Chapter 25 - Unpaid Debt

As the early springtime sunrise began to peek through the leaves of the trees above, Roxy yawned and stretched out her paws.

Then her heart practically jumped out of her throat as she scrambled to get a grip on the branch she had nearly fallen off of.

After she took a few breaths to calm her pounding heart, Roxy reminded herself that she had fallen asleep on the branch of a tree. Memories of the previous night quickly came flooding back to her. After bidding farewell to Karizu, Taka had led her quite a ways outside of Thunder Clan territory. She had been pretty anxious, especially since they were traveling in the dark, but luckily they hadn't encountered anything.

Then, Taka had picked a tree and instructed her to sleep in it for the rest of the night. She had thought that she might be too nervous and/or excited to even get to sleep, but slumber had come surprisingly easily.

Now, the sun was rising and casting a bit of light down into the forest, allowing Roxy to finally see her surroundings. Unsurprisingly, it looked just like any other part of the forest she had already seen. She figured she should probably get used to it, as it would be all she would be seeing for the next long while.

She glanced over to her side, seeing Taka standing up on his hindpaws on the branch and leaning against the trunk. He gave her a quick look and a nod of acknowledgement. It took Roxy a moment to realize what had happened.

"Did you…stay up all night?" she asked incredulously.

"Someone always needs to keep watch," he said, "When I traveled alone, going to sleep every night was a risk to my own life. Thankfully, that will not be an issue as we travel together."

Roxy blinked, feeling like the question had been dodged. "But you…you didn't get any sleep last night."

He merely shook his head.

"Why didn't you wake me up and tap out?"

"Not necessary. The night was short. You'd had a long day."

This made Roxy pout a little. "Taka, I hope you're not thinking of me as a burden or anything. Obviously you're much more strong and capable than I am, but if there's something I can do to help, I wanna do it!"

He shook his head again, seeming a little annoyed. "Obviously, I am not going to make this entire journey without getting a single minute of sleep. What do you take me for?"

Roxy opened her mouth to respond, but then stopped herself. She closed her mouth and frowned. Then, she sighed and shrugged. "Thank you, Taka," she said, "That was very thoughtful of you."

Taka gave her a sidelong glance, then smirked and shook his head derisively. Roxy couldn't help but smirk back.

She then stood up, carefully balancing herself on the branch, and did a proper stretch. Yesterday had been a very emotional day, but it had also allowed her to get a lot of the negative emotions out of her system. Now, waking up on a branch in a tree in enemy territory on her way home? It was rather invigorating.

Roxy's stomach growled quietly, reminding her that breakfast was a thing.

"Right," Taka commented upon hearing it, "Take one berry out and eat while I lay some ground rules."

"Oh! Okay, sure." It took her a moment to remember that she was still wearing that leaf-woven satchel, and then she reached back and fished out a berry. It ended up being a Sitrus.

"One berry from our pouches for breakfast," Taka explained, "Everything else we eat, we have to forage."

Roxy gulped down her bite and looked at him in confusion. "Why? We've got lots of-"

"It is to prevent us from running out of food. If we are really beginning to starve, we will eat more from our pouch, but finding food along the way and storing extra is what will allow us to make sure we have food at all times."

"Oh…" Roxy took another bite and thought about this. "Okay, sure. I guess that makes sense."

"Stay close behind me at all times," Taka said, diving right into the next set of rules, "Keep your weapon drawn unless you need all four paws to climb something. We each get half of the night to sleep, while the other keeps watch." He paused and gave her a serious look. "I trust you to remain vigilant."

Roxy quickly nodded. "Yeah, of course. I will, Taka. I will." She put the last bite of the berry in her mouth and swallowed it down before continuing. "You're doing so much for me, Taka. I'm not gonna take you for granted."

Taka looked satisfied by this response and nodded.

Having said that, though, Roxy now found herself thinking about the road that lay ahead. Her difficult journey home through the forest had already begun. A brief jolt of fear ran up her spine as she was reminded that they were already in enemy territory. The clan was no longer there to protect her. Should they meet a predator, it would be up to them to fight it.

That familiar sense of self-doubt began to attack her mind once more. The full gravity of what she was about to undertake hit her all at once, and she could feel her anxiety poking at her and trying to get her to worry about every little thing that could possibly happen. It started to really feel like she was putting her own life on the line as a gamble.

But there was also a shot of exhilaration causing her heart to pump and her blood to get flowing. No matter how scary the journey might seem, and would probably end up being, Roxy could not ignore the goal they were now actually, truly heading towards. She was going home. She would finally get to see her master again. The simple thought made her heart flutter with anticipation.

It felt like just the thought of hugging her master would be enough to push her forward.

"If possible, we will flee from any violent encounter," Taka said, "There is no sense in stoking one's pride on a journey like this."

Roxy realized that Taka was still laying ground rules and hoped that she hadn't missed anything.

"Heed my instructions. If I tell you to do something, it is probably because doing so is going to save your life. So do it."

She nodded. "You got it, Taka. You're the boss," she said without a hint of sarcasm. Roxy had no qualms at all about letting Taka take charge.

The other Pikachu was silent for a moment before he glanced over at her. "One more rule," he said in a quieter tone of voice.

"Yeah?" she replied with a tilt of her head.

"There is no looking back."

Roxy just looked at him, not quite sure how to respond to that.

"Whatever happens, for better or worse, come heaven or hell, Arceus or Yveltal…Do not look back. We will not return to the Thunder Clan."

She gulped. This was something she had thought of before and had even said it to herself, but hearing it out loud made it seem all the more daunting. A small, anxious part of her mind was still begging her to just go back to the village where she would at least be relatively safe.

"No looking back," she repeated firmly.

"Good," Taka replied, seeming satisfied with her conviction.

There was a brief lull in the conversation before Roxy decided to ask some questions of her own. "So, how long do you think it will take to get to the forest edge? Or, rather, how long did it take you last time?"

Taka was in thought for a moment. "Hmm…I did not pay attention to the passage of time. It was more than a week, but far shorter than a whole season."

Roxy gulped. She had no frame of reference for this sort of thing, and found herself wondering if it were possible they would be escaping the forest for a whole month. Could a forest even be that big?

"What about friends?" she asked. When Taka gave her an odd look, she clarified. "I mean, did you come across anyone nice along the way? Maybe another tribe that was friendly and could help us?"

"Oh," he answered, "Yes, I did. However, if you were to ask me to take you to one of them, I could not."

"Right…" Roxy said. Taka obviously didn't have a GPS device in his pouch.

Satisfied with his answer, Roxy took a moment to glance out at the forest that lay ahead of them. She knew that if she were to climb to the top of this tree, she would still only be able to see forest until it reached the tops of the small mountains and to the horizons. This was an extremely daunting task that she was about to face.

Roxy was terrified. There was no point in lying about it. Every nerve in her body, every iota of her frightened little brain, were all trying to convince her that she was unprepared for a journey like this. Her treacherous mind kept questioning how well she would do should they meet a predator, and if she was strong enough to survive the long journey anyway. There was a noticeable feeling of discomfort in the middle of her chest, a manifestation of the sense of dread she felt deep within her.

Instead of panicking, though, she let out a slow sigh. She acknowledged all of her dark thoughts, because some of them were in fact quite valid, but then focused her mind on the flipside. She had been training for this journey for months at this point, and she did know how to fight. She didn't want to and she wasn't the best at it, but she could. Furthermore, Taka would be right there with her every step of the way. When she failed, he would be there to step up. No matter how close they may have been as friends or not, Roxy knew she could put her full confidence in him.

"I guess I just got one more question then," she said.

He raised his eyebrow as if to ask 'What is it?'

She grinned at him, feeling invigorated. "When can we go?"

A moment or two passed where Taka didn't answer. Then, however, a satisfied grin appeared on his face. "No time like the present," he replied, and then started to hop down the tree branches without even awaiting a response.

Roxy chuckled to herself as she followed him. She had been seeing him smile a lot more lately. It was always a sort of mix between a smile and an outright smirk, but it was still there. Taka had always said he didn't feel like he belonged in the village, so maybe being outside of it would bring out a whole new side to his personality.

Her paws landed on the forest floor and she stood up next to him. Roxy decided to impress him by immediately remembering rule number three, and drew her spear. She watched as he stood still for a moment, and she figured that he was assessing their surroundings. It didn't seem like he detected anything, so he threw her a glance over his shoulder.

"Let's go," he said, and then he set his paws and got ready to run. Roxy gripped her spear with anticipation, hovering close behind him and waiting for him to take the first step. Then, a moment later, he began to run forwards. Roxy didn't hesitate to fall into step behind him.

Then, the ground in front of them exploded.

Roxy reflexively threw up her paws to shield her face from the sudden burst of dirt. In doing so, she lost her balance and ended up on her rump. Taka let out a surprised grunt, and then something else growled. It was a deep, angry growl that sent a shiver down her spine.

She shook her head to clear the dust from her face so she could see properly. When she finally managed to look up, all she saw was a great looming figure about to crash down on her. Flashbacks of her encounter with the Mightyena ripped through her mind.

Roxy didn't even have time to scream, or even just to hold her paw up in meager defense, before something else intercepted the large figure and tackled it to the ground nearly. Roxy was stunned for a short moment, but then she shook it off and quickly scrambled to stand back up. When she looked over to see what the heck had just happened, she saw Taka standing in a battle ready pose with his boomerang out, staring down another Pokémon.

She gasped in shock as she found herself staring at none other than Tazoka. The mighty Excadrill was bent forward with all of his claws out, ready to pounce, and with a furious expression on his face. Clumps of dirt were falling off of his body, revealing that he had been underground a moment before. The explosion in the ground had been him suddenly unearthing himself.

Tazoka had death in his eyes. He was glaring down at Taka with a look that could almost kill on its own. It was as if Tazoka saw Taka as the sole reason for all of the suffering in the whole world.

With a wild cry, the Excadrill suddenly darted forward with his claws, aiming to impale them right through Taka's stomach. Taka leapt out of the way and batted the claw away with the brunt of his boomerang, before landing on the ground and sidestepping even further. Tazoka was forced to turn so as to keep the Pikachu in his field of view, but that didn't stop him from wildly lashing out again.

Taka barely dodged this time. So, with a determined look in his eyes, he quickly tossed his boomerang directly towards Tazoka's face. It struck him right in the muzzle, causing him to cry out in pain. He lashed out once more, though, even though he couldn't see. Taka was forced to jump right over it. Tazoka was clearly enraged. He was fighting with much less finesse and much more frenzy.

Tazoka raised one of his claws into the air, ready to bring it down right on top of Taka's head. The Pikachu stood his ground, a focused look on his face as he stared at his opponent, and waited for the perfect moment to dodge.

Instead, tendrils of grass suddenly wrapped around Tazoka's forelimb and started pulling it back, causing him to exclaim in surprise.

Roxy stood with her forepaws out, surrounded by four blades of grass alongside the two that had ensnared the Excadrill. Once she had seen just who her opponent was, she had been able to figure out what course of action to take fairly quickly. The beating of her heart and the heaviness of her breathing were still a clear sign of just how frightened she was, but she had forced herself to get over them quickly. While she watched Taka engage with Tazoka, knowing full well that he was distracting the Excadrill, Roxy had built up the power to unleash a Grass Knot.

Now, however, Tazoka's attention was all on her. He shot her a glare that made her feel like she should have erupted in flames. Then he set his hind paws into the ground and pulled with his forelimb as hard as he could. Roxy saw what he was doing and tried to focus energy into keeping the grass lengths strong, but she could see that it wouldn't be long before he snapped them.

That's when Taka seized his own opportunity and whacked Tazoka with his boomerang right in his belly. Tazoka wheezed as the air was knocked out of him, causing him to stumble back a few steps.

Roxy quickly capitalized on this by using two of the remaining grass lengths to wrap around one of Tazoka's hind limbs and pull it out from under him. In a quick moment, Tazoka ended up flat on his back with one forelimb still tangled up in grass.

It almost seemed as if Tazoka hardly cared about this predicament. With teeth barred, he quickly flipped over onto his stomach and used his free claw to swipe at Taka. The Pikachu leapt back out of range, but Tazoka just pulled himself along the ground to catch up with him and swung again. Taka was forced to bat the swipe away with his boomerang.

This continued for a tense couple of seconds, which Roxy used to gather the energy to raise two more grass strands. Together with the two remaining unused ones, she sent them both directly towards Tazoka when he wasn't paying attention. Two of them wrapped around his free claw and yanked it around behind his back. The final two, she carefully wove in between the other strands to create a complicated knot, effectively tying Tazoka's claws behind his back.

Tazoka roared in frustration and tried to free himself, but Roxy had created more of a tangle than a knot. When he tried to get up, she focused all of her energy on keeping the grass strands taut. It caused her a lot of strain, but she was able to keep him anchored to the ground.

Taka, satisfied that his foe was incapacitated, moved back to stand next to her. "Good job," he commented quickly.

Roxy was briefly caught off guard by the compliment. "Uh…Thanks!"

"Damn you!"

Both Pikachu looked down at the tied-up Excadrill as he began to shout.

"I will kill you! I will destroy you both!"

Taka put his forepaws on his hips. "What is this, Tazoka? Being attacked by you is no surprise at this point, but all alone?" Roxy felt a brief jolt of fear as she wondered if other Earth Tribe members were hiding nearby, but then Taka added, "I can sense none of your comrades."

"This is all your fault!" Tazoka spat venomously as he turned his head to glare directly at Roxy.

She shrank back a little in fear. "Wh-" she muttered, "What's all my fault?"

Tazoka tried once more to escape his bonds, and growled viciously when he could not. "We are the Earth Tribe! We hold every power over your tiny, pathetic tribe! It should have been easy…effortless…to drive you out!"

Roxy and Taka shared a quick glance, remembering the day of the invasion.

"But you! You and your impossible human magic!"

A moment of silence passed, and then Roxy couldn't help but snicker at his choice of words.

"I see, I see," Taka spoke up, "You simply came here to humbly remind us of how easy it was to defeat you. There really was no need for that, Tazoka."

"Shut up!"

Taka smirked.

"That was the day I was meant to charge forward and lead my tribe to greater heights and glorious victories! Instead, because of you, everything was ruined! It is ruined! I will make you pay for this!"

Roxy gave him a confused look. She was starting to get a little tired holding her paws up and maintaining the Grass Knot, but she figured she could hold on for a while longer. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

He growled once more. "Only a few short moons ago, I was the leader of the unstoppable Earth Tribe! Thanks to you, I am nothing now!"

Roxy gave Taka an intrigued glance, and he returned it. "You mean…?" she said.

"I promised them all an easy victory!" Tazoka grumbled loudly, "It should have been an easy victory! When we left in defeat, however, my tribe no longer valued me as their leader. I took a stand to defend myself in my righteous place, and so they cast me out!"

A gasp escaped Roxy's lips. His whole tribe had cast him out? When she had been fighting to protect Taka and her own tribe, she had never intended for that to happen. She was so surprised by this that she almost ended up apologizing to him.

Instead, Taka let out a quick chortle. "Serves you right," he stated.

Tazoka lashed out angrily at this remark, and Roxy was forced to struggle once again to keep him bound.

"It was you who chose to break our long-standing agreement," Taka continued, "So it is fitting to see you tossed out on your pathetic rump."

Growling, Tazoka shot back. "You have done far more than deposing me! You have utterly ruined the proud reputation of the Earth Tribe! That is a crime I will not allow to stand!"

Taka and Roxy shared confused looks. "What does that mean?" Taka asked him.

"As we speak," Tazoka spoke in a low voice, "the rest of the Earth Tribe is no doubt arriving at your tribe's borders, paws upturned and seeking peace. By this point, they could have already been welcomed in."

Roxy felt her eyes nearly bug out of her head. "The…The Earth Tribe wants to make peace with the Thunder Clan?"

"Truly…?" Taka spoke, equally as shocked.

"I tried to convince them that you, pet, were the only one capable of such trickery, but none of those cowards wanted to take the chance. They all believed that if one could do it, they all could do it."

Now it was time for Roxy to smirk. "Well, that was true when you invaded, but…"

Taka chuckled. "I wonder if Natoka has taught the entire tribe yet. If not, at least more than half…"

For a moment, there was a look of shock and disbelief on Tazoka's face. Then, slowly, it morphed into a look of pure fury. He was starting to look like he wanted to do much more than just kill the two of them.

"Uh, Taka?" Roxy spoke, just loud enough for Taka to hear. When Taka glanced over at her, she hoped he could see the green aura around her paws starting to flicker. She wouldn't be able to hold him down for much longer.

"Right," Taka said decisively and took a step forwards, "While this has been a fascinating discussion, I am afraid we have other things to attend to."

Tazoka glared at him and growled.

Taka walked over to a tree that had some ivy clinging to its trunk and ripped off a few strands. "Stay here for a while and think about what you have done."

Roxy watched as Taka carefully approached the Excadrill, obviously intending to tie him up with the sturdy-looking ivy. She had no doubt he could cut his way out of them, but they would hold him long enough for the two of them to get far away from him.

Once Taka was close enough, though, that's when Tazoka suddenly lashed out. He cleaved through Roxy's grass strands with ease, having been biding his time, and leapt through the air towards Taka with a furious roar. Roxy was left disoriented for a brief moment as her Move was disrupted so suddenly. She refocused her gaze just in time to see Tazoka's claws mere inches from tearing Taka to pieces.

She gasped in horror, but realized a moment later that she should've known better. Taka's boomerang came up at the last fraction of a second to deflect the blow. He then took advantage of Tazoka's continuing momentum to leap over him and make a footstool jump off of his back. Taka landed squarely on the ground behind the furious Excadrill.

Clearly, Taka had expected him to clumsily turn around and go after him. Instead, though, Tazoka set his sights on a new target.

Roxy meeped softly as Tazoka glared at her with murder in his eyes, and she was struck with fear for a moment. A few precious seconds passed by with her simply frozen on the spot. As Tazoka began to move, she quickly reprimanded herself. She had been training for a long time to avoid this exact thing; not to freeze up.

She reached for her spear. Wait. Where was her spear? Panic rushed through her as she realized that she must have dropped it when Tazoka had burst out of the ground. Tazoka was on his paws now, looking ready to pounce on her.

What now? She was too drained at the moment to do another Grass Knot. She had trained herself in physical combat quite a bit, but even Taka had told her it would do little good against a Ground- or Rock-Type. A feeling of dread clouded her mind. This was all going to pieces already, and it was the first day.

Thankfully, before Tazoka could pounce, Taka intervened. He did this not with his boomerang, his spear, or his direct combat skills. Instead, he simply threw a rather large rock right at Tazoka's face. This did end up having the desired effect of diverting his attention once more.

As Tazoka went to charge at Taka once more, Roxy forced herself to focus. She didn't know where her spear had ended up, so she was useless in this battle without another Grass Knot. She had to work hard to cast another one as quickly as she could. She knew that Tazoka was already worn out from the previous Grass Knot, and it seemed like Taka had picked up on the fact that Tazoka was letting his anger guide him. He wasn't fighting with as much skill as in the past.

Roxy got a front row seat of this. Taka was easily able to goad Tazoka into striking wildly and furiously, which made his attacks very easy to dodge. Taka skillfully danced about in such a way that Tazoka never ended up looking in her direction, allowing her to avoid the focus while she gathered more energy. There were quite a few close shaves, which made the fur on her back stand straight up each time, but Taka could hold his own. Tazoka was not on the ball.

It was up to her to turn the stalemate into a victory, and so that's just what she did.

Once she guessed that she had enough energy, she lifted her paws causing four thick blades of grass to rise around her. She shouted Tazoka's name and then, even before he had finished turning around, sent the grass whizzing through the air directly towards him. Roxy didn't quite have a plan, so she simply used the grass to grab onto whatever was closest.

This ended up being the blade on Tazoka's head, which she wrapped all four blades of grass around. She grimaced slightly as she realized this wasn't the best target, since the blade would slice through the grass before long. She had to act fast. While Tazoka was still adjusting to what had just happened, she yanked down with the grass hard, pulling his face down towards the ground.

Taka had been standing in front of him, and it was as if he had been psychically reading her mind. Tazoka's head pitched forward for no more than a second before Taka set his hind paws, readied himself and then did a short hop up, swinging the blunt end of his boomerang straight upwards like an uppercut.

The boomerang hit Tazoka in the bottom of his jaw so hard that it sounded like someone had just hit the trunk of a tree with a rock. Roxy immediately winced as she watched Tazoka's head violently snap back up. She had practically felt the impact.

Tazoka didn't even make a sound. He just stood there for a moment, wobbling slightly with his eyes unfocused. Then, as if tipped over by an invisible force, he promptly fell to the ground face-first and ended up lying on his stomach. Though she could still see him breathing, he no longer moved. Taka had knocked him out cold.

Roxy kept the grass attached to him while Taka made absolutely sure the Excadrill was unconscious. When he gave her a nod, she let out a sigh of relief and dispelled the Grass Knot. She then made her way over to where Taka was standing next to their downed foe, still a little wary that he would somehow suddenly jump up and gobble them down whole.

"Thank you," Taka said as she approached.


"Tazoka is a practiced fighter," Taka explained, "Even though he was…unhinged and not fighting to his full potential, he was still a dangerous foe. Tazoka never leaves any of his weak spots vulnerable. Your grass was what changed that and allowed me to knock him out."

Roxy gave Tazoka a glance. She could see drool leaking out the side of his mouth. She was no expert, but it certainly looked like his lights had been completely knocked out.

A moment later it sank in. That had really just happened. That had actually really just happened. She'd gotten into a fight with a dangerous opponent, even though it wasn't a predator, and she had won. Taka had done most of the work of course, but she had done more than cower on the sidelines. Taka had just said so; she had helped him deliver the final blow. She had helped them win.

"I…can't believe we did that…" she murmured.

Taka gave her a good-natured raise of his eyebrow. "You are surprised?"

She glanced back over to him. "By you, no. By me?"

Taka smirked and shook his head. "You will do just fine out here…"

Not too long ago, that would have been an absolutely ludicrous statement to her. Now, though, having successfully fought against a raving Excadrill, while managing to keep her cool and focusing on the offense, it didn't sound so crazy. A loopy little smile appeared on her face.

Then, she gazed down at the unconscious Tazoka once more and a troubled look appeared on her face. "What do we do with him?" she wondered aloud, "I mean…It's so great to hear that the Earth Tribe is coming to make peace with the Thunder Clan. That's like a big load off of my mind. Now I feel like I don't have to worry so much about the friends I'm leaving behind…"

She saw Taka nod wordlessly in her peripheral vision.

"Him, I'm not so sure about…" she continued, "I mean…I guess if he's all by himself, then our tribe will be able to fend him off if he tries something…right? We could tie him up before we leave, but that wouldn't do a whole lot…"

"The smart thing to do is to kill him."

Roxy shot Taka a shocked look so hard that her neck hurt from turning her head so quickly. "What?" she blurted out.

Taka glanced at her with a neutral expression. "He is trouble. If he lives, he will kill. Obviously he is less of a threat to our tribe now, but he is still a threat. The smart thing to do is elimina-"

"No, no, no," Roxy interrupted him, "What are you…?" Her voice trailed off. She had been about to call him 'insane', but her brain remembered a moment later that Taka was not like her. She had been told plenty of times that death was common in the forest. Life was fleeting out here, and the lives of outsiders were not quite as precious to uphold. There wasn't any sadistic meaning behind Taka's words, that was just the way he had been raised. She needed to remind herself of that.

Still, though…

"No," she shook her head adamantly, "No. Don't."


"I know, Taka," she interjected, "I know that sometimes we…both of us…might be forced to kill something out here in order to survive." She stifled a shiver. "But…not like this. You already beat him. He's unconscious and defenseless. He wouldn't even know that he'd taken his last breath."

Taka stared at her with a stony expression.

Roxy frowned at him, silently pleading for him not to go through with the grisly act. "Please…?" she said softly, "It just…feels so wrong…" Roxy knew she was probably giving Taka puppy eyes, but that wasn't exactly intentional on her part.

For a few tense minutes, Taka just stared at her with his forelimbs crossed. Roxy wasn't sure if he was considering her request, or just waiting for her to break under the pressure and relent. When he finally broke the silence, it was with a resigned sigh and a shake of his head. "Avert your eyes," he said.

Roxy's heart skipped a beat. "Wh-what?! But Taka-!"

"I'm not going to kill him."

It took a moment for Roxy's stomach to climb back up to its proper spot. "…Oh."

"But still; avert your eyes. There is something that must be done."

Roxy worriedly glanced between him and the downed Excadrill. At first she was curious, then she was confused, and then she got concerned. "What are-"


She was so startled by his sudden outburst that she reflexively followed his orders and turned around. For good measure, she brought her forepaws up to cover her eyes. She stood there for a moment in confused silence. When a few seconds passed with nothing happening, Roxy began to get really worried. She wondered if Taka had just lied to her so she wouldn't be looking when he killed Tazoka anyway. She tried to shake those thoughts away. She and Taka were a team now, and she had to trust him. That meant trusting his judgement as well.

A sickening crunch filled the air.

Roxy was once again startled, letting out a sudden yelp of surprise. On instinct, she quickly turned around to see what had made the awful noise. She immediately wished she hadn't.

Tazoka was still laying there, just the same as before and still breathing just fine. The difference was that the tip of his muzzle was now bent to the side at an angle that made her sick just from looking at it. That was not supposed to be like that.

"Taka, what did you…?" she whimpered quietly.

"I broke his nose," he said matter-of-factly.

Roxy tore her eyes away from the nauseating sight to give Taka a look that was part confusion, part anger, and part 'please explain before I barf'.

Taka looked like he was surprised he even had to explain it. "…So he cannot follow us?"

She blinked once, the gears in her head slowly turning until she realized what he meant. "Oh…So he can't track our scent…"


Roxy glanced one more time at Tazoka's muzzle and then quickly averted her eyes as a jolt ran up her spine. It was a comparatively minor injury, but it still made her stomach turn. "I see…" she uttered simply.

"That was…not the most auspicious start to our journey…" Taka commented.

"No kidding…"

"Well!" Taka dusted off his forepaws. "Come, we shall continue."

Roxy gave him a concerned look. "Wait! I-"

Taka arched an eyebrow at her, and she fell silent. There was a strong part of her that didn't want to leave yet, but she couldn't figure out why. There was no reason to stick around and not continue, especially considering the distance they still had to travel. She wasn't hurt, and neither was Taka.

"What?" Taka asked impatiently.

"Nothing…" she replied, shaking off that feeling, "Nothing. Let's go."

Then, just like that, they were off again. The two started running through the forest as if nothing had even happened in the first place. The first time Roxy glanced over her shoulder, less than a minute into their run, she had already lost sight of the Excadrill among the trees.

She took a moment to reflect on the battle. It had gone relatively well, and Roxy had been able to focus and not panic just like she had trained to do. On the other paw, she had been facing an opponent that she had a clear advantage over. Her Grass Knot wouldn't do a whole lot if they came across something like an Arcanine.

She decided to stop her train of thought and just take inventory of her mind. Was she worried? No, not as much anymore. She had seen how well Taka could fight and defend her if need be, and nothing very bad had happened during that battle.

It was a bit of a strange moment when she realized that she could just run. Her head had been filled with so many worries over the past couple of months, but now she could just run with her head fairly clear. Sure, she was still a tad concerned, and she knew very well the dangers that they could face. At the moment, though, when nothing was happening, she could feel calm. Minutes and minutes went by without a distressing thought passing through her brain.

After half an hour of running, she realized the impossible had happened. She had gotten bored.

That simple fact fascinated her. The jitters and excitement over actually commencing her trip home had been completely overshadowed by their encounter with Tazoka. After fighting him, she had just been happy to get away from him. Now she was on the move, already almost an hour's time away from the place she had called a safe home.

You've really come a long, long way, haven't you? she said to herself.

She found herself briefly glancing over her shoulder once more. The village was gone now. She wouldn't even be able to see it if she climbed above the trees. She would always remember it and all of the Pokémon there, but looking back like this tugged at her heartstrings. She wished that there was some impossible way that she could stay in contact with them.

Now she was on the road, though, so to speak. The journey she had dreamed about since day one in the forest had started. Perhaps the reason why her head was so clear was that she was focused on the goal. It was finally beginning to draw closer to her. Imagining her master's smiling face made her want to run twice as fast.

Roxy silently hoped she wasn't letting her guard down too much.

"So, uh…" Roxy spoke, loud enough for Taka to hear. She was still kind of bored, and figured the two of them could talk about something. "That's reassuring to hear about the Earth Tribe and the Thunder Clan, huh?"

Taka continued to silently move ahead, and at first it seemed as if he wasn't in the mood for conversation. A couple of minutes later, however, he did reply. "It is…comforting."

She smiled a little. "I hope everything goes well."

"Even if it does not," Taka said, "Natoka knows your power now. I know he will do his best to spread this technique to the others."

"I still can't believe I managed to teach him that. That goes against all published Pokémon knowledge."

A moment of silence passed, and Roxy glanced around. The tree cover was just as thick here, even amidst the gentle rolling of the terrain. The Thunder Clan village must have been built in a flat valley, because now they were surrounded by hills. Nothing came close to being called 'steep', and the dense collection of trees didn't mind in the least.

"If you were wondering," Taka said, breaking the silence, "I did not detect his approach because he was underground."

"Huh?" Roxy tilted her head for a second, but then realized what he was saying. "Oh. Really?"

She saw Taka nod. "And Excadrill can dig almost silently. It will not happen again."

Roxy blinked and stared at the back of Taka's head for a moment. A smile began to tug at the edge of her lips. Had she just heard Taka trying to justify himself? "All right, it better not," she replied playfully.

After another pause, Roxy asked another question. "Do you think we'll meet…a lot of opposition?"

"We will hardly be stopping, unless we come across berries. Predators prey on Pokémon who sit still, as they are much easier to sneak up on. A predator may foolishly try to ambush us or cut us off, but in general most of them will wave us off and prefer to look for food that is not running so quickly."

"Okay…" She thought about this, and it did make sense. There was still a nagging feeling at the back of her mind telling her that she should be more worried than she was. She tried to imagine the two of them encountering something dangerous, but her mind kept morphing it into the fight with Tazoka that they had won. "How much, uh…'trouble' did you get into last time?"

Taka shook his head. "I may have been running away, but I had no purpose. I stopped to smell the roses far too often…"

"Ohh…" She smiled softly. It was good to hear that Taka was focused on their goal one hundred percent. He wanted to get to the forest's edge just as much as she did. "Is that how you ended up meeting…"

Roxy tailed off, immediately recognizing that she'd made a mistake. She mentally kicked herself for so casually going to such a place in their conversation. She bit her lip and glanced ahead at Taka. He wasn't saying anything, but she could see that his head had dipped down just a touch and the fur on his back was bristled a little.

"Taka, I'm sorry. I said that without thinking."

He gave her more of the silent treatment and just kept running ahead. He even picked up the pace a little, forcing Roxy to focus on making sure she could keep up with him.

Roxy sighed and pouted at herself. Great going, she chided herself, That's, like, the most Taka has ever engaged in 'friendly conversation' and you blow it. She shook her head at her own stupidity, wondering what had even prompted her to bring up his dearly departed mate. That was a sore subject.

Then, all at once, it was as if she had run straight into a dark cloud. Roxy thought about if the roles had been reversed, and now suddenly found that all she could think about was Makari. A heavy gloom overcame her and she started to really feel the absence of the one she had fallen in love with. While she did miss Makari every day, she hadn't felt as bad as this in months. The thought that Makari couldn't be there, walking in step beside her as he led her home, stung her heart a little.

It was as if a pessimistic switch in her brain had been flipped, because then she started thinking about all of the friends she had left behind. The irrational guilt over how she had bid them farewell returned, and it started to really weigh on her just how sad it felt to leave them all behind for the rest of her life. A part of her really did want to go back and see them all again, and she knew that if she let that feeling take control, then she was going to turn around.

That scared her.

It was like a more benign version of Striaton Syndrome, where one develops a close connection with one's captors. The Thunder Clan hadn't explicitly captured her, but she was still trapped there and the feeling was close enough. No matter how wonderful and nice they had been, all she had wanted to do was get away from them so she could go home.

Roxy wanted to literally slap herself for even thinking once about turning back.

The pessimistic train of thought had started, though, and she couldn't seem to get off of it. Worries began to crop up about what she was doing. She worried about how long the journey would take, if they would be able to find enough food and water, and if she would have the strength to run all the way there day after day. She was nervous that Taka would end up getting lost somehow. What if she got really sick with something along the way?

"Stop!" Taka hissed under his breath.

Roxy blinked and stopped, only just noticing that Taka had stopped as well and she had nearly run right into him. She opened her mouth to ask why, but closed it when she saw the concerned look on his face. They were at the top of a small hill, looking into a shallow dip in the landscape before them. He was staring directly down at something, but she couldn't see what it was. It didn't look like anything was there.

She flinched when Taka poked her in the side with his boomerang. She gave him an irritated look, but he simply used his boomerang to point to a nearby tree. More specifically, he was pointing to the top of it. Roxy glanced at the tree, but didn't see anything particularly interesting about it.

The pieces finally fell into place once he started impatiently making a 'go!' motion with his boomerang, and she realized that he wanted her to climb the tree. She still didn't know what was going on, but she remembered the rules they had agreed on. She had to trust him and follow his instructions, as there was bound to be a reason for them.

Roxy carefully made her way over to the tree, surmising that now was the time to keep quiet, and swiftly climbed up to the lowest branch that was sturdy enough to hold her weight. Not a split second later, Taka was beside her. She hadn't even heard him following her.

"What? What is it?" Roxy whispered.

Taka responded by pointing with his boomerang once more. She squinted in the direction he indicated, hoping that their new vantage point would allow her to see whatever it was he could see.

Her blood ran cold when she finally saw it. Behind a few bushes, not far from where they had just been standing, was a massive Ursaring. It was hunched forward, eating berries off of the bush, and looked like it hadn't noticed them. If she had kept running, though, she would have pretty much run right into its jaws.

She gulped and stifled a shiver. "…Oh."

Taka held his paw up in front of her, indicating his intention for them to stay still and wait until it left. Roxy had no trouble at all following that order.

She stared down at the massive predator for a while. She didn't even dare blink, for fear that the brief moment where her eyes would be closed would be enough for it to somehow jump up and eat her. It was a huge Ursaring, slightly larger than their average height as she remembered from the encyclopedia. It must have been Arceus' grace that it hadn't seen them.

It had been Arceus' grace that Taka had seen it.

As they sat there, unmoving and waiting for it to leave, Roxy thought back to all of the previous predators she had encountered. The Aggron, Kazaka the Zangoose, the Mightyena, the Houndoom, even the Weavile from her dream. Each one had been a terrifying experience, and each one still filled her with terror as she remembered them. Angry predators had been the first thing she had encountered in this damned forest, and that deep-seeded fear had remained within her.

Roxy realized how scared she was.

She hadn't been afraid of Tazoka, or at least not as much as this, because she had already faced him and defeated him before. What's more, Tazoka was not a predator. Roxy had been terrified of every predator she had encountered, and she just realized that fear had not gone away. It had just been hiding. She had trained a lot and gotten much braver, but this was still something that truly terrified her.

Now, she was finally flooded with all of the fears and worries that had been absent on the first short leg of her journey. She had been reminded of that fear of predators that had been laying somewhat dormant, and now it felt like she wouldn't be able to shake it. It felt like every single ounce of confidence had just vanished altogether.

Suddenly, she realized just what she had gotten herself into.