Chapter I: Awakening
"The slumber of reason generates monsters."
"It's useless. We lost them."
Two blurry figures made their way through the vast expanse of white that was the Spearhead Mountain Range. The snow crunched under their feet as they walked. A brief gust of frigid wind accompanied his words of truth, but they went unnoticed by his companion.
"Alice, you know just as well as I do that they've reached the Wasteland by now. It's not worth the risk."
His companion kept striding forward, her eyes briefly meeting the ground in thought.
"But ... we can't give up. They have to be around here somewhere."
The Grovyle looked around them. Towering, snow-covered mountains surrounded them, keeping the world under a perennial veil of white. The chances of her statement being true were slim at best. Why did she insist when the danger was so painfully obvious?
"Why won't you understand? I told you already, it's no use! The portal storm covered their escape. We have to go back!" he growled, his voice carrying a considerable amount of urgency this time. Her childish denial would eventually get them killed if he didn't start doing something about it.
For the first time during their entire trip, the Dragonair stopped in her tracks. She turned her head around, looking him directly in the eye.
"Gaius, do you honestly think they'll take the news lightly? If we go back like this, we're done for."
He stopped for a second. She was right. Their failure would not go unnoticed.
"Look, I'll think of something, ok? If we don't turn around now, the—"
He was unable to finish his sentence, as the whole world seemed to shake under them. A deafening roar, accompanied by the rumble of distant avalanches, encompassed the entire valley, bouncing off the mountains and at the two pokémon like a gnarling hound. The storm was coming. They could feel it in their guts.
"W-what? Again? It can't be..." Alice stammered, looking at the sky above as if a meteorite was hurling towards them.
"You...!" he hissed, his claws curling into fists, "I knew this would happen! We have to move, there's bound to be shelter somewhere around here!"
He felt cold.
Above the widespread numbness that ruled over his body, above the excruciating pain throbbing from his head, above all other sensations flowing in and around his body like a chaotic river, he felt cold. That was the only certainty he could hold on to.
With a strenuous gasp, he awoke abruptly. Thawing from their state of disuse, his nerves began reactivating. Slowly but surely, one by one, sending proper impulses through his body and to his skull, restoring life to his withering consciousness. Suddenly, he could feel himself, his arms sprawled out haphazardly, his tail crushed beneath his weight, the tiny ice shards stabbing at his windpipe's fleshy walls at every breath he drew.
"G-G—... N-n ... no—!" he wheezed, his vocal cords cutting out suddenly.
The Charmeleon instinctively tried to bring a paw to his burning throat, but a sudden pain jolting through his arm kept it locked in place. His breathing was ragged and heavy as his mind scrambled to maintain a steady rhythm, trying to think of something, anything to stand against the nausea choking his throat.
Something was wrong. He shouldn't have been feeling this cold. Why was he so cold?
His efforts were soon rendered futile when he broke into a violent coughing fit. Muscles spasmed and twinged as he arched his back against whatever surface was beneath him. Ignoring the pain, his paw immediately clasped around his own neck. Although the external pressure on his trachea didn't really help him while on the verge of spilling his stomach's contents—if anything it accentuated the problem—it was a good enough placebo for his stomach to slowly quell its turmoil.
Only when the entire process stopped, did his foggy mind find enough grip on reality to realise that he had no idea what was going on. He could vaguely feel his back pressed against an icy surface, riding up and down the storm that was brewing inside his head.
"N-no ... asce— ... nsion..." he croaked in between pants. He threw his limp arm up, claws spasming ever so slightly as if trying to grasp an imaginary hand that would hoist him up, hug him dearly and reassure him that everything would be ok, that he wouldn't be cold any longer. He could hear his voice echo both around him and inside his head, sensation gradually returning to his broken body. That last word came out of his mouth without him even realising it. Where had he heard it before?
His eyes shot open, but immediately shut again when the freezing air that hung around threatened to freeze their weakened tissues solid. When he dared to open them again, all he could see was stone. Dull, featureless stone. He was in some sort of cavern. His muffled ears could just make out some dripping originating from somewhere around him, but other than that, nothing.
"Ugh... W-w-what...? Where...?" he coughed out roughly, questions invading his mind all at once like a ravenous flood. Cold sweat iced his back, and his heart was hammering. Where was he? What was happening to him? Was he dying?
The possibility of that alone called to arms a sense of urgency in his body, that desperate need to assess the situation at hand and figure out exactly what on earth was going on.
Slowly, he tried lifting himself up with his stiff arms, hissing at the immane strength it took him to carry out such a trivial task. Though his efforts were ultimately futile, as mere seconds later he fell back down with a grunt, his resolve to get up on his feet fading away along with the last remnants of energy in his muscles. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek.
How—? What is—?, he struggled to even think, N-no. Calm down. Let's take one thing at a time. First, how did I get here?
He desperately tried to grasp for any memories of how he could have ended up in this hostile place. Much to his horror, he could only come at a blank. Blinking, he tried again, closing his eyes and trying to recall any recent event that had happened to him—he must have not tried hard enough, he thought. Once again, nothing. His entire body felt strange, almost hollow, but as the same time just as real as the sense of panic rising in his chest.
Determined to look further into what was causing him to feel so rot—and perhaps to try and find a speck of a logical explanation amongst the madness, he flipped himself on his back and raised his head to look down at himself. Even through his blurry eyes, it didn't take very long for him to notice that something was very wrong with his tail. Although he didn't have a visual memory of how it supposed to be, it was a fact deeply embedded in his primal instincts—there should have been a flame sparkling there.
My fire ... What's wrong with me? How did this happen?
No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts were swirling around too ferociously; he failed to grasp anything. His memories seemed to escape him the more he went looking for them. Where he was, how he got there, nothing. He could have been born in the world right then and there, and he never would have known. His head was utterly empty.
"No... Oh god, no..." he whispered hoarsely, pressing his head against the hard floor, perhaps hoping in the back of his mind that it would somehow help him understand what was happening.
No! It—it can't be! This isn't possible ... Why can't I remember...? He grumbled mentally as his claws clutched the sides of his skull tightly, trying to squeeze the memories out of him. It was impossible. He refused to believe that he knew nothing. There had to be something he could remember.
Focus! Need ... to... A small whine escaped his throat, his instincts screaming in fear at the prospect of being ignorant. Something wasn't right. His head felt empty. It wasn't supposed to feel that way.
No! Let's start with the little things. My name is ... my name... his heart ceased beating for a second. It was as if time itself froze around him. He didn't know. He couldn't even remember his own name. For all he knew, he had no name. He was just the result of some sick joke. He was no one.
"N-no ... No. NO!" he shouted, squeezing his eyelids tighter, "I c-can't ... can't ... Why?"
This—this is all just a bad dream ... maybe I'll wake up soon, and everything will be alright, However, just as he was about to give in to that strange craving to just lay down, arms around his knees, and give himself up to the protective blanket of unconsciousness, something came up. "I'm sorry."
He almost jumped in delight at finding those two oh-so sweet words buried somewhere beneath the mess that was his mind. Somehow finding the strength to will himself in a sitting position, hope was starting to creep its way back into the realm of existance. He once again looked around himself, almost as a confirmation that there was no evil presence playing tricks on him, his eyes still blurry from sheer fatigue.
He leaned his back forward and shuffled his lower body to try and make himself as comfortable as possible against the cold rock.
Okay. Everything's going to be okay. I just need to think, he repeated himself with a deep breath. When his turbulent mind eventually settled down for a moment, just enough for him to make sense of its own contents, he shut his eyes in concentration before resting his chin lightly on his paw and diving back into the unknown abyss.
Memories. They came up, just as slowly as the rate at which he managed to stumble across them. For a moment, his focus wavered, his arms trembled from the freezing temperature around him, but he quickly regained his mental footing and delved deeper. He wanted to remember. He needed to remember.
There were fragments, scattered all over the deepest recesses of his consciousness, mostly a jumbled mess of information, but they were there. Slowly but surely, they began making a little more sense as he attempted to restore a chronological order. Pleads of mercy, a deafening roar, frightened screams, someone saying "I'm sorry", the feeling of air rushing past his scales; and there was also the cold eating him alive, that withering, merciless hand which slowly turned him into a part of the ice itself—
He broke out of his trance as soon as he realised his newly-formed fantasies were outnumbering the actual contents of his mind, only to find his body quivering madly, a numbing sensation attacking his nerve endings on all fronts. Even his breaths were trembling as he attempted to hug himself tightly, squeezing every ounce of warmth he could gather onto his needy body. It made no difference at all.
The calm that he had managed to instill into his body quickly evaporated into nothingness. He had convinced himself that he'd find the answer to his dilemma buried somewhere beneath the folds of his psyche, but those insignificant fragments were everything he could come up with. They didn't even provide him with any useful information to hint at what chain of events could have ended him up in such a horrible situation, if anything only spawned more questions. And to make matters worse, he was grimly aware of the fact that no matter how hard he tried to remember, that was as far as he'd ever be able to go, at least in the state he was currently in.
He knew nothing, and it scared him.
Suddenly, he was on his feet. He blinked to get the layer of frost out of his eyes, then blinked again to make sure.
With his arms still glued to his body protectively, he hesitantly put one foot forward. He stopped for a second. He wasn't sure why he was doing this, whether it was to seek refuge from the cold or it had something to do with his current mental situation. Maybe he was acting on the basis of some distant, irrational hope that just by wandering in the dark aimlessly his memories would suddenly come back to him, out of nowhere, offered on a silver platter – he was much more likely to knock his head against a wall. That would be sure to wake him up from this fever dream of his. But then again, he couldn't be sure of anything right now.
The Charmeleon, his mind still coping with the lack of a name to call his own, began doing just that: wandering aimlessly. His legs struggled to drag themselves across the cavern's icy pavement as he limped his way further into the dark corridor he was in. He kept his head hung low, didn't look forward, there was no need to.
"Okay ... going ... to be okay..." he mumbled to himself as he rubbed his arms together in his self-embrace for comfort. The waves of pain that shot through his legs every time his feet touched the ground were becoming unbearable. He wouldn't make it very far if he continued like this.
Eventually, he stopped in his tracks, leaning against the cavern wall to pant the exhaustion out of his system.
A couple of seconds later his legs gave out from under him and left him tumbling to the ground, barely able to catch himself with his arms. Another wave of nausea washed over him, his eyes squeezing shut in response and his features grimacing. No ... have to ... get out of the cold...
Raising his head to take another sweeping look at his surroundings, he saw nothing but stone, dimly lit stone passageways that branched out in seemingly random directions. However just as he was about to dismiss it, one corridor in particular caught his attention. He squinted his eyes to see past the blurriness that blinded his vision.
Right there, at the far end of the passageway, he could see a faint light dancing upon the walls. A type of light which he somehow knew at heart, as if he'd lived with its glare his entire life.
His eyes lit up with joy. All the aches and pains deeply embedded in his legs suddenly vanished as he bolted to his feet and broke into a mad dash in a fraction of a second. The grim thoughts of freezing to death were suddenly replaced with a yearning to stand close to that fire, to embrace its heat, to feel alive again. To remember.
However, just as he was about to enter the room which housed his saving grace, two figures stood in his way, looking straight at him with wide eyes.
"What the— Who—?"
His sprint was interrupted so abruptly that he fell flat on his behind, earning more complaints from his crushed tail. Shooting upright, he dug his claws into the ground behind him and jerked his head back, attempting to react to the possible threat that befell him. His eyes, blinded by the sudden change in lighting intensity, could just make out the two figures, one made of different shades of green and one a deep blue hue, standing close to the fire.
"Stop right there! Identify yourself!" the green figure shouted, dropping into a menacing stance.
But his commands only resulted in his heartbeat fluttering wildly, as he frantically tried to claw his way backwards.
The green creature stepped forward. "I said don't move an inch!"
His back soon met the cavern's wall, and he could only stare as the green figure advanced towards him.
"N-no! Get ... away—!" his shaky voice suddenly cut. Right then, a strange feeling of heat came from his stomach, begging him to expell it if he wanted to escape with his life.
"No, Gaius, you don't have to—" the blue figure tried to argue as the green one raised its arm up high.
The Charmeleon tried to comply with the strange instinctual feeling brewing in his stomach, but only succeded in getting it caught up in his throat. Wide-eyed, his claws scrambled to his neck to try and stop the literal fire that was trapped there, to which his body reacted via a brutal coughing fit. Though the jets of fire that he involuntarily spat that way must have been considered an act of aggression, as the green figure suddenly sprung forward.
The last thing he felt was a blow to the side of his head, before his body was slammed against the cold stone floor and his consciousness descended back into the abyss.
He wasn't sure when he woke up, or whether he was in some sort of trance-like state, but one thing was certain: he felt warm.
The joyful crackling of a live fire welcomed him back into the real world. Sensations of much-needed warmth spread all over his body, thawing his nerves out of their state of perennial numbness and easing the tension out of his muscles.
He allowed a smile to form on his face, perfectly content with simply basking in his newfound comfort. However, there was one anomaly in this realm of apparent calm: a sharp object being pressed against his neck.
"Wake up," A voice above him spoke, its cold, commanding tone leaving no doubt in his mind. That wasn't an invite. It was an order.
When his eyes flickered open, they were met with the unfriendly face of some sort of green lizard glaring down at him, the leaf-like blade that protruded out of its arm ready to slice his head clean off his body.
"What's your name?" the Grovyle asked, unmovable in its hateful glare.
Jumbled, incoherent noises were all he managed to spew out, as his muscles suddenly locked in place in an attempt not to inadvertedly press his throat against the treacherous leaf-like dagger.
"Where are you from?"
"Huh? ... W-w-wha?" Apparently his answer wasn't good enough, as the blade pressed tighter against his neck. He gulped when he felt warm drops of blood running down his neck to his chest, which only resulted in his entire body shuddering in fright.
"You heard me. Answer."
His arms and legs began flailing erratically without his consent, as if trying to wriggle free of their trap. Just as he was about to give in to blind panic and scream to the heavens for help, a scorning, elegant feminine voice came from behind the Grovyle.
"Gaius, what are you doing? You're not going to get anything out of him like that. Don't you see he's just scared?"
After a long, drawn-out sigh, the Grovyle removed his leaf blade from the Charmeleon's throat and turned to face the dissenter.
"What now, you've started pitying them all of a sudden?" Gaius sneered, " I'm pretty sure that was you who almost got us killed because of them not too long ago."
The fire lizard leaned his head to the side to sneak a curious glance at the new arrival. His eyes were greeted to the sight of a long, serpentine creature with sky blue scales and a white underside coiled up on the other side of the pyre. Her head was adorned by two white, angel-like wings, while round, deep blue orbs were located under her snout and near the tip of her tail respectively.
"I can tell if someone's Scum from their face, and he's not one of them. Leave him alone," the Dragonair said, her eyes narrowed at the Grovyle.
"Fine," Gaius waved her off, "Whatever. Do with him as you please, I don't even care anymore. I'll go check on the outside."
The Grovyle proceeded to solemnly walk off into a pitch-black passageway that branched from the room they were in, only stopping briefly to add: "And try not to end up dead by the time I'm back, will you?"
The Dragonair mumbled something along the lines of 'idiot ...', before turning her head around to look at the newcomer.
"At least that's over with," she said, offering him a friendly smile, "How are you feeling?"
His hammering heart had settled down partially by the time the green reptile had left the room, but some uncertainty still lingered in his mind. Pushing himself with his arms, he carefully sat up, eyes locked with the Dragonair. It didn't take long for his brain to notice how his entire body felt different. There was no rotten black feeling churning at his stomach anymore. There was no lightheadedness, no numbness. He felt ... normal.
"Um ... f-fine. Thanks," he stammered, paws automatically rubbing his neck in the spot where his scales had been pierced. It genuinely marvelled him as to how kind she seemed towards him, especially when compared to how her less-than-friendly companion went fairly close to beheading him just a minute prior.
"I'm glad to hear that," she said calmly, slowly lowering her head onto her coils. They just sat there, quietly enjoying the fire's regenerative warmth.
He took the time to better examine the cavern room they were in. The room was quite small in his eyes—not enough to make him feel claustrophobic, but also just barely large enough to move around comfortably. The campfire they were sitting around was located in the very center, fueled by a small bundle of wooden sticks. As they burned, the flames didn't emit any smoke, a detail which struck him as odd at first, but he eventually gave up on trying to figure out. The only other detail that stood out was a seemingly half-full loot sack, which sat carelessly on the ground a short ways from its owner.
After a minute or so of relative quiet, the Charmeleon was half debating with himself whether he should strike up a conversation, when the corner of her eyes peered at him once again.
"You know, you're lucky you ran into us when you did," she stated, eyes studying his body up and down for a second, "You were in a really bad shape. With your tail fire out, I'm surprised hypothermia didn't get you earlier. Thank goodness you're alright now."
"Wait, you... helped me?" he croaked in disbelief. He had to have heard something wrong. There was no way the two of them would care enough to look after a complete stranger, one who just so happened to stumble in their way and pass out.
The Dragonair nodded, before quickly adding "It's no big deal, really. We were simply carrying out our duty. In fact, we didn't even do all that much. Just kept you warm and gave you some Aspear berries to stop that nasty frostbite from spreading. Your tail eventually lit itself back."
Glancing behind him, he grabbed his tail and jerked it in front of him to inspect it. A small, sparkling flame licked away happily at its very tip, dancing in almost perfect syncrony with its bigger brethren. He realized: that was the reason why he felt so normal, so alive!
But with that last thought, an even bigger realization hit him.
An involuntary sigh escaped his mouth as he let his tail slide out of his grasp and return to its idle swaying motion behind his back.
I guess it wasn't a nightmare after all. This is actually happening. I really can't remember anything... he thought grimly, a frown spreading across his face. Hugging his knees, he buried his head in the empty space between them and retreated back in his own thoughts. Though he may have been feeling better physically, his mind was still an utter mess and even the most basic questions about his identity still went unanswered. At the very least, the fire was keeping him warm.
"How ... long have I been out?" he asked quitely after a long pause, his gaze stuck to the glimmering campfire.
"Oh, about an hour or so. Nothing too crazy, I assure you."
Not getting any sort of response from the fire lizard, she finally seemed to have caught onto the hint of uneasiness in his tone.
"Hey..." she frowned, "I'm sorry for Gaius' ... um ... 'behaviour'. I assure you he didn't mean anything by it, that's just how he is. You get used to it eventually."
She slithered her way around the campfire and stopped only when she was seated in the space next to him. Hearing her movements, his head remerged from its position and turned to her just as she spoke.
"Listen, Charmeleon," she explained, "I need to ask you a few things. It won't take long, I promise."
Instinctively, his paw moved to cover his neck, which was still scarred by his previous 'interrogation'. His sign of distrust didn't go unnoticed.
"Don't worry, we're Civil Protection. You can trust us," she reassured, an unspoken nudge for him to continue. He didn't know exactly what this 'Civil Protection' was, but a small voice in his mind suggested him to be wary, especially when looking back at his previous episode with Gaius.
"Uh ... I-I don't..." the Charmeleon stammered, before finally giving up his efforts to find an excuse with a grunt, "Fine. I'm not sure I'll be able to answer everything, though."
"Oh, that's fine, don't worry."
The Dragonair had opened her mouth to speak, when it looked like a new thought had crossed her mind. "You know, I forgot to introduce myself. My name's Alice, and yours is …?" she inquired.
He tensed at the question. Not that he wasn't expecting it, after all it was a perfectly reasonable request to make of him. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to hear it.
Claws began fiddling nervously against each other as his brain scrambled for an answer. What was he supposed to tell her? That he had no name, that he'd just magically appeared in that world for no reason at all? Would they think that he was some sort of wacko? After all, who in their right mind wouldn't know even the most basic information about themselves?
So many questions, but the answers are so few... he thought grimly, forcing the rising frustration back inside. Snapping back into reality, he couldn't help but notice that Alice was still staring at him blankly, waiting for an answer. In all likelihood, she was forcing herself to look patient, while internally puzzled as to why he was taking so long to answer such a trivial question.
He began thinking of something he could say to maneuver around the awkward explanation, but every lie he could come up with turned out to be so easy to see through, he might as well have told her that nothing was wrong and he'd just been taking a stroll. No, he couldn't afford to lie. For whatever reason, the Dragonair seemed to trust him enough not to beat the answers out of him, and at the very least he owed it to her to be truthful.
With a dejected sigh, he spilled the beans. "I don't have one."
Alice looked visibly surprised at his answer. "Wait, you—you don't have one? How can you not... What do you mean?"
"I-I don't know!" he cried out, "I can't remember! I can't remember anything ... not even ... my own name..." he trailed off at the end, almost disbelieving his own words.
"Hey," she shushed him, "Ease up. Try to breathe deeply. There. Now, think. Can you remember anything at all? Did you happen to see anyone around here?"
The Charmeleon racked his thoughts for an answer as he cradled his head in his palms, trying his hardest not to lose his cool as he poured his mind out. "I ... No, I can't remember anything at all. All I know is that I woke up here, in this cave I've never seen before in my life, and ... it was cold ... then I stumbled across you two ... and ... ascension..."
Alice tilted her head at him. "Ascension?"
"I don't know," he grunted, "That damn word's been stuck in my head ever since I woke up. I'm not sure if it means anything or not."
"So," she pressed, "You didn't see anyone?"
"No!" he shouted, causing Alice to recoil backwards, "I did not! Ugh, just—just shut up!"
He regretted his words before he had even shut his mouth. The almost hateful glare he'd cast the Dragonair disappeared quickly, replaced instead by a forceful deadpan expression. He felt himself shrink in front of her pensive face, mentally kicking himself for his idiocy. What was he thinking, saying those things to the pokémon who had probably saved his life by keeping him warm in a time where he was defenseless, the one who'd been nice to him—a complete stranger—and even gave him the chance to explain himself? Alone as he was right now, he desperately needed someone to trust, not to turn them away when they spontaneously offered their help!
"N-no! I didn't mean to—sorry!" he blurted out.
But instead of rightfully lashing out at him for his ungratefulness, her response was quite different.
"... So they got you too, huh?" Alice said with a slightly distant tone, her eyes staring forward into nothingness for a few seconds.
"Wait, who are you talking about?" he blinked in confusion. The implications of her message were picked up almost immediately: did she have a lead on what had happened to him?
The Dragonair shook her head to regain focus, eyeing him with newfound alarm. "I apologise. It's just ... if Scum have started making incursions inside the border..." she trailed off at the end.
Much to further his confusion, Alice's expression quickly reverted back to her friendly smile, although some traces of nervousness were still visible in her eyes. "You know what? It's nothing you have to worry about. If what you say is true, then you already have enough problems at hand."
That only left him more puzzled than before. Who were these 'Scum'? Did they have any connection to his amnesia? Why was she hesitant to give the information away? She knew, he was sure of it. His arms were almost shaking with anticipation. He needed to know!
"Well, first and foremost we need something to call you by." Alice carried onward, as if ignoring his body language, "We could simply call you 'Charmeleon', but that isn't very polite nowadays, is it?"
She's right. I need a name. I need to have an identity, at least until I can remember my old one, he mused, tapping a claw on his chin in contemplation. By now, all thoughts of pressing Alice to tell him about what she knew had been pushed to the back of his mind—which, unknowingly to him, was just as the Dragonair had hoped.
"I have a few ideas," said Alice, "How does 'Flame' sound to you?"
"... Flame..." he whispered half to himself, testing the name out with his own jaws. It wasn't anything too exciting, sure, nor was it very original, but he was in no position to be picky at the moment.
Flame. Flame. My name is Flame. He repeated mentally, his claws squeezing his tail for reassurance. The more he repeated that name, the more adamant he became in claiming it as his own. Something about it simply felt ... right. There was no other word for it.
"So?" Alice inquired, "Do you like it? I can think of a couple of others if you'd like."
A strange feeling of triumph invaded his body, as he repeated his soon-to-be name one last time in his own head. A giddy smile began to form on his face, and grew ever wider until it could grow no more.
"... I love it. Thank you." he whispered with an air of finality, straightening his back in a newfound rush of confidence. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off his back. Now, he had something to call himself. He was finally someone.
"I'm happy to have helped," Alice smiled sadly, "I can only imagine how horrible you must feel, unable to remember anything at all..."
Flame—he couldn't have chosen a more fitting name!, he thought—looked at her, that smile still plastered on his face. He struggled to resist the sudden impulse to tackle her to the ground in a hug—it would have spelled the end for him, acting so intimate with a person he'd technically just met— even though he knew that deep down she didn't believe half of what he had said, she was only playing along with his fever conviction for information. Despite that, he couldn't ignore the fact that there was something about the way she worded that which didn't sound right. Hang on a minute...
"No, wait! You know about—" Flame cried out, before he was interrupted abruptly when he heard footsteps drawing closer to the room. Both pokémon turned their heads just in time to witness a certain Grovyle walking into the room from the same passage he had previously used to leave.
"You're still alive, I see," Gaius scoffed while crossing his arms, "Maybe your suicidal tactics aren't working after all."
"Cut your blabbering," Alice said, holding her head up high with her eyes narrowed slightly, "Just tell me what the situation is outside."
"The storm has subsided," Gaius announced, copying the Dragonair's body language, "Let's pack up and leave this rathole before yet another one starts."
Noticing Flame's sudden silence, the Grovyle glanced at him while walking closer to the fire, an act which only sent shivers down the Charmeleon's spine.
Without words, both pokémon started dismantling their impromptu indoors encampment, with Gaius stomping the ghostly fire to mere embers—amazingly without showing the slightest sign of pain—and Alice picking up some small items scattered about the room. During the whole process, Flame just sat there awkwardly, his eyes darting between the two.
Now, the only source of light remaining was his tail, which flared slightly to make up for the absence of an outside source of warmth.
"W-where are you going?" he asked, unsure of what to do. Were they leaving him there?
"You?" Gaius chuckled as he slung his rucksack over his shoulder, "Oh, don't fret. We're not letting you off just yet. You're coming with us."
Much like the Charmeleon in question, Alice seemed to know something was up. "We're only going to escort him to town, I hope?" she asked, sounding like she herself knew that 'Yes' wouldn't be the answer.
"In part, yes, but there's more to it than that," Gaius leaned in near Alice and whispered something to her ear, all while keeping his distrustful gaze trained on Flame.
Alice seemed almost offended by what he had said, immediately recoiling backwards. "What?! But he isn't one of them, I already told you! You know he isn't!"
"Remember when I said I'd think of something to fix our little problem? This is it."
Alice looked ready to protest, when something that Gaius added silenced her for good. "Unless, you want us both to end up in the streets again. Go ahead, the choice is yours."
"But..." she hesitated, "I'm sure there's something else we can do instead. We don't have to be so drastic about this."
"It's the best option we have," Gaius crossed his arms again, "And there are only bad options."
The Dragonair's eyes darted nervously between Flame and Gaius for a full minute, before finally conceding with a sigh.
"Curse you..." she spat, turning away to avert her teammate's smug face.
What are they talking about? Are they going to do something to me? Damn it, this can't be good... Flame bit his lip, unsettled by the conversation.
"You, Charmeleon," Gaius pointed an accusing claw at Flame, "Get up. We're moving out."
Begrudgingly, he complied, earning more than one complaint from his aching muscles. Alice was looking at him, her eyes telling him that everything would be ok, that he didn't have to worry. But he was worried, he couldn't help it!
"Stay in between the two of us," Gaius ordered him, "And don't even think about trying anything sketchy." as he said that, Gaius drew his leaf blade menacingly to further reinforce his words, leaving no further doubt in the Charmeleon's mind as to whether he should leg it whenever he got the chance.
"Let's go. The surface is just a short ways from here."
Before he knew it, Flame was trekking down a gloomy, rocky passageway, his tail's flame lighting up the path ahead. As he walked, his mind attempted to let his current situation sink in: he was being led outside of that forsaken cave by the two pokémon who had helped him, and that was good.
But besides that, pretty much nothing was clear. Apparently, the two were part of this 'Civil Protection' organization, and while the title sounded like something official and trustworthy, for all he knew it was a violent criminal organization, or maybe a separatist rebel group who kidnapped unaware travellers to help support their fight against the state.
He stopped his monotonous march, eyes wide as the unwelcome question sprung to mind: what state was he even in? Was there even a state at all, or was he currently in some lawless land?
No, I can't stop and think about this too hard. I'll lose my mind if I do, Flame shook the plaguing dilemmas out of his head. Panting, he leaned his shoulder against the cavern's wall for support, taking advantage of the momentary pause to regain his breath.
"Hey!" Gaius barked as he turned around suddenly, "What are you doing? You'll have plenty of time to rest where we're going. Stop lazing around."
"I'm sorry." Flame said, "It's just... I'm not feeling too good."
"What," Gaius huffed, "You think I'm in top form after running four kilometres and almost getting caught up in a portal storm? I'm tired too, and that's why I'd like to get home before nightfall."
"... Where are you even taking me?" Flame blurted out, something that came out as more of a wimper.
"Flame," Alice spoke from behind him, "I promise that we're bringing you somewhere safe. We just need your cooperation for something. You trust us, right?"
If it wasn't for the fact that he could feel a painful lump form in his throat whenever the Grovyle spoke, Flame would have said that it was her kind words that kept him from running off right then and there.
I don't think I can even trust myself right now... he wanted to say. They'd helped him, sure, but her partner had threatened to kill him before, and she herself was skirting around all his questions.
"Honestly, no, not at all. I just want to get out of here."
"Then there's nothing to worry about," she emphasized. On the other hand, her eyes were telling a completely different story.
I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I? Flame thought as he gulped down his fears, I hope you two know what you're doing...
The next couple of minutes zoomed by Flame's eyes, time his brain barely even bothered to register as it only consisted in more dull, uninteresting walking through that cave system while trying at the same time not to trip on the occasional large pebble scattered about—something he failed to do miserably. He was sure he'd heard some stifled chuckles from behind him in more than one occasion.
"You should pay more attention to what's in front of you. Aren't you the one with the light?" Alice asked, trying hard to conceal an amused smile.
"Shut up..." Flame retorted, rubbing his pained snout as he pulled himself to his feet for what must have been the third time in a short space of time.
But, fortunately for him, his suffering didn't last very long.
Is that...? He squinted his eyes to see better. At last, at the end of the long, narrow tunnel they had entered at some point, was the exit. The gaping hole looked more like a burning star, the drastic difference in lighting giving the impression of a pure-white veil that concealed the world beyond from prying eyes.
As they drew closer, Flame raised his arm instinctively to shield himself from the painfully strong glare. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd last seen the sun, but, seeing as his scales were tingling with ever-increasing excitement, he figured it'd been far too long.
Holding his breath, he took his first few steps into the outside world.
Flame couldn't help but gasp. Even with the iron curtains of amnesia currently hazing his mind, he was certain that he'd never seen such a sight before in his life. He slowly turned his head to look around himself, attempting to take in the scale of it all.
Rugged, craggy mountains towered all around them, their steep slopes coated by a thick layer of snow. The depth of the clouded sky entranced him, installing a small feeling of dread as the irrational part of his mind half worried that gravity would suddenly turn upside-down and drag him into the blue expanse. Hundreds of metres below, a stream of solid ice sheets followed along the valley's bottom. A quick glance to his right confirmed the presence of a small path leading down from the rocky ledge he was now standing on to the riverside.
Shutting his eyes for a second, he breathed in deeply through his nostrils, savouring the fresh mountain air mixed with traces of aroma coming from the few plants that had managed to survive the unfriendly temperatures.
"Keep moving," Gaius hissed as he pushed Flame roughly onto the narrow path, "My partner and I have a schedule to maintain, and we're already late as it is."
"... Oh, yeah. Right," he mumbled absentmindedly, before falling back in line between the two pokémon.
As the group started the journey downhill, Flame was still observing his surroundings wide-eyed, like a child witnessing the world outside his crib for the very first time. More than once he noticed Gaius looking back at him as he dragged his claws across the rocky wall to their side, stared intensely at the sky, or inspected the local plant life closely—even coming close to setting fire to what looked like some sort of half-frozen berry tree.
This all feels so ... new, Flame mused as the group reached the riverside, My body is telling me I've never seen this place before. But then, how did I end up in that cave?
"What, are you a southerner or something?"
Gaius' unwelcome question broke Flame out of the state of semi-calm he was beginning to enjoy.
The Grovyle was looking at him as if he'd suddenly sat down and started playing giddily in the snow. "You act like you've never seen snow or a mountain before. You're not from around here, are you?"
"Um..." Flame hesitated while he looked around him, somewhat hoping that the great colossi would provide him an answer. Southerner? South of what exactly? What am I even supposed to say? I can't tell him that I don't know, he wouldn't believe me...
"Y-Yeah. I'm from the South. I think," he said, smiling nervously and forcing his voice to sound as casual as possible. However, this answer only seemed to catch the Grovyle's attention more.
"From where, exactly?" Gaius pressed. It was clear he knew that wasn't the truth, though his voice strangely lacked aggression now.
You had to go ahead and ask that, didn't you? Flame cringed, kicking himself mentally yet again for uttering such a short-sighted lie. If there was any chance of him being seen as dangerous by whoever these two pokémon were working for, he was certainly not making life easier for himself right now.
"He's right," Alice interjected suddenly, "You do look like you're from the South. Things are surely much more peaceful over there. I mean, you don't see pokémon travelling up North anymore, since those guys have it so much easier than we do. Meeting you certainly is a welcome change," she smiled broadly.
"Well?" Gaius asked impatiently, cutting Alice off, "I'm still waiting for my answer. Don't expect me to believe every word that comes out of your mouth. If you are a southerner, then where exactly are you from?"
Flame bit his lip; he didn't answer, but the two still managed to get the message: he couldn't remember.
"Gaius!" Alice spoke to her partner in a whisper, though Flame heard anyways, "Cut him some slack, the poor guy can't even remember his own name!"
"You know what?" Gaius said after growing impatient of his uneasy silence, "Don't bother. Soon, you're not going to be my problem anymore. I've already got enough of those..." he muttered the last part mostly to himself.
A dead silence ensued as Flame's brain came to a verdict: it was best for his reputation—and quite possibly for his safety—to shut his mouth and keep walking.
Hours later, Flame could barely keep himself upright. His abused legs had carried him through what felt like miles, and now they were ready to give up on him. The landscape around him had slowly mutated from tall, rugged mountains and frozen bodies of water to a lush, flourishing meadow, interrupted only by the dirt path they'd been following for quite a while now.
However, Flame had long since stopped caring about his surroundings. Instead, other thoughts floated around his mind.
So ... hungry... He grumbled mentally as another cramp shot through his rioting stomach. He laid a paw on it, trying his best to think about something else, although without much success.
It feels like I haven't eaten anything in months ... Just how far away is this place, anyways?
He glanced behind him to look at his escorts. The two had been lagging behind for quite some time—they must have wanted to make sure that he wouldn't run away all of a sudden—murmuring amongst themselves so that he couldn't be able to hear.
Flame's eyes couldn't help but churn at the rucksack slung over Gaius' shoulder. Fantasies played freely through his mind, picturing just how much sweet, juicy food could be in that bag. Granted, he wasn't quite sure what type of food these pokémon usually ate, but anything that could quell his roaring stomach would suffice.
Should I ask them? he pondered, looking at them both before quickly shaking the idea out of his head, What am I thinking?! I'm in no position to make requests of them, I might just make matters worse for myself. Besides, maybe they'll give me something to eat once we get to this town they were talking about.
He nearly cringed at his own naiveness. Yeah, keep telling yourself that...
As he swam in his own thoughts, he failed to notice that his march was getting slower and slower, and before he knew it he was within earshot of his two escorts.
"I don't see why we shouldn't tell Ariel," Alice said, "This is a matter of ours and everyone's safety, for Arceus' sake!"
Flame briefly wondered whether to continue listening or to hasten his pace in order to avoid being caught red-handed. If they were sharing some sort of secret information, he thought, he could risk getting himself into bigger trouble, or maybe they would simply kill him on the spot. But, eventually, curiosity got the best of him.
"And get her even more pissed off than she already is?" Gaius grunted, "No thank you. This is probably just an isolated incident, the kind that blows away after a couple of weeks. There's no need to get our commander worked up over nothing."
"What if it isn't an isolated incident, Gaius?" Alice pressed him, "What then? Before we know it, we'll have thousands of them at our doorstep! Who do you think is going to come save us at that point?"
"Bah," Gaius sighed forcefully, "Why do you believe that guy, anyway? He could be making everything up. I wouldn't be surprised if he's just some poor bastard trying to snatch some food off of us. I mean, just take a look yourself! Everything about him screams misery to me."
Well he's not entirely wrong... Flame thought, unsure whether to chuckle or to hang his head in shame.
"His situation isn't very different from ours, then." Alice pointed out, "And besides, think about it: who in their right mind goes to Spearhead Valley these days?"
"Well, we did," Gaius grinned.
"That's beside the point," Alice groaned in frustration, "We were acting under orders. Nobody goes to that place anymore, not since the storms have grown in number. Did you see how beat up he was? It's obvious that he'd been in there for a long time. The way I see it, Scum are advancing through there. There's no other explanation."
Flame was all ears by now, his interest peaking. Who were these 'Scum' they kept referring to? Could they have something to do with his past? If he kept listening, he thought, maybe he'd get the answer to those questions.
"Ugh..." Gaius buried his head into his paw, "Look, can't we talk about this some other time? I'm tired, and I'm sure you are too. Let's just call this off until tomorrow."
So much for answers... Flame rolled his eyes, a heave of frustration escaping him.
"Fine," Alice conceded, "Just don't get the idea that I might suddenly forget about this."
Sensing an end to the conversation, Flame quickly straightened his pose and hastened his pace, in hopes that the two wouldn't suspect him of anything.
As he refocused his sight on the path in front of him, two things happened in quick succession: the first being that his eyes were met with a wooden surface that spanned his entire vision. The second being that the rest of his face followed suit.
Next thing he knew, he was laying on his back, clutching his aching snout with one paw as he pushed himself up with his other one. A timid glance at his escorts confirmed that they were staring right at him.
A nervous half-smile crossed his face, quickly fading into aether. "Hehe... hehe... sorry..."
Flame glared at the culprit, a set of large double doors embedded into a stone wall where the path seemed to end abruptly. Unconvinced at the thought of such a structure popping up out of nowhere, he looked around. His eyes widened when he realized that the fortification actually stretched for miles on both sides, likely continuing where his eyes could no longer see. Maybe it had spawned into existence after all.
What the...? How? I can't be that bad at paying attention, can I? Flame thought as he scratched his head lightly.
Letting the embarassing situation slide, Gaius knocked vigorously on the wooden doors. A previously unnoticeable slits in the door opened, this one a little above the Grovyle's eye level. A set of irises creeped into view, scanning the three of them thoroughly.
"Officers," a deep voice spoke from the other side, eyeing the badges pinned on two of the pokémon, "Welcome to Aesernia. Please clarify your identity and motives."
"We're Team Phalanx," Gaius said calmly, "Task Force Aegis. Tell Ariel that our mission has been accomplished."
The pair of eyes disappeared from view, the slit in the door flapping closed with a clang. For the next few minutes, Flame just stood there idly, waiting for something to happen as he fought off the unrest in his stomach. Just as he was about to fall asleep on the spot, the slit-like flap reopened.
"Only this one?" the voice asked, likely relaying the question.
Gaius seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing at Flame for a moment before speaking. "Yes, just this one."
Flame felt a sudden spike of discomfort when he realized that they were talking about him. Wait, they said their mission is complete? Was I part of their mission? But ... I thought—!
"Fine. You may enter," The heavy doors creaked open, revealing some sort of bipedal creature that seemed to be made almost entirely out of metal, its red armor and multiple blades—that protruded even from its elbows—making up most of its body.
Alice and Gaius entered through the door, the former looking back at him and motioning with her head to follow.
"You should watch out if you're going to report to Ariel," the Bisharp warned, "She seems to be in a particularly nasty mood today."
"Isn't she always?" Gaius rolled his eyes.
"Kinda," the armored guard said, "Should I take care of this now?" he motioned to Flame.
A lump formed in the Charmeleon's throat.
"Sure thing," Gaius turned back, "Have fun with him. He's not my problem anymore."
Alarmed, Flame's eyes darted to Alice. He saw that look of remorse in her eyes, that reflexive cringe, and that was all he needed to see.
"Fuckin' Scum," muttered the Bisharp.
Even before he felt the blunt side of an elbow-blade take his consciousness away, he knew.
Things were not looking well for him.
End of Chapter I