Chapter 1: Hello, World

He was warm.

A whispering wind blew over the amber sea of grass, shushing the Riolu as he stirred in his shallow slumber. The blades brushed against his fur like a hundred icy fingers trying to lull him into the grave. Yet the sun was too strong. He rolled over in the summer heat, only for the light to pry at his eyes.

He was exhausted.

Groaning, he rubbed at his eyes and lazily sat up. Everything felt hazy. His body was sore and sluggish. Why did he have to wake up? He'd been having such a wonderful dream about… Well, it had to be something nice, didn't it? He felt the traces of a pleasant, passionate feeling in the back of his mind.

He was confused.

Where was his stuff? His head hadn't been propped up on his backpack, let alone a bedroll or blanket. It wasn't like him to head out here without anything. Maybe he'd pushed it into the grass, or… Where was 'here' supposed to be, anyways?

Grumbling to himself, he sat up and crossed his legs as he started to trace over his memory. Only, it immediately fizzled out once he looked down and saw two black-furred legs that ended with paws. He blinked. They were still there. Morbidly curious, he reached out to touch them, only for a blue paw to creep into his vision.

"What kind of…" He trailed off. That voice. It was so much higher than it should have been, and faintly gravelly. It wasn't his voice.

Now he was alarmed.

Trying and failing to keep his breathing in check, he looked himself over as he patted this body down. And he felt every touch. The stroke of the tail, the rigid clack of the bumps on his wrists, the squish of the paw pads, and the head especially. A muzzle? Two perked ears? One of them felt strangely bumpy. Two strange tassels dangling from the side of his head? A thin metal collar around his neck? If the blue and black colors weren't screaming "Riolu" already...

"There's… there's no way." He took a paw and pinched at his wrist, and promptly yowled and recoiled. Pain. A real, physical feeling. Too real to be a dream. And so was the wind on his fur, and the sun on his head, and the aches in his body.

"Focus," he told himself, picking a spot on the ground staring intently into it. No distractions. "Just- just think. How did you get here? People don't just end up like this for no reason, right?" He squinted and flexed his muscles, as if trying to physically draw out memories.

Now he was afraid, too.

And all he received were the echoes of his desperate pleas. He knew that Pokémon were supposed to be fictional. He knew that he was supposed to be a human. And he knew that he didn't recognize this place. But everything else was blank. Only hazy feelings. He felt like he might've had parents. He felt like he had a bed to sleep in and never went hungry. But how old was he? Where did he live? What did he look like? His mind was an empty chasm far from any speck of light.

… Wait. No, what was that? There was something. Far in the back, twinkling just so faintly. It was a single word. A name? His name?

"Riley…" It had a very familiar ring to it, even if the voice was different. He nodded in approval. "Riley it is."

With an ounce of purpose, Riley went to stand up at last, only for movement to catch his eye. Instinctively he stomped down as he caught a single piece of tattered cloth. Curious, he plucked it and held it up to his face. It was shredded and frayed, coated in a thin layer of dirt, and a few strands of blue fur were imbedded in it. So he'd been sitting on it?

Riley balled a paw into a fist and held the cloth tight. "Where's the people that made you…?" he murmured to himself as he searched the horizon. With a blank memory, he couldn't do much by himself.

But he saw virtually nothing. An ocean of amber grass as high as his neck stretched out for miles and miles, no hills or trees or any deviation in the grass itself. For a single dreadful moment, Riley assumed immediately that this was some sort of afterlife. Open flawless fields like these brought images of meeting Gods to mind. He swallowed and pivoted, ready to face whoever awaited him.

Yet the only majesty was a looming chain of mountains behind him, so tall as to divide the very skies in two. The shores of the amber ocean were a mere hundred yards away, where they gave way to a scarred stone slope of the mountains' bases. And they too seemingly went on for as far as his eyes could see, each capped with snow at its peak. They must have been almost a mile high each. It made him feel incredibly small.

With a deep breath, Riley hurried in that direction. Being neck-deep like this made him feel vulnerable and tiny. He couldn't see anything, and the shushing sound of the wind could deafen movements. Years of professors' warnings seemed to come back at once. Although maybe that didn't apply, since he seemed to be a Pokémon too.

That last thought stopped Riley for a second, freezing mid-stride as he realized: he remembered Pokémon. Though he didn't have clear memories of sitting down to play the games, he knew that they were games. Details were coming to him. There were hundreds of other Pokémon, weren't there? Yeah. And the gyms, and professors, and… and this situation. A human turning into a Pokémon sounded familiar. He couldn't place why, but it tickled something in the dark caverns inside his head.

Sighing, Riley shook his head. The more he looked into the vacant spot of his memories, the more defeated he became. He had to take things one uncoordinated step at a time. After all, he'd only been awake for a minute now. Who would expect him to immediately take on everything all at once? He needed to focus on something else.

And the moment he started walking again, that something came when Riley realized just how strange and awkward this body felt. It was far lighter, yet he felt so top-heavy with a head that big. It made his movements feel springy and agile—

Riley yelped and jumped back as something stood ahead of him. The grass had parted to reveal a light blue rabbit-like figure, tall as his waist, staring him straight in the eyes. She pointed her horn at Riley like a spear, and she wasn't moving.

A second passed, and the initial surprise faded into relief. Riley let out a short chuckle. "Y-you scared me. I thought it was just me out here. Look I know this might sound weird, but did you see what happened… to me? Or…"

The Nidoran didn't budge. Her stare didn't move from him, and neither did the horn.

Riley took a single step back. "I, uh, did I scare you too?"

She took a single step forward. Riley looked her over more carefully. Her ribs were showing and she seemed to be salivating.

He swallowed. "Wild Pokémon. Great." With a deep breath, Riley brought one leg back and entered a mock-stance with both fists raised. If he couldn't reason with her, he had to try speaking her language. "You can hear me, right? Back off! Any closer and I'll— what the-"

A blur of purple rushed into Riley's peripherals, but he barely had time to even turn his head before a violet Nidoran charged its shoulder into his side. Riley was knocked off his feet and tackled to the ground, and the male landed right on top of him, jaws opened and breathing foul air into his face. This close to his throat, those two protruding teeth may as well have been knives.

As the Nidoran brought them down towards his neck, Riley gasped and shot both paws up, catching the Pokémon by its own throat. He growled. The male growled back, scraping his hooves along Riley's arms. "C'mon, c'mon…!" Bringing his knees up to his chest, Riley let out a spirited cry as he drove a kick into the thing's belly. The Nidoran grunted and went tumbling back into the grass.

The female pounced next, but Riley scrambled out of the way just as her hoof landed where his stomach had been. He gave her a panicked grazing kick to the chin before jumping up to his feet. She charged low, but Riley jumped to the side and let her run past.

The grass was too tall, and with the wind there was no way to keep track of them. Growling, Riley turned towards the mountains and broke into a sprint. It was clumsy, graceless, and he was swaying from side to side as he tried to get used to this damned head of his. He felt like he was always over adjusting.

Teeth clamped down on Riley's tail as the male Nidoran dragged its hooves in the dirt. Riley yelped as he was pulled off of his feet, straight into the waiting company of the starved Nidoran. The light blue one darted forward with her head aimed down, ramming the horn straight into his back. Riley screwed his eyes shut as he screamed. Sharp pain. Hot blood. Warm trickling as she backed away. Warm… warm… and then cold…

Furious, Riley drove his foot into her snout, and the female squealed as she recoiled. He went for a follow-up strike on the male, but he quickly released his tail and backed away, staring at Riley intently, cautiously, eagerly.

His heart beat like a war drum. In a frenzied state of fear, Riley backed away. And when they didn't follow, he nodded his head. "Get any closer to me again and I'll knock your teeth out," he warned, then wasted no time in whirling around and running away.

Before he knew it, he was out. Riley burst free from the ocean of grass and staggered to a stop, gasping for breath. Immediately he whirled around braced himself for their third ambush, but nothing came charging after him. Only the wind. He stood upon the bare earth shore, and with a low, drawn-out groan, Riley slumped over and sat down.

"Two minutes." Carefully he reached to his back and poked at the wound. It stung, yet… not nearly as bad as the pain had been seconds ago. Maybe Pokémon bodies were just tough like that? The wound had to be more than just a cut, because when he looked at his paw again almost half of it was covered. Riley sighed. "It hasn't even been two minutes, and I've been stabbed."

Unclenching said paw, he was relieved to find that the frayed cloth was still there. Bloodied but there. And wherever it came from was either far to his left or far to his right. He was sandwiched between the grass and the mountains, and he couldn't afford to dwell on this for long.

"Good adventurers go left," he said to himself, which was as good a reason as any. Groaning, he placed his free paw on the ground and pushed.

Yet his legs wouldn't move. His arm alone barely had the strength to lift his rump from the dirt, and nothing else was complying. "What the…?" His entire lower half felt cold and heavy, even despite the sunlight. And he could feel that numbing chill creeping further and further. Nothing wanted to move.

The grass parted, and the two Nidoran stalked towards him. Riley shrieked and clawed behind him, pulling himself back as he willed his legs to work. They twitched, and nothing else. Every movement felt so sluggish and draining. The Nidoran didn't need to hurry, for he wasn't going anywhere fast.

And as the chill became an icy burn coursing through his veins, his breathing erratic and shallow, the realization settled. "P… p-poison?" he whimpered. They were closing in, flanking him on either side. Riley could only drag himself so far, and after two more his strength was gone. He collapsed. His eyelids felt heavy.

Consciousness ebbed. Horrified, furious, he clenched a fist around the tattered piece of cloth, but soon he couldn't even do that much, and it fell out of his paw. The purple and blue shapes approached him from either side, patiently waiting out those last few moments. Futile tears pooled.

And then, fire. A bright orange glob hit the purple shape right in the face. Tongues of flame blossomed out, scorching the male's neck and the ground around it. Some lapped at Riley, though he could barely feel it. The Nidoran shrieked and recoiled, and his sister whirled around. A second orange glob hit her square in the snout, and she squealed and backed up.

"Go find something else!" a voice, elegant and proud, proclaimed. An instant later something dark purple raced through his peripherals, and the female squealed louder. There was a growl, then silence, then heavy and hurried footsteps. The female jumped over Riley, kicking his muzzle in the process, and retreated.

Riley summoned the last of his strength to turn his head and watch them retreat. He felt an ounce of relief that he might still live, that luck was on his side, yet he saw something smoldering by his side. That single shred of cloth was burning.

"Hey, hey!" a second voice, frantic and a little raspy, called to him. Something slid to a stop just beside him. "C'mon, please don't be too late. Say something!"

"It's… fire…" Riley murmured. It was strange. Even through the fear, the fury, the indignation and the relief, Riley primarily just felt inexplicable melancholy as he watched the fire creep up the piece of cloth, and it char fiber by fiber.

"He's alive. He's still alive!" the second voice shouted.

"Give him a Heal Seed. He's too weak to chew right now," the first suggested.

"Yeah. On it." Riley could hear some rifling around, and then a warm, gentle claw turned his head upright. In his blurred vision Riley could just see a round orange head, and not much else. "Don't worry, bud. We've got you now. You're…" His words were getting steadily more incomprehensible, and soon Riley couldn't hear a thing. As if he was drowning.

And three minutes after first waking, Riley lost consciousness.

Moonlight poured in through the window carved out of the stone and bathed the room in pale light. A line of sparse beds stretched on both sides of the infirmary's length. Their sheets and pillows were white as freshly fallen snow, and just as pristine. The overly-fresh scent of a citrus-based disinfectant hung in the air.

In one of these beds lay a Riolu slumbering with a soft blanket draped over him. Underneath, his back was patched with bandages that had been recently changed.

And in a chair in the opposite corner sat an old, wrinkled Audino, reading a book behind a simple desk. The soft glow of a luminescent crystal let her digest an old mystery novel she was half-way through. The cover-art featured a kitchen knife with what was supposed to be blood running down the edge. It was a tad bit too bright though, like tomato soup. The title With All Your Heart was written in bold silver text underneath the knife.

"Was it the butler?" asked a calm, friendly voice. She raised her eyes to see Gallade, tall and proud, standing in the doorway. He had to duck to enter without hitting his crest. Though the right side of his face still resided in the shadows of the night, the majority of his caring smile was on display.

"Doubt it," Audino replied, turning back to her book. "Considering there is no butler yet, it's unlikely."

There was a brief awkward pause between them. The smile faded a little.

"Is the kid alright?" Gallade asked, pointing to the unconscious Riolu.

"He is now," Audino answered. "It missed his vitals, thankfully, but that poison was a nasty one."

Gallade raised a worried brow. "Nasty?"

"A numbing agent. Standard affair for predators." Grimly she shook her head. "He was too lucky. If those two hadn't come out of the dungeon when they did…"

He took a few more steps further into the room, setting his eye upon the small Pokémon laying on the bed. His hands folded behind his back as the smile left altogether. "Audino? Can you do me a favor and fetch the ones that found him?" he asked.

"Pardon? Team Hellraisers?" Audino tilted her head to the side. "They're asleep right now. Why would you-"

"Then wake them." The order was calm but direct. After a short pause, Audino placed her bookmark and closed the chapter, and left the infirmary without a word.

Gallade looked the boy over studiously. A gentle breeze peeled the blanket back and folded it over to the side. In complete silence he stood there, committing every last detail to memory. The length of the muzzle, cleanliness of the fur, polish of the collar, the tail, the paws; everything was taken down and locked away.

The moment passed, and Gallade set a hand on the Riolu's chest, shaking him gently. "Wake up," he whispered.

With a low groan hose young red eyes fluttered open to the darkness, revealing the figure standing in the moonlight, retracting his hand and taking a step back. It only took him a few seconds to remember that this was quite a different sight from the last. The numbness was gone, and the predators-

Riley sat up and stared straight at the half-lit figure. "Where-"

"Easy, easy. You're safe. I promise you." Gallade raised both palms in a universal gesture. "You've been brought back to the Guild. Some of my Explorers found you at a very fortunate time, or so I've heard."

He paused. The voices that had scared off those Nidoran? The fire, the warmth, the purple… The Explorers? Did th— "Wait, a Guild?"

Gallade paused for an instant. "Y… Yes. The Guild of Astraean."

"Astr… what?" Somewhat incredulously, he looked around the room that seemed carved out of stone as he tried to understand where he was.

Gallade gave the boy a sidelong stare. "You haven't heard of the Guild before?" The Riolu shook his head. Gallade paused yet again, this time holding the silence. His gaze fell to the floor for a second or two before he hesitantly spoke up. "Tell me… what were you doing in the Whispering Prairie?" Gallade asked him. The boy only gave him a curious glance, and the Psychic-type became a bit more firm. "The dungeon you were found at."

Riley cocked his head. So many things weren't making any sense. On the grand scale of things, their definition of a dungeon was on low priority. "I don't know. I just woke up there." The Riolu looked curiously at him, head tilted as Gallade returned a dissecting gaze back to him. "Why do you care?" he asked.

"It's my job to care," Gallade muttered, the heat in his voice transforming the kind words into a curse. "And in this case, you're setting off some flags. You're not really a Riolu, are you?"

After a moment's pause, Riley nodded his head. "That's right. I was a human before this. At least, I think I was."

Gallade took a short breath and turned away, staring out the window and into the heavens. His face was as pale as the moonlight he basked in. "Keep that between us."

Riley hesitated. "Wh-why?"

"Humans... are a complicated issue," Gallade answered. "They're a bad memory, you could say, and they aren't exactly looked upon favorably. If you're caught…" He took a slow inhale through his nostrils, as if bracing for something. A shiver ran up his spine.

"O… Okay, but what do you mean by-"

"Don't." The single word dropped onto the boy with the weight of an anvil. "It's not safe to talk about it. Ever. I know you only just woke up, but you need to keep that in mind. If you're ever compromised, I can't help you." The silence was palpable as the warning loomed in the air like a plague. Curious, frightened eyes attempted and failed to analyze the Gallade.

"Just… just who are you?"

Gallade turned back to the Riolu again, now facing him entirely. Moonlight poured in from the window, revealing a faded red scar over an eye that would never open. With a near-silent gasp, Riley almost lost the support of his arms and nearly fell back on the bed.

"Gallade," he answered quietly. "Just Gallade." His arms were sternly folded as they rested on the red horn jutting out of his chest. He watched with interest as the boy shook and stared with a complete lack of subtlety at the eye that was no longer. Amused, Gallade leaned down slightly to provide a better view.

"Y-you don't… you're m-missing your…" the Riolu stammered.

Gallade chuckled. "I'm aware. There's the whole 'lack of depth perception' that kind of makes me unable to forget."

"I-I'm sorry… i-It just caught me off guard," he admitted. "It's actually kinda cool." If his body was working properly his face would have flushed.

"'Cool?'" Gallade repeated, and an instant later he was stifling laughter. "I get surprise a lot, but admiration? That's a first. That's definitely a first… But, enough about me. What about you, hm? Now that everything is established, do you recall anything?"

"Uh… N-no." It was the truth, of course, but the change in the conversation threw him off.

Gallade clicked his tongue. "Amnesia. Of course, they always do… Do you at least have a name?"

"Probably." He rubbed at the back of his head. "I remember a name, and I've been, uh… thinking of myself by it. It's Riley."

"...'Riley'." Gallade took a deep breath, and then bottled up the thought before he could voice it. For the boy's part, he didn't seem to notice. "Alright. Riley it is, then. Is this all you remember?"

"Mmm… yeah, I think so." Even if Gallade seemed helpful, Riley didn't want to relay how he knew Pokémon to him. He already didn't seem pleased with him being here, so adding existentialism on top of that was asking for trouble.

Gallade opened his mouth to speak, lips parting just a thin sliver, but was cut off by the squeal of the hinges as the infirmary door opened. From the hall came a tired slur of words. "You called?" asked a small voice. There stood the tiny figure of a Roselia, gently rubbing the sleep out of her eye with a blue flower.

"Perfect." Gallade clapped his hands together. "Miss Rose, I'd like to introduce you to Riley; the boy you saved earlier."

"What, really?" Riley tilted his head. Her voice matched the elegant one from before, but she was so… small in the doorway, like a child in a home for giants. Were Roselia always that small?

Her weary gaze shifted over to him, and Riley did his best to not look so shocked. "Something wrong with him?"

"With who?" asked another, more alert and alive. And behind Rose approached a Charmander, peering in the doorway as he towered over her. His gentle blue eyes settled upon Riley on the other end of the room. "Oh, you're up!" he said with a smile, stepping past the Roselia.

Gallade dipped his head towards the two. "Sorry to wake you two at this hour, but I was talking with Riley here, and… well, he doesn't have any memories." The Charmander stopped suddenly, shifting his gaze between the Guildmaster and the Riolu.

The Roselia curiously stared at Riley, head tilted slightly. "Amnesia?" she assumed, her voice low, probably wondering why it couldn't wait until morning.

"It seems so," Gallade replied. "But, I want to ask you while this was fresh of mind… was there anything you noticed about him when you found him out there?"

"What do you mean?" the Roselia asked.

"Did he have any items near him? Even something like an apple or a berry?" he clarified.

"We didn't really look," the Charmander admitted with his head lowered. "At the time we didn't think to keep searching. I just wanted to make sure he wasn't… dying."

Gallade hummed in thought. He drummed his fingers on the tough skin of his elbows. "Mm. Your instincts were fine, so don't be ashamed of that," he admitted, and then put on a kindly smile. "Though, I hope you understand that I'm asking you to handle that in the morning."

"How are we supposed to…" the Roselia started, but trailed off as she answered her own question. "We're bringing him back there ourselves, aren't we?" she asked.

He smiled. "Sharp as ever." Gallade peered out the window briefly, for no more than a second or two before turning towards the doorway. "It's getting late. You can stay up for a little bit longer, but make sure to head to bed before too long." He casually waved goodnight to them as he stepped past the Roselia, turning sharply and disappearing into the darkness.

There was an awkward moment of silence between the three children now that the Guildmaster was gone, broken only when the Roselia began slowly walking further in. "So, 'Riley…'" She paused for a moment. "You really don't remember anything?"

Riley pulled out the first defense he could think of. "Nope. That's what amnesia means," he replied, perhaps a bit more harsh than intended, but at least the Roselia didn't press further.

"'Riley'," the Charmander repeated musingly. "Well wherever you're from, it's not nearby if you have a name."

He raised a brow. "Why's that?"

She shifted her gaze uncomfortably. "It's, uh, a cultural thing. Locals don't give themselves names since they're a reminder of… 'them.' It's been that way for countless cycles."

"R-right. That makes sense," he hesitantly answered, a paw on the back of his head. 'Cycles?'

The Charmander extended his left claw towards the Riolu, a friendly smile upon his face as his kind blue eyes stared directly into Riley's brick red ones. "Don't be too scared though. They shouldn't look at you too weird for that. I have a name, too. Pyro."

Riley returned it with his own friendly look. "Nice to meet you," he said, and took the outstretched claw and shook it firmly.

"And if you didn't overhear it, mine's Rose," she added. "I'd offer to shake too, but… well, thorns. You get it." Riley nodded, pretending he did.

Pyro playfully punched at Riley's shoulder "So, I guess you'll be tagging along with us, tomorrow?"

Riley chuckled a little. "I-I guess so, yeah."

"What, a bit nervous?" the Charmander asked. Riley nodded, but he wasn't quite sure if he was. Thinking about going back actually intrigued him. "Don't be," Pyro encouraged, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You'll have two of Gallade's Explorers with you. We'll keep you safe."

There was another moment of silence. A long, awkward moment, as if time had stood still. Again, this was broken by Rose, as she exhaled sharply before calling to her partner. "Come on, let's leave him alone," she ordered.

"But we just started talking," Pyro whined.

"He has amnesia, remember?" she scolded. "This is probably confusing for him. And he doesn't need someone he just met all up in his face right now."

He pouted. "Well… I-I guess you're right. Sorry."

"It's fine," Riley replied, feigning a smile. Pyro turned around and walked away, his gaze shifted to the stone floor. As he left through the doorway, he turned and gave one quick wave to the Fighting-type before vanishing from sight.

"Make sure to tell us if you remember something," Rose muttered to Riley, and then turned back around to follow her partner.

Now alone, Riley leaned back in the guest bed of the infirmary. His paws were positioned beneath the back of his head, propping him up to comfortably gaze out the window. Moonlight continued to stream in and highlight the other side of the room. This room… it was part of the Guild, right? Weren't Guilds supposed to have a lot of peop- uh, Pokémon in them? So why did this place feel so… empty?

With a sigh he plopped back down on the meager bed and slid his paws behind his head. There would be a lot of information to gather and process, especially if he had nobody to give him a foundation. Perhaps everything would be as he vaguely recalled from his own world. Tomorrow he would have clarification on how things translated over. His brief experience today had taught him little, and if he was stuck here like he thought he was, he had to pool his thoughts as well as he could. And Riley had just woken up, hadn't he? Sleep was the last thing on his mind. There were still hours left to piece things together…

"'Riley,'" he whispered. It felt… strange. It was a name that carried so much baggage, a whole life… yet he felt none of it. His own name meant nothing to him. How was he supposed to feel about that? Surely he was supposed to feel something, yet all he could muster at the moment was complacency. It was a familiar, comfortable scenario that he could only remember the outlines of.

A paw settled on his muzzle, feeling his own short fur. It was strange, and it was his. The shape of the face was entirely different from what he should have expected. Even the touch itself from the pad of his paw was squishier than hed expected it to be. And what were those dangling things that came down from the back of his head? They had a firm, maleable texture to them, like bags of sand. Riley supposed it should have been horrifying, or creepy, or anything, but all he could feel was curious. And excitement. And a little dread.

He closed his eyes, figuring the weight would settle in tomorrow when Gallade painted a clearer picture of what was going on. It was certainly a heavy warning, yet for some reason, all Riley felt was a faint excitement for what awaited him.

Audino had given the Guildmaster space and taken her book into the mess hall. Its own windows weren't enough to illuminate such an expansive room filled with dozens of round tables, and one long rectangular one at the far end of the room, so she had to sit with another luminescent gem in her lap. She inched closer and closer as her gaze traveled down the page, as if it would somehow make her read faster.

"Is now a bad time?"

Gallade's calm voice however ripped her from her trance, and she jumped back and nearly out her stool. Audino closed her eyes and placed a hand over her beating heart. "A little," she said, and placed her bookmark before audibly shutting it.

He sat down on her right gingerly. "Then I'll keep it quick." He paused for a moment, struggling to find the words as he tapped a finger on the wooden surface of the table, but he couldn't find the right way to say it. Eventually Gallade just sighed. "Keep an eye out for that Riolu. He's one of them."

With her hand still over her heart, Audino could almost feel it stop. "A...another one?" she whispered. Gallade nodded grimly, and Audino placed her head in her hands. "Dear Arceus… You should really tell Rhyperior."

Gallade scoffed. "Just so he can tell me to be rid of them? No. He doesn't need to know. I just need you to work your magic. Clean him off."

She nearly shouted, but Audino cut herself up and took a deep, deep breath. "Right," she said, setting a closed fist down on the table. The Guildmaster said not a word. His one good eye shifted down to the table, staring at something that wasn't there. Eventually she couldn't take it, and Audino confessed. "I hate this," she whispered. "It feels so… I don't know. If this ever gets out, we…"

Gallade cast her a sidelong glance, and a reassuring smile appeared on his weathered face. "It'll be okay. I won't let any of this get out. We'll do everything we can to keep them safe," he promised.

For all the years Audino knew him, ever since he was just a little kid, she knew that smile well. It had been the same smile he wore for well over forty cycles, pledging hope and stability to all that were fortunate enough to see it. It was so bright that almost nobody could see what it hid.