Chapter 55: Fish Out of Water
The hours after Team Traveller's defeat at Sormus went by in a darkened, unconscious blur, bereft of even the light of dreams. When Pleo finally stirred, he awoke to a dim glow shining through his heavy eyelids, the sight of rafters above evidencing that he'd been brought into some manner of dark room. He stirred against a hard surface, gritting his beak as a renewed pain wracked his whole body out to the tip of his wings.
The Lugia sat up with a start, still bleary-eyed from his slumber, as he realized that his aches had come about because of that battle that they'd lost earlier. So... just where had he and his friends wound up this time?
Pleo's vision began to clear, and he noticed in the dim light that he had found himself sprawled out on a wooden floor that rocked and creaked slightly… much like the one back on Lyn's ship. The Lugia looked ahead uneasily, and to his alarm, noticed a wall of metal bars ahead of him. Pleo tried to stand at once, only to find that his legs and wings had each been bound together with rope. Worse still, his wingtips abruptly ended at a sudden edge consistent with them having been cut while asleep. The Protector craned his head around the room frantically, a quick glance revealing his friends, still unconscious, and bound up in a similar fashion.
"A-Ah!" the Lugia squawked. "Nida, Elty, Guardia! Wake up!"
The young seabird thrashed against his bindings, craning his neck out and nudging at his Nidoran teammate. The nudging and ruckus drew stirs from the other two Pokémon, who tiredly shifted their bodies.
"Nrgh… no tan fuerte," Nida muttered.
"Gah…" Guardia groaned. "Where's my bone?"
"Couldn't this wait for just a min-" Elty began, only to be cut off by a gruff snort from ahead.
"Oh, so now you get up."
The three's eyes shot open at the sound of a horse's snorts, as one by one they began to notice Pleo's findings. Given their surroundings, they were below deck on a ship, in a brig given the amount of expense that had been sunk into fortifying the metal bars. The group looked ahead towards the source of the voice, where they saw a Ponyta, a Cranidos, and a Sandslash peering at them from the other side of the cell wall.
"For a while, I thought you were going to be out all the way until Tidemill!" the Fire-Type exclaimed.
"What's Tidemill and why are you taking us there?" Nida demanded.
An incredulous look splashed over the Ponyta and his cohorts' faces, the three staring blankly at the young Poison-Type. The Sandslash of the group shook his head before giving a dismissive scoff at Nida's question.
"You're joking, right?" Niilo huffed, crossing his arms. "Even Pokémon that live under rocks know what Tidemill City is!"
"Well, I've been living under a rock until recently and I don't have the foggiest clue," Guardia snapped. "So start talking."
The three Imperials shifted back with stunned looks, staring at their captives as if they'd suddenly grown second heads. Cabot shook his head in surprise, the Cranidos finally spluttering out a coherent if still disbelieving response.
"It's the Imperial Capital!" Cabot cried. "You and your friend are being brought there because he's the 'mon that can finally reunite the Empire."
The Cranidos' words distracted Pleo from an attempt at nudging an itchy patch of feathers with his beak, prompting him to crane his head up from his preening and blink confusedly.
"Reunite?" Pleo murmured. "You mean like helping them make up after a fight?"
The seabird's question drew frowning glances from their three captors. Clearly this lot had been living under a bigger rock than they'd all thought.
"He's going to need a bit more debriefing than I expected," Berecien sighed.
"Oi, I don't know what you're trying to pull, Ponyta," Elty growled. "But the only reuniting that's happening once I get out of here is my teeth with your butt."
Berecien briefly flicked his ears in flustered confusion, only for it to sink in that the dog had threatened him. Eager to snuff the lippy mutt's enthusiasm, the Ponyta snorted, glaring back through the bars.
"Keep talking like that, and I'll reunite my hooves with your face right here and now-!"
The source of the noise was none other than the scowling form of their Clawitzer captain. She came hopping down the hall towards them, glaring furiously at her subordinates. After a moment of startled surprise at the crustacean's abrupt appearance, the three Imperial underlings hastily composed themselves to more properly greet their captain.
"Ah! Captain!" Niilo exclaimed. "What are you doing down here?"
"Oh, just listening to you all get into childish arguments with the plenniki," Nagant retorted. "So are you going to keep at it, or get out of my way as I check up on things?"
The three Pokémon gulped and backed away, leaving Nagant to hop over to the bars as Pleo looked up, the Protector at once exuding desperation and deep frustration as he fought with his bindings.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Pleo demanded. "If you need help with this 'reuniting' thing, you didn't have to cut my wingtips and tie us up like this!"
"It's not as simple as you think, Protector. There will be plenty of time to explain the matter when you're in safe harbors," the shrimp harrumphed. "Until then, just sit tight, and don't struggle too much against the ropes. They scrape."
"Whatever you think you're gonna have us do, you can forget it!" Guardia spat. "We're not working with you, and there's no way you can make us!"
Nagant appeared completely unmoved by the Cubone's protests, her only immediate response being an idle twitching of her barbels and a glowering scowl.
"… Good luck with that," the Clawitzer scoffed. "Get some rest whenever you decide to come to your senses, it'll still be a while before we're in port."
Nagant rapped against the cell's bars with her big claw, prompting Berecien and the others to draw up to it and resume their guarding. The elderly shrimp hopped off, Guardia struggling against her bindings shouting after her all the while.
"Oi, you can't just ignore us!" the Cubone shouted. "We've gotten through worse spots in the past, and you won't get the better of us now! We're getting out of here!"
"Well, you're finally off the ship. Was this what you were expecting?"
Nagant's words reverberated under a sky whose colors were beginning their transition from the day's blue to a sunburnt orange, the sun drifting visibly further to the west all the while. The Vasilek had pulled into a dock facility amidst a group of slender islands crammed with buildings of all shapes and sizes, the stone docks littered with crates and Pokémon in indigo scarves. It was a night and day difference compared to the open sea, but for Guardia, the most important thing had failed to change as she and her teammates were dragged down a wooden gangplank.
"We're still tied up here!" the Cubone protested.
"I'll take that as a 'no'," Nagant harrumphed. "Good."
Nagant glanced over to a crate with its top popped off a short ways away and gestured towards it to some indigo-scarved Pokemon who stood idly by on the wayside.
"Get the Protector in there and over to the palace," the crustacean barked. "The last thing that any of us need is for a public scene while transporting."
A Bewear nodded back and lumbered over, scooping Pleo up in his strong arms and bringing him to the crate. The Lugia squawked and flailed against the bear's grasp as he was shoved into the container, desperately trying to break free.
"No, stop!" Pleo cried. "Let me go! Let me-!"
Pleo heard a crack and felt an object strike his head. A mist enveloped him, making him cough as the substance brushed against his throat and nostrils.
The Lugia weakly flapped a wing in front of him, trying to clear the air of the sedating haze, but it was already too late. The bird tottered in a last-ditch effort to remain standing, only to feel his eyes droop and slump against the box, sleeping soundly as soon as his head hit the floor.
"Pleo!" Nida cried.
"Come on, get up!" Elty pleaded. His Cubone teammate trained her ire towards the yajū in indigo scarves, struggling against her bonds and glaring with all her might.
"Let him go!"
The Bewear hastily slid a cover over the crate, and put it on a cart, and called out to the waiting Aurorus ahead. The Ice-Type carried along, tugging the cart off away from the docks as Team Traveller's members protested and pled with their captors to stop.
"Stop!" Nida cried. "You don't know what you're doing-!"
Nagant glared at the Nidoran as a small group of Pokémon in indigo scarves started approaching the uncooperative youngsters. As the underlings approached, the Clawitzer held up a claw and motioned for a stop.
"… I'll handle them myself," she muttered, drawing nervous gulps from her trio of captives.
"H-Handle us?" Elty stammered.
The shrimp began to hop over, her large claw leveled square at the remaining members of Team Traveller. Fearing the worst, a wave of panic sank into the three Pokémon, prompting them to frantically bite and thrash at their bindings. Nida and Guardia's blood ran cold as they heard Elty yelp, the dog being lifted by his bindings by the Clawitzer.
The ropes in between Nagant's claws gave way, sending the Growlithe flopping down, panting and wide-eyed amid a mass of severed cords. The Water-Type made her way over and repeated the same process with Nida and Guardia, leaving the three to uneasily rise to their feet and huddle together. The youngsters rubbed at their sore and chafed limbs, the lot puzzledly eyeing their captor, wondering to themselves what she hoped to accomplish by untying them.
"You're free to leave," the Clawitzer said. "The Empire doesn't have anything against a bunch of lost deti like you."
"Eh?!" Guardia exclaimed. "You can't just dump us out in the middle of nowhere like this!"
"You're right," the shrimp replied. "Blythe!"
Nagant's call was answered by a Pidgeotto flying over, unceremoniously dumping a tattered bag and a Cubone's club onto the cobbles in front of Team Traveller. The Flying-Type glared a bit at Elty, before flying off with a harrumph, leaving the three behind with his superior as she clicked her claws impatiently.
"Now hurry up and get out of here before I have you arrested for trespassing," Nagant growled. "This is a naval facility, not a beach."
"B-But you took Pleo from us!" Nida shouted. "How can you just turn around and tell us to get lost like this!"
The shrimp stared back in an unmoved silence, and after a little while Nagant clicked her claws and carefully began to speak up.
"You're from Tromba, aren't you, Nidoran?" the Water-Type asked. "You of all people should know what a scourge the Company has been. That Protector's help is the key to finally putting an end to them and their perfidy."
"That's what you call kicking us to the pier like this?!" Elty snapped.
"… You'll understand why this had to happen someday," Nagant grunted. "In the interim, take advantage of the slack you've been given and go home."
"Aren't you going to at least offer to let us see Pleo first?" Nida insisted. "We're his friends and he's all alone here."
Nagant started to respond, only to pause after hearing movement. The shrimp shifted her gaze over, and spotting Berecien, Cabot, and Niilo watching. The three underlings traded stares with their superior for a moment, the uneasy pause spurring Nagant to turn her attention back to her audience.
"I'm sure that you two will meet again someday," the Clawitzer answered. "Perhaps sooner than you think."
The Water-Type pivoted on her tail, turning to Cabot and his companions. Nagant's gaze quickly settled on the Ponyta of the group, followed by a sharp chittering order.
The Ponyta paused and looked up at the sound of his captain's voice. The Fire-Type looked up, giving a puzzled flick of his ears at the Clawitzer.
"Hrm?" the Fire-Type asked.
"I want you to-"
Nagant trailed off as she noticed Elty hunched down against the ground growling at Berecien, his eyes locked into a fierce glare. The Ponyta's demeanor similarly had taken a belligerent turn, as the fiery horse pawed at the ground and snorted challengingly back at his tubby interloper.
"… Follow after the cart with Niilo and Cabot," she hastily finished. "I'll have someone else show these whelps out."
"Hrmph," Berecien answered. "On it."
The Ponyta and his Cranidos and Sandslash companions turned to follow after the Aurorus' cart, their presence being swiftly replaced by a irritated-looking Lickitung and Parasect who sidled up to flank Team Traveller's remaining members.
"If you have some time before looking for a transport home, I'd encourage you to enjoy the sights here in the city," Nagant offered. "Most visitors don't have nearly as much freedom as you to look around."
"Alright, tourists," the Lickitung barked. "Time to get going."
The two guards brusquely shoved Team Traveller along, marching them past crates and shabby warehouses to a stone gate facing a collection of ramshackle shacks and multileveled buildings. As the three crossed the boundary, they were shoved past the gate with a yelp and tumbled onto the ground. The youngsters uneasily propped themselves up, turning back to see the passage to the naval docks blocked off by the glaring Parasect and Lickitung.
"And don't get any ideas about trying to break back in!" the Parasect hissed.
The pair slammed the gates shut, leaving Team Traveller to stare ahead blankly at the strong doors ahead as the enormity of their current situation sank in. They were now strangers in an island they barely knew anything about… their friend currently being brought to gods-knew-where right now.
"… What do we do now?" Guardia murmured.
Nida stared blankly ahead at the closed gate, failing to find words or even ideas that seemed adequate to start tackling their current mess. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't think of any way that the three of them could get Pleo back. On one side was a whole Empire with ships and forts and legions of Pokémon... On theirs, a Nidoran, a Growlithe, and a Cubone, with precious little else beyond their tattered and half-emptied bag to work with...
"Ni… Ni idea."
As Team Traveller despaired outside the naval docks, at the other end of the city, the form of a brigantine with white sails with blue sun designs pulled up against the docks. At its railing was its Samurott captain, clenching a seamitar in his paw as he scowled out at the sea of shacks and buildings piled onto canal-lined strips of land further inland. Had he only had his Argent Aviso, his chase would've ended hours ago just offshore of Sormus. Unfortunately, along with his lower rank, the hull of Ellsberg's Nektar Weide had been built for lower speeds, which quickly frustrated any attempts at keeping pace with the Imperial frigate. His crew had picked up on his unsettled demeanor, and murmured among themselves as the mustelid turned back to face them with an exasperated grunt.
"Listen up everyone. This is it, the bird is here," Lyn barked. "But this isn't some romp through some hick island like last time. We're in Tidemill City, the biggest city on this side of Anyilla and the Pyroar's den of the Empire. As such, we're going to need eyes on the ground before we can even think of making a move here."
The otter looked around for a suitable Pokémon to entrust with the task. His instinct was to handle the matter himself, but there was no telling whether or not the Clawitzer had been informed by a late-arriving escort of the disturbances he'd caused in Copperband. So then, it made sense to pick out someone who could be trusted to be reasonably competent and maneuver easily through the canals and tight streets of Tidemill's sprawl. Someone like...
"Ellsberg, you have a mind for administrivia, and cities have no shortage of that," the Samurott said, gesturing with a seamitar. "I want you out there to scout what's waiting for us."
"Wh-What?!" Ellsberg exclaimed. "Why on earth would you need me for that?!"
"Because we're in the Empire's capital, Ellsberg," the Water-Type snapped. "This mission is important and I need someone I know I can trust, and your rank makes you better for it than a random grunt."
"Chop chop Elmer," a Weavile's voice sneered. "Time for you to get to work."
Lyn watched and narrowed his eyes as Ketu slid off a barrel and grinned smugly at the startled Mothim. Now was not the time for this sort of petty bickering. Perhaps it was time Ketu was reminded of that.
"And you are accompanying him," the Samurott added.
The Weavile paused and blinked at his captain's words, taken aback by the sudden demand.
"You've clearly been running out of meaningful tasks lately, so I think that this is just what you need to put your skills to use," Lyn insisted. "Besides, Ellsberg will need backup if he gets into a tight pinch."
Ketu frowned back sourly at the Samurott. Scouting with Ellsberg of all Pokémon was right up there with cleaning the ship's heads on things he'd rather take a beating over than do. Even so, he couldn't afford to blow his cover over something like this... so for now at least, it made most sense to play along.
"Ugh, fine," the Weavile groaned. "Come on Elmer, we're going!"
Ketu shook his head and clambered down the gangplank, his assigned Mothim partner fluttering after him. The two reached the end of the docks where they sized up their surroundings, seeing that the city district they'd entered had been built on strips of land separated by canals. The buildings were a crowded collection of wooden shacks and stone buildings with clay tiles, most having three or four floors with some towering above with twice as many.
Much as things were in Canalhouse, the ground level was the life of the district, with Pokémon swimming through the canals and passing crowded ground-level shopfronts hawking trinkets and snacks to Pokémon of innumerable shapes and sizes. Along the way, a few of the more characteristic places of the settlement stood out. There was a building with a Greninja head over the entrance with barred courtyard windows crowded with gawking sailors. A cursory glance revealing the place to be a dojo built around a sea-filled courtyard with a wooden battlefield built on it, the sounds of a Horsea and Venonat sparring with each other ringing out from within.
A little further on, the pair passed a building with a Beartic being fawned over by a large crowd of admirers, the large signboards behind the Freezing Pokémon revealing him to be the main star of a overwrought play depicting action and romance on the high seas. The pair's course eventually took them past a blocky stone building emblazoned with the Merchantry's red-and-gold logo, with a suspiciously large amount of Kecleon milling about. Ellsberg's patience started to wear thin, grumbling to himself about why he hadn't insisted to Administrator Elilan that he'd work alone…
"Ugh," the Mothim complained. "Of all the 'mons to be stuck with as a partner, it just had to be you."
Ketu turned back to face the Bug-Type, giving an unamused glare all the while. After everything the little interloper has put him through, he was complaining about being stuck together?
"Trust me, I hate this way more than you do," Ketu growled. "Let's just hurry up and get to the district wall."
"Tch... are you this out of it, Buzzy?" the Weavile scoffed. "Any reasonably sized settlement has a visitor's district to keep out the riff-raff, like Andaku in-"
"I know that!" Ellsberg fumed. "But why are we going there?"
The pair carried on down a lane which led to a dead end cut off by a solid stone wall. The blocks were weathered, with posters and scrawls splashed over their lower portions. Noticing the top seemed unguarded, Ketu quickly scanned his surroundings before bracing his feet against the ground.
"To hop it, obviously."
The Weavile jumped up and planted his feet against the wall, springing to and fro between the wall and the side of a nearby building until he reached the wall's ledge. Ellsberg buzzed startledly, flying up just as the Dark-Type had reached the top.
"What are you doing?!" the Mothim cried. "Get down before someone sees you!"
Ketu rolled his eyes at the Mothim's protests and vaulted himself over, much to Ellsberg's alarm. The Bug-Type waved frantically and called after the Weavile, who gave an exasperated growl from the other side.
"So we can stay stuck in the one district we know doesn't have a frigate at the docks?" the weasel countered.
The Mothim paused, flitting in place a moment as he stared back blankly. This all felt like such a risky idea, though when Ketu put it that way, it was hard to really argue his point. The Weavile evidently had picked up on his conclusions, giving an impatient shake of his head.
"So are you just going to sit there and flap around, or are you coming?" the Dark-Type asked.
"Alright, alright!" Ellsberg replied. "Just be careful..."
Ketu waited, watching as his partner fluttered over the wall and joined him in the alleyway. The pair gave a quick glance around their surroundings, before weighing it safe to press on, continuing their progress deeper into Tidemill's sprawl in search for leads for the frigate and the Protector within.
Unbeknownst to the Pokémon on the Nektar Weide, in the harbor directly adjacent, the Siglo Swellow had similarly moored against the docks. The crew was hard at work finishing the last steps of tying the ship down and folding up the sails when Crom and his companions made their way down the gangplank. All the while, the young Druddigon stared in awe at the sea of buildings all around him, peering out onto the kaleidoscope of shops, homes, and monuments and the Pokémon who shuffled to and from them.
"It's so… big," he murmured.
"Heh heh, well that's Tidemill City for you," Pladur chuckled. "I've heard that there's actually bigger cities out there in the Cradle, but this is about as big as you'll get around here."
"You mean to say now it's the biggest," Ander corrected. "It certainly wasn't in my grandfather's day."
"It wasn't?" Crom asked. "But then what was it? And what happened to it?"
Pladur clicked his tongue, mulling over the best way to present his answer to his son. Faltering somewhat, he threw an uncertain glance to Kiran, who fluffed out his feathers uncomfortably and stepped forward to answer.
"It was Middleguard City out on Conntow," Kiran explained. "When the great Great Calamity happened, Middleguard was swept up with the rest of the island."
The Druddigon gawped out at the surrounding city, wondering what Middleguard must have been like to have been even larger... and what could have laid such a place low. He heard about the great island of Conntow and how it was destroyed when he was younger, but he had never given it much thought. No one seemed to be able to agree on what had caused the Great Calamity, simply that it had come in the blink of an eye and left naught behind on Conntow but ruins and dead stone. The dragon sank deep in thought only for a loud buzz from behind to snap him back to attention.
"Hoy! Still standing around?" Beatrix called out. "You didn't forget what you all were supposed to do already, did you?"
"Nope," Dimitri said, an air of confidence in his voice. "We're finding that frigate, and then trying to pick up Pleo's tracks from there."
"Yeah, we'll get moving now," Pladur sheepishly answered. "Come on, let's move!"
Crom and his companions paced down the dock, peering around at the sea of masts and sails around them. With so many ships around them… where would they even start looking for the frigate from Sormus?
"So… I take it we should start by looking around the docks?" Crom asked.
"I don't think so," Kiran countered with a shake of his head, gesturing with a wingtip to the harbor before them. "Take a look at their sails."
The five turned and looked around the ships in the harbor. All around the docks, there was not a single ship with the indigo sails of the frigate that they spotted on the route out from Sormus.
"Didn't we see the frigate leave port with dark bluish sails?" the Swellow asked. "I don't see anything like that here."
"Then we'll just have to check the docks in another part of Tidemill, then," Ander sighed.
"Uhm… there might be a problem with that," Pladur murmured, pulling a claw up to his mouth. Sensing his father's unease, Crom blinked and tilted his head at the Fraxure. What would be the problem just going to other parts of the city?
"Huh?" Crom asked. "Why?"
"Well, in bigger ports, all Pokémon have to pass through a visitor's district," the Fraxure explained. "We were able to get past it in Kenobi since we were flying Company colors… but we don't have anything like that here."
"But there has to be some way that Pokémon can get further in," Kiran murmured. "If everything with the outside world had to be done here, wouldn't this district be much bigger?"
The group paused and mulled at the Swellow's words. From the monuments and towers in the distance, the city itself definitely did go on a ways… Perhaps it would be big enough that they could just sneak in? Though then again, sneaking in would be a major risk… and would they really be prepared to handle themselves if anything went wrong? To top it off, starting off on the wrong foot with the locals was surely a hurdle they didn't need while they were still looking for Team Traveller... Maybe it was best to see what they already knew about the place first.
"Hrm… haven't you been here before, Pladur?" Ander insisted. "Is there anything of the sort we can do?"
"Well, when I was here last time, I was told that you needed a good reason and proof of it to get through," the Fraxure said. "I suppose it's just a matter of telling the guards something that sounds convincing enough for us to go in."
"Oh, es facíl!" Kiran chirped, gesturing at a tall, stony wall in the distance with a waiting Venomoth idling before it. "I've already got just the reason to get us past here!"
Crom blinked incredulously at his mentor's insistence. It did seem a little over-easy, but Kiran was experienced at crawling Mystery Dungeons, so perhaps it wasn't unexpected this would be his first stint in port? The dragon and his companions shrugged before following their teammate along, coming to a stop at the barrier's gate where Kiran batted out a wing in a friendly wave.
"Excuse me, ma'am," the Swellow said. "We're visiting sailors who've run into a touch of ship trouble and needed to consult a specialist. Could you let us through to find one to come and look at our ship?"
The Flying-Type ruffled his feathers expectantly, only to be met by the Poison-Type with a frown and firm shake of her head.
"No, all ship repairs have to be done at the site of berthing, or at a designated drydock," the guard answered. "Nobody gets past this barrier without the proper clearance."
The five sailors stared blankly as the Venomoth continued fluttering in place, giving an unamused stare at the strangers. The group waited awkwardly, and after realizing that the moth wasn't going to let them through, turned and carried down the street grudgingly. When he was confident they were out of earshot, Kiran gave a bothered ruffle of his feathers. Getting a ship specialist ought to have been a surefire excuse! So what were they they to do?
"... This is going to be harder than I thought," the bird murmured, before feeling a tug at his wing by his Druddigon student.
"Let's... take some time to think this one through."
Out in the waters north of Giotto, the Mistral Marauder continued on course southwest, proudly flying its pilfered white sails. As the crew guided the ship along with the wind and waves, some idle deckhands leaned out to peer ahead at the sight of great plumes of white smoke and tall buildings stretching over the horizon. Even someone who'd never been to Tidemill personally would recognize it by those landmarks, so the more experienced sailors among them knew with certainty that the schooner they'd followed all this time would be docking soon. As the curious deckhands peered out at the city, Rodion swam his way to the side of the ship, clambering back onto the Mistral Marauder from a rope ladder. Upon reaching the ship's deck, the Sea Weasel shook himself dry, and began drifting to and from crewmembers to inspect their work.
"Remember, we get the bird first, and then we can worry about loot," Rodion barked. "This is a big city and we can't go picking fights right off the bat!"
A little off to the side, a small clique consisting of a Yanmega, a Manetric, and a Marowak loitered against the railing, watching the Floatzel first mate going around giving out orders. After being suitably confident that the Water-Type could neither see nor hear him, Valatos gave an annoyed scowl at the yapping mustelid and buzzed irkedly.
"Pah!" Valatos hissed. "Just how new does he think we all are?"
"Wait, wait," a Hoppip's voice insisted. "But what if the bird is with the loot?"
Valatos and Nori blinked and looked ahead to see Wilhelm obliviously flitting in front of Rodion, the Sea Weasel Pokémon burying his head in his paws at the Grass-Type's inane questioning. The pair traded askew glances with one another, with crewmates like that...
"I dunno," Nori murmured. "That sounded pretty new to me, Valatos."
The Yanmega frowned and turned his head out back towards land. They were passing a defensive wall made of stone now, the tops manned by stern-looking Pokémon. By chance, he spotted a large cauldron with a pair of bellows installed by them, a Magmar lazing next to it and watching ships go by. It was most likely a batch of seafire, the tool of choice for cities such as Tidemill to burn up unwanted vessels that tried to slip past its watch. The dragonfly watched as the sprawl and canals of Tidemill came into view, the sea of shacks flecked with the city's namesake tide mills and windmills further in the distance.
"Mrph, I think I can handle myself just fine," the Bug-Type snorted. "I've dealt with the bustle and flow of a big city."
"Egh… it's too crowded for my taste," Nori murmured. "Needs more quiet places. But at least we'd have a leg up, right? Isn't this Alvise's old colony?"
The Marowak turned towards his Manectric partner, only to see that the Manectric's fur was standing even more on end than usual, with his claws dug into the deck's wood, and his teeth locked into a grimace. Hardly the sort of reaction he had expected.
"Uh… Alvise? What's with that look?" the Ground-Type asked. "I'd have thought you'd-"
"We agreed we weren't going back anywhere near here, you lunkhead!" Alvise snapped.
"Whuh? You've got family here!" Nori insisted. "It's not like you've got any enemies here, right?"
The Marowak was met with a withering glare from his teammates. Er... now that he thought about it, Alvise did go out of his way to mark up Giotto on the maps they got as a place to be avoided. And he did vaguely remember the wolf mentioning something about his circumstances for leaving being less-than-ideal in the past...
"… Oh right."
"Oi! If you're on the docking teams, get a move on and get us tied down!" a rumbling voice bellowed. "Everyone else can either show up to the stern or kiss their share of the next raid goodbye!"
Each member of the crew dutifully shuffled toward the waiting Aggron in a flood of motion, joined shortly thereafter by Valatos and his companions, who lingered toward the back of the amassed crowd.
"Eh? Already?" a Wimpod murmured.
"Yeah, why's he want a meeting now?" a Miltank scoffed. "What's there even to do?"
The ship was quieted abruptly as a hard stomp rattled the deck and everyone on it. At the epicenter of the quake stood Hess, leering at his silenced subordinates. After waiting a moment like a stern schoolteacher to be sure the silence would continue, he gave an indignant snort at the interruption and cleared his throat to address his crew once more.
"Alright, you know the drill," the Aggron barked. "We're at a new island, so that means we're picking a scout to tip us off."
"Eh?! But that's a huge city!" a Staravia exclaimed. "How would any of us go undetected in that?!"
"It's a risk we'll have to take, like with everything else. So… any volunteers?"
Chirp chirp chirp
Hess blinked and hardened his face into an increasingly sour scowl as his request was answered only by the sound of a Kricketot chirping. The Steel-Type glared over at the source of the noise, where 'Chirpy' was obliviously chittering away to himself.
"Psst, Chirpy, he's asking for volunteers…" a Pawniard whispered.
The Bug-Type's antennae froze to motionlessness as he hastily silenced himself, leaving Hess to rest his scowling face in one palm, seething. Couldn't his crew ever show a little initiative on their own?
"Fine," the Iron Fleet's captain growled. "If no one volunteers, I'll just have to pick someone."
The Aggron began to pace around, eyeing his underlings closely (with the visible exception of Nori) as he passed them. Gulps and nervous glances filtered around as the Steel-Type would linger over one pirate before moving on to the next. Hess' course took him to Kichiro where he paused noticeably and glared down, the Ledian becoming increasingly unnerved at his superior's apparent choice.
"I pick…" the Iron Armor Pokémon began, only to be interrupted by a gulping buzz.
"Uh, Captain," the beetle began. "Maybe we could talk this ov-"
"The Marowak," Hess finished. "He's the scout for this island."
Kichiro raised his voice in reflexive protest, only to trail off as he noticed Nori going wide-eyed by the railing. Was he hearing things right? Hess didn't want him to be the scout?
"Wait, really?" the Ledian asked. "Well, I can't really argue with-"
"Na- Nani itterunda?! You walked away from me!" Nori cried. "Why on earth would you pick me as the scout?!"
The Aggron turned to face the indignant Marowak and after noticing that he seemed a bit riled up, the Steel-Type stammered. He hastily tried to come up with an excuse that would sound suitably convincing, lest his crew pick up on his obvious unease.
"Because… uh…" Hess began, fumbling for his words. "You're strong headed, and… imposing. Yeah, let's go with that. Anyhow, enjoy your scouting!"
"But I'm not a flier and I can't run that fast!" the Marowak protested. "How could I do anything for scouting that Valatos couldn't? He's the fastest flier on your crew!"
"Hey, kop dicht, bonehead! And I wouldn't be that great of a scout since I'm not that familiar with this place!" the Yanmega hissed. "At least Alvise knows his way around here!"
Sparks began to dance on the Manectric's pelt and his muzzle opened to show bared, gritted fangs. Valatos knew he had problems here in Giotto and how much he tried to avoid coming back, and here he was forcing him into harm's way to save his own hide?!
"You miserable bao!" Alvise snapped. "So now you're going to throw me under the ship to dodge scouting!? Nori got picked, so let him go!"
The conversation between the three quickly devolved into a heated whirlwind of arguments and conflicting accusations, the group adopting increasingly aggressive stances. From the side, Hess threw a claw over his face, letting out an aggravated sigh at how much of a headache he could've saved if only he'd just stuck Kichiro back on deck-swabbing duty back in Kenobi.
"… I should've waited until we were back in Orleigh to look for more deck claws," the Steel-Type grumbled.
Hess lifted his foot and brought it down onto the deck, jolting the ship and making it lurch underfoot. Nori and Alvise struggled to keep their balance as Valatos flitted up instinctively, the three's attention turning reluctantly towards the Aggron captain as the deck settled.
"I'll make things easier and settle your little spat," Hess growled. "You're all on scouting duty! Now get moving!"
The three Pokémon grimaced at the Steel-Type's announcement, Alvise in particular flying into a stuttering panic as the wolf began to whine in protest.
"B-B-But I can't go ashore!" the Manectric protested. "Not here!"
"And why not?" Hess growled. Alvise gulped as he watched the towering Aggron glaring down at him, desperately fishing around in his mind for a suitable excuse, until he finally settled on...
"I… er… uh… have a stomachache!" the Electric-Type insisted. "Kinda took it hard from all the Jellicent stings back in port, and- AUGH!"
The Manectric's words were cut off by a hail of sopping rocks, throwing the three clear over the railing and sending them tumbling through the air.. The trio hit the dock with a thud, groaning and shuffling their aching bodies back up, just in time to catch Hess leaning over the railing and shaking his fist in their direction.
"And don't come back until you have a lead!" the Aggron snapped.
The three moaned dazedly form their heap on the docks, pulling themselves up one after the other. Nori got up, dusting his scales off as he glowered up at the passing ship over his shoulder.
"Gah…" the Marowak groaned. "We didn't even get a chance to change our scarves…"
"I think he likes you, Nori," Valatos grumbled.
"Yeah, great going dragging me back here thanks to your mess!" Alvise growled. The Manectric's protests were met by a harrumph from his Marowak partner, the bone lizard slinging his club over his shoulder before giving an impatient glare.
"Well, are we going to just sit here and wait for the guards to cart us off, or are you actually going to help us get around, Alvise?" the Marowak demanded.
"… Ugh, fine," the Manectric sighed, turning his face towards a dingy alleyway up ahead. "Come on, this way. I know a few places we can lie low before we look around."
The wolf shuffled off, followed by his teammates as they lurked in the shadows of the canal-straddling alleys. All the while Alvise grumbled under his breath, eager to find enough of a lead to return back to the relative safety of the ship.
After their abrupt departure from the naval docks, Nida and the remaining members of Team Traveller wandered the streets in the western neighborhoods of Tidemill. All the while, the three grudgingly came to the conclusion that there was not much that they could do other than to try to scrape together a little money and find a way back to Bluewhorl and hope that Hatteras and the others would be able to help find a solution. During the trek, the surroundings were akin to an alien planet, with towering monumental halls and pillars looming over buildings that would've reached halfway up the bluff to the guild back on Tromba. The streets were as crowded as Bluewhorl's on its the biggest market days, and stretched on as far as the eyes could see, with even the rooftops teeming with activity from Flying-Types who had settled on rented-out eaves with nests built on them. Even the local Kecleon shop was a world away from Calino's shack, the "shop" (if it could be called that) turning out to be a multi-storied stone building draped in red and gold banners that proudly advertised itself as "one of five locations".
Even so, there were also features that this overcrowded space shared with more humble towns. There were still mailboxes in front of buildings, there were still taverns that hawked drinks along with cheap and filling gummis with the same sorts of motley customers. A little further on, the three also discovered that there were also guilds in this place, as a stone building with bands of Pokémon with glinting badges on their scarves indicated. Elty paused at the sight of the guild, observing the crowded message board set out in front and the Steelix head decoration over the main entrance… only to see that his teammates were continuing on away from it.
"Spike ball, that was a guild…" Elty said. "Didn't you say that we needed a job to get back to Tromba?"
The Growlithe waited expectantly for an answer, only to be met with a shake from the Nidoran's head.
"Would there be anything left at this hour?" Nida countered. "With how much the missions for a Normal Rank team would pay, we'd be better off trying to help out a shopkeeper or something for a couple days."
"So then just how are we supposed to find one of those shopkeepers?" Guardia asked.
"Keep your eyes peeled," the Poison-Type answered. "Shops usually put up a sign of some sort saying that they're looking for help."
"And just what would that look like?" Guardia demanded.
Nida paused and blinked at her teammate's question. It… was a sign that would say 'Help Wanted' or something like that? Though then again, Guardia - like Pleo - never didget the hang of reading runes yet… So how was she able to show what one would look like without an example?
The Nidoran looked around her surroundings where she chanced to notice a small, dingy shop next to an alleyway with some papers hung up on the outside. The Poison-Type squinted at the wall, where the headline of one of the papers caught her notice with big runes that spelled out 'Help Wanted', just as shops back home did when they needed a helping hand for the season.
"Oh, like that one!" Nida exclaimed. "That's exactly one of the signs that we're looking for!"
Elty looked at the store and frowned, sniffing skeptically in its direction. From a glance, it was hard to guess just what the shop sold. The sign outside the entrance carried a bell on it, with runes were faded to the point of illegibility, and there didn't seem much of anything for wares on the outside.
"… That little abandoned-looking mordownia?" Elty scoffed. "Would they even have a job for us? That listing looks ancient!"
"Only one way to find out…" the Nidoran murmured.
Nida paced over and pulled the notice off the wall, the paper evidently searching for some Pokémon to help transport crates for a few days. Challenging for their size, but it shouldn't be impossible. The rabbit shook her head, leading her teammates into the store past its ajar door where she called out into it.
"Hello?" Nida asked. "We're here to talk about your help-?"
The Nidoran's words trailed off as she noticed that the floor of the store was completely barren. Indeed, were it not for the dusty notice boards hung on the walls and the idling Gothitelle sitting behind a crude counter at the end, one could be forgiven for thinking that Elty was right about the store being abandoned… but what did this place even do?
"Eh?! This poster said you were looking for someone to move crates!" the Poison-Type squeaked. "Just how are you supposed to do that here?!"
The Gothitelle looked up with an incredulous blink. After a pause as the degree to which the youngsters before her were fish out of water sank in, the Psychic-Type sighed and shook her head in annoyance.
"You did read the shop sign before coming in, right?" the Gothitelle asked. "This is the Tidemill West Trouble Center. That job listing is for a client of ours."
"Trouble… Center?" Guardia asked.
"Tch, you all really are just fresh off the boat," the Psychic-Type scoffed. "But it's a place where Pokémon can leave all their requests that are outside of the scope of the local guilds. Laundry, construction work, and that crate moving job you've got in your paws."
Nida's eyes lit up at once at the clerk's explanation. This was just the breakthrough that they all needed to solve their money issues!
"That's perfect!" Nida exclaimed. "These are exactly the jobs we need!"
"Whoa there, buster," the Gothitelle insisted. "This isn't a guild where we matchmake you to a job. It's up to our clients to decide whether or not you fit the bill."
"Even so, there's a lot of jobs here…" Guardia said, eyeing the crowded bulletin boards all around the room. "Just how hard could finding one be?"
A few hours later, the sun had slipped over the horizon entirely and the moon had begun climbing into the sky, leaving the streets below to bathe in the light of the stars and the glow of lanterns hung up in the windows of nearby buildings. The door of the Trouble Center opened, as Team Traveller trudged back in tiredly. All this time, they'd gone from shop to shop in the city and had nothing but sore legs and feet to show for it.
"Just how hard could finding one be, huh?" Elty grumbled.
"Grr… don't get started on this, Gardie," Guardia glowered.
"There has to be something here we can do…" Nida murmured.
"Well, what about this this circle-stick one over there?" the Cubone offered. "What's it say?"
The Nidoran looked up and followed the end of Guardia's club to a poster with a magnifying glass. The Poison-Type glanced over the listing, poring over its summary only to stop and blink puzzledly.
"… Detective's assistant?" Nida asked.
The rabbit's words drew an unimpressed frown from her Growlithe teammate. If they couldn't land something simple like pushing jobs around, what hope did they have of getting something less straightforward like this?
"Really?" the Growlithe sighed. "That's the job we're pinning our hopes on?"
"Well, what's a detective do?" Guardia pressed.
"Uh… I'm pretty sure that they just look around for things to help the guards with ne'er-do-wells," Nida answered. "Or at least that's what the guards at home said they did."
"That doesn't sound like anything that we can't do," the Cubone insisted. "Where's it say to meet the Pokémon who put this up?"
Elty and Nida looked down towards the bottom of the paper on the board. At once, a curious line of glyphs noting the client's location caught their attention, drawing puzzled blinks from the duo.
"That would be over here."
The three looked up and turned to the side, where a door had been left ajar leading to a room at the back of the Trouble Center. There inside was a waiting Pikachu with a low-slung hat fashioned of brown fabric, giving an expectant gaze at Team Traveller in between nibbles at an Oran Berry. The youngsters blinked at the sight of the waiting rodent... Was this the client?
"Wait, you work out of the Trouble Center?" Guardia asked.
"I am today. The name's Detective Cardino," the Pikachu insisted. "Normally, I'd insist on getting a colleague from the City Guard or at least someone a bit… older. But I'm kinda in a rush for my current case. Why don't you step into my office, and we'll talk things over a bit?"
Nida, Elty and Guardia exchanged glances, still somewhat incredulous at their client's choice of meeting place. It was hard to complain given how conveniently it worked out for the trio, but an uneasy air lingered nonetheless as they nervously padded into the room and the Pikachu slid the door shut behind them. Something about this felt a little too convenient, but even so, perhaps it would make sense to figure out why the rodent needed help from some random strangers.
"So… what's this assistant thing need us to do?" Nida asked.
"Well, sharp senses, obviously," the Electric-Type murmured. "A good paw at simple forensics… You know, basic stuff."
"Forensics?" Guardia murmured.
"You know, finding traces of Pokémon that have been in the area?" Cardino replied. "Tracking?"
Each of the young explorers' eyes lit up at the Pikachu's explanation. Tracking down missing Pokemon? Why, that was practically what they'd been doing in the Mystery Dungeons all this time! Although their success had been mixed before, it would surely be easier without the shifting walls of a Mystery Dungeon conspiring against their progress!
"That's easy!" the three exclaimed.
The Pikachu stammered, taken aback by the enthusiasm of the young Pokémon before him. Either they were much more experienced than they looked, or they had gravely misunderstood the job he asked of them.
"Now- Now hold on here, pal!" Cardino rebutted. "I don't know where you're getting your past experience from, but it's not that straightforward in my line of work!"
"Eh?" Elty asked, raising an ear. "But it sounds like your luck's been just as bad as ours lately."
"Yeah, and you could always apprentice us in the the lore that you know," Guardia added.
"And don't you only need temporary assistants in the first place?" Nida insisted. "It can't hurt, can it?"
The Pikachu paused and frowned, unsatisfied with the meager reassurance the younger Pokémon offered. Despite his skepticism, though, he found himself short on time and hard-pressed for any immediate replacement... and, if their claims were to be believed, they could handle themselves in environments of a rougher sort.
"… Well, alright then," the rodent murmured. "But you should probably get to meet the defendants before you agree to this."
"Oh?" Guardia asked. "I suppose it couldn't hurt. Lead the way."
"Well, it's a little late for that, pal," Cardino chuckled, tilting his hat with his paw. "That said, I can at least show you where you'll be meeting with the defendants before you hit the hay. Come along, and we'll meet you there tomorrow."
He hopped down and shoved the door open, bidding the young ones to follow him out. Together, they walked toward the rapidly-darkening city as the sun set behind them.
Unlike smaller settlements such as Bluewhorl Town and Seahive Square, the visitor's district and the other portions of Tidemill were less affected by the rhythms of the night. The day's visitors were replaced by night owls coming out for the evening, continuing on the day's trade and intermixing the beginnings of a vibrant nightlife anchored around taverns and theaters. Although just around the corner, the alley that Valatos and his companions lurked in was a far cry from the hubbub of the main streets: dark, dimly-lit, and seemingly devoid of life. The Marowak in particular seemed to be particularly moody at their circumstances, casting longing glances at the taverns they passed. At the same time, the solitude had done little to take the edge off of his Manectric teammate, who continued nervously darting his eyes around at his surroundings.
"Can we hurry up and get out of here, already?" Alvise whined.
The wolf's complaining drew scowls from his teammates, Valatos giving an irked buzz at his partner's incessant complaining.
"Well, help us find a lead already, you simpering mutt!"
"Yeah!" Nori spat. "We've been wandering these back alleys for hours now!"
"Let's see you come up with something that doesn't get us all caught!" Alvise growled.
"Hrmph!" the Marowak harrumphed. "Maybe I wi- Huh?"
The three stopped and stared as they watched a group consisting of a Fraxure, a Kabutops, a Swellow, and a Scyther approach a checkpoint at the district wall down the street where a Quagsire and Ivysaur in indigo scarves waited. The group carried a crate along and stopped before the pair of guards to chat them up, only to be turned around with annoyed scowls. The sailors faltered, before turning and sulkily making their way back up the street, the form of a young Druddigon slipping out from behind them. Valatos, Nori, and Alvise stood stunned for a moment at the party as they passed, any doubts of their identity being thoroughly dashed once they caught sight of their white scarves decked with waterspout patterns.
"Them again?" Alvise whispered. "What are they doing here?!"
The dragonfly stared blankly at the Manectric, before throwing a tarsal over his face, buzzing in exasperation. After all this time, how could the mutt not know what the brat and his friends would be doing here?
"Alvise, we followed their ship…"
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean that out of everyone from their crew we would specifically encounter them!" the wolf countered.
Nori gritted his teeth, his claws pressing into the surface of his club as he gripped his club with crushing force. All the while, his eyes maintained a laser-focused glare on the Druddigon and his companions as they passed by.
"Grr… well, I think it's time we properly welcomed them here," he growled.
The bone lizard stomped ahead and shoved aside a small pile of discarded barrels with a loud crash, drawing slack-jawed stares from his teammates. He was going to attack them right in the middle of a city street?!
"What are you doing, you lunkhead?!" Valatos hissed.
"Giving those punks a lesson from the school of hard knocks!" the Marowak spat.
"No, you stupid dweeb," Alvise snapped. "You'll get us caught!"
"I'm the dweeb?!" Nori fumed "You're the one who's afraid of his own shadow out here!".
The outburst did little to soothe the unsettled wolf, who snarled back, sparks beginning to dance on his pelt.
"Why don't you tell that to my face, you stupid lizard!" the Electric-Type growled.
Nori growled back, gritting his teeth and swinging his club out ready for battle.
"Maybe I will!"
"Both of you, shut up!" Valatos shouted. "You're going to get us-"
Valatos and his companions felt their blood run cold and looked back out to the street to see a glaring Araquanid and a Herdier in Imperial indigos glaring at them and making their way over. The three turned to flee down the alleyway, only for a woosh to fill the air as a Decidueye swooped down from an eave, and drew a feathery arrow and readied it to fire, bringing the lot to a skidding stop.
The three whirled around, searching desperately for an escape, only to see that their left and right were both blocked by the walls of looming apartments. The three became light-headed and froze out of fear as the guards approached, the Decidueye keeping his arrow drawn all the while as he paced up to Nori…
… and shoved him back with a beat of his wing.
"This is a public street, not a battlefield!" the owl hissed. "Keep your little spats someplace where they won't trash someone's livelihoods!"
"H-Huh?" Valatos gulped.
"Are you deaf?" the Decidueye demanded. "I'm telling you to knock it off here!"
Valatos stared for a moment, incredulous that the owl was choosing to chew him out over getting aggressive over all things. Eager not to let fortune slip through his tarsi, the Yanmega flicked his wings and gave an impatient buzz back.
"Alright, alright, I get it! Nothing we can't settle in private!" Valatos insisted. "Can we go now?"
"… Hrmph, fine," the Grass-Type grumbled. "But I'll be watching you."
The Decidueye moved out of the trio's way, prompting them to rush ahead and out onto a busy street. The pirates looked back, watching stunned as the guards followed after them before nonchalantly turning and slipping off into the crowd. They… just let them go? But what would compel them to do that? Unless...
"They- They didn't notice our scarves!" Nori exclaimed. "They must not know about our crew here!"
The Marowak gave a relieved wag of his tail, his enthusiasm failing to rub off on his teammates. Valatos slipped his front tarsi over his head as he realized just why the guards wouldn't recognize their pattern... the Iron Fleet were a bunch of no names here!
"That's not making this any less humiliating, Nori…"
"Look, can we just get back into the shadows already?" Alvise barked. "This really isn't the place to-"
"Oi, we're seen as nobodies here!" the Yanmega snapped. "And as long as that's the case, we'd best exploit it!"
"Yeah, and that thing going on with your family had to have settled down by now, right?" Nori insisted.
The Marowak's words came as cold comfort to Alvise, the Manectric scanning his surroundings uneasily, and thickening the air with tense, nervous sparks.
"Look, let's just figure out what those twerps are doing and get out of here, okay?" the Electric-Type demanded. "Standing around like this is just asking for trouble."
"Uh… now that you mention it…" Nori murmured. "Where'd they go anyways?"
Nori and Alvise looked around their surroundings, scanning the passing Pokémon for any sign of the party from the Siglo Swellow. By chance, Nori happened to catch a glimpse of a Druddigon's crest and darted forward with his club drawn, only to skid to a stop after seeing the Druddigon was far too large and the scarf had the wrong pattern and color relative to the twerp.
Valatos, growing frustrated with the lack of progress, flitted up onto an overlooking signpost and perched atop it. From his perch, he managed to catch a glimpse of a Kabutops in the crowd, his gaze taking him to the sailors from earlier as they began pacing back towards the sea. Satisfied with his findings, the dragonfly flitted down, and buzzed for attention beside his companions.
"They're headed back for the docks,' the Bug-Type said. "Let's tail 'em and keep an eye on what they're up to. They couldn't have come here unless it somehow related to that overgrown Wingull."
Nori and Alvise looked at each other, before grunting and pushing off. The three carefully following after the tracks of their old foes amid the crowd. Vengeance was a dish that was best served cold, and there'd be plenty of time to work that out after figuring out whatever they were up to on Giotto.
- no tan fuerte - Spanish: "keep it down", lit. "don't be loud"
- plenniki (плeнники) - Russian: "prisoners" (BGN/PCGN Romanization)
- Ni idea - Spanish: "(I have) No idea"
- es facíl! - Spanish: "it's/that's easy!"
- Nani itterunda?! (何言ってるんだ?!) - Japanese: "What are you saying?! / What are you talking about?!" (Hepburn romanization)
- bao - Venetian: "bug"
- mordownia - Polish: "dive", "dump". lit: "murder-hole"