Interlude: Troubled Spirits

"Let's see. Merry's team is out logging for firewood and building supplies right now. They'll need rest when they get back, but then I could shift half of them on to this project…"

A blue furred paw pressed on a piece of paper. In the corner of a tent, a vaporeon lay in a nest of dried grass and braken, studying the list of duties he'd created. Occasionally, he would pause, his tail flicking, and mumble some thought before continuing down the list, oblivious to the sounds of construction outside.

Across from him, a gogoat stood at attention, waiting for orders. His gaze drifted to the list, to the vaporeon, then to other paperwork scattered about. He shuffled slightly, letting out a puff. His breath drifted away in a cloud of mist, and he shifted, letting his attention waver again. It was far, far too cold for his liking.

The vaporeon finally paused, though he did not look up from the list.

"Ganlon, has Farrin returned from his scouting mission yet?"

Ganlon snapped back to attention, scraping a hoof across the ground. "Not yet, Blue, sir. But he should be back any minute now."

Blue did not look up. "Good, good. When he gets back, tell him to report to me. In the meantime, gather up all the obligates and tell them to report to the center of camp by sunhigh. I need to discuss hunting with them."

Ganlon's expression shifted into unease. He shuffled one hoof across the ground, catching on the cloth covering. "Sir, with all due respect, you can't seriously plan to let pokemon hunt, right?"

Blue finally looked up. His gaze was cool, emotionless. "What choice do I have? Traveling through the Ravine was more arduous than I expected. We've already used up a significant portion of our jerky stores on the journey here, and the remainder can only feed us for so long. I understand your concern." He locked eyes with the gogoat. "But we're in uncharted territory now. Outside of civilization. I have pokemon I have to take care of. And if I have to bend the rules a little to make sure everyone is fed, I will."

He paused, tilting his head up. His finned tail thumped against the ground twice before he continued. "It's not ideal. I understand that it's dangerous to hunt when we don't know the type of pokemon that live here or how they might react. I can't even be certain how many teams will bring themselves to kill, even for survival's sake. But that's the reality the Original One left behind for us. Everyone knew that, and what they were getting into when they signed up for this expedition."

Ganlon hesitated before finally relaxing his posture, though his grim expression remained. "Very well," he grumbled. "I don't like it, but I understand. I'll be taking my leave."

The gogoat turned and pushed through the tent flap muttering under his breath. Before Blue could continue his work, however, another pokemon — a lithe boltund — poked her head through the tent flap.

"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Mago has contacted the courier on duty. She said she has an urgent message for you."

Blue's expression darkened. "Urgent? I'll be right there."

He waited until the boltund left, then stood and stretched. He'd been working on his list of responsibilities for his followers since dawn, and there were still more assignments to sort out. Of the most concern at the moment was hunting. Every pokemon he'd brought knew how to fight; defending oneself outside of societal boundaries was an important skill for any explorer. But even among the carnivores on his crew, few of them had ever had to hunt for their own food — or at least, few had ever admitted to it. And despite knowing they might have to live without society's laws for a time, he wondered how many of them would find it within them to go through with it.

As he exited his tent, midmorning light and the sounds of construction greeted him. Several pokemon milled about, either working on a chore or else waiting for orders. He waved his tail to greet a team consisting of a fennekin, an espeon, and a vulpix, who were busily cleaning out a fire pit. And he nodded his head to a haxourus and meganium as they passed carrying lumber, headed to a dugout where their other team members were assembling the framework of what would eventually be a basement. And above it, there would be a cabin. It wouldn't be the finest structure they'd ever built, but the gold and brown leaves that filtered from the trees signified that autumn had already sunk its claws into the region. Winter would come soon after. He didn't want his society members to be without shelter when the frost came.

Near the center of camp, a wood platform had been hastily constructed. Several essential jobs were performed on or around it. On one side, a pawful of pokemon were busy preparing lumber. On the other, a line of pokemon waiting for their daily rations stretched from a larger tent and wrapped around the side.

Blue squeezed between the queue, passing a sunflora and a panpour heatedly debating whether they had time to plant any of their berry seeds and which ones were hearty enough to survive the winter. On the center of the platform, an indeedee lounged against a tall wooden stool. Her eyes were closed, and her pensive expression told Blue that she was likely deep in telepathic conversation with someone far away. She opened her eyes just as Blue reached her and gestured for him to follow her to a secluded corner a little further past the mess tent.

Blue wasted no time once they were away from any prying ears, speaking before he had even sat down. "Echo, you said you received a message from Mago? What news has she sent?"

Echo shook her head, taking a seat on a haphazardly assembled stool in the corner of the tent. "Impatient today, sir? Mago sends her regards. She's glad to hear we made it through the dungeon. On her end, she says things have been mostly smooth."

Blue tilted his head. The tip of his tail thumped against the ground. "Mostly?"

The indeedee closed her eyes, crossing her arms. "She said a zoroark came through about half a moon ago. Came to speak to her and claimed trouble was coming. Unfortunately, we were in the dungeon already when the message arrived, and the psychics couldn't pick up our signal until I reestablished the connection this morning."

His tail stopped. Maneth? He let out a slow breath. It was probably nothing, but… "What sort of trouble?"

Echo shrugged. "Don't know. I was told the details were too sensitive to transmit. That it's probably nothing, but that Mago didn't want to take any unnecessary risks."

Anxiety churned in Blue's belly. He took a deep breath to fight off urge to let it consume him. Relax. Don't let it show. You've hidden worse. Still, even as he shook out his nerves, the unsettled feeling remained. The last thing he needed right now was trouble bad enough that Maneth and Progne were contacting him over it.

"Very well," he finally said, relieved that his voice remained steady and authoritative. "My message to Mago is that she is to continue to monitor the situation. Let me know if anything changes."

The indeedee closed her eyes. "Understood."

Blue waited for some time, in case there was anything else important that he needed to hear. When it seemed like there would be nothing more, he prepared to excuse himself. But just as he stood, Echo spoke up again.

"I'm receiving another transmission. You have a message from Yellow. She's requesting a direct link."

Really? Wasn't he dealing with enough stress already? Blue suppressed a groan. But saying no would just create more issues later. Might as well get it over with.

He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he cleared his mind, locking away sensitive thoughts and memories that he didn't want prodded. Although he trusted Echo to be as safe as possible and not try to dig into his memories, he learned long ago that he could never be too careful. "Very well."

A few heartbeats passed as he felt a small, sharp prick in his head, followed by a building, unpleasant pressure at the back of his skull. Then the pressure suddenly vanished and almost at once a voice echoed in his head.

Finally, Yellow grumbled, her voice as sharp as always. Mind telling me why you crossed the ravine without talking to Red and I?

Just what he expected. Trouble. He pictured the jolteon in his head, remembering her spiky yellow fur and ever-intense expression before he replied. It's honestly nothing nefarious, Yellow. We were in a hurry. We need to make a permanent base before first snowfall, and we couldn't wait for you or red to send us help.

You're making excuses. Why didn't you just wait until spring? We could have had enforcers and guild members arrive ahead of time and help you with preparations, if going now is such a big deal. Or, Mew's Curse, here's a better idea. Just wait. We can't even solve our own problems right now. Why go looking for more?

Blue tried to suppress a sigh, but it still escaped into his mental stream of thoughts. I understand your point. But I didn't feel comfortable waiting any longer. Northern society has been isolated since the Great War. The longer we wait to make contact, the more likely it'll be that contact brings trouble.

Maybe they're better without our help. The thought must have escaped Yellow's mind before she could contain it, because she quickly added, Would it really have made a difference if you'd waited a few more seasons? We waited this long.

I'm not talking about this right now, Blue replied sharply.

A silence passed where both kept their thoughts private. Then, with a sigh, Yellow conceded. Well, you're already there, so you might as well see this through. Just keep us updated. And remember, we can't send any help until spring. You're on your own now.

I knew the risks when I came here, you don't have to remind me.

Another sigh. …Ho-Oh's blessings go with you, Blue. I pray you don't need them.

There was a quiet pop sound as the two psychics severed the connection, then Blue was alone with his thoughts. And a massive headache. The throbbing pain only worsened as he let his worries loose, no longer shielding them from prying minds.

As much as he hated to admit it, Yellow was right. At least, partially right. They had enough issues to deal with just trying to keep society running without going and trying to find out if there were any settlements north of one of the world's deadliest dungeons.

After giving a quiet thanks to the indeedee, he slipped out of the tent and returned to his own, curling up in the grassy nest.

What were they doing here, trying to fold more pokemon into society? As it was, they were already struggling to keep all their pokemon fed and happy while still keeping peace with wildeners. Scavenging only went so far, and Yellow's capital punishment for violent offenders was a shoddy dressing for an infected wound. How could the creators be so cruel? To gift all pokemon with knowledge, but curse some to need to eat others to survive?

Oh, right. They let a war fester under them until it got so bad that they had to intervene. They'd always been careless. At least one of them was working to make amends, though. Not that it had done much good so far.

But that's why I'm really here, he tried to tell himself. If we're lucky, perhaps the pokemon up here have a better solution.

And if they didn't?

Blue curled into a tighter ball. If they didn't have answers… Well, he just hoped he hadn't come for nothing.

The forest was unnaturally silent. The thick canopy of leaves shrouded the depths of The Forest of Ancients. What little light made it to the ground dappled dirt paths and thick undergrowth. Giant trees stretched high into the sky, their boughs obscured by smaller ones. No wind blew through the depths. No leaves stirred. No pokemon stirred, either, but one exception.

Head low, a single stantler trudged down one of the twisting paths, occasionally swaying with exhaustion. His eyes seemed to hint at wariness. But he was far more weary. There were no other pokemon here. He'd made certain of that.

The path opened into a clearing, a dead end with the largest tree yet at its center. For just a second, he glanced back, tapping one hoof on the ground. Then he charged directly towards the tree.

And passed right through it.

He was in another clearing, this one empty. The stantler shook his head, then the illusion dissolved, leaving an exhausted-looking zoroark in his place. He looked around the clearing, blinked, then reached into his bag and pulled out a gnarled, twisted piece of wood that looked like had seen better days.

Maneth may have created these illusions himself, but he was too tired to remember the path forward.

Holding the guiding wand up, the tip lit up with energy, glowing brighter when he pointed it in a specific direction. He followed the light, letting it take him through layer after layer of distortion. Backups of backups of illusions. Until he finally reached the true center of the dungeon.

Mew's Temple had seen better days. Much of the once-polished stone had become overgrown with moss, ivy and all sorts of plant matter. He'd done what he could to preserve any art or text, as had the attendants who had come before him. But he was only one pokemon. Once, there had been many attendants, keeping the temple in pristine condition. But that had been well before his time. When the war was still fresh on everyone's minds. Before Arceus' order. Now it was only him. Him and…

"Uncle Maneth! You're back!"

From the yawning opening of the temple entrance, a sentret scurried out, scampering over boulders and down dilapidated steps. He ran a circle around Maneth, jumping into the zoroark's fluffy mane.

Seeing the tiny scrap returned a bit of energy to Maneth's eyes. "Whoa there, Junior! Give me some time to settle down. We can't all be full of energy like you." The sentret laughed, then sprang out of Maneth's hair to land in his arms. Maneth shifted so that he was holding the sentret in one arm, putting away the wand before giving him a scratch behind the ears. "What are you doing out here, squirt?"

"I came to see you. I learned a new move yesterday. Watch! Watch!"

The sentret sprang out of his arms. He frowned, concentrating as he raised himself onto his tail. Then he sprang forward, lashing out blindly with his claws before turning back. "Did you see? Did you like it? Progne called it 'fury swipes!' Isn't it cool?"

Maneth smiled with a level of tenderness he gave few others. The kid was growing up so fast. A far cry from the tiny scrap he'd frightened moons ago.

"Amazing work, Junior. Keep it up." He dropped down on all fours to give the sentret an affectionate nuzzle and a lick behind the ears. "Another season or two and you just might be ready to evolve." Junior's eyes widened, then he cheered and began running circles around the zoroark again. Maneth stood back up. "Now, I'd love to see more, but it'll have to be later. Right now I need to talk to Progne. Do you know where he is?"

Junior's smile faltered. He curled inward, flicking his tail anxiously. For heartbeats, Maneth stopped breathing, a pit forming in his stomach. His ears swiveled back and forth, as if searching for some unknown danger.

"They're inside," Junior finally said, voice quieter than before. "They've been no fun lately. Always worrying. They were very upset just before you came home…"

"Well, Progne has a lot to worry about," Maneth said, his tone serious. "I'll go check on him. Stay near the temple."

Before the sentret could say anything more, Maneth leapt over him, scrambling up the crumbling steps and into the old temple, hoping that his fear-scent would go unnoticed by Junior. He did not stop to admire the old drawings, or to crawl into his nest, a simple bed of moss and ferns situated near the entrance. All his weariness had left him.

He found his patron at the back of the temple, floating in front of an old, disused altar. Tiny pink forepaws clutched at the side of their head, and their tail hung limp, the tip twitching slightly. Maneth couldn't hear from where he stood, but he could tell they were muttering under their breath. Heart sinking, he rushed forward, but Progne didn't turn to acknowledge him.

It was terrifying, seeing Mew in this state.

Maneth opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it, letting out a slow breath. No matter how long he served the god, he never found it easier to comfort them. Slowly, he leaned in and pressed his forehead against Progne's back, and after a pause, the mew's tail brushed against Maneth's side.

For some time, they stayed there in silence. God and humble servant. Only the sound of Maneth shifting into a more comfortable position broke the quiet.

"I lost contact with Victini."

Maneth didn't react right away, caught off guard by the mew's broken silence. Then he stiffened, ears perking up as he turned to stare at Progne.

"Wait, Tinny? How? What happened? Was he still being chased?"

The mew took a long breath and lowered their paws, leaning against the edge of the altar as if to steady themselves. There was a vacant look in their eyes that put Maneth on edge. "He was. At least, he thought he was. Last night, he told me he thought he was still being followed. He cut the connection so he could focus on moving. I tried to reconnect with him after the sun rose but… nothing. He hasn't replied. What if something went wrong? Oh, stars, I should be out there looking for him but-"

Maneth rested a forepaw on Progne's back. "You're doing everything you can without drawing attention to yourself," the zoroark soothed. "I'm sure Tinny is fine. I mean, by the stars, Progne, he may not be as powerful as you, but he's still a god!"

Progne's response was dull, sullen. "Then why hasn't he answered me?"

The zoroark's paw shifted slightly, as if starting to hesitantly shift away. The subtle change told Progne all he needed to know. Maneth didn't have an answer to that. But then he pressed his paw back, firmer this time.

"Give him time. I know it's concerning but… you have so much to worry about. Focus on one thing at a time. If you don't hear from him soon, then you can worry."

Another long, slow breath escaped Progne as they tried to relax. "You… are probably right. I need to prioritize." They pushed off of the altar to free float, and Maneth's paw slipped away. "I guess I should ask you how your visits went, since they're… slightly related."

Pushing himself to his feet, Maneth stood at attention. The comforting moment had passed, and now they were back to business. "Red and Yellow are doing well. They said they would keep an eye out for trouble."

Progne tilted his head. "Only Red and Yellow? What about Blue?"

"Blue wasn't there. He has… pushed head to the next stage of Unity. I spoke with Mago, who told me he was headed north. By now, he's probably through the Great Misty Ravine."

"Already?" A subtle wave of psychic energy pulsed from Progne, disturbing the dust around them. Their tail twitched, though whether out of worry, agitation, or something else, Maneth wasn't sure. "Well… it's early, but I guess we'll just have to hope he can make contact with some of the others. Stars, finding Cresselia and getting her to contact me would be ideal. It would make assessing the state of northern society so much easier." They hesitated. "If Blue has already moved this far along, you might as well nudge the others on your next trip out. The sooner he has backup, the better."

Maneth hunched, drawing inward, and did his best to suppress a sigh. He only just got back, and Progne was already talking about his next trip. Didn't he deserve a break? Or at least a nap?

Then again… he owed his life to Progne. It wasn't right to be ungrateful. Pushing his exhaustion away, he stood back up. "Right. Understood. Do you have anything else you want me to do?"

"Hm? Oh! Yes, actually. Yesterday, about half a day before I lost contact with Victini, I briefly sensed Celebi's presence. Not in the same place, and not for long. But Celebi wouldn't let me establish a connection." Progne shook their head, drooping slightly. "Seems like that's becoming more or more common these days." They perked up again. "But that's besides the point. I need to know why Celebi showed up."

Maneth's hind claws dug into the stone, and his ears flattened for a few heartbeats before he realized what he was doing. He shook away any signs of frustration, but the negative feeling still seeped into his tone. "Let me guess, you want me to go check out the area he showed up in. And do damage control if necessary?"

"Correct. The sooner, the better."

"Understood. But…" Maneth sank to the ground, letting out a yawn. "Could I maybe rest for an evening first?"

The mew blinked, as if they hadn't even thought about the mortal need for sleep. Then, after a heartbeat of hesitation, they floated forward to brush their muzzle against Maneth's. "Of course you can. In fact, I think I'll join you. You have no idea how much I need to relax right now."

The flickering flame of a dying campfire lit up a forest clearing, creating a small, bright spot against the darkened trees. A small pot hung over the fire, though the food inside had long since been eaten. Two pokemon sat on a flat rock near the fire bed, watching the flames die. One was a treecko, a small bag with a badge pinned to it slung over her shoulder. The other was a charmander, her eyes half closed as exhaustion from the day's travels caught up with her. Still, she wore a content smile on her face as she leaned against the treecko. Each held a cup in their hands.

"Good job out there today," she mumbled, puffing out a contented sigh.

The treecko gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You too. I think we made great progress on our research. Do you think Blue will be proud?"

"I hope so. I hope he checks in with headquarters soon. You think he's finished crossing the dungeon yet?"

"Probably. I'm sure Mago can tell us when we get back to headquarters."

Treecko glanced down to her cup, watching the tiny ripples of water as she tilted it slightly. Then she smiled and lifted it. "Here's to another successful expedition!"

The charmander giggled and toasted, then the two settled into playful banter and laughter as the last of the fire died away. For once they could relax, their world at peace.

Then there was a loud crack in the distance, followed by rustling and the creaking of wood. Both girls went dead silent, the jovial atmosphere evaporating in an instant. Even the distant sounds of local wildeners had fallen to uncomfortable emptiness.

"What was that?" the treecko whispered.

"I don't know," the charmander replied in an equally hushed voice, cupping her claws over her tail flame as if it would make any difference. After a couple seconds, she tossed away her water and tried to hide it with her cup, with slightly more success. "We didn't catalog any large wildeners living in the area…"

The two went silent again. Though there were no other sounds as loud as the crack, there were certainly other noises. Raised voices, barked instructions, someone crashing through undergrowth.

The charmander glanced uncertainly at her partner. "Should we… check it out?"

"I think we have to," the treecko said as she stood up, hastily kicking dirt over their campfire. "It's our job as explorers to investigate anomalies." One hand went into her bag, readying an iron thorn. The charmander, meanwhile, pulled her tail in front of her, keeping the flame hidden as she kicked dirt to snuff out the last of the campfire.

For a while, they followed the sounds, aided only by moonlight and the bit of flame that escaped the charmander's cover. The voices soon grew louder, and before long, they began to see flickers of light ahead. The duo slowed down, moving at a cautious crawl as they approached the voices, some of which were now loud enough to hear.

"Hold it down!"

"Careful! You don't want to damage it too much!"

"Commander Zaid will be here soon! Hurry up!"

The treecko pointed to a nearby tree and began to climb it as quietly as she could, clinging to the trunk with sticky fingers while holding the thorn in her mouth. The charmander watched as her partner crept out onto a branch, guiding her forward with the wave of one hand. She moved forward past a few more trunks and then behind the shelter of a rock. Carefully, she peeked over the edge. They were finally close enough to see. There was a whole group of pokemon in a clearing ahead - at least, she thought they were pokemon. Some of them certainly looked like pokemon, like the honchkrow at the center. But others…

There was something… off about their appearance. Something wrong. There was one that looked vaguely avian, similar in size to a staravia. But it's body was geometric. Angular. Inorganic. Another one was similar to a wartortle, but much bigger. And then there were some that looked almost like pokemon they knew, but not quite right. Like a torchic that had two tufts of orange feathers on either side of their head, instead of the normal orange and yellow crest.

The nearest pokemon were facing away from them, forming a loose circle around the honchkrow, who seemed to be holding something down. Or… someone? One of the pokemon, a short-eared umbreon, stepped towards the center, holding a paw up for silence.

"You gave us a good chase for quite a while, didn't you?" The umbreon said. "But we finally caught you."

She looked around to the rest of the gathered pokemon. "Now that we've captured Victini, we are one step closer to our goals. Finding and acquiring the rest of our targets should be much easier with his powers."

"Like I would help the likes of you, you-" The insult was cut off by dull thud and a shrill cry. The charmander cupped her hands over her jaws, stifling the gasp that threatened to escape.

"That's right, keep quiet. We have ways of making you work."

The charmander's gaze tilted upwards into the tree. She could see anxious eyes looking down at her and knew her partner was on the same page. They needed to do something. But they had no hopes of winning this fight. And by the time they got to the nearest town and got help, these pokemon would be long gone.

Suddenly, Treecko's eyes widened. She opened her mouth to cry out an alarm, but before she could make a sound, something whizzed by overhead. It collided with the tree and then with a cacophonous boom, it exploded in a blaze of fire, shredding the tree and sending shards of burning wood in all directions. Charmander dropped to the ground, deafened. Something sharp struck her in the side, and she opened her mouth to scream, a plume of smoke escaping her jaws.

Before she could recover, someone picked her up from behind, grabbing her just beneath the arms. She let out a small cry. At least, she thought she did, but she couldn't hear it. Her eyes darted to the side, and she saw the treecko on the ground, burnt and unmoving. She had to be alive, right? But Charmander couldn't tell.

Her hearing was starting to return now, and she caught snippets of rough, angry voices.

"… You bring… forest why don't you?" one unfamiliar voice said. "Was that really necessary?

Someone behind her, though not the one that was holding her, replied, "You have no right to question me. It was ab-so-lutely necessary. The Lady ordered no witnesses. Staying hidden is a necessity. I am simply carrying out her demand."

"But sir, people are going to notice this, don't you think? Every feral in this forest would have heard that!"

"And they'd know better than to come here. Are you questioning your commander?"

"N-no, of course not, sir!"

"Then get to it."

Before anything could happen, however, the honchkrow let out a startled cry. Victini struggled to his feet, wreathed in flames. In some last-ditch effort, he threw the honchkrow off and charged towards the pokemon holding the charmander, colliding with them. She was thrown from the pokemon's grip, tumbling to a heap a few steps away.

Victini bounced to the ground nearby, landing unsteadily on his feet. He screeched an unintelligible warning to the charmander, flinging her away from the attackers using psychic energy and taking off on his own. She recovered quickly this time, scrambling forward on all fours with wide, terrified eyes.

She made it out of the clearing before catching a glimpse of something in the corner of her eye.

A blur of movement. She felt pain at her neck, then something sticky running down her scales. She collapsed, thrashing, blood pooling around her.

No no no, not here! I have to get back! Have to… warn…

She could still hear the voices far away, muffled as if she were underwater. She swore she heard something about a presence. A small creature, barely more than a blur of white and orange, passed in front of her vision. She heard the victini screaming before his screams suddenly cut off. For a moment, she swore she saw the flickering vision of a tree, leafless and decaying. And then, even that faded, and her world went dark.

A/N: Next update coming early 2022, the rest of the year is being used to write out the remainder of another work. Special thanks to Fobbie, Bench, ShadowVulpi, and love for looking over parts or all of this chapter.