The leaves rustled as a soft, pleasant wind blew through the sprawling maple forest, one of many covering this part of Gray Orient. Under the starlit sky and shining full moon above, a serene calm hung over the still lake holding the entrance to the Caverns of Being. At the shoreline, a sudden rush of wind abruptly broke the calm, a flash of light giving way to a Quilava and Leafeon. They were over forty minutes behind their fellow explorers in Team Fraternity, they knew, but that time had been required. While Arden had needed time to get used to his regenerated foreleg, the previous the victim of a Blast Trap, there had also been more pressing matters to attend to.
"Alright. Which one of us talks to the dog first?" May asked as the two started towards base camp, squinting in the dark of the night.
"No offense, but I've got more know in this, I'll do the heavy lifting here," Arden said.
"That... is fair. But, you know, heavy lifting. With that arm," May pointed out.
"Hearty har har," Arden said as the two passed the first tent.
"Alright, you wanna wait in his tent or get some rest before...?" May trailed off, her gaze drifting over to her partner as he stopped in his tracks. His face slowly shifted as his ears swiveled around.
"...do you hear that?" he asked.
"Hear what?" May asked. Arden gave her a grave look.
"Exactly," he said. The Leafeon cocked her head for a bit before her eyes widened in understanding. Base camp was completely silent aside from them; no talking, no footfalls, no late night snacks sizzling over the fire. Just dead silence.
Team Apex had been on this Guild for long enough to know this was not normal.
May quickly clicked her tongue, gesturing into the nearest tent and cautiously making her way over, sneaking silently along with practiced grace. The two pulled the door back, peeking into the tent, then paled.
Sprawled on the floor was Krookodile and the rest of Team Fraternity, their bodies still. Arden was quick to run up to them and put a paw on Hitmontop's neck, quietly and profusely cursing to himself.
"...there's a pulse, they're not dead," he whispered, examining the tent further. "Shit... are you seeing this? Look at the wall, there's tears near the door there. And the floor, those don't look like they just conked out. This... there was a struggle. This was an attack."
Arden and May exchanged a quick glance before running out of the tent, dashing to another tent and looking inside, then another, and another. In each and every tent, signs of scuffles framed unconscious Pokémon, and with each new tent, the realization was hammered in further and further for the two veterans.
Everyone in base camp was out cold. They were alone in here.
"...shit! Arcanine!" Arden soon said breathlessly, his gaze turning towards the Caverns' mouth. May's ears drooped, though before she and Arden could begin their mad dash back, something stopped them.
"—think I heard something this way, you think they missed any?" a voice asked from afar. The two immediately bolted back into camp, diving into a tent before the source of the voice could spot them. Seeing that this tent, too, hosted a couple of unconscious Pokémon, Arden and May exchanged a glance before getting onto the floor, positioning themselves as naturally as they could around the unfortunate explorers and going limp just before the tent's door opened, the silhouette of a Pokémon standing with light to its back.
"See. Nothing. Probably just another feral coming in for the free food. Really, Dreepy, lighten up, have a drink, they won't be long down there," another voice said, growing fainter as the footfalls carrying it drew farther away. Arden immediately made to get up, his vents already sparking, though a glare from May stopped him.
"You are not going out there and fighting them. Remember Greedent's Rebellion? Even one guy down, they all figure out something's up and gang up on us," she chided quietly.
"...fine, fair. But Arcanine, what about him? If he hasn't come out to kick their asses, something's wrong. What do we do, wait till they leave and hope they haven't broken his kneecaps?" Arden hissed. May thought for a bit.
"Give me a moment," she whispered. As she kept lying there, muttering to herself as she tried to start the base of a plan, Arden just gritted his teeth, listening to the distant voices of the invaders.
How'd this happened? Why? They'd said they had Pokémon down in the caves, was that it? Could these be Phoenix? Why hadn't Arcanine responded? Was he...?
Such questions weighed down on the Quilava as he and his partner frantically thought of a way to resolve this, the deafening silence continuing to roar in their ears.
Drip... drip... drip...
The slow, rhythmic dripping of water from somewhere in the cave was the only sound that met our ears as the three of us sat against the Kangaskhan statue in the room, silently processing everything that we'd just seen and learned. We hadn't even made eye contact with each other for the past few minutes, just sat there letting it sink in.
I had been summoned by Palkia. I'd been made feral by accident, but Palkia had refused to change me back. The Phoenixes were planning on ending the entire world as we knew it. Palkia didn't even know where the one thing between us and that was.
...I was supposed to decide on whether the Phoenixes should prevent humanity from going under or if things should stay as they were.
The answer seemed obvious to me, I'd have loved to say the answer would be to close this Link. But something about the prospect of doing that, destroying any chance of my species, my old world, everything I'd used to hold dear ever coming back... it just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't know what to do... maybe I just needed time? Maybe a long talk with Arcanine? Maybe just curling up and sleeping till Palkia got back to me?
'...aagh! What am I supposed to do?!'
The torturous quiet around me kept hanging, leaving me to drown in my own thoughts until Mavy sat up, clearing his throat.
"So. I, uh... reckon now's as good a time as any to say I believe y'all now," he said. Rye looked over, his tail twitching a bit.
"R-really?" he asked.
"Ah mean, either the crazy's contagious or ah just poked Palkia 'n saw him tellin' Beck... that. Ah'll admit, purty hard to argue with that," Mavy said.
"Ah, th-that... yeah," Rye nodded as he glanced at me. His tone wasn't quite hah, I told you so as I'd expected, but more along the lines of yep, welcome to the madness. Appropriate, I supposed.
"So, on that topic," Mavy said. "What the shit do we even do now?"
Another bout of silence hung between us.
"I-I... don't even know," Rye managed. "B-but... w-we have time. They don't have that orb, and we have... y-you know. A human and Pokémon soul working together, right? A-all we have to do is find the orb and this Link, and—"
"It said we needed all three," Mavy pointed out.
"F-for... traveling through it, right?" Rye asked.
"You really wanna test it?" Mavy asked. Rye hesitated for a moment.
"...o-okay, sure, but, uh... f-finding that one orb's priority right, don't you think? Beck?" he asked.
"Sh... sh-shyah," I nodded, keeping an arm around my belly. Seeing me so stressed, Rye put a hand on my back as he continued.
"S-somewhere in Gray Proper. W-we've just gotta ask Mr. Arcanine for help, right?" he asked. "Even if i-it's an entire region..."
I let a shaky breath escape my mouth as I gripped my tail ever harder, rocking in place. Rye's grip on my back tightened as he took note, his frown deepening.
"B-Beck... I-I can't... e-even begin to imagine what this is like. But... I-I'm right here. We both are. W-we're a team, we're in this together," he said. Mavy let out a quiet sigh as he turned to face us.
"You never gon lemme live down that group hug, huh?" he asked. "But... yeah. Sure, yer a smelly, feral, hue-mon thing, but yer my, er, friend too. Or something like that," he said. I only huddled in place more, hugging my tail tighter, though I still gave a nod.
"T-tanks, guys. Tanks," I managed sincerely. Rye leaned towards me as silence once more hung, though sat up as he noticed Mavy had started staring off, his brow furrowing.
"Wha?" I asked, my ears raising.
"Um... y'all hear that too, right?" Mavy asked, frowning looked in the direction of the cave's entrance.
Yeah, he had heard something, all right, I could hear it coming down that hallway, and fast. But were those... footsteps I was hearing?
The plan went off at the perfect time, right when it seemed the patrol was undergoing a shift change. First the lingering smell of smoke, the beginning of pops and crackles from the brush, then just as the warm orange glow began to shine from the trees...
"Fire! Fire!" a voice yelled, smoke rising from the forest in their direction. The shuffling of feet sounded as the two Pokémon in the immediate vicinity stood and ran to join the others, already hypothesizing to each other about fallen lanterns or foul play. Peeking out and seeing the fire burn at the other side of the camp, Arden gave a smirk.
"Still got it," he nodded as he and his partner slipped out of the tent.
"Nice shot," May whispered. "You're sure they'll take care of that? Wouldn't want us to get locked up for a wildfire again."
"Hey, if they can take out base camp, they can take care of a little fire. Look, they've got Water-types there already," Arden pointed as they waited behind a tent, bolting out under cover of shadow once confident they were in the clear.
Frankly, Arden considered it a miracle they'd made it this far; while a half hour waiting while under enemy watch was by no means their finest accomplishment, it'd do. With a look back to make sure they hadn't been followed, May jumped into the water to swim to the Caverns' entrance, Arden hesitating for a bit before taking one of the rafts they'd used in entering. The two sprinting headlong into the cave's mouth as the air chilled around them, they quickly stopped in the dungeon's grandiose first floor as they saw the sight before them.
"Who- who is there?" a familiar baritone voice called out from the dark. A cocktail of emotions ran through Arden as he ran forth, his vents blazing and lighting his path.
"Arcanine, it's us, it's Arden! You okay? What happened?" he asked, wincing as the Guildmaster came into view of his firelight. The dog was sprawled on the floor, bruises covering him and one of his legs appearing broken as he looked up at Arden, clenching his teeth as he tried to get up.
"There was an ambush. I fought, but I was overpowered and held down to allow the others entry," he said, Arden and May helping him to his good paws.
"It's okay, sir, we're glad you're alright. They took out base camp, place is crawling with friendly friends right now. We think some shock and awe oughta—" May started.
"Wait, wait, stop. Others? Entry into where?" Arden asked. Arcanine did not answer, though Arden quickly glanced at a particular opening. The first one from the right, the one he and May had gone down. The one where... oh no.
"Shit. Shit! Son of a bitch!" Arden swore, scrambling out from under Arcanine and grabbing for his badge. With three quick taps, he started speaking into it, his wavering voice betraying his panic.
"All teams, all teams, this is Apex!"
"This is Apex, ping back if you can hear me! This is code Yvetal Broken, base camp has been compromised! Expedition has been compromised! Get out of the dungeon right now, repeat, get out n—"
Our badges simply crumpled into each other like paper as they floated in midair, the frantic mental transmission cutting out. The perpetrator merely looked up at the useless badges before quietly turning his gaze towards us as more Pokémon swarmed into the room barking orders and moving into position with practiced grace. As the three of us scrambled back in panic, Rye dug in his bag for our Escape orb, though no sooner than he had pulled it out did it fly out of his hands, levitating in the air as the leader of the sudden ambush gave the faintest sign of a frown.
"Do not. We wish not for conflict, we wish only to speak," Xatu said. "You will listen."
The orb faltering in midair for a second as the bird stared at us, the message came across clearly. If we didn't cooperate, our only way of escape would fall ten feet and against the stone floor. Looking around desperately for another means of escape, I found none to speak of: the path back into the dungeon was blocked off, the path deeper in was probably the fire to this frying pan, and the secret passageway would take too long to open. This in mind, I exchanged a glance with a trembling Rye, then took my paw off my scalchop, raising my arms in surrender. As Rye did the same, Mavy watching us in disbelief, I took a good look around.
There were fifteen Pokémon standing around Xatu, most of them prepared to strike at command. A Wyrdeer, the orbs on its antlers still glowing from what I guessed was keeping that last floor's spatial madness at bay. An Archeops, frowning as his body faintly glowed with Ancient Power at the ready. A familiar Linoone, averting his gaze from his son's own. Some carried weapons, some bore items, and I knew for certain all of them had prepared for this moment. As such, all I could do was watch and pray as Xatu cocked his head.
"Hm. So this is Team of Interest Blue. How quaint, it is little wonder you are not talked of. An interesting choice for a teammate as well," he observed, glancing at Linoone.
"You damn—!" Mavy growled, zigzagging towards Xatu. The Pokémon around him immediately prepared to defend him, though the air seemed to tighten as Mavy abruptly lifted into the air. As the Zigzagoon yelped and tried to wrest free, Xatu raising a wing.
"Stand down. You and I both heard the Director's orders. Now stand down," he commanded to the others before Mavy was thrown back with a grunt. Seeing our teammate's attempt halted so easily, Rye started stammering amidst his intense trembling.
"Y-y-you... th-they'll come down here, th-they'll stop you! W-w-we aren't...!" he managed. As a couple mocking chuckles came from the other Phoenixes, Xatu blinked.
"None saw us enter whom we did not neutralize, and any authorities intervening would first have to traverse this dungeon. No one will come," he said calmly, staring at us as we shrunk back. "Of course, that does not matter. As stated, I wish only to state my case."
I stood there for a second, trying one last time to brainstorm my way out of this, though I soon just nodded.
"Wha tahl-kh?" I asked. Xatu blinked.
"I gaze into your teammates' psyches. You are already aware of our intentions," he said. "Know that the specter's calling your soul was not the beginning. This moment is the culmination of nearly a century since the founding of our noble cause, a cause working only to save this world and all that is decent about it, to correct the great mistake. You are the key in flesh, child, the final piece."
"B-but this can't be the way! You... wh-what if this doesn't fix anything? What if you destroy the world by going through?" Rye argued.
"What is a chance of salvation past against a guaranteed future of decay? We know the risk, and it is one we are willing to take," Xatu said without hesitation.
"But c-can't you try something else? Mr. Arcanine could—" Rye began.
"Do not lecture me on other options," Xatu said coldly. "It has been fifteen hundred years. Every meaningful option to save this mockery of a civilization has been exhausted, and the earth still rots, the sapient stagnate, and those willing to take action only starve for longer. I have tried all else and only suffered for it."
We said nothing, my eyes darting around in hope of escape as Xatu blinked.
"This League is not one of monsters, child. We are but ordinary Pokémon who have suffered needlessly, those see the writing on the wall," he said, looking around at the Phoenixes surrounding him. "Executive Archeops, who lived with the knowledge that his species was dying without the technology to revive their numbers from stone. Brother Linoone, who wishes for nothing more than a more sustainable situation for towns as his. Wyrdeer, whose parents were culled by Tyranitar's regime during the war as to stop their species' overgrazing," he said. "And I. He whose town was stricken by starvation as Tyranitar's regime arose, he who was arrested for the simple desire to feed his ungrateful family, he who was saved from death by a Society team only to be rejected for he was but a citizen of the tyrant's realm. As I have said, you will not lecture us, the miserables of this earth on other options."
"I-I... I-I'm sorry all that happened to all of you, I really am," Rye said. "I-I know how you feel, I... l-lost my friend when th-the dungeon in Mount Twist... urgh, b-but I'm moving on, y-you can too! You need to destroy everything! There're other ways!"
"Surely you would understand that the Twist range only became volcanically active as a consequence of the Ruin, and that mystery dungeons only plague the earth because of the failure of those governing space in the aftermath," Xatu said. "Would this... Dill not survive if the Ruin were prevented? If mankind still reigned?"
"H-he wouldn't even have been born!" Rye protested, trembling at the mention of the name.
"And who are you to question the workings of the soul? Would Giratina not produce the same souls from distortion regardless of spatial context?" Xatu asked.
"Wut the fuck are you talkin' 'bout?!" Mavy yelled. The air tightened as the corners of Xatu's beak curled downwards ever so slightly, the Phoenixes behind him tensing up.
"Silence," he demanded before blinking once more and sighing. "...do you know why the war occurred? Why so many of our brothers and sisters follow our lead with none to lose? Simply because Pokémon believed they might yet reach the glory of the Golden Age. Tyranitar was the victim of delusion, that he had been ordained to succeed the Twin Heroes of human lore. And yet, all he accomplished in his quest was more death, more decline, and himself encased in ice by the creature he believed he could control."
The bird paused, staring to make sure we were still listening. I hung my head as he continued.
"Truly, the sole reason we did not return to the ways of the ferals after the Ruin was because of the guidance of Pokémon with human knowledge. Humans like you. While yes, Pokémon may be superior in strength and body, what does that encourage if not brute competition? Where man lacked in strength, they possessed in mind, in wit, in ambition. Even at their lowest, when they lived, hunted, wallowed in their filth as you do now, they did not simply survive. They thrived," he said. "Even with nothing but dust and their creativity at their disposal, they crafted towering wonders, bested and tamed the most ferocious of ferals, and forged the guidelines of all that is good and proper even to this day, all with nothing to guide them. Not only has Pokémon civilization not followed suit, it refuses to."
"Wh-what?" Rye squeaked.
"Tell me. Where are our wonders? Of engineering, art, astronomy, discovery, science?" Xatu rebutted. "Human. I can here name many of your race that forever changed this world through their actions alone. Arceus-Zygarde, who with his ultimate weapon, felled the petty kingdoms of the Bronze Age, beginning the rise of the strong left standing and of western civilization as a whole. Caesar, who raised his empire's banner from Gaulos to Decolorum and sculpted the path of his subjects for millennia to come. Newton, who unlocked the secrets of the universe and guided the earth into an age of understanding. Tokugawa, who unified the lands of Kanto and defined the eastern world in those final centuries. Silph, who gave the common man the capability to tame this world and unlock his true potential as a race. What of Pokémon, though?"
We remained silent.
"Child. A single human has within them the power to forever alter history. The common Pokémon is only content with what is within their reach, their horizons cannot be broadened. It is this common Pokémon that emerges as the alpha of the pack, that rules over towns, that boasts leadership of the great Societies and the world at large," Xatu said. "Where will we be within a thousand years of their leadership? I tell you, nothing will have improved. Should it have changed, it will invariably be for the worst. Will Pokémon have reverted to the savagery that is natural for them? And what of when a summoned human fails in their ordained task?"
"That's a loada shit, you can't juss call ev'ryone—" Mavy started, though he stopped as he suddenly lifted into the air. The Zigzagoon gasped and sputtered as hung there for a second, grabbing at his neck before getting dropped to the ground where we hurriedly ran to check up on him. Xatu only blinked as he watched, the air no less tighter as I turned my fearful gaze towards him.
"We come not to bring you harm. We wish only that you might cooperate, that you may aid us in our plight. We know you met... something. We know it is of power enough that it may have even possessed the Lustrous Orb. Our humble request is simply that you, Team of Interest Blue, may offer the Phoenix League your services in our quest to save this world from ruin," Xatu said. "Walk away, child, and this shall continue long after you and I pass on. The slow, agonizing stagnation of what was once shining and glorious will only continue. The stars mankind was meant to conquer will only serve to wink down upon this doomed earth that will irrevocably serve as our eternal tomb. Is that truly what you wish?"
I didn't answer, I couldn't have even if I was able. A myriad of conflicting feelings swirled in my gut, and they all mixed to make a vile cocktail that made me want to combust then and there. Yes, I had just seen Xatu force-choke Mavy, and yeah, I was both terrified and angry for this, but... did he have a point? I... honestly wasn't sure. I... I didn't want to be here. I wanted to scream. I wanted to claw into my face, if only to let some of this out—
"Be at ease, child. We understand. Fear not, for we will help you along this path as efficiently as possible," Xatu said as gently as he could apparently muster, a sudden migraine hitting me as I felt something poking around in my head. However, it ended as abruptly as it had begun, Xatu's demeanor faltering as the air grew ever more strained. The psychic was silent, having apparently figured out what was up.
"...even the titan itself did not know of the orb's whereabouts?" Xatu asked, that hint of confusion I'd heard once before in his voice. A frantic murmur arose from the Phoenixes behind him; some ran to surround us further, some prepared moved in anticipation. Whatever the case, Xatu did not stop them this time, instead blinking once more as he began to pace.
"It does not matter. You will still come. There is no room for refusal in such a momentous situation," he said, his tone having taken on a bit of demanding by this point.
"W-we won't..." Rye managed.
"You are not in a position of authority over our command," Xatu said.
"I-I don't care! Y-you aren't in a-a p-position of... authority over the world, either!" Rye rebutted. Xatu's face twitched.
"Rye—" Mavy started.
"Perhaps we do not. But we are those who have—" he began.
"Look at Beck, look at him! D-do you even realize what you're putting him through? Y-you're sick! No one gave you any power to decide this, and w-we're not joining your—!" Rye yelled.
Xatu shifted his wings, psychic power beginning to shimmer along their edges as he glanced up at our Escape orb still floating in midair. At this sight, Rye seemed to reconsider his words, though Xatu's gaze only turned towards me. We both stared into each other's eyes, his blank expression beholding mine of conflict and terror. As the Phoenixes around us stepped in to apprehend us, the tightness in the air grew more and more as he stared longer, apparently soaking in our panicked thoughts.
'No, no... this can't be it. Not now, not now... I've lost so much, been through all this shit, this can't just be it—'
At that thought, something suddenly snapped. One second, we were scrambling back as the Phoenixes apprehended us with practiced ease, the next second, said Phoenixes were fleeing in mortal terror as the tightness in the air finally seemed to boil over, telekinetic power emanating from Xatu, his gaze burning as he glared at us, more emotion in his face than I had ever seen.
"You... ungrateful... you think you are the only one who has lost everything? Did you spend ten years questioning your very sanity over a single memory you were cursed with? Were you left on the streets with nothing but the past-sight of what you lost? Did the Legends themselves tear you from life just to deem you unworthy and cast you into oblivion to die?!"
Silence hung in the air as every pair of eyes in the room rested on Xatu.
"...yeh... yeh're...?" I managed.
"Choose your next words wisely," Xatu spat.
I didn't know what to say or even think. My mind was drowning in questions, panicked conclusions, broken philosophy, and just about everything else it could muster. One thing, however, just managed to bubble up and take up my inner voice.
"Tell them to suck a dick," Arden's voice echoed in my memory.
Xatu stared for just a moment longer before the orb floating above his head suddenly dropped. I jumped forward to try and catch it, but in the end, all I could do was watch helplessly as our only chance at a quick escape smashed against the stone floor behind him.
I only stared for a second, though, before I took a quick glance around. All the other Phoenixes were bunched against the wall, Linoone in particular watching concernedly, and the only thing in our way was Xatu.
I suddenly shot an Ice Beam at the bird, who quickly raised a wing to block it. As the sheer anger in the air flared, I ran forward and around Xatu as fast as I could, giving a cry to my teammates. Getting the idea, Rye and Mavy bolted, hurrying with me towards the dungeon with impressive speed. However, our escape didn't last long before Xatu jerked his head to the side and I felt the air tense.
Before I could even process that we weren't gonna make it, Mavy suddenly shot off the floor and slammed against the ceiling. A horrid crunch sounded out as bones shattered against the stone, followed by a loud, awful scream of agony as Mavy was released and fell back to the floor to writhe. Several loud yells for the Zigzagoon rang out as my head spun with panic, though these were quickly drowned out as a newly enraged Rye released a Dragon Breath unlike any he'd ever produced right in Xatu's direction. The bird simply teleported out of the way, though, and with a wave of his wing, he threw Rye to the side to telekinetically pin against the wall.
And so I stood alone, the broken Mavy continuing to cry out in pain and Rye struggling against his hold. Without any regard for the two, Xatu stepped towards me, flicking his wing once before releasing Rye, who immediately fell to the floor before clutching at his chest in panic. Xatu's calm demeanor began to make a comeback as I scrambled back in utter terror, my eyes darting to find a solution I knew wasn't there. However, just as I was beginning to give up hope, a glint hit my eye: from among the Phoenixes watching, Linoone stared into my eyes pleadingly as his breath shook, producing a blue object from behind his paw.
My eyes widened, though I suddenly felt myself drop to the ground, feeling as though some great weight was holding me down. As I yelled and struggled to try and get up, Xatu walked up, his calm demeanor having returned as he stared down at me, not even bothering to grace me with a monologue. Before long, I felt myself lift into the air, my screams only getting louder as the bird gestured to the others to come. However, seeing a sudden frantic window of opportunity as I floated by his shoulder, I stared into his still-burning eyes for only a second before sending a jet of energy up my throat, guiding it into a point, and shooting it out my mouth as Bert had taught me and into his eyes. Xatu instinctively teleported away, my body falling to the ground. As rocks began to levitate around him, the Psychic blinked hard and glared at me from his new position, though before he could lunge back at me, he paused as he noticed the spare Escape orb rolling towards me too late.
Save him, Linoone mouthed, thankfully going unnoticed. Glancing at Mavy as he gasped and writhed, I nodded, grabbing the orb and running for Mavy and Rye. Grabbing Rye from off the floor as he gasped for air and beat at his own chest, I shoved him close to Mavy, then lifted the orb above my head.
Xatu, though still silent, finally seemed to snap there, pink energy erupting from his twitching body as he directed all the energy he could muster at us. It was too late, though.
"Sh- a-ak-ti-fay!" I managed. For a horrible instant, it seemed my word hadn't triggered it, that I hadn't been able to pronounce it correctly. Then, miraculously, the warmth in my paws, the light, the rush of wind—
And then Xatu's Psychic hit me like a truck.
For the briefest of moments, it felt like my mind was mere seconds from exploding. Every thought felt like white-hot lead trickling through my head, every sensation felt scattered and distorted, and what must have been half a second felt like hours before it finally ended. Through the pain and over my screams, I processed Xatu standing there watching and the Phoenixes finally running forward to try and stop us before the light of the Escape orb engulfed us.
It wasn't long before I felt grass brush up against us, sweet morning light finally meeting my skin as I lied there motionless. Immediately, I managed to make out a few panicked yells, the tolling of a bell, and several vague figures running up to tend to us. I just barely made out a Pokémon standing over Rye and pounding at his chest before the delirium of that final attack caught up to me and I descended into blissful unconsciousness...
…just stirred, right there...
...going to make it...
A breath escaped my mouth as I slowly became aware again. Moaning weakly, I lied in the cozy padding below me, my eyes still closed as I briefly questioned where I was, what had happened.
Everything was a blur. I remembered... Palkia, I thought? That cave? Then Xatu had come in and—
Xatu! My friends!
I tore my eyes open and sat up, though immediately became lightheaded and fell back with a groan as I looked around. This wasn't base camp, this was some kind of room. The air was too different, I couldn't... where was I?!
"Beck? Beck, y-you're awake! H- agh..." a voice croaked from beside me. I turned my head to see the source, relief quickly coursing through me. Rye looked back at me, looking brownish in places and clutching at his chest but still very much alive.
"Rye?" I managed out. "Shaa... sh-w- wehr?"
"W-we're... h-hospital. In Westgrove. You've... been out since the day before yesterday," Rye said.
"Wh-wha? Wha hah-peh?" I asked, my memory still trying to catch up with me. Rye hesitated long and hard, frowning to himself.
"Th-they... said y-you got hit bad with a Psychic saving us. M-Mavy got his legs and ribs broken bad. I-I... m-my heart, th-they said it..." he trailed off, shivering to himself as his breath shook. "I-I... I'm so sorry..."
"R-Rye. I..." I said in disbelief, my eyes wide. He... he had almost...
An enormous pit of guilt forming in my gut, my breath shook as I tried to think of what to say.
"Sh-sh... a-am sahry. Am sah sahry," I managed out.
"N-no, don't apologize. Y-you did nothing wrong... I was leader there. I-I should've gotten us out," he said.
"Nah, is... mah faht. Am... a-am sah sahry," I pleaded. Rye was silent as he stared up at the ceiling, his eyes watery, so managing to wrest back the guilt screaming into my ears for a second, I reached over towards his cot. "A-am here. Am here."
Another moment of hesitation passed before Rye took my paw, stifling a quiet sob.
"Th-thank you... thank you," he managed. I kept clutching my friend's hand for a moment before suddenly gasping.
"Maffy! Maffy?" I called.
"H-howdy... I-I ain't dead yet, dammit," Mavy's voice managed through evidently clenched teeth from a nearby cot, the Zigzagoon covered in casts to the point I couldn't recognize him at first glance. I let out a quiet sigh of relief; we'd been beaten for sure, to say the very least, but we were at least alive.
A couple minutes of silence passed before a Chansey peeked in from the curtain leading in, though they were quick to disappear. It wasn't long, though, before she returned with someone else in tow: Guildmaster Arcanine, limping as he ducked under the door. As he glanced at us, he gave a strained smile.
"Team Reach. I... do regret we could not speak under more favorable circumstances," he said, sitting down.
"M-Mr. Arcanine, we... w-we're sorry," Rye said.
"Please, young Rye. Your team is at fault for none of this. I, frankly, should have done more to ensure your safety; this was but a series of unfortunate happenings that you had no control over," Arcanine sighed. "I am told, however, that you are on the path to recovery. Maverick will require closer monitoring in the following weeks, and cardiac asystole is unfortunately not something one can simply walk away from, though I am confident that you all will make full recoveries in the coming weeks."
"Th-the Phoenixes, did you find—?" Rye asked. Arcanine sighed.
"No. The group in base camp retreated upon my appearance, and authorities were unable to apprehend those within the cave. However, through failure, one learns. We know of their tricks, their angle of attack, how we might counter such in the future," Arcanine said. "However, on that note..."
The golden dog's optimistic expression quickly became more solemn as he glanced at Chansey.
"If you would excuse us," he requested. Chansey quickly nodded and hurried out of the room, leaving the three of us alone with the Guildmaster as he waited for one of us to speak.
"Wait, hol up, wudja mean closer monitorin'?" Mavy soon broke the silence. Arcanine pursed his lips.
"That is for Audino to decide," he said. "Now... I believe you know what questions I have. If needed, this may wait for another time while you recover, but if possible... tell me everything."
The three of us exchanged nervous glances as best we could, though it wasn't long before Rye gulped.
"I-I'll do my best, er, stop me if you need to. Uh, M-Mavy, I-I'll need help," he said, managing to sit up to face Arcanine. "Uh... s-so, when we reached the rest area, Beck found a-a secret door from what the v-vision told him..."
Over the next few minutes, the three of us did our best to fill in the Guildmaster on everything we could: the lower dungeon, Palkia, the Link, the Phoenixes' plan, and why I was truly here. At this point, Arcanine had requested we stop, hanging his head as he stared at the floor. A moment passed before he looked back up.
"Please. Continue," he said.
"Uhm, a-after Palkia sent us out, we talked for a while, but, uh, th-then Xatu and a bunch of Phoenixes showed up and crushed our badges. H-he went on this... m-monologue about why we should join him—" Rye recounted.
"Sounded more like he was readin' off some kinda crazy manifesto," Mavy butted in.
"Yeah," Rye said. "Th-then he got all mad, talked about how much he'd lost, something about th-the Legends, a-and then..."
He trailed off, trembling again as Arcanine blinked, his eyes narrowing.
"...young Beck, can you confirm that the Xatu said such?" he asked.
"Y-yeah," I nodded, debating for a second before deciding to share my insane theory. "T-tink... tink he hah-men."
Arcanine didn't respond at first. The Guildmaster only sat there for a moment, his eyebrow twitching once before he hung his head.
"So it is," he said, his voice quiet but with a tone of anger to it.
"W-wait, h-he—?!" Rye blurted out.
"Beck. You were given a test of worth before you awoke, correct? A standard for all humans," Arcanine said, stepping up towards me. "Natu... I met him before the war, did my best to mentor him. He... claimed to have gazed into a past where he failed that test. His soul was thrown aside into the abyss, he claimed, and he only survived when he awoke as an unborn Natu, in body, mind, and even soul."
My eyes widened, the pit in my stomach growing deeper with each new word the Guildmaster said. I trembled, lying back into my cot as Arcanine hung his head.
"Yes, Natu was troubled, and his life had been difficult, but... I truly believed I could help him. He... was good at heart," he said. None of us said anything, Rye and I too stunned to even say anything and Mavy likely confused as to this latest of unfamiliar developments. After a while, though, Arcanine pursed his lips and got up, wincing as he worked to stand with the splint on his leg inhibiting him.
"Hm. The Orb remains unaccounted for, the Phoenixes have proven their versatility, and we have... far more of an crisis on our hands than simple orbs," he summarized. "And at such cost..."
A deep, regretful sigh sounded out as the giant dog looked to the floor.
"I am sorry you had to endure all this. It was for the best that you descended, but... I truly apologize," he said morosely.
"N-no, don't apologize. I-if it wasn't our fault, it isn't yours, either," Rye said, sitting up. Arcanine chuckled a bit, giving a hint of a smile.
"Perhaps," he said, turning to face the door. "I will recount what you have told me to the Societies and await their decree. We will depart for Impetus Town come tomorrow. You will be referred to Audino immediately upon arrival, and she will decide on what comes next."
As the three of us muttered our understanding, Arcanine began to leave, though paused before he was out the door to look back at us.
"One more point of topic," he said. Watching the three of us for a moment, he smiled. "I am proud of you."
With that, he limped out the door, where I could make out a decently-sized group of Pokémon swarming the Guildmaster and clamoring for insight.
"Sir, sir! Are they okay?"
"What'd they say?"
"Mawile, Westgrove-on-Sea Gazette! Is it true a Phoenix cell overpowered you and your expedition, Guildmaster?"
"Just to the count of ten, that's all Smeargle needs!"
"Move, move, dammit! I gotta see the kid!"
That last voice stuck out like a sore thumb, and sure enough, I caught a glimpse of a familiar Quilava pushing through the doorway before the Chansey I'd seen grabbed his arm and pulled him out.
"Fuck damn it, at least tell me what he said, the basic gist!" Arden demanded.
"...Arden. That information is strictly confidential, only for myself and the higher ranks of the Societies," Arcanine's voice replied.
"I know, but—" Arden's voice protested.
"Enough. I am aware we have given you much leniency for what you have done for this continent, but you are not entitled to this information. Do not test me," Arcanine demanded.
"What? No, I'm not saying I'm entitled! It's just... shit's clearly going down, I think I deserve at least a bit of insight here!"
"And why would you over everyone else deserve such?" Arcanine asked. A moment of silence hung among the clamoring.
"...okay. Yeah, okay, you're right, sir, sorry to bother you," Arden asked, apparently walking away. I furrowed my brow at the conversation, though looking over at Rye and Mavy, it seemed they hadn't noticed, being more focused on other things.
"Y-you heard that, right? H-he... he's proud of us! I... w-we're..." Rye said, a smile on his face despite everything. "I-I just..."
"Yeah, that's... yep," Mavy chuckled, squirming a bit in his casts. "Uh... so we got a day, and now the squad's back together. Yay. Wut do we do now?"
"Uh... I-I don't know. I-I think the Guild still has our bags, and, uh, I-I don't think we should be walking... uh. I-I Spy, I guess?" Rye suggested. As I chuckled a bit at the memory of when we'd played in Cap'n Brine's bill (had that really been a month and a half ago?), Mavy gave a long, unimpressed look.
"Yep, there's the Treecko ah know. Unoriginal as always," he said, managing a smirk despite the situation. "Right. Ah spy somethin' brown, I guess."
As the two went back and forth with the impromptu game, I hung my head.
This was... to say it was a lot was a huge understatement. But... well, I supposed I might as well make the best of things. While I still could, at least.
"T-teh wahl?" I guessed, sitting back in my cot.
I had gone to sleep half expecting this, and indeed, it seemed I was back. Floating in the abyss of the dreamscape, dreading whatever vision I was about to be given.
Palkia? Are you there?
There was no response, though it wasn't long before what I could only assume to be Palkia's hand began to make the darkness around me clearer and comprehensible. Before me, as I'd expected, Xatu stood, though alone in a nondescript room and facing the wall, grimacing. I waited for him to notice me for a second, briefly wondering why I was being shown this of all things before I suddenly got a clue.
"I cannot believe you. You... I gave you specific orders. Orders only a child would misunderstand. Approach Subject Blue and his teammates diplomatically and with grace, and do not do anything to alarm them. Where... where did you go wrong, Xatu?" a deep, distorted voice suddenly asked in my head, inciting a violent flinch of shock from me.
"My deepest apologies, sire. I confess, I allowed my emotion to get the better of me, but I assure you—" Xatu said, his voice noticeably more hushed than usual.
"No. You have done enough. Effective immediately, you are to stand by and await further orders, Xatu. I regret that this has to be done, but your failure in the Caverns was too egregious. You will be called upon should it be demanded, but for now..." the apparent "sire" said. "However, this may still be accomplished diplomatically as planned. We must be silent, graceful, and most importantly, quick about it. You understand why this is, correct?"
"Of course. Idling will only allow the Societies more time to secure the Lustrous Orb and to undermine our cause," Xatu said.
"That is not my primary concern, it is of the human himself. You know the setting he is in, a Guild was not the most ideal place for him to end up. If we hesitate too much in recruiting him... remember last time," the voice said.
"...of course," Xatu nodded, grinding his beak a bit. "Very well. I will... inform the executives of this change immed—"
The Psychic stopped mid-word, his head slowly turning to peer up at me. I bit my lip, knowing what was coming, though the voice suddenly rang in my head again.
"I-is that him?" it asked. "Wait, wait. Do not expel him. Allow me a moment."
Xatu remained still for a moment before relaxing his stance, staring up at me as the voice cleared its throat.
"Hello there, young human! I am sure you have already heard much about me, just as I have heard much about you. For formality's sake, though... I'm the one they call the Director."
I felt a chill run down my spine as the Director's voice hesitated a moment.
"Oh, where to begin... imagine, if you will, a cave. Through it runs a pathway, and on one side, a campfire burns, and on the other, a group of prisoners are held from birth, restrained so that they may only look forward at the wall. They would see none but the shadows of passing Pokémon and the items they carry, never a glimpse of anything else. They would not know anything of the world outside, even what a Pokémon would like like, for the cavern wall and the shadows cast would be all they had ever known. The wall of shadows would be their entire world," he soon said. "Now, imagine one were to break free, turn and see the fire and passersby behind him, perhaps even leave the cave and see the world for what it is: more than a simple wall of shadows. Would they not descend back into the cave to tell his fellow prisoners, to share his enlightenment? Alas, these Pokémon would ridicule such enlightenment, for indeed, they know nothing but the shadows."
I blinked, quite unsure of what I'd just heard.
"Human... we are the escaped prisoners. We are those who have seen the fire behind us, who have seen more than the shadows. Those who believe that the outline to a better world lies in the hands of humankind," the Director said. I just stared at Xatu.
Y-you're... you're insane, both of you. I-I—
"I sense doubt in your words, sire. And yet... there are the roots of uncertainty. Of conflict," Xatu said.
I am not conflicted—!
"Hm. Of course," the Director said. "I understand you need time to process what you have learned. Just know: insanity would be a mercy."
I felt a psychic grip clench my presence as the Director cleared his throat.
"Child... when, if you see the light, I trust you will know where to find our brothers and sisters. We will welcome you with open arms. And perhaps... you may find common understanding with Xatu's situation, human," he said. "We need you, child. We cannot open the Link without your guidance."
The Director's voice gave a quiet sigh as I felt his emotion shift a bit.
"Xatu, quite unfortunately, was cast aside before he could be summoned, and reborn a Pokémon; his soul is no longer compatible for our purposes. Yours, however..."
A moment passed as Xatu's hold on my presence held firm.
"For the sake of not just yourself and your friends, but the entire world, of all those who have ever suffered and will suffer as a consequence of the great mistake... choose wisely. I have my faith in you, child, for in the end, what is right and true shall always prevail. I have my faith that by your hand, man shall once more govern this earth," the Director said, an air of finality in his voice. "For even in the darkest of times, even when it seems all hope is lost, a quenched torch may yet still be reignited into a blazing beacon."
With that, Xatu jerked his head, and I felt the vision shatter around me...
The door flew open, Xatu stepping through before pausing, giving a light sigh to himself. This... could have gone better. He had slipped, made a disgrace of himself to the Director and a monster of himself to Subject Blue. This mission had been a failure. Or perhaps a pyrrhic victory; he could not gaze far enough into the future to say for certain. Whatever the case, he had his faith in the Director's wisdom in this situation. This would be rectified.
This in mind, he blinked and swiveled his head to look at the scene before him. In contrast to his calm demeanor, the small temporary base they'd set up was in absolute chaos, Phoenix brothers and sisters scrambling this way and that to make preparations. As Xatu watched, he paused, his eye meeting a particular gaze: that of Lieutenant Linoone's. Behind the rodent's blue eyes, there was accusing, suspicion, anger, disbelief... Xatu supposed such would arise from familial connection such as that he had with Team of Interest Blue, and he doubted the Zigzagoon's injuries were lethal, but... that did not concern him now.
Linoone and all others that had been within the cave when he had slipped had sworn secrecy. The mere notion that they were aware, however... Xatu was not sure how to feel. But alas, it ultimately changed little so long as they kept their oaths. He would still be human in name only, as he had long seen himself as. The long-departed relative. The deliverer of the eulogy.
He who would make things right for his emperor, his people, his world.
As Linoone tore his eyes away and turned to address his team, Xatu heard the sound of wings flapping, followed shortly thereafter by Executive Archeops landing before him, face contorted with panic.
"Kap! We got found out, we've got till sunrise at best before the Guilds in Westgrove-on-Sea are on top of us!" he said breathlessly. Xatu blinked once more as he looked over at him.
"Thank you, Renim," he said emotionlessly. "Initiate evacuation procedures."
Archeops hurriedly nodded and turned to call to the others. As Phoenixes scrambled to their designated psychics for teleportation, Xatu glanced in the direction of the Caverns one last time.
A setback. A significant one, but a setback only.
In the end, they would make things right.
No matter what the cost.
14th of Zygarde's Moon, 1540 Post-Ruinam
Fuck, it's been a while since I wrote in this thing, hasn't it? Yeah... wow.
I think I said things were gonna get better a couple years back, when I wrote in this thing last. Well, what do you know. Things ate shit. They ate so much shit. Oshawott woke up and we'll be headed back tomorrow, but the dog's got this all shut tight. But, you know, I can't just leave this alone, they nearly fucking died down there and no one's gonna tell what gives?
I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this. Something's gotta give, or I'm gonna have to poke my dick in places I don't wanna stick it and hope nothing bites it off. All I know is that there's a bunch of crazies and they like orbs and maybe feral children.
The world could be ending here, and that's all I have to go off of. Not a nice brief explanation wrapped up with a little bow like with Tyranitar, but just. "You are not entitled."
Right. I'll keep this thing updated, I guess, probably drop whatever I find in here. Pike, if you're reading this again, I swear by Arceus, we will be having fried Swellow over the fire tomorrow night. Here's hoping for a nice, easy solution, huh?
Yeah. Here's fucking hoping.
If any Legends happen to be looking over my shoulder here, say hi to Otto for me.
"Last call for Impetus Town, last call for Impetus Town!"
The air over the Wailord-deck this time was most definitely different from when we'd pulled into Westgrove-on-Sea those couple days ago. Where there had been joyous chitchat, there now hung somber silence. Some had had a bit of a rough time in the dungeon. Some were still in shock at what had happened. Some had been on the surface and knocked out that night.
The biggest difference, though, was in the three beds that now sat near the bow of the deck.
I sat in my straw bed, staring out at the ocean as Rye and Mavy watched quietly. I had come for answers, and... well, I'd definitely gotten those. Maybe too many. But now the question stood: I had my answers now. What the fuck was I even supposed to do now?
Literally decide the fate of the world? ...maybe later.
Learn to speak, read, write? How could I go about finishing that with all this going on?
Find the Orb? Unova proper was eighty thousand square miles even without its neighbor lands, if I remembered correctly, where was I even supposed to start?
...in the end, though, I had woken up to see another day. The idea that I could even deliberate on all this today was a good one, considering how close I'd come. But... would my friends forgive me? Rye and Mavy had come even closer, would they even want to be part of this anymore?
As the explorers around me shuffled to their places, chatting quietly, I scooted towards Rye.
"Hey," I said.
"Yeah?" Rye asked, him and Mavy craning their heads to look at me.
"Er... y-yeh shtehl... wee shtehl fwehnds?" I asked, almost immediately regretting the words. I trembled a bit as my ears went flat against my head, looking around to see if anyone else had heard it. "A-am sahry. Sahry—"
I was cut off as Rye got up to give me a tight hug.
"B-Beck... of course we're still friends," he said.
"I... yeah. No hard feelins' here. Yer still alright, kid. Us three, we're still insane together," Mavy tried to nod, wincing as he did so. I stared for a second before accepting Rye's hug, the tiniest of smiles on my face.
"T-tank yeh. Sha mach," I choked out.
"Th-thank you, too," Rye said.
As the Treecko smiled weakly and pulled away, I took my seat back between him and Mavy, staring back out at the ocean as the sun slowly climbed over it. The Wailord below us lurched and began its voyage as we sat in silence, inciting a small cheer from the other explorers behind us. I glanced back at them, then at my teammates, then at the sunset ahead.
There was a lot here, but... we'd survived. I'd made it this far, even in this body. If we could walk away from that night in the caves, what was another set of ordeals to make it through?
Despite everything, as the three of us sailed towards that sunrise and back towards home, I still held on to hope.
Would hope be enough, though? Would I, a scruffy little Oshawott in a strange land with nothing but the bonds I'd made and the shell on my chest, really make it through this with hope alone?
...I guessed only time would tell.
"What's that one, Daddy?"
"Ah, which one? ...ah, that, those are the Twin Heroes. See that... line of four stars? Right there? That'd be their belts."
"Whoa's right. The old myths say they tamed a great dragon and united the land. That was where Unova was created, so they said."
"Wow... uh, h-how do you know all this?"
"Oh, well... back when I was your age, back before everything went downhill, we had a professor in town, she liked to tell us these old stories. She was... real nice, I wish you could've met her. She would've loved you."
"D-did you live in Striaton when you were a kid, too?"
"No, I ended up here after... you know."
"Oh... will I still be cool like you?"
"Well, that's up to you. Everyone's got it in them to succeed, and you're no exception."
"But everything sucks balls now, I can't—"
"Hey! Watch your tongue!"
"Ah! I-I'm sorry!"
"Where'd you hear that from?"
"M-Mr. Van Virbank!"
"Oh, for— I told you, don't use any words you learn from him!"
"...I guess they did, huh? Let's work on that when you're old enough, alright?"
"We'll do it together, you and your old man."
"B-but you're not old."
"I will be one day. But... well, I won't be going anywhere anytime soon, okay? I'll let you know when I do."
...to think I wouldn't have seen all these stars forty years ago. It's... if there's one upside to it."
"But we're seeing the stars now, right?"
"Yeah. I guess we are. Maybe that's what matters."
"...I love you, Daddy."
…love you too, Samuel."
END ACT ONE
Author's Note: Boom.
Wow, it's... surreal, being here. Planning your chronological midpoint is one thing, but actually being there... that's something else.
If there's one thing I could say here, at this point in time, it's... thank you guys. When I started writing this thing 22 months back, I had no expectations for this little project of mine. But since then, I've seen it grow beyond any expectations, even get held up to Silver Resistance's level (which, I mean, n o), and... well. Thanks to everyone who's followed, faved, shared, or even just read this far. It means a lot.
I'll be taking a hiatus now that I've gotten here. How long? Not sure. I'll be writing a few special episodes for this story in the meantime, and if that isn't enough, I'll be sporadically releasing new chapters for my other story in the meantime, so if you somehow want more of me, give PMD: Finest Hour a read. Same world, but more of an experiment with setting than with storytelling. Or, y'know, just read someone else's story.
If you've enjoyed up to this point, fav or follow, maybe leave a review, or share it with your friends, maybe they're into this kinda stuff. Whatever the case, it means a lot. Thanks again for reading, and until next time, this is Sudmensch, signing out.