rose stared intently at the gate, the image of the Waterfall Cave appeared in her mind's eye. She shook her head, a few locks of her headfur falling in front of her eyes. "I think maybe... should I give it a shot?"

    "Ooh, do you have an idea, Rose?" Erin asked, turning her head towards the cream-furred fox. "What'cha thinking about?"

    "I think I could heat up these bars and make them brittle enough to break, but..." Rose paused, purring as she stoked the fire in her throat. "I'm not sure how good of an idea it is to burn them while we're in the middle of a cave like this. I think you know what I'm talking about."

    "Awww, this cave is bigger than the one we were at a few days ago!" Erin reassured her, rocking back and forth on her heels as she clasped her paws behind her back. "Besides, burning metal doesn't make that much smoke, does it?"

    Rose quietly thought to herself as she scraped her paw against the bars, flakes of rusty iron dropping at her touch. She frowned, letting out a sigh. "It's so old that it's falling to pieces even without any heat... burning it would definitely make a lot of smoke."

    A scrabbling against the stone caught their attention, and the two Pokémon swiveled on their heels; a pair of wild Pokémon, a Nidorino and a Nidorina, stomped their feet angrily, their eyes locked onto the mushroom that Erin held in her paw. With a growl, they charged.

    "Woah!" Erin and Rose both bounced out of the way, the latter speeding into a run as she circled around the cavern, and the Nidos skidded to a stop, turning sharply and stampeding after the girl. "Ooh, I bet they're playing tag! Can't catch me, can't catch me!"

    "Erin, be serious!" Rose called to her as she cut in between the three, launching a fireball into the Nidorina's face. The poison type howled in pain as the flames seared her spiny fur, and her mate countered by slashing his horn along the fox's side. The appendage only managed to press into Rose's puffed-up fur, however, and the poison the Nidorino secreted left nothing but a smudge.

    Erin simply skipped around, halting in front of the iron gate to make a face as the Nidorina headbutted Rose, sticking her tongue out and spitting childishly, whipping her sleeves at the poison types. "Nyaaah! You're supposed to chase me, not her, you big bullies!"

    The light of the glowing mushroom sent the Nidos into a frenzy, and they left Rose alone on the ground, charging once again at Erin. Rose picked herself up and followed, watching as Erin continued to stand in place.

    "Erin!" She cried. "Move!"

    And move she did, leapfrogging over her pursuers at the last second, and the two Pokémon collided with the iron gate, a loud crunch ringing through the mystery dungeon as the bars flaked.

    The Ninetales slowed her pace for a moment, heart pounding as a confident smile found its way onto her face. "Wait... that's it! Great idea, Erin!"

    "What idea?" The pink mink cocked her head innocently, running away as the wild Pokémon came to their senses, returning to the fray. Rose rolled her eyes, tearing a toadstool from the floor and waving it around, galloping over to the metal gate.

    "Why use flames when we can just break through with brute force?" She couldn't help but mutter to herself, and her ear twitched as something else drifted up from the stairs, rising above the sounds of flowing water and raging battle.

    "Star, I can hear something up here!"

    "Same, kiddo, I'm not de- Vale?"

    "Hey, Cyan, look who it is!"

    "Guys!" Rose beamed, dropping the plant and deftly dodging the Nidorino's attack, wincing through her smile as she heard the clang of metal against bone. She took a few, hesitant steps down the stairs, yelling at the top of her lungs. "Up here! We could use some help!"

    "Rose, is that you?" I called from the base of the staircase as my partner's voice came from the top of the passage. I broke into a sprint, my feet pounding against the rock. "What's going on up there?"

    "Wheeeeeeeee!" I heard Erin yell out cheerfully, and an incredible crash rocked the cavern, the dungeon quaking dangerously as we ran straight into a massive dust cloud. I tripped and tumbled to a stop, coughing as I breathed in the dirt, and Star and Cyan seemed to similarly find themselves taken aback. Vale yelled above the racket, and I felt his wings flapping hard as a gust of wind flowed around the room.

    As the sandstone finally settled, I rubbed my eyes, blinking a few times as I stared agape across the room. The bars of the iron gate had bent and snapped, leaving a gap large enough to walk through. Just beyond it, the fainted Nidorino and Nidorina could be seen, exhaling tiredly as the wild Pokémon drifted off into a sleepy unconsciousness. As Rose helped me onto my feet, I grinned at the sight of her puffed-up fur. "You've been busy up here, huh?"

    She only responded with an embarrassed smile, barely visible through the fluff, and I chuckled, reaching over to help press it back down.

    "Let's take a break and get ourselves situated before we keep going, alright, kiddos?" Star said, shooting the four of us a sly smirk. "Besides, it's been a while. Might as well have some lunch, hm?"

    "I, uh..." Cyan started, reaching under his helmet to scratch at his ears. "I am kinda hungry, now that I think 'bout it."

    "Ooh, yeah, me too!" Erin seconded the notion, dumping the glowing mushrooms out of her belt pouch. Rose rolled her eyes.

    "You can't possibly be hungry after eating all those mushrooms, Erin," She chuckled as the Mienshao tied her sleeve into her sling.

    All eyes landed on me, and I gave my partner a look of agreement, sitting down onto the ground and slipping the treasure bag off. Reaching into it, I pulled out a bunch of apples, rolling a few to everyone.

    "Eat up, everyone," Rose replied, biting into her own food. "Let's take five!"
     
    Stop hovering to collapse... Click to collapse... Hover to expand... Click to expand...
    #10 SkyBlueFox1, Jul 28, 2017
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2017
  11. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 11!

    I only just noticed that the little lines that are supposed to separate scenes haven't been showing up (argh!), so I'll be adding them back in now, including all the previous posts. Ah well.

    Rrrrrumble.

    "What was that?" I perked my head up, my ears flicking as the low noise rang through the cavern. I raised both my paws, an aura sphere floating in each palm as the pulsing blue light illuminated the stone. The sandstone was shifting right before our eyes, the mystery dungeon slowly growing more gray and less tan as bits of granite marked the passing from one mountain into the next. I furrowed my brow as the others continued to walk past. Did they... not hear that? "Guys?"

    "What's up, Bill?" Rose turned her head to look at me, and I maneuvered my way around her nine bushy tails to move up next to her. I bit the inside of my lip as a twinge of pain ran through my side, taking a deep breath of the staid air.

    "That sound. You didn't hear it?" I said, spinning my paw in a lame gesture. The ball of energy I held swirled around from the force. "Some rumbling, I think."

    "Mmm, no..." The Ninetales strained her face as she listened hard. Nothing else could really be heard now, save for the sound of our paws against the rock. "Hm. Could it be an aftershock from the gate back there?"

    I looked over my shoulder into the depths of the tunnel, the great iron gate far behind us, the hole the Nidos had put through it still fresh in my mind. "Maybe you're right... we'd better be careful."

    "What are you two lovers chatting about, hm?" Star interrupted us, patting her knapsack as she lead the charge. Rose and I looked over at her, her swaying form mostly hidden by her mop of hair. "We're almost to the center of the dungeon, I'm sure of it. Then we can help you kiddos get up to the path through Mount Travail."

    "I never realized that the dungeons were connected like this," Rose said idly. "It would have saved Bill and I a lot of trouble getting there a few years ago!"

    "Whaddya do?" Cyan asked, literally poking his head in as his helmet grazed one of my aura tassels. "Climbin' th'mountain trail that goes up n'over th'tunnel isn'too hard."

    I grinned, lightly jabbing my elbow into the sea lion's belly. "Nice guess. We went around 'em."

    "We didn't find out the Labyrinth Cave was here until much later..." Rose added hastily, looking away in embarrassment. "At least we know about it now, right?"

    "Ooh, hey, hey, look!" Erin yelled, leaping onto Cyan's head as she pointed in front of us. I peered into the tunnel to see a growing speck of light. Another faint breeze ruffled through my fur, and I blinked, shivering slightly. "That must be where Gabite is! C'mon, let's go see him!"

    The Mienshao hopped off of her steed and began to dash down the cavern, the rest of us quickening our pace as the wind rushed past us. The light grew brighter as the sight of dull green appeared amongst the stone, and Rose and I pushed forward, our hearts pounding.

    We emerged into a makeshift abode, lit by a multitude of torches that blazed fervently in the underground room. Up above, a couple tiny holes provided fresh air from outside, while a set of dry grass mats lay flat and undisturbed around the room. With no other entrance or exit in sight, the central chamber seemed to be a dead end, save for the dragon that sat frozen atop one of the mats. Erin scampered over and squatted down at the edge of the grass, staring intently at the blue-scaled Pokémon.

    "Erin, don't get so close!" Rose chided as she walked over, and I followed, taking the opportunity to breathe deeply of the fresher air. Erin nodded and took a few baby steps backwards, continuing to look unblinking at Gabite. My partner looked past the dragon, furrowing her brow. "Hmm… this looks like a dead end. We found Gabite, but how are we going to get to Mount Travail?"

    "Mister Gabite?" The girl waved a paw in his face, lightly slapping him with her sleeves. Star, Vale and Cyan followed us up as Erin spoke. "Hey, wake up!"

    "Yes, yes, I know you're there, grrrgh," The figure spoke as he abruptly rose to his feet, and Erin flinched in surprise, tumbling backwards onto the floor. As Vale and I helped the young explorer up, Gabite sent the six of us a toothy grin. "You're all quite skilled for getting past... most, at least, of my traps! Color me impressed, grrrgh."

    "And now we have to battle you for that scale, right?" Star cut in, holding her paws on her hips as she leaned forward. "That's what the rumors said."

    "Well, grrrgh…" The dragon type took a few steps backwards, nodding at us to do the same, and he took an offensive stance, sharpening his claws and sending sparks onto the mottled mix of sandstone and granite. "Those rumors are true!"

    We barely had time to react before Gabite launched a wave of pulsing energy at us, and we jumped out of the way, widening the spread of our group of six. The fight was on!

    ***
    Challenge! Moving Upward and Onward!
    ***
    "Look out!" Rose cried, and I sprang above her head as she launched a bright green energy ball through the air. Flinging an aura sphere after it, I watched as the two began to orbit each other, the aura turning on a dime as Gabite dodged it. The attack fizzled out as it collided with his back, and Rose gulped dryly, her eyes widening. "Woah..."

    Cyan trampled forward, swinging a seamitar that clanged loudly against the armored scales, and he grabbed Gabite's claw as it nearly sliced his mustache off, holding it back as it cut into his paw. "What'n th'heck are y'playin' at!? Y'just shrugged that off like it was nothin'!"

    "It's not like you can easily harm me, you know." Gabite made small-talk as he parried each strike from Cyan's sword, pushing his other claw harder into his paw. "I'm a dragon, remember?"

    "Then I'll jus' hit y'twice as hard!" The Samurott defiantly roared in response, shoving the dragon backwards and spinning around, slashing into Gabite's chest with his tail. The attack left a small scratch, but our opponent was undaunted, stomping hard into the ground and kicking a cloud of dusty dirt into the warrior's face. Gabite bounded away as Cyan yelped in surprise, choking and sputtering as he inhaled the sand. "Ackhglagh! Gblaugh!"

    "Hey, don't do that!" Erin piped up unhappily as she ran towards her friend, one paw stuck into her belt pouch. Gabite's eyes flicked towards the girl, but Vale launched a silver sphere of energy at the dragon, catching him off guard. The distraction gave Erin enough time to wipe Cyan's face with her untied sleeve, and the Samurott sneezed hard, his eyes narrowed to slits as he grumpily nodded his thanks.

    "All's fair in battle, grrrgh!" Gabite taunted, hopping backwards and forming an energy sphere of his own in his teeth. Vale quickly did the same, shooting the dragon a toothy smile as he blasted it at him. "And the fairest thing to do is to get rid of the strongest threat first!"

    Vale faltered slightly, however, when Gabite slid underneath the attack and spat his own sphere into the dirt. Before the Archeops could react, lines of rock erupted from the earth, one of them striking Vale's wings and sending him plummeting onto one of the grass mats on the floor. The stones formed a conical tomb, securely trapping the bird inside, and Star let out a gasp, the Zoroark's face twisting into an angry frown.

    "Oh no you don't!" She roared, dashing towards the dragon, her twin silver spikes flashing in her paws as she twirled around. She stabbed one spike into Gabite's shoulder, the other slashing against his chest, and she pulled away just as quickly, leaping backwards and narrowly avoiding a wide slash of the dragon's claws. "Bill, Rose! Help Vale get out of that thing! I'll keep Gabite busy!"

    "Got it!" I nodded confidently, and I looked at Rose, who looked back at me. With a mutual nod, we jogged over to the rock tomb. The clang of Cyan's seamitar against one of Gabite's claws rang through the cave as my partner and I looked over the mass of stone, its tip high above our heads. I formed a metal claw from my pawspike and jammed it into the rock, scraping off a few shards of sandstone and leaving a tiny hole behind.

    "Vale!" Rose poked her nose through, raising her voice above the clamor of the battle in the background. "Are you okay? Is your wing hurt?"

    "Eh, I thin…" His voice was muffled, though the note of pain was still clearly evident. "…nda aching, but I can st…"

    A pained cry drew our attention elsewhere, Rose pulling her muzzle away from the rock as I swiveled on my heels, watching as Gabite hoisted Erin into the air and flung her in our direction. The Mienshao's body crashed hard into me, knocking the air from my lungs as we crumpled to the ground. The younger girl thankfully hopped off of me just as quickly as she'd crashed, and I sat up straight, taking a quick breath to catch my bearings.

    "Geez, Erin…" I chuckled, looking past her at Cyan and Star, who were taking turns keeping Gabite away from the rock tomb. "Maybe if you'd eaten a few less mushrooms, that'd have hurt less!"

    "Heey, that's mean! Besides, it's not my fault my throwing stones aren't doing anything to him!" Erin stuck her lower lip out in a pout as I picked myself up, wincing a bit as a twinge of pain ran through my side. Rose noticed, stepping over to me as I furrowed my brow from the ache, and Erin's expression quickly flipped from unhappy to thoughtful. "Ooh, wait! I think I still have some orbs from Serenity River!"

    "What!?" Rose exclaimed, and Erin nodded with a smile, rocking back and forth on her heels. "Quick, quick, get them out! Bill, try and carve off a little more of this rock, before Vale gets hurt any worse!"

    I dug my metal claws into the rock tomb as the Mienshao slipped off her belt pouch, and Cyan launched forward with his blades pointed outward, water surrounding him as he jetted towards Gabite. The dragon twirled out of the way, but Cyan instinctively turned at an angle, the armor on his arm just clipping the notched fin on Gabite's back. The momentum was enough to send Gabite forward a few steps off-balance, and as the sea lion spun around and out of his attack, Star followed up with a hop, skip and a jump, stomping hard onto Gabite's head and stabbing her silver spikes into the horns on each side of his head.

    Her victory was short-lived, however, as Gabite quickly bent at his hips, smashing the Zoroark into the stone floor with an audible THWACK. The black fox crumpled to the floor and groaned in pain, holding her head in her paws as the dragon type returned his focus to Cyan, the silver spikes still stuck in his horns as he deflected a slash.

    "You six are pretty good for grrrgh…" Gabite spoke idly between heavy breaths, both his claws digging into Cyan's two seamitars in a double bladelock. Cyan took the opportunity to lower his head, slamming the horn on his helmet on top of the dragon's noggin and sweeping left and right, knocking the silver spikes away. Leaning into a rough shove, the Samurott sent the dragon backwards; Gabite wobbled a bit before shifting his weight, his eyes narrowed in amusement. "It's been a while since I've had a battle this fun. And that's high praise coming from me!"

    "Then why don't y'jus' give up an'give us the scale!" Cyan taunted cockily, and he growled, letting loose a powerful stream of water from his mouth, forcing the dragon back even further. Star scrambled to her feet, still somewhat dizzy, and retrieved her weapons from the floor.

    "Found one!" Erin cried out in exuberant triumph, catching everyone's attention, and she held the wonder orb up above her head, and I could see a trio of wavy lines through the foggy inside of the ball. "Alrighty, take this!"

    The Mienshao slipped the orb into her sling sleeve, spun once, and flung it at the preoccupied Gabite. As it smashed into his arm, a fierce gale rushed through the cavern, Rose's tails whipping hard against my back from the force of the wind, and Gabite was flung across the room, digging his feet into the stone to slow himself down. The opportunity showed itself, and I took it, forming two spheres of aura in my paws and slamming them into the small hole in the rock tomb, the powerful attack shattering one of the stone spikes to pieces and freeing the trapped bird inside.

    "Aha, now that's more like it, kiddo!" Vale swooped out of his prison, doing a few loops in the air before setting down close to Rose and I. "Hoo… thanks for getting me out. Still feels cramped, uuugh…"

    The bird shuddered softly, and Rose hopped up and quickly embraced the older bird, his necklace of gems clinging as the fox comforted him. "It's alright, you're out of there now, right? C'mon, we need your help!"

    "Bah, no problem, Rosie!" The Archeops shook my partner off, hopping up and down impatiently as he flapped his wings. "I'll show this guy who's the real deal here!"

    The bird soared towards the ceiling of the cavern and hovered for a moment before streaking downwards, his necklace glowing with a bright light as his entire body began to glow. Before Gabite could react, Vale blasted towards him in a sudden jolt of speed, leaving a line of afterimages as he spun headlong into the dragon once, twice, thrice. Despite his best efforts to guard himself, the powerful Archeops' talons made their mark with each strike, clawing and tearing at Gabite's hard scales with incredible force. In the midst of the attack, I motioned towards Rose. "Ready to roast this guy?"

    The Ninetales nodded in understanding, letting out a low growl as a raging fire crackled in her throat, and I yelled out at the top of my lungs, looking one way and then the other. "Vale, let off! Cyan, get him now!"

    The older Pokémon took a quick glance at us and blinked, slowing out of his acrobatic display and leaving our opponent wide open. Cyan nodded stoutly and lumbered forward, slashing the dragon twice with his swords before grabbing him and flinging him over to us. With a cheeky grin, I reached out and grabbed the dazed dragon by his claws, rolling onto my back and planting my feet firmly into his chest, kicking Gabite high into the air. I turned my head to look at my partner, embers leaking from her clenched jaws as she arched her back and looked at our foe, launching a fireball at him.

    Gabite had other ideas, however, as he roared loud enough to shake the cavern, the noise echoing around the room as he sent his own gout of flames at the fireball, the purple dragonfire colliding with Rose's own blaze mid-flight, the two attacks exploding in a mass of light and heat. I heard a couple yelps of surprise as I ducked low, bringing my arm in front of my face to keep from being blinded, and I heard a harsh crack from the ceiling, along with a strong rumble.

    The flash subsided as quickly as it had come, and I looked around the room. Star and Vale were slowly picking themselves up from the ground, the former wincing as she rubbed at her head, and Erin was looking over Cyan's paws, deep gashes cut into them from Gabite's claws. I furrowed my brow. "Where's…?"

    My question was answered by a heavy scale that just missed hitting my shoulder, and I looked up sharply, skittering out of the way as Gabite fell where I had stood moments before, a dragon-shaped indent left in the ceiling. He groaned in pain, struggling to get up, his claws scraping noisily as he wearily pushed himself onto his knees.

    "You… you aren't a typical… exploration team, are you, grrrgh?" He rubbed a claw against his nose, and Rose trotted over to him, poking her head under his arm as she helped him up. "Most just pass through, tired from traps… and ask for shelter. Who… are you, grrrgh?"

    A few seconds passed before I pulled our exploration badge from the strap of the treasure bag, clasping it firmly in my paw as I held it outward. Gabite's eyes seemed to widen slightly before returning to normal, and as the light caught the black metal, a cheeky smirk made its way onto my face. "The name Team Returners ring any bells in that head of yours? Should I get Erin over here to give you a quick check up?"

    "Bill, Bill, did you call me?" I rolled my eyes as the Mienshao ran over to me, helping Rose hoist the tired dragon type onto his feet, and Cyan, Star and Vale followed soon after, all seven of us watching as the powerful Pokémon inhaled and exhaled, his claws on his knees and a large chunk missing from the tip of his dorsal fin.

    "You sure you want any more punishment?" Star knelt down to the floor and picked up the large blue scale, lining it up with the dragon; it was a perfect match, and she let out a low whistle. "We'd be glad to take this with us and call it a day, unless you want to keep going all night…"

    "I think that… you really are the Returners…" Gabite managed to get out between breaths, and Rose moved to my side, briefly nuzzling my neck before returning her gaze to the dragon. He scanned across each of us, beaming proudly. "Then you are worthy opponents… and I would be honored to lead… you to a safe area to rest for the night, grrrgh."

    "Oh, so you really are that kind of Pokémon…" Star wore a sultry smile as she spoke, while Cyan let out a grumpy grunt, rolling his eyes as he looked over his seamitars.

    "Dinged up again…" The Samurott grumbled, sheathing the weapons as Gabite walked over to the wall and traced a line along it, and the rock slowly shifted and fell away, revealing a hidden passage, faintly illuminated by more glowing mushrooms. Erin let out a coo of excitement as she grinned, beginning to rock back and forth on her heels.

    "You," Gabite jabbed a claw at Rose, who took a timid step backwards at the gesture. "You said something about… Mount Travail. This tunnel should lead… straight to a Kangaskhan Stone in a cave… at the edge of the trail down the mountain."

    "That's helpful," I muttered under my breath to my partner, and the fox smiled gratefully, bowing her head.

    "Thank you, Gabite," She said, and she turned towards me. "Should we get going?"

    "Might as well," I replied with a shrug, turning towards Erin, who was preoccupied with giving Cyan a quick check-up. I glanced at Star and Vale. "You two got your scale. Now it's your turn to help us out, right?"

    "Yeah, I hear you just fine…" The Zoroark tapped her foot against the floor, still breathing hard from the battle. "Lead on, hotshot. You're the ones who need to get across it!"

    "Then it's settled." I pounded my fist into an open palm. "Let's go!"

    ***

    Small shrubs and bushes began to pop up among the glowing mushrooms, the sunlight pouring in from outside providing enough nutrition to keep the plants growing, and Erin picked a few sprouts that interested her, carelessly shoving them into her belt pouch. As we made our way towards the light at the end of the tunnel (both literal and metaphorical), another rumble rocked the cave, and Rose turned her head to look at me.

    "Well, I guess I don't have to ask if you heard that one, huh?" I joked, pushing past a clump of roots that snaked their way through cracks in the ceiling. I grinned sheepishly as I heard the roots swing backwards and smack into Erin, sending her tumbling off of Cyan. "Eheh, sorry, Erin."

    "Oh, that's okay, Bill-" The Mienshao chattered as her friend helped her up, and a third rumble sounded, a loud crash coming from outside, sending us on edge. "Woah, what was that?"

    "It sounded like…" Star scrunched up her face, frowning. "Like thunder!"

    Our feet pounded against the rock as we dashed outside, emerging on a small trail leading towards Mount Travail. Walls of jagged rocks jutted upwards towards the grey sky, covered by clouds that began to send a load of sprinkling rain down onto the path. The weeds and patches of thick grass seemed to wriggle around with a mind of their own, delighted by the water, and I felt the cold wind blow against my fur. As the edges of the thunderstorm rained down on us, Rose stood her ground, her tails flapping in the wind. Erin hopped from puddle to puddle, splashing Cyan, while Star took cover under Vale's wing.

    "Where did this… come from?" I wheezed, feeling my bandages begin to get soaked through, and I instinctively brought both my paws over to cover the wound. "It wasn't even raining in the forest."

    "It must be coming in from the east, or southeast or something," Rose replied, moving a short ways away before shaking herself from head to toe, droplets flying everywhere. She looked at me with her big red eyes as she finished drying herself (or at least trying to, anyway). "We need to find the Kangaskhan Stone as soon as we can, we can't waste any more time."

    "Hey, Vale!" I looked over my shoulder at the bird, who tried and failed to keep his friend's massive mop of hair from getting soaked. He grinned sheepishly at Star before hovering over to me. "Could you fly off and check how far off we are from the Kangaskhan Stone?"

    "No problem, kiddo," He nodded energetically, flapping twice strongly before swooping away. "I'll be back before you know it!"

    "Ooh, ooh, we'll go too!" Erin yelled happily, stomping into a particularly deep puddle as she yanked on Cyan's arm, tugging him along as she chased after the older Pokémon. As the trio passed through the falling rain, Star walked up to Rose and I, frowning a bit as she wiped her paw on her knapsack, pointing past a low patch of the rocks at the clouds. "This storm's bad, and judging from the darker patches over thataway, it'll be worse real quick. What's got you all in a hurry?"

    "We got the letter about the job at Sky Peak…" The Ninetales thought for a moment before gasping quietly. "I think it's a week tomorrow, Bill! We really have to hustle before we lose this chance!"

    "A week!?" I exclaimed, my fur bristling as my mind began to race. Treasure Town, the Quagsire and Tiny Town… the forest and today… "Geez, you're right - we really are slow-going, aren't we?"

    "We've got to get to Sky Peak as soon as we can…" My partner began to pace back and forth, seemingly ignorant of the strands of wet headfur that dangled in front of her eyes. "We already got delayed from what happened at the river, if we get any more sidetracked, he might leave, or something worse might happen!"

    "Rose, are you sure we should rush ourselves like that?" I replied, trying to reassure the panicking fox. "I'm still wounded, we just had a big battle with a dragon, there's a storm coming in-"

    "Hey, lovers!" Star interrupted, the nickname snapping us out of our trance, and we looked at the black-furred fox, who was eyeing us suspiciously. "What's going on? I know that Vale and I sort-of hid what we were doing around here, but I didn't think that you were, too."

    "It's…" I paused, trying to find the best way to put it.

    "It's a long story." Rose finished for me. "The job we've got at Sky Peak is… urgent-"

    "Rose, Cyan and Erin got on our case for not telling them," I gently reminded, and she blinked, nodding in agreement after a moment of silence. "But it is a long story, I'll give it that."

    Star flicked her eyes upward, letting out a skeptical sigh as she gestured towards the storm above us. "If we're going to be stuck in a cave for the rest of the night, I think you two have plenty of time to talk about it. Or do more, if you feel like it…"

    The Zoroark fluttered her eyelashes suggestively, and Rose looked away in embarrassment, shyly pawing at the blush forming under her fur. I grinned cheekily, feeling a faint heat on my cheeks as well. Thankfully, Vale arrived before Star could tease us any more, sputtering a bit as the rain bounced off of his feathers.

    "Heya, we found the campsite!" He scratched his talons against the stones, flapping his wings despite being grounded. "Cyan and Erin just stayed there so they could get all the stuff set up. C'mon, follow me!"

    Star looked at us, and we looked at Star. Rose exhaled heavily, shaking her head to try and get her unkepmt headfur out of her face, and I reached over to affectionately tousle it, wrapping the strands of fur behind her ears. The rain continued to fall, and a blast of cold, strong wind hit us, making my fur bristle as I began to shiver, my paw trembling atop my partner's head.

    "Y-yeah, getting out of the rain's p-probably the best idea," I said through chattering teeth, and Star let out a snort.

    ***

    "Ohohoho! A little white lie comes back to bite you," Star laughed heartily, bringing her paw in front of her mouth as she raised her head, looking at us from across the small campfire. Her mirth was briefly interrupted by a grunt of pain, and she rubbed at the sore spot where Gabite had smashed her head. "Oof… so this really is urgent! You two seem to be magnets for this sort of thing, aren't you?"

    A meager meal sat digesting in our stomachs, Cyan already lulled to rest from the food, and Erin lay on top of the sea lion's belly, the pink mink yawning broadly as she tried not to doze off, squinting as she occasionally rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The storm pounded down on the well-worn statue outside, but the flames, and Rose's inner warmth, kept the cozy cavern as toasty as could be.

    "Are you saying that being misadventure magnets is a good thing?" I quipped, leaning back against the wall. "Granted, you've got a decade more experience than Rose and I do, but still."

    "I didn't say it was good, I just think it's interesting, hotshot." The Zoroark mimicked me, leaning down onto her cushion of hair.

    "Why'd you lie about what happened to Darkrai, though, kiddos?" Vale asked, his body splayed lazily out in his friend's lap, and Star grinned as she stroked her paw along the bird's throat. "I know he tried to take over the world and you stopped him, but it seems like him losing his memory would be something worth mentioning, if you don't mind me saying so."

    "That's… just it, Vale," Rose answered quietly, sighing as she looked at the older Pokémon. "Darkrai has amnesia, and that means he's... he's like a child, I guess."

    "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "He's impressionable, is what I'm saying," My partner struggled to find the right words. "Since he's lost his memory, whoever he spends time around will probably end up shaping who he ends up being. What if a bandit finds him, and he starts committing crimes?"

    "Sweetheart, I think you're over-thinking things-" Star started to say, but I cut her off with a wave of my paw, the firelight bouncing off of my pawspike.

    "Star, Darkrai's a legendary Pokémon. Even I don't think we can take any chances," I explained, glancing at my stomach before looking over at Cyan. "Though with my hurt side, Cyan's cut paws, your head, and a storm outside, we've got our work cut out for us getting down Mount Travail."

    "But this is the first you've heard of him since you fought him years ago, right?" Star shot back, pointing a claw directly at me. "If it's been that long, then he's probably hasn't gone sour, right? If he'd become an outlaw, you'd probably have heard something about him doing something sooner than now."

    "That's…" Rose's response was lost as she mulled over the logic, and I furrowed my brow in thought, the silence broken only by three things: the storm, the campfire, and Cyan and Erin starting to snore. "You're right…"

    "How the heck did we not think of that?" I frowned, berating myself. "Geez, that's… so obvious. I can't believe I missed that."

    "Hey, don't beat yourself up, Bill," Star reassured me, and I peered over at the older Pokémon as she sent me a genuine smile, the stars on her mouth fully visible. "It can be easy to miss stuff like that. Trust me, Vale and I know from experience."

    "Just keep it in mind from now on, kiddos," Vale said, nodding in agreement. "Besides, if you two are in such a hurry, then the fact that he's probably not a bad guy is at least a little comfort, right?"

    "Right…" Rose said, her muzzle slowly turning from a frown to a smile, to a huge beam. "Right! If he's not such a bad Pokémon, and we get to him as soon as we can, then all we need to do is make sure he's in good company…"

    "And make sure the good company knows that Darkrai isn't evil anymore," I said. "And that means setting the record straight with the Shaymin Village straight, if not the rest of Tiny Town and Treasure Town later on."

    My partner yawned as the rain continued to pour outside, and she put her paws on top of her nose in mild embarrassment. "Oh, excuse me… I'm getting tired, it must be pretty late."

    "We've all had a pretty rough day, both with the Labyrinth Cave and with battling Gabite, huh," Vale chuckled to himself as he fidgeted around, letting his head rest in the crook of Star's crossed legs, and he too let out a hefty yawn. Star yawned as well not soon after her friend. "Haha, now you've got us yawning, Rosie!"

    "I'm still not all that tired, so you two lovers go cuddle and snooze while I take watch, huh?" The Zoroark teased slyly, looking outside into the fog of the storm and wincing a bit as she rubbed between her ears. "Mmf. Tomorrow we're headed down the mountain, huh?"

    "Don't forget to take a rest too, okay?" Rose said, cocking her head in concern. "Everyone needs to be at their best if we want to push through the rain."

    "We'll be fine as long as we stick together," Star reassured the nine-tailed fox, shaking her head at her. "Just sleep, okay, hon?"
     
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  12. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 12!

    My ears were ringing from the roar of the wind, strong gales pushing at the six of us as we slowly forced our way across the mountain path. The rocks were wet and slippery from the constant rain pouring down from the overcast sky, a few loose pebbles dropping in front of my feet and bouncing into the ravine below. I brought my paw to my eyes and peered upward at the sheet of gray clouds passing over Mount Travail, feeling the large drops of water splattering against my fur. My leg brushed against something fuzzy, and I looked at the Ninetales in front of me, her tails utterly soaked and dragging against the ground.

    "Rose," I yelled out to my partner, and she stopped and turned to look at me, shaking her head as she tried in vain to get her matted headfur out of her face. I took a deep breath, my throat starting to feel sore from having to yell over the weather. "I'm starting to think that this was a bad idea!"

    "Yeah... me too!" The corners of her mouth twitched a little as she spoke, but a worried expression quickly swept the humor away, and she started to move again. I glanced over my shoulder for a moment: Erin sat on Cyan's backpack, the Samurott gritting his teeth irritably as he stomped towards me, and behind them were Star and Vale, the latter trying to shield himself with his wings. Brushing my paw against the rock wall, I sidled forward again, the narrow trail getting narrower.

    "Who pissed Ho-oh off t'get him t'whip up a storm this bad?" Cyan swore, and I heard him draw his seamitars. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he jabbed the blades into the edges of the path, trying to keep himself steady. "Th'clouds are so thick I can barely see anythin'!"

    "Is the rain starting to get to the big tough Samurott?" Star joked, earning herself a glare in the process. The Zoroark smiled coyly at the younger Pokémon. "But you can see your muscles so well!"

    "We didn't think the rain would be this powerful, kiddo!" Vale added hastily, craning his neck to look past his partner, droplets sliding off of each and every feather. "If we'd known, we would have stopped the four of you from going in the first place!"

    I flinched as a sudden flash of light caught us all off guard, scrunching my eyes shut as I gripped feebly at the slick granite. Moments later, a deafening clap of thunder rumbled through the canyon – Erin let out a yelp of surprise afterward.

    "We're too far away from the cave to try and go back," I replied, staring back at the Archeops as my sight started to clear up. "All we can do now is keep moving forward-"

    I paused as another rumbling sound drifted into my ears, and I looked around the switchback, trying to find the source of the noise. It couldn't be thunder, since there hadn't been any lightning, and there was nothing down below as far as I could tell... I felt something shaking at my back, the treasure bag bumping gently against the wall, and my head shot skyward. I gasped quietly as a few small shards of gray stone bounced off of my nose.

    A Steelix thrashed about above our heads, smashing chunks of rock loose from the mountainside, a line of scars carved into the granite as the iron snake plummeted towards us. My attention flicked between the wild Pokémon and my partner, and I sucked in a breath as I connected the dots. My heart lurched as Rose looked up at the Steelix, her eyes widening in shock, and I did the first thing I could think of.

    "Look out!" I cried out, dashing forward and shoving the cream-furred fox a few paces further down the trail. She stumbled away, digging her claws into the rock as she tried to regain her balance, and she stared at me in disbelief.

    Everything became a blur as I felt the steel type smash headlong into my side, and I felt the cold air whooshing past me, the solid ground disappearing out from under my feet. I heard someone call my name, the scream rising above the Steelix's roar, and I reached my arm out towards the noise. I smacked into the other side of the ravine, and the world went dark.

    ***

    Travail! A Storm to Tear Apart!

    ***

    Something small tapped against my shoulder, bouncing off with a short rattle, and I groaned as I returned to consciousness. My entire body felt sore and my fur clung tightly to the skin underneath, still damp from the rainstorm; another something hit my blunted chestspike, and the metal dinged quietly. Summoning what strength I could at the moment, I forced myself to open my eyes.

    I grimaced as light flooded into my vision, blurs of grey and white blending together, and I reached up and rubbed my forehead, trying to dull the low aching in my skull. The giant mountain walls came into focus after a few moments, the stone standing out against the still-cloudy sky. I took a deep breath and exhaled. "H-Hello?"

    When I got no answer, I pushed myself into a sitting position, my stomach rumbling as I scanned around the area. I instinctively curled my paws into fists when I spotted the gigantic Pokémon that lay nearby. "What the- wait...!"

    It was the Steelix, on its side and clearly still unconscious; its slackened jaw and closed eyes could attest to that. I frowned slightly at the pained expression on the feral Pokémon's face, but shook my head, turning back to look at the other side of the ravine. The gray, dull stone seemed to stretch on for quite a ways ahead.

    "The others are probably looking for me..." I wondered aloud as I got to my feet, and I hissed as I straightened my knees, slight twinges of pain running through my bones. I tugged the treasure bag off of my back, reaching inside and pulling out the mushy remains of what had been an oran berry. I stuck out my tongue and licked the soft fruit, sighing in disappointment before stuffing it into my mouth. The tasty juice ran down my throat, and I felt my stamina start to return somewhat. "I better get going."

    I took a few steps forward, thin patches of grass brushing at my ankles, but stopped when a loud, ominous scraping bounced through the ravine, my ears flicking nervously from the noise. I swallowed dryly as the tip of the Steelix's tail began to move out of the way, and I slowly turned around to stare at the steel type. The iron snake Pokémon rolled onto its belly, a line of drool snapping from its lips as it tried to get its bearings back, and I started to walk backwards, shifting my weight to my heels. Some loose gravel scrunched underfoot – I froze where I stood.

    "Well, this is good," I muttered under my breath as the Steelix shot a pointed look at me, and I raised my paws disarmingly, grinning at the feral Pokémon. Forcing myself to keep moving, my eyes stayed firmly trained on the iron snake. "Easy does it now... no need to get angry, you were the one who crashed into me, after all."

    The Steelix growled angrily before letting out an ear-splitting screech, and I spun around and ran, kicking off against the rock as I broke into a run. I could hear the snake's body grind against the edges of the canyon, the ground shaking beneath my feet as it burrowed partway into the earth and started to chase after me. The dampness in my fur quickly started to dry as the air blew past the both of us, and I briefly glanced at the clouds above. Had the rainstorm stopped? How long had I been knocked out...?

    A clump of shadows swept above me, and I focused my aura on my pawspikes as I saw a pile of boulders fall a good distance ahead, small puffs of dust rising up where they landed. I grit my teeth, jabbing metal claws into the brittle granite, and I whirled around and flung the rock at my pursuer, not even bothering to look back to make sure the projectile had hit its mark. A little stone like that wouldn't do much to stop it anyway-

    A gasp escaped my muzzle as my legs throbbed in pain, my long fall from near the top of Mount Travail starting to fully take its toll on me, and I took a couple wobbling steps before collapsing onto the canyon floor. My lungs burned as I tried to catch my breath, and I rolled onto my tail, weakly holding an arm in front of my chest as the feral Steelix rose up to its full height. "Geez... Rose! Cyan, Erin! Where are you guys?"

    The iron snake glared viciously at me, loosing another loud roar that sent a tremor through the ravine's walls. I opened my mouth to yell again, only to stop with the words on the tip of my tongue. I wouldn't be able to shout over the Steelix... but maybe I wouldn't need to.

    "Yeah, yeah, you got me!" I yelled back at the Steelix, carefully inching myself backwards as the Pokémon exhaled heavily, its echoing voice repeating over and over in my ears. "Trying to let everyone know about it?"

    My foe snorted to itself and lowered its head to look at me, a low growl rumbling in its throat. I glanced over my shoulder at the eastern end of the canyon, looking for any sign of my teammates, but all I could see was the tall stone. Looking back at the Steelix, I furrowed my brow and concentrated, my aura tassels shaking as I formed a small, shimmering ball in the palm of my paw. "Getting tired?"

    The iron snake cried out shortly, and I instinctively brought my arms behind my ears and pushed them down as the feral steel type screeched again. While it was distracted, I lashed out and tossed the aura sphere, watching as the tiny thing collided with the Pokémon's belly. The Steelix fell back a bit, staring at its underside for a moment, and my eyes widened as it started to thrash about in a rage, the tip of its tail slamming hard into the ground. It continued to move, but couldn't – it was stuck!

    "Bill!" I perked up as a new voice called out from the opposite end of the ravine, and a confident smile found its way onto my muzzle as I twisted around to look for its source. A figure flew towards the Steelix and I at breakneck speed, his wings flapping constantly to keep himself aloft. "Was that you making all that noise?"

    "Yeah, who else?" I shot back wryly at Vale. The iron snake reared back in confusion before lamely trying to swat at the older Pokémon with his head. The discomfort in my legs was all but gone now that I'd rested a bit, and alongside the Archeops' timely distraction, I gingerly got to my feet.

    Vale leaned sideways, turning sharply as his tail just barely passed over the Steelix's body, and a warm glow started to surround his body, his jeweled necklace glinting in the light. "Get outta the way, and quick!"

    I moved into an easy jog, striding past the Steelix's tail as it tried to tug itself free, and I slowed my pace once I'd gotten away from the battlefield. I looked back at Vale, reaching up to fiddle with my aura tassels as they bumped against the treasure bag. The flying type dove towards the ground and dug his talons into the hard stone, his aura vanishing; as he took to the skies again, jagged cracks started to form where he had landed, each and every one of them shining orange. The feral Steelix stared down at the earth below him, growling obliviously.

    "That's it!" Vale yelled out triumphantly as the earth's power blasted out, an enormous wave of dust exploding up into the heights of the canyon, and we both heard the Steelix screech out in pain. The Archeops swooped over to me, landing a few paces away to safely jog to a stop.

    "Thanks for the save, Vale," I sighed, letting my shoulders slump as my tension vanished. The bird stretched his neck to survey the damage, nodding briefly at the cloud of dirt that was slowly starting to settle. "I'm glad you were able to find us before it decided to stop roaring at me and attack me instead."

    "I'm glad you're okay!" Vale replied, shimmying a little as he adjusted his necklace. "Rose has been all but pushing us down Mount Travail ever since you fell! Everyone's been really worried!"

    "Wait, you're still climbing down the mountain path?" I said, folding my arms and walking over to the ravine's wall, leaning on it as I took a rest. Vale trundled along with me, his large talons kicking at bits and pieces of stone. "Then how long ago was it that the Steelix crashed into us? When I woke up, the storm had stopped, so I wasn't sure."

    The Archeops rocked his head back and forth as he thought to himself, tapping his claws together as he stared up at the cloudy sky. "Hmm... a couple hours, at least. The rain finally started slowing down a short while after you fell into the ravine, so we've been moving faster than before!"

    "Good..." I followed his gaze towards the mountainside, raising my paw above my eyes as the granite came into focus, lighter-colored veins running through the otherwise dark rock. A mild ache rippled through my legs again, and I winced, grabbing the strap of the treasure bag and pulling it off of my back. Vale took a couple steps forward, reaching out to hold the other end, and I nodded gratefully.

    "We'd better keep moving, though. We might not have to go back and forth down a bunch of trails, but it's still a long way until we get out to the eastern cliffs," The bird remarked, watching as I took another couple mushy oran berries out of the bag and popped it into my mouth. I felt the leather shift slightly as he let go of it, and I grinned as he stuck a wing inside and grabbed some food himself.

    However, another tremor rumbled through the cleft in the mountain, and both of us slowly stopped chewing, sharing a mutual blank look before turning around and staring behind us.

    ***

    "We've got to keep moving!" Rose yelled, galloping down the mountain trail as she led the charge down the mountain, and she glanced at Star, silver spikes held tight in the Zoroark's claws as she kept stride with her. Her headfur flapped in the wind, strands of it falling in front of her face as they made a dash for the base of the cliffs. "I can still hear the rumbling coming from down below!"

    "I'm runnin' as fast as I can, Rose!" Cyan called back breathlessly, stomping hard against the rock as he followed hot on the Ninetales' tails. He grunted as Erin tugged on his mustache, the mink keeping hold of both ends like they were reins.

    Star's eyes flicked over to the Pokémon beside her, and she jumped over the fire type, sliding down and landing on an outcropping over the ravine. She held a paw out towards the other three explorers, squatting down and peering into the canyon, and Rose slowed her pace, turning around the switchback and walking up to the older fox.

    "Can you see anything down there?" She turned her head to look past Star's shoulder, narrowing her eyes as she scanned over the ravine herself, her gaze lingering on the still-foggy part of Mount Travail. The clouds grew darker the further she looked, the rain still falling heavily in the distance.

    "Nah, nothing much, hon." Star shook her head, her satchel shuffling against her fur. "But Vale still hasn't come back from his scouting yet, so he must have found Bill just fine. Wouldn't surprise me if it's them making all that noise!"

    "It must be that mean old Steelix, hrrmph!" Erin piped up in a huff, kicking her heels on the top of Cyan's hiking pack. She leaned forward against the Samurott's helmet, oblivious to the annoyed glance he sent her way. She then smiled happily, laughing. "But it's no match for the both of them together, so I know they're okay!"

    Rose smiled gently at the Mienshao's optimism, and she and Star both turned away from the depths of the ravine to look down the switchback, thinking hard to themselves.

    "We've still got a ways to go down the mountain-" Star began to say, only to be cut off as a harsh tremor shook the ground underfoot, and she wobbled a bit before sticking a paw down on the outcropping to regain her balance. "What was that!?"

    "Look, there!" Cyan pointed out with his seamitar, the blade aimed at a small cloud of dust that had suddenly risen from the opposite wall in the ravine. Rose sucked in a breath at the sight, and she looked at the younger Pokémon, nodding gratefully at him.

    "That must be them... let's go!" The Ninetales declared, her tails whipping out as she broke into a run down the mountain again, and Star bounded off of her perch to follow after her. Cyan grunted, returned his blade to its scabbard, and started to trample forward, Erin giggling in excitement all the while.

    ***

    I quickly ducked, pulling a yelping Vale down with me as a heavy iron tail swung over our heads, scarring the wall above us and sending slivers of rock down on top of us. I grit my teeth as the Steelix growled at us, the dust cloud settling fully around the bottom of the ravine as the battered steel type staggered into the air, having finally gotten itself unstuck. Its eyes were narrowed in a dangerous leer, and even without aura training I could have sensed its crazed, unbridled anger.

    "No way!" Vale exclaimed as I dashed forward, dragging him along by his claws, and he let go of me after a second or two so he could start running himself. He flapped his wings a few times, trying to catch a current of air. "The earth power should have kept that thing down and out for a while!"

    "Then either it's stronger than we thought or you need more practice!" I replied, looking over my shoulder. The Steelix had a crazed look in its eyes, and it was buried up to its jaws in dirt and dust as it dug through the ground. I hastily closed up the treasure bag and slung it over my shoulder, feeling the supplies jostling against my matted fur as I glanced at the Archeops. "Got any other ideas?"

    "Not really!" Vale bluntly replied, his talons scraping against the ground as he awkwardly ran through the ravine, his necklace noisily shaking against the feathers on his neck. I rolled my eyes, stifling a chuckle as the Archeops continued to hold his wings out, wobbling side to side with each step he took.

    We both slowed down as our foe threw another long stone into our path, and Vale finally pushed off, gliding over the rock with ease. He turned his head towards me as I pressed my palms into the boulder and vaulted over it, a shock running through my nerves as I landed. My aura swirled around as I gathered it into a larger sphere, and when I heard the iron snake barrel through his own roadblock, I spun around, flinging the aura sphere at one of the spikes jutting out from its body. The Steelix jerked back as the projectile knocked it off balance, its head turning slightly from the force of the blow.

    "Bill! Up ahead, that archway!" Vale called out to me from above, and I leaned forward, spotting a craggy bridge dotted with patches of grass curving between both sides of the cleft in the mountain. "You think you can take the right side of it?"

    I nodded firmly, readying another aura sphere as the bird's necklace started to glow again. He headed left, running up the wall a few steps before launching a silvery wave of energy at the natural bridge, and I lined my paw up with the other end of it before letting my attack fly. The ancient power tore through the rock like a blade through jelly, and I tore my gaze away from the wall of Mount Travail, my eyes focused on the farther side of the archway's shadow.

    With a loud crack that echoed into our ears, the great bridge began to crumble; I sucked in a breath as the left part slumped dangerously, grinding against the mountain, and a few moments later the other side began to move. My heart stood still as the deadly rock dangled, then snapped at its edge, falling vertically towards the ground below it. Feeling a rush of adrenaline, I hurtled through the ravine with extreme speed, the surroundings becoming a moving blur.

    A mass of dirt suddenly surrounded me, the air around me growing thick with flakes of stone, and I choked, hacking and wheezing as I slowed to a stop. I waved my paws in front of my face, trying to push away the debris – and a loud, strangled cry rippled through the canyon. I jolted in surprise, taking a deep breath as my head cleared the top of the dust cloud. "Vale! What happened!?"

    "I can't tell," The older Pokémon yelled back at me, his voice growing louder as he drew close. "There's too much dust to see! Hang on, let me try and blow it all out of here!"

    I pressed my heels into the ground, standing firm as I felt a sudden gust of wind, and the walls of the ravine quickly came into view again. I rubbed my eyes free of granite dust and blinked a few times afterward, an extraordinarily grimy feeling sinking into my fur. I shook my head when Vale dropped down to the floor, giving me a brief once-over.

    "Looks like that did the trick," He said, gesturing behind me with a nod, and I turned around, resting my arms on my blunted chestspike as the Steelix came into view. The broken archway had shattered into chunks from the collision with its head, and I cautiously stepped forward, reaching out and brushing my pawpads against the Pokémon. Its breathing was shallow, but it seemed unconscious.

    "Yeah, it's out cold." I confirmed, letting go of a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. I walked back over to Vale, tugging on the straps of the treasure bag. "Let's get going! If it decides to wake up a third time, I don't want to be around for it."

    "And neither do I." The Archeops ran forward before jumping into the air and soaring away again, his voice echoing back to me from across the ravine. "Follow me, Bill! There shouldn't be any more wild Pokémon around to slow us down!"

    I smiled confidently, tapping my heels against the dirt before loping forward into an easy jog, ignoring the aches that still ran through my bones; letting Rose, Cyan, Erin and Star know that we were okay bubbled to the forefront of my mind. The two of us hurriedly made a beeline for the mouth of the canyon, leaving the fainted Steelix to its nap.

    Minute after minute passed as we ran along, the craggy stone giving way to more and more clumpy bushes before finally evening out into a layer of thin grass, and Vale and I finally emerged from between the claustrophobic mountain walls, dropping to the ground as we both felt a warm eastern breeze blow in from the ocean. For the first time that day I let myself relax fully, my bumps and bruises starting to grow sore again. I winced as the wounds from yesterday throbbed.

    "Ah...hah..." I chuckled, rolling from a crawl into a sitting position. "If it weren't for the bumpy trip, that would be a much easier way of getting to the eastern part of the continent, huh?"

    "It's not bumpy for me, kiddo," Vale stated matter-of-factly, wearing a cheerful smile as he walked up and flourished his yellow-plumed wings. I rolled my eyes at the older Pokémon, reaching out to jokingly push his face away, and he squawked at the gesture.

    "If I evolve again and find out I can fly, I'll let you and Star know, then," I quipped lightly, panting a bit as I glanced up at the overcast sky. The clouds flashed bright for a moment, and I looked over my shoulder at the faraway rainstorm, the distant rumble of a thunderclap sounding a few short seconds later. Vale fiddled with his jeweled necklace, nesting himself in the grass next to me. "How far off is Sky Peak from here, you think?"

    "Probably a day's walk, I'd say." The Archeops replied, and I looked south, bringing my paws to my forehead as I tried to spot the circle of clouds that surrounded the Shaymin's special summit. I couldn't tell it apart from the rest of the weather, though, and I stretched back, casually fiddling with my aura tassels.

    "Vale! Bill!"

    Vale and I both turned around, and a gasp caught in my throat as my vision was suddenly filled with cream fur, the wind escaping me as I was knocked to the ground. A cushion of tails caught me, though, and I smiled deeply as the nine appendages wrapped me into an awkward hug. I ran my paw through Rose's headfur, chuckling to myself as she licked my cheek. "You're okay!"

    "Okay but sore, yeah." I bumped my nose against hers and stared into her sparkling red eyes, my own tail starting to wag in the grass. We stayed like that briefly before another something crashed into the two of us; the Ninetales yelped in surprise, and I laughed again. "Hah, hey, Erin."

    "I knew you'd be alright!" Erin said excitedly, jumping up and down as she held my partner and I in a tight embrace. I glanced past Rose at Star and Cyan, the latters stomping forward as well, and I attempted to wave at him before settling to greet him with a smile. He stopped a few paces away, nodding at me in response.

    "Good t'see you're in one piece, Bill," The Samurott gruffly remarked, stroking his mustache a couple times, but Erin had other plans – she reached over and yanked her friend into the pile, his whiskers hitting my face as the four of us ended up in a large group hug. He grunted and struggled in the fighting type's grasp, but eventually sighed and relented. "Erff... an' I'm glad we don't have t'walk through any more stormy weather."

    A brief tremor vibrated against my legs, and I furrowed my brow in abrupt confusion, perking up as I worriedly glanced back into the ravine. It felt like another rock had fallen... had dropping the archway damaged the mountain more than we thought? I gently pushed my teammates off of me and stood up. "What... was that?"

    Vale seemed to notice my apprehension, and he took to the air again, swiftly flying back into the canyon. "I'll go check, you stay here!"

    Star loped over and patted my shoulder before watching her friend depart, and the five of us stood and waited, the tension growing the longer Vale's absence went on. I curled my paws into fists as more and more rumbles started to rock the eastern cliffs.

    After a few minutes, a faint voice echoed back to us from inside the rocky walls. Rose's ear twitched, and she took a few steps forward, calling back into the mountain. "Vale, speak up! We can't hear you!"

    "Get out of the way!" The bird burst forth from the ravine, his voice panicked as he swooped upward. "Get out of the way, now!"

    His order was punctuated by a groaning noise, and Rose, Cyan, Erin, Star and I scrambled towards the southern base, jogging some distance away from the mouth of the canyon and pressing up against the stone.

    "Just how tough is this thing!?" I voiced my disbelief, and Rose's head snapped around to look at me.

    "You mean the Steelix hasn't fainted yet!?" She exclaimed. I opened my mouth to answer, but the words died as the wild Pokémon in question finally appeared, dizzily lurching forward as he growled and screeched at nothing. My partner dropped her voice to a hushed murmur as she looked over the iron snake. "It looks... confused. Maybe if we can hit it with one strong blow..."

    We all glanced at our foe for a little bit longer, Vale circling overhead, before huddling up in a group. I nodded, a confident smile on my muzzle. "Alright. Get ready, and when Rose gives the go-ahead, we give it all we've got."

    The Ninetales nodded back, purring in the back of her throat as she stoked her inner fire, and we all moved around to prepare. "Okay, then we'll go on three..."

    Cyan dug his heels into the grass and pointed the horn of his helmet at the Steelix's torso.

    "One..."

    Erin tied up her fur sleeve and slipped a throwing stone into the loop.

    "Two..."

    I put my paws together, focusing my flickering aura as best I could.

    "...now!"

    Our foe turned its head towards the shout, and its eyes widened to the size of platters, caught completely off guard by our onslaught. It recoiled as Rose's flamethower scorched its neck, reeled as Cyan's water gun struck the spike sticking out from its body, and roared in pain as my aura sphere struck squarely against its jaw. I glanced at Star, who spotted me out of the corner of her vision, and the stars on her mouth turned upward as she shrugged, both of her silver spikes held in her paws.

    The feral Steelix swayed back and forth, its eyes rolling back as it finally fainted, and it fell with a crash onto the grass, the impact shaking the cliffs. I watched Vale as he flew down back to the rest of us, and he fluttered to a stop. The Archeops craned his neck to look over his shoulder, and he laughed triumphantly. "Hah haaaah, looks like that did it once and for all, kiddos! Nice shot!"

    "Star carefully pushed past us to check on her friend, and Erin dragged Cyan a short ways away as she pointed out towards waves rolling in on the eastern coast. I glanced at Rose, who wore an expression of relief, and I grinned at the cream-furred fox. "Rose?"

    "Mmm?" She hummed in response, turning towards me expectantly. I reached over and affectionately tousled her headfur, to which she shook her head.

    "Now that we've gotten all the way down here... let's not go mountain climbing in the rain for a little while, okay?" I said, and she barked out a short laugh, hopping onto her hind legs and nuzzling into my neck.
     
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  13. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 13.

    You didn't really think it would end so easily, did you? ;3

    "So... you're off, then?"

    The morning sun slowly rose above the eastern sea, sending sparkles across the water as the waves crashed up against the cliffs, the grass wet and soft underfoot from yesterday's thunderstorm. I walked up to Rose's side, my partner's tails waving back and forth as she looked at Star and Vale. The Zoroark adjusted the fit of her satchel while the other treasure hunter stretched out his wings, and she flashed us a sly smile before answering Rose's question. "That we are. We've got what we came for and you're up and over Mount Travail, so our little bargain's all finished now, hm?"

    "That Gabite scale should definitely fetch us a good price," Vale remarked as he jumped in the air a few times. "Thanks again for helping us get it, kiddos! We wouldn't have been able to pull it off without your help."

    Rose nodded, smiling warmly at the older Pokémon, and I folded my arms, resting them atop my blunted chestspike. "As long as you two keep yourselves safe, I think we'll be happy."

    "We should be the ones saying that to you, hah!" Star shot back with raised eyebrows, putting a paw on her hip as she leaned forward. She reached out with her other arm and gently ran her claws through my partner's headfur; Rose blinked at the dark type's affectionate gesture. "You four should rest a little more, or at least take it easy today. You've got your meeting with a legendary Pokémon coming up!"

    "Wouldn't be the first time," I joked lightly, a grin worming onto my muzzle as I felt Rose nudge at my side. I glanced at my partner out of the corner of my eye, her smile widening, and I bumped the Ninetales right back, earning a laugh from her in the process. Star only snorted.

    "Yeah, yeah..." She leisurely waved a paw at the both of us, and Rose rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

    A gust of wind blew through the field of brush, and Vale ran past the three of us, catching the draft and swooping into the air. I looked back at Cyan and Erin, who left off from trying to get the former's hiking bag ready, watching as Vale circled above their heads. Erin cheered the Archeops on, rocking back and forth on her heels, and Cyan shouldered his pack, shaking it around somewhat and listening to the supplies jostling inside.

    "I'm sure things'll go just fine, you know," Star added quietly, taking a couple steps forward to watch the others with us, and she reached into her satchel, drawing her flute out and blowing a few notes on it. I tapped my foot against the ground in time with the music, and a couple of Rose's fluffy tails curled around my own.

    "Star! You aren't leaving, are you?" Erin called out, and I gazed at the fighting type as she scampered over, her big, wide eyes staring sadly at the treasure hunter. Star played for a few more seconds before blinking one eye open.

    "Yup, I'm afraid so, Erin," She replied, twirling her instrument between her claws like a baton before bopping Erin's nose with it. The Mienshao let out a disappointed moan, and Rose sighed at the younger explorer, shaking her head. "Don't get yourself down! It's not the last time we'll be seeing each other."

    "Aww... okay," Erin said, her slumped shoulders perking up at the Zoroark's farewell. Rose and I took a short step backwards as Star squatted low to the ground, and we watched as she bounded into the air, grabbing hold of Vale's talons as he passed over us. Cyan stomped up behind us as the pair of Pokémon quickly flew off into the distance, and Erin hopped in place, waving her untied sleeves in the air as she yelled her goodbyes. "See you later, Star! See you later, Vale!"

    We stood still and watched for a few minutes until the two treasure hunters had completely vanished from sight, the cool coastal breeze ruffling our fur and the clear sky stretching out ahead of us. I stretched out my arms and yawned, breaking the silence, and I made sure our exploration badge was pinned firmly to the treasure bag before glancing at my three close friends.

    "Well, that's that," I said, gesturing south with a shake of my head. "Vale said that we're about a day away... I think we can handle a walk."

    Cyan grunted and nodded, Erin giggled, and Rose smiled, stepping up to my side to lead the way. "It's nice to be outside of a mystery dungeon again."

    ***

    Goal! When All the Paths Meet!

    ***

    "How far d'you think we've got t'go?" Cyan asked, his paws thudding against the dirt as we ambled through the cliffside path, and I peered outward, walking on my tiptoes as I searched for our destination. My eyes quickly settled on the ring of fluffy white clouds circling the tip of the mountain ahead; they were the only ones that I could see today. I shook my head and lowered my heels – maybe our luck had finally started to turn.

    "Well, from what I can see, we've still got quite a while until we get to Sky Peak," I replied, glancing over my shoulder at the Samurott. He leaned forward, looking past me, and I lightly elbowed his chest. "Why? Are you getting excited about visiting, Cyan?"

    "Haah... haah... bah!" He panted loudly in reply, eliciting a round of giggles from Erin, who rolled onto her back to relax atop Cyan's hiking pack; he briefly looked at the fighting type out of the corner of his eyes before turning back to me. "I jus' want t'get this job done an' over with! We've had more than enough misadventures tryin' t'get t'Sky Peak in th'firs' place!"

    I chuckled dryly, batting my pawspike against the sea lion's mustache before shrugging – he had a fair point, after all – and striding forward again, keeping an easy pace as Rose briefly caught a glimpse of the both of us. The cream-furred fox smiled, her tails curling and uncurling as she slowed down to walk at my side.

    "Well, we still have to actually find and check up on Darkrai once we get there, you know," She remarked matter-of-factly, red eyes sparkling with good-natured humor. "And once we're done, we have to go back to Treasure Town too!"

    Cyan let out an annoyed harrumph, rolling his eyes at the Ninetales' words, and I reached over and affectionately tousled my partner's headfur. A low purr rumbled in her throat as she leaned into my touch, strands of fur falling in front of her ears, and she buried her muzzle in her scarf to try and stifle the pleasant noise. The bushy plants underfoot tickled at our ankles, and we watched as the patches of golden brush drew nearer and nearer, standing out against the rounded trees standing tall in the bright, warm sunlight. The spring weather started to sink into my fur, and I reached over to rub at my bandaged side, which was starting to dully ache in the heat. Rose quickly noticed, and she glanced over and prodded the tips of my pawpads with her cold nose.

    "Are you okay, Bill?" She asked me quietly, her voice going from amused to worried, and she pushed my paw away from my wound so she could look at it. I brought my arms up and rested them on my blunted chestspike as my partner gave me a once-over, the both of us continuing to walk along.

    "I'm fine, Rose," I responded, taking a couple deep breaths to cool myself off and she looked up at the all-too-familiar noise. I sighed, and relented. "Just a little warm, is all. You're holding up okay too, right?"

    The fire type turned away without giving me an answer, her brow furrowed as she stared intently at the stretches of land in the distance; I looked behind us at Cyan and Erin, who were busying themselves with gazing out at the frothy waves rolling in from the open ocean. Rose grabbed my attention back as a couple of her tails wrapped around mine, and she gingerly nudged my side, taking the lead and trotting forward. "C'mon, Bill, this way. I know I'm okay, but you're still hurt from yesterday and the day before, too. We can afford to take a break if we need one."

    "Seeing what rushing ourselves got us into recently, I think I'm inclined to agree," I replied, grinning at the nine-tailed fox. Her mouth twitched into a small frown of concern as my quip fell flat, but I nodded reassuringly at her. "Go ahead, Rose. You lead, we'll follow."

    We traveled a short ways through the increasingly-tall grass, wading between wild flowerbeds and dried shrubs before we slowed to a stop underneath the first tree we came across, one of its roots curled and twisted enough to act as a rounded seat. Rose ran over to the trunk, beckoning us to sit down and rest against the gnarled root, and I casually ambled over and spun on my heels, unceremoniously plopping down onto the fertile soil. Cyan stomped over soon afterward, letting Erin jump and grab one of the hanging branches before carelessly letting his hiking pack slide off his shoulders. I grinned slightly as the heavy leather made a thud.

    "You take such good care of our supplies," I said, grabbing the straps of our treasure bag and swinging it around and into my lap, ignoring the Samurott's grumble as I undid the flap and took a peek inside. I pulled out a couple apples and tossed them to the younger Pokémon, Erin letting hers roll to a stop, and Rose ducked her head and took an oran berry for herself. I simply leaned back, my aura tassels brushing against the bark, and relaxed. "We should probably restock once we get to the Shaymin Village."

    Cyan perked his head up, stroking his mustache after he stopped just short of taking a bite of his snack. "Eh, y'think so, Bill? I'm think we've got plenty o'stuff with us already."

    "Yup! This thing is heavy, see?" Erin added, letting go of the tree branch and landing on the ground, and she playfully pretended to try picking up her friend's pack, wearing an exaggeratedly strained expression. Rose laughed softly, her mouth still half-full of berry, and I reached over and pulled her close.

    "It'd probably be a good idea just in case," Rose responded once she'd finished eating. "We won't know where Darkrai will be on Sky Peak, and I don't think that Drifblim will be able to carry all four of us around in his little riding basket. We'll have to search on foot, and the mountain's even bigger than Mount Travail, so we'll have to be prepared for anything!"

    "Aww, I'm sure we'll be fine!" Erin piped up cheerfully, tying up her fur sleeves before jumping up and down, trying to lasso the branch she had been swinging from before. The leaves rustled as the Mienshao batted at the foliage. "We'll go find Darkrai and everything will be all okay!"

    Darkrai... I nodded confidently at the thought, my mind drifting to our encounter with him years ago. I looked at Rose out of the corner of my eye as she exhaled wistfully, licking her lips as she busied herself with retrieving another berry from the treasure bag. "It'll be good to finally tie this loose end up once and for all."

    "Actually, I've been meanin' t'ask..." Cyan started, and I turned my head, my aura tassels swinging in front of my shoulders as I watched him crunch into his apple. The water type tapped his fist against his seamitar's scabbard before cocking his head in confusion. "What exactly are y'plannin' t'do with Darkrai once we manage t'find him, huh?"

    There was a pregnant pause, the question hanging in the air as I opened my mouth to speak, only to realize that I didn't have any answer. Rose, too, had fidgeted in my grasp, only to stop and keep still as she tried to think of a reply. The silence was only kept at bay by Cyan as he chewed on his snack, as well as the rustling boughs above as Erin finally managed to loop her slings onto a sturdy stick, swinging herself back and forth.

    "Well? C'mon now!" A mild note of irritation made its way into Cyan's voice. "You two aren't keepin' things secret from us, are you? Back in Tiny Town I thought we agreed t'be clear on how we were gonna be handlin' this!"

    "No... it's not that," Rose muttered under her breath, shaking her head and turning to me. I shrugged, and she looked at the younger explorer. "We... just hadn't thought about it."

    "Wh-whuh!?" The Samurott half-blurted, half-stuttered, his eyes going wide as he leaned forward. "What are y'talkin' about, Bill, Rose!? You've got t'have thought 'bout this at least a li'l bit, right? You two've gotta have somethin' in mind!"

    I could feel my cheeks starting to flare as a blush crept up – and I was as glad as ever that my fur would hide at least some of my embarrassment – and I closed my jaw, sheepishly grinning at the incredulous Pokémon. "I can't believe it! It's been five or somethin' years since you two had t'deal with this guy, an' y'don't have any idea what you're gonna be doin' with him now!?"

    "Cyan, calm down, please," Rose said smoothly, and I noticed the fox's muscles tense slightly; she wore a firm look as she stared at our grumpy teammate.

    Erin chose that moment to drop down from the tree, whooping excitedly as she dragged her fur slings off of the bough and fell on top of the heavy root. Her whiskers bounced as she pounced onto Cyan's back, hugging him tightly. The sea lion yelped in surprise and awkwardly turned his head to leer at the fighting type. "Ack! Erin!"

    "You worry too much, you big dummy!" The Mienshao said, giggling brightly as she loosened her grip on her friend. "Darkrai doesn't remember all that bad stuff he did before! I bet when we find him, he'll want to be friends! Oh oh oh, he could even come with us on explorations!"

    I bit back the urge to remind the girl of the paperwork she and Cyan had to do when they had decided to team up with us. Rose thankfully picked up the slack. "No, Erin... Cyan has a point. We don't have any idea what we're going to do when we find Darkrai, and I... well..."

    I watched thoughtfully as she stared down at her front paws, clawing lines in the soil. "Like you said... it's been five years. I had started to think we'd never see Darkrai again at all."

    I leaned over and pressed my nose against the Ninetales' cheek, grinning as I felt her freeze in place. Pulling away, I looked at our two teammates and thought for a moment. We should have been making a plan, yes... but... "But Erin's right, too."

    "Huh?" Cyan furrowed his brow. "What d'you mean?"

    "Darkrai doesn't remember anything about the crises that happened five years ago," I replied, feeling a chuckle rise in my throat as I gestured towards Sky Peak with a wave of my paw. "So really... heh, we don't know what he's like at all."

    "And Star did point out that since we haven't heard about Darkrai in so long, he's probably not doing anything that would make him an outlaw..." Rose added, glancing warmly at me as she put the pieces together. I nodded at the fox.

    "We're not really meeting an old enemy. We're... well, we're meeting a stranger." I twiddled my pawpads, pulling my legs in and resting my arms on my knees. Erin's smile grew wider and wider as I spoke, and Cyan stroked his mustache, pondering the words as well. "So maybe we don't really need to make any special plans for meeting him after all."

    "Yaaay!" Erin cheered innocently, pumping her fists, and she reached over and grabbed her apple, finally ready to eat her forgotten snack. I reached into the treasure bag and drew out an oran berry, rolling it between my palms, but Rose quickly snatched it up, smiling coyly at me as I lightly bopped my pawspike against her muzzle. As I slipped the treasure bag back over my shoulders, Cyan stretched out, lying on his belly and letting his chin drop into his paws.

    "Well, fine then..." He mumbled, giving the tree root a good, hard kick with his hindpaw, shaking the trunk a bit. "But if it turns out that he's still doin' bad, then I'm gonna knock his lights out an' bring him in t'Officer Magnezone myself!"

    "Hah, then let's hope it doesn't come to that, right, Cyan?" I said, turning my attention away from the sea lion as I fiddled with our exploration badge, my tail starting to wag as a strong breeze suddenly whipped across the field. I glanced out at the horizon, shielding my eyes as I spotted the sun, light filtering through the tree's top. "We should probably get moving again."

    Rose tilted her head in mild concern, but I smiled and tousled her headfur before she could speak up. "I know I'm feeling better now, and we've rested long enough. Besides, we can't meet Darkrai if we don't get to Sky Peak!"

    Erin burst into laughter, getting to her feet and rocking back and forth on her heels, apple still held tightly in her paws. "Yeah, yeah! C'mon, let's go!"

    Cyan dusted himself off and walked towards his hiking pack, and Rose and I both helped each other up, my partner blowing a couple strands of her headfur out of her face. I knelt down and nuzzled her neck, feeling her do the same, and I sighed

    "Ready to meet our client, partner?" I asked.

    The Ninetales winked back at me. "Let's make it another great day!"

    ***

    A gust of wind rolled down the gentle slopes of the secluded valley, carrying the fragrant scent of flowers up from the village and across the mountain path, the countless patches of Gracideas practically glowing with health as the Shaymin tended to them. The evening light slowly started to vanish behind the western hills, and every so often some of the green-furred hedgehogs would peer upwards at the darkening sky. One by one, the stars started to appear, seemingly winking in greeting at the Pokémon below.

    "Anise! Get back to work, now!"

    Sage watched as the young grass type jumped in surprise, and he frowned deeply as she wobbled back and forth, nearly falling into the little spring nearby. She looked over her shoulder at him after regaining her balance. "Sorry, sir! I'll go around and give them all a bit more water!"

    The elderly Pokémon grumbled under his breath, the flowers in his fur wilt a little as he stood among the leafy huts, narrowing his eyes as he inspected the villagers' work. The great rainstorm a couple days ago had given the Gracideas plenty to drink already. "Don't waste your time doing something pointless! Just go over and... I don't know, check on how many Gracideas we have, or something!"

    "Again...? Alright then, sir!" Came the reply as Anise pulled away from the pool and nodded at him. She quickly poked her nose into the nearest flower patch, counting away in her head.

    Sage passed a few moments in silence, sternly looking upward at the great mountain, before turning around and stomping away, stopping at the circle of stones that lay in the center of the Shaymin Village. His thoughts turned to Mint and Fern, and he growled angrily. "Blasted kids... they lie about Darkrai, they lie about the Gracideas, and they're wasting my time staying up at the summit!"

    The aging hedgehog grumpily quieted as he heard some of the other villagers yawn. The sun had fully set, and the others were starting to tidy up and head into their homes, their movements tired and their eyes drooping. Sage stomped his front paws impatiently against the grass – it seemed like the only one who wasn't ready for a good night's sleep yet. He caught a glimpse of the path leading away from the village and mountain, briefly wondering about the legendary Pokémon. "I should never have taken that excuse seriously..."

    "Hey, Sage!" A yell rose up from the distance, and the Shaymin swerved around to look at the Sky Peak trail, his eyes narrowing as he spotted a floppy-eared grass type flying quickly towards him. Behind Mint, the elderly Pokémon could see Fern, slowly trotting his way into the village behind his friend. "We're back!"

    "And it's about time too, Mint!" Sage curtly replied, giving the Shaymin a pointed glare as she slowed to a stop and landed in front of him. "What in the world have you both been doing the past few days, hm!? I thought I asked you to bring some Gracideas down from the top of the mountain!"

    Mint shook her head defiantly, glaring right back at Sage. "You asked us to stay at the top of Sky Peak because we told you Darkrai was up there, remember?"

    Sage frowned, remembering what he had told the two children a few days ago. "...yes, I suppose I did-"

    "Yeah, you did!" The girl interrupted, tensing up as she leaned forward and practically threw the retort into his face. Fern, who had walked up next to his friend, shrank back slightly, mumbling something inaudible. "So there! We did what you wanted!"

    The old Pokémon looked over the pair carefully, their petal scarves flapping in the wind and their fur somewhat matted. Mint and Fern both took a step back in surprise as their elder stomped his feet in place again. Fern looked back at Sky Peak, his eyes lingering on a clump of bushes a short distance away from the village.

    "Yet you still don't seem to have any Gracideas with you!" Sage yelled, and the shy little hedgehog turned around again. Mint dug her paws into the grass, looking ready to scream at their elder, and Fern looked once more at the bushes before straightening up and mustering up all the courage that he could.

    "M-Mint..." Fern stuttered out, and he felt the urge to stay quiet when both Pokémon turned towards him. His friend calmed a little when she saw his expression, and he put his paw on top of hers. "Mint, Sage, please don't yell. It looks like everyone's going to sleep... right?"

    Mint paused for a couple seconds before taking a deep breath and exhaling, sitting down on one of the stones. Sage's faded fur continued to bristle as he too seated himself across from the two Shaymin, and Fern sighed, bowing his head in relief before speaking up again. "Sage, we did actually collect some Gracideas. But, um... we did lose the basket, so we had to find something else to carry them in..."

    Sage blinked in confusion, and Mint snickered under her breath. The village's leader gave the girl a look, but thankfully left it at that. "Well, I don't see any Gracideas with you, Fern, so I can't say I believe you. Where are they?"

    Mint and Fern both glanced at each other – Sage's eyebrow quirked upward – and the young boy nodded mildly at him. "We left them nearby, just at the end of the way leading up to Sky Peak. I'll go and get them now!"

    Fern stood up and smiled brightly, turning around and jogging back the way he had come, leaving Mint and Sage alone in the middle of the village. Mint peered around her home, the warm night air soothing her senses, and she stretched her legs, drumming her paws against the stone impatiently. Sage coughed tiredly, his throat starting to ache from yelling.

    "Hello there, sir."

    Mint looked over her shoulder at the voice, and Sage glanced forward, his jaw opening slightly as he gazed in wonder at the stars that had suddenly surrounded the young Shaymin. The little dots of light shifted and twinkled against the wrinkled fabric, and the Pokémon moved his eyes upward, from the robe to a pot filled with Gracidea flowers, and from the pot of flowers to a strange pair of bright, icy blue eyes.

    A frightened breath caught in his throat, his mind suddenly going blank.

    Darkrai felt the soft flowers brush against his legs, giving way with the slightest pressure as he carefully eased down the slope into the Shaymin Village. They had been able to see it that morning from a spot on the trail, and now that he stood there himself, he held the gathered Gracideas a little closer to his chest. He could see the occasional Shaymin – in their littler form, like they hadn't used the flowers to transform like Mint and Fern did – amble towards the various leaf-covered dwellings. Turning his sights back on Fern, he followed the boy's flopping ears over to a circle of stones in the middle of the village, where Mint and another untransformed hedgehog were sitting.

    "Hello there, sir," The legendary Pokémon spoke softly, watching placidly as the unfamiliar Shaymin brought his gaze upward, and after a few moments, something nudged his robe. He glanced briefly at Mint, who nodded at him, before bowing his head. "You must be Sage, then?"

    He nervously fidgeted with his robe when he didn't get an answer, pinching the fabric between his fingers, and let out a sigh when Fern stepped forward to break the silence. "Um... Sage, this is Darkrai. Mint and I met him at the top of Sky Peak."

    "See? We weren't lying when we told you that we saw him, Sage! He was up there, we were right, so there!" Mint crowed proudly, standing on her tiptoes as she puffed out her chest. Fern smiled sheepishly at his friend's behavior, sitting down and scratching at his fuzzy green fur.

    Still Sage gave no reply, and Darkrai narrowed his eyes in confusion, unsure why the elderly Pokémon was acting so unlike what his friends had described. He looked around the village again; some of the other Shaymin were looking outside from the doors to their cottages, probably from hearing Mint's outburst. The dark type took a tiny step and squatted down, lowering the pot of Gracideas down to the ground as if it was a priceless treasure.

    "We collected these for you, sir." Darkrai rolled up his sleeves and stretched his arms upward, the wisps on his head whipping around in the wind, blowing past his hands. The sweet smell of the still-fresh flowers wafted up, and he took a deep whiff of the scent. Fern leaned in and took one of the pink petals into his mouth, dragging it over to his elder and laying it in front of him.

    "Darkrai helped us get them all, Sage," Fern repeated quietly, nosing at his petal scarf before continuing. "There's even more here than you were wanting us to get... back when you sent us up there the first time, isn't it?"

    The dark type watched Mint frown grouchily at the continuing lack of a response from Sage, and she trotted towards the old hedgehog and waved a paw in front of his face. Fern tilted his head slightly, looking at the pot of flowers, then back to the legendary Pokémon, a worried expression quickly growing on his muzzle. Darkrai looked at his chest as it filled with fuzzy warmth again, and he reached his hand out to give the Shaymin a reassuring pat.

    That was enough to snap the aging grass type out of his trance, and he shook his head violently, the wilted flowers in his fur suddenly flaring up. "G-get away!"

    The yell made Darkrai gasp, and he pulled away from Fern, watching as the two young Pokémon stared at Sage in shock. The elder's face twisted into an enraged scowl, and a fearful chill extinguished the pleasantness running through the dark type's nerves; unpleasant memories of similar looks began to force their way into his mind once again.

    "How dare you come here, scum!" Sage took a step forward off of the circle of stones, and Darkrai stumbled backwards, eyes starting to become wet with unshed tears. The Shaymin stomped on the grass, causing some of the blades to rise from the dirt and wrap tightly around the legendary Pokémon's legs. "What do you intend to do, hm? Take us as prisoners? Attack our village!?"

    "N-n-no, sir!" Darkrai managed to sputter out in an increasing panic, scrunching his eyes shut and bringing an arm up in front of his head as he prepared for an inevitable attack. Why was Sage accusing him of these things? Why had the Gracideas he had helped to collect gone unnoticed? Why did the village seem no better than anywhere else he had ended up? The constant barrage of questions sent wave after wave of fatigue over him, his thoughts starting to blend together, he wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but here-

    "Sage, please, stop it!"

    "You're nothing but a big jerk!"

    His vision shot open at Mint and Fern's shouts, the rest of the village losing focus as he watched the two little Shaymin accost their elder, grabbing onto the back of his fur and pulling with all their might. Sage grunted and looked back at them, shaking angrily. "What do you two think you're doing!?"

    "We're standing up to you!" Mint replied, digging her paws into the faded hair. "And we should have done it a long time ago!"

    "Sage, please, just listen," Fern added. "Darkrai isn't a bad Pokémon, he's our friend, and he-"

    "Friend!?" Sage brusquely interrupted, gritting his teeth turned his wrath onto the pair of Pokémon. "You two idiots brought him down to the village thinking that he is your friend!?"

    Darkrai could only sit and stare as Sage spun around, knocking the younger Shaymin away. Fern yipped in pain as he crashed headfirst into the dirt. Friend... his friends were in trouble.

    "Your naivete has crossed the line for the final time!

    Sage had hurt his friends.

    "I'll see to it that you never leave this village for the rest of your lives!"

    His eyes narrowed, everything vanishing except Sage. Darkrai balled his hands into fists, shivering just like the old grass type was. The stars on his robe seemed to grow brighter than he had ever seen before, and the light caught the village elder's attention. He turned around and stared – Darkrai sensed him go blank, trying to process what was happening. He rose to his full height, towering above his enemy, voice booming loudly in a decisive shout. "You will not hurt my friends!"

    There was a rush of wind as he lashed out to strike the Shaymin.

    Then, a painful ringing in his ears. Air seemed to try and suck the legendary Pokémon in, and he cried out as his chin smashed into the circle of stones, the grass knotted around his legs keeping him secure against the gale. He clawed at the soil for something to hold onto anyway, struggling to open his eyes – he saw more grass, wrapped around Sage's stubby little paws, and the wild Gracideas swirling into an inky blackness, then the pot tumbling along with them.

    "Darkrai! Darkra-" Fern's call devolved into a short scream before falling eerily silent, and Darkrai watched in horror as the strange something enveloped Mint, her own growls vanishing as she disappeared. He let go of the crumbly soil and stretched out in vain, clinging to the faint hope that his friends could somehow take his hand.

    A bright blue sphere tore through the darkness and bonked his forehead, and the night's events finally became too much for the legendary Pokémon to take. He collapsed to the ground, everything growing still.
     
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  14. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 14! Getting into the final arc of the story now.

    Gentle slopes turned back and forth as the hills beside us began to rise, the fields of golden brush changing into short green grass, soft and pleasant underfoot. Rose, Cyan, Erin and I made our way into and through the hidden valley, trees sprouting up from the soil to mark the path leading to the Shaymin Village; their branches swayed back and forth against the ocean breeze, colorful flowers blooming widely as the evening light started to vanish behind the mountains. A cough made me glance over my shoulder, and I watched as Cyan pinched his twitching nose. I hid a grin as he sneezed anyway, lurching forward and causing Erin to jolt in surprise.

    "Mmmm..." Rose let out a soft hum, and I turned towards my partner, her nine fluffy tails curling up as she took a deep gulp of the air. "It's been a while since we were last here for a visit... I forgot how good the Shaymin all are at gardening."

    I reached up and grabbed a fallen twig, sniffing at the purple bud still attached to it – and flinched a bit at the strong scent. I heard Rose chuckle behind me, and I smiled sheepishly as the fire type brought up a paw to stifle her laughter. "I wonder how long we'll smell like flowers after we finish and go home, huh?"

    "Maybe the Shaymin will let us bring some back with us! Do you think they would, Bill, Rose?" Erin piped up behind us, and we both looked over to see her bouncing excitedly on top of Cyan's hiking pack. The Samurott grunted as he walked up to Rose's side, moonlight glinting off of his armor, and slowly we continued onward. "Oooh, I can't wait until we get to the village!"

    "Well, we're gonna b'gettin' there soon," Cyan remarked, reaching up and poking at the mink's sleeve with a paw, and she stuck her tongue out at him before settling down. "It's jus' past this next hill, isn't it?"

    "You will not hurt my friends!"

    The wind suddenly kicked up strong, my aura tassels whipping in front of my shoulders as the gust seemed to try and sweep us off of our feet, and I squatted down, holding my paw low to the ground. Erin yelped as her sleeves caught the wind and whipped forward, and Rose's ears twitched as another loud yell rang out in the distance.

    "Darkrai! Darkra-"

    I felt my fur bristle at the familiar name, and my partner and I shared a brief glance before dashing forward, our hearts pounding as we ran up to the top of the last hill. We skidded to a stop, Cyan lightly bumping into us a split-second afterward, and stared down into the Shaymin Village. Rose's jaw dropped in silent horror, and I grit my teeth – a gaping black hole had flared up in the middle of the houses, and we could just barely make out a dark figure seemingly stuck on the ground, the wind trying and failing to suck him inside. For a split-second, I could see a tinier blotch of white and green get sucked in instead – whatever was happening, we were already too late.

    "What's that!?" Erin cried out, raising her voice above the powerful gale.

    The question seemed to snap Rose back to her senses, and the fire type yelled back to the Mienshao. "It's a dimensional hole! But something's wrong... what's going on!?"

    I stayed quiet, bringing my paws to my chestspike and scrunching my eyes shut, trying as hard as I could to concentrate, digging my heels in when I nearly lost my balance. Power swirled between my palms, only for the energy to waver from the force of the portal. Lifting my arm, I trained my eyes on Darkrai and flung the ball away before I lost my focus completely.

    Time seemed to slow to a crawl as we stood firm against the vacuum, and we watched as my aura sphere collided with Darkrai, who went limp from the impact. In the same breath, the dimensional hole shrank, then vanished, everything abruptly going still. The four of us waited for a few moments before sighing in relief, and I gave myself a quick once-over, adjusting the straps of the treasure bag and brushing my aura tassels behind my back again. Soon enough, we could hear the sounds of the flustered Shaymin peeking out from their huts to see what had happened.

    "Well... so much for a peaceful visit," I muttered as I helped Cyan back to his feet, and he grunted quietly in agreement as we stared down at the valley. The sea lion strode past me, Erin in tow, and Rose and I soon followed after him.

    ***

    Time! Consequences of the Past!

    ***

    In the short time it took us to get into the Shaymin Village, most of the little hedgehogs had managed to leave their homes to stare and mutter at the sight of the legendary Pokémon laying face-down near the circle of stones. I waved my paw at Erin to get her attention before gesturing towards the dark type, most of his body covered in a strange robe. "Cyan, Erin, make sure Darkrai's okay."

    Erin nodded cheerfully before swinging off of her friend's hiking pack, and the two young explorers scampered over to Darkrai, rolling him onto his back before struggling with his odd robe. Rose nudged me, and I glanced at a couple of villagers standing nearby, an old prone hedgehog and a younger girl. We walked over to them, and I knelt down and reached out to feel the elder's fur.

    "A-ah!" The other grass type squeaked in surprise, causing me to stop and hold my arm in the air, but she quickly relaxed when she got a better look at us. "Oh... are you explorers?"

    I reached up and unpinned our exploration badge from the treasure bag, and Rose smiled gently at the Shaymin as I showed it to her. "Yes, miss. We're Team Returners, we haven't been here in a while... we got a letter from the village a week or so ago about Darkrai being on Sky Peak."

    "Team Returners?" Came the surprised reply, and the girl's eyes went wide before she broke into a broad smile. "Oh, it's an honor to meet you both! I must have missed your last visit, I'm Anise."

    My partner and I both nodded a friendly greeting, and I moved over and offered my empty paw to the tiny Pokémon. Anise hopped onto her hind legs and grabbed at my one of my pawpads, shaking it as firmly as she was able. "It's good to meet you, miss Anise."

    She smiled briefly before looking over at Darkrai, and the three of us watched as Erin rummaged through her belt pouch, the clinking of bottles and berries ringing clearly in the quiet air. A couple villagers scooted over to help them, talking in hushed whispers to Cyan. "It's a good thing you all got here when you did... I think Mint and Fern got sucked up by... by whatever that was."

    "What happened here, miss Anise?" Rose asked, tilting her head in concern as she peered around the village, her nine tails waving up and down. I returned our badge to the treasure bag and brushed at my blunted chestspike – the fur around it still ruffled from the strength of the wind – as the past few minutes repeated themselves in my head. "When we got to the top of the last hill, we heard someone shouting, and then we saw the dimensional hole..."

    "Give me just a moment to help Sage, and then I can tell you..." Anise replied, grunting as she lightly shoved the elderly Pokémon.

    "Here, I'll help with him-" I offered, and the Shaymin gave me a grateful look as I reached over to pick up the elderly Pokémon, but all of a sudden the graying-furred hedgehog batted at my palm with his stubby feet. Sage quickly stood up and shook himself around, the flowers on his back seemingly wilting even more than they already had.

    "I'm just fine, I'm fine!" The old grass type spoke hoarsely, turning to give Anise a mild leer. I couldn't help but frown as he turned around. "I heard everything already, I just needed to catch my breath after what that... menace, did!"

    Slowly, but surely, the elderly Pokémon started to hobble away from us, heading towards a hut that sat near a small spring. Rose and I both looked to Anise, who shrugged sheepishly at us, and I stood up, grunted quietly, and dusted myself off.

    "Well... I guess Sage is doing better than I thought." Anise rolled her eyes. "Come with me and we'll tell you what happened. Some of the other Shaymin can help your friends bring Darkrai to somewhere safe."

    I peered over my shoulder at both Cyan and Erin, who had lifted the legendary Pokémon up and were already being led by some helpful villagers over to a house across from us. Rose let out a long sigh and stepped up to my side, my tail wagging a little as a couple of hers brushed against it. With a silent nod, Anise turned and followed after the elderly Pokémon, and the two of us quickly followed after her.

    The inside of the hut was small – it was built for Pokémon the size of Shaymin, after all – and I ducked underneath the opening, sidling over and tucking my legs in as I seated myself against the wall. Rose gingerly poked her head in, struggling for a few seconds to get her nine tails through; eventually, though, she sighed and plopped down on the grassy floor. Across from us, Sage paced back and forth, a rattled, unfocused expression on his face.

    "Ah, hum..." Anise cleared her throat gently, tapping her paws patiently against the dirt as she looked over at the village's elder. "Sage? Er, I mean, sir?"

    "Eh?" Sage grunted his reply, his head turning to look at the girl, but the sight of Rose and I quickly drew his attention away. His gaze narrowed sharply as he looked up and down at us. I reached over and tapped my pawspike against our exploration badge, the clinking of metal against metal catching his ear. "Oh. So you're Team Returners, are you? I was wondering when you all were going to show up."

    I folded my arms at the grass type's bluntness, furrowing my brow as he started to pace again, and Anise walked over to the old Pokémon's side. Rose simply nodded her head in greeting. "That's right. I'm Rose, and-"

    "Oh, please, I know who you both are already!" Sage brusquely interrupted, stopping in place; Anise's nose barely grazed against his fur, and she took a few hasty steps backwards. "You saved the world from Darkrai and asked everyone to keep an eye out for him, why else do you think I sent for you specifically, hm?"

    Rose's eyes widened, taken aback by the Shaymin's words, and I leaned forward and took a deep breath, speaking up in my partner's stead. "If you know who we are, then how about you cut to the chase and tell us what just happened here?"

    Sage glared at me, ready to retort, but he suddenly peered over at Anise as the younger Pokémon placed a paw on one of his flowers, the wilting petals sinking into his graying fur. After a moment, the village elder exhaled with a wheeze, letting himself relax as he rolled onto his hindlegs. The other Shaymin smiled triumphantly at us before sitting down as well.

    "Very well... fine." Rose and I both watched the elderly hedgehog intently. "It was just half an hour ago, the sunset wasn't completely over yet..."

    ***

    "Oof!"

    Fern felt himself crash against hard stone, the deafening winds still ringing in his ears even after they grew still, his heart beating rapidly against his chest. He sucked in as much air as his lungs could hold, realizing as he breathed out that his watering eyes were tightly shut. With a push, the grass type attempted to wobble onto his feet – and was surprised when he found his paws small and stubby, as well as rolling on the thick coat of green fur now covering his back. "O-oh... uh-oh..."

    The boy yipped in fright as he felt something brush under his nose, and he jumped, vision brightening somewhat as he opened his eyes, a couple tears running down his cheeks. "Uwah! Uh... huh...? What?"

    He shook his head, missing the feeling of his other forme's ears flopping around, and looked again, squinting hard, trying to peer through the night. He could faintly see a path leading into the star-dotted darkness, but nothing more. Bowing his head, Fern quickly noticed the pink-petaled flower that had startled him, and the Shaymin leaned down to take the stem into his mouth. The scent of the freshly-picked Gracidea wafted into his nose from the closeness, and he felt his nervousness wane slightly.

    "Mihh?" He said quietly. A few seconds passed, and he spoke again, louder this time. "Mihh! Weh ah you?"

    When his friend still didn't answer, he looked around again, shivering as he took a few steps forward on the rough ground. Where was he? He wasn't in the village anymore... and it wasn't Sky Peak, either. Sage had been able to shake the two of them off, and then Darkrai-

    "Dahwai!" Fern exclaimed, and his head whipped back and forth, trying in vain to search for any sign of his friends. In a sudden panic, he rushed forward as fast as his legs could carry him, the little hedgehog's mind desperately hoping that he wasn't alone. His nostrils started to burn as he breathed in and out, and fresh tears matted his fur. "Dahwai! Mihh! Weh ah you-"

    The Shaymin sucked in a breath as his front paw stepped on a loose stone, and he tripped and fell onto the rock, wincing at the ache that ran through his jaw. He caught a glimpse of the flat pebble as it scraped out of reach – rattling as it slowed to a stop – and spat out the Gracidea he was carrying, the taste of the stem leaking down his throat. Taking deep breath after deep breath, already feeling fatigued from the brief sprint, Fern stared at the colorful dots that winked at him on the horizon.

    "W-where... could they be..." Fern muttered to himself, calming down just enough to remember what had happened in the past few minutes. Sage, the flowers, Darkrai... Sage yelling, Darkrai yelling, and then the wind... "I hope Sage didn't hurt him..."

    Once he had rested, the grass type Pokémon stood up and carefully walked over to the stone, gingerly resting his paw on top of it so he wouldn't lose his footing again. He cocked his head in confusion when he felt the smooth surface, and looked closer at the pebble.

    It wasn't a pebble at all, the little hedgehog realized. It was a shard of their pot of Gracideas.

    Fern sank down to the ground, weeping silently as he curled up into a pitiful little ball.

    ***

    "...and then, Fern drags Darkrai into the village and stops him right in front of me!" Sage finished explaining with a growl, his voice having grown less and less steady as his story had gone on. I drummed my pawpads against my arm, thinking hard for a moment.

    "So Mint and Fern were the ones to find him in the first place?" I asked.

    "That's right." The old hedgehog nodded, his flowers crinkling slightly against his cheeks. "They were supposed to be gathering Gracideas! So I sent them back up there to go back and get some, and so they'd keep an eye on Darkrai if he was actually up there, hmph!"

    "If he was up there? You mean you didn't believe them?" Rose asked, her tails curling up as she leaned forward to stare at the village's elder questioningly. Anise, too, looked to Sage, clearly also curious as to what was going on. Had Sage not told the rest of the village about what was going on...?

    "Of course I didn't," He replied, giving the both of us an annoyed glance. "They're children, Team Returners, I sent them up there to collect flowers, and they came back with no flowers and a ridiculous excuse! Why should I have believed that a legendary Pokémon who tried to destroy the world once was up there!?"

    "You had to believe it enough to bother sending a letter to us," I remarked dryly, furrowing my brow as I slipped the treasure bag off of my shoulders and opened it up, digging through the various fruits and other supplies before pulling out a crumpled sheet of paper. A smirk wriggled its way onto my muzzle as I waved the letter at Sage. "You sure you weren't just a little bit afraid?"

    "What happened next?" Rose cut in to changed the subject, ducking her head into her scarf almost immediately afterward to stifle a yawn, pressing her mouth into the soft blue fabric. The fox's ears flicked gently as I reached over and stroked at her headfur, and I smiled affectionately at her when she nodded in thanks.

    "What happened... next?" Sage parroted, shaking his head in confusion at us. "What do you mean, what happened next? Darkrai was standing right in the middle of the village, I had to defend myself!"

    My contentedness practically evaporated, and I could almost feel my partner's heart drop into the pit of her stomach as the two of us turned and stared at the grass type in shock. Rose managed to find her voice first, red eyes wide and tension growing. "You attacked him!?"

    "What? No!"

    "He bound Darkrai's legs with grass knots," Anise chimed in quickly, ignoring the withering look Sage gave her. "But you did start yelling at him too, sir, and Mint and Fern seemed to think that you really were going to hurt him, didn't they? They were yelling that they were friends with him!"

    "Darkrai is dangerous, Anise!" Sage bellowed scratchily, coughing a few times afterward from raising his voice so high. I curled my paws into fists, gritting my teeth as the gears in my head started to turn; the old Shaymin continued to speak before Rose or I could interrupt. "He caused both the Temporal and Spatial Crises just a few years ago and then shows up here all of a sudden! I had to make sure that he didn't bring the village any harm!"

    "Yeah, and you did a real good job, didn't you?" I said bitingly, startling everyone else present – including myself, frankly – into staring at me. My mind drifted onto Darkrai, and a wave of unhappiness came over me. "You threatened someone who had no idea what was going on!"

    "What's that supposed to mean?" The village's elder growled at me in retort. "You saved the world! Are you both so naïve that you think Darkrai wasn't planning something? Why else would he have 'befriended' Mint and Fern!?"

    "He lost his memory, you idiot!" I shot back, leaning forward and gesturing towards the door to the leaf-covered hut, my words once again stunning both Sage and Anise into confused silence. "He lost his memory and probably really did make friends with Mint and Fern and you-"

    I barely registered Rose's call of my name as she moved over as best she could to stand between Sage and I, gently placing her paw on my shoulder. I turned my head, feeling my aura tassels bump against the treasure bag, to look at the cream-furred fox, who held a firm gaze. Time seemed to slow to a crawl... and after what felt like hours, I shuddered angrily, closing my eyes and letting out a tired exhale.

    "I'm going to check on Darkrai." I stood up, though it was more of a squat, and pushed past Rose's tail to leave the room, the tension in the room too thick for me to even consider staying. Rose watched me leave, only turning back to the two Shaymin when Sage spoke up.

    "That fiend didn't actually lose his memory, did he?" The old grass type questioned lamely, making a feeble attempt at salvaging his dignity. His flowers had wilted so much that the petals looked like they could fall off at any moment. "He was simply putting on an act, wasn't he? To try and catch anyone off guard!"

    My partner stared apologetically at the Shaymin Village's elder before rising to her feet, dashing the hedgehog's hopes. The Ninetales' voice trembled; notes of guilt, sadness, and worry bogged down her typical warmth. "There's no way you could have known, Sage... this is our fault, not yours. I'm sorry."

    She walked backwards, head bowed, out of the hut, turning around and leaving both Sage and Anise in silence. The old hedgehog looked at the younger Pokémon, closing his eyes in shame as she finally gave him a disapproving glare, the hut's leaves rustling softly in the late night breeze.

    ***

    I sighed quietly as the fresh, chilly air hit my fur, the lucky gust of wind rolling down the hills into the surrounded valley, and I shook my head, aura tassels bumping against each other. I peered over across the Shaymin Village, spotting the hut where Darkrai seemed to be taken, and couldn't help but bark out a chuckle as I saw a familiar Samurott sitting just outside the doorway. His shell helmet was stuck haphazardly into the ground next to him, its large horn halfway buried in the dirt. I wiped at the fur around my chestspike as I walked over to the younger explorer. "Too tall, huh?"

    The bored Cyan perked up at my question, but he grumbled in response, waving a paw dismissively before briefly glancing at the house behind him. "Yeah. Erin's'n there, she's checkin' on Darkrai. You an' Rose find out what was goin' on when we got here?"

    I kept silent for a few seconds, mulling the question over. My first instinct had told me to just say that Sage had attacked Darkrai – but memories of Tiny Town played in my mind's eye, erasing the doubts from my mind. They deserved the truth. "Yeah... but it's a little confusing, and it'd be better to tell you when Erin's around too."

    The sea lion looked towards the sky and rolled his eyes, idly stroking his mustache afterward, and I walked over to his side, leaning against a nearby rock. "Well, y'better tell us before we go t'sleep! It's already getting' late an' we've been walkin' th'whole day, y'know!"

    "Did we? I guess my legs are just tired from listening to Sage explain everything," I cheekily quipped back at him, pushing my concerns to the back of my mind for a moment as I grinned at Cyan. Letting the treasure bag drop next to his helmet, I blinked the sleep from my eyes and gazed up at the twinkling stars along with the water type. "Either now or tomorrow morning. That's a promise."

    The sound of movement made me look away, and I watched as my partner exited Sage and Anise's hut, having to carefully ease through the opening so her tails wouldn't bump or jostle anything. The cream-furred fox shook her head lightly, blowing some strands of headfur away from her eyes, and she was about to start scanning over the village before she spotted Cyan and I. Rose trotted across the path, tiredly dragging her paws.

    "Bill..." She quietly said, her uncharacteristic dejection making my own heart sink, and I reached out to put a paw on her mouth before she could speak any further. Gingerly grasping her legs, I pulled her into a strong embrace, her tension draining as she nuzzled my neck.

    "I know, Rose." I stroked her headfur. "I'll apologize to Sage in the morning."

    "Y'what?" Cyan blurted out, and both Rose and I looked towards him, the Samurott's eyes flaring as he yanked his helmet out of the ground and jammed it back onto his head. "What happened?"

    "Cyan, remember..." Rose started, wiggling free of my grasp to take a few steps forward, her tails buffeted by the continuing breeze. "Remember how you and Erin asked us to be honest about this mission, back in Tiny Town?"

    The Samurott nodded, waiting for the fire type to keep talking. "Yeah. What 'bout it?"

    Rose tilted her head slightly, coughing awkwardly and stifling a yawn with her paw. "Um... well, we told you and Erin about what had happened with Darkrai, and then we told Star and Vale back after our battle with Gabite..."

    "I don't get what you're tryin' t'say! Did Gabite have somethin' t'do with this?"

    I blinked once before letting my head drop into an open palm at the younger Pokémon's obliviousness.

    "He's asleeeeeeep!" Erin suddenly – and loudly – interrupted, the mink's fur sleeves hanging at her sides as she jumped out of the leafy hut. Cyan yelped in surprise and tumbled forward onto his chin, and I slid down from my seat, dusting my legs off before my partner and I walked over to the fighting type, who was sheepishly giggling at Cyan. "Oh, heeheehee... oops."

    "So he's not hurt?" Rose asked, leaning to her side to try and glimpse past the Mienshao. Erin nodded vigorously, her whiskers bouncing as she rocked back and forth on her heels, and I smiled in relief. At last, something resembling good news. Rose's eyes brightened. "Whew..."

    "He did have a teeny weeny few bumps and bruises, though! But some oran medicine fixed him right up!" Erin replied cheerfully, patting her belted pouch and rattling the bottles inside. As Cyan got to his feet, he shook around, grumpily slapping his tail against the dirt; I walked over and patted the Samurott's shoulder before turning back to the pink-furred Pokémon.

    "It doesn't look like he's having nightmares or anything?" I tapped my foot against the ground, furrowing my brow as I scoured my mind for every detail I could remember about the legendary Pokémon. "None of the other villagers seem to be having any problems right now, so they're either awake, or Darkrai's nightmare ability isn't affecting them."

    "Oooooh... a nightmare ability?" Erin leaned forward with an awestruck look on her face, but Cyan tapped the Mienshao's shoulder to get her back on track. "Oh! Nope, he's not even snoring!"

    The conversation drifted into a strange silence, only intruded on by the wind rippling the village's two ponds, the four of us standing a stone's throw away from the Pokémon we had come to see in the first place. Everything that had happened today started to feel far away, like in a daze, and I glanced at Rose as she let out an enormous yawn. Her ruby red eyes flicked up to check on the moon – I hazily wondered if it was almost midnight. Or maybe it was already past midnight. Judging by Rose's groggy expression, she was having as hard of a time figuring out the time as I was.

    "We need to get some sleep..." The Ninetales said, and I ran a paw through my aura tassels as I peeked over at Cyan and Erin, who were starting to nod off themselves. We had barely explained what happened... but I'd promised to tell them in the morning anyway, hadn't I? I walked over to the two young Pokémon, retrieving the treasure bag before I could forget about it.

    "We... we should have someone stayin' around t'keep an' eye on Darkrai, too," Cyan added, rubbing his eyes as he tried to stay awake. "One o'you should do it, 'cause I can't get into th'house."

    "I doubt one of these little huts could fit the three of us inside at once anyway, Cyan," I joked, causing Erin to burst into a fit of giggles, the fighting type keeping her mouth shut as tightly as she could to try and stifle the noise.

    "I'll go and stay inside of the hut." Rose slowly plodded past all of us, poking her head into the hut before once again struggling to get her tails inside. She lay down onto the grass almost as soon as she realized it, too exhausted to bother dealing with all nine fluffy appendages. "You three... haaah! You three go ahead and rest nearby, so we can all keep watch."

    "Okay! Good night, everyone! Sweet dreams!" Erin said, her bubbly voice unable to veil her tiredness.

    The Mienshao stretched out her arms and legs, arching her back before hopping over and laying down against the fence near the pond, wiggling a bit to settle in for the night. Cyan grunted, reaching up and plucking his helmet off of his head again, and I walked a few steps closer to Rose, sitting down and taking a couple of her tails into my paws.

    "Tomorrow... we finally meet Darkrai, huh?" I whispered, lowering my voice enough so Cyan wouldn't hear. My partner just barely moved, and I rested my head against her soft fur, sighing pleasantly as the wind continued to wash over us.

    "Mmhm..." The Ninetales replied, her voice muffled from being inside the Shaymin-sized hut. "Bill... we'll both make this right. We... have to..."

    I rolled over to stare at the wall of woven leaves, awkwardly twisting my arm to pat her backside reassuringly, and smiled, even though she couldn't see it. "Yeah, we will. Together like always. Right, partner?"

    "Right..." The answer was accompanied by an almost inaudible snore.
     
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  15. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 15!

    The muted chirping of a flock of wild Spearow cut through the Shaymin Village's peaceful silence, the improvised melody drifting through the layered leaves of the small, cozy hut. Darkrai jolted as the noise shook him from his slumber, his body stiff from his long rest, and he groped around blindly, grasping at the folds of his robe as he searched for Mint and Fern. The legendary Pokémon scrunched his face up as the crusts of sleep tickled and itched, and he rolled onto his side, fidgeting around to get comfortable again, letting out a hefty yawn all the while. He could hear the foliage above his head rustle as the birds fluttered away for some reason or another. Reaching out, his fingers grazed against the wall.

    Icy blue eyes opened up as the strong, slightly scratchy construction made Darkrai do a double-take, and he awkwardly pushed himself up onto his elbow, craning his neck to stare upward and lightly bumping against the back wall. The wispy white clouds on his head phased through the small gaps in the woven plants, and speckles of warm sunlight came in from the other direction. Glancing downward, he sucked in a breath at the distinct absence of two small lumps of green fuzz. "Mrggh... Mint... Fern...?"

    There was a muffled mumbling, and the legendary Pokémon lifted his gaze a little, his heart skipping a fearful beat at the strange someone sleeping in front of him. It was larger than a Shaymin, with cream-colored fur instead of green; even worse, it was blocking the only way out! Darkrai tugged on the ends of his sleeves, feeling oddly warm and decidedly unsure of what to do.

    Where was he? He remembered Sage... he shuddered, the memories of the old hedgehog's outburst only frightening him more. But then there was some kind of wind... and a pain in his head.

    A pang of worry hit him as he wondered if the Pokémon was dangerous. But it didn't seem to hear him wake up... the dark type gulped nervously as a thought hit him: how long had it been sleeping there? He had been outside when he fainted. Did the cream thing bring him inside to keep him safe from Sage?

    "Psst, Rose! Are you awake yet? Rose?"

    The barest hint of a whisper caught Darkrai's attention, and he sucked in a breath, trying to stay as quiet as he possibly could. After a short moment, he tilted his head, confused. He wasn't sure what was going on anymore.

    "Hey, Rooooose! It's moooorniiiing!" The voice said again, a smidgen louder this time, and Darkrai swallowed dryly, shrinking back until he was pressed fully up against the leaf hut's wall. He stifled a gasp as the foliage tickled his neck through his star-patterned fabric, a nervous tremble rippling down his spine.

    "Mmph... Erin, please, I'm up," Rose muttered, and Darkrai watched, frozen in place, as the unknown Pokémon let out an enormous yawn. "Aahm..."

    As she smacked her lips, the Pokémon squinted, shaking her head to try and wake up fully. Darkrai's mind went blank as Rose lifted her head and looked at him. She sat up a little straighter when she noticed that he was awake as well. "Oh!"

    Darkrai curled up into himself. She seemed to stare at him for hours.

    Rose shook herself out of her odd trance, looking a little embarrassed, and she gently turned her head sideways. "Oh... Erin, go and give Bill and Cyan a shake, will you? And don't wake up any of the other villagers, okay?"

    "Okay!" Erin spoke up, her voice bubbly and bright. Rose looked back at Darkrai, and she took a step forward... only to jerk to a stop and go backwards before she could finish. The legendary Pokémon furrowed his brow as the cream-furred Pokémon sighed.

    "It's alright... don't worry," She said warmly, trying to reassure him as best she could. "We're not going to hurt you, Darkrai."

    They knew his name, just like Mint and Fern did. His shoulders slumped. He sighed.

    ***

    Meeting! The One Who Had Forgotten!

    ***

    "Rose? We're up now." I stretched out my arms, stifling an incoming yawn as I prodded at my partner's tails with an outstretched leg. One bounced a little as she seemed to perk up, and after a second she walked backwards out of the doorway, the nervous spring in her step betraying her calm expression. Her mood was infectious, as I found myself taking a deep breath to try and smother my own anxiety. I stepped forward-

    "I'm going in first, me me me me!" Erin said cheerfully, shoving her way past both of us and ducking under the doorway. I recoiled somewhat, then scuttled in after her. Behind me, Rose and Cyan both poked their heads in as best they could. I stopped short of crashing into Erin myself, and gently pushed her to the side of the room, giving the Mienshao a brief glance before looking at Darkrai.

    "Darkrai..." I breathed out the name. It really was him.

    He had on a strange robe, pitch black but covered in odd light spots, that was wrinkled and worn as it touched against the grass floor. His hands seemed to have been pulled into his sleeves, which he had wrapped snugly around his torso. He was shivering, eyes large and confused. I thought back to the night before, felt my aura flicker at the tips of my pawpads, and forced the sight to the back of my mind, kneeling down in front of the legendary Pokémon.

    "W-Who are you? Where is Mint? And Fern?" He stuttered, and I blinked at the innocent question; even though I – we, even – had been expecting it, the dark type's throaty voice seemed unfitting with his awkwardness. I reached halfway out to offer a handshake, but Darkrai drifted into silence again, and I gestured towards my teammates instead.

    "Darkrai, my name is Bill," I introduced myself, nodding firmly. "I think you've already... er, sort of met Rose, my partner, and these are Cyan and Erin, our good friends."

    The Ninetales, Samurott, and Mienshao greeted Darkrai in turn, and he watched my moments, pausing to look at the others before snapping his focus back to me. A few seconds later, he spoke again, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the tips of his fingers poking out from the depths of his cloak. "Are... are you explorers?"

    I smiled. Even with amnesia, he caught on quick. "Yeah, we are. We just got to the Shaymin Village last night."

    Darkrai seemed to flinch at that, seemingly caught off-guard, but Rose cleared her throat to get his attention, and both he and I looked at the fox as she chimed in. "Cyan and Erin helped some of the villagers look after you in the evening. Are you still hurt at all? We have some oran berries and medicine if you need it."

    "Am I...?" The dark type mumbled his reply before relaxing a little more, letting his folded legs stretch out on the grass. The wind started to pick up outside, swishing around noisily, the fresh air cool and welcome inside the cramped interior. The vapor on top of Darkrai's head caught the updraft, swirling up and out through the ceiling. "No. Er, I do not think so."

    "You're tougher than y'look, then," Cyan remarked bluntly, though the water type frowned when Rose and I shot him a pointed glare. "What? After everythin' that went on yesterday, I'm surprised he isn't needin' anythin' other than rest!"

    Erin giggled into her sleeves, the tips of her whiskers bouncing as she pushed her nose deep into the thick pink fur. "Yeah, Cyan's right! I dunno what you did, but when we got down the hill, you were out cold, mister Darkrai!"

    "Out cold?" Darkrai parroted, reaching up to rub at the back of his head. A hint of panic swelled up in his voice as he gave me an earnest stare. "But then... what happened? Where are Mint and Fern? It looked like Sage was going to hurt them! Are they okay?"

    My heart sank, but I tried not to show it in case it dampened Darkrai's mood as well, instead keeping my mouth flat and my head held high. Something cold poked my shoulder, and I took a tiny step to the side to let Rose push into the room a little more. Her headfur dangled behind one of her ears as she gave the dark type a concerned, though encouraging, glance.

    "Bill and I talked with Sage already, Darkrai," My partner started to explain, tapping her front paws against the dirt, and Darkrai let his arms drop into his lap, waiting politely for her to continue. "But could you tell us yourself what happened last night? It would really help us to figure all of this out."

    The legendary Pokémon narrowed his eyes slightly, starting to tap his legs on the grass like Rose was doing. I held my breath, hoping he wouldn't keep asking about either of his friends; there wasn't a doubt in my mind that he wouldn't take the news well at all.

    After a moment or two of fidgeting, he answered. "Okay. I will tell you."

    The tension in the room deflated, Rose humming happily in response, and I closed my eyes and smiled confidently, quickly thinking over Sage's story. "Thanks, Darkrai. Sage told us that it started around sunset yesterday, so could you start there too?"

    "And tell us everything, got it?" Cyan added. "Erin an' I didn't get t'hear all o'this because we were lookin' after you!"

    "Okay..." Darkrai said again, bowing his head for a moment and twiddling his fingers. "Mint and Fern and I were coming down the mountain with a pot of Gracideas. Sage had told them to gather some, and after we became friends, I was helping them with it..."

    ***

    "When I get my paws on Sage-" Mint growled meanly, waving her floppy ears around as she swatted at a nearby rock. It bounced a short distance away, hitting the ravine wall and sending an echo through the passage. Whatever luck had let her wake up near a Gracidea in this new, weird place, it was all gone now. "Gaah! I don't care how old that stupid jerk thinks he is, I'll show him a thing or two whenever I get back to the village!"

    She stopped shaking her head to look for the unfortunate pebble that was the victim of her frustrations, but a sharp throb of pain rippled through her skull, and the Shaymin groaned, stumbling into a sitting position to weakly rub at the bridge of her nose. Her petal scarf was practically wilting, despite the humidity she could sense in the air.

    "What the heck even happened?" She said to nobody in particular, the soft, droning background noise helping her to think. There didn't seem to be anyone else around in... wherever she was, anyway. "This definitely isn't any part of Sky Peak that I've ever seen before. And why is it so hot-"

    The hedgehog froze as she fully comprehended the buzz in her ears, despite her lingering headache, and she forced herself up onto her paws. She frowned, forcing herself to ignore a wave of dizziness as she swiveled on her heels, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. "Hey, who's there? Show yourself! I'm not afraid of you, got it?"

    A group of bugs, some red and some purple, quickly appeared in the distance, flying towards the Shaymin with reckless abandon. Mint gulped at the sight of the insects, her gaze transfixed on the strange lights flashing from their backsides, which were somehow bright enough to see even in the broad, morning daylight. She instinctively dug her paws into the ground, the green shock of headfur bristling as she hunkered low, bracing herself for a collision.

    Strong air rushed past as the swarm of Illumise and Volbeat flew above her head, the hum of their tiny wings reaching a fever pitch before quieting just as suddenly. Mint stood in place, still waiting to get hit by a speeding firefly, only sneaking a peek of her surroundings once everything had gone silent again. She perked up when she saw that the gorge was empty, scanning from side to side before turning around and staring, slack-jawed, in the direction the wild Pokémon had gone.

    "H-Hey, wait a minute!" She blurted out, and the grass type started to jog after the bugs, keeping an easy pace so her aches and pains wouldn't get any worse. "Where are you going? Come back here!"

    ***

    "And then there was some kind of blue... thing, and it hit me and I fell asleep. Then I woke up in here..."

    Darkrai trailed off, clasping his hands together in his lap, clearly finished telling his tale. I nodded gently, absently rubbing at my chestspike, the rounded iron growing warm as I mulled over the legendary Pokémon's explanation. Rose let out a sad sigh, suddenly very interested in the wall, and I reached over and placed my other paw on top of hers. The small act seemed to help, if only a little.

    "It's alright, Darkrai," She said soothingly – trying to comfort both Darkrai and herself. "I can understand why you were scared, with Sage getting so angry like that."

    "He was worryin' about th'village, though," Cyan interrupted, pulling our attention away from the Pokémon sitting at the opposite wall. The Samurott stroked his mustache, not really paying attention as he spoke his mind. "Sure, he sounds like he was bein' an ass, but after what happened last night, I can't blame him for how he was thinkin', can you?"

    Erin jumped up at Cyan's words, an upset frown adorning her muzzle. She rocked back and forth on her heels, shaking her sleeves around unhappily. "But Cyan! If Sage hadn't yelled at Darkrai and Mint and Fern, then Darkrai wouldn't have made that... that... um... whatever-it-was happen!"

    Rose and I had little time to weigh our teammates' logic, as the legendary Pokémon in question shot up and leaned forward in astonishment, a slight whimper creeping into his voice. "Wait... w-what? What do you mean? I... all the wind and darkness that happened yesterday was because of me!?"

    I glanced sharply at Erin, who now stood still, her paws clapped over her mouth. When the Mienshao noticed me, she let slip a small, sheepish grin. "Um... oops."

    "It..." I started, my mind racing. What should I say? What could I say, for that matter? And even if I did think of some way to smooth things over, would Darkrai even believe it now? Letting out an irritated sigh, I bowed my head, my aura tassels brushing against my neck as I took another deep breath, trying to calm down. "...yeah."

    The five of us fell into an uneasy silence, and Darkrai hung his head limp, staring blankly at his palms. I looked over my shoulder at my partner, her eyes closed and expression guilt-ridden. Cyan, on the other hand, was simply giving Erin a look of sheer exasperation, which the mink ignored, instead pouting sympathetically at our charge's plight. As for myself, I continued to breath in and out, keeping my emotions steady, concentrating on putting both the legendary Pokémon's story and Sage's story together.

    He had made friends with Mint and Fern, and helped them with their flower-picking. The three of them were coming down the mountain to deliver the flowers, and Mint and Fern wanted to introduce Darkrai to the village and show that he wasn't a bad Pokémon (anymore...). Sage freaked out, partly because we had never told anyone that Darkrai had amnesia. He got aggressive... spooking the legendary Pokémon... and he lashed out, and his powers went out of control... powers he didn't even know about because he had amnesia.

    I brought a paw to my muzzle, hiding a frustrated grimace behind it. Half of me wondered if there was any possible way this could have gone even a little, tiny bit better. The other half wryly wanted to knock Rose and my past selves' heads together.

    "Then... w-what was it that I d-did?" Darkrai stuttered quietly, blinking out of his daze as some of his thoughts got in order. "Did I hurt... any of the Shaymin? Please, I... I did not mean to!"

    The sheer worry that streamed through the dark type's gravelly voice cut through the air like a blade through a berry, and I couldn't help but reach out and firmly clasp his shoulder. He grunted in surprise, jolting his neck up to stare at my paw. Erin let out the start of a laugh at the sight, cutting it off just as quick when she heard herself.

    "Nah, everyone was fine! I told you that you were out cold, right? Well, some of the villagers helped Cyan and I bring you in here, heehe- mmph!" She replied brightly, trying her best to try and cheer Darkrai up. He just blinked, unsure of how to respond. "Everyone just had their fur get all messed up, like this, uweeeh!"

    The Mienshao tugged on her whiskers. Darkrai nodded. "Then Mint and Fern, they are okay?"

    "Frankly, Erin an' I couldn't tell y'a thing about that," Cyan added gruffly. "The couple o'Shaymin who helped us didn't seem t'know you or anythin' like that."

    Darkrai looked at Rose and I expectantly, clasping his fingers together hopefully. I moved my free paw down my nose, resting my chin on top of the pawspike... then glanced sharply at Rose, who took a step forward and cleared her throat. Her tails bumped and jostled against the leaves, a few loose ones shaking themselves free. They drifted down and landed near Darkrai's hands.

    "Darkrai... you don't really know what happened yesterday, right?" The Ninetales began softly, sitting down next to me and stretching out her front legs, batting at the edge of the starry robe. "You... know that you caused it to happen... but you don't know what you did at all?"

    "N... no," He replied, shaking his head innocently. "Did my story help? Do you know what happened yesterday night now?"

    Rose stared at her paws. "Yeah... we do."

    There was another short period of quiet, only for a few seconds, and I shook my head. It was pointless to keep putting things off. Rose turned her head slightly to look at me, frowning in anticipation.

    "Darkrai," I said plainly, forcing a last-second pang of doubt into the very back of my mind. "Mint and Fern aren't here."

    His reaction was instantaneous, his face turning noticeably ashen. Even the stars on his clothes seemed to shift and pulse at the bad news, their twinkling only intruded upon by wrinkles formed from the legendary Pokémon's tightening grip. His entire body had gone rigid, and I could feel the tensing muscles in his shoulder.

    Cyan and Erin both started as well, the news just as new to them as it was to Darkrai. The former found his voice first, hunching forward in confusion and accidentally grazing the hut with his helmet's horn. "Wait, huh!? Bill, Rose, you're tellin' me that th'thing from yesterday-"

    "Yes, that's exactly what we're saying," I replied, brusquely cutting off the rest of the Samurott's sentence. Soon afterward, I felt my exasperation fade away as my teammate grumbled crankily under his breath, and I let out a low whistle. "Sorry, Cyan. But yeah, we aren't out of the woods just yet."

    "W-w-what...?" Darkrai finally spoke, pushing himself onto his feet, the small leaves on his lap sliding to the ground. Part of the way up, his head collided with the ceiling, causing him to wince and sit back down, more bits and pieces of the woven plants decorating his sleeves. "W-what do y-you m-mean, they are not here? What happened l-last night?"

    Rose tapped one of her front paws, bowing her head for a moment, then looking at Darkrai. "When you tried to stop Sage, you accidentally created a dimensional hole... but from what you told us about how you felt, you put so much power into it that you lost control."

    "A dimensional h-hole? What does that mean?" The legendary Pokémon asked hesitantly.

    I furrowed my brow – of course he wouldn't know, thanks to his amnesia... so he had probably never done something like this before, at least as far as he could remember! The realization made me pause, which was good, since Darkrai's attention was still held on my partner.

    "It's... you see..." Rose scrunched up her face as she tried to figure out a simpler way to describe the phenomenon. "Well... it's a hole in time and space... anyone who goes into a dimensional hole gets sent somewhere else, wherever the hole is supposed to lead. Does that make sense?"

    The fox tilted her head as she finished her explanation, concerned that Darkrai wouldn't understand. She shook her headfur out of her face and smiled when the legendary Pokémon gave her a short nod, then an 'mmhm', in reply.

    "Wow!" Rose, Cyan, Darkrai and I turned and stared at Erin, who was excitedly bouncing in place, wringing her paws together in wonder. "So Darkrai can teleport? I thought only psychic type Pokémon were able to do that!"

    I blinked. "It's not exactly the same, but yeah. We've told you and Cyan about this twice now, haven't we? When we were talking about it in Tiny Town, and then just yesterday, too, remember?"

    The pink mink nodded back before hopping over to Darkrai and wrapping him into a surprise embrace, patting him hard on the back. He hunched up at the sudden contact, his arms and legs retreating further into his clothes. "Yeahyeahyeah, I remember! Buuuuuuut... you didn't know that at all, did you, Darkrai?"

    "Umf."

    I narrowed my eyes at our young teammate's clever trick, and Rose briefly purred in satisfaction. Cyan simply snorted, piping up. "Hey now, quit clingin' to him! You aren't helpin' him feel any better about all this, from what it's lookin' like!"

    Erin whined childishly at the water type, keeping her arms securely wrapped around the legendary Pokémon's neck. Her fur sleeves dangled down Darkrai's arms, and she was so absorbed in her defiant sulking that she didn't even notice when he gingerly prodded at one of them, watching it wave forward and then bump back against his robe.

    "Erin. Now." Rose stood up fully, fixing the Mienshao with a firm glare, her fur bristling slightly against my side. I shuffled sideways and brushed away an oncoming itch.

    Slowly, but surely, Erin peeled herself off of Darkrai, walking back to the wall close to the three of us and sitting down in a halfhearted huff. The amnesiac watched her go, staring for a second or two before leaning back and resting his hands on his knees. "So, I can... I really have the power to teleport other Pokémon to different places? I did not know I... I could."

    "Big on the questions this morning, aren't you?" I quipped to myself. I felt Rose swat me with a paw, smiling softly at both of our remarks.

    "That's right," The fox answered matter-of-factly. "And when you lost control of the dimensional hole, it was so strong that Mint and Fern got sucked inside of it. That's why they're not here in the village. They're wherever that dimensional hole was going to bring them to!"

    "But then where did they go!?" Darkrai blurted out, trying to stand again. This time he was more mindful of the hut's small size, kneeling down and crawling a couple paces towards us, his panic from earlier springing back in full force. "I did not know that I was able to create these hole things! I do not know where it was going!"

    "I'm pretty sure we were hoping you could tell us," I said in response, stretching my arms out and putting my paws behind my neck, feeling my aura tassels bump and jostle a little bit against my shoulders. The legendary Pokémon dropped his gaze, blinking rapidly as his eyes started to fill with unshed tears.

    "But I..." Darkrai's breathing turned haggard, and Rose poked her nose out, trying to give him a comforting nudge. She couldn't reach, however, only managing to get a whiff of the wispy plume drifting up from the dark type's head instead. "I... I, I don't know. I don't know, I don't remember!"

    "I know, Darkrai, I know you might not remember exactly," Rose said, her voice filled with warmth and concern, her nine tails drooping lower and lower until they were dragging along the grass. "But we don't have any idea of where they've gone."

    "But if he doesn't remember, why're we still askin' him, huh? They could b'anywhere by now an' we're sittin' here doin' nothin' about it!" Cyan gripped the handle of one of his seamitars as he thought aloud, and I craned my neck to stare up at the sea lion.

    "Have a little more faith, Cyan, he's kind of our only lead," I remarked teasingly, and I glanced back at Darkrai before the younger explorer could reply. The legendary Pokémon suddenly recoiled, loosing a loud hiccup, and I smiled in amusement at the rather unfitting sound. "Take a deep breath and think, Darkrai. Was there any particular place on your mind before everything happened?"

    "I'm not, sure," He hastily answered, audibly gulping down a couple mouthfuls of fresh air and quieting down.

    My mind drifted as we let the amnesiac think. The light that dappled the floor of the hovel was growing stronger, and the grass had lost its coating of morning dew thanks to the faint, fragrant breezes that entered the room alongside the sun. I lightly bit my tongue; how long had we been talking? An hour, maybe? The rest of the village was probably awake now. Thank Arceus that Cyan and Rose were too big to fit inside the hut.

    "It... I think... everything happened so fast, I do not... it is hard..." I shook myself out of my reverie as Darkrai's murmuring caught our ears. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Erin leaning forward heavily, trying to hear him better.

    "I know it's hard, Darkrai, but we... and Mint and Fern, too, we're all counting on you," Rose whispered soothingly, and she nodded at the legendary Pokémon when he peered up at her again. He nodded back, following the fox's movements. "You can do it... when Sage got angry, what were you thinking about?"

    "I... I was-" Darkrai bumbled through his words again before pausing, and the dullness in his eyes faded a little, gaining some of their usual icy color back as something finally managed to dawn on him. "I wanted to get away. I wanted to get Mint and Fern away... I think."

    "That's a start," I said, and he peeked at me curiously. I grinned lightly back. "Go ahead, we're listening."

    He grunted low in acknowledgment, continuing to comb his brain for any useful information, unconsciously pinching at his robe and rubbing the fabric between his fingers. The room grew silent as seconds passed, then minutes. A prickle of tension ran down my spine. Rose ducked into her scarf, then looked back up.

    "I think I... I wanted to go to a place that Mint and Fern had showed to me before, up on top of the mountain."

    "What kind of place?" Erin asked, her words uncharacteristically serious.

    "It," He started, stopped, then started again, starting to speak quicker and quicker, louder and louder, as the floodgates in his memories burst. "It was a rock. A big, strange rock with water in it, all the water kept falling over the edges. It was in that forest with all the clouds surrounding the trees... and one day there was not as much fog, and we were able to see it very well. I wanted to bring them there so they would be away from Sage..."

    Darkrai trailed off, sniffling a little as he wiped at his face and forehead with his sleeves, but I barely noticed, turning around and staring at Rose, who stared back at me, her mind racing as it put the pieces together. The Ninetales' ears pointed straight up in realization, and I looked around the room, our two other teammates lost in thought. I sat up and patted Cyan's side a few times to get his attention.

    "Scoot." I got to my feet, digging my heels into the plush loam. "I need to go outside for a moment. Get your backpack packed up and ready to go."

    "Eh? What d'you mean?" Cyan said in confusion, though he still backed out of the doorway to let me through, a wave of cool air rushing in through the opened gap. "Do y'know where Darkrai's talkin' about?"

    "Yeah, c'mon, tell us!" Erin added, playfully shaking her paw at me.

    I thought back to the morning that started this whole adventure and barked out a laugh. "Both you two have been wanting to see the Fogbound Lake, haven't you?"

    "That's it!" Darkrai blurted out, and we turned our heads towards him. "That... er, that was what Mint and Fern referred to this rock as. It was... it was beautiful... and I had told them that I would take them there someday."

    Cyan's face stayed level. Erin, on the other hand, beamed hugely, looking about ready to leap into the sky in excitement. Rose shook her head and giggled at them, making her way out into the village alongside me.

    "It looks like you're getting your wish after all!" She said, wearing an optimistic smile, and I threw Darkrai a thumbs-up before crawling out of the hut.

    ***

    "They're where!?"

    "They're there, that's where." I crossed my arms, cheekily sticking my tongue out at Sage as he gaped at us, completely dumbfounded by what Rose had just told him. The Shaymin's jaw kept slack for a good five seconds before he finally realize it, and he straightened up, trying to look as formal as he could. "It's a few days more of a walk from here, but we've already come this far, so we might as well, right?"

    "It's best if we go and search for them, sir. We've been to that area before, and you know we're more than qualified," Rose said, eying the path that led away from the village, her nine tails wagging wildly in the spring breeze. I adjusted the strap of the treasure bag as she finished her statement, rubbing at the Exploration Team badge that was pinned to the leather.

    "Are you certain?" The elderly hedgehog asked, his wrinkles deepening as he scraped a stubby paw against one of his flowers. He stared up and growled darkly at the sky. "Gah... those two! They have no idea what it's like outside of Sky Peak!"

    I walked up to my partner's side, catching Sage's attention as the long grass rustled underfoot. I gestured over my shoulder with a shake of my head. "That's why we were planning to head out as soon as we could. Darkrai's helped us as much as he probably can, and it's still morning, so we can get a good start if we hurry."

    "But why? Shouldn't you be taking Darkrai... I don't know, into custody or something?" The Shaymin shot back, leering suspiciously, or at least trying to leer suspiciously, at me. "I mean... hrmph... I would be glad if Mint and Fern were returned safely to the village, but what's your point?"

    Rose let out a soft sigh, bowing her head into her scarf, and I quickly sneaked a glance over towards the hut that Darkrai was resting in. Cyan and Erin both stood outside of it, lifting the former's pack up before he strongly slung it onto his back. The latter crowed merrily, jumping around her friend.

    "Sir, they might have gotten warped there accidentally, but if you hadn't gotten angry at Darkrai, it wouldn't have happened... and you wouldn't have gotten angry if we'd told the truth about his amnesia," Rose said plainly, determination evident in her features.

    "So really, this is still partly our fault." I finished for her. "And I'm sorry I snapped at you about it yesterday."

    "Wait!" A new voice called out, and the three of us swiveled on our heels, watching as Darkrai pushed out of the leaf-covered hut, his robe swishing around his legs as he hurriedly strode over. Cyan and Erin followed behind him, looking decidedly taken aback. "Wait... please."

    Sage took a step back, hiding himself near Rose, and I dropped my paws, letting them rest at my hips as I smiled at the legendary Pokémon. "Darkrai? What's up?"

    "Bi... mister Bill, and miss Rose, you are going to search for Mint and Fern, yes?" He let the words slowly roll off of his tongue, as if he was thinking each one over before saying them. I nodded at him, quirking an eyebrow upward. He balled his hands into fists, hesitating briefly, struggling within himself. "I... I wish... I wish to help you find them!"

    Everyone heard Sage's strangled gasp of a response, and my eyebrow rose a tad higher.
     
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  16. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 16!

    "A-Are you really, truly, sure about this?" Sage stammered out, his normally-grouchy voice practically cracking as he spoke. I barked out a short laugh at the odd sound, and even Rose had to duck into her scarf to hide an amused smile. The old Shaymin huffed indignantly at us and turned towards the edges of the path leading away from the village; Cyan and Erin stood nearby with Darkrai, an outstretched sword pointing our destination out to the dark type.

    "I'm positive, sir," Rose replied, managing to get her wits back before I did. Her tails gently waved back and forth as she looked down at the hedgehog. "Mint and Fern seemed like all he could ask about when we spoke with him. Besides, he's the one who offered to help us. Doesn't that earn him at least a little good faith?"

    "Hey, he'll earn some more when we come back with everyone safe and sound," I remarked dryly, shrugging a few times to adjust the treasure bag on my back. My partner turned and nodded at me in agreement. Sage, on the other hand, simply sighed, the flowers in his fur wilting in dismay.

    "If... if you say so, then very well." The grass type conceded, tapping a stubby paw against the loamy, well-tended soil. "I suppose you have dealt with him before, so you are prepared in case he tries anything funny-"

    "He won't," Rose said firmly, and I smiled confidently, glancing at our teammates.

    "Cyan, Erin!" I called out, bringing my paws up to my muzzle. The Samurott and Mienshao spun around, the latter waving cheerfully. "Are we ready to head out?"

    "We've been ready!" Cyan yelled back in response, pausing as Erin climbed up onto his hiking pack and fidgeted around a little to get comfortable. He rolled his eyes at her before returning his seamitar to its scabbard. Darkrai seemed slightly taken aback by the display. "If it's really gonna take us th'rest of th'day t'get to the forest, we ought t'get goin' instead o'standin' around here an' wastin' time!"

    I chuckled quietly, folding my arms and resting them against my blunted chestspike. Rose turned and stepped up to my side, taking a deep breath before walking forward.

    "Just one more moment, if you please."

    I had my foot halfway into the air when Sage spoke up, and Rose and I looked over our shoulders at the village elder. I tried – for a second or two – to stay balanced on one leg, before giving up and dropped back down to the ground. The Shaymin stood still for a moment, hesitating... before shaking his head, his worried expression replaced by his usual gruffness once again.

    "Those two kids might be trouble," He started. I narrowed my eyes slightly, though he didn't seem to notice. "But they are still part of this village, and that means they're under my care like everyone else. So... I want you to bring them back safe and sound, Returners! And that isn't a request!"

    Rose's face broke into a warm smile, and I grinned, thumbing upwards.

    ***

    Resolve! To Make the Search and Rescue!

    ***

    Fallen petals swirled around us, carried along by the fresh spring breezes, specks of red, pink, yellow and purple dotting the lush plains. The trees had burst into massive, fragrant blooms, their branches almost completely hidden by bundles of flowers, making them look more like giant bouquets than anything else. A couple loose leaves drifted under my nose, causing it to twitch involuntarily, and I reached up, pressing a pawpad against my nostrils, waiting for the urge to sneeze to pass.

    "You okay?" Rose asked quietly, glancing up at me as I exhaled. I smiled at my partner, reaching over with my free paw to lightly tousle her headfur, and she turned back, looking ahead at the mass of trees sitting on the horizon. "It's really been a while since we've come this way, hasn't it?"

    "It sure feels like it, at least..." We could already see the ever-present fog that coated the forest, and I furrowed my brow in thought. "We'll have to be careful. The whole area's probably changed shape a lot of times since the expedition."

    "We'll all have to stick together so we don't get lost, then... do you think we should make some torches? They'd help keep the fog away a little." The Ninetales perked up as she spoke, and I nodded at her in response, briefly focusing to form a bright sphere of aura in my palm, letting it fizzle out a couple seconds afterward.

    "I can't wait I can't wait I can't waaaaaait!"

    We both turned over our shoulders to look at Erin, who cheered enthusiastically from atop Cyan's back, bouncing around on her seat and making the Samurott grimace from the weight of both his pack and his passenger. Rose craned her neck sideways to peer at Darkrai, who was trailing a few paces behind our teammates. The legendary Pokémon had shyly clasped his hands against his stomach, staring in surprise at the Mienshao's outburst. I chuckled, folding my arms and resting them on my blunted chestspike.

    "I guess I don't need to ask if you're excited, then," I remarked with a wry grin, walking backwards to keep looking at the younger explorer. The pink mink beamed broadly and threw her fur sleeves up into the air.

    "Of course I'm excited!" She said, managing to calm down enough to keep from fidgeting. "I want to see all the stuff you and the rest of the guild found when you were here!"

    "Y'know that we've still got a job t'do, Erin! Is jus' goin' sightseein' all that you can think about?" Cyan brusquely interrupted, shooting the fighting type an annoyed glare. He snorted as Erin stuck her tongue out and swatted at his helmet.

    "Hey, I want to save those kids too! Besides, you're glad we're getting to go to the Fogbound Lake too, aren't you?" She replied, giggling to herself afterward as the Samurott turned away, grumbling under his breath.

    "So... you have been to the lake before?" Darkrai suddenly asked, though he shrank back a little as all four of us turned to look at him.

    "Bill and I have, but it was... a few years ago," Rose replied after a moment, slowing her pace to walk at the dark type's side. I gestured towards Cyan to move a little faster, and he obliged with a curt nod, striding past me to take the lead. "The forest and the cave leading up to it are dangerous, but the lake itself is safe."

    "Hah! Dangerous nothin'!" Cyan said, though he wasn't actually paying attention to us, instead simply stroking his mustache and continuing onward. "If you two had t'deal with 'em before, I can take care of any feral Pokémon that lives in there easy!"

    "Better to mouth off now rather than when they can actually hear you," I smoothly replied back at him, and I spun back around to walk normally again, flanking Darkrai on his other side.

    "There are wild Pokémon there?" The legendary Pokémon muttered quietly, glancing apprehensively at me, then at my partner. He reached up and scratched at his neck, staring at the ground, finding something very interesting in the grass underfoot. Rose nudged him gently with her head, blowing a few stray strands of headfur out of her face afterward.

    "Don't worry, Darkrai, it'll be alright. We've all had a bunch of little adventures already and even caught an outlaw while trying to get to the Shaymin Village before, so..." Rose trailed off, laughing a little into a raised paw, red eyes shining brightly. "You could say that we're used to this sort of thing."

    "Really..." He said. "I... am not sure if I..."

    He stopped speaking, letting the conversation hang as his arms retreated into his robe again. I grasped his shoulder and squeezed lightly, and he jumped. "You're not getting cold feet, are you? It's still early, we can turn around and drop you off at the village if you want us to."

    "No, it is nothing like that," Darkrai quickly said in response, his words garbled somewhat as he rapidly shook his head. I pulled my paw away and smiled at the display of resolve, awkward as it was. "I just... do not know if I will be able to help you fight."

    "Why not?" I cocked my head, my smile fading a bit.

    "If I fought... what if I accidentally..." He gestured behind us, then towards the forest. I blinked, raising my head a little in realization, and Rose hummed in understanding. A blast of wind, faintly smelling of salt, rolled in from the coast, buffeting my aura tassels against the treasure bag.

    The next few minutes passed in silence, save for the frothing waves that were crashing against the far-off cliffs. Darkrai seemed to slow down even further, as a short, sideways glance showed the gap between the three of us and Cyan and Erin widening.

    "Darkrai... do you want to fight?" My partner asked, and the legendary Pokémon looked at her. After a moment, he shook his head, much more meekly than he had before. "Then you don't have to. Just stick close so we can make sure you're safe, okay?"

    "O... o-okay."

    "There's other stuff you can do on the road, anyway," I added, shrugging at the dark type. "Why don't you help us out with setting up camp tonight?"

    "Really?" He cheered up considerably, his voice returning to its normal pitch and his movements becoming more relaxed. Rose winked at me gratefully from behind the dark type, and I grinned. "What do you mean, though? If you are all explorers, then how could I help you?"

    "That..." I paused, unsure of what to say, then almost saying that it was a good question; it was, of course, but it didn't need to be said. I tapped a pawspike on the leather strap running down my shoulder, the metal clinking against our exploration badge. "Hm."

    "You said that you, and Mint and Fern all collected Gracideas back on Sky Peak, didn't you?" Rose remarked. "Why don't you help us collect some wood for when we make a campfire? It won't be very different from what you were doing before, except you'll just be looking for sticks and things instead of flowers. Does that sound good?"

    "That... would be nice," Darkrai replied, giving my partner a short nod of agreement, once again twiddling his thumbs. "Very well then. Thank you, Bill, Rose."

    "No problem, Darkrai." I patted the dark type's shoulder one more time, ruffling the star-dotted wrinkles of his robe, before looking out at our other teammates... who had gained quite a bit of distance on us during the conversation. With a kick, I strode forward, gesturing at the two other Pokémon to follow me. "C'mon, Cyan and Erin are too far ahead. Let's see if we can catch up with them!"

    ***

    Fern leaned down towards the hard, dusty rock, letting out a discouraged sigh as he took a mouthful of the thin grass that was growing through a crack in the ground, his stomach gurgling in unhappiness at the blandness of the wild plants. The Shaymin peered around the barren gorge, chewing slowly, trying to savor the only food that he could see; he had opened his flowers with the sun hanging overhead, but what little energy he could get from it wasn't possibly enough. Some paces away were the shards of pottery that he had stumbled onto the night before, and a fearful chill ran down his spine as he stared at them. He was alone, he was afraid... and, now that it was daytime and he could see the unfamiliar walls of brown-tinted rock, he was completely lost, too.

    "D-D-Darkrai... M-Mint..." The little hedgehog mumbled to himself, gulping down his meager breakfast and laying still, not feeling motivated to do anything else.

    A slight noise caught his ear, and he lifted his nose up from the warm stone, tilting his head to try and listen. With each passing second, all he could hear was a low, odd hum. A faint gust of wind rolled through the open part of the ravine, rattling the loose pebbles and bits of hardened clay. Fern kept silent and curled himself up into a ball of green fluff, trying to make himself small. Things started to get louder and fast, and the young Pokémon clenched his eyes shut.

    His ears filled with the harsh buzz of something or someone, he wasn't sure what was making it and couldn't tell where it was all coming from, it was on his left, on his right, it was everywhere. He shuddered violently and covered his face with his paws-

    WHAM! Suddenly he felt something smash into him, and there was a muffled yelp of surprise, which barely registered in his mind since he was rolling along the ground. A split-second later, he bumped hard against the wall and unfurled into a dazed heap. "Aaaouch!"

    "Agh, geez..." Someone else groaned, and Fern blearily peeked out, his noggin still smarting. "Huh...? Fern? Is that you!?"

    "W-what?" The grass type rubbed his eyes and looked harder, and at the sight of another Shaymin, this one with floppy white ears and a scarf that looked like a petal, his heart soared. He rolled onto his feet and jogged over to his friend. "Mint!"

    The girl dusted herself off and watched as Fern closed the distance between them, and she panted heavily, sitting down to take a rest. The other Pokémon nestled up close to her front legs, embracing her tightly, and she raised her head in confusion. "Uh... hey... Fern. So you ended up here too? Are you okay?"

    "Y-yeah..." Fern sighed in relief, and he looked up at Mint as she slowly eased him away from her. "I was... w-worried about you, and Darkrai. But are you okay too, Mint? I heard something weird and hid, and then you crashed into me. Was that you?"

    "Heard something... oh, wait! Yeah!" Mint exclaimed, and she squatted low to the ground, gesturing for the littler hedgehog to get on her back. Fern gave her a small frown, unsure of what she meant, and she grunted. "I saw a big group of Pokémon flying around here, like they were in a hurry to get somewhere, and I was trying to follow them and see where they were going! C'mon, I want to get moving again!"

    "Wh-wh-what?" Fern's eyes widened as he stammered out a response. "B-but why? What if they're... th-they're wild Pokémon, Mint? Why don't we just-"

    "That's why I'm not gonna get their attention, knucklehead," Mint shot back, scooping Fern up with her nose and depositing him onto her neck. He barely had time to grab onto her petal scarf before she started to gallop away, soon pushing off and flying low to the ground. "Now let's go, they're getting away!"

    "But Mint-" Fern tried to reply, but his friend couldn't hear above the air rushing past them.

    ***

    "Oh, Cyan! Lookie look, you can see the Kangaskhan Stone! We're here! We're heeeeerrrrrrreeee!"

    The Mienshao's cry of celebration startled the few wild Pokémon that were milling about in the clearing, sending them scurrying for the relative safety of the deeper forest, away from the noisy newcomer. Rocks and rough, snapped stumps lay in clumps in the grass, the remains of trees that had fallen to winds or storms, making the occasional shock of vibrant wood stand out even further from the literal wall of fog that stood just shy of the aforementioned Kangaskhan Stone's tail. The light was swiftly fading, both from the canopy above our heads and from the sun that had crossed over the mountain range some hours ago.

    "Don't worry, we hear you loud and clear," I quipped back at the fighting type, reaching up and pressing my ears into my skull for a moment as she whipped her head around to look at me. Scanning around the glade, I noticed a cringing Darkrai mimicking my motions, and shook my head as a grin wormed its way onto my muzzle.

    "Will y'quit yellin', Erin? Arceus' sake, even with m'helmet on- g-gah!" Cyan's attempt to berate his friend was interrupted as Erin yanked on the sea lion's mustache, forcing his head upward so she could wrap him up in an excited hug. I ambled over to one of the nearby stones, brushing at the thick grass growing around it before finding the edges, pulling it up from its resting place.

    "Cyan, Erin, please!" Rose said mildly, and I turned around and walked over to her, laying the stone down and watching as she let out a sigh and shook her head at the two younger explorers, who had stopped at the fox's scolding, staring at her as she continued. "Calm down, both of you. It's getting late, and you won't get enough sleep if you rile yourselves up like this."

    "Rose is right, you two. We still have to make a fire and get some dinner cooked before we run out of daylight." I gestured in a circle above my head, and Erin hopped off of Cyan's hiking pack. Cyan himself inhaled heavily and rubbed at the sides of his sore nose.

    "Ohh... I'm sorry!" The Mienshao said. The apology was dampened somewhat by the boundless energy that leaked out anyway, as she rocked back and forth on her heels. "I really didn't know that you and Rose and Darkrai were still kinda close... should I go look for some more stones?"

    I nodded at the mink, drawing her gaze to the ground by tapping my pawspike against the small boulder I had already put in place. "Yeah. It shouldn't be too hard to find some, so get a ring ready as fast as you can."

    "Okay!" She nodded vigorously, and after spotting another rock she skipped away cheerfully, her brief flash of guilt already gone.

    Standing up and stretching my arms, I waited for a moment as Cyan slung his bag off and began rummaging through its pockets, and glanced at Rose, her tails curled up as she looked intently around the familiar campsite. Something gentle, almost unnoticeable, poked at one of my aura tassels, and I shuffled around to look at Darkrai, who was looking more than a little left out. I smiled at him, waving shortly in acknowledgment; he blinked expectantly at me.

    "C'mon, Darkrai. Just like Rose said, let's go and find some kindling," I offered, reaching out with an open paw.

    He took it into his hand as I finished speaking, giving me the lightest shake I think I had ever received, and I started to walk, gingerly dragging him a couple steps before letting go. The two of us strolled over to the patches of stumps and bushes near the trail leading back towards the open field, though it was already so dark that it was difficult to see anything in the distance. When my toes bumped into some thin bark, I grunted and stopped in my tracks.

    "Bill?" Darkrai said quietly, and he moved over across from me, his eyes as bright as ever even in the night.

    "This should work, I think..." I knelt down and patted the brittle stump, pieces of its covering coming loose even at my slight touch. "It won't last for very long, but it'll be enough to get a fire started. Find a good place to grip and then start tearing the bark off. Put the pieces on top."

    Darkrai stood and stared blankly, and I whistled at him, to which he nodded. I saw the dark type squat as I returned my attention to our work, pressing my pawspike into the stump and slowly, carefully, drawing a line through it, from the top to the start of one of the roots. I held my other paw at the ready to rip the flat wood away, but instead the slab of bark bumped against my wrist and fell onto the ground. I frowned as I scooped it up and slid it up to the ringed surface – it was even more fragile than it had already seemed to be.

    Shaking my head, I closed my eyes and concentrated, letting my aura swirl around my paws, forming metal blades that cast a bright, shimmering glow against the wood. I heard a sharp breath, and glanced quickly at my companion, who had dumped a load of small, chip-sized shards of wood onto the stump. He seemed to have frozen in shock, probably because of the claws.

    "My claws aren't tree bark, y'know," I remarked, lowering my arms and starting to carve pieces and chunks out of the tree trunk, looking up every few seconds or so at the legendary Pokémon. He started, exhaling loudly, and sheepishly went back to work.

    "I am... s-sorry, Bill," He replied, and I slumped my shoulders in embarrassment of my own.

    "Don't be." I shook my head, pinching a few small strips of bark and putting them on top of Darkrai's pile. "After everything that's been going on the past two days, getting swept up into an adventure and all, I'd probably be just as confused as you are."

    I held back the urge to comment on the irony of the statement. Darkrai, of course, didn't pick up on a lick of it, and he grunted, ripping out what seemed to be a leftover, half-grown twig from deep within the trunk.

    "Is... this?" He questioned, holding up the brown stick.

    "Yeah, still firewood."

    The legendary Pokémon daintily moved it over to me, and I looked at our haul, a hefty group of long sticks, wood chips and bark slabs, the stump they sat on having been stripped barren. I reached out to scoop everything up into my arms, but halted as I saw Darkrai dust a few crumbs off of his lap, the star pattern briefly disappearing behind his hands.

    "Do you think you could carry this?" I stood up, letting my metal claws dissipate, the light fading into a small blue ball of aura that I held above my head. Darkrai looked up at me from where he squatted, and I gestured towards him. "If you stretch out your robe, we could slid all of this onto it and then bring it back to camp without losing any kindling on the way."

    "Er... like this?" Darkrai took the edges of the fabric and pulled his robe taut.

    I nodded and grinned at the dark type, hastily striding over and beckoning him to draw near the tree trunk. When he was close enough, I pressed a paw on his shoulder, and he sucked in a deep breath as I swept the pile of wood off of the stump and into his grasp. It took him a good few moments before he finally remembered to exhale, and he stood up afterward, delicately tiptoeing behind me as we returned to the clearing.

    The tall grass rustled around our feet, easily catching everyone's attention, and Rose turned her head towards us. She nodded a greeting at me, and blinked in surprise when she saw Darkrai step around to my side. "Oh! Darkrai, over here, by the fire ring."

    She scraped a paw on the lumpy circle of stones that Erin had laid out, and I narrowed my eyes, scanning around one more time. A small couple of cooking pans and some berries and vegetables had been lazily thrown down next to Cyan's pack, and the sea lion himself was staring grumpily at Erin, who was lounging atop the still-opened bag.

    There was a sudden flash, then the sound of crackling, and I tensed up, looking over to see the newly-made campfire. I relaxed almost as quickly as my eyes fell on Rose, who was smiling brightly at a similarly-startled Darkrai, and I sheepishly rubbed a pawpad on the bridge of my muzzle.

    "Will that last us long enough, Rose?" I called out to my partner, walking over to the ring of stones and resting a fair distance from the rising embers. The cream-furred fox stared hard, closely inspecting the fire, then nodded.

    "It should, I'm pretty sure." She glanced over at Cyan. "Cyan, the fire's ready for you!"

    "Alright, alright, I'm comin', hang on!" The water type replied gruffly, gathering his tools up and stomping over, slapping his tail against the ground, making a loud thwap that seemed to shake its way through the woods. As soon as he arrived, he drew a seamitar and got to work, squeezing tamatos and chopping potatoes into a pot. I looked away, partly because I could feel my stomach letting out a silent grumble, and lay flat in the grass. Rose joined me after a minute or so, her tails brushing my ears, then slipping under my neck as I lifted my head up ever-so-slightly, feeling myself doze off.

    ***

    "M-Mint... we-... w-well, you," Fern stuttered out, changing his words around as the other Shaymin frowned in frustration at him, and he looked up at the twinkling reasons as to why. "You've been trying to find those wild Pokémon all day, a-and we barely stopped to look for more stuff to eat... can't we just take a break and find some place to s-sleep tonight?"

    The little hedgehog huffed defiantly at her friend, her nose high in the air as she turned back and continued to trundle through the ravine. "Hmph! If you want to sleep, that's fine, but we're both lost now and you know that it'd be better to stay together!"

    Fern sighed unhappily, waiting and watching Mint go before breaking into a jog to try and catch up. The girl had triumphantly continued the charge after they found the weeds that served as dinner, confident that they proved that they weren't just going in circles, but the... wherever they were, was so featureless that even if they had made any progress, they had no idea how much. Mint's mood had deteriorated as the evening wound on, and once the night had pulled her out of her Sky Forme... Fern rubbed at his chin, still just a tiny little bit sore from landing on his friend when she had transformed.

    After they took a few more paces, the stars above just barely illuminating the rocks, Mint stopped and growled. Fern paused and took a step back, tilting his head worriedly. "H-hey..."

    "Stupid!" Mint yelled, hopping onto her hind legs, then losing her balance and flopping unceremoniously onto her backside, flailing around wildly. Fern swallowed audibly at the sight of his friend's temper boiling over. "Stupid, stupid, stupid stupid!"

    "M-M-Mint!" Fern cried in response, running over and grasping the flowers growing in his friend's fur, trying to hold her back however he could. "What are you doing!?"

    "We're lost, Fern!" She kept yelling, this time directly at the grass type, giving him an upside-down glare. Fern blinked at the sight; it was more... funny than it was frightening. "We're lost and we're stuck here and there aren't any Pokémon that can help us! Darkrai is gone, even Sage isn't here! What are we supposed to do!?"

    Fern's face twisted into a shocked expression as Mint took a deep, ragged breath, and he let his gaze droop to his front paws, his mind slipping into a trance as he thought to himself. He didn't notice when his friend finally stopped lashing out and wobbling around, instead staring back at him in confusion as he didn't reply.

    "Fern...?" Mint asked, and she rolled back and forth. "F-Fern? Hey, Fern, what's wrong-"

    Her nose collided with his chin, decisively knocking him out of his trance, and also sending him reeling onto the ground, his awkward yip of pain bouncing on the mountain walls, taking a few moments to fully fade out into silence. The boy sniffled, and a pang of guilt hit Mint head on as she realized how Fern must have been taking all of this. She closed her eyes and mustered up her strength, pushing sideways and flipping back onto her feet.

    "Sh-should we... call for help?"

    Mint was about to run over and help her friend up when she heard him speak, and her eyes widened. "What?"

    "Should we try calling for help?" Fern repeated himself lamely, wiggling a bit where he lay, and Mint walked to the other hedgehog's side. He craned his head to look at her questioningly, his suggestion hanging heavy in the tense air.

    For a while, they just kept still.

    Then... Mint sighed in defeat, resting her head on Fern's soft belly. He felt a couple droplets sink deep into his fur, and he let some tears leak from his own eyes as well.

    "Alright... alright," She answered. "Yeah... yeah, you're right, Fern. We're not an exploration team or anything... so let's see if anyone can hear us."

    The two Pokémon took deep breath after deep breath, muscles relaxing as they rested in the middle of the unfamiliar place. Fern was the first one to yell out, his shrill voice cutting through the tranquil ravine.

    "HEEEEEEEEEELLLLLP!"

    One second passed as the scream echoed far into the distance. Then two seconds. Then three. Mint pressed her paws against her friend as she lifted her head as high as she could.

    "HEEEEEY! HEEEEEEEELP!"

    Silence.

    "HELLOOOO? SOMEONE! ANYONE!"

    Still silence.

    "HEEEY, WE NEED HEEELLP! HEEEEELLLP!"

    The pair of Shaymin yelled at the top of their lungs, over and over, until they had to strain their voices, their throats scratchy and aching. Each call grew weaker and weaker, until they could hardly be considered calls at all. Mint and Fern panted wearily from the sheer exertion, and they snuggled up as best they could, taking a little comfort in at least having each other nearby as tiredness overwhelmed them. They tried – in vain – to stop their eyes from drooping, and quickly drifted into unconsciousness.

    They weren't awake to notice the small figure that emerged from the shadows, faintly glowing gold as it hovered in the air.
     
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  17. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 17! The Foggy Forest is actually probably one of my favorite chapters period.

    Damp mud squelched underfoot as the five of us wandered down a well-worn-looking path, the smell of rain faintly hanging in the cool, humid air, carried along by a long, slow breeze that wound its way through the shady forest. The hefty trunks swayed to and fro, their branches shaking along with them as the wild Hoothoot hopped down from the higher parts of the woods, though without their drowsy chirping, they would have been invisible thanks to the thick, soupy, early morning mists. The only other sounds were our own footsteps, and Cyan's hiking pack rustling as he climbed over a toppled log. Rose and I flanked the Samurott, while Erin and Darkrai brought up the rear, the former keeping a tight grip on the latter's hand.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cyan raise his torch in the air, burning bandages wrapped around a stout stick, and I quickly did the same, cautiously moving my arm in circles to ward away the fog. I let my eyes wander around the trail, furrowing my brow when Darkrai timidly followed our lead, lifting the torch we'd given him up above his head. Even with the extra light, casting a warm, flickering glow onto the ground, I could only see a foot or two further into the forest. I shrugged my shoulders, our treasure bag shuffling as I reached out to Rose, brushing against her blue scarf to make sure we stuck together. Her nine tails twitched at my touch, waving gently in the air.

    "Is everyone doing okay?" The cream-furred fox called out, lowering her voice to a soft whisper and peering around, from Cyan, to me, to our two other teammates strolling behind us. She cocked her head in thought, gaze lingering on our teammate and our tagalong. "Erin? Darkrai?"

    "Yep, we're doing great!" The pink mink piped up, throwing her tied fur sleeves in the air – her companion's icy eyes widened when he tugged his arm along with – cheerfully replying loud enough to make both Rose's ears and mine flatten somewhat against our heads. Darkrai seemed less than enthused, hesitantly nodding and awkwardly lifting his legs, trying to brush a few wrinkles out of his star-patterned robe. He had only just settled down when Erin continued. "Oh, oh, how long ago did we pack up camp, anyway? Do you think we're almost to the end of the forest, huh?"

    "It hasn't even been an hour yet, Erin, we're not even close," I answered, wiping at my chest with a grimace, my fur already feeling somewhat matted from the fog. Rose noticed, ducking her head into her blue scarf to stifle a giggle, and my mouth twisted into a small, wry grin. I gave our team badge a quick shine before dropping my arm to my side. "Still, we'll get there soon enough."

    Cyan suddenly let out a strange and sudden snort, his mustache bouncing as he hunched forward, and Darkrai gasped in fright. Rose and I whirled around, my muscles tensing and my partner's fur standing on end, and the legendary Pokémon shuddered, the cloudy plume on his head wavering as he stammered. "W-w-what was th-that so-ound?"

    "For Arceus' sake, quit worryin'! It's jus' me," Cyan barked out, and the four of us turned and watched the blue sea lion swat some stray leaves out of his face before turning around and shooting the dark type a curious stare. His helmet and armor gleamed in the light of his torch. "Sheesh. For bein' such a big an' important Pokémon, I never figured y'would be so jumpy!"

    "I... I-I'm sorry," Darkrai mumbled. Rose gave the Samurott a disapproving glare, and he sighed in response, shaking his head.

    "Don't apologize, I'm not yellin' at y'or anythin'!" The water type added grumpily, looking ahead to the trail and marching onward again, splashing through the mud all the while. Darkrai was still for a moment, but with a playful nudge from Erin and a reassuring smile from Rose, he started to walk, closing his eyes and breathing deep. "C'mon, we need t'keep movin'! If we aren't even close yet, then we've got a lot o'ground t'cover!"

    I reached out and gave Darkrai's shoulder a quick pat, then shook my head, aura tassels bumping against the treasure bag. "Cyan's got a point. The sooner we get through here, the sooner we can save Mint and Fern. Just stick close to Erin so you won't get lost, okay?"

    "Okay," The robe-clad Pokémon said, and Erin nodded cheerfully, squeezing his hand in her paw before letting go and giving him a playful nudge forward. A grin wormed its way onto my muzzle.

    ***

    Fog! Wandering Through the Winding Woods!

    ***

    Moist loam squished below our footpaws as Rose, Cyan, Erin, Darkrai, and I all ambled through the misty forest, the wind slowly starting to pick up as we ducked underneath the vine-choked trees and patches of flowers that occasionally emerged from the fog. Dew-dappled moss gathered on the bark of the half-fallen logs, and I paused, partway over one particular trunk, when I pressed my heels into the plants. They felt oddly flat, almost trampled. The branches high above us still shook, though the wild birrds seemed to have wizened up – or had fallen asleep – and stopped chirping to themselves.

    Someone bumped into the treasure bag from behind, and I shortly hopped over the dead tree, spinning around and looking at Erin and Darkrai, the latter drawing his arm away from me curiously. Darkrai stepped up next to Erin and held his torch out to me, waving it around a little to ward away the fog. I bit the inside of my cheek, leaning backwards just slightly, feeling the faint heat of the flames drift onto my fur ever-so-slightly. "Darkrai? What's up?"

    "Ah... well, I..." He spoke quietly, his expression turning nervous as he raised a leg and took a step onto the toppled log. I reached my arm out, and he grabbed my paw – my ear flicked at the almost-inaudible sigh of relief he let out as I helped pull him up and over. He paused a moment when his feet touched the soil, only to jolt in surprise when Erin swiftly pounced over the tree. "Er... I just wanted to know if I could ask you a question..."

    "Well, you just did," I replied dryly. Darkrai blinked, then looked away – Erin simply giggled – and I reached out and patted his shoulder, squeezing the fabric of his robe under my pawpads. I smiled sheepishly when he glanced at me, and I shook my head, my aura tassels bumping against my shoulders. "Sorry, that's the oldest trick in the book. Go ahead, Darkrai, what's on your mind?"

    The dark type didn't reply at first, instead craning his neck to stare up at the higher boughs, the wisps on his head drifting behind us and quickly blending in with the forest's thick, soupy mist. Erin kept giggling loudly, her laughter rising above the sound of our footsteps squishing through the mud, and I shortly waved a paw at the Mienshao to shush her. She settled down somewhat, though the amused smile remained on her face.

    "I-" Darkrai began, and the younger explorer and I both turned to him expectantly. He moved his torch over to his other hand, opening and wiggling his free fingers. "Mint and Fern and I could see this lake from up on Sky Peak, but they didn't know very much about it. That's why they wanted to go someday... and yesterday, Rose said that you have been to the lake before."

    "You want to know what the lake is like?" I furrowed my brow slightly, and he nodded. I shrugged, tugging on the straps of the treasure bag a few times, then continued, gesturing at the surrounding trees. The wind faintly blew across the trail, and I stole a peek over my shoulder at Rose and Cyan, the Ninetales and Samurott both leading the way. "Yeah, Rose and I came to Fogbound Lake as part of an expedition a few years ago. Heh, finding it was actually our goal in the first place!"

    "Really?" Darkrai said slowly, a soft note of childlike awe in his voice. My grin widened at his innocent reaction, and I slowed my pace to walk with him and Erin, looking over at the dark type and nodding in response. He stretched his arms out, bringing his torch with him, before speaking up again. "Then... you found it?"

    "Yeah..." I trailed off, letting my mind wander onto the old memories of the mystical lake, picturing the Volbeat and Illumise circling around the giant geyser that spouted from the middle of the water, reaching high into the starry sky while Rose and I, and the guild, and Uxie, too, all watched. I felt myself relax at the thought, only to shake myself out of my trance when I remembered the giant statue of Groudon that we found – and that we were currently supposed to be looking for. I glanced left and right around the forest, letting out a low whistle at the fog that still surrounded us. "It's... beautiful there. We nearly had trouble with the lake's guardian at first, but we got him to hear us out."

    "Heeheehee, yeah, you had to have a big battle with him first before he finally calmed down, right?" Erin piped up with a giggle, and she hopped from side to side, her tied sleeves whipping forward when she threw a series of weak punches, accompanied by a few playful grunts of effort. "Like this, and like that, and then you both won!"

    Darkrai's torch shook slightly when he instinctively tightened his grip on it, his thoughtful expression quickly morphing into dread, but I waved shortly at him right when he opened his mouth to reply, cutting him off before he could worry any more than he already was. "Uxie's mellowed out a lot since then, though. He's why the lake itself is so safe, so if he found your friends, he's probably taking good care of them. It'll be alright. Right, Rose?"

    "Huh?" I hid a chuckle behind a paw when the cream-furred fox's ears perked up, and she glanced over at us with a confused look, her tails curling and uncurling, getting more and more tangled and unkempt each time. I rubbed at my arms, feeling my own fur starting to get matted from the damp, dense fog. "What's right, Bill?"

    "Mister Uxie's gonna keep Darkrai's friends safe!" Erin piped up before I could answer, skipping along, her whiskers bouncing with every step.

    "Oh...!" Rose perked up, then cocked her head in thought, a few strands of headfur falling into her face. She walked slowly, clawing lines into the soil with her paws, stealing a glance at the boughs above before peering back at us. "Yeah... Mint and Fern should be safe, especially now that it's been a day since they were warped there. And as long as nobody's messed with the statue of Groudon, we should be able to get there soon!"

    A grunt made our ears twitch, and Rose and I both looked at Darkrai, who returned our gaze with a confused expression of his own. He swapped his torch between hands again and rubbed at the lap of his robe, the star-pattered fabric getting as damp and wrinkled as our fur, and he shook his head, looking down at the dirt and stepping in the trail of claw marks that Rose was making. Erin soon started to mimic him, her footpaws squishing against the dirt.

    I folded my arms against my blunted chestspike and kept walking, and after a while, Rose look ahead again. A good few minutes passed before the legendary Pokémon spoke up, having gotten his thoughts in order. "But... what do you mean by the statue being... being... a mess? Does it need to be kept clean? What does it do?"

    I grinned at that. My partner, too, let out a soft laugh at the dark type's remark, ducking her head into her scarf to muffle it. I reached over and tapped the flat of my pawspike against Darkrai's shoulder to get his attention, coughing into my other paw afterward. "Not exactly. It helps keep the weather clear near the cave leading to the lake-"

    "Hey, will y'all quit blabbin' for a second?" Darkrai, Erin, Rose and I all jumped at the shout, and the four of us turned towards Cyan, who was waving his torch at us wildly, sending embers into the air. The mist extinguished them instantly, leaving the tiny ashes to be carried away by the forest's faint breeze. I watched the flickering flames, the orange light standing out against the green... leaves... I sucked in a breath when I noticed the trees getting more and more visible. The Samurott smacked his tail on the ground a couple times before calling out again, and I curled my paws into fists. "Seems like th'fog's startin' t'thin out! An' it's not our torches, either, it's all goin' away!"

    We all emerged into a small clearing in the forest, wind softly swirling every which way and rustling in the trees, a small river running through the grass, a faint, dewy sheen clinging to the trampled blades. Cyan kicked up a few torn, scattered petals as he led us into the middle of the grove, sending them a few inches away alongside a pawful of dirt crumbs each time. Rose leaned down to sniff at the flora, tilting her head and pawing at the ground – I knelt down as well, peering at the bushes near the edges of the clearing, thinning out near a few paths that led deeper into the forest, the fog seemingly settling against an invisible wall.

    "Is, is this," Darkrai said hesitantly, his torch flickering and wavering strongly from the currents of air. "Is this it?"

    Erin bounded past my partner and I, hopping around and giggling all the while, her looped sleeves waving gently in the breeze, and I wiggled my footpaws into the dirt, my brow furrowing as soon as I did; it felt flattened, just as flattened as the log had before. "Something's wrong."

    "Eh?" Cyan grunted, turning towards me and reaching for one of his seamitars, the shell blade gleaming as he drew it from its scabbard. The Samurott tensed up when he saw my expression, and I took a deep breath and concentrated, energy swirling through my arms and into my pawspikes, metal claws sprouting forth. "Y'mean this isn't th'right place? Th'fog's stayin' away from this spot, jus' like y'said it would! What's th'deal?"

    "Aww, aren't we getting close, at least? That statue can't be too far away if the fog's lifting, right, right?" Erin chimed in, hastily scampering over and climbing onto Cyan's hiking pack, reaching into her belt pouch and slipping a stone into her sleeve. I glimpsed Rose out of the corner of my vision, watching the fire type shake her head, her muscles tensed and her fur standing on end.

    "I don't remember this place at all." The cream-furred fox uncurled her tails, swinging gently around to nudge Darkrai forward, pushing the legendary Pokémon ahead of her until he stood safely in the middle. His fingers were clasped tightly around his torch, which he held close to his shoulder. Rose's expression softened at his nervousness, and she nuzzled his side to calm him down. She only managed to make him gasp and jolt in surprise instead. "The fog only cleared up around the statue, and there were waterfalls near the cave, not just a little stream. There's... there's just no way that a random spot like this should be so clear!"

    A low growl rumbled in the back of Cyan's throat. The water type scanned from side to side, holding both sword and torch up in a defensive stance, and Erin fidgeted on her perch, standing on her tiptoes and looking around curiously. The clearing drifted into a tense, nervous silence, only broken by the swirling rushes of wind that still hung in the air, buffeting my aura tassels and making them bump and roll on the top of the treasure bag. I rolled my shoulders at the feeling, breathing in whenever fur brushed against leather-

    "The wind...!" I exhaled, my eyes going as wide as saucers when the answer hit me, and I dug my heels into the trampled soil. "Someone's using the-"

    My warning was interrupted by the abrupt rustling of the surrounding bushes, shaking and rumbling noisily as a dull thudding drifted past our ears, getting louder and louder by the second. The wind picked up, rushing harder for a brief moment – causing Darkrai to let out a yelp – and a group of wild Pokémon stampeded out of the fog, jumping over the shrubs or running in from the other trails. Their brown fur was flecked here and here with grime, no doubt from their deep, messy hoofprints, and the herd of deer stared us down, both with their wary expressions and with their quivering antlers.

    Erin reacted first... by letting out a low, awed coo, her eyes widening hugely as she gazed at the brown-furred deer. "Ooooh... oooh oooh oooh, Stantler! I learned about them back at home, but I've never seen any up real close before! I wanna look at those little orbs in their antlers-"

    "If y'get down off o'my back, then I'm not gonna let y'back on for th'rest o'th'day!" Cyan barked back at the younger explorer, rearing up a bit before shooting a glare at the herd of deer, tilting his head towards the ground and holding his shell helmet steady. His torch's flame waved wildly before suddenly going out, and he grunted, tossing the burnt stick to the ground.. "Maybe y'can check 'em out once we've knocked 'em flat!"

    "A-are you going to f-fight them?" Darkrai managed to stutter out, still shaken from the sudden ambush, and I glanced over my shoulder and nodded at the legendary Pokémon, who was snapping his gaze every which way at the sound of the Stantlers' angry snorting. His torch had gone out as well.

    "That's for them to decide, not us," I replied dryly. And decide the wild Pokémon did, as one of them dashed towards us from the side. It bowed its head low, readying its antlers for a headbutt, only for Cyan to whirl around with a seamitar and send it flying into the fog. I grit my teeth, digging my footpaws into the dirt when the rest of our enemies charged into the fray as well. "Here they come!"

    ***

    Mint's nose twitched as a cool, damp spray spritzed over her fur, and she scrunched up her face, letting out a weak moan at the colorful spots of light that slowly invaded her vision, the flowers in her fur shaking pleasantly whenever the water hit them. The Shaymin's joints and muscles ached uncomfortably, and she dug her stubby paws into the hard, rocky ground, struggling to roll over and rest on her back. A hard pain rippled through her when she tumbled over, and the little hedgehog gasped, then coughed harshly from the scratchy dryness in her throat.

    "You are awake?"

    The voice rang clearly through her clouded head, and the grass type wiggled her legs around uselessly, batting at the air with what little strength she could muster. Mint opened her mouth and replied with a wheeze, then felt a small, gentle touch against her neck, rubbing back and forth to soothe the soreness away. Something else brushed her bottom lip, and she instinctively clamped her jaws down, grunting in disgust when she tasted a smooth, thin bit of wood. "Ech-!"

    "Please try to be a little more patient next time. Just drink a little and relax."

    Mint opened her eyes just a crack, blearily staring down her nose at the dark blotch floating in front of her – it tilted upwards, sending a splash of fresh water right into her face. She shuddered, her green fur ruffling against the ground, and leaned into the bowl, loudly slurping as she took gulp after gulp. The grass type's nerves seemed to relax little by little, and a couple seconds later, she had drained the entire bowl dry, a refreshing sensation coming over her. She smacked her lips, letting her head fall and splaying out on the ground, sighing when the damp spray from before fell onto her again.

    "Are you feeling better now?"

    "Y-yeah... thanks..." Mint exhaled, staring upward at the cloudless, starry sky, letting the strong, warm sunlight wash over her. The world around her slowly started to come back into focus, the brown blotches and sparkling dots morphing into the sides of cliffs and droplets of water, the flowers on the little hedgehog's back shaking pleasantly. She wiggled her legs around again, gesturing lamely for another drink... only to lock up, breath catching in her throat, when the dusty rocks underneath her reminded her of exactly where she was. "Wait, who's that!? Fern? Are you okay!? Is that Da-ack!"

    She coughed, her throat turning scratchy again, and she looked from side to side, wincing a bit from her still-aching joints, when she heard someone else loudly slurp in response. She tensed up when the wooden bowl from before floated back into her face, surrounded by a bright yellow glow that shined brightly against the fresh water. The Shaymin glared at the airborne dish, but when it bumped against her nose, she bit down and drank anyway.

    "Your friend is doing fine, don't worry," The earlier voice spoke up again, smooth and mellow. Moments later, a strange little Pokémon hovered into view, reaching out and gently massaging Mint's belly. The grass type gave the unfamiliar figure a once over: two thin tails sprouted from his small gray body, small red gems embedded in each, matching the third jewel on his yellow head, sitting between a pair of closed eyes. He shared the same yellow glow around his body that the bowl did, and the hedgehog stared in wonder.

    "Who are you?" She asked, lowering her voice to keep her throat from acting up.

    The other Pokémon smiled. "My name is Uxie. I am the caretaker of Fogbound Lake."

    Mint's mind stopped. She inhaled sharply, then regretted it immediately afterward, curling up and coughing from the sharp pain that tore through her windpipe. She felt the odd little Pokémon move his hands to her head and neck again, and the hedgehog's eyes suddenly felt heavy, drooping closed, the lingering yellow glow shining in the darkness as she fell back asleep.

    ***

    A pair of Stantler dashed forward from the fog, kicking off into a pounce, not taking their eyes off me even for a moment as they sailed through the air, and I furrowed my brow, nerves tensing and fur bristling. I bounced on the tips of my footpaws for a few seconds, then crouched, lunging underneath the first deer before jumping myself, headbutting the wild Pokémon's underbelly and sending it careening into the forest behind us, antlers clattering against the branches.

    The sight of its back legs was replaced by its companion's large hooves – I hunched my shoulders, bringing my arm up to slash at the normal type, but it reached me first, crashing into me and sending us both down to the dirt. One stomp landed on the side of my face; another slammed onto my blunted chestspike. Pain rattled through my skull after every blow, and my legs wobbled, metal claws disappearing as my concentration and balance faltered. I took a step sideways, feeling someone else's fur brush against my shin. I scrunched one eye shut when a wisp from Darkrai's head wafted into view.

    "Hey, get away from him!" I heard Erin yell. A grimace wormed its way onto my muzzle when my teammate swung her stone-laden sleeve right into the Stantler's face, sending a brief rush of air swishing past my aura tassels, along with a loud crunch to punctuate the Mienshao's battlecry. The normal type yelped and crumpled onto its side, rolling away a little before getting to its hooves and fleeing into the fog.

    I shook my head and rubbed my nose on my forearm, spotting a series of silver pulses wink into existence and shoot forward, sweeping one more deer away before it even got near us. Rose nudged my leg while her psyshock connected, and I glanced at my partner, stepping away and standing up straighter when I realized I had nearly fallen into the cream-furred fox.

    "Thanks, Rose-" I nodded, then glanced ahead into the clearing again, losing my train of thought when yet another Stantler pelted into the fray, galloping over one of its fallen friends. It lowered its neck and snorted, aiming its antlers right at me, and I dug my heels in and reached out to grab the wild Pokémon's horns. I grunted as it pushed me back a couple inches, feeling a small, yet strong, wind blowing in circles above its head. "Ergh! Geez, these Stantler are definitely doing something to the air around here! They're keeping the fog out of here or something, somehow!"

    "But why?" Rose replied, her tails uncurling as a green glow surrounded her body, giving off motes that soon formed into a ball of energy. She whipped her head forward, shooting the shining light out – it barreled into a small group of Stantler that were rushing into the clearing from the heavy mists, knocking them into the nearby stream with a loud splash. The Ninetales blew her headfur out of her face before speaking up again. "It doesn't seem like they're organized like the gang at the Waterfall Cave was. Why would they want to set up an ambush?"

    "T'tell every other Pokémon t'stay out, that's why!" Cyan growled in response, striking out with a few cuts and jabs of his seamitars. I nodded in agreement, bending my elbows and taking a forceful step forward, shoving my opponent away and hoisting it off the ground, heaving it up and tossing it over to the river. It slammed heavily into the group of Stantler that Rose had tripped up moments before, keeping them all piled up in the water.

    I dusted my paws, rolling my shoulders to get the treasure bag to rest comfortably on my back again, but more deer emerged from the deeper parts of the forest, running into the clearing and quickly spotting the fallen members of their herd. They snarled, sometimes loud, sometimes weak, throwing themselves at us again and going down again just as quick. I swiveled on my heels, smacking at one of the wild Pokémon with a swing of my tail, then lashing out with a couple swift jabs to its antlers. I exhaled tiredly, narrowing my eyes at the slight pain in my nostrils: fatigue was setting in, and fast.

    "W-where do they all k-keep coming from?" My ears stood straight up at the quiet, nervous stutter, and I turned sideways and planted my footpaw into the umpteenth Stantler's chest, winding it. As the normal type stumbled away, I stole a brief glance at a wide-eyed Darkrai, who was squatting low, keeping himself hidden among the rest of us. "I d-don't understand... how a-are there s-so many?"

    "It's just the same ones over and over again, silly!" Erin replied, letting a throwing stone fly before looking at the legendary Pokémon behind her, gesturing at him to stand up, then pointing at a pair of the feral Pokémon while Rose tripped them up with another psyshock. "If you look reeeeally hard, they've got a bunch of cuts and bruises on them- oooh... ow, look at that poor guy's face, see?"

    All four of us looked at the Stantler the pink mink was waving a fur sleeve at: it had just lurched out of the mists – unsteady hooves splashing into the clearing – but it had a glaringly noticeable black eye, and it was panting almost as hard as I was, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. I furrowed my brow, focusing my aura on my palms, forming a small blue sphere at the same time the weary deer decided to charge. I threw the aura sphere without a second thought, watching it hit the normal type right between its ears, sending the wild Pokémon skidding face-first into one of the flower patches.

    I felt an ache ripple through my muscles at the sight, and I reached around and rubbed my forearms, aura tassels bumping against each other as I shook my head. "We might be wearing them out, but they're wearing us out, too, and there's more of them than us. We need to try something else!"

    "But what is there to try? I don't think we could make a smokescreen at all, right?" Rose started to reply, then paused, a low rumble sounding in her throat. Her red eyes flashed for a split-second, and then a gout of flames erupted from her jaws, the damp grass glinting orange as the fireball flew across the clearing and shot right into the river, sending steam into the air with a loud hiss.

    The Ninetales' face fell when the vapor shook apart, the herd of Stantler still manipulating the wind to keep the clearing visible. She tensed up again when one of the feral deer rushed at her, and she hopped onto her hind legs and lashed out, landing a deep scratch across its face. As she dropped to four legs again, I quickly scooped up a pawful of dirt and mashed it into our foe's eyes, and Rose followed up with her tails, spinning halfway and sweeping the Pokémon away.

    "Aww phooey, I thought I had a warp orb that we could teleport them all away with!" My ear flicked when Erin suddenly piped up, and my partner and I both looked over our shoulders at the younger explorer. The Mienshao wasn't even paying attention to us, too focused on searching through her belt pouch instead. "I've got a shiny one, and here's a smokey one, but that one won't work, umm..."

    "Wait, hang on jus' a second there!" Cyan blurted, hunching forward and jabbing forward with the horn on his helmet. Erin perked up, then flopped onto her back from the sharp movement, rolling onto her belly and wrapping her arms around the Samurott's neck afterward. The water type turned his head slightly, jaws clenched in determination, and kicked lightly at Darkrai with one of his back paws. The dark type flinched, then stood up, startled. "Can't Darkrai do that teleportin' thing he did back at th'Shaymin Village an' get rid o'all th'Stantler for us that way?"

    "Wh-what!?" Darkrai took a step back, nervously locking his elbows to his sides and clasping his hands together, shaking his head at the sea lion in response. "N-no, I couldn't! I can't! What i-if I teleport all of us away instead?"

    "Cyan, Darkrai doesn't want to fight!" Rose added, her tails curling and uncurling again, her voice softening as she glanced between the younger explorers and the legendary Pokémon. However, the Samurott cut my partner off with a grumpy growl, slashing forward and digging his seamitars into another Stantler's antlers, the two of them locked in a stalemate.

    "Do y'have any better ideas, then!?" Cyan shot back, giving his opponent a shove. I sucked in a breath when I heard another group of galloping hooves, and I scanned across the edges of the clearing again, spotting the black-eyed Stantler charging at me once again. I hunched down, my tail wagging once, readying myself to catch and heave the deer away-

    "Gaagh!" The normal type moved its head to the side moments before it closed the gap, then smacked an antler into my midriff, shoving me out of its path and sending me spinning away. I dizzily tumbled onto my backside, the treasure bag helping to cushion my fall. I pushed myself up and off of the grass, rubbing a paw against my temple while I peered back at my friends.

    Darkrai had toppled over, frozen in shock, and the other Stantler had reared up, about to bring its hooves down onto the legendary Pokémon without mercy. Rose had managed to stumble out of the Stantler's way, and I could see her forming another energy ball, aiming right for the wild deer's flank, but its legs were already dropping, and Cyan and Erin were still struggling to fend off their own foe. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach when a few more Stantler ran past me, and I instinctively cupped my paws to my muzzle, yelling. "Darkrai! Roll to your right! Now!"

    He reacted. The dark type flung his arms up, crossing them in front of his face defensively, bending his legs and curling up into a shuddering, star-robed ball. "No! Get away from me!"

    There was a spark, and suddenly, another dimensional hole – far smaller than any I'd ever seen before – burst into existence right above the menacing Stantler's head, the wind instantly turning strong, as the dark, swirling shape pulled the wild Pokémon towards it. The rest of the herd balked at the unexpected sight, the dark type completely overpowering their own currents of air, and then smartly turned tail to flee, crying out and yelping as they retreated back into the depths of the foggy forest. Within seconds, the only deer left was the one that had tried to attack Darkrai.

    "Darkrai!" Rose had to scream above the din, and as I rolled into a crawling position, holding the grass tightly, I watched the cream-furred fox shuffle over to our frightened tagalong, wrapping all nine tails around him and pulling him into a comforting hug. She pushed his arms back down into his lap and rested her head on top of his cloudless scalp. "That's enough!"

    Darkrai jolted when he saw the helpless Stantler, and the legendary Pokémon slumped forward, his focused trance broken, the utterly terrified expression draining from his face. Soon enough, the dimensional hole shrank, then disappeared, dropping the wild deer into the dirt with an unceremonious thump.

    I got to my feet and gave myself a once-over, wiping a few stray flower petals and bits of dirt off of my legs, then jogged over to the others. As I swung the treasure bag off of my shoulders and opened the flap, Darkrai spoke, murmuring under his breath. "What... what? Did I... truly do that...?"

    "You did it, Darkrai!" The legendary Pokémon barely had time to brace himself before Erin pounced onto him, hugging him tightly and rocking back and forth on her heels, whiskers brushing against the dark type's face. She stopped when she saw the Stantler, still crumpled in a tired heap in front of us. "Oooohhh... ouch, that looks really yucky."

    "But... how?" Darkrai peered skyward, staring skyward at the higher boughs, the branches still gently swaying from the lingering breeze, the tranquil sound of the leaves and twigs helping to calm our frazzled nerves.

    "Going by the last couple times, I'm going to guess stress," I replied dryly, grinning when my pawpads finally passed over an apple, and I pulled it out of my backpack and offered it to the other Pokémon. Erin scooted out of the way, swinging her belt pouch into her lap as she moved over to the wild Stantler, and Darkrai reached out and took the snack. "You're... well, you're probably doing it without realizing it, whenever you feel like you're in danger."

    "Or if someone you care about is in danger." Rose untangled her tails from the dark type's robe and stepped back, cleaning her face on her blue scarf, a comforting smile on her face.

    "It'd b'nice if y'could do it without nearly gettin' smacked in th'face, though!" Cyan brusquely remarked, stabbing his seamitars into the dirt and stomping in a half-circle, roughly patting Darkrai's shoulder. "Arceus' sake, y'nearly made me freak out!"

    I was about to comfort Darkrai as well when Erin let out a surprised 'oop!' and bounced on her tiptoes, and the five of us tensed, watching the wild Stantler slowly, painfully rise to its full height. It eyed us blearily for a few moments, then turned around and hobbled over to the babbling river, bending down and lapping up a drink, a series of tiny splashes ringing in our ears. I relaxed, taking a deep breath and sighing to myself, shaking my head at the wild Pokémon as I put the pieces together.

    "Oh... they must use the river as a watering hole," Rose thought aloud, and I picked up the treasure bag and walked over to my partner, tousling her headfur when I reached her. The nine-tailed fox laughed softly, but her ears perked and her ruby red eyes brightened a second later. "Wait... a river! Of course, we could follow the river backwards and see if it leads to the Steam Cave!"

    I furrowed my brow, my muzzle curling into a confident smile, and shouldered the treasure bag again. My arms trembled achingly when the leather backpack bumped against my back, and I chuckled, reaching back to bat at my aura tassels. "Heh, sounds like as good an idea as any. But first, I think I'm going to get a drink myself."
     
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  18. SkyBlueFox1

    SkyBlueFox1 Hiker
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    Chapter 18!

    "Hey... wait a minute. Can you hear that?"

    "Hm?" I grunted, water swirling and rippling past my ankles as I slowed my pace, twisting around to glance over my shoulder at Rose, my aura tassels sliding around the treasure bag from the quick motion. The cream-furred fox had stopped completely in her tracks, her nine fluffy tails lightly waving up and down through the forest's thick fog, and her red eyes gazed skyward, lost on the highest boughs as her ears pricked stiffly up to the air. I furrowed my brow when Cyan, Erin and Darkrai stepped up behind the fire type Pokémon, the former balking before he could crash into her, and I turned around fully, reaching out and lightly patting my partner's blue scarf. "Hey, Rose, what's up?"

    She blinked, smiled, then shook her head in response, her headfur falling down her neck and grazing my wrist and pawspike along the way. She took a short step forward, her legs cutting lines through the surface of the shallow, babbling river, and gestured upstream at the gray, soupy cloud in front of us, leaves and branches barely visible in the distance. "Shh, just wait and listen a little bit..."

    All five of us paused, staying as still as we could and letting the foggy forest settle down to its usual tranquil silence again, the sounds of the flowing brook and the faint breezes drifting past our ears and soothing the tension in our sore muscles. Erin let out a tiny sigh a few seconds later, sidling over to Cyan and reaching up to tug on the Samurott's hiking pack, her whiskers and fur sleeves bouncing as she rocked back and forth on her heels.

    However, I narrowed my eyes slightly when I picked up on the faintest of rumbling, a twitch running through my nerves at the low noise, and I craned my neck to look up towards the forest's canopy... only to turn my attention back to Rose when I saw her smile widen.

    "What..." Darkrai began, and my partner and I both peered over at the legendary Pokémon, still clutching the bottom of his robe to keep it from getting wet, his other hand tightly curled around one of Erin's paws. "What is that? Is it...?"

    Rose's tails curled and uncurled as she replied, an excited tone playing in her usually-warm voice. "I think we're almost to the statue!"

    It took a moment for her words to register.

    "Yeah! Yeah yeah, I knew we could find it!" Erin was the first to react, dropping her arms to her sides, then flinging them up over her head again, jumping out of the water with a cheerful whoop. Darkrai's icy eyes widened in surprise when she yanked his arm up, and he stumbled over, nearly falling face-first into the river, and staring at the Mienshao next to him as she continued to yell. "Ooh, hey, I have an idea! Let's have a race and see who can get there first! C'mon, Darkrai, let's go!"

    "Wh-what-!?" The dark type barely had time to stutter before the pink mink dashed forward, the bottles and bandages in her belt pouch jingling as she ran ahead, both her footpaws and his thin legs splishing and splashing through the river, even as they vanished into the fog ahead. Cyan reached out in a vain attempt to grab at Erin's tail, only managing to swat at it instead, and Rose tensed up, her fur bristling, when the sea lion chased after the pair of Pokémon, loudly stomping through the water and splashing my partner again. I grinned at our friends' enthusiasm, while my partner shook her head and sighed in amusement.

    "Can't argue with that," I remarked dryly, winking at Rose as she dried herself off on her blue scarf, and the Ninetales took a deep breath, her muscles relaxing once she exhaled. "Ready?"

    "Mmhm!" She peered up at me and nodded in agreement, and we kicked off into a jog, tails bobbing up and down as we ran after our teammates.

    ***

    Guardian! Bonds That Can't Be Broken!

    ***

    Fern awoke to the feeling of someone, or something, pouring cool, fresh water all over his dry, sandy fur.

    "W-wah!" The Shaymin yelped in surprise, his eyes going wide, his mouth dropping open, and his flowers blooming happily, and he pushed hard against the rocky ground, jumping into the air and pouncing a short ways away. The little hedgehog shimmied back and forth, shaking numerous droplets out of the patch of green fur on his back, taking a deep breath in through his nose, then letting out a couple harsh coughs, harsh enough to make him lurch onto his belly with a 'plop'. "Hagh-gahkh... h-hey, M-Mint, that wasn't funny!"

    The other grass type didn't reply – she didn't even laugh! Fern's muzzle twitched, his mouth curling into a small frown, and he blinked a few times to get his bearings back, staring at the tall, craggy terrain that was all around him. His flowers opened even further when the area brightened, the sun peeking out from behind a few stray clouds, and Fern gulped nervously when the events of the past couple days flooded back to him all at once. The young Pokémon glanced left, then glanced right, paws shaking as he stood back up and surveyed the unfamiliar canyon.

    "Mint...? Hello?" Fern called out, though the roughness in his throat kept him from speaking up much; the warm, spring sun beat down on the rocks, and on him, and he found himself sorry he'd been spooked by the water just moments earlier. Taking a deep breath through his nose, he called out a second time, a prickle of fear running down his spine. "Hello? Who was that? Was that you, Mint?"

    "Behind you, little one," A strange voice replied, and Fern hopped onto his tiptoes, gasping quietly. A gentle breeze whistled down the rocky walls, blowing past the green-furred hedgehog, and slowly, but surely, he spun around to face whoever had spoken. "Don't worry. I won't hurt you."

    Fern tilted his head thoughtfully, staring at the floating figure, the kind words and soothing tone in the other Pokémon's voice doing little to calm his nerves. The grass type slowly gazed up and down at the strangely serene... thing, with two tails, closed eyes and a gem in his forehead, then blinked when he noticed a small, dark wooden bowl being levitated towards him. It glowed the same yellow color as the other creature's head, the faint light reflected by the water sloshing around inside; for each inch that the bowl moved, the Shaymin took a step backwards.

    "It is only water." The fairy-like Pokémon spoke again, a reassuring smile on his face, and he swiftly guided the bowl back over, grabbing it with his tiny hands and taking a short sip. Fern inhaled through his nose, then coughed at a sudden, sharp ache in his windpipe, then finally sneezed when the wind kicked up some of the dust that had only just settled onto the stones underfoot. Shaking his head, he stopped walking and stood in place, even as the bowl started to float towards him again. The other Pokémon continued patiently, not once losing his composure. "On my honor as guardian of this place, you are safe."

    Fern trembled, still sniffling a little bit from his sneeze, but closed his eyes and breathed out. Whoever he was talking to was so serious... it reminded him a little of Darkrai. The thought made him gasp, then heave again, and he stumbled forward, peeking back and forth from the bowl of water to the Pokémon floating nearby. Maybe this Pokémon wasn't a bad Pokémon after all – Darkrai had been scary at first too, the little hedgehog said to himself, repeating it over and over in his head, taking gulps of air to steel his nerves all along the way.

    By the time he reached the bowl, he felt thirstier than he had ever felt in his life, and when the unknown Pokémon lowered the bowl down onto the rocks, Fern mustered up all his strength and hopped onto his hind paws, falling down into the water and slurping greedily. It was cool, and tasted as fresh as the water he could get at the springs in the village, and the Shaymin slumped over, the strain fading from his muscles the more he drank.

    "There you are. You're doing better already." Fern paused and looked up from the bowl, watching the other Pokémon hover over, descending to the ground and landing just shy of the other end of the wooden bowl, not even opening his eyes to see where he was going. Fern couldn't help but be impressed, despite his lingering confusion. "Your friend woke up earlier in the day, but she's gone back to sleep for now. She was much weaker than you were, so she needs her rest. How do you feel?"

    "Mrf?" The grass type grunted into the water, blowing a couple bubbles, and then raised his head, sheepishly looking away and giving himself a quick once-over, wiggling his paws one at a time and taking a peek at his green-furred back. His flowers were still blooming brightly, taking in the sunlight, helping to reinvigorate him further. "S-sorry. I'm feeling okay, I think. Thanks, mister... um..."

    "Uxie. I am the guardian of this place," The Pokémon replied, twisting around slightly and gesturing behind him, his tails waving ethereally up and down, and his smile widened ever-so-slightly. "And, at the moment, I am the guardian of you and your friend, too."

    Fern looked where Uxie was waving towards, and he gasped when he saw Mint's prone form, laying near a part of the cliff wall, scooting backwards out of the bowl of water and trundling over to the other Shaymin as quickly as his stubby little paws could carry him. He stumbled a couple times along the way, the whistling of the wind replaced by a low, gentle spritzing, but he slowed to a stop when he reached his friend, worriedly poking and nuzzling at her side with his nose.

    "Mint? Hey, Mint...!" He whispered, peering at the little hedgehog's body. He couldn't see any bruises or cuts or anything on her – he took a breath and hopped up again, patting all over the girl's ruffled green fur, checking for anything that it might have been hiding. "I-Is she gonna be okay?"

    "Yes, as long as she gets her rest, she should be fine," Uxie replied from behind. Fern looked over his shoulder at the other Pokémon, who was floating in the air again, psychically carrying the wooden bowl along with him. The yellow-headed Pokémon swirled the water inside around a few times before moving it out of the way, dumping its contents out with a sploosh. "Though I hope you aren't thirsty anymore. I apologize if you are, but I needed fresh lakewater to wash your friend with."

    "Lakewater?" Fern parroted, padding around fully, and when the bowl came back into view out of the corner of his eyes, he padded around a bit more. He recoiled, taking a shocked step away, then sitting down and staring, letting out a dumbfounded stutter. "Wh-wh-wh-wha-!?

    A sprawling, sparkling lake spread out before his very eyes, tinted a fading orange thanks to the setting sun, great plumes of water spouting up in the distance and kicking up mist that drifted off in every direction. Gray rocks occasionally poked their heads out from the depths of the water, and even further away, Fern could spy the other side of the cliffs, the stones forming a natural border around the entire area. His eyes followed a small ripple that rolled all the way from one of the geysers out to the edge of the lake where he was now standing; the wave rolled into the shallows near his paws before disappearing with nary a sound. His jaw hung open at the sight: it was absolutely amazing!

    Mint let out a loud snore, and Fern jolted, shaking himself out of his awestruck trance as an embarrassed blush rose onto his cheeks. He stole a sideways glimpse of the snoozing Shaymin, then shuffled closer when he saw Uxie now standing next to the girl. He tipped the bowl out, thoroughly soaking the other hedgehog's back, then set the dish aside and combed his paws through Mint's fur, pressing his palms down every so often to gingerly wring it out. Fern cocked his head – Uxie's eyes were still closed. But when Uxie peeked up and nodded at him, a nervous 'eep!' escaped his mouth.

    "It really is quite a beautiful sight, isn't it?" The gray Pokémon casually remarked, turning to gaze out at the lake. Fern still stared in the opposite direction, but shyly nodded in return, barely even moving his head, suddenly feeling the dirt and sand in his fur much more now that he saw Mint getting cleaned up. "Hopefully you and Mint will have recovered enough to see it later. The heat and pressure below is getting stronger already... the lake will be wonderfully breathtaking tonight, I can tell."

    The Shaymin sighed inwardly and responded with a short shrug, listening to the sound of the distant geysers, hoping he could relax despite his nerves. He shuddered as a fine mist sprayed over him, irritating the uncomfortable griminess in his Land Forme's coat, and reached up with a paw in a vain attempt to scratch the stuff out. The grass type let himself drop onto the ground afterward, standing up and speaking quietly. "Um... is it okay if I go in and wash myself off, mister Uxie?"

    "Mmm, of course..." Uxie hummed softly as he continued to comb over Mint, then stopped and perked up in realization. "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't believe I ever caught your name, little one. Your friend had mentioned someone earlier, when she was awake, but I didn't want to assume."

    Fern had two feet halfway in the air when he stopped. He had woken up kind of abruptly, hadn't he? Oopsie. He tried to hide his nervousness with a chuckle, though it didn't work very well. "Oh, h-heheheh. My name is Fern, mister Uxie. It's... um, it's good to meet you."

    "It's good to meet you too, Fern," Uxie replied, a friendly note playing in his soothing voice, and some of Fern's anxiousness finally fell away.

    The Shaymin started to move again, this time with the slightest spring in his step, and he peered at the lake's guardian for a moment, wearing a small, reassured smile on his muzzle as he waded into the shallows. The water was pleasantly cool against his belly, and Fern's smile widened as he felt the gentle waves rolling in from the center of the lake, his flowers wiggling happily, their pink petals shifting and ruffling the fur on his back. Their movement helped to rustle up some of the sandy grit that was still clinging to him, and the grass type paced further from the shore, until his paws left the stones below – he rolled over, floating belly-up in the lake and soaking himself from head to toe.

    Fern couldn't help but let out a mild grunt of contentment, shaking himself from side to side to shake all of the dirt loose, helped along by numerous ripples that the geysers far away were making. His thick, fluffy green fur grew heavier and heavier the longer he bathed, and after a few long minutes, he kicked out with his hind legs, swiveling around and paddling back to the shoreline. He closed his eyes and winced when his head bumped against drier ground, and then he rocked back and forth, back and forth, until he somersaulted right-side-up with a sharp, quick push.

    "Oof-!" He flopped over with a splish, yelping out from the faintest ache that rippled through his nerves. The impact, small as it was, dazed him a little, and the little hedgehog sat there for a few moments, yawning hugely to catch his breath. Memories of the previous night, of chasing after the wild Volbeat and Illumise, of shuffling around just like that, throat hurting, exhausted and helpless, Darkrai missing, and he bowed his head, his mood dampened by the thoughts. "Mmph..."

    "Is something wrong, Fern?" Fern gave a start when he heard Uxie speak up again; the yellow-headed Pokémon had walked over to him and slowly eased himself down into the shallow tide, his twin tails waving from side to side, the red gem in his helmet-like forehead glinting in the light of the sunset. He rested his hands in his lap and craned his neck to stare skyward.

    Fern blinked, then cocked his head at Uxie's concern, briefly picturing Darkrai, cloak and all, in his mind's eye. He and Mint hadn't found the legendary Pokémon around here at all... but maybe... just maybe... "It's okay, mister Uxie. I was just, uh... have you seen any other Pokémon around here?"

    Uxie turned his head ever-so-slightly to glance at him, then returned his focus to the bright, orange sky, his face contorting into a thoughtful expression, humming quietly every so often. Fern raised his head, scooting a bit closer to his new friend and leaning forward in anticipation, hoping that the gray Pokémon would have some good news to share.

    A tranquil, albeit tense, silence reigned over the lake, the sounds of the geysers and the cool, misty wind drifting across both Pokémon, and the longer the lake's guardian pondered, the more Fern's excitement faded. Eventually, Uxie let his head fall, reaching up to rub at his temples. "Aside from the usual Pokémon that flock here, I haven't, no. You and Mint are the first visitors I've had in a while. Why do you ask?"

    "Oh..." Fern's face drooped, and he moaned under his breath, only eyeing Uxie out of the corner of his vision when he heard his question. The Shaymin closed his eyes and mimicked the gray Pokémon, his mind racing as he thought about everything that had happened the past few days. Meeting Darkrai during that huge rainstorm, gathering Gracideas and berries around the peak, spending nights curled up underneath the spacious tree, returning to the Shaymin village, and then that horrible wind and darkness when Sage was trying to hurt them. Fern sniffled, tearing up, his bottom lip quivering. "My friend- I-I mean, my other friend, I don't k-know if he even e-ended up here with us at all. I just don't know if he's okay... I wish he was here with us..."

    "If he ended up here?" Uxie repeated, his voice turning deliberate and his mouth flattening out into a pensive line. His tails twitched, tightly curling together until their tips tapped against each other, then twisting apart again just as swiftly. "What do you mean? How did you arrive at Fogbound Lake?"

    The grass type's eyes shot open, a couple droplets leaking down his cheeks, finding himself thrown for a loop once again while Uxie jumped into the air, hovering around and floating in front of him. "F-Fogbound Lake!? This... th-this is the Fogbound Lake?"

    Fern stared out at the glittering water again, barely even noticing Uxie's short nod, his gaze lost on the horizon, watching the geysers rising high into the air. Fogbound Lake. He and Mint were at the Fogbound Lake! It seemed so obvious now, and yet all Fern could do was sit there and cry, hearing Darkrai's quiet gravelly voice repeating the promise he had made mere days ago, to take them to visit Fogbound Lake, the three of them.

    "He's n-not here, a-and he wanted to come with us... he said he would have liked to c-come with us-!" Fern stuttered, the lake breeze drifting past him, drying his fur and blowing his tears off-course. They dripped down his face, falling into the water and being swept up by the tide.

    "Fern." The little hedgehog looked up when someone grabbed his front paws, giving them a comforting squeeze. Uxie was staring intently, and a yellow glow surrounded him, then surrounded Fern as well, and the Shaymin felt his tears getting psychically wiped away. "Tell me what happened."

    "We-" A hiccup escaped the young boy's throat, and he swallowed dryly, taking a deep breath to try and calm himself down and explain. Despite that, the words came out in a rush, all at once. "Mint and I met a new friend up at the top of Sky Peak the other day, and, and we were scared at first but then we went back and he lost his memories and he was actually really nice! And he helped us pick flowers for the village but w-when we climbed back down Sage, um, the village elder got mad, and then there was all this wind and darkness... a-and then Mint and I got sucked up, and then we ended up here..."

    "Another... and with amnesia," Uxie murmured, his brow furrowing. Fern could tell the guardian's mind was racing, trying to think if he had seen Darkrai at all around the lake. The little gray Pokémon looked up, the gem in his forehead shining with power, the yellow glow brightening from concentration. "I need to ask one more thing, Fern, something very important."

    "W-what...?" Fern asked, shaking his head, his flowers and green fur shaking from the motion.

    "What is your other friend's name?" Uxie replied.

    Fern paused. He closed his eyes. He could see the dark type, his star-covered robe shining brilliantly, like the sparkles that dappled the Fogbound Lake. "He's..."

    ***

    "Darkrai, c'mon, c'mon!" Rose and I redoubled our pace as we sprinted through the stream, our ears flicking and our tails wagging as we listened to Erin yell excitedly. In all honesty, she had to; between the babbling brook and the sound of the waterfalls getting louder and louder, the younger explorer would have been completely drowned out otherwise. The treasure bag shook and bounced against my back, aura tassels whipping back and forth over my shoulders, and Rose panted heavily, dashing towards the source of the river. "We're almost there, I can tell! The fog is starting to go away!"

    "H-hold on! I can't run th-this fast-!" Darkrai stuttered out in response, his unsteady footsteps leaving an odd series of splashes behind him. I glanced past Cyan, who ran in front of me, and spotted the legendary Pokémon through the fading mist, stumbling about and clinging to one of Erin's tied-up sleeves for dear life, his fingers curled around the loop of fur.

    "Erin, don't drag other Pokémon around!" I brought my paws to my mouth and called out, then clamped my mouth shut, gritting my teeth at an aching pain that throbbed in my midriff. Shaking my head, I took a deep breath and kept running, swinging my arms back and forth, keeping my eyes trained on the younger explorers dashing ahead.

    It didn't take long to break through the last of the fog, the thick curtains of mist disappearing completely and revealing the endless expanse of trees that made up the outskirts of the Foggy Forest. Climbing over the occasional fallen branch and dodging past a few stray rocks that poked out of the water, the five of us blazed a trail upstream, and soon enough, a pair of waterfalls came into view, one small, one large, emptying into a little pond surrounded by tall grass. And in between them, leaning to the side and partly sunken into the ground, was a very familiar statue, its red eyes glittering brightly. As Erin pulled Darkrai over to the statue, hopping up and down triumphantly, Cyan, Rose and I slowed down, catching our breath and taking in the sights.

    "Woah..." Cyan exclaimed in awe, having stopped in the middle of the pool of water, and the Samurott drew one of his seamitars, holding the blade out underneath the smaller waterfall, catching some of the white froth that kicked up. He took a swing after a few moments, then slapped his fan-shaped tail in the water with a grunt, reaching out and grabbing his shoulder with a grimace, his mustache whipping around from the motion. "Ergh, think I got a cut, my arm's achin' bad... so this's it? This's th'statue o'Groudon you two had t'find?"

    "Haah... aah... yeah... there it is," Rose replied between exhausted breaths, padding casually through the water, narrowing her eyes a little when the sea lion's slash sent a few droplets flying close to her face. She ducked away, raising one of her front paws to wipe at her muzzle, before continuing, turning wistful as she spoke. "It's like- hoo, like this place hasn't changed a bit in the past five years."

    "It's amazing...!" The Ninetales whipped her head around to look at Erin, who had gotten right up to the lowest corner of the statue, squatting down and running her paws across the Groudon's foot, sweeping a fine layer of dust off of the weathered stones. The pink mink blinked a few times, then wiped her paws on her fur sleeves, her mouth wriggling into a broad smile as she slowly waddled forward, circling the monument. "It feels really really warm somehow... ohh, and look at this, there's something written in footprints here! It's just like what I heard about when I was back home!"

    "Then that means," Darkrai murmured, standing a couple paces away from the Mienshao, his robe billowing from the gusts of air that traveled down the waterfalls. He held his hands close to his chest, wisps swirling off of his head when he craned his neck to stare upwards at the sheer wall of rock that rose up behind the statue. Cyan followed the legendary Pokémon's gaze, and I slipped past the sea lion and stepped out of the pond, taking a moment to shake myself dry before ambling over to Darkrai. "We are close to the Fogbound Lake. We're almost there... Fern, Mint... we're almost there."

    "Yeah, that's right," I answered with a grin, patting the dark type's shoulder and gesturing east of the statue, past the opposing river and towards the thicket. The other Pokémon tensed up briefly at my touch, but relaxed – somewhat, anyway – and looked where I was pointing. "You'll get to see them again soon enough. You sound excited, heheheh."

    Darkrai hummed to himself, his icy eyes shimmering, and he grasped the lap of his robe. "How far are we from the lake, then? It is that way?"

    "We're pretty close," I replied. Rose padded up to us in the meantime, still wheezing tiredly, worn out from the battle with the Stantler and from Erin's little 'race' to the statue. "If we head that way and just keep following along the rock wall, we'll end up at the entrance to the Steam Ca-erk-!"

    Darkrai flinched at the sudden hiss I let out, and I closed my eyes and winced, the ache in my midriff returning when something poked affectionately at my side. Looking down, I noticed a flinching Rose, her mouth hanging open, stepping away from me with a concerned, surprised look on her face, but and I let my outstretched arm fall, gingerly dabbing my pawpads where my partner had nuzzled me. A sharp gasp caught in my throat at the bruise I felt underneath my fluffy fur, and I pulled back, pressing my palm onto my blunted chestspike at the unpleasant shudder that ran down my spine. My ear flicked when I heard Cyan inhale through his nose.

    "I wonder how old this big old thing is, anyway- huh?" Erin stopped in her tracks when she finished her circuit around the Groudon statue; when she saw Rose, Darkrai and I, she jumped into the air, stood up straight, and gasped, the bottles and bandages in her medicine bag shaking noisily. "Oh no! What's wrong, Bill, are you hurt? Lemme take a look-see."

    The Mienshao hastily scampered over, her whiskers bouncing when she skidded to a stop in front of me, and she took my forearm in both paws and lifted it, bending over to stare at my torso. I furrowed my brow as the pain subsided, and I let the younger explorer look me over, reaching back to bat idly at my aura tassels, feeling them bump against my pawspike. Rose and Darkrai both eased themselves away, the latter scooting towards the former nervously, her nine tails brushing and waving against his back. "It's smarting a bit, but it's just a bad bruise. Probably from that Stantler that knocked me away. I- ah- I should be alright with an oran berry and maybe some rest..."

    "We probably shouldn't have rushed to get here," Rose remarked, wiping her nose on her blue scarf before stretching her legs out, one by one, taking a deep breath as she did. "I don't think I'm wounded, but I'm- hooph... I'm definitely feeling tired after chasing you and Darkrai here, Erin-"

    "It's not jus' from runnin' up th'river, Rose," Cyan interrupted, and the cream-furred fox looked over her shoulder at our friend. The water type Pokémon briefly checked his arm, still massaging the wound on his joint, before curling a fist and jabbing his thumb upwards. "Th'sun's already startin' t'set! Give it an hour'r so an' night'll have fallen, I bet!"

    I blinked in surprise, then turned my head and looked upward, tracing up the Fogbound Lake's waterfalls and peering at the top of the rock wall they cascaded down from, the deep blue water and clumps of white froth standing out against the faded orange sky. The rumbling of the falls filled our ears, and the warmth of the Groudon statue washed over the five of us. When Erin's head popped into view, however, I peeked back at her. She thrust a small paw into my face, her tied fur sleeve dangling below as she offered me an oran berry from her bag, poking the blue fruit against my muzzle, and I sighed, reaching up to slip the straps of the treasure bag off of my shoulders.

    "Maybe it's a better idea if we stop here and set camp, then," I remarked, hearing our packed rations and other supplies rustling inside of my backpack as I let it drop to my footpaws. The hardened leather grazed my side on the way down, making me wince when it irritated my bruise, and when Erin waved the oran berry at me again, I gladly took it, popping it into my mouth and chewing. The Mienshao swung her belt pouch to the front of her waist, digging inside and pulling out a small vial, pulling the cork and pouring a dab of its contents onto my wound. "We're tired and hurt, and-"

    "W-what?" Darkrai blurted out, a strain playing in his gravelly tone, and we all gave the legendary Pokémon our attention. I gulped down my snack, my eyes widening at the crestfallen expression that the dark type wore, and Rose stepped away and swiveled around to face him, her nine tails sweeping to one side. Erin split her focus between her work and her new friend, looking this way and that even as she slipped over to Cyan, clambering onto the sea lion's back to treat his own wound. My tail wagged sharply as the star-robed Pokémon managed to sputter out again. "B-but... but we are close to the lake, aren't we?"

    "Well, yeah, but like I was saying, it's almost night, we fought that herd of Stantler, and we all ran the whole way here up the river," I said, folding my arms against my blunted chestspike, feeling the wind from the waterfalls blowing down from the Fogbound Lake, and I looked straight at the dark type, sighing inwardly as my aura tassels rubbed against my unburdened back. "Rose's exhausted, and Cyan and I are exhausted and hurt. It'd be dangerous to head to the lake like this, especially since it'd be dark by the time we reached the top."

    "You said your b-bruise would be okay!" Darkrai shot back, raising his voice a tad, and I furrowed my brow, my mind racing in confusion as a bad feeling tingled through my nerves. Darkrai's anxiousness was palpable, and I closed my eyes and focused; the legendary Pokémon's aura appeared after a few moments, wavering intensely as he balled his hands up and trembled in place. "A-and what do you mean by dangerous? D-do you mean that this Uxie you spoke of before might not be there? Are Mint and Fern-"

    "Darkrai, Bill didn't mean dangerous to them, he meant dangerous to us!" Rose chimed in, taking a step forward and looking up at the other Pokémon, her fur bristling and her tails curling and uncurling. The fire type Pokémon shook her head, her headfur falling down her neck, and pawed at the grass underfoot, speaking as warmly as she could. "We've been through worse, but usually we're on our own. If we keep going the way we are now, we might... we might not be able to keep you safe. Don't you understand?"

    I opened my mouth to back my partner up, but Rose, Darkrai and I all turned our heads to look at Cyan when he walked over to us with a short series of loud, stomping footsteps. Erin was still reaching for the Samurott's half-bandaged shoulder, a few berry-juice-soaked herbs peeking out from the makeshift poultice, and the younger explorer hunched over into her friend's neck when he stopped. "Besides, if your friends are safe, then w'got all th'time t'spare t'make it up t'th'Fogbound Lake! We don'need t'go rushin' anywhere, y'know!"

    "But..." Darkrai let his head fall, staring at the ground, his robe swishing against his body from the breeze, flapping in the wind as the legendary Pokémon stood, the stars dotting the fabric sparkling brighter and brighter. "We're so close..."

    "It's going to be okay, Darkrai." Rose pushed up onto her hind legs, wobbling a little bit before planting her front paws firmly on the dark type's shoulders, tilting her head and giving our timid tagalong a comforting smile and nod. "We know how hard this must be, you never meant to send them here or anything like that. But it's going to be okay. We promise!"

    The wispy-headed Pokémon didn't respond, but froze in place, no longer trembling, and after another moment, raised his head to look at us. His eyes were filled with a remorseful determination, and I nodded in agreement with my partner's words, stepping up and affectionately tousling Rose's headfur and Darkrai's head with the flat of my pawspikes.

    "...you're right. I never meant to send them here... I didn't even know I had the power to warp Pokémon away like that." He began, trying – and failing – to hide his nervousness behind a level statement. He reached up and took Rose's paws in his hands, sleeves falling down his arms as he lowered the Ninetales down to the grass, gently brushing me away as well. "I've... I've put them in danger before, and I saved them then. I should be the one saving them. Not... not you!"

    Before we could say a thing, the legendary Pokémon whirled around and dashed towards the eastern part of the clearing, grunting as he forced his way into the thicket and vanished from sight.
     
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