Chapter 56: No Fortunate Son

It frustrated Nera most that, of everything going through her head, a sense of deep regret haunted her most. More than all the enemy pieces in place and waiting, more than all the unknown and shadowy variables like the thief, more than the occasional doubtful glance that few of her subordinates were giving her this past hour, it was the fact that the stage was even there to be set that she couldn't shrug off.

Does any of this seem right to you?

If she knew what she did now, her answer would have been different, but Nera had only been a squire. She hadn't seen what her world would be. If she'd just known better, if she'd seen what had been right in front of her face, then none of this would be happening.

Thunder rumbled outside the dining room window. As Nera watched the approaching storm, she couldn't help but remember a similar storm from eleven autumns ago. She remembered the sandstorm underneath the turbulent black clouds approaching the city, and she remembered seeing her mother look back at her one last time with an infant Jade in her arms, and uncle Pell standing in the streets behind her staring solemnly into the storm.

Then I… I cannot stay. Find me when you are ready. I'm sorry.

Lightning flashed. One, two… Thunder rattled her windows. On the frigid winds came the occasional flakes of snow interspersed with all the sand. A few hit the glass, only to melt from Nera's crown.

The universe screamed at her that this was the wrong thing to do, and Nera heard each and every warning. She was increasingly dreading the coming hours and days the more she thought about it, and yet, Nera still wouldn't back down. She knew she'd regret it far more if she fell into line yet again.

Someone knocked at the front door, and Nera didn't bother to turn. "It's unlocked," she called. Porus usually came in at about this time, and indeed, when the door swung open there was a Flygon standing with her wings folded back. But Nera saw from her peripheries that she wasn't alone. Behind Porus was Houndoom, and in the faint moonlight Nera could see concealed worry in her eyes.

"Good evening, Captain," Porus sounded off. "You weren't at supper. You ate, correct?"

"I did." A cold bowl of lentil soup still sat at the head of the table, only partially touched. Nera didn't have much of an appetite. "I'll compliment Maractus in the morning when I return my bowl."

And that was about as much small talk as she could stomach at the moment. If there was anything she liked about this place, it was that she could just cut to the chase without worrying about pleasantries. Nera turned away from the window and folded her arms behind her. "And what of you?" she asked Houndoom. "Might you need anything?"

"Oh, uh, yes," she answered, lowering her head a sliver. "I just, uh… wanted to ask you something. About the other night."

Subtly Nera shifted her gaze to Porus, who was keeping a perfectly straight and proper face as she entered the dining room. It was just the kind of face they'd been trained to make back in training. Full marks. Were this anywhere else, Porus's superiors would no doubt be impressed, but out here it only meant bureaucracy was rearing its ugly head again. And Nera was already finding her patience thin.

"If you're here to ask for forgiveness," she said, returning her attention to Houndoom, "there's no need. It was my fault for not having heavier security. I knew humans were crafty, yet chose to underestimate him anyways."

Houndoom shook her head in response, though Nera noticed her posture relax just a bit. At least some burden was eased. "That's good to know, but that's not it. Actually, it was that last thing you said. Because he…" She looked away briefly. "He came in and stole his possessions back from your room, didn't he?"

Slowly, Nera nodded. "He grabbed the scarf, yes," she answered cautiously. Why did it feel like they were setting a trap?

"A-and when you responded, you were alert," Houndoom added. "You kept saying not to hurt him, and you held back with your flames. And it all had me wondering after the fact. Captain, did…" She took a breath to recalibrate herself. Nera could tell she felt small in this company, but she needed to get this off her chest. "Did he say anything to you?"

"No." She didn't lift her gaze away, for something told her that Porus was studying her. "I heard the window open and woke up. He uttered a curse and jumped, and I followed, calling Dechina for support. He said a few things, but nothing of any substance."

Houndoom frowned. "Then why would you be so adamant on not hurting him? I thought I heard that he flung sand in your eyes."

Folding her arms across her chest, Nera turned back to the window. A sharp exhale fogged one of the panes. "He still looks a lot like how I knew Jade," she admitted. "It was my first instinct to avoid harming his body further. I apologize." It wasn't pleasant to say that out loud, but what was written between the lines they were reading was even worse. And as much as Nera wanted to avoid it, Porus just had to voice it.

"And what of everything today, Captain?" her lieutenant asked. "The human's friends, and the son of the Guildmaster— them being here is asking for trouble. Shouldn't we escort… at least some of them away?"

"It would divide our strength," Nera countered, which was true. "If we had enough help around here, perhaps that would work, but we only have ten heads. And those three Durant are barely more help than if they were Wildies."

Porus narrowed her eyes behind her visor. "So we just wait for something ill-fated to happen?"

"We wait for our superiors to tell us what to do." Nera tapped, tapped, tapped at her forearm, tiny sparks flaring on her knuckle. "I thought you were used to how the system works in Implentur. Before too long, someone with a fancier title than all of us will tell us how to proceed." Some of the sparks flew up and into the window, meeting where the snowflakes kissed the glass and refracting through their strange crystalline structure. "For now, though? For now… As long as everyone is where I can see them, that gives me some degree of control."

"'Control?'" Houndoom echoed. She bumped the door shut and sat her rump down on the floor. "Captain, pardon me for speaking out of turn, but we don't know if this is something to even be controlled. This is getting worse by the hour, and— and even more than usual it's impossible to see what you're thinking."

"I think that of my available options, I'd rather have them under watch than running around, able to convey information to whoever hasn't been accounted for," Nera answered curtly. The 'we' in that sentence, however, was not lost on her. Her soldiers were talking. And Porus, too— she was listening. Waiting.

Houndoom dropped her head. She glanced up briefly to the lieutenant, then to the captain, both of which stood as silent monuments. For someone covered in bony protrusions, she looked awfully timid. "... Nera," she whispered. In the light of the crown Houndoom's eyes pleaded with her. "Are we really going to kill him?"

And she froze. Nera had her lie formed, but something in Houndoom's voice kept her from voicing it. Her frustration dimmed. The storm got closer as Nera watched star by star vanish behind the clouds. A flash of lightning, and thunder followed almost immediately.

So it isn't just me, Nera thought. It made sense that a bleeding heart like hers would see it the same, but she couldn't count on more. Most of the others had been hardened by the Spire. Hell, Nera herself thought it all insane. If she—

Noise. The thought died then and there as Nera turned her head to the stairs. It was faint, but she thought she heard the rifling of papers, and… wind. The wind was louder up there.

"Captain?" said Porus. "Is something—"

"Why did I have to open my damn mouth?" Nera growled, then wasted no time before breaking into a sprint. Behind her they called their objections, but she paid them no mind, pivoting to ascend the stairs almost as if she were flying. Soon she could hear them both following, but she was focused on the wind, and chill she could feel as she approached her room. The window was open. Nera never opened her window.

She twisted the doorknob and threw the whole thing open, and it was just as she feared: the thief. The papers now scattered on the floor flapped in the breeze as snow fell into her room. The door to her wardrobe clicked shut as a Greninja darted his head to stare at her, and the two locked eyes. He had Riley's bag shouldered, and she could just see the end of the scarf tucked inside.

Nera began to advance, but Festuum was swift. Shadows coalesced into a solid shape, continuing to morph as he hurled it forward. Something sharp stung into Nera's knee, and she winced and staggered to the side, catching herself on the edge of the desk. It was a rose. And while Nera recovered, Festuum jumped back to the open window. Something else smaller formed in his hand.

"We meet at last," he said, then threw it onto the ground. A cloud of black smoke burst apart and filled the room, swallowing the light as the wind whipped it around. Nera growled and launched a blast of fire from her fist, but it hit nothing.

"No you don't!" Porus exclaimed from behind. She kicked off the ground and beat her wings as hard as she could until they buzzed a droning buzz. A powerful gale of shredding sands tore through the corridor and carried the smoke away, as well as several of the papers and throwing Nera's sheets across the room. And the thief was nowhere to be seen. A streak of water on the floor and windowsill marked his exit.

"Ngh." Nera plucked the rose and tossed it aside as it evaporated into a black haze. It hadn't done much serious damage, but it didn't need to. She recovered and ran over to the window, gripping the sides as she scanned the surrounding area for anything, but all movement was lost behind the flakes of snow whirling in the howling winds.

Porus's buzzing soared past her as she swooped through the window, struggling to stay stable in the snow. Each flake against her scales was a tiny bite. She flew to the left, then to the right… nothing. "If you still have any of that control you were talking about, now would be the time to take it," she challenged through gritted teeth.

Before Nera could do anything more than shoot a glare back, Houndoom ran up behind her and sniffed at the spot which Festuum had stood, then at the air outside. "Curse this storm," she muttered. "It'll be impossible to find his scent—"

An explosion. From the eastern canyon came a rumble and a burst of bright fire and smoke. The cliff-face shuddered and broke away, dropping slabs of stone to the ground below. The smoke kept pouring. Something continued to burn.

"... Is…" Houndoom shuddered, breathing out a puff of sparks. "Are we being invaded?"

"It's too visible," Porus proclaimed, shaking her head adamantly. "It must be a distraction, or something else of the sort. They couldn't just…"

"Dechina!" Nera roared, and from atop the spire the great clay pot had awoken. Its arms and legs extended from its body as its head poked out. Soft golden glows formed its eyes and the spiraling crests on its shoulders and wrists. A low, ancient reverb echoed across the mesa as the automaton awoke. "Prowl for intruders! Restrain anyone who hasn't been attuned to you!"

"Prowling," it echoed. The spire shook as the heavy form of the Golurk stood upright. It would never stop surprising Nera with just how much power was within the bound spirit's vessel. In fact…

"And if you see the Riolu from last night out of his cell," she called, "ensure that you don't injure him further." And from the corners of her vision, she could see the shock on her subordinates' faces.

"Understood." With little else, it sprang from the top of the spire with all the might it could muster. Loose bits of stone fell from the walls and ceiling. Nera saw the trail of fire from its lower half streak across the sky as the Golurk started the prowl.

And as it passed them by, Porus turned from it to Nera with a boiling fury. "Really?!" she exclaimed. "Does that really matter right now?!"

"Does… that go for us as well?" Houndoom asked. There was an uncertainty in her voice that poorly masked her quiet relief.

"Yes," Nera stressed, answering both. "I don't want the human harmed. And with a bound spirit that has no judgement of its own, that's an important distinction to make. But right now you should be concerned with alerting the rest of the fort."

Porus gritted her teeth and pulled at her antennae. The light from the orb was fading now, whatever guests it may or may not have brought already in place. "There are bigger things to worry about, Captain," she growled. "Why are you letting him get to you so much?!"

Nera's eye twitched. "You know what? Do as you please," she scoffed, adjusting her stance and looking for a good place to jump to. "You haven't thought for yourself in all the time I've known you, so I'm ecstatic to see you turning around."

She heard the start of some indignant remark, but Nera paid it no mind and leapt from the window's edge. A burst of flames propelled her though the cold air, and concentrated jets eased her landing as she rolled to the ground. A four-limbed gallop transitioned into an upright sprint as she focused on the prison tower.

Over her shoulder she cast one quick glance. Houndoom was gone from the window, and Porus was whipping around to extinguish the flames. The Golurk had disappeared somewhere— likely into one of the canyons. It was just enough to know she was going in without support. Yet as unfortunate as that was, Nera knew she had no other choice. She had to get there in time to stop the thief.

And yet, as fate would have it, someone else was already conducting a plan of their own.

"I said that I was thirsty."

Mergo's voice just hardly made it through the partially-open slot in Riley's door, which he listened to with dulled interest. He'd been saying something periodically for the past five minutes or so, each time getting a little bit louder and commanding. If it was some kind of code to communicate, it was lost on Riley.

So instead, he fidgeted and watched the flakes of snow swirl outside his window. It was dark enough now. His tongue poked at the seed that was tucked against his left canines. Whenever he wanted, Riley could cast his die, and yet one little thing still held him in place.

"Can you not hear me? I need water, you glorified thug."

What to do with him? The time was here, but Riley still wasn't certain if he'd gotten anywhere meaningful with him yet. If they escaped this fort together, how likely was it that he'd just end up being subdued and dragged away again? The odds seemed weighed against him. Even with what Riley had told him not an hour prior, he was more hostile than ever.

"Unbelievable," Mergo groaned, and his chains rattled. "I could tell by your stink that you don't bother washing, but you can't even be bothered to get the dust out of your ears?"

Something banged against the halls— presumably the back of Scrafty's head. "Are you ever going to shut your mouth?" she growled. "I swear, if I have to, I'll go in there and break your jaw."

Mergo audibly spat on the floor. "Please. The brat in the other cell hits harder than you do."

"'Brat?'" Scrafty snorted. "Isn't he the same age as you? Or did you just forget?"

Riley's ears fell flat. He'd been thinking the same thing, though he found no humor in it. If anyone else had been there to hear that, they would've just sighed and told him to go on alone. It was too much for Riley to deny.

Even after that distinct partially-obscured look of recognition when Riley had told him, he was acting no different. If anything he was worse than ever before! It didn't make sense.

There was a short period of silence before Mergo spoke again. "So we've established that you can hear me," he noted, and Scrafty let out a low, irritable groan. "I'm thirsty. I have journeyed across the desert with few provisions, and I need water. You will give it to me. Don't you know who I am?"

"Yes, your arrogance, I know who the fuck you are," she spat. "As if anything about you makes it possible to miss."

"Right," Mergo replied, as if that had been a proper and dignified answer. "I'm the son of the Guildmaster, and soon to be the Guildmaster himself. And you're nothing but a lowborn. Do you understand that?"

Riley blinked. 'Lowborn?' he mouthed. Since when had he put that much emphasis on his status? That…

"'Lowborn,'" Scrafty repeated through clenched teeth. A rueful chuckle echoed through the hallway. "You're talking awfully big for someone who's here by himself. You're a long ways away from where that title of yours means a damned thing." Her knuckles cracked. "A real long ways."

And right there, Riley's eyes opened a little wider as it finally clicked.

"And you're not exactly at home either," Mergo countered. "I know what this place is. I know you're not here by choice."

Slowly, carefully, Riley minded his restraints and stood up against the door. He held his breath. Something was about to happen, and he had to be ready.

"The Crimson Spire is a penal post. You aren't even good enough to use as a tactical distraction in the fights against Scizor, so they keep you here, sixty miles from the nearest town to—"

Scrafty cut in, "Quit running your mouth—"

"To waste away," Mergo roared, undeterred. "What did you even do to end up here? Who did you disappoint? Do you even remember, or have you been here so long that you've forgotten about whatever drove you?"

A brief pause. Riley could hear her holding her breath as she grinded her teeth. It was working. He didn't need his sensors to imagine what her aura would look like. He was playing with serious fire. Even Riley wanted to tell him to shut it.

When no answer came, Mergo seized the opening and continued to push. "I was wrong to call you just a lowborn. Obviously you had a chance if you were a candidate to be a knight, yet you squandered it. Hate me all you want, but at least I'm not content to remain as garbage." He spat onto the floor in disgust. "Now get me. A glass. Of water."

Riley winced, and then winced again as Scrafty's fist crashed into the wall. Hurried footsteps marched forward with the intent to kill. Her low, raspy snarl swept through the hallway, and the luminescent plates flickered. And Mergo made not a single sound.

"I'm gonna make you regret each and every word you just said," she seethed, picking the right key to jam it into the lock. "I've put up with your guild of righteous tyrants for the last time. I'm gonna rip—"

Fire and thunder and smoke burst from Mergo's cell with one magnificent roar. A violent explosion tore the door off its hinges, throwing Scrafty to the floor and crashing into Riley's own. With something between a shriek and a cry Riley was flung off his feet and further into his cell. The choke chain constricted around his neck, and he choked as he tumbled and banged his head around. His vision blurred, his ears rang.

Mergo shouted something, Scrafty exclaimed something else. He could hear the sounds of kicks and chains as a messy brawl began in a cloud of dust.

A bomb, Riley thought to himself, shaking his head as he tried to roll back over. How does he have a bomb?

Senses evening out, Riley got to one knee and glanced over his shoulder, which wasn't an easy task with his stockade still on. Somehow Mergo had managed to get his blindfold off of one eye and was throwing kick after kick. Scrafty's head was bleeding, her dodges and deflections sluggish, but each one was getting better than the last. She shook her head, covering the walls and doors with little red droplets, before throwing out her own attacks. And with his arms still chained behind his back, his defense was limited.

It was time. Riley maneuvered his tongue to pull the violent seed between his teeth, only to find nothing there.

A pit formed in his stomach. Did he swallow one when he was flung? He didn't feel any different, but maybe they had delayed effects. No. No no no, they had to still be there. He couldn't have wasted them. If they were gone, then he wasn't getting out of there. They had to— there!

Riley lunged to the edge of his leash's radius and brushed a pile of wet seeds closer to him with his foot. Four of them, thank god, all covered in dust and sand. Now that he had the Violent Seed, he could…

The pit in his stomach hadn't even had time to fade before it redoubled. They all looked the same. If he could have moved his arms he probably would've pulled fistfuls of fur right off his head.

He turned around again. Scrafty's raised arms blocked most of Mergo's kicks, and as much as he kept his spacing and deflected with his knees and shin, her whiffed blows still left cracks in the wall. She was frothing with rage. It was only a matter of time before she shattered his ribs.

And then he looked back at the seeds. The same size, the same general shape. Only one of them would help. Did he gamble? A one-in-four shot was preferable to a guaranteed death. It would be stupid, but being too cautious was equally stupid. Which one looked most like the one that…

He stopped. A brief undulation in the dust let more light seep through, and Riley could see the seeds a bit better. They had different colors. Faintly, but they were different shades of tannish red. Hope was there, but it was dim. He'd grabbed them in the dark and hadn't gotten a chance to look at them properly. If he could just…

Riley whirled around and ran over to his partially-bent door. The fight had continued down the hall, backing Mergo into a corner, but as Scrafty lunged forward with a wild haymaker, he jumped and spun over her and delivered a heavy kick to the back of her head. She staggered, but she was far from out of it.

"Hey!" Riley called, and Mergo barely turned his head to offer him an ear. "What color is a violent seed?!"

"What—" Mergo started, but stopped as he immediately went on the defensive. A frost-coated fist missed him by half an inch as Scrafty went into a frenzy of attacks, forcing him back. She overextended and presented an opening, which Mergo took fully with a high kick to her chin. She groaned and staggered back. "Why are you asking me this?"

"For the love of—" Riley bared his fangs as he clenched his paws into tight fists, and he kicked at the door hard. "Just answer me! What color?!"

Mergo grimaced. "They're maroon, alri— ngh!" As he tried to jump back, she stomped down on his ankle, pinning him. With a devious sneer she tucked her head and dove into his torso, knocking the wind out of him and throwing him down. She jumped down on top of him as she started wailing on him, and Mergo tried his best to push her away.

"Maroon," Riley repeated, then nodded his head as he slid back in front of the seeds again. He needed to hurry. The two on the left were the same lighter color, which meant it had to be one of the other two, which were a faded reddish brown. And one was just a bit darker than the other. Maroon, maroon…

Frantic, Riley turned back again. "What the hell is maroon?!"

"Why does it—" Mergo choked. His knees were pushed into his chest as Scrafty loomed over him. She brought her fist back and slammed it into his stomach. Ice crawled over his flesh and seeped into his muscles. He let out a hiss of pain, and Scrafty brought back her fist again. "Hrrgh— chestnut. Like a chestnut," he growled. Just in time he raised his shin to protect his vitals. "You'd better be going some… where…" And then he trailed off.

That one. Riley dipped his head down and swallowed the seed whole. And for a moment, nothing happened, and he waited with baited breath for the surge to come. He whirled around to his crumpled door. The sounds of the scuffle had come to a confused stop as the words had time to register.

"There ain't no way," Scrafty murmured, pushing down on Mergo as she shot to her feet.

"Wait—" Mergo tried to trip her, but she merely stumbled before taking off. "Wait, Riley, don't."

But it was already done. Riley felt his heart beat faster and faster in his chest. His limbs started to shake. In an instant the stockade on his neck weighed less than nothing. His own body weighed less than nothing. Something ignited in his chest as a burning heat consumed him from the inside. Thoughts were drowned out by a low, bestial snarl in the back of his skull.

Baring his fangs, Riley pulled his arms apart with all his newfound might. The steel creaked and bent. One break formed, then another and another as the metal tore away. With a series of small, sharp pops in his wrist Riley ripped one paw free, then the other. Scrap scattered across the floor.

The chain around his neck constricted and started to tear at his skin again as Scrafty pulled as hard as she could. Riley choked as he felt himself start to fall, but he steadied himself and grabbed it back. A sharp pain started burrowing in his forearm. Her eyes had shrank a little, fear emerging behind the frenzy. "Spit that out!" she bellowed, peering just over the fold in the door.

Veins popped as Riley roared back at her, and with one defiant twist backwards, he pulled the rest of the chain along with him. It snapped free of the door and whipped behind him like a parody of his scarf. Scrafty fell backwards against the opposite wall— an opening.

Before he could even think about what he was doing, Riley vaulted over the door as the pieces of the stockade rained down around him. Aura flowed and swelled around his fist like a chaotic storm, swirling, swirling. "Choke on this!" he spat, and swung with everything he had straight for her sternum. She raised her arms just too slow. There was an audible crunch, a physical shock as Scrafty was thrown tumbling back into the wall of Mergo's cell, shattering the stone and leaving an impact crater. Riley too went flying back, banging against the door as recoil shot up his arm. The smoke in the air whipped as a small wind stirred through the halls. A single blow, and all Scrafty could manage was a low, dry wheeze.

And as the feeling of victory and elation came, so too did wave after wave of pain. His right arm was ablaze. He hissed and tried to move a digit, and immediately regretted it. He didn't understand.

"No no no," Mergo growled. He ran as fast as he could, blindfold now fallen around his neck, and came to a skidding stop in front of him. His eyes were frantic and his breath haggard. "For the love of— what did you do?!"

"You're welcome," Riley hissed, clutching his arm tight. It was agonizing. His eyes squeezed shut as he bit back a cry of pain. "What… Why does it feel like she jammed a spike up my arm?" Did Scrafty know some kind counter technique?

Mergo drew in a deep, deep breath to calm his nerves. It obviously didn't work, and he marched off after Scrafty's unconscious body. "Because the recoil broke your arm," he said, and Riley bristled. "Stay still. You'll make it worse."

"Wh-what?!" Riley exclaimed. He looked down at his arm. Had he ever broken it before? This type of pain was new to him, so he had to guess no, but from recoil of all things? It seemed impossible. It couldn't be. Only an ache, yes, it had to be. He was sore. Soon the pain would fade, and then he could escape unhindered.

"A Violent Seed will remove the limiter on your cores, giving you the full extent of the power you can produce," Mergo explained. He examined Scrafty's form carefully, found the keyring on a strap around her hip, then turned around to try and get it with his hands.

"What…" Cores? Limiters? Why the hell was he making it sound like they were mech suits? This didn't make sense. His arm was broken? What would happen if he kicked someone? Or jumped really far?

"It didn't sound too terrible though, so I think we can mend it." The key scraped against the lock as Mergo tried to get it open, but it was difficult without being able to see it directly. After a few attempts he got it in, the lock clicked, and the chains uncoiled from around his arms. A fierce psychic wind tore away the blindfold as Mergo flexed his arms and his fists. He was free and uninhibited.

And Riley's arm was still broken. As Mergo turned around to face and loom over him, the situation became dreadfully clear. He couldn't take anything back.

"Now." Mergo kicked his chains away in distaste before giving Riley his full attention. "I need to be quick. Brace yourself, this is going to be uncomfortable," he warned, and then started advancing.

"W-w-wait." Riley backed up a step, giving him a focused, insisting look. "Don't. Brace for what? I told—"

But he got no further. In the middle of his words he felt an invisible bug crawl down his esophagus and into his stomach. Panic and discomfort washed over him as he stumbled back against the wall. He felt like he was going to throw up, and before he could even process what the hell was happening, it was over. The invisible bug had what it needed and flew back up again, escaping through a coughing fit. It was done in about two seconds, and Riley half-collapsed as he gasped and spat and tried to hold himself together.

His eyes struggled to focus on what had just emerged, and there he saw it: the seed, slick and dripping and partially split open. It spun a few times to shake most of it off before it flew into Mergo's palm, who received it with a solemn, somewhat disgusted nod. "Good. Most of it won't be in your system," he noted. "Forgive me. It digests quickly, so I had to be prompt in removing it."

Riley blinked slowly as he caught his breath. In, then out. In, then out. He had to remind himself that it only felt like he was being strangled. "... Sure," he croaked. The growling in the back of his skull was slowly getting quieter, or perhaps that was just some sort of placebo. "I'm just… not gonna ask how you learned that."

A pause. As each second passed, Riley felt steadier and steadier, clearer and clearer, yet the pain would not ebb. A shiver ran up his spine as he held his broken arm tighter and held back curses. All the while, Mergo just stood there, staring off in thought as he tucked the seed into a loose fist.

"... You said something earlier," he noted, keeping his tone even. "You told me 'he knew.' That could mean a lot of things." When Mergo turned, his footsteps reverberated through the empty halls. The cold wind from outside now seeped past the broken doors. "I'll know if you're lying to me, Riley. Explain what you'd meant."

Riley swallowed. The die had hit the table, and now it tumbled and rolled, its fate already decided. Now he had only to count his losses, whatever they might be.

"I think you know," he answered after a pause, and Mergo's expression hardened. "I wouldn't have made it a week if your dad hadn't helped me. I never found out why, but he knew about me from the start and decided to help me. I think… No. Something's going on back in Astraean, but I don't think I can find out like this."

Silence. Mergo stood there with his arms folded across his chest, sizing Riley up. The die turned one final time, teetered on its edge…

"... I see," he whispered. "You're earnest. Something really is afoot, then. The Guildma— Father…" His face tensed up with the weight of the truth, and Mergo clenched a loose fist, but he shook his head and let it fade away again. If anything, he suddenly looked more tired, like he was just told he could rest. "... Thank you for telling me."

And it landed weal. Riley let out a sigh of relief, and even through the pain he found himself smiling. "It's a good start," he said, raising a fist to playfully jab at Mergo's side, "but you should—"

Squueeeeaaak.

A high, shrill, toy-like whine escaped Mergo's mouth as he abruptly arched his back. His eyes went wide as he locked up. Slowly, his cheeks flushed pink.

Struck with wonder, Riley froze too. There was no way that just happened, did it? It sounded just like a dog toy. Curious, he raised a paw and started to poke, only for Mergo to swat his hand away and start down the hall.

"W-we have to hurry," he explained, pretending like the last few seconds was nothing but a figment of the imagination. "They stowed my bag down below. I can mend your arm from there. When we escape from this place, I want to know everything you do. Everything. And your companions, too, wherever they're hiding."

The urge to press was strong, but Riley held back his smirk and pocketed the question for later. Now wasn't the time. And besides, he raised something else of interest, and Riley dipped back in to grab the remaining seeds before following after him. Where was Festuum at? Unless he'd been caught too, wouldn't he have tried to sneak into his window by now? How had Mergo beat him here?

The soldiers had put Mergo's bag in a chest that was both unguarded and easy to slash through. There were a few Oran Berries inside, and Mergo squeezed the juice over Riley's broken elbow, letting it seep into his skin. It stung at first, but in a matter of seconds, the break started to mend, and for good measure Riley downed the now mostly-tasteless pulp and skin. He gave it a good test flex and nodded in approval. Not quite good as new, but he'd had bruises that hurt worse than this.

Down one more tunnel lit by a tiny violet ember, and the two were brought to a cliffside platform in the middle of one of the canyons. A rope bridge crossed from one side to another, swaying back and forth in the frigid wind. Sand and snow whirled around them, buffeting their faces and forcing them to shield themselves. Thunder roared as lightning struck the sand outside the mesa, melting and twisting a patch into jagged glass.

"Ngh. What's up with this weather?" Riley hissed. "It didn't seem that bad from the window. Where is this coming from?"

"The south," Mergo noted dryly. "We can escape into it as it approaches. The conditions will make it difficult to pursue."

Riley's ears twitched. "Just like that? Wouldn't we just die out there if we don't have enough supplies?"

"Don't concern yourself with that. My companion has plenty—"

Bright orange light drew both of their gazes as blasts of fire rocketed from the top of the opposite cliff. Before Riley could even gasp, Mergo raised his palm and conjured four violet stars to his side. Each one raced out to meet the flames, bursting apart into purple and orange sparks as a cloud of smoke filled the space ahead of them.

"Move," Mergo instructed, but Riley was already on it. He leaned forward and broke into a run across the swaying bridgend towards the narrow path on the cliff for the other side.

From the cloud of smoke burst Nera, the remnants of flames trailing from the soles of her feet as she propelled towards Mergo. With a fierce cry she plunged with a searing kick to Mergo's right, which he jumped back to narrowly avoid. She threw out another flurry of searing punches as her knuckles smouldered. Two were deflected, but the third caught him in the chest and forced him to stagger backwards.

"Get back inside!" Nera barked over her shoulder. She tried to advance, but Mergo recovered and kicked high at her chin, then followed it up with a series of slashes and jabs that carved through the air with deadly precision. Nera jumped back just in time to avoid the sharp edge of his blades.

If that had been to Riley, he ignored it as he ran up the narrow path and towards the next tunnel. You had your chance, he thought to himself. Even if he still felt somewhat bad for how things went for her, above all, he had to survive. He had—

Movement from his peripherals told him to jump, and Riley kicked off the ground with a Quick Attack and flipped into the air. An instant later, an open hand the size of his whole body crashed into the cliff, fingers gouging through the stone as a network of cracks formed in the wall. Riley gasped. He looked up to see the Golurk it belonged to descending from above, soaring straight towards him with a jet of fire trailing from its clay kilt.

"Surrender," it bellowed.

"Oh come on," Riley groaned. He had to make it to that tunnel before that thing cut him off, but was he fast enough? Could they even escape it? If he didn't try—

Something wet and sticky smacked between his shoulder blades, clinging to his fur and the skin underneath. There wasn't even time to look before Riley found himself being bungeed further up the cliff face by something pink and damp. Right as he came over the lip of the cliff, tumbling and rolling over himself, the appendage retracted. He scrambled to a frantic, panicked battle stance… only to immediately relax.

"Sorry, kid," Festuum panted. The cloak was bundled around his waist along with two bags strapped to his side. He was filthy and haggard, and his eyes looked more dim than usual. "Not exactly the entrance I wanted to make either."

"Festuum!" He dropped his fists as relief flooded over him, and he leapt to Festuum's side away from the cliff. "Oh thank god, I'd thought you left me."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Festuum answered, though it was lacking in his usual theatrics. His gaze followed the arc that the Golurk took through the air, steadily turning towards them. He grimaced and grabbed Riley by the wrist. "Hurry. We need to skedaddle."

For an instant, Riley glanced back over his shoulder at Mergo. Leaving him didn't feel right, as stupid as it sounded. He didn't want to chance leaving him as an enemy. But Festuum needed him too. And if he had to side with someone, it had to be him.

After a second's hesitation, Riley nodded solemnly. "Right," he murmured, then turned and broke into a sprint across the mesa. The rumbling of the Golurk followed close behind.

"No! Stay where you are!" Nera roared. Fire conjured around her fist as she prepared to punch another blast, but Mergo recovered and swept at the back of her leg, throwing her off balance. The blast instead careened into the cliffside, scorching the stone and whipping sand and smoke into the storm. A violet rapier formed in his palm as he thrusted forward. It grazed her jaw as she wove out of the way, taking a defensive stance.

"He's mine. Don't interfere," he warned, then lunged straight for her chest. She jumped back and onto the rope bridge, turning to make her way up the cliff, but that same cold violet blade blurred past her in an arc. It swept through both ropes in one fell swoop, just as Mergo crouched and swung his arms through the other end. The tension was cut. Her footing sagged and plummeted, and Nera found herself in free-fall.

Grimacing, Nera whirled around and gathered flames beneath her feet as she tried to aim herself for the opposite side, but a clap reached her ear over the sounds of the storm. Before she could fully register what that meant, Mergo was right on top of her, and he stomped down with both feet as hard as he could. The wind surged from her lungs as she found herself plummeting down, down, down the canyon as she struggled to regain her breath. The ground was getting closer, and as she braced for impact, Mergo snapped into being right in her path. He hurled a violet javelin straight for her, but Nera acted quickly and used the remnants of the flames she had gathered, bursting them and sending her just off course. She landed hard in the sand, groaning as she combat rolled back to her feet and entered a defensive stance.

Mergo clicked his tongue. "I'm still getting used to this body," he said, and another violet star formed and bloomed in his palm. "Nevertheless, I can't let you get in my way."

A flash of lightning lit the canyon as Nera bared her fangs. "He isn't a pawn in your stupid games!" she spat, throwing her fist forward and evoking another blast of fire.

"Blast. Where did they go?!"

"Check the other canyons. They might be trying to burn the other bridges."

"Damn them!"

A platoon rushed away from the smouldering remains of a rope bridge in the sand. Pyro pressed himself against one of the tunnels, holding his breath as he clutched his tailflame in his claws to suppress the light, trying to hear their footsteps over his own beating heart. They were getting quieter, quieter, quieter…

To say he was nervous would have been an understatement. At every turn Pyro cursed his stupid tail, told himself to just stay behind and not be a burden. Cut his losses. This was stupid. They were going to be caught, and then he'd squander everything for everyone. Why did he agree to sneak around like this in the first place?

Festuum signaled with his hands, and he took off into the storm as quietly as he could. Rose pulled her gifted cloak (did it even do any good? It blocked the snow, but the wind cut right through it) tighter and followed right behind, and Pyro shook his head and followed after. He let go of his tail so that he could run faster. His head kept looking back, looking up, scanning the other tunnels they passed, certain that any second now someone would spot him.

It wasn't even Festuum that they were following, really. He'd said his abilities were needed elsewhere, so they had a Substitute to guide them. If they were found, they couldn't rely on him. He knew that Riley needed help, and he knew he was already tied to this mess, but everything about this rescue was falling apart at the seams. Hell, just fifteen minutes ago, half the plan was thrown out and recycled. Of course his confidence was falling apart.

Festuum jumped some twenty feet up into the air, landing on a swaying rope bridge for only an instant before jumping onto a small outcrop of stone in the cliff wall. He made it look like child's play. Just beyond his perch was their destination: a tunnel. No bridge led to it. No ladder hung from the stone, and no handholds in the stone invited him up to it. Their only choice was to be creative.

"Hey," Festuum whispered, nodding towards Pyro. "You first. Climb on up."

He hesitated. Him first? Rose shivered next to him, huddling underneath that thin, folded cloak. Though her face was fierce and focused, the storm was killing her. Shouldn't she be the first one up?

But Pyro knew the answer to that, and he let out a sigh. The longer he was out in the open, the worse it would be for everyone. His claws rasped together, and he looked down to Rose's shivering form huddled by his tail flame. He had to take that away. "I… I'll be as quick as I can," he promised. "It's just for a minute. Will you be okay?"

"I-I'll survive," she answered. "Just be quick."

Pyro swallowed. "R… Right." And with little else, he tucked his head down and ran for the cliff.

It was the first time since he evolved that he'd tried scaling a vertical surface. His new body couldn't cling to the walls and climb up the same way as before. And even if he could, these conditions would make it difficult. And yet, as he jumped up and grabbed for the stone, his claws found easy purchase and held him. Where there was none, they sank in anyways and let him climb effortlessly. He was confused. He'd never done it before, yet it was second nature to him, and the wind barely affected him.

In no time at all, he made it up onto the swaying rope bridge, and he held his arms out to steady himself. Pyro glanced first down to Rose, who had her eyes squeezed shut in discomfort, then over to Festuum's Substitute, who held an arm out to catch him. He looked around to the rest of the canyon, high and low, and the skies above. He thought he heard something, but a bolt of lightning struck the mouth of the canyon only a hundred yards from where they stood. Blinding blue-white washed over him as the mesa shook from the thunder. Rose stifled a cry. Festuum winced and covered his ears. When the light faded, a twisted sculpture of glass stood in its place.

He was shaking. Something in the back of his mind told him to leave, and it was loud. This wasn't right. This wasn't natural.

And for as much as he wanted to listen to it, he couldn't be left behind. Pyro took a deep breath and backed up a few paces. With a running start he jumped off the edge of the bridge, holding a claw out towards Festuum. The Substitute took hold of it and leaned back with all his strength, groaning and grimacing as he carried Pyro's momentum through. With what strength he had, Festuum swung him across and threw him the rest of the way. Pyro only just made it to the lip of the tunnel, his claws scraping into the stone as he scrambled for purchase.

Festuum sighed in relief. "God, you're heavy," he groaned, then turned over to Rose. "Alright. Now you—"

But he didn't finish. Stones tumbled down the cliffside, and the three looked up to see something descending from one tiny outcrop to another, nimbly maneuvering on sometimes a mere inch of footing. Ghostly white with a black face and crescent tail. Pyro had never seen an Absol before, but he'd heard nothing but bad things. And if that wasn't enough to make him panic, he wasn't alone either. Trailing behind him at a distance was a Flygon that made a curving arc to descend into the canyon.

The Absol landed on the bridge hard, causing the whole thing to whip and bounce. Boards and ropes groaned in protest, and in one subtle flick of a claw, he tore through the ropes on one side. Tension broke. Boards fell loose and rained on the ground as one side of the bridge fell away, leaving nothing but a single strained rope and a few stubborn pieces of wood left. He landed softly upon the sands, then cast a look over his shoulder.

Rose jumped back and pressed herself against the cliff's edge. "What the hell—"

Blue dragonfire shot right for the Absol, missing him by a hair as he jumped out of the way. It burst apart and scattered sand into the winds as the Flygon swooped in overhead. Her eyes narrowed behind her visor. "You two," she growled. "And the thief as well."

"Count my lucky stars, there you are! I was looking all over for you!" the Absol exclaimed, far louder than necessary. He stared straight up into Festuum's Substitute, who held his breath and stared back wide-eyed. "Hold her off for me. I need to continue the mission."

Pyro bared his teeth in a snarl. He didn't know who this was, but his plot was obvious. He opened his mouth to object, to shout a warning, to do anything, but the Absol turned and dashed away in a blur, bounding across the canyon floor in the direction they had originally come from. He was fast, and he needed no time at all to gain that speed. Was he following their tracks?

The Flygon started to turn after him, but she stopped herself, hovering in the air. "... No. Not this time," she hissed, rotating to face the three. Specifically Rose, who held the same defiant glare she always did. "I'm not ignoring you like Nera had. Especially not you." Blue fire spilled from her mouth as she charged another gout.

"J-just our luck," Rose grumbled. Her flowers peeked out of her cloak, petals contracting over and over to get them moving again. Tiny black motes seeped from her stamen.

Pyro held his breath as his heart pounded even harder than before. They had to get out of here, but the bridge was out. She couldn't get up fast enough. And Festuum, their supposed brilliant thief, was still staring after the Absol in some terrible realization. Was there no choice then?

The Flygon arched her neck and spat another glob of dragonfire straight for Rose. Pyro countered by launching a blast of flames from his throat just as Rose formed a sphere of black-purple shadows between her flowers and shot it up. The three attacks intersected and burst apart. Sparks of blue and orange and violet whipped and danced amidst the snow and sand.

"Snap out of it," Pyro growled to Festuum, momentarily snapping him from his trance, "and throw me back."

"Wait, what—"

He didn't wait. Pyro jumped forward and reached out, and Festuum panicked and caught his arm, groaning again as he carried through and released the Charmeleon. Without the strength to throw him back, Festuum had no choice. Three rapid bursts of flame shot from Pyro's maw as he descended. One grazed the Flygon's scales, but the other two missed as she swooped in to intercept him. He raised his arms to block as her tail whipped down upon him, knocking him from the air and crashing him into the sand.

Thorned tendrils reached up and latched around the Flygon's legs and torso, piercing her scales and sapping into her veins and muscles. She grit her teeth and stifled a cry of pain. Behind her, Rose leaned back like she was pulling on reins. With every pulse of the vines she felt stronger, warmer, more of herself.

"Nngh. N-no!" The Flygon reached back and grasped the vines in one of her claws. The thorns pierced her palm and sent another small spike of pain through her, but she bore through the pain and pulled back as she beat her wings. Rose gasped as she was lifted off the ground. "I'm not letting you go! You've done enough to tear this fort apart!" she roared, then whipped the vines to her side. A high shriek was cut off abruptly as Rose crashed into the far wall of the cliff.

"Rose! No!" Pyro bared his fangs as he ran towards his partner, firing a short volley of flames to cover them both. She wove between them with ease, barely being swayed by the winds and descending upon them both. The sharp fan of her tail slashed for Pyro's torso. He dropped on his knees and fell back just as it whissed right over his head. How clean of a cut would that have been?

Rose coughed, her body trembling. Her cloak was coming loose, but she paid that no mind. She steadied an arm and fired a point-blank Shadow Ball into the Flygon's chest. Her wings beat to push herself back, but it was just too slow to avoid a direct hit. A low growl escaped her as she landed on her feet, folding her wings to shield her.

"Wh… what are you on about?!" Rose shouted. Brownish purple seeped from her petals as she aimed beneath the Flygon, and foul poison erupted up and onto her scales. She hissed and took to the air, twirling in hopes to throw the gunk off of her. Though the hits had connected, they only succeeded in irritating her further.

"Don't play dumb!" she roared. "It was fine until you all showed up here! Now it's all—"

Festuum zipped just by her peripherals, and the Flygon was quick to maneuver. That slight repositioning made all the difference. An iron spike that would have torn into her wing instead plunged into the small of her back, and she let out a shrill cry of pain. He went for a second one, but she kicked hard at his stomach, knocking him off her and leaving him open for a tail slam. He blocked the fan and was spiked hard to the ground.

"You conniving little— you're the one who orchestrated this whole thing, aren't you?!" she cried out, then swooped to follow up.

Pyro tensed. He entered a battle stance and weighed his options. Could they take her out? She was durable and experienced, and every attack that landed was punishing. It was possible; probable, if they played clever. Rose had the means to stun her, and that alone would be a huge advantage. But the risks were high, and they were on the clock. Every moment that passed was an increasingly likely moment where the shreds of a chance would be lost in the wind.

And that Absol, too. He didn't like the idea of being stuck fighting a problem that was thrust onto them. Who even was that? Was someone else hunting Riley? If he was, he was going the wrong way.

Pyro watched as Festuum scrambled out of the way of a follow-up claw, then proceeded to dance around a flurry of slashes and tail swipes, each one coming close to striking the final blow to the Substitute. He couldn't let that happen. Sucking in a breath, he spat two condensed shots of fire. Before they could hit, they burst apart around the Flygon's head like fireworks, showering her face with tiny embers. She hissed and staggered back. Pyro roared and ran towards the opening, slashing up at her with his claws, but she was quick to react. Her wings buzzed as she kicked off the ground and started to hover. She reached and struggled to grasp the thorn in her back, but her claws were too short to grab hold.

"We need to get out of here," Pyro panted, sliding in next to Festuum. "She won't be able to fly after us in the narrow tunnels."

"Easier said," Festuum answered. His voice was distant but frantic. "The bridge is out. We can't get up fast enough. If you have any ideas, I'll hear them."

A quick glance over his shoulder showed Pyro all that remained of the bridge. A single rope with a few loose boards was all that they had to work with, and there was still a sizable gap between there and the tunnel they needed. They could get up there, but it wouldn't be easy with the Flygon chasing after them.

"Get Rose to the rope," he whispered. "I'll buy time." Indigo flames spilled from the corners of his mouth, and he sucked in a deep breath as he advanced.

"Wait—" Festuum began, but the wind picked up and cut him off.

The Flygon, giving up on the thorn, gathered dragonfire and spat a blast towards the two of them. Pyro countered with his own. They met in the air and burst apart in a cloud of blue sparks. Using that brief bit of cover, Pyro ran forward and jumped up towards the Flygon, fighting the force of the wind as he swiped with his claws. He fell short, and the Flygon went for a retaliatory swipe with her tail.

A well-timed Shadow Ball from Rose fired into her side, staggering the Flygon and throwing off her aim. The sharp fan just barely missed, and he grabbed the tail as it whipped into his side. More indigo flame formed in his throat as he charged up an attack. The Flygon gasped. She struggled to shake him off as she tried to stay aloft, but he wrapped his arms and legs around and stayed tight.

He arched his neck and opened his maw as he felt the flames condense. The indigo light faded to a softer blue, and the yellow interior was a brighter green. It burned in the back of Pyro's throat in a way he wasn't used to, but he didn't have time to dwell on it. He fired it into her underbelly. A shrill cry broke over the storm as the Flygon thrashed and flailed and started to fall.

Festuum came to a sudden stop just ahead of Rose, holding one of the boards from the rope bridge like it was the world's worst shield. "Grab this," he said in a stressed whisper. "I'm going to throw you."

She blinked. Toxins dripped from between her petals. "… What?"

"Throw you," he repeated, as if that made it any clearer. "Wrap your vines around this. You're an Explorer, right? So just— Tarzan across. We're running."

She blinked again. A mere thirty feet from her, the Flygon thrashed and flailed and whirled as she was forced to land. She let out a piercing cry. Her wings spread wide as her muscles tensed, and her tail slammed down. The ground shook violently, shaking the cliff walls as a geyser of sand erupted high into the air. Pyro gasped as he was thrown off her. Festuum nearly collapsed, and Rose stumbled as she braced herself against the cliff wall.

"That hurt," the Flygon roared, kicking off the ground to zip right over Pyro. He rolled out of the way of her claw, but a second massive Earthquake blew more sand into the air and sent him tumbling away. "Why did that hurt so much? What was that?!"

"... Fine," Rose murmured back. Three thorned tendrils shot from her flower and entangled the plank of wood. "Make this quiiiiiii—"

In the blink of an eye, he'd turned and thrown the plank of wood like a hatchet, bringing the small Roselia along for the ride. And just as Pyro thought she would, in only a second she pieced together the path. One set of tendrils let go of the plank while another shot for the rope, wrapping around it as she swung herself to the other side. She twisted and spun in the air, up becoming down becoming sideways. The momentum had been too much, and she overshot it by a few feet. She smacked into the side of the cliff and fell onto her stomach.

But she'd made it. Pyro saw it from his peripherals just before Flygon's wing covered her up, and she was on top of him yet again. He rolled to avoid her claws again, but this time she predicted him, and her other claw slammed down on his throat. Silent, dry coughs and sputters escaped as he thrashed, momentarily dazed.

"Answer me," she hissed. "You aren't a true dragon. Why do you have that power?"

"I…" His claws started beating at her arm, prying at her fingers, but the scales and bones there were dense. What cuts he made were ineffective. He gained no ground. What the hell was she even talking about? Wasn't that just a basic technique? 'Dragon Rage,' Gallade had called it.

A blur flew through the wind, but the Flygon didn't need to turn for her tail to swipe the iron spike out of the air. In that same motion, she slammed it into the sand again, raising a curtain behind her to obscure them. "You're working with a human," she growled, leaning just inches from his face. An indigo light shined in the back of her throat. Pyro tried to match it, but he could hardly breathe at all, and he kicked at her chest. "What secrets do you have to match him? Are you—"

Two attacks hit her at once. An eruption of poison from the ground beneath the Flygon splashed over her, getting into her cuts and injuries and assaulting her with an icy burn, and in that moment of surprise, Festuum put his feet together and dropkicked the end of the spike. It jammed another two inches in, scraping against scales and bone. What started as a hiss turned into a terrible cry of pain. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she released Pyro's neck and stumbled back. Her retaliatory swipe was far too slow.

"C'mon," Festuum called, and his tongue shot out to cling to Pyro's arm, helping him up. A gasping Charmeleon gave the Flygon a wary look as he maneuvered around her. She took a swipe at him again, but she was still recovering. Something important had been pierced.

He saw Rose was inside the tunnel, taking shelter from the winds at last. Violet motes hovered around her petals as her dark eyes alternated between him and the Flygon. Internally Pyro let out a sigh of relief. She was bruised, but she was okay. Far better than him. Something hurt in his chest, and it felt like he had knives in his throat. He'd swallowed a handful of sand somewhere along the way.

"How're you holding up?" Festuum asked, giving him a quick once-over.

"Manageable," he rasped. It hurt to talk. "I might need help getting back up."

"You're heavy," Festuum answered automatically. "But I'll do what I can." And an instant later, he crouched and jumped high into the air, kicking off the wall to land on the lip some twenty-five feet up. "Now hurry. You don't—"

"You're not getting away!"

The low buzz of the Flygon's wings rapidly got closer. Half of the poison still clung to her scales, and she was bleeding from the mouth, but she didn't seem to notice. Rose gasped and released the Shadow Ball she had prepared, but the Flygon spun around it and swung with her tail. Her muscles tensed and her eyes were frenzied. She was out for blood.

"Gah, fuck me," Festuum cursed under his breath, and grabbed Rose by the arm as he retreated further into the cave.

"W-wait!" Rose protested, trying to pull away but lacking the strength. One of her thorns cut across Festuum's palm, and he winced in pain as he powered through. "We can't—"

The tail slammed into the mouth of the cave, and the whole cliffside shivered as cracks raced up the wall. Red stones fell loose by the dozen and started to rain down. Pyro felt his heart stop. He watched as the mouth of the cave started to collapse. No, that whole area of the cliff. He heard slabs of stone fall inside, and he knew any one could have crushed her. But he couldn't get up there in time. Instincts told him what would come next, and on instincts alone he ran away just in time to avoid the landslide.

A wave of red stones cracked and crumbled away, and tons upon tons of rock rained and washed into the ravine. Pyro ran as hard as he could. The remaining rope snapped, crushed and buried with the rest of the fallen bridge. They clattered and poured in all directions. If Pyro had been any slower, he would've been crushed.

It must've taken only some five seconds for it to settle again, and the roaring rumble that subsided made the storm seem peaceful. Pyro gasped for breath as he turned around.

A whole section of the cliff had turned into a burial mound. The obscene amount of dust in the air was blown away in the storm winds. The tunnel beyond it that he'd needed to run for was beneath it somewhere. He'd never seen anything like it before. Tons upon tons upon tons of rock just…

The Flygon huffed and gave a satisfied nod. Her breaths were raspy and her flight uneven, but there was still a grim severity to her. "That's one, or maybe two," she croaked. "Let this fort be your tomb."

Pyro stopped breathing. 'Tomb?' No… No, that couldn't be. He would have heard something if that was the case, right? A scream, or… Sure, rocks were falling, and the canyon collapsing was already loud, but… She'd been safe. She'd gotten away. She'd gotten away, yeah. And they were worried about him.

Terror and fury burned bright inside him as the Flygon turned her frenzied gaze upon him. She exhaled, and a stream of indigo sparks joined the snowflakes in the wind. Pyro clenched his claws into fists. Conscious thoughts grew muted as he thought again and again about how to meet up with them again. He couldn't run away. He didn't know where help was. His only option was to defeat the dragon.

A bolt of lightning brighter than any before it struck the adjacent ravine, and the mesa shook with the crack of thunder. His ears rang. Stones atop the mound shook loose as blue-white light washed over the ravine. The storm was here.

"I think I finally figured your goal in this."

In a flash of gold Mergo reappeared by Nera's side, and his sharpened blades slashed for her chest. She leaned back, letting them miss her by inches, grabbing his upper-arm and pulling him in close. Her other fist sparked as she braced to punch a blast of fire into his chest, but the moment it started flying, the ground shifted. A telekinetic tendril of sand lashed up from the ground and constricted around Nera's wrist, and she winced as it was pulled wide. The blast crashed into the ground a ways off, melting sand into glass.

It hadn't taken long for Mergo to realize that Nera was stronger than him. She must've had at least ten seasons of experience over him, and her attacks were focused and brutal. The few hits he had taken were not gentle. Prodigy he might have been, he still recognized her strength. But he still held a massive advantage in his arsenal. The maneuverability and reach his abilities granted him made victory, as he saw it, certain. It was just a matter of how soon he could make that final opening available. She made that difficult.

Nera went to jam her knee into his ribs, but he pulled free from her grab and jumped back, sliding in the sand into his battle stance. He eyed her over once more. She looked haggard. Blood from some half-dozen cuts that just couldn't get deep enough to slow her down stained her chest and her arms. Fur hid her bruises, but Mergo suspected she had a few by now.

"Rank, status, reward… It's none of those things, is it?" Mergo mused aloud. A bolt of lightning struck the adjacent ravine, shaking the walls of the mesa. "You're too fervent for that. This is personal."

"Be silent," Nera growled. In an open fist formed a handful of tiny flaming beads, and she hurled them in front of Mergo. They crackled and burst apart with a hundred tiny pops, assaulting him with sparks and bright light. She must have thought it was an opening. His eyes were closed, but he could still feel her approach in the wind. He only received a glancing blow as he partially wove out of the way, and he raised his hand in retaliation. A shivering violet star formed and launched square into her chest. Nera cried out and went soaring back a few paces, barely managing to land on all fours.

"I think that's a shame," he went on, and a small violet dagger manifested in his hands. He didn't know if it was true or not, and it didn't concern him much either way, but he could see it getting under her skin. That was all he needed. "Letting personal feelings get in the way of your decisions? Interfering with business you have no right to be a part of? And here I'd heard you were quite the Captain."

"This is my fort." Her nostrils flared, and sparks raced into the air with it. She crouched further down, and her muscles flexed and bulged. An enchantment? "And I'm not going to let him die with you," she exclaimed, then kicked off the ground and bounded towards him.

Mergo's eye twitched. He jumped back to avoid a flurry of punches by the skin of his teeth, giving himself just enough room to throw the conjured dagger up and away from him. A fist connected with his chest, nearly knocking the wind from his lungs, but Mergo kept his composure. He grabbed the wrist with both palms. "Your fort, is it?" he croaked, then completed the circuit through her. In the blink of an eye they both vanished in a soft gold flash, and they were raised some fifty feet in the air.

Nera grimaced and braced herself, but she remembered too late. The violet dagger plunged into her back and dissipated into astral nothingness. The cold burn seeped into her muscles as Nera bit her lip, suppressing a shudder.

Seeing his opening, Mergo aligned his blade and jabbed for her chest, yet she raised her arms to block her body. Another cut on her arm that wasn't deep enough. Her muscles were dense. She kicked at his stomach to push them apart again.

The two landed and slid away from each other, but their glares remained locked. Another psychic weapons started to materialize in Mergo's hand as he advanced. With each step his exact approach got clearer and clearer in his head. Could he finish it in one last maneuver? He thought he could. He only needed to do a bit better than last time. Flames burst beneath Nera's feet as she rocketed towards him, knuckles smoldering as she drew upon her inner fire. It had to be now.

But the storm struck before either of them could. A bolt of blue lightning rained down on the ground between them, and everything went white. Thunder and heat flecks of glass and water vapor expanded into a shockwave that knocked them both off their feet. A dragon's deafening roar took Mergo's hearing away as he tumbled over himself, wincing from the pain.

"... What…" He felt himself speak, but all he could hear was a ringing that was slowly replaced by the winds and the voice. He blinked again and again, banishing the white void bit by bit. Something around him felt… different. New. What?

The first thing he saw was the statue. A jagged, steaming, unmoving glass serpent a head taller than Mergo loomed over the battlefield. Coral-like spikes, big and small, branched out in all directions. It still glowed with a molten orange core that radiated a warmth that cut through the snow and wind.

But then the voice started fading in, and Mergo blinked and turned towards it. Nera sat unmoving, breathless, as she stared with recognition and abject horror at the figure looming over her. Fur the faded color of blue steel, and a raw, intimidating presence even with her back to him. The spikes on her wrist were rimmed with a gold band at their base. Lightning arched off the sharp points. Some sort of scar marked her arm.

"What madness is this?!" she roared with a desperate frenzy, and somewhere further off, another bolt of lightning struck the spires of the mesa.

Nera swallowed, searching for the strength to stand and answer, but she could only find a single bewildered word: "... M… Mother."