DESPERATE UNION
Part 1

Rise, you that slumber
Stir, and wake your brothers also
For your mind is empty
And by this your heart is silenced

Walk, you that stand
As you have believed, also do
For you can't hear your heart
And so your courage withers too


Three days later…

The winds of the Far North blew strong outside his tent, howling like circling wolves. The wooden beams anchoring the tent in place creaked and groaned with every press and tug of the gales. The commander stood hunched over the sand table, his pointed ears folded flat underneath a thick cotton hood, his short, stubby arms crossed over his chest—hugging himself as he shivered. The dim and quivering light of a candle lit an expressionless face, and betrayed a faint, faded turquoise color in his beady eyes. He studied the black and white stones on the sand table, each one representing an element of his strategy. Most were made of black slate, and marked the encampments of his regiments. Others were hewn of white marble, and represented the enemy: the Federation.

He had been staring at them—staring through them—since the day began. Sometimes, they would drift out of focus, reminding him that even his Keen Eye was subject to fatigue.

A sudden clatter. He blinked. Small iron tacks were stuck into the candle to his right at regular intervals to help tell the time in the long winter nights. One had just fallen out of the melting wax, marking the passage of about 15 minutes since the last one fell. With each tack that fell, the enemy drew closer to the annihilation that he had so meticulously prepared.

The messenger should be reporting any minute now.

Sure enough, the dedenne entered the tent. A cold draft filled the room and pressed against his cheeks.

"Commander, Meowstic's detachment has just reported in."

"I'm listening."

"The Federation has encamped at Articuno's Grip, as we anticipated. He has concealed his troops on the slopes above them, and awaits your orders, sir."

"Are they ready to strike?"

"On your command."

He left hovering over the sand table, pacing past the dedenne to catch a glimpse of the weather outside through the entrance. Poking his head out into the blizzard, he squinted as the icy wind bit at his flat, furred face, and numbed his paws. With a deep breath, he chilled his lungs, perhaps trying to feel the warmth of his heart again. The hour had come. All he had to say was "go", and the enemy would be wiped off the face of the earth. It was… too easy.

It was too callous.

"I can say one word, and kill dozens," he remarked. "No pokemon should have that kind of power."

The dedenne watched him in silence. Perhaps it was the same silence the Federation had when the dungeons began to spread, the silence that paid no heed to the starving of a thousand, that said nothing when the bandits abounded—the whole North at their mercy. Eight years of strife, and nothing but silence from the Federation. No seed from them to sow, but wind.

Another bone-chilling gust. He winced. This was wind, but soon, the Federation would reap the whirlwind.

He ducked back inside, shaking off the snow that had accumulated on his hood. "Don't you find it odd, Dedenne? The world is dying, and so we must kill."

"You have permission to speak freely."

The messenger broke eye contact, looking away at the ground. At last, a reaction. "Shiver Village has the last Blast Seed plantations in the north, sir," he said. "If the Federation denies us these resources, how can we continue to defend our homes? I judge it necessary."

He hummed, returning to his post overlooking the sand table. "Do you—Do we… really believe that? Or are we just too afraid to think?" He gritted his teeth. "Dedenne… Do the ends truly justify the means?"

"I…I'm not much of a philosopher, sir."

A scoff. "A philosopher will not give me an answer."

If the wind were not howling, there would be silence for a few pensive moments.

"…If you ask me, sir, if our future is at stake…then only our children will know for sure."

The general nodded solemnly. With a huff, he slackly punched down into the sand with his paw, the grits making a wave on impact, displacing the stones he had carefully positioned. All this planning for an act of resignation.

"I hope our children can forgive us…" he murmured, unable to be heard above the howling wind. "The time has come. Above has forced our hand."

He then turned his head to face the messenger, and nodded. "Destroy them."

With a final salute, the dedenne left swiftly, not soon enough to the door.

Now alone, he hung his head. He turned his eyes to the candle beside him, it's fragile and defiant flames—tossed about by every wafting breeze of fate—coming into sharp focus in his vision.

When will you learn despair?

Why do you burn, when you know the darkness always wins?

Two tacks remained stuck in its side. Just a little more than 30 minutes of wax until the fire died out. 30 minutes until the Exploration Team Federation would be no more.

And as the furret shivered, he wished—so much—that candles didn't burn.


Quincy stared blankly into the watchfire, leaning against a large stone, letting the snow accumulate on his fur. He was the only waking soul at their outpost. Everyone else—Porter, and another team from Verdant Guild—slept away their sentry duty.

It was the third day of traveling, and two days since they last saw the sun. A heavy snow had eclipsed the sky entire. Cephas had pushed them hard, and the previous night had passed without rest.

The camp had settled in a valley for the night, a place known as Articuno's Grip. A place flanked on either side by the steep, snow-plump slopes of the mountains that separated the Far North—and their Coalition adversaries—from the rest of the continent.

As he sat in the snow, the licks of flame periodically fading in and out of focus as his body wrestled for rest, the gentle snores of the few around him marking the passage of time, he felt… frustrated.

Shiver Village is only two days travelling from Variant Suns, and yet they still had one more day of walking ahead of them. Wasn't this a race against time—to get there before the Coalition did?

They shouldn't have left with as many as they did. Cobalt Guild alone would have been sufficient.

But Cephas insisted every guild in Variant Suns partake, and here they all were. The fifty-some innocent pokemon in Shiver Village were soon to have their homes destroyed, and yet, everyone shrugs, and complains about rations? Hasn't this famine been ongoing for years?

Why do we sleep when we should wake? Why do we walk when we should run? Why do we mutter when we should cry aloud? Why are we distracted when we should focus?

Why does no one truly care?

As the thought faded away, he began to realize his own eyes grew heavy, like gates of iron. The voice of his flesh tempted him, "Sleep, sleep." But he had spent a whole past life asleep in the dungeons. His spirit wouldn't dare.

He shook himself awake. An eighth-inch of snow had built up on his winter coat. All of it was flung to the gentle wind, and for a second, he disappeared in the cloud of flakes. Feeling his badge's weight shift in his tightly bundled scarf, he reminded himself that his mission was greater than his rest.

Off in the distance, he heard Cephas shouting from the main camp. The skarmory was trying to organize a meeting. He doesn't know when to stop, does he? he thought. At least someone cared.

He sat up to check on the surroundings, trying at least to not neglect his duties as watchman.

The ongoing snow had blocked out the moon and the stars. The only lights he could see with came from the watchfires, but even then, he could never see anything beyond the tree line. Porter's Keen Eye would be much better suited for this job. Too bad he was fast asleep. What a bum…

…It was a teasing thought, of course, but he couldn't help but feel his own humor ring hollow in his gut. Porter hadn't talked with him much since the expedition left a few days ago. Beyond what speech was necessary to carry out their respective responsibilities, they hadn't spoken at all. The whole thing made him anxious. The furret didn't usually hold grudges from an argument, and they were always back to shoulder-punching terms the next morning—no apologies required.

This was different, and it made his stomach churn. It was a feeling he so despised. He felt guilty.

With a huff, he slouched back into his seat, facing the campfire. Keeping watch was pointless.

Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his sketchbook. Almost every page was filled —save for a few at the very end.

How old was this book? It felt like ages since the day Porter gave it to him.

And what was there to show for it? Only sketches of trees and houses and horizons. He had heard stories of explorers perishing in the dungeons, having written chilling accounts of their demise in their journals: getting lost, starvation, poisoning, bleeding out… dungeon madness. He shivered.

Would their fate be his? Who would tell his story, and testify of his bones?

He turned to the next blank page, and setting a claw against the page, he began to write. It was the only thing he could do to take his mind off the dark woods, some part of him believing his demise lurked amongst them.

"What are you drawing?" Porter's voice. A welcome sound.

"Journaling, actually," Quincy replied.

"That's new." After a brief stretch, Porter laid back down, resting his chin on top of folded paws. "What about?"

"Your snore. I even made this whole metaphor comparing it to flatulence…They do call it a metaphor, right?"

"Metaphor: a comparison between two things without using 'like' or 'as'," Porter recalled mechanically. At least his school days were good for something.

"Ah, gotcha. So instead of 'his snoring sounds like flatulence', I should say 'his snoring is flatulence'."

"Yep," he said, the vapor from his sigh condensing in the cold air. "Just like that."

Quincy gave a satisfied hum as he scratched in the modification with a claw.

"…Particularly good metaphors also don't use 'flatulence'," Porter remarked.

"Now, now, Porter. I'm still learning! I've only been in my right mind for six years. Baby steps."

Genuine or not, they shared a moment of hushed laughter. Soon, it died away, and the gentle crackling of the fire again prevailed. How fleeting these moments were, Quincy thought. Indeed, good things never last. Not anymore.

In the silence, they let the fire entrance them. The flakes of snow which had been falling for days drew whirls and whorls around it. The burning coals sent up embers to join them, and together they danced a deadly dance: fire and ice, darkness and light, fear and power, until flake and ember parted ways, or they perished each in mutual annihilation.

"…I'm sorry I got angry at you," Quincy said.

His words were sudden. Porter did not expect them. "Hmm? When?"

He scratched his neck sheepishly. Did he really have to go into detail? "You know—a few days ago…before we left Variant Suns."

"Oh…"

Quincy waited anxiously for other words.

He's someone else's son, the thought echoed. Porter shook his head. "Quincy, you don't have to apologize. You have conviction, and that's more than can be said for a lot of people. In these six years, you've come a long way. You did good…"

A short pause.

"…my friend."

The hesitation confused him. "What?"

To this, Porter didn't seem to respond. Perhaps he had spoken to quickly. He searched his mind, searching for something else to say.

He was too slow.

Suddenly—a loud boom. It echoed in their chests. It came from somewhere beyond.

Somewhere in the dark woods.

Their eyes shoot up, pupils dilating to peer into the black, ears twitching frantically for more sound. The others began stirring from their slumber.

"What was that?" Porter asked quickly, ears tall and eyes wide. "—Did you hear that?"

"Blast Seed!" Quincy replied, peering at angles into the darkness. "Unmistakable!"

"Who's throwing Blast Seeds at this time?"

The kricketune from the other team was the first to awake. "Hey, what was that?"

Followed closely by the rest.

"Did you hear that?"

"What's going on?"

Everyone's eyes were now wide, wide open. Quincy didn't get the chance to repeat himself.

A sound like cracking glass, and a blinding light consumed them. They wince and cry out as shards of intense, white light pierced their eyes. Porter buried his face in his paws, but the piercing glares seemed to shine right through his very bones.

He groaned in pain, letting himself fall to the ground. In his blindness, he heard a whooshing sound above them, followed immediately by a mild breeze, stirring cold-induced goosebumps on Porter's hide as it washed over him.

In the same second, a brief and terrified yelp that was silenced as instantly as it was voiced.

He felt more goosebumps rise on his neck, but they were not from the cold. They were in terror.

"We're under attack!"

"From where? From where?!"

"Floatzel! Where are you?!"

Porter stumbled aimlessly, vigorously rubbing his eyes, trying desperately to reclaim sections of his blackened vision.

Another outcry. The sound of a falling body.

"Quincy!" Porter shouted in his last known direction, his eyes still unable to adjust. "Quincy, are you there? Say something!"

"I'm here! I'm here!" The quilava's voice sounded behind him.

He whipped his head back around, stumbling back towards him. "Smokescreen!" he cried. "They can see us, but we can't see them!"

He was awash with stimuli, no longer able to discern the sounds around him with accuracy. Was that another Blast Seed? Whose voice was that?

Porter tripped over something soft, faceplanting into the snow. His half-second prayer pleaded for it to not be a body. His limbs flailed in a blind panic, scrambling him away from whatever he just touched.

Why was he taking so long?

"Quincy! Now! NOW!" His voice cracked.

"Give me a second! You don't have to kick me!"

The sound of billowing smoke. Quincy dispensed it in all directions, not knowing where their assailants were. Porter kept his head low to not breathe it in, his eyes at last beginning to readjust as the black cloud filled the air around them.

He saw through blurred and teary lenses the thick black cloud enveloping the area. He rushed to Quincy's flank just before the veil was set.

A horrid silence prevailed. Quincy's head swung wildly from side to side, anticipating Coalition pokemon to emerge from the dark clouds at any moment.

"Wh… What do we do now?" he murmured.

"What do you have in your bag?" Porter asked urgently, "Do we still have Blast Seeds?"

"No... But we've got four Iron Thorns left."

He shook his head. Dread started to build in his gut. "We can't do much with that… Don't you have anything else?"

"Don't you have anything else?" Quincy shot back.

The smoke was beginning to clear. Quincy took a moment to pump out another Smokescreen.

"We can't keep this up forever," the quilava said anxiously. "We're sitting slowpoke here."

"I got disoriented… Which direction is the main camp? That'll be our best shot."

Quincy's head swiveled back and forth, but he was unable to make sense of his surroundings.

"I…"

"Quincy."

"I don't know, okay!"

A voice called out from the smoke. "Fletcher! Fletcher, where—" —and was suddenly silenced.

They lowered their voices. "I don't know…"

Porter muttered a curse.

"Can you Dig us out of here?"

"If we dig a foxhole, they'll just blast us out. If we dig away, we could pop out in the middle of the enemy… or they could Earthquake us."

"Or we'll find the camp!"

"Shh!"

Quincy's ears flattened at the rebuke. "Or we'll find the camp… Way I see it, we take the chance, or we die."

"…You're right."

"So? Let's do—"

A pair of steel talons plunged down through the smoke, catching Quincy by the neck, and pinning him to the ground with the momentum of the dive, his sentence extinguished like candlelight.

Porter was too stunned to react in time. Before he knew it, the glowing feathers of a Steel Wing sat at his neck. He recognized the skarmory instantly.

"…Cephas…"

Any other pokemon would have smirked, having bested two exploration teams alone. The skarmory did not so much as grin—not the smallest bit.

They stood there for some tense moments as the smoke cleared, revealing all the others tied up with webbing, and a smug ariados not far from Cephas' side.

His voice was subdued, but he made sure all could hear: "If I was the Coalition, you would all be dead," he said.

The snow didn't seem so chilling now.

"Thank you, Ariados," he said to the other, dismissing him. Porter imagined a wide grin between his mandibles as he left.

"Eyes open, gentlemen," he said to the rest—some still struggling against their String Shot bindings. "Your shift is only halfway over."

He took his bladed wings from Porter's throat and tucked them at his side. He stepped off Quincy's neck, letting him gasp for breath.

"You must be Lieutenant Furret Porter, Team Cobalt 93."

He gulped covertly under Cephas' piercing glare.

"That's me," he replied.

"We're holding a meeting. Attendance is mandatory for officers. Follow me."


There was about a hundred yards back to the main camp. They walked in silence for a third of the way, Porter trailing behind him. Cephas' longer legs were better suited to the deep snow, and it didn't look like he had any qualms using them. Porter found himself leaping on occasion so as not to fall too far behind. He found a good rhythm for himself. Five paces, one leap; five paces, one leap. Something about it was oddly therapeutic, and he found it helpful to walk off the adrenaline still coursing through his veins.

Suddenly, Cephas spoke, catching him daydreaming.

"So you're the 93rd team to ever register at Cobalt Guild. That's pretty early on compared to the others."

"I guess so," he replied.

"My understanding is that that's only supposed to be a temporary name. One for the bookkeeper."

"Yeah…" he chuckled sheepishly, taking another leap to catch up. "We never really got around to it for a few years. When we did, well… 'Spitfire' was already taken."

"The quilava's suggestion?"

Porter smiled a bit, though Cephas never saw. "Mine. Quincy spent most of his life as a dungeon crawler. I thought it'd be nice to commemorate his rescue."

"Interesting—Reformed typically have a hard time integrating into society," the skarmory said, almost to himself. "I guess that's why he stayed when the others deserted."

Oh. Them…

Porter sighed. Glancing to the side, he caught a glimpse of the moonlit snow floating gently to the ground—and the darkness of the pine forest beyond.

"…Maybe," he said.

"How long have you been exploring?"

It took him a moment to realize Cephas had asked him a question.

"Uh… eleven years, sir."

"Don't address me as 'sir'," he responded curtly. "I'm just an advisor from the Exploration Team Federation. I'm more politician than soldier."

Porter frowned. "Soldier?"

Cephas hesitated a bit, perhaps realizing he had said too much. After a long pause, he replied, "Yes."

The honest answer made him chuckle incredulously. "I'm sorry, I thought war was a human thing?"

Cephas also laughed. "It is, isn't it?"

They continued on in silence. Before Porter spoke up again.

"How was Callum demoted then?"

"The unfeazant? Raichu's old assistant?" Cephas gave a small chuckle—almost like a scoff. "A lot of our duties overlapped. He thought I was trying to take his job. He opposed me at every turn—bastard will argue with you over the color of a wooloo's fur… It's white, by the way."

He stopped their walking briefly to speak to him more closely. By now, they were halfway to the main camp.

"A lesson in leadership for you, Porter: get rid of the shiny wooloo."

He started walking again. Porter resumed his walk-and-leap pattern.

He then finally provided an answer. "It was Raichu who signed the papers. I was the one who recommended it."

He extended a wing in a hand-wavy gesture. "Saying 'Raichu demoted Unfeazant' is just political semantics for saying 'I demoted Unfeazant'."

He turned to eye Porter over his shoulder. "I hope...this doesn't offend you?"

He shook his head. He had to. "No."

They kept walking. Another few paces, and Cephas gave another sudden remark.

"Guildmaster Raichu speaks highly of you." he said. "It's why I accepted his request to make you Cobalt Guild's lieutenant."

He chuckled. "In a way, it's you who replaced Unfeazant. Not me."

Porter was a bit uncomfortable now. "I see…"

The skarmory nodded. "Yes, Raichu sees a great explorer in you. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure why. You seem… unmotivated."

Porter, already mostly silent, fell quieter still.

"Do you even know the names of those under your command?"

He didn't. He did not answer.

Cephas gave an intrigued hum. "Guildmasters and team leaders have led our guilds since the Exploration Team Federation's founding. It was simpler back then, and it worked. The Heroes of Time saved our world from paralysis under this system, Above grant them rest… But times aren't simple anymore. The Coalition has taught us that… we need stronger unity amongst ourselves."

Cephas glanced over his shoulder again.

"What makes your position special, Lieutenant, is that your rank is one of the few that holds authority over pokemon from multiple guilds. You're meant to be that unity— to give us loyalties beyond our guild banners… Am I clear?"

He nodded sheepishly. "Yes, Skarmory."

Cephas only sighed, hanging his head just a little. "Sometimes I look at us, and I am truly amazed. Leaders of teams, leaders of guilds, even inter-guild leaders like yourself. So many leaders, so little leadership… I fear ours is the last generation of explorers…"

As they approached the main tent where the meeting was being held, they were approached by a team of three. An aggron followed closely by a flareon and wartortle at his flanks. Their heavy winter scarves bore colors and emblems he did not recognize.

"Rescuers," Cephas greeted shortly.

"Explorer," their leader responded in kind, perhaps intentionally ignoring Porter's presence.

Cephas eyed each of them. Each stared intently back at him. "What is the meaning of this?"

The wartortle on his left spoke first. "You Federation types love to brush us aside," she said. "You snub your snouts at us daily… And now you're all going off into your own little corner to discuss the future of the expedition."

"An expedition we're also a part of," the aggron finished.

Cephas tried to push past them. "I don't have time for this—"

The flareon blocked his path, huffing smoke, making sure he understood who had the type advantage.

"You should know, Cephas," the aggron began, "We represent a dozen more of our disgruntled fellow teams. If you don't let us participate in this meeting, do not expect us to be here in the morning."

The skarmory grumbled. "Furret, " he said. "Go on inside. I'll chat with them."

They let him past. He kept his eyes low as he walked inside.


When he entered, he was immediately struck with a welcome heat. He knew the tent was large from the outside, but without the harrying snow to obscure its true size, Porter was startled by just how spacious it really was. He counted maybe 30 pokemon in all, most he recognized as team leaders from rival guilds, and others he knew personally. He didn't have time to greet them though. Just then, Guildmaster Raichu flagged him down.

"Furret!" He greeted. "Glad you could make it. How do I look?" Raichu posed with a proud chin, his vivid blue scarf and badge shone brightly about his neck.

"Prepared as always, Guildmaster," Porter replied.

He relaxed his posture. "I hope so," he said—somewhat under his breath. His eyes seemed to shift anxiously.

Perceiving this, he tilted his head inquisitively. "What do you have to worry about? You've led expeditions before."

The raichu took a pensive breath. "That was different, Porter. They're leading too."

"Sorry—who?"

"Why, them." Raichu gestured begrudgingly across the tent. Porter's eyes narrowed to peer through the mass of other pokemon. In the distance, he spied the incineroar and torterra Raichu was referring to. "The other guildmasters. Especially that fossil, Torterra. Even his name has been lost to history."

"Hardly, guildmaster. It's…Tantalus, I think?"

Raichu was unimpressed. "You're supposed to be backing me up here," he grumbled. "I'm the most junior amongst them, and I need to prove myself…"

Porter was silent as the raichu cleared his throat.

"You… you remember what Samurott was like, right?"

The question caught him off-guard. "Rifka? That was a long time ago…"

"You were around when he was in charge, though. Do you still remember what it was like? Am I measuring up to his… legacy, as it were?"

Porter laughed sheepishly. "You're definitely the nicer one, guildmaster."

"Great," he said flatly, seeming to Leer at his counterparts on the other side. "I'll be so nice as to earn their respect."

"Heh…"

The laugh seemed to ring hollow in his throat, as if he were supposed to say something more, something else.

It reminded him of the day before they left. The moment he was to resign was the very same one he was promoted. How close he was to coming home! And here he was, the furthest he'd ever been.

"Um… Guildmaster…"

Raichu's eyes were still fixated on the opposite side of the room. He wondered if he had heard him.

"Raichu…"

His name caught his attention. At last, he turned to face him.

"I need to talk to you about something," Porter said.

The guildmaster's head tilted somewhat in intrigue. "You do? Is something wrong?"

Just then, Cephas' voice rang loud above the voice of the crowd. The meeting was about to start.

"We'll discuss later," Raichu said, whispering in his ear. "Follow me. Apparently, we have assigned seats." The guildmaster rolled his eyes, and started for their place.

He felt cheated. He nodded. He followed. They gathered in rows of tables, loose and random papers littered the tabletops in between half-eaten plates of now-cold rice and stale berries.

Cephas stood from his seat somewhere in a far corner of the tent, and waited. Hushes starting from the guildmasters quieted the tent in a wave.

He began to speak.

"As you know, in our haste to get to Shiver Village before the Coalition, we left half of our supplies in Variant Suns. Over the days, we've had the supplies we need regularly flown in thanks to the help of Rescue Teams."

Porter heard some scattered groans at their mention. He saw him give the slightest of nods towards some place in the back. Glancing over, he saw the rescue team that had confronted them before, watching silently.

"Unfortunately, this morning's food shipment will be the last."

There was a brief moment of silence as the tired ears in the tent registered what they had just heard. A wave of hushed murmurings erupted. Guildmaster Incineroar stood from his bench, and was about to speak, but Cephas held up a wing, quieting the room. He motioned towards someone in the audience. This talonflame joined him in standing.

"I know this is concerning," he said. "Talonflame here of Team SFE was amongst the last supply group. She will brief you all on what happened. Talonflame?"

The talonflame nodded. Cephas sat down, giving her the floor. "Yesterday, the storage warehouse was attacked by Coalition sympathizers," she said.

Starting with a gasp, the tent erupts once more in thinly hushed murmurings.

She continued to speak over them. "I was there. Though unskilled, the attackers were many and ferocious. Sheriff Walter died of his wounds just before we left."

The tent lost all order.

"Walter? The bisharp?"

"This is an outrage!"

"What happened?"

"How could they do this?!"

"She said there were a lot of them."

"Something must be done!"

Cephas stood once more, barely managed to contain the riotous clamor. "Talonflame, how many supplies are left at Variant Suns?"

"We delivered the last of them this morning," she replied. "The rest were either stolen or destroyed."

Cephas picked things up from there. "As you can see fellows, our situation is quite grim. Having no official rank myself, I've called this meeting to determine how we should react to our new circumstances. Discuss amongst yourselves. We will reconvene once each guild has reached a recommendation."

As soon as his sentence ended, the tent once more swelled with voices. Porter couldn't make out a single complete thought out of the multitude of them all. He felt very small.

"Walter was a good man," Raichu said, looking down at his paws clasped together.

Porter nodded. "He was."

And again, his words rang hollow. His heart turned within him. Say the words! Say them! And he would. He wouldn't let fate cheat him thrice.

No. This time, the choice was his. It always was.

"Guildmaster Raichu! I resign!"

He blinked, astonished. The outburst drew some eyes from nearby pokemon. "... Porter… What…?"

Porter's eyes fell. He sighed. "I resign."

Raichu's eyes shifted back and forth, acutely aware of those that watched them. "Porter, I assure you our situation is not hopeless—"

"I have been thinking about this for a long time, sir. Even before you promoted me, sir. I'm getting old. Ainsley needs me home..."

Raichu gawked. Porter held his head low, not bothering to see what expression he wore.

"Guildmaster… Half of my team deserted before the expedition even began. If I am not fit to lead Cobalt 93, then I am not fit to be your lieutenant. I'm sorry, sir. I resign."

Raichu sat there a moment, staring at him. Porter said nothing else. Indeed, there was nothing more to say. Eventually, Raichu's eyes shifted to meet those staring at them. One by one, they turned each back to their own business.

But one pair of eyes did not turn. Cephas watched intently, keenly observing them from the opposite side of the tent.

When he finally moved again, he turned to rest his wrists on the table, twiddling his thumbs.

"Do you love your wife?" he asked, staring down at his paws.

"M—" he didn't expect the words to catch in his throat. "... More than she knows."

"What about Quincy?"

What about Quincy? The question made him wince a little. He swallowed the lump in his throat.

Say it, he thought. It's true. "... He's someone else's son."

Raichu turned to him again. As he looked down at him, he thought he could see Porter's eyes glisten faintly in their sockets. He had never seen him struggle to maintain his composure before. Truly, the whole earth groans, and the love of many has gone cold.

He sighed, but not loud enough to hear. "Very well, Porter… I accept your resignation. You are relieved of your apprenticeship."

Porter bowed his forehead to the ground—a final salute, suddenly becoming aware of his unsteady knees. "Thank you, Guildmaster."

He stood bipedal to undo his scarf, badge, and pin, but raising a paw, Raichu stopped him.

"I have no use for your equipment," he said—a hint of bitterness rising in his voice. "Especially those so well-worn. Take them, and bury them as you would a teammate. You have died to this life now. Would a ghost leave its body in the hands of strangers if it had the choice?"

Strangers? "Guildmaster—"

"I'm not your guildmaster," he said harshly. "Go your way. I don't know you."

He swallowed. Was that really it?

Steeling himself, he started towards the exit, its fabric doors tantalizingly close. He made his way past pokemon he knew, not bothering to say anything to them. His steps were urged on by a sense that he ought to be running, as though to escape some kind of trap. But he didn't run. He was walking when he heard Cephas' voice.

"Where are you going?" the skarmory called.

He bolted.

"Stop!"

The entrance flung open as he flew past, launching himself into the cold once again.

A hailstorm had started.

A fierce wind rebuked him as he entered the storm, almost pushing him over. The beams of the tent groaned at the squall. But he would not be moved.

Flinching at the stones which buffeted him, he dared not stop running. The snow was deep, but he leapt. He didn't know where he was going, but he just wanted to go.

He wanted to believe he was free.