Chapter 55: Stand Me Up

It was about an hour before the golden dusk of that cursed land. Everything was still hot. The air was still shimmering and forming mirages far off that Nera knew well not to trust. Her body dealt with the heat better than most. It was uncomfortable but not unbearable, and Nera needed the space. The last day had given her much to think about.

The wind carried away the lonely melody of her flute as Nera played atop a spire near the edge of the mesa, the long bamboo shaft resting on her shoulder, her eyes half-shut as she lost herself in the song.

Nera remembered her soldiers condemned to this fort would often ask why she played, or what she was playing. She couldn't remember anymore. She just did. And every night, she went on a little bit longer than the night before, adding a few notes like scratch marks on a cell wall.

Caius could fly and coast far on those wings of his. He could be back within a week's time, depending on how long Scizor took to formulate his answer. That meant a week of managing whatever was coming— a week of stomping out whatever trouble Riley would inevitably start, a week of trying to monitor where those two would move to and never quite feeling like she was safe, a week of watching for the thief and being wary of his tricks.

Her fingers danced across the holes as she picked up the tempo. She wasn't going to be getting a restful night's sleep any time soon, was she?

Dark clouds emerged from the southern horizon, carried by the accursed winds. It had been several summers since she'd seen such clouds in these lands. In the evening sun they were turned into a deep, royal shade of purple as they churned and rolled and crawled. Surely this had to be an omen, but of good or ill? Was this a turbulent storm that would rage across their fort? Or would it bless them with rains and tranquility? The desert was cold at night— perhaps there would even be snow.

Seven days, she thought to herself. By this time seven days from now, Nera knew not what her fate would bring. If Scizor came in any obvious way, and she complied, she would be recognized as a traitor. If they came in the night to steal him away without being seen, she would be a failure, and then a traitor still when the courier for this whole mission would come forward. Staying wouldn't be an option.

She had cast her die. She could not take back her bet, and if she was exiled or imprisoned or even killed for this, would she regret it? For a human, no less— a human whom she had every reason to hate.

The storm was coming. She would wait and see, and she would blame only herself for the outcome.

But something else stirred in the south. A long shadow drawn out to a narrow point emerged from behind one of the dunes, bobbing as whoever it was attached to walked across the desert. Nera raised an eyebrow and slowed down on her bamboo flute. Her mind immediately went to work. They were bipedal and seemed to be fully grown, by the lengths of their arms. Their head had some sort of crest on it. No tail, some strange flourish that might've been ears… and they were close. Within a thousand feet at least. Eventually the shadow's source emerged from behind another dune, and then…

Her music stopped abruptly. The evening sun shifted the colors, but she would know green and white anywhere as the colors of the old king. And those of Gallade as well, and yet he was dead. What was one doing here? He had no wagon or heavy pack to safely travel the desert, yet his gait was steady and true with merely a single bag resting at his waist. He continued to get closer, and closer, and closer...

Nera almost thought she was seeing a mirage again until she heard another voice. Sandslash ran from the bottom of the center-most canyon, waving his claws wildly above his head as he huffed and puffed. When he had the breath he bellowed, "HEEYYYY!"

And the Gallade didn't slow down. From what Nera could tell, he didn't even turn his head.

The distance between them got shorter, Sandslash's voice a bit quieter. Nera could only hear his tone, insistent and threatening. When the Gallade kept walking regardless, she wondered if she was about to see a fight take off, and when they raised their hands she dropped her flute to be ready, but he merely put his palms together. A veil of golden light flashed over him, and then he was gone, reappearing at the mouth of the canyon. And he continued to walk.

Sandslash looked left and right, catching him out of the corner of his eye, then hollered as he ran to catch up. There was a dark glimmer around his claws as he picked up speed. His body leaned forward as he kept his head just above the ground. Each and every quill on his back prickled and stood on end. With a growl, the Sandslash roared a battle cry. Nera could hear them clearly now.

"Alright pal, you asked for this!" he exclaimed, then rushed for the Gallade's back. But the Gallade was quick to react. He whirled and grabbed Sandslash by the wrist, pulling him off his feet. With a burst of strength Sandslash was thrown spiraling into the air, a confused cry trailing behind him. The Gallade pivoted and leapt into a dropkick, targeting nothing, but his body flickered gold and reappeared right on Sandslash's flank. He stomped as hard as he could right on the stomach. A choked gasp escaped as his form broke, and he rocketed into the cliff wall with a low rumble. The rock cracked and crumbled as the dozens of quills buried themselves in, Sandslash himself laying motionless with his arms splayed out.

Nera held her breath. A wind swept around the Gallade as he gingerly descended to the sand once more. He wiped his brow and looked up to the result of his work. Other noises were beginning to close in. A low buzz, hurried scratches.

An instant later, she leapt off the spire and ran, ran as fast as she could in a series of jumps and dashes across the scalding stone. "Of course," she growled to herself. "It's just one thing after another, isn't it?"

Porus soared over her head, making brief yet intense eye-contact with Nera before disappearing over the edge of the cliff. She was swift— Nera still needed a minute longer. Still though, they were close enough that Nera could hear them. They weren't being quiet.

"What… What do you think you're doing?!" Porus exclaimed, furious, alarmed.

A pause. "I believe you have something of mine," the Gallade answered with an undaunted, icy indifference. "I was going to look around, but your greeter tried to attack me. Should I expect the same from you?"

Porus swallowed. "That… That bracelet," she said. "You're the Guildmaster's son, aren't you?"

"I am. And I'm pressed for time."

Nera stumbled. The Guildmaster's son? Doing this? What…

She came to a screeching halt at the top of the canyon, staring down at the intruder. The Gallade did look young and without the scars that would usually accompany a seasoned fighter. He had his father's tall, gaunt features, and the same bracelet that didn't quite belong to him. There was a cold, absolute look in his eyes, and a face that looked like it had never smiled in all his young life. Nera would later learn that he curiously had a name: Mergo.

Porus's tail shifted. She reached into a pouch strapped to the base and removed a blue orb. A tiny speck of light glowed in its core. "And yet, you're doing this here. You know these aren't your lands, right? This is a criminal act. Why do you come here knowing this?"

His face remained neutral, but Nera watched him with the sharp eyes of a Braviary. It was a damn good question. The drumming fingers stopped mid-bar as he paused for but a moment. It was brief, it was weak, but it was still something. And what was strangest of all to Nera was that he seemed relaxed— far more than what rumors had painted of him. No snapping fury, no hatred, no lunacy. No tense nerves or fierce resolve.

Mergo shifted his stance and sharply inhaled. "Because I have to take responsibility for my mistakes," he answered, then started walking without taking his eyes off her. "I saw where the other greeter came from. I'll find my way."

"Merciful stars, you're every bit the sociopath I'd heard you were," Porus snarled, then hurled the orb against the wall. And there was born a blazing star as a blinding flash of white light swept across the canyon. Mergo shielded his eyes as she swooped in, and then all was consumed in light.

The Luminous Orb's light only lasted for a few seconds before it started to fade, and the two fighters jumped away from each other. There was a long, dark mark across Mergo's chest as he landed in a three-point stance, blinking his eyes back. Similarly marred was Porus, her neck beginning to bruise, as she winced and hovered off the ground. Somehow, even while blinded, he knew exactly where she was to avoid a solid strike.

And then he looked up to Nera, much the same as before. "You're the captain, correct?" he asked with a frigid drawl. "Does she speak for you? Will you refuse to help?"

Nera had never met the Guildmaster's son, but she had heard of him from many people. And if she learned only two things from all the times he had come up in conversation, it was that he showed the same promising strength as his father had, and that he was supposedly without empathy. If Nera handed Riley over, she would be resigning the boy to die. Of that she was certain.

"Captain?" Porus called, half-whispering. Her eyes were fierce, her blood was up. Nera could tell she wanted to get him back for that blow, and yet…

"Restraints," Nera ordered. "Fetch the Psychic restraints. This might get ugly fast."

Porus tensed. Disbelief, indignation, discontent, the urge to shout— all of it flashed across her face for but an instant, yet she stopped herself before they took root. She exhaled, holding eye-contact with the invader for a moment longer before nodding. "Yes, Captain," Porus answered, then turned on a dime and sped off. Maybe if she was fast enough, she'd be back in time to get another hit in.

But others were starting to take her place. Armaldo broke from the western face, jumping a ten-foot drop and landing twenty paces from the intruder. From the east, Rampardos came to a screeching stop as she tried to control her momentum, spraying sand everywhere as she looked left and right, and Houndoom shielded her eyes as she came in right behind. And they all saw Nera, her crown burning like a beacon atop the cliff, and they all saw the Gallade who was continuing to watch her.

"Son of the Guildmaster!" Nera bellowed, and her voice echoed throughout the mesa. A wind blew in from the south— the first hints of the night's chill approaching. "You come to this place and impose your authority, and you strike down one of my soldiers with unnecessary force! What do you have to say for yourself?!"

His answer was immediate, and his voice carried just as far as hers. "That when I tried to circumvent your soldier, he immediately went for my neck. I opted to be quick," Mergo retorted. "And I say that the human's movements place him within this compound, and that the Guild of Astraean requires answers out of him. I insist that you hand him over."

To be put to death, Nera finished in her head. If he went back to Astraean it would surely be for no other reason. She couldn't let Riley fall into the Guild's hands, and yet, what was she supposed to say? She needed something absolute that would buy time, that would turn him away...

There was an uncertainty in the air, thick with tension. Her soldiers' eyes flicked between Nera and the intruder, Nera and the intruder, waiting to see what would happen. Nera just about had an answer, but she didn't get the chance to voice it.

"You're thinking," he observed. "There should be nothing to weigh over, but there is. You're hoping to gain something, aren't you?"

Nera froze. Was he that sharp? And why was he playing that angle?

"Then what is it?" He shifted his weight onto one leg and held out a hand towards her in an oddly conversational gesture. "Are you hoping for fame? For rank? Reward?"

After a long moment's pause, Nera shook her head. On top of all the baffling circumstances of him being here in tandem with the others, on top of his motives, his arrogance was making a mockery of her. Her crown of flames flashed as embers formed on her knuckles. "Spare me your prattle," she scowled, then dropped into a three-point stance before leaping off the edge of the cliff. "Restrain him!"

Rampardos had been raring to go and needed no time to think. She roared a mighty roar before tucking in her head and barreling forward, and Armaldo rushed for his flank with his claws ready, but the Gallade was ready. He ran right for Rampardos leading with his shoulder, and his hands clapped together. An instant later he was right underneath her, dipping down to sweep at her legs and lifting her into the air. Armaldo growled and surged for him, and Mergo turned to meet him, but a flash of orange caught his attention instead as Houndoom spat a jet of fire. But he clapped again, and reappeared right beside her, his leg already up. She barely had time to yelp before it crashed into her jaw, forcing it shut and causing fire to plume out as she landed on her side. And then he glanced back to Armaldo, and his hands clapped together once more.

Mergo appeared right behind him, and just in time to be met with a blast of fire right to the head. Flames and smoke bathed over him as he leapt backwards, just in time to avoid the brunt of the others that flew from Nera's fists. She landed close by and ran as fast as she could. It was her first time fighting a teleporter, but she knew the theory. Watch their body, watch their eyes, watch. Predict. And if possible, take away their vision. Hopefully the smoke would do as much.

Aggravated, Armaldo opened his mouth and spewed rock after rock into the patch of smoke. Some whiffed right through without a sound, but three hit something. Nera followed that path and punched at the air again, launching another blast with it. Mergo burst out of the side of the cloud, evading it, with a dozen shivering violet orbs hovering around him. He swung his arm out— two followed his aim and launched straight for Nera. She dodged one, but the other caught her in the chest and racked her with pain. But it wasn't enough to stop her. Concentrated explosions under her feet sent her surging forward, closing the distance between them, and threw an assault of attacks his way.

She was relentless. Burning fists soared past his head as she followed up with one to the chest. He ducked narrowly out of the way of the first two, but the third caught him good and sent him staggering back. She stayed close and went for a jab, but he recovered in time to deflect it with his palm— exactly what Nera was hoping for. Her hand opened up and snatched him by the wrist. Mergo grimaced and tried to pull away, firing two more psychic lights that hit her dead-on, but Nera was having none of it. She hissed in pain as she powered through, grabbing his other arm before pushing the both of them forward. Mergo crashed into the stone wall hard enough to knock a curtain of sand loose. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth.

"Where's your backup?" Nera growled. She could see movement in her peripheries— Rampardos and Armaldo drawing closer. "I know you have a team. Tell me where they are."

With the face he made, one might think Nera struck him again. He gritted his teeth and looked down and away for an instant. Something flickered, withered as its strength failed, but then it flared back to life. Interesting, Nera thought. Something had happened then?

Mergo managed to get his palms onto Nera's arms, and then for a brief instant, all was gold. And then Nera found herself high in the air, still holding onto Mergo with no footing to anchor herself. She gasped, and in that moment, he struck. He brought his knees up and stomped down on her chest. Unprepared and with nothing to anchor herself onto, the two were knocked away from each other, and Mergo clapped again, reappearing right behind Rampardos as she regained her footing.

"Behind you!" Armaldo exclaimed, and Rampardos tensed and whipped her tail to crash into the intruder. He jumped over it and onto her back, hooking onto her arms for support. One violet light after another blinked into existence around him and rained down like a meteor shower. Rampardos thrashed and flailed and growled, but Mergo held tight as each one pelted her only to be replaced by another.

"Let her go!" Houndoom shouted, barreling forward to join her. Puffs of flame rushed from her mouth. Mergo went to jump away, but his hands were stuck. Rampardos pinned them to her side as she glared back over her shoulder at him. His eyes went wide, and he had no time to do anything more before Houndoom threw all her weight at him, jaws wide open.

She clamped down on his collar bone with all her might, spewing flames as the two fell onto the ground in a messy brawl. Her head shook from side to side in a fury as she tore at his muscles. Mergo grit his teeth and suppressed a cry of pain. Both hands made their way up to her neck as he gripped and pushed with all his might, and his knee struck again and again at her chest. Houndoom was losing ground, but the approaching steps of Armaldo made her stop altogether. She let go and jumped back just in time for Armaldo's claws to strike down at him. Mergo swept his arms up in a blur to parry the blow away. Six more of those violet lights materialized around him and shot towards Armaldo, who guarded himself with his claws, yet still each one forced him back.

Mergo clapped again and cast his glance behind him, and he reappeared about four feet off the ground— just enough room to maneuver to land on his feet again. He raised his arms to do something, but Nera was faster. She kicked off the cliff wall and punched at the air again, launching a bolt of fire as hard as she could. It hit the ground just at his feet and detonated, and a plume of dust and smoke enveloped the intruder.

Psychics need their sight, Nera told herself. She hit the ground on all-fours and ran in as fast as she could. Take it and you win.

In a matter of seconds she was in the smoke cloud with him. Nera could just make out Mergo's guarded stance turn to face her and throw a punch. Nera ducked and countered with a jab of her own. The two exchanged blows there in the thinning smoke, dodging based on little more than shadows and instinct as they danced around each other. He left little room for an opening to counter-attack. He was sharp, and likely quite practiced, but he was without his usual tricks. He was pressured. And soon enough…

There. Mergo overextended with a lunging jab, and Nera knew just how to punish it. She ducked to the side and snatched his wrist as she wove behind him. He snarled and threw an elbow her way, catching Nera on the side of her head, but she kept her focus. Nera hooked her other arm around his as she tightened her grapple.

"I've got him held!" Nera exclaimed. The smoke was thinned now. She could see the others approaching, and quickly.

Mergo growled. He pulled as hard as he could to free his wrists, to press his hands together, but Nera was having none of it. Mergo kicked back at her, and Nera wove her leg around his and forced him off-balance. He dropped to one knee as her weight pressed into him, helpless. No matter how he struggled, Nera had him in her cage, and she forcibly raised his torso to give the charging Rampardos a good target. Mergo gasped. He conjured more of those violet lights around him, but they were just too slow. The point of her head crashed into his stomach with the force of a rockslide. Bones cracked. Spittle and blood flew from Mergo's mouth as the wind was forcibly removed from his lungs, and he and Nera were sent tumbling backwards.

With him face-down, Nera tackled and pinned the intruder, her knee in his back and her offhand on his right arm while she grabbed him by the hair and ground his face into the sand. Mergo coughed and spat and gasped as he struggled, but then came the reinforcements. Houndoom stamped on his other arm before biting down on his wrist. Armaldo grabbed both of his legs in his claws and held him tight. Rampardos, with nothing better to do, smacked his back with her tail for good measure.

And if that wasn't enough, then came the buzzing of Porus's wings. She was closing in as well. Mergo's fight was already fading, but when that hit his ears, he deflated. With one last sigh the tension in his legs and arms were gone, limp like rope, and he stared out at nothing with his one eye that wasn't filled with sand. And even still, somehow, he looked relaxed. It only hit Nera now that, aside from the growls that were probably just his war cries, his face hadn't changed much at all.

"What happened to your taunts?" Armaldo boasted. "All piss and vinegar earlier, but can't even say a word now, can you?" And Houndoom gave an affirmative growl as she pressed a little harder with her teeth. She wasn't piercing the skin, but how easy would it be to change that?

With the whole encounter seemingly at an end, Nera now had to deal with the inevitable headache. She couldn't let him go after this. Not only was this going to be a messy incident if it went anywhere near the law, but there was the more immediate issue: if she released the Gallade, he would come back and attack again. Of that she had no doubt. But killing him would be barbaric, and worse, it would be another incident. The last thing Arushar needed was another death. Detainment seemed to be the only good option, which would require more of her already thin forces to keep an eye on. And it would put him right next to Riley. That might spell trouble.

Porus landed next to them carrying a set of maroon-colored manacles. With quick and practiced efficiency, she slipped one onto his wrist and tightened it until it pinched his skin. Armaldo slipped the Astraean bag off him just in time for them to get his other hand restrained behind his back. When that was done, Nera nodded her approval before getting off of him. She reached into Mergo's bag, found what she was looking for, then squatted down to shove an Oran Berry towards his mouth.

"Eat," she ordered. "I felt your ribs break. I'm not letting any complications arise."

But Mergo just pulled at his restraints. It was faint, but his eyes went the tiniest bit wider. "What… What is this?" he asked, panicked. "What did you do to me?"

Nera shook her head. "Organic metal. It retains the properties the Pokémon had in life. These ones repress Psychic abilities."

The realization hit him quickly. If that was true, then there could only be one type of Pokémon this came from. The cold, tight pressure from what had to be a Bisharp's steel… Mergo thrashed again with renewed strength."Is this some kind of joke?" he barked.

Nera didn't blame him in the slightest. If there were any other Pokémon she could've used for these, she would've. Any sort of mockery was unnecessary, and this only served to be cruel.

However, his final throes got him nowhere, and Porus struggled with him to slip on a black blindfold over his eyes. Orders were given. Since they hadn't restrained his legs and he was being difficult, Nera told them to wait until he got to his cell to give him his berry, and specified not to harm a hair on his head more than necessary. Rampardos and Houndoom were to escort him away while Armaldo would check on Sandslash. The three gave an affirmative "Yes, Captain" before all going off. Mergo pursed his lips, fists shaking in disgust, yet he complied.

Porus let out a sigh as she watched him go. "You took him down easily enough," she noted. "I had hoped you'd been overestimating him. I wanted to pay him back myself for that strike."

Just as she'd thought. Nera nodded sagely. "Truthfully, I think I underestimated him," she answered. "He was keeping up well and got in a handful of good hits. If he had a wider opening than any we gave, he might've gotten another heavy blow like he did for Sandslash." Armaldo was just now reaching him and trying to pull his quills from the face of the cliff. It wasn't an easy task.

With a hum, Porus shook her head. "I didn't see a cut on any one of you," she said. "It couldn't have been that close then."

Nera opened her mouth to object, but no words came out. That… had been true. He hadn't used a single slash, and Nera had been more focused on countering his psychic abilities— she hadn't noticed. But why? Houndoom had shed his blood, and he still didn't reciprocate? Perhaps he had just evolved recently and was still getting used to it… but even still, she and Houndoom had held him by the arms. It would have been easy to activate them through whatever means and cut them. And yet he didn't.

Another wind came in from the south, pleasantly cool. Nera squinted and looked to the horizon dark with clouds. Just so faintly, something flashed— an omen indeed.

The great weight of cold steel on Riley's shoulders was getting to him. His body felt sore and sluggish as he sat with his back against the door, his arms held up and to the side by a steel stockade. Chains tethered him to the wall with only enough room to wander a few paces before it would pull taut the choke chain around his neck. It fed through his door to allow them to pull on it like a leash. He'd already tested their durability until he actually savored the stale, dusty air of this desert wasteland. His neck still stung from a few of the cuts.

Riley tapped, tapped, tapped his foot on the floor as he stared at one of the many imperfections in the floor. Briefly his gaze flicked up to the barred window of a fresh cell. He could see a band of pink just above the horizon, and just above that the first signs of twilight. Only a few hours left. Back to the imperfections in the floor again; they made time pass faster.

His plan was simple, brutish, and relied too much on luck for his liking. The seeds he snagged were still hidden under his tongue. If he wanted to get out of here, he'd need to entirely rely on effects he could only make an educated guess on for how they'd work. A Violent Seed was supposed to be some kind of extreme steroid. He would need to use that to break out of there, though he was very worried for the side effects. If they weren't widely-used, there had to be a major drawback. But provided he could power through that, he had two Blast Seeds to use to create diversions, and he had a Stun Seed for if he had to confront Nera.

When night fell, he would use his strength to break his restraints, and then grab the guard through the opening in the door. Depending on who his guard was at the time, he might need to use that Stun Seed then and there. Afterwards he'd have to break down his bars and duck into a tunnel as soon as he could. If they were onto him, Blast Seeds could throw them off, or maybe even collapse a tunnel so they couldn't follow him. From there, he would grab water and head east towards those mountains. As much as it hurt to admit it, he would have to forget about his scarf for now. Even though it felt wrong to be without it, like abandoning it was abandoning an heirloom, it would only get him in worse trouble. Riley would come back for it.

And then, if everything managed to work out in his favor, if he could just power through everything, escape the mesa unnoticed and without provoking that Golurk again, avoid Nera's eyes, avoid that Flygon and whoever else would patrol the desert, and escape into the distance like he'd ran with Festuum across the plains— if all of that lined up perfectly, all he would have to do is make it to those mountains alive. By himself. And then he would be less screwed.

Riley continued to tap, tap, tap away. The odds of that all working had to be astronomically low. Actually going through with it had to be insane, and… it would work. He would make it work. And when he saw Festuum and Markus again, it would make for a hell of a story to share. It would. It would.

But then a door clicked open in the hallway, and Riley perked his ears. Time for the guard shift? They didn't seem to have a strict schedule, but this still seemed early. And there were more than just one set of footsteps, and… chains?

For the first time in hours, Riley stood up and fought his sleeping legs to just peer out the slot in the door. His restraints rattled. A Scrafty, leaning against the wall at the far end of the hall, shot him a sneer before looking at the new arrivals that were just out of view for Riley.

"What the hell is this?" she scowled.

"An idiot gatecrasher," replied a gruff voice. "He put up some fight, but look where that got him. He shouldn't be any trouble anymore."

And Riley could feel his heart sink. Festuum? They managed to catch someone like Festuum here? He'd heard some commotion earlier— that had to be this. Now he was gonna drag someone else down with him?

… Or maybe this was part of a plan. Maybe Festuum needed to be captured first to escape with him, and he and Markus were ready somewhere to—

But it was not Festuum who walked into view. A Rampardos marched into view holding a ring of keys in her stubby hands, as did the Houndoom from the previous night, who made eye-contact with Riley for a fraction of a second before averting her gaze. And in between them was something Riley had almost mistaken for a ghost. A Gallade, tall and gaunt and with blood dried around his neck, walked with a black blindfold tied around him, and maroon chains tying his arms behind his back. The wound and the blindfold reminded him of the last time he'd seen Gallade's face, hanging from Bisharp's hand, but then there was the bracelet on his wrist— the same one that Kirlia always wore, that intricate bracer that looked so needlessly complex, and… bigger, somehow.

Shaking his head, Riley stumbled away from the door again and fell back on his ass. He would have preferred a ghost.

"... No way," the Scrafty whispered, then started snickering. "Seriously? Here of all places? Gah! You're all so lucky. What I wouldn't give to have gotten a shot in at Astraean royalty…"

Rampardos snorted. "Wasn't all he was cracked up to be," she dismissed, pressing forward and jamming the key in the cell opposite Riley. "You didn't miss much, 'cept for… Hm."

The Gallade's face didn't change. He came to a stop in the hall, and he couldn't have been more than five feet from where Riley sat, trying not to breathe too loud. Did he know that they were this close? Why the hell was he here? And this soon, too.

The door clicked and creaked open, and Riley could just see Rampardos's body twist to slam her tail into the Gallade's side. He grunted as he hit the ground on his side on the cold floor of his cell. And the door slammed shut hard enough to shake the walls. He remained still.

She locked the door and turned away, now facing Scrafty again. "Somethin' ain't right," she whispered, then glanced down at Riley. Rampardos flashed a scowl and spat at the door, and Riley flinched and pedaled back until his choke chain started to tighten him. She leaned in closer to the Scrafty. "I need your opinion on somethin'. Away from their ears."

She raised a brow and shifted her weight to one leg. "Really? Since when have you been secretive?"

"Just— follow me already," she growled, then whirled around to storm back from whence she came. Houndoom gave a pleading look, and Scrafty let out a sigh before relenting and following her along without so much as a second glance at the prisoners.

And then… there was silence. The three disappeared around the corner, and the Gallade across from him had not done a thing. There was no cold remark, no chains snapping, no deft flip back to his feet to fight back, not a single sign of vigor and fire that he'd always channeled before. Riley just sat there, waiting for… He didn't know what.

Eventually, metal scraped against the floor of the opposite cell as the Gallade wormed his way to the opposite wall. With a stifled grunt he sat himself upright. Riley could just see the crest atop his head through the slot in the door. Swallowing, he forced himself to stand up again and take a second look. The wound below his neck was sealed through whatever power was in those berries, but only just. The blood had dried and added to the accumulation of filth from all that travel. He looked… worn. A lot like the last time Riley had seen him, bloodied and beaten and covered in mud and burns.

A part of him focused on the guards. He could hear them making noise, but he couldn't make anything out. They had to be up to something, but the more Riley tried to think about that, the more his thoughts slipped away, and he just kept staring at the cell across.

This was bad. This was very, very bad, and Riley was overwhelmed. Shock, disappointment, fear, burgeoning hope, one leading to another that led to yet another. Kirlia (he didn't have the focus to think of what to call him) being there was an awful piece of news… but it didn't have to be. It was silent. And that silence was an opportunity. Swallowing, Riley opened his mouth and said the only thing he could think of.

"I'm probably the first one to congratulate you on your evolution, aren't I?"

It was faint, but the Gallade shifted his head a little bit. His mouth parted open just to draw in a breath, but he said nothing and turned away. A reaction. It was something.

Feeling a little encouraged, Riley pressed on. "But, you're still the same old Kirlia," he said, then stuck out his tongue. Even though the blindfold made it pointless. "I don't really know what I'm supposed to call you now, but… I'm not calling you Gallade. It feels wrong."

He didn't flinch, but the chains behind him rattled a bit as he shifted. "Mergo," he murmured, hoarse and quiet. "You can call me Mergo."

His ears twitched. Riley hadn't quite known what to expect, but that of all things wasn't it. He blinked. "Mer… go," he echoed, relieved to hear anything. It was better than more stone-walling. "Really? You're messing with me, aren't you? Why the hell do you have a name?"

He didn't answer. The Gallade— Mergo, apparently, merely continued to sit there. Discouraging.

"'Mergo,'" Riley said again, refusing to give up. He just had to talk. He just had to connect. "It's a bit weird of a change, but it's not as confusing as Kirlia would be, so… fine. Let's go with that. Besides, it fits you anyways." He cracked a smirk, hoping it would carry through in his voice. "Regal and pretentious. Trying to be ominous but just ending up all soft."

Even though Kirlia had evolved, his face was very similar to what it had been. And Riley remembered the last time he had challenged Kirlia, time and time again in the forest. He remembered each and every expression Kirlia had made, the confident and the fearful, the hateful and the regretful, the confusion— Riley doubted he would forget any one of them. Each one was burned into his memory, captured in the lightning strikes like flashes from a camera.

And Mergo made not a single one of them. The blindfold covered his eyes and the muscles around them, but his body didn't twitch or sit further upright. His mouth didn't move, his jaw remained where it was. It was like he hadn't heard a thing.

Riley's grin withered away. Teasing him didn't challenge his sense of pride? Nothing? That was… bad. Very bad. He had to be thinking of something else then, but what? Riley had to find out. He had to, or else Kir— Mergo would just be another obstacle in his escape. He'd been a hell of a fight before, and now...

Was he working with the guards? No, they would've been more subtle if they were, but still...

With a low sigh, Riley slumped against his door and looked down at the floor of the hallway between them. "You managed to evolve," he noted again. "And yet you're here. Right on my tail. I was… I was hoping that the last time we met would've been the last time. For a little while, I mean."

It was subtle, but Mergo raised his head just so slightly, then turned away.

"I thought if I put enough distance between us and left you as you were, you'd give up and go back home. Do something to deal with the real threat and let me go find my answers to fixing things." He pressed his forehead onto the cold metal and just rested there. "'Cause now we both have nothing."

No response. Riley hadn't been expecting one, really, but the silence was purposeful nonetheless. He didn't like saying those things out loud. They stung even for him, but he had to say them. They were his only hope. He had to push though. Something had to get through.

If he could get Kir— Mergo to really listen for as little as one minute, there was a chance, but he was losing it. He had to think of something fast. If Riley was someone else, he might have devised something shrewd to say, but he was far from shrewd enough for this. All he had was earnesty, and if that failed...

Riley balled his paws into fists as he sat down on the cold floor, then laid down on the ground as he stared up at the roughly-hewn ceiling. If he would do this, he had to give Mergo the space to react without being watched. Thankfully Riley's restraints were loud enough to make him backing away very noticeable.

"Hey… Mergo, yeah?" Riley called out. "Is this what you want?"

Riley held his breath. Outside, dust flew into the air from another one of those strong winds, making a soft hiss as millions of tiny grains of sand pelted the side of the spire. The day was dying, and the orange glow withdrew inch by inch as the sun set somewhere far out of view from his window. And in the cell across from his, Riley could hear Mergo's chains shift.

It was irritating that he couldn't get more of an answer than just idle movements. It could've meant a dozen things, and while Riley had a good guess, the Psychic had been an enigma since the day they first met. He needed something to go off of. Even if it felt invasive, if it was to help them both, then…

Riley shut his eyes and raised his sensors, raising himself up a bit to rattle his chains and hide the noise. And in that brief instant where the world around him was painted in grays and blacks, he saw the essence in the cell across from his. It was far denser and bigger than when he'd last seen it, but it wasn't spinning like a circular saw. No, it was churning, slower and in a hundred different directions like ocean currents splitting apart and meeting together again in an ever-changing maelstrom. Jagged undulations spiked from its surface and retreated back in, going every which way. Riley tried to imagine what it would be like to be caught in that, and just how lost he would feel.

"... I didn't ask what the people of Astraean wanted," he said after a while. "They're not here to force your hand. I'm asking if you're okay with this."

And Riley could watch as his aura briefly surged— a reaction. The spikes grew larger for an instant, but then grew still, and there was only the turbulent currents. He saw the form of the Gallade shift, but there wasn't much detail in this painted realm.

Riley let out a sigh. "I… I imagine you are, honestly. You seem like that kind of person. And it's... really infuriating, you know that?" He shook his head and let out a rueful chuckle. "Because I don't know if I'm just seeing something that's not there, or if you're just the most stubborn person in the universe, or what, but God do you make it hard to not want to punch you in the face these days."

The sheer catharsis Riley got from saying that to his face was only rivaled by seeing the aura flow in Mergo slow. It pulsed for a moment like a beating heart, then remained still as the waters flowed. Promising.

When there was no answer, Riley let out a quiet laugh that betrayed his anxiety, and he stretched his back out. "But you haven't told me to 'still my chattering tongue,' or whatever, so I guess this is progress."

In the silence that settled, Riley couldn't help but feel content. His attention started to wander to the guards around the corner, still huddled together and whispering. Their auras were rippling, quaking, forming waves and dents. He wondered how much longer they—

"Why…"

And Riley froze. His eyes shot open and his aura sensors fell limp to the ground. An unprompted word, a glimmer of hope.

Mergo drew in a breath to recalibrate, and spoke with a quiet fragility that didn't quite fit him. "Why did you not leave me to die?" he asked, failing to mask an equal share of accusation and shame.

And after a moment, Riley bit back a rueful laugh. Of course it would be something like that. At least he imagined Mergo wouldn't put up as much as a fight as Markus had about it. After all, he'd been there, so it was hardly even…

But as he started to form his answer, he realized it was wrong. Mergo wouldn't be asking if it was just as simple as 'I just don't want to kill you.' And in reality, there was more to it, wasn't there? It hit him in waves where this patience stemmed from.

"I think… I did it to help someone else for a change," Riley managed. "'Cause if I didn't have friends that were patient with me, I'd... probably have fed into bad habits and gotten myself into stupid problems, knowing what I'm like. Or I'd just be dead." Thinking about it, with how often he was bailed out, dead was a far more likely outcome. He choked up for a second as he clenched his paws into fists. "... And… I dunno, it— it helps me see what I'm doing wrong, too."

There was a brief moment of reflection in which Riley wondered what he'd do if anyone else were to overhear this. Die of embarrassment, probably, as if he wasn't teased enough. But for the moment he didn't much care. He just needed to be heard.

"So, I turned you into a project," he went on. "'Cause I know you can care. You wouldn't be out here if you didn't, yeah? So I mean… If I can change, I don't see why you can't."

And then, as the seconds crawled by once again, there was only silence. Riley's wistful mood began to evaporate. He couldn't see Mergo's face to read his reaction, and now that there was no immediate answer, he found himself nervous to check. A single twitch of his muscles could show his aura again, could reveal the state of the churning ocean, but what if it was worse? What if all that had just gone on deaf ears? What if—

"Of course you don't," he murmured, then his chains rattled once again as Mergo let out a deep, weary sigh. "You really are an idiot, you know that?"

Riley blinked, breathless, then slowly let a smile slip. A snort turned into a chuckle, then a fit of laughter as a grin cracked across his muzzle, and a sense of relief flooded over him. "Damn right I am."

And when there was no answer, Riley didn't bother worrying. He didn't feel the same tension in the air anymore. The pressure of the clock counting down to his demise was lessened. He'd gotten the kind of answer he would've heard back in Astraean.

The question now though wasn't as clear as that: wwould he do about this new variable? His plan of strategic improvising was still very, very unlikely. Mergo could help in that regard, but even though he didn't want to admit it, Riley would have to be stupid to trust him completely. And he could only afford so much stupidity.

If he wanted out of this, he needed to set Mergo's sights on something else instead. And Riley did have an idea. He'd been hesitant before. If it didn't work, it could… well, Riley didn't know. He didn't tell Nera anything for that very same reason. If Mergo knew about what his dad had been doing, just what would happen?

Riley took a deep breath, pushed his elbows off the ground, and clumsily got to his feet while wrestling with the chains around his neck. He could see into the cell across from his. The Gallade was slumped against the wall, still restrained, still blindfolded, but now staring up at the ceiling with his mouth open just a sliver.

He glanced down the hall to check if the coast was clear, but he gasped when he saw his answer. The Scrafty was marching down the hall with a purpose, her natural sneer somehow even more disgusted and brimming with contempt. Her eyes locked with Riley's as if she was wishing him dead with her thoughts alone.

There was no time.

"Hey," Riley half-wishepred, half-shouted as he press his muzzle through the slot in the door. "I don't have time, but— he knew."

For a second, Mergo remained still as he tried to process that. There were many 'he's and many things to know, but it only took that single second for something to click, and his head fell back to stare vaguely in Riley's direction. "... What?" he asked. "Who do you—"

"You know what I'm talking about," Riley cut in. "Just—"

"Quit your fucking whispering," the Scrafty snarled. She lurched forward and snatched the end of Riley's choke chain that snaked out the other side of the door. She pulled back on it and twisted her body. In one fierce motion it tightened around his neck, cutting him off and pulling him down to his knees. He tried to gasp but nothing got through. Fresh cuts and bruises on his neck started to burn again.

And she held it. Riley grimaced as his skull felt tighter and tighter. He tried to move his hands to the chain, but his stockade held them firm. And the seconds crawled by. He glared up through the slot in the door to see her staring down at him with a primal, deep-rooted anger.

"W-wait." Mergo's chains shook again as he lurched to his feet. "What do you think you're doing? We were talking."

The Scrafty paid him no mind as she leaned closer to Riley. Through gritted teeth she growled, "Why did you have to be here?"

Confusion and panic. Riley could hardly muster a thought longer than five words. Splittle started to drip from his jaws as he moved his neck closer to the door, hoping for a bit of slack, an inch to breathe, but there was none.

And she pulled a little more. The side of Riley's head cracked into the cold steel. He could feel his eyes rolling into the back. Fear. Fear and anger was all he could muster. A part of him thought about trying to find the Violent Seed and swallowing it then and there, but his throat wouldn't open.

"You were talking about that thief friends of yours, right? Well, bring him on," she rasped. "I'll wring his slimy neck myself. I'm not letting you parasites tear this place apart."

"Hey!" Mergo roared, and he kicked at the door as hard as he could. "I still need him, damn it. Let him go this instant or I will gut you where you stand."

That got her attention. The Scrafty turned away from Riley, giving him the faintest bit of slack, and the boy gasped for air. His chest puffed out as he collapsed into a coughing fit, unable to see them anymore. Clarity came back to him with each breath. Of course they wouldn't kill him yet, but fuck was he getting close to passing out. What the hell had provoked her?

"Fine then," she growled, then let go of Riley's chain. He took his opportunity and scrambled away from the door as he wiped the spit away. "You were about to get your turn anyways, princeling. I never thought I'd get a chance like this in my whole life." And then to punctuate that, she raised an arm and slid the slot in Riley's door closed. The metal was thick. He heard muffled voices, another knock, but nothing concrete.

After he had a moment to recover, he twitched his aura sensors again, but he could not breach the door. And there was nothing close to his window. Nothing. Riley was alone again. His neck ached and bled, his arms were shaking, and he could hardly hear anything over his pounding heart and his frantic gasps.

When he had another moment to settle, he poked around in his mouth with his tongue. One, two, three… four. All the seeds were still there, by some miracle, with the violent seed tucked away on its own side. Should he use it now?

"No," he whispered to himself, then raised his head to look out the window. The sun was still up. Mergo would have to wait. It didn't feel right to just sit there, since if it weren't for that banging at the door he'd probably be blacked out, but he needed more time. Not only to adjust his plan, but to wait and hope for that seed to take root.

"It just keeps getting worse and worse."

Markus traced his thumb over a thin, aged cigarette that he cradled in his hand. He was huddled in a cramped nook behind some emergency supplies, and he hadn't moved in hours. His knees were starting to ache. His other hand held a tiny luminescent crystal in a closed fist. When he opened it, its faint glow would illuminate the map they had procured on the ground in front of him, as would Festuum by his side.

He was roughly forty hours without sleep. Markus wanted to drift off during the day, and Festuum had urged him as well, but he was restless. Every little thing that Festuum learned through his Substitutes just made him more and more worried. He kept thinking about the plan again and again and again, each time a little different from the last.

"It was supposed to be a basic extraction." He was quiet, of course, but just as intense as he always was. "Get in, get out, cover our tracks. But then they sent a courier. And then we find the kid's friends by sheer fuckin' luck, and we rope them into it. Then we see Riley's one step away from being in an iron maiden, and we can't get close enough to tell him anything. And now, that fucking Psychic is right next to him."

Festuum nodded. "That does seem to be the case."

His thumb kept stroking over the cigarette. The paper had yellowed like an old book, and the aroma was a ghost of its former self. After all those years it probably wasn't even safe to use anymore. All that time away had freed him from its clutches, though the journey wasn't easy. Even still, Markus remembered its taste, and by holding it and drawing forth a memory, he felt just the slightest bit more at ease.

"Operations are supposed to be simple," he whispered. "Get in and get out as fast as you can. Minimize variables. Because the more there are, and the longer you have, shit's gonna go off the rails."

Festuum shrugged. "I don't remember a single operation that went smooth before," he said. "Why would this?"

"Because you'd think the world would get tired of—"

Markus bit himself off. He could feel himself starting to get heated again. In truth, he was terrified. It was no question: if they were caught, Markus didn't stand a chance. The only reason he was even in there at all was because he'd likely be spotted by that flying patrol. Anyone there could kill him with the ease that he could kill a mouse. He had to focus. Fear was a tool to temper his judgement.

"... I just don't like this," he went on. "The Psychic especially. He managed to see through all those tricks with my tracks, and he caught up that fast? With enough time to stop and evolve? I don't buy that."

Slowly, Festuum nodded again. His mind could only be stretched so far as his other bodies ran about. "I'm trying to keep an eye out," he answered. "Haven't found anything yet though. He might be having just as much bad luck as us."

"Or he might be right where he wants to be," Markus countered. "He's clever enough for a plan like that, and there's already a million unknowns."

"But he's also stubborn enough to charge in and get himself screwed over," Festuum answered. "It's a coin toss."

Markus clicked his tongue. "I hate coin tosses," he grumbled, rubbing his thumb along the aged cigarette. Every time he ran it along the old paper, feeling the many dents and imperfections it had gathered, the give of the filter, he would remember just how long it had been. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "Just— tell me what you see."

"Aye aye."

Festuum was stretching his resources thin. He had three other Substitutes skulking around in the shadows and the tunnels, and they'd been active for almost a full day now. They were silent and only moved when Festuum was sure it was safe. Through their eyes Festuum had seen and reported much, but actually being able to do something was another case altogether. Sneaking into the guest quarters where they kept Riley's friends was difficult in and of itself. Doing anything more than watching from a distance though was just asking for trouble. And they couldn't afford any more gambles.

But now, it was dusk. The last traces of light were fading away beyond the distant mountains to the west, and everything was swallowed up in the deep indigo of the desert night. Clouds to the south were rolling in, too. Soon it would be even darker. It was just one step away from ideal, but time was ticking.

One Substitute had his eyes on the central spire topped with a great clay pot, watching the light through the bottom window continue to burn as Captain Nera sat at the great dining table. Doing what, he didn't dare get close enough to know. Another was in the tunnels close to the soldiers' quarters, keeping an ear open to hear what they were up to. Today they seemed to be in hushed but urgent conversation, and Festuum listened to it with passive interest as if it were a radio broadcast. "I'm telling you, none of this is adding up. That kid's no good. He never should have ended up here in the first place."

And the third saw the prisoners' spire on the northern edge of the mesa. He'd been watching the skies for moving shapes for a long while from the shadows of a tunnel in the nearby cliff. The Flygon had roosted an hour before, but who knew when she would take off again? But it had been quiet for a while now. And every fifteen minutes that went by, he'd mentally curse his caution for keeping him from accomplishing the mission already. He took a deep breath and advanced.

His frog legs pushed off the stone as hard as he could, and he abruptly sprang into the air. His tongue unraveled and shot to the opposite cliff-face, clinging to it and pulling Festuum further. With a careful twist in the air he slung himself up and around to the top, where he braced and caught himself on all-fours without a single sound. A feather wished it could fall as silently as he could. Even if there had been anyone up there, he'd remain a ghost.

He gave one last look about. A dim, steady light in the bottom floor of the spire illuminated a barred window, but he couldn't see anyone inside through such a narrow opening. The winds were getting cold, which meant that everyone sane was inside. The skies were empty save for the stars and the half moon, which was just on the verge of being covered in the clouds of the approaching storm. Satisfied, he pressed onward.

"Cloud cover's twenty minutes away, give or take," the real Festuum whispered. "Looks like a real bastard, too. Should give us cover for at least an hour and a half."

Markus clicked his tongue. "Assuming it doesn't break early."

Festuum rolled his eyes. It was the most expression he'd shown in hours. "You know, you really need to reign in that boundless optimism of yours."

"Bite me."

The Substitute was a mere fifteen yards from the tower, close enough to make out details in the windows. After scouting them, there seemed to be four cells altogether, and one of them had a single bar filed off. He mustered a thin smile. Classic, Festuum mouthed, then looked to the others. He'd have to get higher off the ground if he wanted to find anything. He had to get closer.

Much the same as before, he crouched down and jumped high into the air. And his luck, it seemed, had turned for the better. Festuum could just glimpse the top of a small blue head against the door, bound in some kind of stockade. His eyes were shut. Resting, he assumed? Hopefully he wouldn't mind—

But then he saw something else move in the corner of his eye. From the light of the moon something emerged, a pale and silvery white descending like a diving hawk. He saw first the claws, dark like the night sky, then the crescent horn, and then the eyes. And Festuum knew it was too late. He could only manage a single, disbelieving "Ki'Rhan…" before the distance was closed.

Abby collided with him head-on, claws raking into his shoulder blades and jaws clamping down around his windpipe. Festuum let out a silent scream as he was dragged back down to earth. He struggled to send an elbow flying back, but there was no time. The two crashed and tumbled, scuffing themselves in the process, but Abby remained on top. And he made sure to put every bit of weight he had into pinning Festuum down.

"I can't let you do that," he whispered. "I remember that you're a tricksy one. I can't trust you with even an inch to breathe."

And Festuum couldn't move. Each and every one of his bodies locked up as fear gripped him just as tight as Abby's fangs. He remembered this feeling. No matter how long it had been, no matter how real the body was, he would never forget those fangs. There was only an instant of silence, yet it felt as if time had frozen.

"Just wait right where you are," Abby continued. His teeth pressed harder, harder, making a show of it all as he pierced the skin. Tiny jets of white smoke that made equally tiny hisses formed from the wounds. "Do that and I won't have to do… this." And with one snap of his jaws, Abby bit clean through, tearing through the flesh as it dissolved into haze. Festuum opened his mouth to let out a suppressed cry as he balled up his hands into fists, but all that came out was a plume of smoke as a snapped piece of wood fell to the mesa floor. And in that same instant, all the senses that came through that Substitute were gone.

"Hey." Markus's thoroughly-wrapped hand grabbed Festuum by the shoulder and shook him. His fingers had parted enough to let some of the light from the gem slip out. He could see Festuum a little more clearly, and Festuum could see the seeds of fear taking root in Markus as he stared him dead-on. "You're shaking. Out with it."

And Festuum swallowed. His folded hands were indeed shaking as he reached up towards his neck, and his fingers slithered under his scarf to feel his skin. Even though there were no wounds there, he could still feel the phantom bite. Again. And more horrifying still was the realization that those very fangs were still close. Within a thousand feet, and he couldn't see them anymore.

Festuum drew in a deep breath as he tried to steady himself, and somewhat succeeded. "It's… It was Ki'Rhan," he murmured, and he could see the color drain from Markus's face. "I was advancing to make contact with Riley, but he… He dove down from somewhere and bit through my neck."

And once again, there was silence. Markus tightened his grip around Festuum's shoulder, then pulled back away to his side. "... Ki'Rhan," Markus echoed with a grim horror. "The Lordblade? Are you certain?"

Hesitantly, Festuum nodded. He wished it wasn't so.

Gritting his teeth, Markus clenched a fist again, trapping the light from the gem as he fought off the urge to swear. He was losing. In the darkness, Festuum could see Markus squeeze his eyes shut and bang his head against the back wall. Fuck, he mouthed, amongst many other unsightly things. "I knew that damned Psychic was planning something."

Festuum let out a sigh. "Yeah. I… He's guarding that tower. We're not making it there without a fight."

"We're fucked." Markus dropped the gem and ran his hands through his hair, scratching at his scalp as he went. He was shivering. "The kid's fucked. We're fucked. Everything's fucked. Even if by some miracle we make it out of here, we're gonna be hunted down like dogs." His nails found his way to his jaw and started digging in. "It's a fucking Lordblade, man, we're—"

"Hey." Festuum snatched his wrist and pulled it towards him. The resolve he upheld was a fleeting one, and they both knew it, but he stood strong all the same. "I know that. I… I know what they do," he proclaimed. "I'm not gonna pretend that this… isn't bad, but, we do have a way out of here."

"He caught you before, man," Markus whispered. "And now he's here along with everything else that's gone wrong. How can you honestly say that?"

Festuum frowned. It was true. He would've reacted the same way if Markus hadn't done it first, but people were depending on him. He took another deep breath to steady himself, and this one worked less than the last, yet it was enough to press on just a little further.

"Three things," he answered, then held up a single finger. "If he jumped at me while trying to get to the tower, that means he's playing goalie. He doesn't want us to reunite with the kid, so for now, we're free to move as we please. He never liked working with others, so I don't imagine he'd get much… help for his hunt. And two." Festuum raised a second finger. "They aren't supposed to be here either. So if things do go south, it's not gonna be us versus the world. We're not big threats. They'll probably focus on each other."

"But we'd still have to sneak around them," Markus countered, speaking quickly. The toe of his boot unconsciously tapped, tapped, tapped against the crate in front of him. "We can't do that if we're caught up in the crossfire. And I can guarantee you that Absol's gonna slink away. And when he does, we're doomed. We're fucked."

And with a shake of his head, Festuum raised his third finger. "If we want out of here, we're going to have to kill him. More specifically… you will."

His boot stopped, and Markus whipped his head around to stare his friend dead-on in a mixture of bewilderment and utter horror. Speech had escaped him. With his beard unkempt and his hair falling into wild, sweaty locks around his face, he'd devolved into a caveman as he tapped his finger on his chest.

Festuum nodded. He balled his hands into fists and rested them on his knees.

Markus vehemently shook his head as he backed further into the corner.

"Look, can you—" Biting himself off, Festuum closed his eyes as he tried for a third time to steady his nerves. It worked even less, but he was able to become quiet again. "... I can't do it myself," he admitted. "He sees through my tricks. And if anyone from the fort went after him, they would go to subdue, and he'd likely escape. Markus, you… You're the only one who has a chance of killing him. You're the only one who can secure everyone's safety."

"Or we can just leave Riley for them and hope they won't follow," Markus answered automatically.

Far too automatically. Festuum narrowed his eyes as his mouth hung a sliver ajar, watching Markus's face as he slowly realized what he said. Fear was washed away by a creeping sense of shame. His shivering hand rubbed up his bandaged arm and slowly, slowly gripped his own skin tighter. The cigarette was permanently scarred with a dozen crinkles. A few rips in places showed the expired tobacco within.

And slowly, Markus let out a sigh. "It's… Go," he murmured. Festuum's expression softened as he raised a brow, and Markus proceeded to make a few explanatory gestures. "If it's a race, then we can't let them go through with their plans either. Force them to think on their feet and catch them on our terms."

"You mean to ring the dinner bell?"

Eyes squeezed shut with frustration, Markus nodded. "As… as loud as you can," he murmured. "How much longer until the storm comes in?"

A brief pause. "Roughly fifteen minutes."

Clicking his tongue, Markus shook his head and very, very cautiously stood up. Fresh blood flowed into his aching legs, and he leaned against the wall for a moment as he regained feeling in his lower half. "It's too early," he grumbled, taking the gear he'd set beside him and reattaching it piece by piece. "But we don't have a choice. The damned Psychic might be waiting for it too."

Festuum stood up as well, sleuthing towards the storage unit's door and pressing his ear against it. He waited, one, two, three, four… Nothing. Not even wind. He glanced back to the silhouette of Markus he could just barely make out in the gem's glow. "Are… Are you ready for this?" he asked trepidly.

"Hell no," Markus spat, yet shouldered the rest of his gear and followed anyways.