Chapter XXVIII: Iacta
"Our Benefactors make fundamentally contradictory demands of my Court. On the one hand they wish for the general populace to know of their existence, to be revered as new gods; yet simultaneously they choose to hide amongst those islands, acting only via proxies and celestial bombardment.
So far, much of the citizenry has seemingly acquiesced to their existence—at least in our core urban centres, where education is higher. Yet the Senate has proven the hardest to convince. They ask:"Why, if these 'Benefactors' are so swift to annihilate rebellions, have They not done the same to the Scum menace from the north, which grinds our legions to dust?" And to this, I have no answer. I keep reassuring my colleagues that this is merely a test of our resolve; that Our Benefactors would defend Urbe if it were ever threatened.
But when I myself do not know Their true form, my words sound increasingly hollow even to me."
— Excerpt of Emperor Adrian's Private Diary, dated 27th October, 745 AUC
Flame had lost track of how many times he had lifted his eyes towards that two-toned sky.
Dark clouds suffocated what little bright grey had started to seep in behind, shifting to barely-visible hues of pink as his gaze approached the horizon.
Standing firm atop that rocky ledge, Flame swept his eyes across the pine forest extending below them, to the barren fields that marked its end, to the distant shape of Thermae Himerae's plateau towering among the mountain chain. The sun itself was nowhere to be seen, yet he could clearly see gleams of orange mar the side of some clouds—surely that meant it was rising? Yes… it had to be.
A tiny smile grazed his maw. That meant time was almost upon them.
"Um, Flame?" spoke Alice from behind him.
Flame did not react. He knew they were sitting idly behind him, waiting, perhaps imagining glimpses of their upcoming journey. A journey that would never be.
"Not to be a bother, but… when is this refugee smuggler supposed to meet us?"
Flame lifted his gaze to the horizon. "He said at sunrise." He tightly squeezed the badge in his claws. "Any minute, now."
He didn't quite know what to feel. His heart was throbbing in his chest, he had barely gotten any sleep, yet he simply couldn't help smiling. Hell, he could feel his tail flame crackling!
He had contacted Daedalus again while his teammates were buying up supplies at the city market. He rehearsed the conversation again in his head: the sun—or what little sliver the clouds showed—was directly in front of them, meaning to their east. They were standing on the tallest point in kilometres, perfectly visible from the air.
It was all as he had agreed with Daedalus. He mouthed the exact instructions to himself, and with each time, he grew more and more sure that everything was in place.
They were going to be free. They were going to be free! He remembered the measly half loaf of stale bread they'd had this morning, right out of the market square. Soon, it would all be over. He could eat! And he'd get to hug Daedalus again, and even Brynn, and, and… Flame almost felt like crying.
And yet, all was not right.
Amid the internal trepidation, there was yet one problem. One problem he had not yet gathered the courage to face.
"Hey!" Gaius' voice snapped him out of his trance. "Are you sleeping, or what?"
Flame blinked rapidly, instinctively hiding the badge in his claws. "Huh? What?"
Gaius huffed. "I said, I didn't think you had it in you. Getting in touch with your criminal side and all." A pause. Flame could have sworn that was a smile on his face. "First the bridge, now this… You keep surprising me these days. Thank you."
Flame felt something twist in his stomach. After a moment of guilt, he stymied the coming tide and steeled his face instead, eyes narrowed at the pine forest below. "Whatever it takes."
"True that." Gaius chuckled bitterly. "And here I was, gettin' ready to walk the whole damn Empire. Guess it's better this way."
"Is it truly?" piped up Alice, her voice coming from somewhere opposite Gaius. "I'm not quite enthused at the prospect of endebting myself with smugglers. Didn't Flame meet them at night? In a dark alley?"
"It's a smuggler, dumbass," Gaius shot back. "What do you expect? They ain't gonna have their own stand at the market square."
Flame merely stood there on the edge and listened, but at no point dared to turn around. He wasn't even truly checking the horizon anymore—rather, his eyes were focused at some unspecified point in the distance.
What, exactly, was the point of keeping up this lie? He clenched his claws around the badge reflexively, gazing down as if it would give him strength.
But he was strong. He had proven it to himself, mere hours ago, back in that alley.
Besides, whether he told them or not, soon the Teutonii would be upon them—and then what? It would be little different from a kidnapping, in their eyes. A betrayal. He had to tell—
Flame squeezed his eyes and sucked in a tiny breath. No. He couldn't tell them—not while he still couldn't see Daedalus on the horizon. Not yet.
"Look," Alice's voice cut off his train of thought. "I'm not certain how comfortable I feel with this deal. Perhaps we should just go."
"No," Flame replied sternly, still looking forward. "Not when we're so close."
"Come on, Alice," protested Gaius. "What's with you now?"
"I simply cannot see the logic behind meeting like this," Alice mused aloud behind him. "If they were trying to smuggle us as refugees—say, hide us in a wagon shipment, or on flyer couriers—why ask us to meet so far from the city? Far from the wagons, and the flyers?"
Flame stood there and witnessed the discomfort growing in his chest. "... So long as we live, it doesn't matter."
"Come oooon, Alice," Gaius groaned behind him. "Now you're soundin' like some paranoid nut."
"No, I can't be imagining it." Alice shot back. "You saw how difficult this clifftop is to access—and to get down from, if we needed to run. Don't you notice the pattern? The only conclusion I can think of is, dare I say, that these 'smugglers' are coming to rob us. Or worse! Unless…"
Silence. For a precious few instants, there was only the light breeze on his scales, the faint crackling of his tail fire.
"Flame?" asked Alice, her voice quiet—meek, almost.
"... There is no refugee smuggler, is there?"
Contrary to Flame's own expectations, his heart did not spasm at that. He did not cry, or grimace in fear, or anything of the sort. Instead, he smiled. It was a somber, painful smile, but a smile nevertheless.
It has to be now, then.
For the first time that morning, as he took one final, shaky breath, Flame tore his gaze from that dreary horizon. He turned right around and met his teammates right in the eye.
As he gazed straight into their eyes, and they straight into his, both Alice and Gaius grew visibly uneasy. Flame couldn't help but smile.
"Alice," he half-whispered. "Gaius…"
Standing firm, he took a moment to study them both, as if immortalising the two's likeness in his mind's eye for the last time.
"There's… something you deserve to know." He shut his eyes. "We're not going to the desert."
It took a few heartbeats for Alice's pupils to widen. Gaius gave him a weirded face, but even he could not hide a hint of angst.
"I b-beg your pardon?" Alice folded her ear wings back, barely breathing.
"There was never a refugee trafficker," Flame started, softly and sweetly. He breathed in again, ignoring his hammering heartbeat. "I brought you up here because… b-because I contacted Daedalus last night." He paused to give that time to sink in. "We're going with him. He'll take us to our new home."
A sudden tremor overtook Gaius. Eyes narrowed, he slowly curled his good hand into a fist. "You…"
"S-so," the colour drained from Alice's face, "the one we're waiting for right this very moment, is…"
Flame shut his eyes. "Yes."
"You set us up," hissed Gaius.
Seeing their reaction, Flame dropped all pretense of smiling. He tried his best to steel his expression. "The Teutonii have thousands of villages that could take us in. They have more food than we could ever dream of." He paused, the frigid breeze licking at his scales. "I know it's not exactly how you wanted it, but… it's better this way."
Alice's pupils dilated gradually as the gravity of his words sank in. "No…" She looked up, frantically scanning the skies above them. "This cannot be. You would never—Flame, h-how could you DO such a thing?!"
Flame took a shaky breath, and expelled it. He'd expected this. He had to stay strong. "Do what—give us a chance?" He glared down at his open palm, and slowly rolled his claws into a fist. "We can't run away forever. I'm done running."
"A chance? You—you've ruined everything!" Alice slithered back, staring at him horrified. "We are Team Phalanx! We're supposed to decide together!"
Shaking uncontrollably and with laboured breath, Gaius sent him a glare of pure venom, and raised both of his wrist leaf blades. "... I trusted you."
Flame's eyes widened. He instinctively stepped back at the sight, breathing in shaky gasps, yet had to remind himself of the cliff's edge centimetres behind him. He could feel his tail tip swishing over empty air.
"W-woah," Flame breathed, and shivered at the Grovyle's glare. "Gaius—think for a second…"
"I thought," Gaius stepped forward, leaf blades held close to his chest, "that we were in this fight together. That you were different from them! And you go and sell us out to the barbarian Scum?!"
Rather than swallow nervously, Flame found himself with a strange determination despite the emptiness behind him. "I'm on your side, idiot. If you just put those away and used your brain—"
"How long?" Gaius snarled. "How long have you been planning this, huh?"
"I never planned for this!"
"L-like hell you didn't!" continued Gaius, his voice shaking a little. "Fuck me, I thought you were family. That you were—"
"Gaius, just listen for once in your miserable LIFE!"
Just as that last word of his echoed in the valley behind him, Alice seemed to rein in her panic and breathe. Even Gaius, glaring as he was, lowered his lead blades—though only slightly.
Ignoring the long drop behind him, Flame squinted and met their glares with a determination he didn't know he had.
"I'm tired of living like this." Flame spoke through gritted teeth. "I'm tired of running away from our problems. Hoping that somewhere, somehow, they'll go away—only to find the exact same thing wherever we go!"
"So what?" Gaius scoffed. "We fail once, so you're running back to your mudhut fan-club?"
"It's not just that." Flame looked down and curled his claws into fists. "It's digging for rotten food in the garbage. Watching you two suffer in the cold. It's the hunger, the fatigue, the smell—everything!" He stepped forward, mere centimetres from Gaius' leaf blades, showing a tentative smile. "Can't you see? We don't have to risk our lives anymore. We don't have to run away!"
Alice slowly shook her head, by now close to hyperventilating. "You can't simply decide for us, Flame. N-not a choice of this magnitude!"
"Why shouldn't I?" Flame swiftly retorted. "The Teutonii will help us. We'll have a house, food, a job. A new start." For a moment he lost his composure. "I-isn't that what we want?"
He stared at them and caught his breath, trying to catch some change in their expression—any change.
"Not like this," Alice said in a trembling whisper. "Not with them…"
Gaius, on the other hand, merely sneered. "I'd rather choke on a blizzard than live with those savages."
Flame was speechless. His lip quivered; it was becoming harder to keep a steeled expression. You idiots… you complete idiots!
He was losing them. He had no idea how far away Daedalus was, and he was already losing them. All that talk of accepting him regardless of his past, of who he was—gone in a fiery rage.
Breathing through gritted teeth, Flame steeled his face again—glaring, almost, right back at both of them. "Y-you keep saying all these things, when you haven't even talked to one before!" he said. "You're both falling for the Empire's propaganda!"
Gaius snarled, crossing his leaf blades in front of him. "Oh, am I?"
Alice, on her part, simply lowered her head wings with that same glazed, disbelieving stare. "You saw what the Scum did to Sperantia Nova, Flame; we were there. You know what they're accused of. The mass killings, the rapes, the sheer destruction…" She lifted her disbelieving stare to him. "How could they possibly all be fabrications?"
Flame quickly tore his eyes away, biting his lip. He didn't know how to respond to that. The tiniest part of him had to concede that point; but if he showed any doubt…
Flame quickly put on a stern face. "Think about it." He stepped closer. "The Empire's spent decades demonising the Teutonii. They arrest anyone who speaks out against the war. An entire generation's been raised hearing stories about how horrible they are. Can't you see? It's the trap you're falling into right now!"
Gaius growled at that; the fiery hatred in his eyes only burnt brighter. "Says who? You? After you go behind our backs?"
"I did it to save you two! To give us all a chance!"
"E-even if your intentions are pure," Alice stammered, "you can't decide for us! You have no right!"
Flame felt the urge to scream. The one time he lied to them—to save them, no less—and they regarded him as some traitor? He wanted to say that to their face. To lay bare all the times they had lied to him. How Alice had lied to him about her past.
Instead, he squeezed his eyes together, clenched his fists tight. He was doing this to save them, he reminded himself. To convince them. All that could come later.
"If you leave," he said, his voice quiet, "you will die. Both of you. Don't you get that?!" He gasped ragged, laboured breaths. "Th-this far north, in the winter, in the coldest part of the Empire, with the snow, and, and ferals… you'll never survive the crossing."
Gaius' lip twitched. Then his whole face followed, too, until it twisted into the largest, most exasperated smile. "That's why you sold us out?" He let out a laugh. "You just care so much?"
"We had a plan," Alice mumbled, halfway between an accusation and a whine. "Why couldn't you just trust us?"
"Trust you?" Flame blurted out angrily. "Seriously, Alice?" At that he saw Alice recoil; the anger left her face for a moment, shame flooded in, and her eyes flew to the ground. "You literally lied to—"
He bit his tongue and breathed in. Not now. He needed to get them on his side, as good as it may have felt to point out their hypocrisy.
"Look," he sighed, "I tried to accept your plan. I really did. Do you… know what I saw, thinking about our future? I saw you two. Buried in a metre of snow, with… Sneasel, or whatever lives up there, chewing on your frozen carcasses." He paused. Were those tears in his eyes? "It already almost happened once. Please."
Yet even then, Gaius' gaze did not change, nor did his leaf blades. "Better ferals than the Scum."
No. Flame resisted the weakness in his knees. No no no no no no no, no… I can't let this happen. Not like this. Not when Daedalus is so close…
He glanced at Alice for support, but she was still in that strange state between hurt and rage, between crying and lashing out at him.
"I… I don't know," she whispered. "I just don't know."
"Why not?" Flame threw his arms wide in near-exasperation. "Why throw this option away if it gives us everything we want?"
Then, Alice's troubled expression hardened. She looked him in the eye. "Have you considered it might not be what we want?"
Flame did a double-take at that. He hadn't expected them to drop the scaremongering part so quickly, and pinned by Alice's sudden glare, he had no idea what to answer with.
"Gods, Flame," Alice began, "we were supposed to get away from it all. Far away from the Empire, from the Scum, from everything related to the war—not just turn over to the other side!"
"No. Daedalus will keep us safe from the war." Flame gritted his teeth. "Hell, he can keep us safe from the Praetorian Guard—remember them? They're still out there, looking for us!"
"We can avoid them," Gaius insisted.
Flame held back a frustrated sigh. Breathe. He had to breathe. "Isn't it safer with the Teutonii around to protect us, rather than alone?"
Seconds stretched past them in long silence. As Flame waited for an answer, he whirled around with wide eyes, but between the storm clouds, the flat-topped plateau where Thermae Himerae rose and the dreary mountaintops far away, nothing on the horizon had changed.
"I trust you, Flame," Alice uttered softly, "but I can't—"
"You trust him already?" Gaius hissed. "After he tricked us into a life with the Scum?"
"I know he did, but that doesn't take away what he's done for us!" Alice shot back. "He's—he's still our friend. Been with us every step of the way. He's just lied to us, but he also saved our lives. Twice." She glanced down at her scarf, breathing heavily. "That's not something you forget."
For the first time since they'd stepped onto this bluff, Flame had something to latch onto. She still trusted him. She trusted him! It was something, right? It was more than he had anticipated, for sure!
"I did it for all of us." Flame smiled softly. "To save us."
Gaius' fists shook. His eyes spoke of many shades of anger, yet verbally, he said nothing.
"A-anyway: I trust you, but I do not trust this 'Daedalus'." Alice continued. "If… if he learns of who I am, I don't even want to think of the ways he could use me for his own political gains. He might use me as a bargaining chip—a hostage—or, or force me into some political marriage to get to Urbe's throne!"
"He would never do that!" Flame blurted out, then breathed in sharply to calm himself. "He-he's not that kind of 'mon. I know he'll try to get us the best life possible."
"Are you sure you know 'im so well?" Gaius sneered. "Cause I remember him telling you that you came from another world. Not exactly scoring high on the trustworthy scale."
Flame looked down for a moment. "He cares about me. That's all I need to know."
"I… I know you trust him," Alice said, looking… frightened? "B-but you have to understand, this is a colossal risk for me. How can I possibly be sure that he won't just use me for my title? How?"
Flame tried to come up with an answer but failed. In fact, his entire mind felt blank, erased by the tension pressing from within his head.
"If he tries," Flame said in the end, "I'll stop him."
It was the best he come up with under pressure; and for her part, Alice simply hung her head and retreated in deep thought.
"And how do I know they won't just roast us over an open fire?" Gaius growled, raising his leaf blades once again.
Flame had far too much adrenaline in his system to feel threatened. "For the fifth time, Gaius, they're not fairy-tale villains!"
"How the hell would you know?" Gaius shot back. "You're their hero! You haven't seen what they do to everyone else. Alice, back me up on this!"
Yet Alice was too conflicted, drowning under too many thoughts. "I don't know," she whimpered. "Th-this isn't what I wanted…"
Breathing deep breaths, Flame glanced to his teammates again. Alice was still staring with that mixture of tempered fury and confusion, as Gaius stared him down with eyes full of pure hatred. His heart began pummelling as he realised, finally, that he was losing them.
He had nothing else to convince them with. They couldn't be convinced. He had tried everything to keep them close, but perhaps it was about time to… let go…
"Guys…" His chest tightened. He shut his eyes, trying to muster the courage for what he was about to say. "All I'm asking is that you try. If you don't like it, we can fly you safely to the desert. Just—please, don't throw your lives away…"
"Like hell we're going with those savages!" Gaius shot back promptly, sinking Flame's heart. "If you're so fixated on living with them, have at it. The two of us will be goi—"
Flame felt his heart jump. He turned his eyes to Alice and found her grasping at her crimson scarf, looking down at it with tears in her eyes, as well as a certain fondness.
Grasping her scarf tighter, Alice shook a little as her teary smile widened. "Okay. I… I'll follow you, Flame."
A smile overpowered him; all at once hope refilled his veins. "Alice…!"
"What?" Gaius looked in equal measures hurt and confused. "Seriously? He—he lied to us, Alice! Sold us out to the Scum! How can you just join them like this?!"
"He did," Alice conceded. "And I don't know if I can forgive that."
Flame felt like scoffing. His smile shrunk. As if I'm the only liar on this team.
But not right now; not when they still had to save Gaius from his own stupidity. He'd speak his mind to her later.
Alice hung her head in thought. "What he did was dishonest. Coercive, even. But… they will let us choose, right? Why not spare ourselves the journey, and the cold?"
"And what," spat Gaius, "you trust the Scum to actually give us a choice?"
"No." Alice was quiet for a little while. "But I do trust Flame."
"Thank you," Flame whispered, shaking a little. "Thank you…"
Alice smiled back, but it was a reserved smile. "Living with the Scum… it's utter madness. This is nothing like what I envisioned for my future. But… I will try. It's all I can promise."
A half-furious, half-half horrified Gaius could do nothing but frantically bounce his gaze between them both. "No." Gaius took a step back. "No, no, no. You're mad. You're both fucking mad! Th-those savages took everything from me. They're the reason I was ever in that… shithole of a city, slaving away for Ariel." He curled a trembling fist with his good hand as he brandished a toothy snarl at them both. Briefly Flame wondered if a cornered feral would snarl the same way. "I'm not going back, you hear me?! Y-you can't make me go ba—"
Then Gaius seemed to lose a shade of green as his eyes found some point in the horizon behind Flame.
Realising what was happening, Flame whirled around immediately with a stupid grin on his face. The clouds choking the sky had begun to part. A swarm of black dots was on the horizon, growing ever so slightly larger, their large wings growing ever so slightly more defined.
"Daedalus!" Flame whispered as his heart fluttered in his chest.
He was here! They could start living again! Flame felt the impulse to fall to his knees, but not yet. There was still one loose end.
With a renewed impetus, Flame whirled around and faced the most terrified look he'd ever seen on Gaius. The Grovyle's whole body was tense, his knees bent slightly, as though primed to run away.
"Gaius," Flame spoke sternly and clearly. "Just one week. That's all I'm asking. I… I don't know what the Teutonii did to you, but dying cold and alone won't fix it."
Yet the Grovyle only seemed to have half-heard him, his breathing still ragged, his wide eyes still fluttering between the approaching Teutonii flyers and the forest behind him.
"I c-can't," Gaius's voice choked. "I promised…"
Alice watched apprehensively between them but ultimately remained silent.
"Winter snows are so close." Flame continued. "Please. They'll take you wherever you ask them to…"
A gust of freezing air buffeted Flame just then, and though it did not bother him so much, he could see both of his teammates stopping to shiver for a handful of seconds.
"Fine." Gaius squeezed his eyes shut, shaking. "Fucking— fine. One. Week."
A massive weight fell from Flame's chest. The tension gripping his chest until now vanished, melted, and all that remained was a smile. "I promise."
It was not long before the sound of powerful wingbeats began lashing the air, followed closely by wonderful cries of "Unser Kaiser!"
Before Flame's endorphin-filled brain could process it, the airspace above the rocky bluff they stood on was swarming with huge, winged pokémon. One after the other they beat their wings to slow down and land all around them: Hydreigon, Salamence, Talonflame, Altaria, Honchkrow, all carrying smaller, wingless Teutonii on their back who eagerly disembarked and cheered before quickly stumbling into a bow.
Flame's breath left him. Within seconds, the entire force of Teutonii that had just landed on that bluff—he estimated twenty but couldn't be certain—dropped into a bow, all aimed straight at him!
It was almost too much for Flame to process. Blinking repeatedly, he slowly turned in place to process that indeed, all the Teutonii were bowing to him. Bipedals kept a hand crossed over their hearts; quadrupeds and those with wings merely bowed their heads as far as they could go.
A confused current of warmth and confusion hit him like a falling boulder; when Alice and Gaius both gawked at him, he was unable to meet their gaze.
"Th-th-thank you," he whispered. "You really don't have to! Please!"
Yet they didn't seem to listen. Then, as he looked around, something clicked. He frowned. "Hang on. Where is—?"
His budding question was answered by the puddle of grey goo that had appeared on the grass just in front of him.
In a motion that lifted away any remaining tension in Flame's body, Daedalus rose up from the sludge within moments.
Before he had a chance to react, Flame found himself swept up into Daedalus' large arms and lifted high into the air. Seconds later, he was gazing up into Daedalus' single, bright red, loving eye, studying his bruises and cuts with such worry as to make Flame's chest tingle.
"Have you any idea how worried I was?" Daedalus asked, his voice dripping with a mixture of worry and sheer joy. "How scared we all were when you jumped? God, I thought you were dead! Please, child, tell me: are you hurt?"
Flame's smile somehow grew wider. "No, no, I'm not—"
"Have you eaten anything at all?"
"W-well, I didn't really have time to—"
"You must have been so scared," Daedalus continued, sounding close to tears. Flame himself pressed closer to the Dusknoir. "Do not worry, my child. You're safe now. I promise."
The sheer warmth in his voice was too much for Flame; Daedalus' body was far too wide for his arms to reach around the sides, but he tried his best in a sloppy hug, which Daedalus returned much more effectively.
"His ch-child?" meeped Alice, head wings folded back. "You?"
"So you're their leader's son," Gaius remarked with guarded curiosity.
Flame quickly disengaged from his hug and looked back down at them with a sheepish smile. "H-he's not my dad dad, but… almost. It's complicated. We go back a long way."
Even though I don't remember most of it.
It took a few seconds. Then, all at once, looking down at them both from Daedalus' arms, he realised how childish of a position he was in—his cheeks lit on fire.
"Daedalus!" he hushed, shrinking. "N-not in front of my friends!"
He could almost hear the Dusknoir's amused smirk. "But of course."
Finally, just as Flame thought he might disintegrate under Alice's playful grin, Daedalus set him down on the ground. He swished his tail and refused to acknowledge her giggling.
"Greetings," Daedalus said. "I am Daedalus. I see you are the companions Flame cares so much abou—Grovyle, are you feeling well?"
Flame quirked his brow and looked; indeed, Gaius was pale in the face, staring forward as though he'd seen a ghostly apparition. When Flame, perplexed, tried to pinpoint what had Gaius so spooked, he finally settled on an imposing Hydreigon of the group, one with a very noticeable scar running across one of its arm-heads. Squirming under the attention, the dragon-type began glancing left and right and up separately with its different heads to look elsewhere.
"That—" Gaius' voice choked. "That's the bastard who murdered my parents…"
End of Chapter XXVIII