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Barely hiding his boredom, Octillery quashes the urge to twiddle his tentacles and looks at his 'teammates'.

He, Ninetales, Grovyle, and the newcomer, Corvisquire, all stand in a loose circle in the moonlight streaming in from the hotel room window. In the beds just a few yards away, both Lee and Brendan are deep in slumber.

Since Corvisquire has joined the merry band of misfits just a few hours ago, tensions have been high, only just now beginning to loosen after Ninetales quietly called for a meeting. She and Grovyle have brought the raven up to speed on what he's missed since his abandonment weeks ago, while Octillery has been content to stand back and observe.

As interesting an experience as being a 'trained' pokemon is, Octillery's team is proving tiresome, and the returning Corvisquire is no exception. The raven tersely introduced himself to Octillery, then explained the reason for his absence to the team, much to Grovyle and Ninetales' poorly hidden sympathy. Octillery himself doesn't understand the issue. Death happens. Why be so upset over it? Especially when one lacks control of the situation? Octillery wanted to shake his head. Had Corvisquire saved his old trainer, it sounds as if the boy would have been on borrowed time anyway. Better he have died so that time and resources aren't wasted on him. Octillery did not voice his complaint aloud, knowing it would earn him no favor.

His eyes turn to Ninetales and Grovyle, then over to the bed where Lee and Young Shinx lay asleep. The man and cub are utterly dead to the world, convinced of their security.

Grovyle might be his favorite by a wide margin. The Grass-type knows the value of not opening one's mouth when there is nothing of import to say, and when coaxed, is surprisingly shrewd when it comes to games of the mind. Octillery has, dare he say, enjoyed being around this one? Novel, but like all novelties, Octillery expects it to wear off.

Young Shinx, he cannot say, but considering her origins and favored place in the lap of Lee, Octillery expects her to grow into something placid and spoiled. She will persist on her trainer's good graces, regardless of her own ability. How distasteful.

And Ninetales…

Octillery dares not let his eyes linger on the fox, lest he attract one of her seemingly random fits of ire.

Ninetales is dangerous. The unnatural joining of minds has addled her in Octillery's eyes. The brain is but meat between the ears, and meat can suffocate. It can crush. It can die. Meat has limits. To ask a flesh bound pokemon to comprehend the true thoughts of a being as illogical and unsound as a human? That is a task best left unfulfilled, yet Ninetales does so daily and suffers for it.

The fox pokemon is far from the strongest pokemon Octillery has ever seen. She is not even close, as through the years, Octillery has witnessed actual monsters in action, the sort bested only by Legends. The Valley of Steel played home to some such pokemon, ones who could reshape the landscape in their fury. Images flash before his eyes, moments of peril where only his mind and skill carried him to safety. There was no fighting back in those cases, only fleeing and plotting for a better method of engagement.

No, Ninetales is not the strongest, but her unpredictability might make her the most dangerous he's ever met. She is ill, so he will watch her carefully.

His own distaste of them aside, Octillery's teammates present an intriguing puzzle. What, exactly, drives their loyalty to Lee Henson? Octillery knows his own loyalty and theirs are not the same. Lee Henson provides him food, security, and the chance to use his hard-earned skills and honed mind, but at the cost of obeying one less intelligent than he. If not for Lee being a bit sharper than the average human with a few interesting insights, Octillery would have more heavily considered declining the membership extended to him.

Most pokemon—keyword being most—grow their skills and might at an accelerated pace under a human's tutelage. A human provides security and resources to hone one's talents in a comfortable manner, one free of the vicious cycle of the wild. However, the pokemon around Octillery are not most pokemon. Be it chance or a concerted effort from Lee, the octopus pokemon's peers are a cut above the rest.

What defines them? What drives them? Why bend the knee?

Corvisquire carries himself with a horrid savagery held down fast by chains of civility, and it's plain after only a few hours of acquaintance. Under the flowery words and beak raised in superiority is a beast, one that would rend a foe down to the bone simply for the pleasure of bloodshed. A beast of decadence is he, who would slay another solely for entertainment. And yet, he bows his head low to Lee Henson, returning to his bonds freely.

Grovyle is one who would thrive regardless of any circumstances, and one Octillery would be wary of in the wild. His skill is matched only by his drive to rise to new heights, to shed any and all weakness. His prowess is the sort wielded by alphas who sire a dynasty, filled with offspring who spread their own will with the power gifted by their sire. Every cut is clean, every movement is sure, and every iota of his being is dedicated not to himself, but to a human.

Ninetales… Octillery does not even know where to begin with such a wreck of a pokemon. In no world can the mind of a human overwhelm a pokemon, so what Lee has done to have such a dogmatic defender is beyond Octillery. They treat one another in the same manner mammals might their mate in the height of spring, yet they refuse to copulate. It's such a contradictory mess that Octillery can only chalk it up to some form of cognitive damage.

Again, he wonders. What defines them? What drives them? Why bend the knee?

If there are truly defining moments in life, then they must be the moments of peril, Octillery thinks. When one faces their own mortality, their eyes are forced open, be they closed in ignorance or arrogance. He would know, as his earliest memories were of bloodshed. He remembers these moments vividly.

As a common Remoraid years ago, just two weeks hatched, he and his school of fellow fish fled up the mouth of a river from the open ocean, running from a Tentacruel and his cohort of Tentacool. Primal terror compelled them up the waterway and against the current, as many were already lost to the stinging tentacles of their predators. The ones who tried to fight fell the fastest.

This proved to be a blunder. The shallow water forced the Tentacool to abate in their pursuit, but the school swam into the territory of a river Feraligatr and her progeny.

A score of crocodilian pokemon dove into the water at their mother's instruction, surrounding the school. Gnashing jaws nearly claimed Octillery's life there, but in his peril, his mind whirled, his heart hammered, and the drive to survive took hold. The panic and terror, both within himself and reflected in the eyes of the school, laid a numbing cloak over him that would never again rise, and with the numbness came beautiful clarity. At that moment, he recalled how hard he must fight against the force of any water spewed from his maw. A plan neatly clicked into place amid that moment of lucidity.

Swimming to the surface, he aimed downward, and fired off a Water Gun, propelling him out of the churning water and onto land. He landed facing the river, treating him to the sight of the chaos within. His gills burned and stung, but he took another breath and fired Water Gun again. And again. And again. Until he heard no more splashing or snapping jaws.

To this day, he isn't sure how far his flight carried him, but when he flopped back into the river and took in deep breaths of blessedly clear water, he was alone. No other Remoraid had escaped, and a lone Remoraid is little more than a morsel to larger pokemon. The dire situation revealed itself to him in a flash of terrible realization, like a clap of thunder and blinding lightning.

He was weak.

With no fellows to cover him in the veil of the many and utterly lacking as an individual, an ignoble end awaited… He could not outrun or overpower his foes, but the numbness once more soothed him.

His mind had won that day, and he would need it forever more as his path became clear.

So began his life with naught but his own ingenuity to rely upon. He tested himself and the world around him, learning its rules and limits. He observed others, learned from them, then refined their skills to fit his needs. In the early days before his evolution, he learned to speak as others did, saying precisely what potential foes wished to hear so he might pass the few willing to talk unmolested. Acting became second nature in these cases, and the cases shrank in number as he grew. Before long, he wasn't forced to talk much, as speech and violence became tools of equal effectiveness. As time marched on, he began to crave more. More skills, more experiences, more foes, so he might learn from them, then triumph over them in defiance of nature, proving to himself his place in the world. His place as something better.

Looking back upon that fateful day, Octillery cannot lay blame upon the mother Feraligatr, or her hatchlings, or even the Tentacool who drove his school into the river. Nature is as fair an arbiter as they come. The weak die, and the strong consume the weak. It is a cycle that only the extraordinary like himself can escape. That day was the catalyst to making him into who he is today, after all, so how can he look upon it bitterly?

He who learns, survives.

He who plans, prospers.

He who dares, wins.

And Octillery was a winner. At least until migrating into the Valley of Steel via riverway.

The foes within the Valley tested all his skills and guile to the extreme, and Octillery found his wits pushed to their limits. Such power the natives cultivated, that his only option was to engage after lengthy periods spent analyzing weaknesses, often with sleepless nights pondering how he might make use of his repertoire against his prey. Some, he sought out and hunted in week-long engagements, requiring countless hours of planning, observation, and positioning. Others, he trapped or tricked to pass through their territory or lay claim to what they owned. Numerous Aggron, Rhydon, a single Onix, an alpha Skarmory, and even an arrogant Metang were all brought low by Octillery.

Magnezone put an end to that.

The alpha Magnezone of the Valley of Steel was persistent and aggressive beyond measure, chasing Octillery from pond to pond for the mere offense of being spied upon, forcing Octillery to use every trick and tactic he knew to escape harm. Magnezone cast down lightning bolts of such fury that they ionized parts of the ground, and Octillery knew one direct hit would be his end.

Growing weary after hours of unrelenting pursuit under the harsh Hoenn sun, Octillery took shelter in a pool that stung his lungs with the sharp taste of metal. The murky lagoon's dark bottom provided reprieve from Magnezone's bolts. Even with the contaminants aiding the conduction of Magnezone's electricity, the waters were deep enough to avoid anything worse than an unpleasant tingle.

For five days Magnezone remained overhead, waiting without moving an inch. Each day that passed, Octillery remained still in his shelter, even as hunger demanded he move, not at all realizing his thoughts were growing cloudy until it was too late. Then a discharge of lightning drew Magnezone away, but Octillery was too addled by the poison in his blood to realize it immediately. When his sluggish mind finally started turning again, he realized something was amiss, that he had made a mistake.

He should have died there, he realized. If Magnezone hadn't left, he would have perished. A rare spike of anger drove itself into him, that he would die in such a way. In his fury, he attacked anything that dared show its face, his vision growing dark in his mania.

Instead of finding death, he had awoken in a Pokemon Center, a span of days missing from his memory. He was informed that a trainer had rescued him. He wasn't quite sure what to think of that, as he had avoided humans fervently. He could never be better with a human holding him back.

He waited until the humans staffing the hospital deemed him well enough to have visitors, then he met his 'saviors.' Neither seemed like anything special, though he gave Ninetales due wariness. When he questioned Lee, Octillery was assured he was free to leave if he so wished.

Odd. Everything Octillery knew of trainers spoke to the contrary. Once a pokemon is captured, they forfeit their independence as punishment for their weakness.

Then he asked Ninetales her opinion on the trainer before him, not trusting a human on his word as any properly attentive pokemon should.

"Ninetales," he begins, feigning relaxation in the shallow pool the staff of the Pokemon Center provided him. "Why does a pokemon like you follow this one? Just what is this human to you?"

Ninetales smiles, her eyes taking on a warm glow. Merely laying eyes on such an expression stirs discomfort within Octillery; a rare feeling. Then she speaks, and a single word carries so much that he is left reeling.


One word rocked him, and the comforting numbness coating his body wavered. Never before had it done so. Is that thing Ninetales imbued within 'everything' perhaps what compels the fox herself, Grovyle, and Corvisquire so? What is it? How does he learn it so that it might be countered?

Octillery shakes his head, returning to the current conversation as Ninetales' monologue about the last few weeks comes to an end.

As the last words leave Ninetales' mouth, Octillery watches Corvisquire's beak turn downward in a frown. "I've missed much, it seems," the avian comments with a click of his tongue. "At the very least, it seems my timing is fortuitous, as additional talons make shorter work of brigands and criminals. Do we have a timeframe on when the raid will commence?"

"Within several days," Grovyle provides quietly, his arms crossed and the claws on one hand drumming upon the opposite limb. "The volcano lift has gone without a closure for almost a week now and, if the pattern holds, it will be soon."

"My, my… what a situation we've found ourselves in…" Octillery chimes, joining the conversation. His voice and mannerisms are an exemplary act, one of a pokemon who is assured and carefree, with just a touch of concern: precisely what the others might expect. He waves a tentacle. "Has Zinnia provided any intelligence on enemy numbers, teams, or positioning upon the volcano? Or perhaps an ultimate goal? Knowing would make the formulation of a battle plan much easier."

"Unfortunately not…" Ninetales' muzzle is pulled downward into a frown of her own, and behind her, her tail tips all flick in different directions. "We're still waiting on the final details from Zinnia."

Corvisquire scoffs, his feathers ruffling in agitation. "Wonderful…" After a moment of quiet, Corvisquire sighs and looks towards Ninetales and Grovyle. His expression twists, indecision obviously gnawing at him. Finally, he begins to speak, his words quiet and remorseful. "Ninetales, Grovyle?" He lowers his head. "I have yet to do so, so I would… ask for your forgiveness for my absence. It was not my intention to cause harm." His head lowers even further. "It never was."

The gecko and fox share a long look, and Octillery has to wonder if there is telepathy afoot. When they return their attention forward, Grovyle is the first to speak. "You're forgiven, Corvisquire." He flicks his twig between his teeth. "This time, and this time only, however."

Ninetales takes more time to answer. She stares at the floor, her jaw working as if to speak. She licks her lips, then raises her head. "No…" The damning word visibly stuns both Corvisquire and Grovyle. "I will not forgive you for what you did, not now and not ever."

The raven pokemon wilts, his shoulders falling. At the same time, Grovyle gives Ninetales a sidelong look, one of disbelief.

Octillery, thankfully, can simply remain aloof. He hasn't any stake here.

"...But I'm willing to forget, to leave everything in the past where it belongs." Ninetales turns her head away, her ruby eyes closed. "Don't rouse my memory of the subject."

Corvisquire snorts, his surly disposition returning. "Very well then, Queen Furball. Grace me not with the gift of your forgiveness, but the ignominy of your dismissal. This humble servant treasures it either way." He sniffs. "Shall I grovel at thine paws for the privilege of standing before the royal countenance as well? Perhaps pluck mine feathers and weave a decorative train for the graceful dress of tails trailing her Highness?" Regardless of his mocking words and the impudent, sarcastic sway of his head, unmistakable relief almost seeps from between Corvisquire's blue and black feathers.

Ninetales doesn't rise to the taunt, instead continuing on as if she didn't notice. "We four are a team, yet rarely do we come together as one. When time allows, I would like to meet like this more often outside of training and meals." Ninetales scans each of them with a severe eye. "I've been told that I'm… not the most approachable." She falters, her swaying tails halting for a split-second. "I wish to rectify that. As Lee's right hand, I should be watching for the well-being of everyone just as he does, and I would like to assist where I can in that capacity. This will be a learning experience for everyone, so I ask for criticism where applicable," she says, sending a pointed look at Corvisquire.

The raven's red eyes widen, then he sets his face into stern neutrality and nods, no signs of tomfoolery present.

"A sound plan. I'll be happy to do my part." Grovyle nods his head in agreement, a hint of a smile on his face.

All eyes turn to Octillery, and he has to suppress the urge to glare. 'Vexing.'

He does not want more idle talk. That's the last thing he wants. Once more he is tempted to go to his 'trainer' and request freedom, but he crushes the whiny urge. If he leaves now, he'll be abandoning his efforts to find out what that was when Ninetales described Lee back in the Pokemon Center. He wants to know what forced its way past the pleasant numbness, for it's a total unknown to him.

He who learns, survives, after all.

A cheery grin is forced onto Octillery's face, even if that only accounts for an upward crinkle of his eyelids. "Of course! I'd be glad to help," he agrees, not meaning a single word.

The experience here, being a 'trained' pokemon, is not wholly unpleasant, but his loyalty and theirs are not the same, and he wants to know why. He can tolerate more irritations for food, knowledge, and engagement in the meantime.

Ninetales smiles. It's a small thing. "Thank you all. I haven't anything else to say, so-"

The fox is interrupted by Lee's phone buzzing on the nightstand. In the bed just feet away, Lee grumbles and stirs, but doesn't awaken.

Rising to her paws, Ninetales silently steps over to the nightstand, snaking a tail out to lift the phone and peer at the screen. Using her nose, she taps in the unlock code. (1138, Octillery dimly recalls. Lee's thumb idly twitches in such a pattern sometimes.) After using her nose to swipe over to Lee's messages, her eyes widen. "It's from Zinnia," she says, voice hushed. "Magma will be moving in-"

"-two days. The final components are arriving for assembly, and I wish for you to be there with Tabitha to ensure nothing goes awry. Tabitha will be commanding the operation, but he can be… overzealous, and in need of a grounding element like yourself. A local lieutenant has a contingent of fodder ready as labor and foot soldiers as well."

In a secluded Lavaridge park free of any buildings to echo off of, Courtney listens to the words of Magma Leader Maxie over her phone. High above, Swellow flies in lazy circles, her sharp eyes and ears keeping watch for any interloper or eavesdropper.

"Understood, Leader Maxie," Courtney murmurs quietly. "I will be there."

"Good…" Courtney can almost hear Maxie's smile. "You are invaluable Courtney, remember that." Courtney's stomach grows warm at the words. "How goes your pet project?"

"I've made my offer to Brendan Birch," she replies. "I told him just enough to sway him, and to plant doubts about other loyalties. I plan on contacting him once the volcano operation commences, to offer him a chance to see what Magma is truly about," she says, conviction coloring each word, and her brow furrowing. "I know he will make the right choice. He and I are the same."

"They know who I am, Brendan," she lied to him, watching as his eyes grew wider and wider. "They… didn't tell you. I feel as though you should know who I am, and what Magma stands for."

Henson and Draconid haven't found her out yet. Swellow would have warned her if they had—but the lie will drive a wedge in the group. It needs to happen if Brendan is to make the right choice.

Brendan sat there, stunned into silence. Lying to him… felt bad, invoking a painful twisting in her gut, but Courtney hardened her heart. It's all for a good cause. They are alike, she and Brendan, and he'll understand.

"And if he doesn't?" Maxie drawls, freezing Courtney in place and dragging her from her memory. "What will you do?"

"I…" She hesitates. "I don't-"

"What. Will. You. Do?" Maxies interrupts her, and this time each word is laced with a terrible danger that makes spots bloom in the edges of Courtney's vision.

A shiver runs down the woman's spine, and her eyes fall to her shoes. She dares not disobey the unspoken order. "I will do what is necessary… for Magma." She forces the words past her lips.

Maxie is silent for a handful of seconds. Then, "Pi-gamma-delta-delta-alpha."

"Seven, eight, seven, one, four, three, nine, eight, zero, five, one." The answer to the cipher falls from Courtney's lips in perfect order.

"That is all, Courtney." Maxie sighs. "Do not make me regret granting your leave for this project."

The line goes dead, and the phone in Courtney's hand reboots of its own accord. When the phone turns back on, there is no log of the call that took place a moment ago.

Courtney shudders, then looks up at her Swellow.

High above, the bird pokemon stares back down with hard eyes.

Difficult is the path of the righteous, it seems…

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