Chapter 57: Catching Up
As Team Traveller prowled Tidemill's arena for Cardino's evidence, things had settled down back at the Mistral Marauder. On the deck and the nearby docks, sailors from the moored ship whiled away time gawking at their surroundings and busying themselves with small games of cards and chance. Their counterparts among the sea escorts similarly passed their time amongst themselves with gossip and resting under the pier's pilings, taking advantage of their unexpected downtime.
In the midst of the languid atmosphere, Rodion made his way about the ship's deck, taking stock of the condition of the timbers and rigging as he always did after pulling into a port. The mustelid looked up from the last mast, finding nothing disagreeable from his check and turned to make his way to his Aggron superior who watched the cityscape from the ship's bow, a palpable sense of contentment hanging around him.
"Oh? You sure seem to be in a good mood, Hess," the Floatzel murmured.
"Heh, what can I say?" the Aggron captain answered back. "I'm feeling good about our odds at that tournament! Looks like we might have a shot at getting that bird after all."
"Eh? I thought you tended to be more confident about the stuff you did in person," Rodion wondered, moving a paw along his chin. "Is there something about that team you picked that I'm missing?"
"It's an open tournament," Hess scoffed. "Everyone knows those tournaments are full of common rookie dweebs trying to make a name for themselves. A few tougher-than-normal 'mons from our crew ought to mop the floor with them!"
The Aggron gave a contented grin and moved his tail along the deck, only to notice that something had caught Rodion's attention. The Sea Weasel's eyes widened out of surprise, prompting the Floatzel to twitch his whiskers uneasily.
"Er… you mean the 'mons that are coming up the gangplank right now?" the otter asked, pointing behind his metal-headed superior.
Hess turned around to follow Rodion's line of sight, and the grin slipped off his face as quickly as it had come at the sight that greeted him. There before him were that blasted Marowak and his assigned teammates, waddling up the gangplank with their heads hung firmly downwards in shame, shuffling sheepishly under his shocked gaze.
"Ack! Why are you here?!" he cried. "You're supposed to be fighting in the tournament!"
"Uh… yeah, about that…" Alvise began. "We kinda had an issue while signing up."
"They said someone from our crew already entered and wouldn't let us join!" Nori exclaimed.
"We tried to… persuade them into letting us in anyways with some coin," Valatos explained. "But they told us to take a hike."
Hess glared at his subordinates, before eyeing their scarves more closely, and glancing up at the 'borrowed' sails the Mistral Marauder had been flying... and groaned as he put two and two together. Those sails had been taking from that Tromban ship, so if "someone from their crew" had already joined up, it couldn't have been anyone but those blasted bumpkins they ran into at Kenobi!
"Of course," Hess grumbled. "Those Tromban hicks must also be in the tournament right now."
Rodion clicked his tongue in frustration and paused, thinking over the team's plight. After a moment's thought, he shot a skeptical frown at the party as a realization came over him.
"Wait a minute," Rodion demanded. "If they're in there, why didn't you just add a dot or something to distinguish your scarves?"
Valatos' mandibles hung open, grasping for an explanation and failing to find one as the Charmeleon, Sealeo, and Vileplume among his teammates shot frowning scowls at him. He trailed off awkwardly, leaving a pointed silence to hang over the ship's deck.
"That's what I tried to tell them!" the Vileplume sighed, throwing a hand over her face.
The whole ship rocked forward as Hess stomped the timbers underfoot, sending some nearby pirates sprawling to the deck with a yelp as they lost their footing. As the ship settled, the Yanmega and his companions winced as they looked up and met the gaze of the livid Aggron, who snarled and bared his fangs as he glared down at them.
"So fix your scarves and get back in line already!" the Steel-Type snapped.
Valatos and his fellow contestants hastily squeaked back an affirmation before bolting back down the gangplank. The Aggron captain stared blankly after the party as they slipped back into the bustle of Tidemill's streets, before turning and groping at a chest with his claw. The Steel-Type fished out a clay flask and brought it shakily to his mouth, taking a deep, anxious swig of the calming rum within before dropping it to the side with a defeated frown.
"Urgh… what did we just get ourselves into?"
Up in the higher tiers of the Vecioferàle Arena, Cabot, Berecien, and Niilo led Pleo down an arcing hallway lined with open-air windows on one end and doors on the other. Every so often there would be the occasional entrance opposite of the windows blocked off by folding paper screens and strong guards letting naught through them but the sound and shadows of Pokémon inside. The three led the young Protector past a pair of guards and into a darkened room with tables and cushioned seats set out, columned walls, and flecks of light peeking through along the floor from three sides from behind heavy curtains, which prompted the seabird to crane his neck around uneasily.
"Where did you take me?"
"It's the opening ceremony for your tournament," Cabot explained. "Queen Aleria wanted you out there so you could better see the Pokémon that need you as their Protector."
"Yeah, and you won't be seeing anything fast from the air with your flight feathers the way they are," Niilo added. "So might as well let us show you arou- Ow!"
The Sandslash yelped as a hard hoof stomped onto his foot, and nursed his injured toes before shooting the Ponyta a dirty glare from his spot on the ground.
"Shut it, najemnik!" Berecien snapped. "Anyhow… we wanted to show you something."
The Ponyta nosed with his snout at a curtain drawn over a set of wide windows, letting light from outside filtered in along with a great murmur. The young Protector blinked curiously and waddled over, peering through the slit Berecien opened to see that outside was a great circle-shaped courtyard filled with Pokémon of all shapes and sizes watching from terraced stands. At the center, small groups of Pokémon had gathered on a field, all expectantly looking up and seemingly in wait...
"There's a lot of Pokémon in the Empire who have been waiting a long time for this moment," the fire horse explained. "For something bigger than them to take their side."
"Yeah, and they're all here to greet you!" Cabot cheered. "To make you feel welcome in your new home!"
Pleo looked out over the grand arena and its throngs, the rapt attention providing cold comfort to his own loneliness and yearnings for home. Unbeknownst to the young Protector, at that time, his teammates darted onto the field and took in their surroundings. The Vecioferàle Arena was a grand space consisting of a circular pit ringed with stone stands that went up in tiers up to a canvas ring about the edge that provided stage. On the field, the contours of a battlefield had been sketched out on sandy ground, along with impressions of trapdoors and signs of movement of heavy objects. Curiously, there also seemed to be portholes in the pit's walls just below the first rows of seats, the apertures sporting fresh water stains on them. Elty looked back at his teammates and saw that the pair were gobsmacked at the sheer scale of the battlefield and its surroundings.
"I take it you haven't seen anything quite this big before, huh?" the Growlithe murmured.
"Obviously not!" Nida exclaimed. "This arena has more 'mons in it than our entire town!"
"I didn't know it was possible for your colony grounds to get this populated…" Guardia murmured.
Nida looked around and saw that the teams were composed of Pokémon of every conceivable shape and size… including the Gallade, Blastoise, and Goodra they'd spotted at the signups. The three were far from the only obviously tough competitors on the field, as all throughout the gathering, taller and stronger competitors blocked out the sun with their shadows, hardly a positive omen for fighting against them.
"Yeesh," the Nidoran muttered. "If our first fight is against them, maybe we should just forfeit."
"Pah," Guardia scoffed. "Why would you be so swift to turn tail?"
"Because we have our evidence and we don't have any chance of actually being allowed to go and see Pleo?" Elty retorted, rolling his eyes.
"But there's lore to be gathered!" Guardia insisted. "Strategies to learn, histories of your warriors, and-"
"All contestants, your attention please," the announcer's voice said. "The Silver Wing Cup is about to begin! Please give a warm welcome to our host, the one, the only..."
Team Traveller looked up to see a Rotom flitting out of an announcer's pavillion built into one of the upper stands, the glint of a badge shining against his crackling body. The Ghost-Type zipped around over the stands, the spectators filling the air with raucous cheers as he passed overhead.
"Good afternoon, beauties and gentlebeauties!" the Rotom crackled. "It's me, Thalez! The master of sound and soul who's ringing in the first ever Silver Wing Cup!"
Nida, Guardia, and Elty furrowed their brows skeptically at the ruddy ghost zipping above the stands. For such a small Pokémon, the Rotom certainly had an outsized personality... and ego to boot from the sound of it.
"They really managed to get some characters out for this thing, huh?" Elty sighed.
"I can already tell it's going to be a great show!" Thalez cheered. "Everyone give a big hand for our wonderful contestants!"
The crowd erupted into cheers and applause for the gathered fighters in the arena pit, the assorted Pokémon basking in the attention for a moment. As the lot was collectively distracted, a small party consisting of Pokémon in white scarves that had hastily been retouched to have blue triangle designs slipped in at the edges, panting from a hasty rush into the stadium, with a particular Yanmega, Manectric, and Marowak at the head of the group.
"Gah…" Valatos buzzed. "Lousy paper pushers are such a pain to deal with even here."
"Well, at least we made it, right?" Alvise sighed.
"Yeah, it's fighting!" Nori snorted. "This oughta be a piece of cake!"
"And for all you novices out there, there's only one rule," Thalez explained. "Fight and win… or you die!"
Valatos and his teammates froze in shock at the Rotom's announcement. They hadn't signed up for a fight to the death, right? Since when was that a part of things?!
"Tournament-wise!" the Ghost-Type cheered. "Don't worry, my dear contestants! The only things getting buried on this battlefield are losers' dreams!."
The Rotom's exclamation drew laughs and chortles from the nearby contestants, which made Alvise turn up his snout and snort out of annoyance.
"Pah… Thalez's still doing his old bait and switch routine, I see," the Manectric grumbled.
"And for the lucky winners out there in the field, we've got quite the haul for you! We've got a silver cup, a title…"
The Rotom zipped by a box high up in the stands that had been covered by indigo drapes. As he passed, the curtains parted to reveal the form of a long-necked bird with silver feathers, who shrank uneasily back as he felt the presence of thousands of eyes turning to him intently.
"And an audience with the first-ever Protector of Anyilla! Lugia, Guardian of the Seas!"
The stadium broke into a deafening cheer as the gathered spectators eagerly roared out their approval of their new Protector. From below on the arena floor, amidst the gleeful awe of their fellow competitors, Team Traveller stared up in slack-jawed surprise.
"Wait!" Nida cried. "That's the prize?!"
"Rev up those wishes, beauties and gentlebeauties," the Rotom said. "I know that I'd have trouble settling on what I'd want from that plucky little bird!"
The Pokémon in the stadium went wild with raucous cheers as spectators and contestants alike traded wild fantasies of what they'd do were they the lucky victor. Even so, a few more sober faces lingered on, including that of a Weavile among the contestants giving an unimpressed harrumph and folding his arms over each other.
"Hrmph. I see that they didn't feel any hesitation cutting his feathers," Ketu grumbled. "Shame, he looks like he wouldn't need much of a push to convince him to take off right now."
"Well, it's nothing that we can't handle over a few fights, right?" an orange-furred Lycanroc next to him asked.
"Maybe…" the Weavile muttered. "But I'm keeping my eyes open for a way to cut to the chase and cut him loose."
"So let's get this show rolling, folks! Real action! Real drama! Real bloodshed! Which the authorities will remind is to be avoided per rules of the Imperial Battle League but hey who cares?!" Thalez cried. "Go and give us a finale that'll drive this crowd wild!"
The stadium filled with a cheering roar as the contestants waved back and began to filter out of the arena pit. As the crowd of fighters visibly thinned, the party from the Siglo Swellow remained visibly fixed in their spot, staring up at the box where Pleo had revealed himself as the curtains were lowered and the Protector slipped from view.
"So he really is out there…" the Druddigon murmured. As the young Dragon-Type found himself dumbstruck over the discovery, Ander's mood had taken a far more agitated turn, the Scyther shaking his head anxiously back and forth.
"Irresponsible. It's all completely irresponsible," the Bug-Type piped. "Trotting around that- that thing around like it's some toy."
The Scyther's visible unsettledness drew an audible pause from his teammates, unsure of how to respond. After a short, awkward lull, Dimitri cleared his throat, hoping to shift the team's focus back to their present options at hand.
"Where do we even start on this?" the Kabutops asked. "I honestly don't know how we slice the whole 'getting Pleo' part right now."
The group fell silent as they mulled over the situation, thinking about how best to retrieve Pleo. Winning the tournament outright was a longshot, to say the least, but the odds of trying to steal him away from such a crowded, well-guarded area didn't seem much better. The five Pokémon found themselves blanking out, and after a while Kiran ruffled his feathers uncomfortably and spoke up.
"… Let's try and think this through in a quieter place," the Swellow offered.
The five turned and began to trudge off for the exit, passing by various Pokémon on the way over. Unbeknownst to the young Druddigon and his companions, at the same time, a Nidoran was passing by with her Growlithe and Cubone teammates. The rabbit and her companions were similarly not paying attention to the passing Pokémon until the Poison-Type chanced to catch the sight of a red crest high up from the corner of her eye. The blue rabbit blinked and caught herself, before looking back into the sea of Pokémon, her lack of progress catching the attention of her teammates.
"Something the matter, Nidoran?" Guardia asked.
"It's just, for a moment, I thought I saw…"
"Hey! It's this way!" a chirping voice cried.
The three looked and for a fleeting moment saw the forms of a familiar Swellow and Kabutops in the crowd in white scarves. The three blinked, and began to follow after, when much to Nida's astonishment, there at the mouth of the exit, she saw the form of a shorter Druddigon heading inside… Wasn't that-?!
The five Pokémon from the Siglo Swellow followed the rest of the teams into the maze of corridors and chambers that formed the arena's underlevels. The group hung back as the teams disappeared off into different chambers and waiting rooms, before looking around and slipping down an emptied back corridor. The five went down a ways, and after growing suitably convinced they were not being overheard, began to talk amongst themselves about their next course of action.
"Er… so what do we do now?" Pladur murmured.
"We fight and win the tournament?" Dimitri replied. The crab's question drew a nervous squirm out of the Fraxure, prompting him to look around his surroundings with visible unease.
"Yeah, but we're one team out of… I don't even know how many teams were out there," the Dragon-Type muttered. "A-And a lot of them seemed really tough. There was that Gallade with the Goodra and the Blastoise... the team with the Slaking... and that one with the Metagross…"
Pladur's doubts quickly rubbed off onto his teammates, making Crom, Ander, and even Dimitri blanch a bit at how daunting their odds looked at the moment. Even so, the Swellow among their number seemed to retain some semblance of optimism, as the bird fanned out a wing and patted his Druddigon pupil's shoulder.
"It's nothing that can't be resolved with a little bit of planning ahead," Kiran reassured.
"But… do we really know anything about the other Pokémon?" Crom asked. "How would we even know what to expect?"
A sinking feeling fell over the company as they realized they were more than likely hopelessly outmatched in a tournament full of career fighters who no doubt made a living fighting in tournaments just like this. To turn the tide as underdogs in one battle was possible, if challenging...
But how could they possibly pull it off enough times to win an entire tournament against foes whose strategies they had no foreknowledge of? And with just the five of them to support one another?
The situation came over the sailors in a rush, and it was enough to make anyone feel small in the face of an intimidating foe, to say nothing of the fate of Pleo and the entire island of Tromba hanging in the balance on top of it.
A familiar, squeaky voice brought the group to attention. Crom felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him as he heard it, harkening back to the simpler times before this whole mess began. The Dragon-Type shook himself and realized that it was none other than the voice that always came to greet him when he arrived from his family's bakery in the mornings...
"Wait a minute!" the Druddigon cried "That's-!"
The dragon whirled around towards the calling voice, and his eyes went wide. It really was Nida, in the flesh! The little Poison-type ran towards him with wide, expectant eyes as she called his name again. Following her was that Growlithe pirate they'd roped into their team all that time ago on Tromba, as well as another Pokémon Crom had never met before. The Cubone seemed somewhat confused as her friends rushed off ahead of her, but she hurried after them all the same.
The Nidoran and Druddigon darted ahead of their still-stunned groups, the young Poison-Type leaping into her Druddigon companion's arms as he lifted and twirled around with her. The Dragon-Type pulled the young pincushion close and gave an enthusiastic, nuzzling squeeze, little droplets forming at the edges of their eyes as their reunion sunk in and their teammates neared.
"I've missed you so much…" the Dragon-Type sniffled.
"Yeah…" Nida answered. "Same here-"
"Eh?! Just who are these majū?"
All eyes in the gathering turned at the sound of a raspy voice, settling down on a puzzled-looking Cubone. Ander and Pladur in particular seemed to be surprised at the bone lizard's appearance; was this the extra Pokémon Aulis had been talking about back in Copperband Village?
"Wait, you never told me you had a Cubone pupil, Kiran," Ander murmured.
"Er… I don't," the Swellow explained, before hopping over to the bone-helmeted lizard.
"Who are you, little one?"
"I'm Shugodeshi, lorekeeper-in-training of the Dungeon Colony," the Ground-Type answered. "My teammates here call me 'Guardia'."
"Bonehead also works," Elty replied. The Growlithe opened his mouth to continue, only to be promptly cut off by a conk of the Cubone's club against his head.
Nida sighed as her teammates traded glares with one another, and noticed that a faint, flustered chagrin had crept up on Crom and his companions. The Nidoran waved her paws, hoping to smooth over the less-than-ideal impression.
"We recruited her in Kenobi when we explored the Mystery Dungeon there," Nida explained. "Sorry if she was a bit of a surprise, Kiran."
"Oh hardly," the Swellow chortled. "With you recruiting a fresh member on your own, you've shown 100% more initiative than any of my past classes!"
Guardia wagged her tail a bit at the Swellow's greeting. Even though the stranger did seem to be a little more numbers-oriented than she'd have expected of a team leader, he didn't seem particularly dangerous. The others with him seemed to have their initial reservations give way after the Flying-Type's greeting and the sight of the bone lizard's more amiable demeanor, prompting them to come up and introduce themselves to their new teammate.
"Ah, well it's nice to meet you Guardia!" Crom greeted. "I'm Crom! And the Swellow is my team captain, Kiran."
"Pleased to meet you," the Flying-Type said.
"And I'm his father, Pladur," the Fraxure in the group offered. Sensing that he was the only one left out, Ander shifted uneasily before tapping his scythes together and warily speaking up.
"And I'm Ander…" he offered. "I do business with their family. I guess."
"Well, I don't know about the other three. But I do know about you, Crom," the Cubone replied. "The others kept talking about you when we first met."
The bone lizard's explanation drew a nonplussed flap of the young dragon's wings, along with a similarly flustered-looking fold of Nida's ears back along her head. Finding herself to be the center of a bit more attention than she anticipated, the Poison-Type tilted her head, and gave an awkward smile back to her Dragon-Type counterpart.
"… We missed you just a bit," Nida sheepishly answered, before pausing and blinking out of realization.
"Wait a minute, Dimitri," she murmured. "How did you get sucked into all of this? The last time we saw you was when those Imperials collapsed the Subway!"
"The rod ran into their ship while looking for you. When the Ataman was practically begging me to help look above-water for you, I couldn't say no to that sort of opportunity!" Dimitri chortled, before giving a curious tap of his scythes.
"But what about you all? What have you been doing here?" he asked. "When we tracked you down to Sormus, we had heard you were dragged off by the Empire!"
"We were," Elty explained. "But they dumped us to the curb after they got Pleo and dragged him away."
"We were hoping to go home and ask Hatteras what we should do…" Nida murmured. "But when we found Pleo was right here… Well..."
"We found out he's out of our reach, obviously," Guardia sighed. "It's a shame we can't just fight our way to him…"
Crom and his companions looked down at the Cubone, deep in thought. If they were to try to fight their way through to Pleo, their only hope would be to do so through the tournament fair and square. But with odds as daunting as they were, just how could either of them hope to discover enough about their opponents going into their matches to get an idea of their weaknesses… It's not as if they could just pool their strength together for every fight!
That said… was there really anything to stop them from doing it outside each one? The sailors' eyes lit up as they realized that they'd been looking for help to find out enough about their opponents to stay a step ahead of them while still setting aside time to train and prepare. All this time, the solution was standing right in front of them!
"Wait, what's that look for?" Guardia demanded.
"Actually… Maybe we do have a way of doing that after all," Kiran murmured.
"Huh?" Nida asked. "What do you have in mind?"
Back at the box where Pleo had been housed, as the tournament had gone on, even in the lulls between matches, the mood remained electrified as Berecien, Cabot, and Niilo traded excited talk amongst themselves over the results of the prior matches. The three prattled on amongst themselves, occasionally glancing out to watch the process of the field being cleared out for its next match, as was always done prior to matches to smooth out damage to the field and to try and set the rough theme for the battlefield's next match. The process of setting up for the incoming match was nearing its tail end, with Pokémon on the field moving the last few stones into place to help make the battlefield a craggy facsimile of a mountainous clearing.
Even so, there was one conspicuous exception to the shared excitement in the box, as Pleo huddled to himself in a corner. Indeed, much to their astonishment, even during the entire afternoon full of battles so far, the young Lugia with them had shown little appetite to do much other than to rest by the columns of the box and poke his head past the nearby curtains and over the balcony every now and then. Berecien, Niilo, and Cabot hoped that perhaps the thrill of battle would soothe his spirits, and decided to give the Protector space for the time being.
As the three droned on, the Lugia looked back out onto the field, where he saw that the workers had cleared the battlefield and the teams for the next battle began to take their places. At the far end was a party consisting of a Cubone, a Growlithe, a Nidoran…
Eh?! Why those were none other than his own teammates!
"Ah! They came back!" he chirped. "Hey! I'm up here!"
The young Protector sprang to his feet and moved in front of the window, waving out at the field eagerly. He heard the roar of the stadium and continued waving his wing out at his friends in the distance… Only for them to keep looking ahead, and the three youngsters to look around puzzledly at the suddenly energized stands as a sinking realization dawned on the seabird.
"Oh… they don't notice me…"
Indeed, as Pleo's enthusiasm ebbed away and the Lugia drooped his head, Team Traveller continued to look around at their surroundings in the arena pit. All the while, the three tried to make sense of the sudden spurt of excitement as thoughts fresh off of a session trading stories and tips with Crom and his teammates lingered in their minds.
"Eh? What's with this crowd?" Elty murmured. "I feel like we just missed something here…"
"Hrmph, worry about that later," his Cubone teammate countered, before pointing her bone off into the distance. "Our foes are coming out to challenge us right now."
Nida and Elty followed the tip of the Guardia's club off into the distance, where sure enough, the forms of three Pokémon with rescue badges sidled onto the field. At the front was a dark violet-blue Gligar hopping and scurrying along the ground, followed closely by… a magenta Monferno and a white Vulpix? Why, if they didn't know any better, they'd think the fox was an Ice-Type!
When Kiran had come back with his findings about the team, he hadn't mentioned at all that their opponents would be such head-turners… He hadn't miss anything else in the process, had he?
"And representing the Tidemill North Guild on the left is Team Anomaly! The flashiest up-and-comers you'll see in the tournament today!" Thalez's voice crackled. "On the other side… three random kids from Company waters! 'Team Wanderer' or something like that."
Right on cue, the crowd of spectators began to boo and hiss at the young adventurers. No matter where Team Traveller looked in the crowd, all they saw were Pokémon jeering them down, seeming all to wish defeat on them right out of the gate.
"Whelp, looks like the crowd's made up its mind over who to root for," the Rotom chimed. "Can't say I don't feel for them!"
The three Pokémon wilted at their less-than-hospitable reception from the feisty locals. Couldn't they just root for their favorites like normal Pokémon?
"Was that introduction really necessary?" Elty grumbled.
"Tsk," Guardia scoffed. "They certainly favor their colony's home team…"
"Hrmph, we'll make it through this," Nida grunted. "We just need to win this match, and then we'll alternate with Crom and the others to get sneak peeks at how our next foes will fight!"
Derisive laughter rang out from across the battlefield, and Nida turned to see the Gligar and his team smirking at them dismissively.
"Hate to burst your bubble, but there won't be another match for ya," the flying scorpion jeered.
"Yeah, that next round's got our names written all over it!" the white Vulpix added.
"Grr… We'll see about tha-" Guardia growled, readying her club only for Thalez's voice to once again fill the arena.
"Aaand they're already getting into it, folks. Let's not disappoint our fighters and get their match rolling! To your places!"
The two teams took their places at opposing sides of the battlefield, planting their feet and readying themselves to spring into combat. The Rotom announcer positioned himself over his announcer's booth, floating as a growing ball of static built between his arms and the stands began to pulse with excitement. The Ghost-Type raised his arms up, prompting the stands to break into a countdown in a united voice.
At the sound of Thalez' thunderclap, Team Traveller sprang up and bolted down the battlefield for their opponents. Nida and Elty trained their attention for the Vulpix and Monferno respectively as Guardia charged on ahead for the Gligar, bringing her club into motion for a swing as the bug-like creature planted his feet and crouched.
"Hah!" Guardia sneered. "You'll never get anywhere just standing there like tha-"
Guardia swung her club with all her might at the flier, only for the Gligar sprang into the air in a flash. The Cubone stumbled as her club cleaved through the air, finding purchase on nothing solid in its path, and only barely readjusted her balance in time to avoid falling over entirely. She glanced up at the scorpion incredulously, just as he dove back to the earth, smoothing his landing by catching the wind beneath his membranous wings and gliding gently down.
"Eh?!" the bone lizard exclaimed. "You can do tha-?! Ack!"
Guardia tumbled as she felt a frigid blow come from behind. She hastily righted herself and brushed some ice off her back spikes, seeing that much to her astonishment, the Vulpix really could spit ice instead of fire! The Cubone hastily dove out of the way as a blast of powdery snow came at her, the Ground-Type's plight prompting Nida to hastily run after the fox in pursuit with her legs tensed for a pair of kicks…
"Not so fast, cunìcio!"
Only to feel a crushing divebomb from the Gligar that sent her tumbling head over heels. A sharp yelp from the background quickly evidenced that Elty had fared little better, the Puppy Pokémon sailing facefirst into the battlefield after having been kicked into the air by his Monferno opponent. Under withering fire from all ends, the three members of Team Traveller hastily retreated for their end of the battlefield, grouping back together as their foes gave chase behind them much to the audience's roaring delight.
"And a strong opening by Team Anomaly!" Thalez cheered. "Will Team Wanderer, manage to get their act together? Or is this the end of their short career here at the Silver Wing Cup?"
"Gah! That Gliger was standing around like that to lure us into a trap!" Guardia fumed.
"Trap or not, this is gonna be a short fight if we can't take care of him!" Elty growled.
"How are we supposed to do that when he keeps weaving out of the way!" the bone lizard protested.
Nida bounded towards the Gligar, spikes fanning out as she lobbed poisonous needles up into the air, but found her attempts thwarted again and again as the scorpion zig-zagged out of the path of each attack. The Nidoran dove out of the way of an incoming air-blade and countered it with a poisoned spike, only to gawk as the pin sailed clear past its target and landed harmlessly on the ground of the battlefield.
"Gah!" Gritting her teeth in frustration, Nida glared up at the blasted bug, cursing his evasive abilities. It seemed downright impossible to hit him as long as he was in the air, air, with how he was dodging every attack aimed his way in some errant direction! There was no way they could win this fight! …Unless… he could be led into an attack?
"That's it! We'll just have to control where he flies!" Nida grunted. "Cover me and take a shot when he's coming into range!"
Nida lowered her head and charged ahead for the Gligar, fanning her spikes out as she ran forward. The Poison-Type twitched her hide, flicking a spike into the air at the scorpion only for the Ground-Type to weave left of it. The Nidoran's assault quickly caught the attention of the white Vulpix, prompting him to alert his Monferno teammate and dart after the Nidoran.
"Oi, heads up, Snowy!"
Before the Vulpix could turn to see the source of the voice, he was cut off by a stinging rain of embers and soot blowing into his face. His Monferno teammate skidded to a stop at the sight of the Growlithe culprit behind the attack, pivoting and readying a lunge. Before the ape could carry on, she was cut off by Guardia charging on ahead, forcing the monkey to leap back as the Cubone forcefully swung her club out at the Fire-Type.
"Agh! He got soot in my eyes and fur!" the Vulpix yelped.
"Gardie!" Guardia snapped. "How much longer do we have to keep this up?!"
"Huh?" the Monferno asked, blinking. "Keep what up?"
The Monferno turned and saw that from her position there was a clear line of sight to her Gligar partner and the Nidoran pursuing him. The Fire-Type turned back and saw that a smirk had spread over her Growlithe opponent's face, before he took off in a sprint, prompting her to go wide-eyed out of realization and dash after him.
"Oh no you don't-!" the Monferno shrieked, only to be cut off with a raspy shout.
"Outta my way!"
The monkey reeled after feeling a heavy blow against the side of her head, sending her pinwheeling as Guardia came to a skidding stop in the dirt of the battlefield. The Ground-Type whirled and turned to run after her Growlithe teammate, the fire dog continuing on in his charge towards the Gligar as fire began to dance on his pelt. The Puppy Pokémon leapt and brought his legs over his head in a fiery wheel, somersaulting straight into the scorpion as he desperately tried to pull up higher into the air.
Elty's blow sent the Gligar shooting up into the air, pinwheeling uncontrollably as he plummeted back down to earth with a loud thud. Team Traveller's three members waited a tense moment, only to see the Ground-Type starting to get back up visibly tottering, prompting Nida to flare her ears in realization that their opponent's strength was fading fast.
"This is it!" the Nidoran cried. "Make your hits count here!"
The team descended upon the Gligar with kicks and blows as Elty bit down on his wing. The scorpion screeched and thrashed under the blows, desperately flailing to get free as his movements grew increasingly labored and fatigued. With her foe pinned at her feet, Guardia growled and raised her club over her head, only to be knocked onto her stomach with a yelp by an icy jab from behind.
"Hang in there, chief!" the Vulpix shouted. "We're coming!"
The Monferno and Vulpix charged ahead, the latter limping somewhat as the battle wore on him. Elty met their rush head-on, fire erupting from his pelt as he somersaulted directly into the Vulpix. A piercing shriek rang through the arena as the Ice-type flopped backwards, faceplanting into a limp heap on the ground. The Growlithe shook off the impact of the blow, giving a contented huff as he studied his handiwork.
"One down, two to-"
Elty was swiftly broken out of his reverie by a fist curled tight around the nape of his neck, yanking him off the ground forcefully. He yelped and thrashed about, turning around in his aggressor's grasp and coming face-to-glaring-face with a Monferno, her fist already reeled back for a heavy punch.
The Growlithe flinched and screwed his eyes shut, bracing for impact, but his eyes snapped back open as the primate gave a shout and dropped him. Elty tumbled to the ground, craning his neck up to see the ape doubled over in pain clutching her stomach, and Guardia reeling back to deliver a forceful uppercut. The dog turned and fell back, just in time to see the Gligar take flight as a Poison Sting from Nida sank into his left membrane.
"Gnrk! I'm not done yet, Nidoran!" the Gligar hissed. "Better hope that-"
Before the scorpion could finish his threat, he watched as Nida turned and bolted for the direction of his Monferno teammate. The Gligar narrowed his eyes and seethed, diving after the little pincushion as he chittered under his breath.
"Hey! Get back here!"
The Gligar dove after the blue rabbit in pursuit, only to begin to feel woozy and disoriented as soon as the air billowed out under his wings. The scorpion grimaced and poked his head down to inspect the membrane of his left wing, where he found a spike lodged in it, still dribbling purple poison. He looked ahead just in time to see his Monferno teammate send his Cubone foe tumbling back with a punch under her chin, only to be caught by a tackle from the Nidoran immediately afterwards. The scorpion grimaced as his companion fell to the ground and failed to pick herself up, grudgingly realizing that the spike ball's desperate run-around on the battlefield had been far less desperate and reactive than he'd thought.
"… Well played…"
The congratulations came out slurred and trailed off as its speaker lurched forward, depleted of his strength. The scorpion went limp and tumbled out of the air, hitting the stadium floor with a dull thud and kicking up a small cloud of dust. A stunned silence filled the air of the stadium, dragging on for seconds that felt like eternities before the quiet was broken by the sound of a loud thunderclap.
"Aaand I don't know how they managed it, but Team Wanderer pulls in for the win!" Thalez exclaimed. "Give it up for our winners, folks!"
Some scattered, wary clapping and cheers rose from the crowd, seemingly unsure whether or not it was appropriate. After a few bolder and braver souls took the plunge into a full applause, others joined in, until the whole arena was alive with an enthusiastic roar. For a moment, time seemed to stand still for Team Traveller, the lot glowing with pride as the whole world seemed to share in their hard-won victory.
"Heh… we did it," Guardia wheezed. "All five of us!"
Nida and Elty bit their tongues as they watched Guardia lurch and totter, leaning against her club for support. The two traded uneasy looks with each other, wondering if perhaps they'd pushed themselves a little too hard out on the field in the past match.
"Just how hard did they manage to hit her?" Elty murmured.
Nida looked back in the direction of their opponents, where a Comfey, a Blissey, and a white Meowstic in the familiar red scarves of healers scooped up the felled Pokémon and loaded them onto slings to carry off. As the party departed, Nida saw the Gligar crack his eyes open, before smiling weakly with a wave. If he could start recovering so quickly from the blows he'd taken… surely Guardia's wounds wouldn't be so much harder to surmount?
"Nothing that we can't manage, I think," Nida reassured. "We'll just have to make an extra stop to patch ourselves up before meeting up with Cardino and-"
The Nidoran trailed off as she noticed the sun was much lower and further to the west than she thought it'd be. Why, it looked like it was just an hour or so before sunset, and they still needed to get to the courtroom to bring their evidence to Cardino!
"Ack! It's late in the afternoon already!" she squeaked. "We need to get going!"
"But what about bonehead's double vision here?" Elty insisted.
"We'll fix it on the way!"
The three hurried off, pulling Guardia along by the arm as they slipped back into the underlevels of the arena. They'd survived their first battle in the ring well enough, so with any luck, fortune would smile on them again in court…
As Team Traveller slipped off the field, Pleo continued to hover around the column of his stadium box, his mood having failed to improve after his hopes of catching his teammates' eyes were so thoroughly thwarted. From the side, Cabot and his companions noticed that their charge continued to appear downcast, and after some conversation amongst themselves, the Cranidos stepped forward and tapped his claws uneasily as he tried to strike up a conversation with the white bird.
"So... uh... how are you liking the tournament so far, Protector?" Cabot asked. "Those Pokémon were your friends right? They did pretty good out there!"
"But they didn't notice me…"
The Lugia's head drooped further, prompting him to tuck it under a wing to hide it away much to Cabot's dismay. After seeing their companion's failure to shift the young Protector's mood, Berecien and Niilo followed along, the two thinking of ways of their own to try and lighten the mood.
"I'm sure that won't be the last time you see them," Berecien reassured. "After all, you do have a role serving as the Protector of Anyilla and it's only logical that you'd run into them every now and then."
"And the stadium's not quite your neighborhood juice bar," Niilo added. "It wouldn't have been too hard for them to not notice you with that battle going on and all the excitement in the stands."
"But I didn't have that problem at all when they were with me…" Pleo muttered.
An awkward silence came over the group, prompting Cabot and his companions to kick at the ground sheepishly. Try as they might, none of the three were able to think of anything that might cheer up the young Lugia, and so they remained quiet as Thalez's voice filled the silence.
"And next up we've got… 'Team Hailstorm' and 'Team Blue Sun'? Really? Who was responsible for booking two merchant teams from out east against each other?" the Rotom scoffed. "Bah, whatever, feel free to get some refreshments, folks. You're probably not missing much."
Thalez's announcement failed to register in the young Lugia's mind, much less among his caretakers as they struggled to find anything to try and lift the seabird's spirits. One after the other, the three tried to make small talk to cheer up the young Protector, only to find themselves fumbling for words until the sound of a heavy hop reached their ears.
"So how are things going with the Protector?" a chittering voice asked.
The gathered Pokémon turned to see Nagant approaching, Pleo hopping back with an audible squawk. For their part, Cabot, Berecien, and Niilo didn't seem calmed themselves by the wizened crustacean's presence, as the Cranidos among them hastily began to speak to the Water-Type.
"Eh? Captain Nugget?" Cabot wondered. "What are you doing here?"
The shrimp reflexively shifted her claw in Cabot's direction, before noticing Pleo's frightened demeanor, prompting her to ease back. Even if the Cranidos ought to have known better by now, it was a bit crowded to be shooting Water Pulses around wildly...
"It's Nagant, Cabot," the Clawitzer hissed. "Please do be mindful of that."
Pleo watched as the Cranidos gulped and backpedaled away from the wizened shrimp, which prompted him to similarly shrink back. The crab had already hurt him, cut his feathers, and kept him tied up for hours in a darkened ship… From the way she dealt with her dinosaur underling, it didn't look like she would treat him any nicer now. B-But why did she still want to bother him? Hadn't she already gotten whatever she wanted?
"Wh-Why are you here?" Pleo stammered.
"Because the Queen insisted that I check up on your caretakers," Nagant answered. "There's plenty of other places I'd rather be right now than this stadium stuck with that obnoxious Rotom."
"When do I get to leave, though?" the young Lugia pressed. "I want to go home."
"You are home," the Water-Type retorted. "And it's a bit soon for the Empire to be talking about building visiting residences in islands that aren't under its control yet."
The full meaning of the Clawitzer´s words about Tromba returning to Imperial control eluded the young Protector, though perhaps that was for the better. From their vantage point, Niilo and his companions could see that the shrimp's attempt at comfort failed to do anything at all other than making Pleo feel even more downcast about his circumstances.
"Er… not that I'm getting paid for saying this, but I don't really think that helped, Captain," Niilo sighed. "Maybe distract him with something?"
"That's your job, Niilo!" Nagant snapped. "Besides, what would I even have as an offhand distraction?"
Almost as if in answer, a loud roar came from the audience in the stands. Nagant initially shrugged the matter off, supposing it to merely be a more exciting moment in the tournament, only for Thalez's voice to suddenly fill the stadium.
"And the crowd goes wild after a stunning down from Team Blue Sun's captain!" the announcer crackled. "Guess there is something worth watching from Company waters after all!"
"Eh? That was sure a change in attitude," Nagant murmured. "Wonder who's out there-?"
The Clawitzer turned to the field just in time to see a familiar-looking Weavile shift his glance to the corner of his eye, and spring up away from a fainted Vanillish as an Abomasnow charged at him. The Dark-Type quickly weaved out of the way as the Vanillish's teammate swiped at him with a crushing arm thrust, the Grass-Type's Hammer Arm carrying on into the floor of the arena with a loud crash. The sound of a piercing wind rang out, followed by a bellow as the Abomasnow was knocked back by an Air Slash from a strafing Crobat, prompting the Weavile to spring up and bring down the side of his claw in a chop at the Abomasnow's head, which made him stagger back, and topple forward unconscious to the crowd's roaring approval.
"And he does it again with an assist from his teammate!" the Rotom cheered. "Talk about your diamonds in the rough!"
The Weavile perched beside the sprawled-out Abomasnow, giving waves to the audience as the cheering continued. Even within Pleo's box, the audience's enthusiasm had rubbed off on the Pokémon present, with the visible exception of Nagant who scowled at the Dark-Type on the field, twitching her barbels in recollection.
"Heh. Not a bad choice of distraction there," Niilo said. "Take it you're impressed with the weasel, too."
"… Somewhat," she answered.
Cabot looked on curiously as the Clawitzer glowered down at the battlefield, studying the victorious team's Weavile intently. He'd never noticed her having much interest in these sport-battles in the past; the Dark-Type did look a little familiar, but there couldn't have been anything too strange about him… right?
"Is something the matter, captain...?" Cabot asked.
"... Probably not," the Clawitzer grunted. "I just need to check up on something."
Nagant hopped from her place by the balcony and made for the door, catching the attention of the three other sailors and drawing puzzled tilts of their heads. Berecien opened his mouth to inquire as to her destination, but she pre-empted him before he could get a word in.
"I'll be back in a bit," the shrimp insisted. "Just stick to your duty."
Cabot and his companions traded looks with one another, but opted not to interfere with the Clawitzer's as she began to leave the viewing box. The pistol shrimp set off, hopping along the hallway deep in thought. It was far too implausible for that same Weavile to suddenly be here after running into her at Sormus. How could he have reasonably gone from joking about being a spy nearby the Protector's location at the time, to suddenly showing up at said Protector's public debut without something nefarious afoot?
So who was that Weavile? And more importantly...
"Why is he really here?"
Team Traveller's mad dash across town took them to a stone, columned building set in front of a plaza with a statue of weighing scales set up before it. The three found themselves staggering up a set of marbled steps, running through a tall-ceilinged lobby and up a flight of steps at the end to a sunlit hall lined with doors before coming to a panting stop. Near one of the doors was the familiar face of Cardino - their Detective Pikachu employer - who judging from his impatient flicking of his ears had been waiting for them for a good while by now.
"Where have you all been?" Cardino demanded. "The Defense has been stalling for an hour!"
"Sorry," Nida sighed. "We kinda got held up getting the evidence."
The Pikachu paused to size up his assistants. Numerous scuffs and bruises on their bodies told a tale of a tough fight, meaning that they must have taken on a round before finding their evidence...
"I see you weren't able to find it before your first match," Cardino murmured. "Well, no matter. Here. Just take these and start chewing when you get inside, the Defense staked its case on a cross-examination of whatever you found."
The Electric-Type's reaction drew blank looks from his assistants, though the expression of the Cubone was blankest off all. What exactly did the hut-dweller rat just say?
"A what now-?"
Cardino hastily fished out some Oran Berries from a shoulder bag and thrust them into Team Traveller's paws. The youngsters started to speak up, only to find themselves pushed through the door into a large chamber with two rows of seats at opposite ends behind tables. To the right was Nico and Rita, and over to the left was the form of a Serperior batting his tail impatiently against the floor. The sound of a throat clearing directed their gazes upward, prompting them to see a Slowking peering down from a raised bench overlooking the room.
"Er… hi?" Elty asked.
"Oh, it appears that the Defense's witness is finally in court," the Slowking murmured. "Be noted that making an old Pokémon wait like this doesn't help your odds of getting a favorable verdict out of me."
Nico and Rita grimaced at the Slowking's disappointed grumbling. The Fletchinder of the pair ruffled his feathers at the judge's poor first impressions. Showing up late to court was not the way to start a life-or-death case like this...
"Erk… Yes, your Honor," the robin gulped. "I'm sure that they have a perfectly good explanation for this…"
"Gah hah hah! I see the Defense's inexperience is showing," the Serperior sneered. "Well no matter, all the more opportunity for Akin the Rookie Killer to cut your lucky streak back down to size!"
"We got held up at the stadium," Elty explained. "It was a bit confusing to get here in a hurry."
"Oh! The one that Thalez's announcing for?" Rita asked. "Did you manage to get an autograph?"
"Aherm!" the Slowking chided. "In the interests of moving this along in time for everyone to have an opportunity to get an autograph, we should really move onto the cross-examination now."
The three members of Team Traveller looked up from their berries, juices still staining their muzzles. There was an awkward silence as the trio grew increasingly aware that they were being stared at, evidently in expectation that they'd say something back...
"Cross… examination?" Nida murmured.
"I ask you to give testimony, I review your statements and point out if there's any inconsistencies with the case?" Nico answered. "You know? Basic legal proceedings?"
"Eh? That sounds so convoluted!" Guardia protested. "Just throw a bone at the three and get the trial over with!"
Guardia's exclamation was met by the sound of exasperated groaning, a quick look revealing that Nico had buried his face in a wing, shaking his head.
"That's… not how law works here…" the Fletchinder sighed, before murmuring under his breath. "What rock did Cardino turn over to get these guys?"
"The Prosecution suggests that the Defense save the court this farce and send in the clowns already," Akin scoffed.
"Wait, didn't we win a case by doing that once?" the Rita whispered to herself, before clearing her throat to speak up. "But anyhow, you just need to talk about something we want to know. You had a question, right Nico?"
"That's right. The Defense maintains that the evidence recovered by Detective Cardino's assistants will prove the innocence of our clients!" the Fletchinder insisted. "So the Defense requests that the witnesses testify about what they recovered and how they found it!"
The robin's exclamation drew a disdainful hiss from the Serperior prosecutor from the other end of the room. The Slowking at the judge's bench didn't seem much more enthused with the matter, and shot a skeptical frown back at Nico's desk.
"… This had better be worth the wait, Defense," the Judge grumbled. "Witnesses, please give your full account of the process of recovering the evidence."
"Uhh... well, Cardino hired us to go into the stadium to look for evidence that had been shipped there by accident," Nida began. "So we entered the tournament to get in."
"We looked around high and low, but couldn't find anything until we noticed a guard standing for a long time in front of a random poster," Elty chimed in.
"He snuck off, and we checked the area, where there was a switch to a secret entrance," Guardia added.
"At the bottom, we found a hidden room full of papers and crates with straw in it and a tunnel that went off to someplace we didn't check," Nida continued. "It looked like it had been used to move stuff around."
"Hold it!" Nico demanded.
The Nidoran sprang upright, flailing a moment to keep her balance at the sound of the robin's loud chirp. The Poison-Type looked over and saw that the attorney had extended a wing out, pointing intently at her with its tip.
"So that's where you found the missing evidence?" the Fletchinder asked.
"That's right!" the Nidoran exclaimed. "It's this journal here!"
Nida pawed at Sibich's journal on the podium and held it up before the court. At once, a cacophony of murmurs broke out among the audience, and the Slowking craned his neck towards the tome to get a better look.
"Well, what's it say?" the Judge asked.
"Er... we weren't able to figure it out. It looks like it's written in some sort of code," Elty explained. "But that's a sign that whoever wrote this had to be someone high-up and not just a bunch of random pirates, right?"
A loud smack rang through the room as Akin slapped his tail against his desk and gave an impatient hiss. The Grass-Type giving a dismissive wave, before shooting an annoyed look across the room back at Nico and his party.
"Anyone can make a coded message!" the Serperior scoffed. "Why back when I was in schooling, I'd use to pass messages to my sweetheart in law classes…"
"So we almost had little Akins crawling around…?" the robin murmured, trying his hardest to fight back a visible grimace. "Truly a horrifying thought."
The Serperior coiled behind his desk, giving a flick of his tongue. The Grass-Type's demeanor seemed strangely unmoved by Nico's barely disguised snark, the serpent shooting a smug grin across the room.
"If this is really the best you can do, you really ought to give up now, attorney," the Grass-Type chided. "You've proved absolutely nothing about your clients' innocence."
"But we just demonstrated-" the Fletchinder began.
"The possibility that someone else made the diary. I know you're fond of such things," Akin corrected. "But who's to say that it can't just as easily belong to your clients? Or for that matter, that it can't just be some throwaway book for testing pens out?"
The audience began to clamor as Nico fumbled with his words, obviously having resorted to weak bluffs and wild leaps of logic to defend his clients. From their place at the docket, Eric, Sela and Hanuna deflated as they realized the gravity of this miserable turn of events.
"We're so dead," Hanuna gulped.
"I told you that we should've been our own attorney!" Sela snapped.
"H-Hey! Spike lump!" Eric pleaded. "I-Isn't there anything else at all you can say?!"
Nida paused, grasping for a defense to blurt out, only to quickly discover that everything she could think of wouldn't work and accomplished little other than stumbling over her own thoughts again and again. There really didn't seem to be anything to prove the pirates' innocence from where she stood... but perhaps she could still cast doubt on the accusations, at least?
If there are no more objections," the Slowking Judge said. "I think I'm ready to hand down a verdict-"
"Hold it!" Nida squeaked.
All commotion stopped in the courtroom, replaced by an air of expectation as Nida found every eye in the room trained right on her. The Nidoran shrank back under the attention of the courtroom, but cleared her throat and hastily continued her objection nonetheless.
"Uh… well, we did find some other stuff in the room along with the diary," the Nidoran explained. "We couldn't bring most of it, but we have at least one thing with us that I think doesn't seem like it fits with this case right now."
"Eh?" Rita asked. "And what's that?"
"We found this shipping list here."
The Nidoran pawed through her satchel and pulled out a folded-up sheet of paper, giving it to Guardia to pass over to Nico. The Ground-Type made her way over and slipped the paper over, prompting the Fletchinder attorney to unfurl it, and his eyes to light up as he scanned its contents.
"Witness, please add that statement to your testimony," the robin instructed.
"Uh… okay... We also found this shipping list with the diary," Nida began. "There's a bunch of names and numbers for eggs with it."
All eyes turned to Nico as he pulled his wings up and pointed at the witness podium. The Fire-Type waved his feathers dramatically, before turning his gaze to his opposing prosecutor."
"You were saying earlier that I didn't have any proof of my clients' innocence, Prosecutor Akin?" Nico said. "Well, I present to you this shipping list!"
The Fletchinder snapped up the list in his beak, proudly unfurling it before the crowd of onlookers in the courtroom. Some confused murmurs went about when from his place at the Prosecutor's table, Akin eyed the paper, before giving an irritated hiss back.
"How is that supposed to prove anything?" the serpent demanded.
"You'll notice that this list is filled with the names of different crews. Why, the one for the crew my defendants are from even shows up for multiple dates," the Fletchinder explained. "Would a pirate crew trust three easily overpowered flunkies with a job like that?"
"That was so not necessary…" Eric growled.
"Oi, Eric," Sela snapped. "Don't undermine our case!"
"It does seem a little implausible to believe…" the Judge murmured.
"But the three just as easily could have been proxies!" Akin exclaimed. "And there's no proving that without either establishing what's in that diary or who wrote up the shipping list!"
The Judge groaned as he pounded his gavel for order. The Slowking sighed as he regarded one party and then the other with a muttering grimace, evidently not finding either end of the debate wholly conclusive.
"It doesn't seem like we have enough information either way to hand down a verdict," the Slowking said. "And I have a divorce proceeding to tend to in five minutes."
"Oh, isn't that the case with the Zangoose and Seviper?" Rita asked.
"Yes. It's an… excited case, to say the least," the Slowking sighed. "But anyhow, I'll leave the Prosecution and the Defense be until tomorrow to deliver more information about the owners of the shipping list and diary."
The Psychic-Type brought his gavel down one last time in dismissal of the trial, and as soon as its pound rang out, a relieved audience began to flow out of the room. Team Traveller shuffled outside after the crowd had cleared while Nico and his assistant packed up their belongings, and they too breathed a sigh of relief once they were out of the courtroom. They'd managed to avoid a crisis in their first trial… somehow.
"Gah… that should've been open and shut!" Guardia fumed. "They were obviously innocent! We even saw so!"
"Getting smacked with a bone isn't admissible evidence in most places, just saying," Elty sighed.
"Even so, just how are we supposed to get a lead on this diary and shipping list in a day?" Nida asked.
Team Traveller turned to see Cardino approaching them from the courtroom's door. The Pikachu's ears twitched inquisitively, their owner seeming visibly curious about some matter... involving them?
"You mentioned that there was a secret room in the stadium, right?" Cardino asked. "Mind showing me around there?"
"Eh?" Guardia asked. "Aren't you not able to get in there because of the tournament?"
"Not anymore. It's a crime scene, pal," the Pikachu corrected. "And one that might be able to determine how tomorrow's trial plays out."
"I guess that makes sense," Nida said. "Though are you sure that we won't get in trouble for this?"
"Nah, not any more than usual from my end," the detective insisted, his nonchalance drawing skeptical frowns from his assistants.
"Not sure if that was really reassuring…" Guardia murmured.
"Well, we don't have any other leads right now," Nida said. "Come on, let's check it out."
Cardino paused a minute as the three youngsters bounded out of the courtroom. The Electric-Type gave a skeptical tilt of his head before following along after his assistants. After such a tumultuous trial, surely there wouldn't be anything that could surprise them from a simple checkup...
Back at the Vecioferàle Arena, the tournament had continued on in a cycle of battles, the audience again roaring in approval as the current set of teams engaged each other in pitched combat. In the midst of the raucous cheers and shouts, a Weavile snuck up along the stands, keeping a keen eye on the Protector's box. For a fleeting second, the young Legendary poked his head out, leading Ketu to follow it, and to notice an entrance several tiers below just to the right. The Dark-Type set off, slipping into the hallway and coming across a stairwell, where he began slipping up the flights of stairs. He went up a first flight, then a second, a third...
"What are you doing here?"
The Weavile tensed up and flashed his claws, whirling around to see the Clawitzer from offshore Sormus standing on her tail behind him. The weasel shifted his glance from the corner of his eyes for a moment down the hallway, before looking back with an annoyed frown.
"I was out getting a stretch after my round to see the scenery," the Dark-Type scoffed. "Why? Something the matter?"
"You seem just a bit unnaturally interested in the stadium when there's an entire city outside of it," Nagant said.
Ketu flicked his feathers back and answered back with a shrug. The weasel watched a moment as the crustacean visibly fumed, before throwing a mischievous smirk at the Clawitzer captain.
"You know, if you want an autograph, you can just ask nicely," the Dark-Type teased.
The Weavile's remark was answered by a large chitinous claw being leveled at his face. The Dark-Type raised a brow skeptically before looking over to see its owner seething and wound up in an aggressive posture.
"I want an explanation, and you can keep your back-sass to yourself!" the Clawitzer hissed. "You were at Sormus just the other day. Why are you here and in the tournament?"
"My route just happened to take me here and entering the tournament sounded like a fun way to unwind during my crew's downtime," the Weavile insisted. "Nothing unusual."
Nagant clicked her mandibles and sneered at him incredulously. 'Nothing unusual'? That was a bald-faced lie if she'd ever heard one!
"Oh yeah, what are the odds of that?"
"And a daring forward slash by the Druddigon from the Siglo Swanna!" Thalez's voice crackled. "That little tyke's got some fire in him!"
Nagant and Ketu turned at the sound of the Rotom announcer, looking out onto the field just in time to see a young Druddigon spring back from a Delcatty's swipe with her tail. The pair watched as the young Dragon-Type weaved around the Double Slap, and rushed the Normal-Type, tackling her to the ground to a rousing cheer from the audience.
As the roar of the audience reverberated from the audience, Nagant watched with her mandibles slackened. That Druddigon was none other than the youngling she'd run into all the way back in Kenobi! He was here too?! The Water-Type's disbelief was quickly detected by the Weavile with her, who turned and gave a smug smirk back at her.
"Better than you think, Clawitzer," he answered. "It's not that big of a world anymore."
Ketu's explanation drew an irritated hiss back from the Clawitzer. Even if the whole known world fit into a common sea now, there was no way she could believe that the black furball or the Druddigon on the field had just shown up here by happenstance. But dragging his feathered behind in without some pretext would accomplish little more than a scolding for being hot-headed and acting on lack of evidence… Was there any way at all to make him slip up?
"Hmph, whatever. But let me ask you something else," Nagant demanded. "Back in Sormus you mentioned that you were just the acting captain. What species is the ship's normalcaptain?"
The Weavile paused and tilted his head puzzledly at the question, which prompted Nagant to click her claws impatiently. The Water-Type spoke up to press further, only for the weasel cut her off with a dismissive shrug.
"That would be a Mothim by the name of 'Captain Elmer'," he answered. "I don't believe that either of you two have met before, so feel free to believe me or not."
Nagant blinked at the response, she was certain that the weasel would've said something that would have wound up pointing to Commissioner Lyn. Perhaps he wouldn't have been so clumsy to outright say his name, but still… Something. Even so, this 'Elmer' felt vaguely familiar, though she couldn't pin down why…
Bah! A hunch was far from the evidence she needed! So for now, she supposed she had no choice but to relent here.
"… That's fair enough," she grunted. "You shouldn't be keeping your captain waiting for too long. He'll put you out of a job."
"Oh trust me," Ketu replied. "I know my boundaries when it comes to my captain-"
"Another thing," the shrimp added.
Nagant glowered harshly at the Weavile, and gestured from her eyes with her little claw before pointing forcefully to his.
"I'll be watching you."
The Clawitzer made her way back for Pleo's chamber as Ketu watched before turning back into the stadium. The shrimp was certainly an imposing obstacle in the way of retrieving the Protector and just as formidable a pursuer should they actually nab him back. Perhaps she was just a bit too much trouble to be left alone without having to… conveniently make her disappear. Much as he'd done to displace Lyn's old Absol First Mate.
… But then again, going with that route would have its own set of headaches. She was definitely more experienced in battle than Lyn's old First Mate ever was, and there certainly wouldn't be any higher-ranking allies to easily sweep matters under the rug here in Imperial territory were the Clawitzer to abruptly leave the stage. The Weavile shook his head and made his way down the stairs, deciding that his best odds of retrieving the Protector lay in not forcing a confrontation with the shrimp…
For now, anyways.
Cardino followed Team Traveller through Tidemill's canal-side streets, and back to the lower levels of the Vecioferàle Arena. His assistants led him down one winding hallway after another, until they neared a familiar poster down one such hall, prompting Elty to gesture ahead with one paw.
"That's it over there," the Growlithe grunted, pointing at the poster.
"Eh? But this looks like just another poster," Cardino replied. "And nobody's guarding it."
"Must be our lucky day, then," Nida murmured. "Because when I do this…"
Cardino looked on with mild amusement as first Elty, then Guardia, and finally Nida formed a tower by climbing atop one another's shoulders. Although it was a sight to behold, it wasn't one totally unfamiliar to him; he'd heard now and again of rescue teams forming such towers while exploring dungeons. He watched as the Nidoran pawed around beneath the poster until the group heard the audible pressing of a switch. Team Traveller dismounted their tower as the section of wall bearing the poster swiveled wide open ahead of them and revealed the staircase leading down into the darkness below.
"It opens like a charm," the Poison-Type said. Cardino blinked incredulously for a moment, waving a paw in the newly-opened passage to confirm to himself that it was not an illusion, before mumbling in thought.
"… Huh," the Pikachu remarked. "Talk about hiding in plain sight."
The group made their way down the stairs deeper into the darkened chamber. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the team felt around for the crate where the lantern had been, only to find naught but stone flooring. Team Traveller groped around in the dark, before a sudden, electrifying flash of light rang out and lit up the room. The three flinched and looked back to see Cardino had created a ball of lightning on the tip of his tail that lit up the room… and revealed it to be completely barren.
"Eh?!" Guardia exclaimed. "They cleaned it out already?!"
"I mean they have had several hours by now," Elty countered. "Wouldn't you also clean it out?"
Cardino's nose wrinkled as he sniffed at the ground, recoiling slightly at the strong scent of wood and hay. Could this scent have been left by whoever it was his assistants had seen earlier?
"Well, they must not have covered their tracks too well," Cardino murmured. "I can smell something was here. Let's try to see if they missed anything-"
The Pikachu cut himself off as the sound of footsteps down the stairwell froze the Electric-type in alarm, ears and tail held straight warily. Team Traveller glanced about the room, trying to make out the intruders, but the telltale drone of buzzing wings answered the question first.
"They went this way!" a chittering voice barked.
Team Traveller froze and went wide-eyed at the sound of the voice, recognizing it to be a Yanmega's. An uncomfortably familiar Yanmega…
"W-Wait a minute," Elty stammered. "That's-!"
Team Traveller watched as Cardino looked up in alarm, the three starting to whirl around, only to be summarily knocked off their feet by a cutting gust of wind.
The three heard Cardino shout after them and staggered up as the detective darted over, grimacing as they looked up and saw none other than Alvise, Nori, and Valatos making their way down the stairs, grinning maliciously all the while.
"Surprise, runts!" the Yanmega buzzed. "We decided to rope you into a pre-match warmup! First exercise, doing a jig on your spines!"
"Yeah, you didn't think that we were just gonna let you prance around here and show your ugly mugs without doing something about it," Nori growled "Did you?"
"Wait a minute, why are you here?" Elty demanded. "You're supposed to still be with the Iron Fleet!"
"Details," Alvise scoffed. "All that matters is that we're here in the same tournament, and you're here in whatever this weird room is, with us."
"So why wait for a matchup?" Valatos asked. "We'll have some fun with you. Right here and now."
The three brigands fanned out at the base of the stairs, settling into aggressive postures as they crept nearer and nearer to Team Traveller. The three youngsters backpedaled uneasily, only for Cardino to step out in front and wave his paws for a stop.
"Hold it!" the Pikachu exclaimed. "I'm Detective Cardino with the City Guards! These three are my assistants! You can't just go taking a swing at them!"
For a moment, there was an audible silence as Valatos, Nori, and Alvise traded looks with one another, before turning back to the Pikachu with dismissive snorts.
"Pah, and just why are we supposed to care about that, rodent?" Nori sneered.
"Yeah, I don't care if you're royalty, little rat," Valatos hissed. "Get out of our way, or get beaten with them."
Cardino blinked and twitched his nose uneasily at the stranger's pointed rebuffal. Team Traveller tensed up, watching as the Electric-Type licked a paw and slicked the fur on his head back, before continuing on with the glowering pirates in front of him.
"Hey, let's not get hasty here!" the Pikachu began. "I'm sure that whatever little argument's going on between you all's something we can settle with a little-"
Team Traveller screwed their eyes shut as the room suddenly flashed a blinding white from the ball of lightning on the rodent's tail. The Electric-Type threw it at the feet of the intruders with a yelp, Nida, Elty, and Guardia cracking their eyes open to see Valatos and his companions groping around in a blinded daze as Cardino hopped back.
"Alright!" the Pikachu cried. "Time to book it!"
At the Pikachu's prompting, the three youngsters took off running down the tunnel at the end of the room, slipping down a dark, stony passage as the sounds of angry buzzing carried on from behind them.
"Grr! You're gonna regret that dirty trick, you little runts!" the dragonfly hissed. "Kom terug hier!"
The four carried on as their eyes began to adjust to the darkness, revealing a dank stone tunnel that was occasionally lit by dim lanterns filled with glowmoss well past its prime. All the while, the sounds of shouting and footfalls rang out behind them, drawing closer and closer as the group charged on ahead.
"Friends of yours?" Cardino asked.
"What do you think?!" Elty snapped.
The group spotted light ahead at the tunnel and dashed ahead, the stone walls melting away into a winding maze of stacks of crates. Cardino and his assistants darted out, weaving from one crate to the other and found themselves on an enclosed dock, looking around wildly until they spotted the sight of an open, watery canal up ahead and a wooden catwalk wrapping around the stadium to the side.
"Ah! There!" the Nidoran cried. "We can take that exit out of-!"
Team Traveller hit the floor as a flying bone shot out in front of them, the Bonemerang arcing around and clipping Cardino in the head with a yelp before returning to a crate beside them, where Nori stepped out into the open. The trio hastily pulled up their Pikachu ally and turned to run, only to see Valatos and Alvise come up from behind, and encircle them with visible satisfaction.
"I believe we had a little catching up to do from last time," the wolf sneered. "Hope you like seeing stars, twerps-"
"Hey!" a low, rumbling voice barked. "Someone's here!"
"Give it a rest already," a hissing voice groaned back. "We've been searching for the punks edging into our turf and come up with nothing but footprints."
"No, let's check it out," a hound-like voice ordered. "I think Carlo's onto something."
Both Team Traveller and their foes looked around puzzledly for the source of the voice, noticing that Alvise's fur was standing up even more than normal, and his face had flushed pale. The group's collective attention turned to see a Swampert and a Salazzle in black scarves each with a red lightning bolt making their way for them, flanking a larger and visibly stunned Manectric in the same garb who Alvise visibly recoiled from.
"Wha-?!" the other Manectric spluttered, "Alvise?!"
"Alvise?" the Swampert asked. "Wait, isn't that your brother, Luca?"
For a moment, the different Pokémon traded incredulous stares with one another as Luca's gaze hardened into a fierce glare at the smaller Manectric. Alvise for his part was particularly attuned to his brother's mood, prompting him to trade nervous looks with his teammates before whirling around in a stammering panic.
"Yeah, forget this!" the Manectric whined. "I'm outta here!"
"Eh?!" the Yanmega demanded. "But who the he- Hey!"
Valatos and Nori winced as Alvise bolted away from the scene towards the arena. They glanced at the shifty strangers they'd met and opted to follow suit after their comrade. The Manectric among the team of strangers grit his teeth as sparks danced angrily along his hide, and the Electric-type dashed forward after them to give chase.
"Don't let that furbrain get away!" Luca shouted.
The Yanmega and Marowak hastily caught up to their fleeing companion, Nori looking over his shoulder and crying out for the group to duck. The three dove to the ground, going wide-eyed as some attacks zipped overhead, and a glance back revealing the three strangers were in hot pursuit after them.
"Gah!" Nori cried. "Get off our tail already!"
The Marowak brought his club overhead and slammed it into a wooden support beam on the side of the tunnel with visible vigor. A resounding crack rang out as the beam broke and the walls sagged, much to the three strangers' alarm, prompting them to dive out of the way in opposing directions as the roof caved in with a plume of dust. As the dust settled, the trio saw that the mouth of the tunnel had been filled almost to the top with bricks and rubble, the sound of Valatos and his companions retreating reaching the three's ears. At once, Luca launched himself onto the rubble, trying to kick away enough of it to create a passage while his Swampert companion threw aside a few rocks… and his Salazzle companion rolled her eyes and threw a claw over her face.
"Well, that was quite the reunion," the Salazzle sighed.
"Understatement much there, Giusy?" the Swampert retorted.
Team Traveller blinked incredulously as the three strangers got up from the rubble pile. The Manectric evidently was Alvise's brother, but as the group watched the Electric-Type growl out of frustration, one mystery kept swirling in their minds... what on earth had gone on between those two?
"Grr… lousy deadbeat thinks he can just waltz in here and show his mug like nothing happened?" Luca growled. "Well, he's got another-"
"So… this might be a bit of a bad time, but I need to pay a visit to the Don."
The Manectric and his companions blinked, before glancing down to see Cardino waiting for them. Scowls split their faces, the lot of them making no effort to hide their displeasure with the rat's intrusion.
"Yeah, and just who are you supposed to be?" Luca demanded.
"I'm Cardino, Detective with the City Guards," the Pikachu answered. "And I'm going to need the Don to answer a few questions from me."
The three strangers looked at one another for a moment, before dissolving into open, derisive laughter in unison at the detective's attempted ultimatum. Team Traveller backpedaled nervously at this. The strangers being so open about their contempt for Cardino surely didn't bode well for them, presently in the role of his assistants...
"What are you gonna do?" the Swampert sneered. "Arrest him?"
"Yeah," the Salazzle added. "The guards haven't been able to prove any charges in ages!"
"That might change. We found an egg-trafficking den just here in the stadium, and last I checked, this was the Saéta Family's territory. Your territory," the Electric Mouse Pokemon countered. "As such, I can't really say if he's in the clear over it or not."
All joviality left the strangers at Cardino's words, and the lot of them glowered and growled at the party. The Manectric among them paused in thought before shaking his head with a scoff, clearly none too pleased with the tone the little rat had chosen to take with him.
"Oh, you can get an audience," Luca growled. "I can't guarantee you can leave afterwards, though."
Team Traveller blanched and traded uneasy looks with one another at the Manectric's comment. Going along anywhere with these Pokémon just seemed like it was begging for trouble… On the other hand, the fates of Eric, Sela, and Hanuna were hanging in the balance, and it did seem unlikely they'd find any other leads this good…
"I accept," the Pikachu said. "Though I need to run it by my-"
"We'll come too," Nida answered.
"Yeah," Guardia added. "It's safer if we stick together."
The Manectric paced forward and loomed over the gathered Pokémon, the Electric-Type lingering a bit before lowering his snout to their level with a low growl and piercing scowl.
"Looks like it's your lucky day then," Luca grunted. "Let's go."
The three shifty characters quickly surrounded the other group, jostling them along down the catwalk into the crowded streets of Tidemill. All the while, Team Traveller kept a nervous eye on their surroundings, hoping to the Travellers above that they hadn't just made a terrible mistake.
- najemnik - Polish: "mercenary"
- cunìcio - Venetian: "rabbit"
- Gliger (グライガー) - Japanese: "Gligar" (Official Romanization)
- Kom terug hier! - Dutch: "Get back here!"