Hello people of the internet. Here I am once again. New chapter, but same old Slonk.
Once again, thank you so much deerestlove for betaing. Couldn't do it without your help.
We are well into the endgame now. I hope you are ready. And now, on to the story.
"W-wh-wuzz-whazzgoingon?" the Umbreon groaned, stirring. His eye cracked open, pupil contracting sharply in the sudden light. Slowly, he looked around, taking in the cell around him: solid stone walls, thick steel bars, and the faintly glowing pink crystals embedded in the floor. Finally his gaze settled on Kegan, Eve, and me standing just outside the bars.
His eyes shot open. "Wh-where am-m I?" Shane tried to scramble to his feet, but his exhaustion coupled with the thick leather socks we had locked around his paws as he slept caused him to crash back to the floor. "Wha-wha is thi-i-s?" His words were little more than grunts whispered between gritted teeth. He pawed fruitlessly at his snout, quickly discovering the thick cord that had been wrapped around it.
"Shane, careful." Eve couldn't quite keep a note of concern out of her voice. The Umbreon glared at her as he struggled back to his feet, leaning heavily on the raised bed against one wall. "Don't push yourself."
He ignored her. "You guys got the Society involved?!" Though his legs wobbled, his eyes stayed locked onto Kegan.
"Uh, no, you did," Eve said, gesturing between the two of us. "Or did you expect just the three of us to go off and fight the entire Hatred together?"
Shane dropped his head, shifting into a sitting position and leaning heavily against the bed. "Well, things seem to be under control here," Kegan said. "Eve, I set the meeting for later this afternoon. If you need more time, let me know." He patted Eve on the head before walking away, leaving just the three of us.
"Meeting?" Shane growled, pawing uselessly at his muzzle. "What exactly are you meeting for?"
"You," I smirked. "We're meeting to discuss what to do with you, and what you are going to tell us."
"That wasn't the deal," he growled, "I'm not telling the Society anything. I only promised to tell the two of you."
"Not really sure you have a choice in the matter. You're in our prison, and nobody is coming to save you. You're at our mercy. So you're going to tell us everything."
The Umbreon stared at me for a long moment. "Wow, Slink. I never thought I'd see this color on you. But no, I'm not saying anything. Not for free at least. You of all Pokemon should understand leverage."
Eve stepped towards the bars, pressing her face up against them. "Shane, please. You said yourself that we only have a few days before Smoke does something serious. We can't stop him unless you tell us where to find him."
"And give up my only way out of this cage? No thank you." Shane turned his back on her. "No. As much as I want Smoke to pay, I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in here just for that."
My temper flared. "Do you not realize the situation you are in? There is no way is where you belong, and if you don't tell us what we want to know…"
"You'll kill me? Slink, we both know that you won't. That isn't how you think, and besides, you need what I know. It's a big continent, and the base could be anywhere."
"Gah," I shouted, blasting the wall with a small burst of Flame. "He's impossible. Come on Eve, we should go. The Society has the resources to find them in time."
"Slink, we can't risk that. Shane knows exactly where it is. He's the only one who knows what is going on. We might as well just see what he wants. Threatening him clearly isn't going to work." She turned back to Shane, wrapping her tail around one of the bars. "Alright Shane, what would it take for you to tell us what you know?"
"For starters, I want out of here."
"Ha," I barked. Like that was ever going to happen.
"What else?" Eve continued, ignoring me.
"I want to help take down Smoke. I want to go to the Hatred base. I want to fight." Shane glared at me. "And finally, when this is all over, I want to go. Free and clear. I can leave the continent and go find a place to hide without the Society breathing down my neck."
"Is that all?" I asked. "How do we know you are telling the truth?"
"You're just going to have to trust me," he said, his voice quieting. He knew that wasn't going to go over well.
"Or maybe I can just use Psychic to pull the answers out of you!" I snapped. He flinched, perhaps remembering the feeling of my mental grip tossing him aside like he was nothing.
"Both of you, calm down." Eve sighed in exasperation. "How about this, Shane. You answer a couple more questions, and if we decide we can trust you, you can bring your case before the council."
"I already drank whatever that swill was that you gave me. I thought that was supposed to let you trust me. Besides, I'm not answering any—"
"I know, I know. Just listen. You said that Smoke was planning something. What is it?"
Shane hesitated just a moment too long. "I-I don't know."
"I told you it was a waste of time." I growled, but Shane raised his voice.
"I'm not keeping anything back from you because I want to. I simply don't know. I'm sure nobody does but Smoke. All the time I spent with him… I never knew what he was planning."
"Maybe we are asking the wrong questions." Eve said, rapping her tail against the bars. "How about this Shane, why do you think he's planning something?"
"Because he called everyone back." He looked between the two of us, as if expecting some sort of reaction.
"Er… why is that important?" Eve asked, but I took a step back from him. A horrible feeling, like an Ekans writhing in my stomach, filled me at his words.
"It has never happened before. Even when we moved after your last raid we had a dozen teams all over the continent: recruitment, supplies, espionage. Never, ever, have we all been in the base at the same time. But three days ago the council gave the order to not only call everyone back, but also lock down the base. Nobody leaves. Smoke asked me to vote yes. I thought it was a bad idea, but I did it. I can only assume that he did the same for the other leaders."
"If nobody was allowed out, how did you escape?"
"Sparkle." Shane faltered, his voice breaking for just a moment. "When I discovered what Smoke was… I didn't know who else to turn to. I told her everything, I told her that I had to get out. We… she helped me get out through the courtyard. I guess I have you guys to thank for that idea. But she didn't… she didn't come with me. She said she had to stay, to do what she could. If Smoke finds out what she knows…" he started pacing in the cell, his tail lashing the air behind him. "Slink we have to stop Smoke. We have to help her we…" he froze his ears tucking back against his skull.
"So that's it, huh? That's why you want to go back. I'm sure you want Smoke dead, but you really want to help save your friends." My voice was little more than a whisper.
"More like I want to keep you all from hurting someone." Shane shook his head. "So many of them… they aren't bad 'mon. They're just misled. Sparkle, Moon, Quake, Katie. They just wanted a safe place, to do their part to protect us all."
"Shane," Eve said gently, as if she was speaking to a child, "Smoke isn't going to come quietly, and if he has as tight a hold as you say then it is going to be a fight. We have to defend ourselves."
"I know," he sighed. "You've fought us tooth and claw to keep your people safe Fennekin. I just hope that I can keep mine safe too."
"Probation?" Kegan echoed from behind his podum, regarding Eve and me curiously.
"Don't look at me, this was her idea," I said. "But I do think you should hear her out." Two dozen of the top teams on the Fire Continent turned their eyes on us, but I kept my attention on Kegan. We were seated evenly around a massive wooden table. A Nexus projector, much like the one in the library, was embedded in the center of the table, casting a sterile blue light over everyone there. There were a few windows near the top of the massive, circular room, letting golden afternoon light spill into the space.
The "Council Room", as most called it, was something of an open secret in the Expedition Society. Most teams knew about it, but few were allowed into the governing body of the Expedition Society. The only reason we had a seat at the table was Eve's last assault on the Hatred base. The majority of the Pokemon at the table knew and respected Eve, even calling her by name as we had entered the room. She would be heard.
Kegan stood at the head of the table behind a tall, wooden podium, clutching his silver spoon. There was a cold power radiating from it, making my fur stand on end. Dimitri and Candice were seated on either side of him.
He glared questioningly at Eve before looking to the corner of the room furthest from the door.
On a raised stone platform, Shane sat tensed like he was ready to bolt. He still wore his thick leather socks and his muzzle, but was otherwise unbound. On the floor in front of Shane a Hakamo-o was curled, cat-like, with piercing yellow eyes focused unblinkingly at him. Plate had been chosen to guard Shane, a job he was certainly taking seriously. Though even he turned his head as Eve began to speak.
"It's a way to give Shane the benefit of the doubt, while also keeping him on the hook. We allow him certain freedoms, like removing those restraints and allowing him to come on the raid. However, if he betrays us or fails to follow through on any of his promises, we can arrest him. He has nowhere else to go, so I doubt he will be a flight risk. Kegan, you know very well that I don't trust Shane in the slightest, but we can't just sit here and argue. We don't have time for that."
Muttering filled the room as the other teams considered. After a few moments, Kegan rapped his spoon against the podium, producing a piercing chime. The room fell silent. "Shane, what do you have to say to these terms?"
Shane sat up a little straighter as he gathered his thoughts. He spoke clearly and carefully. "It isn't ideal, but if I can prove to you that I mean no harm, I'll go with it."
"And why the hell do you think you deserve any mercy after everything you've done," a Krokorok snarled from across the table.
Shane shook his head. "I… honestly, I wouldn't expect you to. Look, I've never killed anyone, though I have been an unwitting accomplice in at least one murder." He glanced at me before snapping his attention back to Kegan. "I know that I've hurt Pokemon, but that was never my intention. My goal from the very beginning was to help Pokemon like me. Everything I've done in the past three years was in service to that goal, though I know that a lot of it was misguided. I just want a chance to stop the person behind so much of the pain that I helped cause."
All eyes were on the Umbreon again. There were a few nods among the gathered Pokemon, more than a few disgruntled mutterings, and at least a couple dismissive scoffs. Kegan gestured for silence — then, once that proved insufficient, rang his spoon once more. Once all was silent, he said, "It's been an hour already; let's take a vote. As usual, vote will be taken orally team by team. A 'yea' vote to accept the proposed probation, 'nay' to reject it, or you may abstain from voting. We will begin with Team Pinewood…"
Kegan slowly made his way clockwise around the table, tallying the votes carefully as he went. Neither Eve nor I spoke; we had already decided how we would vote. When Kegan finally called out "Team Mindfire?" we met his eyes but said nothing. "Abstaining. Understood. Team Blossom…"
Finally it was over. Kegan double checked his count before announcing to the room, "we have twelve 'yea' votes, nine 'nay' votes and two abstaining. The proposal has been accepted. We will work out the particulars later, but for now, Plate, would you please remove Shane's restraints?"
The dragon hurried to his feet at once, climbing the platform to an eager Shane. "Alright, Shane, now for your end of our bargain. Where is the Hatred base?"
Shane took a moment to scratch at his snout with his newly unbound claws. For a brief moment, something like a smile crossed his face, but it just as quickly returned to the neutral expression he had had since he was brought into the room. "Right, uh, the Hatred Base. When I left, it was located at the southern tip of Pyrite Island."
"Pyrite Island," Kegan echoed. A pulse of psychic filled the room as he spoke, though I was certain I was one of few who could feel it. "You say when you left…"
"Yeah," Shane said shifting nervously atop the stage. "I'm sure you're aware that the Base moves… I don't know if Smoke moved it after I left."
"I've sent a scout to Pyrite Island. One of our fastest flyers. He'll let us know if the base is still there. If not, do you know where Smoke might have moved it to?"
"Not-not exactly." Shane stammered, growing wary of the increasingly angry looks being shot his way. "From what I understand, there isn't a way to choose where the base moves to. Of course, Smoke is really the only one who understood the machine that does it. But there are only so many locations it can move to. I know them all — and I'll tell you — it would just take longer to check."
There was a fresh outburst of muttering and even a couple shouts. "Silence!" Kagan called. He used his spoon again, driving everyone to silence. "Thank you, Shane. This information will be useful. We will certainly have more questions for you as we plan, but for the moment you are excused. We have an extra chair here by Dimitri if you wish to remain…"
Candice spoke up at that moment. "Or we have a room set aside for you. You should get some rest. I don't know what happened before Slink and Eve brought you in, but you were half-dead from exhaustion."
"I think it was something I drank," Shane muttered to himself, shooting me an icy glare. "But I'd rather stay. I want to know what you are planning."
Kegan nodded, gesturing for the Umbreon to step down from the stage. Shane did as he said, though he seemed wary to approach the Trevenant. Especially as Dimitri turned to stare at him with his blood-red eye.
"Okay, while we wait to see where the base has gone to, there are a few decisions we need to make. Most importantly, what is our goal for this mission? Will it be a simple strike, to eliminate Smoke? Or do we intend to completely dismantle the Hatred?"
"Isn't that the same thing?" a Roserade sitting next to us asked.
Kegan shook his head. "I doubt it. If someone were to burst in here and kill me, would the Expedition Society cease to be? No. Someone else would step up, take up the mantle of leadership and continue on."
I spoke then, just loud enough to be heard by everyone. "We need to take the Hatred down, for good. We'll never have a better chance. We have all the information we could ever hope for, and Smoke is so focused on whatever he is planning we have an opportunity to take them by surprise. We can stop this here and now." There was a murmur of agreement around the room. Even Shane nodded, though he didn't dare look at anyone else.
"If we are going to do it that way, we have to do it safely. I won't approve this mission unless I can be assured of that. Shane, do you know how many Pokemon are in that base?"
"Uh… one hundred and eighty four. At least that was what it was at our last count. We have had a couple of deaths and recruitments since then."
"The exact count doesn't matter. We just need an estimate. It would stretch our resources a little thin though. I guess we could call in reinforcements from the other guilds, but I don't want to —" He froze, staring down at his podium. It was just loud enough for me to hear, but I detected a high-pitched, rhythmic buzzing. Everyone in the room held a shared breath as Kegan tapped his Expedition Gadget. "It's there," he said evenly, though he couldn't quite hide the relief on his face. "The Hatred base is still on Pyrite island. We've got them!"
There were a few cheers, and more than a few approving smiles shot in Shane's direction. The Umbreon just scowled at the table, his lips pressed tightly together, his eyes slightly unfocused. I recognized the expression. He was trying not to cry. For a moment, I almost sympathized with him.
"Well, that is certainly good news," Kegan said, "but that doesn't solve the fact that taking on that size of a force isn't viable without spreading the Society too thin. I'm sure the other Societies could muster some reinforcements, but with only a week's notice, probably not many."
Shane was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. His ears were tucked, and he was biting his lip. Clearly, he wanted to speak up, but didn't want to test his luck. That twinge of sympathy washed over me again, so I decided to put him out of his misery. "If I may, Kegan — I'm sure Shane can confirm — the majority of the Hatred population are civilians with little battle experience. At least, that is what I observed when I was there. A smaller force, one with more experienced teams, would work better."
"Is this true?" Kegan asked.
"Yes," Shane said. "The majority of our population aren't battle-ready. Our strongest 'mon, with a few exceptions like my team, are on the defense team. Other than Smoke, they are the only ones that we should worry about." He paused, looking around the table. "The majority of our casualties on your last attack were civilians."
There was a new burst of whispers. Shane stared across the table at me, a curious gleam in his eyes. I nodded to him briefly as Kegan spoke again. "That is certainly something to consider. If anyone else has an opinion in this matter, I'm opening the floor to discuss."
It was a long walk home.
The meeting had stretched on for endless hours. The sun had long sunk beneath the Scale mountains by the time we were finished. Eve and I were left to make our way home in darkness.
The streets were quiet aside from the other Expedition Society teams also heading home. Eve watched the ground as we walked. She was walking further from me than she usually did, though every now and then her tail reached over to squeeze mine, or brush against my back or leg. It was like she was checking that I was still there. After everything we'd discussed there I didn't blame her. She was probably thinking about the last time she'd had to plan like that. There were several times during the meeting when I could feel her trembling next to me.
We walked in silence for quite a while before, finally, she spoke. "I'm so tired."
"Me too," I said rolling my neck. Then, tentatively, I said, "Were the meetings that long when you came to rescue us?"
Eve shivered again, but when she turned to me, she had managed a slight smile. "Honestly? I hardly remember anything specific from that week. I was just so focused on… on doing what I could, on actually rescuing you both that the finer details really escape me."
"Glad you worked so hard on those details," I said with a grin, trying to reassure her, "since we're using those plans as the backbone for this second attempt. At least it won't take a full week to set up this time."
"Yeah," she said softly. "Part of me wishes we were one of the teams leaving tonight. Get it over with. Get some distance from…"
Him. She didn't say it, she didn't even send the thought, but I knew that was the word she had avoided.
"At least it gives us time to plan for ourselves. I mean, we'll have to send a letter to Leo, if he wants to come. And we've gotta get Lucy moving. And… well we need to figure out who is going."
Eve turned her head sharply. "So help me, if you say 'I'm going alone' I swear to Arceus!"
"I wasn't going to say that," I said quickly. Eve just raised her eyebrows at me. "Can you blame me? For two years we've treated the Hatred like capture means death. Hell, it almost was last time. Now we're headed directly for them. Can you blame me for wanting to keep the rest of you out of danger?"
"Yes, I can," Eve said. "I made a promise that I would have your back. That is the best way I can think of to keep you safe." She tapped her badge token that was pinned to the knot in her scarf.
I gave her a smile. "I know. I'm sorry. If it was the other way around, nothing would stop me from coming with you. But I realIy meant Vix and Abby. I don't know if Sierra will want to come, but if he does I don't know what to do with those two."
"You said it yourself. This is going to be dangerous. I don't want her getting hurt." Eve sighed. "You know Vix will hate hearing that even more than I did."
"I know," I said, feeling my stomach twist. "We'll figure something out."
It was past midnight when we finally arrived home, but light glowed through the windows. They were waiting for us — Sierra, certainly, and I doubt Vix would have gone to sleep before we got there. Sure enough, the moment the front gate opened with its usual screech a red-brown streak burst through the front door and darted down the path.
I braced myself just before Vix slammed into me. She clutched at my legs with her tails, pressing her head so hard into my chest that I nearly fell back. "You're back!" she cheered. She released me just as suddenly as she had grabbed me before latching onto Eve just as tightly.
"Sorry," Eve said warmly, pressing her forehead to the girl's, "we didn't think we'd be gone that long. It has been… an interesting day."
"What happened with Shane?" Vix asked eagerly, though I noticed a trace of anger in her voice.
"I think we'd all like to know that," Sierra said evenly. The Absol was standing in the doorway, staring uncertainly down at us. I could see Lucy and Abby craning to see past him from behind. "I saved dinner for you. Come in. You both can eat and then we can talk."
"Thank you, Sierra," Eve smiled weakly. "You didn't have to wait up on us, though."
Sierra rolled his eyes. "Like those three would give me a choice. Besides, you two didn't exactly explain well earlier."
"Sorry," I said with a grimace, "there wasn't that much time. We had to get Shane contained before he woke up again."
"But what happened?" Sierra pressed herding us inside and towards the kitchen. "Did he attack you, or..?"
"Not exactly," I said with a nervous glance at Eve. She was staring determinately at the bowl of food that Sierra had placed before her. "A lot has happened, a lot that we really need to talk about."
Despite their promises to let us eat, we spent the next hour telling the others everything that had happened that day in between sporadic bites of slowly congealing stew. "Shane estimates that we have about ten days before every Hatred member is inside the base. That's when he thinks that Smoke is going to do whatever he is planning." I shoved my half-eaten dinner away from me. "Teams are supposed to trickle down to Pyrite island one or two at a time, all taking different routes so that nobody gets too suspicious."
"So what are we doing?" Lucy asked.
"Eve and I were approved to leave the day after tomorrow with another Team. Sierra, you are welcome to come with us if you'd like. I won't force you to come or risk your life for us again. Especially since we don't know exactly what we are headed into. As for you Lu, I have a special mission for you."
"I'd like to help," the Riolu said eagerly. "What can I do?"
"I need you to go home. At least for a while. Kegan has agreed to teleport you back to Revelation mountain tomorrow if you're willing to go."
"Sure, but why? You don't have to keep me out of danger, Slink. I can take care of myself." She cracked her knuckles.
"I believe you," I said. "But I need you to go back. I need you to talk to your grandfather."
"For reinforcements? I'm sure we can spare a few, but most of them are needed to defend the village."
"No, not reinforcements, though it couldn't hurt to ask. No, I need you to get as much water as you can."
For a moment, Lucy looked confused. Then her eyes widened as the implications of my words hit her. "Wait… you don't think..?"
"Considering what happened when I gave Shane some earlier, yeah I do. This might give us a way to weaken them."
Lucy nodded. "Alright then, cousin. I'll do it!"
Vix looked around at the four of us. "Wait, what about me and Abby? I want to go. I can help."
Eve and I shared a glance. She spoke first, and for that I was grateful. "Vix, love, you can't go."
"Sure I can," Vix insisted a little desperately. "I have to. You need me. I can get you through the Dungeons on the way there. I can… I can guide you through the base. I- I can…"
"Vix," I pleaded, hoping that this wouldn't become a huge fight, "we just don't want you to get hurt. You have to understand that. This is the Hatred. They are going to try and kill us if they get a chance. I'd never forgive myself if you got hurt."
"But I don't want you to get hurt either!" She shouted these words.
"If I may," Sierra interrupted, "why don't I stay behind with the girls. That way they aren't just waiting here alone for… for you to come back." I grimaced at his pause. He was trying to be helpful, but that was probably the worst thing he could have done.
"No, no, no, no," Vix said, her voice rising in pitch with each word. She was crouched in her chair, tears streaming down her snout only to evaporate in the flickers of flame escaping her mouth. Then she ran. Knocking over her chair and darting for the stairs.
Eve sighed to herself and put a paw to her head. I tried to stand, but she threw out a tail to stop me. "Let her cool down. You know she won't talk to us now, anyway."
"Look, it's late." Sierra said, still staring after Vix. "Why don't we all get some sleep? We can decide on this in the morning."
I was grateful for the opportunity for rest. Though, even as I held Eve tightly to me later that night, I knew that it wasn't going to be that simple.
Vix didn't leave her room all day. We didn't even hear a peep. She didn't leave for meals, even. Abby tried to bring her food a couple of times, but the plates remained mostly untouched.
Several times I tried to get her to talk to me. I'd knocked on the door several times, pretty much whenever I passed it as we scrambled to get ready. I couldn't decide whether her stony silence or her angry screaming was the worst. I tried not to let it bother me. It bothered me.
Still preparations had to be made. Kegan gave Lucy a spare Expedition Gadget before she left for the Water Continent so that she could update us on her progress and vice-versa. She looked nervous as she took Kegan's hand, but there was Steel in her. Just before they vanished in a flash of pink light, she met my gaze and gave me a determined smile.
We had a couple more errands we had to run before we could leave. The market was packed full of Society Members all preparing for the days ahead. There was a general sense of unease among the Society members, and the shop owners also seemed on-edge. Some of the shops had pretty slim pickings by the time we reached them, but eventually we had the supplies we needed.
We also stopped by the Peliper post and the Dazzling Gleam. Eve had insisted on entering the latter shop alone. When she emerged minutes later, she had a package sticking out of her bag. "Is that my mateship token?" I asked, half joking. Considering everything going on I hadn't expected that to be her priority.
She grimaced. "Oh, uh, well, I did order something for you… but it wasn't ready yet. Sorry."
"I don't mind. But what did you get?"
"Oh, I ordered this last month when we were… I had an idea for a way I could fight the Hatred better. I'll show you when we get out on the road tomorrow."
After that, Eve and I wandered around town for a few extra hours. We couldn't sit at home — not with Lucy gone, Vix sulking, and Sierra and Abby so anxious. I think we all just wanted to be alone, even though we should've been together.
I didn't sleep that night, and neither did Eve. I held her to me tightly, like it was the last time I'd ever get to do it. I cherished the moment. Both of us were safe, happy, together. Who knew when we'd feel like that again. Maybe not at all.
Every so often a thought like that would jump out at me when I least expected it. There was no guarantee that I would survive this. It was funny. This was far from the first time my life had been in danger. I'd faced death so many times in the last two years. But there was a sense of finality this time. Everything my grandfather and my father had fought and died for would finally be coming to an end. From the moment Smoke had entered that room years ago, I knew this would only end one of two ways. Either I'd kill him earn a peaceful life with my loved ones having to look over my shoulder, or he'd kill me. I wasn't even afraid of death anymore, not after seeing my parents again. Now that I knew there was peace there too. But I'd finally found what I wanted in this world. I wasn't about to give up on it. Not yet.
Finally, it was time. Everything was prepared. All of our goodbyes had been said. All except one. "Vix… Vix, we're leaving. Please, may we come in." There was silence for a long moment. "Vix?"
"Please, Vix. We want to say goodbye." Eve reached out and tried the knob. It turned, unlocked, and she gently eased the door open. The room was a mess. The chest at the foot of the bed had been tipped on its side with its contents strewn across the floor. There were several new scorch marks on the walls, much larger and darker than the previous, accidental ones.
In the center of the bed, buried beneath the blankets, a small lump quivered slightly. I glanced uncertainly at Eve before tentatively stepping into the room. "Vix?" I called again. There was no answer, though the lump in the bed began to tremble even more violently. "We have to go. Please come out. We want to see you."
The trembling stopped just before a tiny voice rasped. "Don't go. Please don't go. You can't go. Not without me."
Her words hit me like one of Smoke's blades. My stomach twisted, my resolve quavering. I approached the bed carefully, levitating myself up so as not to jostle Vix. Eve followed just behind, leaping up as well so that we were on either side of Vix.
"Come out, Vix. Let us see you." After a moment's hesitation, the lump started moving. It wriggled beneath the blankets, inching towards the top, until eventually a disheveled head appeared. Her hair was a Rattata's nest; Her eyes were bloodshot and sunken into deep shadows. It was almost worse than when she had subsisted on Chesto berries for a week. Or perhaps it just seemed worse. Then, she had been stoic about the many worries plaguing her. Now though, it was all out in the open. She looked like at every moment she was fighting back tears. And losing.
"I understand how you feel, Vix." I started. I wanted to reach a paw out to stroke her back, but I knew that she would shy away from any contact.
"No. You don't!" she snapped, gritting her teeth so hard I was afraid they would break. "You don't understand! I don't want to be here…not when…"
"Not when you can help," I finished for her. I stroked her back. "You are my daughter alright. I understand, Vix, I really do. But have you ever thought about it the other way? What if something bad happens and I can't do anything while you…get hurt? I'd never forgive myself for that, Vix."
She was silent for a minute. "But… you said you'd never leave me again. You promised!"
"I did," I replied evenly. "And I still do. I fully intend to come back. You'll still have a family after today." Eve shot me a look, but I didn't waver. "You know I love you, kid, more than anything. That's why I can't let you go."
I moved to pull her into a hug, but Vix got there first. She lunged at me and grabbed me tight. "Dad, I'm… I'm scared."
"I am too," I said, holding her like this might be my last chance.
Eve joined in, wrapping her tail around both of us. "I've got his back. Trust me, I won't let anything happen to him."
"You be careful too," Vix scolded. "I don't want to lose you either. I like having a mom again." She turned and hugged her just as fiercely as she had me, though she kept one tail wrapped around my leg.
"We'll be back soon. I promise," Eve said. She pressed her forehead against Vix's before getting to her feet. "Want to walk us to the door?"
Vix nodded sheepishly. I made to stand too, but before I could, Vix squeezed my leg. "Wait." I froze, and she took a moment to resolve herself. There was a flurry of movement under the blanket, like a nest of Ekans had been upset. "Will you take this? Please?" Two of her tails emerged from beneath, holding something up for me to see.
It was her bracelet, with the Fire Stone still glittering within. I looked at her curiously and she blushed. "You gave it to me and said it would protect me. Hopefully it will protect you guys too." Before I could say anything she reached over and shoved it into my bag. "Be sure to bring it back to me!"
"Don't worry," I said firmly. "I will."
"You guys alright over there?" the Dewott asked. "Dungeon is about to shift, so…"
"We're alright," Eve smiled back. "How are you guys holding up?"
"Okay," the Dewott replied, scratching the back of his head. "Just nervous about… you know."
"How'd you get stuck with that job?" I said.
"I can hear you," Shane grumbled.
We'd been introduced to Team Benchwarmers when we'd arrived at the Society. They were a greener team, only six months in, but they had made a name for themselves by completing a record number of rescue missions in that time. We'd traveled quite a ways today, further than Eve and I probably would have on our own. They were determined, and I respected that.
We were nestled in the middle of a Dungeon a little ways South of Lapras port. As the sun was setting we had set up two disc camps that overlapped in the middle so we could support one another if anything went wrong.
"Sorry, I believe we owe you an apology for that." The Charmeleon from the other team wandered over, slapping his teammate on the back. "Kegan asked for volunteers to take him. We didn't realize we'd be traveling with you until it was too late."
"Don't worry about it," Eve said, her tail twisting behind her. "It's only for tonight."
"You sure you guys don't want to stay with us?" the Dewott said.
"Nah, there's somewhere else I need to… I think it would be safer if we split up. Especially if he's with you. No offense."
"None taken," the Charmeleon said jovially. "Anyway, We've got dinner finished if you both would like to join us."
They led us over to their campfire where the third member of their team was stirring a pot of stew. The Bayleef quickly doled out bowls before settling down. As we ate, I noticed that Shane hadn't touched his share. "I'm not hungry," he said quickly.
"Do you not like it?" The Bayleef asked. "I have…"
"No, no," Shane interrupted, eyeing the red leaf the Bayleef sported.
"We didn't do anything to it, Shane," I grinned. "I didn't even add water."
He scowled, turning his face away. "I told you, I'm not hungry."
"Well it's going to be a long trip if you don't eat," Eve warned. Shane ignored her. "Fine then." Eve turned to the Charmeleon. "So, why did you guys volunteer? Just seems like a strange thing to just volunteer for."
Shane said nothing. He just tucked his head and started scarfing down his stew. For a good time there was silence other than the sounds of eating. It wasn't a Sierra quality meal, but it was still good by any standard. Once we were done and the Dewott had scoured the dishes clean, we sat around idly chatting as the sky darkened beyond the silver mist.
Eventually the members of Team Benchwarmers stood and stretched. "It's going to be an early morning for us. We're going to head to bed."
"You've got an early morning too," the Charmeleon said jovially, elbowing Shane, "so don't stay up too late."
The Bayleef grasped Eve's and my paw with their vines. "It was nice traveling with you today. If we don't see you tomorrow morning, safe travels. Hopefully we'll see you again before the big event."
"It was my idea," the Bayleef said. Their tone was still conversational, but the mood around the campfire was suddenly a lot colder. "You could say I've had a few run-ins with the Hatred."
Shane winced and shuffled back a few steps. "W-what specifically…?"
"You probably wouldn't remember, Shane, but… well you personally tried to kidnap me a while ago. Before I joined the Society, obviously. These two yahoos saved me." The Bayleef's voice never lost its happy, conversational tone, but the rest of us weren't quite sure what to do with that information.
"Oh… I uh…" Shane stammered, still trying to push himself away.
The Bayleef looked confused. "Really, I'm not mad at it. I'm not one to hold a grudge. Still, after that I felt that we were uniquely motivated to keep an eye on you. I'm at least willing to give you the benefit of the doubt."
"Thank you for dinner," Eve said. "Safe travels for you as well."
After a few more short goodnights and goodbyes, the three of them retreated to their tents, leaving just me, Eve, and Shane sitting around the campfire. I stared at Shane for a long moment. He was staring determinately at his paws, though every once in a while there would be a flash of yellow as he peeked at me or Eve.
Finally I stood and stretched. "Should we head in as well? We've got a long way to go tomorrow."
Eve looked at me and then back to Shane. She waited for a moment, like she expected him to do something. But when he didn't move she stood as well. "Might as well."
We turned to go. Finally we would be rid of Shane —
"W-wait." Shane's voice cracked as he spoke, his voice was barely more than a whisper. "Please. Wait. I… I want… I-I need…" he trailed off. We both turned to find that he was standing as well, though he still wouldn't look at us.
"What is it, Shane?" Eve said, though there was a slight chill to her voice.
"I… I need to apologize." Eve and I were silent. That was probably the last thing either of us had expected the Umbreon to say.
"Go ahead," I growled.
Shane flinched, but he finally looked up at us. "I have a lot of regrets, and what I did to you, both of you, are my biggest ones. For that, I'm sorry. I can't fix it, I can't make up for the pain I've caused. But I need you to know that I'm sorry."
There was a pregnant pause. "Why?"
"Why what?" Shane said, more nervous than defensive.
"Why now? You came to us two days ago. Why didn't you tell us then? Or why not this morning? Why did you wait until now?"
"Because I was afraid this was going to be my only chance." He glared at me for a long moment before he relaxed back into one of guilt. "I know better than anyone what Smoke is capable of, what the Hatred is capable of. I don't know what is going to happen to any of us. I thought that I'd have more time while we traveled to figure out what to say to you, but now you're leaving and… I didn't want this to be another regret."
"Yeah, wouldn't want you to regret what you did to us." I rolled my eyes.
"You're my biggest regrets!" He looked at Eve. "How I hurt you." To me. "And really everything I've done to you." He laughed humorlessly. "You know, there isn't much I've gotten right in my life. Becoming friends with you was probably the only thing I did correctly, and I managed to screw that up didn't I?"
Eve was silent next to me. Now she was the one who found her paws fascinating. I brushed her tail with mine and she grabbed it thankfully.
"And for you, Slink… I know that there are no words I can say. I'd say that it was ignorance, but I knew we were there to kill you. I knew what we were doing wasn't right, but I went along with it because I believed Smoke had our best interest in mind. And then when he came out of the house injured I was so focused on that, that I didn't think to question what had happened —"
"Wait, what? He was injured. You never mentioned that before." Shane suddenly had my undivided attention. Eve even looked up.
"Well, uh… to be fair I wasn't exactly going to tell you anything last time we met. And I really didn't think it was that important." He shifted uncomfortably under our suddenly rapt gazes.
"Tell me," I ordered, a warm tingle sprouting in my stomach. "Tell me what happened that night, Shane. You owe me that much."
"I...I don't… It was after you fell out that trapdoor. I tried to give chase, along with the majority of the others that were there that night. Smoke said he would be fine guarding… Slink you have to know that I didn't know —"
"What happened?" I growled low in my throat.
"Right, uh, well, we lost you in the dark and the house was on fire. We ran back as fast as we could only to find our people gathered around trying to figure out what to do. Smoke was still in there. I guess that was when he…uh… It was chaos. None of us knew what to do. People from the village would be arriving soon. We had to get out, but we couldn't leave without Smoke. We were debating if we should send somebody else in to try and find him when he stumbled out the door and just… collapsed."
"He was hurt?" Eve asked, probably a little too earnestly.
"It was bad," Shane said shaking his head. "On top of his injuries from the fight he was covered in burns, and so dried-out that his skin tore at the slightest touch. We honestly thought he was dead."
"Would have served him right," I snarled.
Shane nodded. "Well, we had a healer with us, unfortunately. We had to stand guard while she worked on him. I stayed at his side the whole time watching it all happen. He was a mess, but the Audino was skilled. She had a Rawst salve that she used on the worst burns. But there was one, on his neck I think, he wouldn't let her touch. He still has a scar there. Actually, most of his scars are from that night, I think."
"Wait a second," Eve said suddenly, looking anxiously at me. "We first ran into you… what, a week later? There is no way he should have been able to heal that fast."
"It was faster than that." Shane said with a shudder. "When we went to bed, he was still in pretty bad shape. The next morning though… it was like nothing had ever happened. Other than the scars."
"That isn't possible." Eve said immediately. "Even with healing moves, it would take weeks to heal from something like that!"
"I think that might be a benefit of embodying Dark Matter," I muttered so Shane couldn't hear. "Was there anything else? Anything you remember?"
Shane's eyes unfocused as he lost himself in thought. "Yeah, I… I think so. It was so weird that night. We all felt worse when we woke up. It was…"
"What?" I demanded. "What was it!"
"Draining." Shane said finally. "It wasn't the best night of sleep, granted, but after sleeping I somehow was more exhausted. I thought it was just because I wasn't hopped-up on adrenaline anymore, but… it was the same feeling from just before I left." He looked up at me, his eyes wide. He looked just like how I felt. Terrified. "Slink… I don't think that was my imagination. After he… drained me… drained us… he was fine. Perfectly fine. What did he do to me? What… what is he?" He looked at me, desperate for answers.
But I had none, or at least none that I was willing to tell him. It was like he had dumped a few random puzzle pieces in my lap. I knew generally where they fit into the image, but I couldn't quite see how they connected with everything else.
Eventually Eve stood. "I've had enough. I'm going to bed." She looked to me. "You coming?"
"Not yet," I said. "I'll be there in a minute." She sighed as she placed one of her paws on my back, leaning down to rub her cheek against mine. She looked at Shane for a long moment looking like she wanted to say something, but instead she turned tucking her ears and retreated into our tent.
I sat staring into the flames for a long moment. According to Phoenix, my grandfather had spent long nights doing this. He had seen the great conflict between Smoke and some Fennekin. I wondered if he had seen this exact moment. I wished that I could do the same, see some future time when all of this was over.
"You know what this all means, don't you." I jumped at the noise. I had forgotten for a moment that Shane was sitting there as well. He was looking up, through the tiny bit of the dome that was clear, up into the stars. "It has something to do with that water you gave me… with what happened after... doesn't it?"
Before I could say anything, Shane shook his head. "Nevermind. You wouldn't tell me anyways."
I rolled my eyes. "I think I'm headed to bed too, Shane. Goodbye." I stood and turned my back on the Umbreon. This was probably the last time I'd see him. Good riddance.
"Slink?" I didn't have to look at him. I didn't have to look back. I didn't have to acknowledge him. But there was something in his voice that gave me pause.
"I-I saw the badge. Does it… is it what I think it is?"
"Yes," I replied without looking.
"She... she kept the Dark Stone."
"Slink, will you do something for me?" This time I turned to face him. On the other side of the flames his yellow eyes looked past me, staring at the tent. "Watch out for her. Keep her safe, for me."
"I will," I said, entering the tent, "but not for you."
I didn't know what to expect when the Expedition Gadget started to ring.
We'd left the others behind earlier that morning. Shane hadn't said a word to us as we said goodbye to the other team. They were headed due south towards Pyrite island while we were headed over the Scale mountains. We'd eventually make our way down to Pyrite island, but… there was something I wanted to do first. That I needed to do.
We were taking a brief lunch-break beneath a tree. The pass had taken us longer than expected, but after only a couple of hours, the valley between the Scales and the Crimson Peak was spread below us. I'd traveled this way countless times in my life but I never got tired of the view. Endless grassy fields with the silver ribbon of the river snaking south.
It wasn't quite enough to pacify the Butterfree churning in my stomach. The feeling was a sickening mix of excitement and dread. When Eve's Expedition Gadget started ringing, a thrill of dread shot through me. Was it Kegan? Had something happened? With the Hatred? With Shane?
The fact that it was Sierra's voice on the other end wasn't reassuring in the slightest. In fact, it tied my stomach into an ever tighter knot. "Hello? Hello?"
"Sierra?" Eve asked. "Is everything okay?"
"I hope I'm not calling at a bad time," he said hurriedly, "but I had to talk to you guys."
"Sierra? What's wrong?" I asked, my mouth going dry.
"I-well, you see-uh, well Vix hadn't left her room since you two left. I was just going to check on her, because she wouldn't answer me and… she wasn't there."
"Sierra, what do you mean? Where is she?" Eve demanded.
"That's what I'm trying to tell you," Sierra groaned. "I went in and the window was open. I have no idea when she left, but Vix is gone!"