Harmony awoke slowly, not the sudden burst of wakefulness that came from sunlight hitting his leaves, but a long struggle to consciousness as if from drugs or illness. He found that his once-comfortable pallet had changed into some kind of cloth mass, and his once brown and strong legs had been transformed into strange, white, spiderlike limbs ending in a surfeit of digits like a chimchar or a jynx.
He rose unsteadily, and found that his front limbs could no longer reach the ground, his hindquarters left high in the air and unbalanced if he attempted it. After some experimentation, he realized that he was intended to walk on two legs like a bird, though wingless. His legs ended in naked chimchar feet and toes.
"What on earth?" he asked aloud, his own voice strange and high-pitched in his ears.
He was in a structure that he did not recognize; gone were the comfortable woven grass walls and stem rafters of his home, and instead there was a blank expanse of whiteness above and below, with various artifacts embedded in the cool, pale rock. The floor was white-colored too, soft and yielding like a moss or lichen.
He struggled to maintain composure in the face of rising panic. He did not know where he was; he could remember his own name at least, but the faces of his friends and family were a confused series of images and their names an infuriating blank at the tip of his tongue.
He was in a dungeon. He had to be in a dungeon. Bizarre things happened when one was in a dungeon: strange portals opened; items and people materialized in solid stone while one watched; gravity changed from down to up; wild, violent people of unfamiliar form appeared, and disappeared once defeated. And one could change shape.
He had never seen a chimchar that was this color, to be sure; this sort of transformation in a dungeon was not unknown, but he had taken on a very strange form that he could not name and could not guess at the typing or abilities of. That was the main problem with being transformed in a dungeon; one lost all of one's inborn abilities, and replaced them with unfamiliar ones that one had no training or practice to use. If one was transformed into the same species as a friend, then at least one might have some idea of the powers accessible to them, but it was essentially useless without the long practice that one would gain growing from a child while using one's powers.
He had awoken on a strange bed, expecting it to be his own, but it was not. Sometimes dungeons had odd furniture in them; occasionally they were stable enough for outcasts and bandits to live in, but much more often artifacts appeared in them the wrong shape or size for any person to use.
The furniture here, though, was not mismatched or battered, and the chest of drawers was filled with fabric, an enormous amount of fabric like the bed he'd awakened on.
After a short exploration he summoned the courage to try what looked like a door in the dungeon chamber; the rectangular door was made of warmer material than the walls, though it was the same color. He struggled with the mechanism for some time before realizing that his chimchar paws could be used to work it by clamping it between the palms and turning.
"This is the strangest dungeon I've ever been in," he said aloud, more for the comfort of hearing a voice in the silent room. He instantly regretted it; hearing his new high voice only served to heighten his anxiety.
He stepped outside into a long hallway, very like a dungeon, but again made of the same pale rock.
Harmony did not remember where his partners were in the dungeon. He was a tropius, or had started life as one, and longed again for the protection of a quick Razor Leaf or Air Slash instead of whatever his current body was capable of. He blew out a few breaths, hoping to summon a burst of fire, and concentrated on the handle of the door, willing himself to turn it by psychic power, but nothing happened. His dull jynx nails couldn't even muster up a Scratch.
He sighed. He couldn't name his dungeon partners, but in his heart he was certain they were on their way to rejoin with him and break the effect of whatever had happened to him.
One was supposed to remain in place in a dungeon when one was lost, that much he did remember, but the room he had awoken in was a dead end, which spelled its own set of problems. They called them "dead" ends for a reason, he remembered someone saying. It was risky to stay and it was risky to move; this time he chose movement.
There were more doors in the rock that he avoided, not wanting to disturb potential enemies inside. Now he was opening himself up to an attack from the rear, but he didn't want to wait. At the end of the hallway he heard voices and movement, and the sounds of steam and fire, and metals clashing. Now that was hopeful; his partners might be around the corner.
He should have remained out of sight until the noises of battle subsided, but he really was desperate to regain his true form. He decided to spy inside the next chamber, pressing his flat face against the wall and moving slowly until one eye could peer in.
The next room was hot and brightly-lit, with numerous creatures inside—creatures like the form he currently inhabited—squawking to one another, with fires lit and steam rising from shining bowls. A white box was opened and cool air rushed out along the floor for a moment before dissipating when the box was shut again.
"Young master," someone said.
Harmony jumped, but an enemy wouldn't say anything first, they would just Slash you in the back. He turned to see another creature. This one was taller and, though also pale, covered in different plumage than him; instead of a long green fuzz on the head, they had black and white fur or hide upon much of their body.
He heard whispering and a giggle behind him, and he turned again to see yet more creatures watching. They looked similar to the one who had spoken to him. It was unusual for clans to live in dungeons, so this looked more and more like a simple cave. Evidently they were not hostile to him, although he had to wonder how he had been rendered unconscious. The possibility that his transformation had persisted outside of the unreality of the dungeon was most concerning.
"The young master has a busy day ahead," the first creature said, deferential. "Would you care to get dressed while we prepare breakfast?"
"Oh, all right, thank you," Harmony said, playing along. This was shaping up to be a very unusual dungeon run.
He allowed the creature to lead him back to the room had awoken in. They manipulated a number of panels in the dungeon walls, revealing the storage of yet more cloth, and he slowly realized they were intended to be articles of clothing. They were much more expansive than the scarves, vests, and belts that he was used to, but he had to admit that the naked hide of his current species did not retain heat very well, especially now that he had been to that much warmer dungeon room down the hallway.
He accepted the clothing from the other creature, pulling on beige leg coverings, a white body covering, and a black and white cap that rested upon the head. There were even smaller coverings to go upon the upper and lower paws.
After this was accomplished, the creature led Harmony back down the hallway, down another route, to an enormous room filled with tapestries, a large table, and chairs. Harmony had to admit that this was far less likely to be a dungeon or cave than a colossal dwelling.
It was quite unlike any such he had ever seen, constructed with incredibly smooth walls without visible timbers, and with scarcely a breath of air inside, though many of the windows were not shuttered and were letting in light.
The creature provided him with a meal, and this too was yet more unfamiliarity: he was given his own platter with which he was served from the main tray, instead of placing the meal on the center of the table to be shared by everyone in the guild or family. In fact there was no food at the center of the table, but rather the creature and others like them appeared to give him various items, including a sweet flatbread with berry compote, and a strange white liquid that he refused in favour of a more familiar berry juice. It was very tasty, although perhaps somewhat overly sweet, and Harmony would have preferred something starchier and more fibrous for a long day of dungeon running, not to mention a good sit in the sun.
As he was finishing the breakfast yet another creature swept into the room, taller than any he had yet seen and with a wildly decorated hide with eyespots. They declared that today was to be the day when he received his first pokémon.
What on earth was a pokémon?
Harmony stared in incomprehension. What was a pokémon, and for what reason was he going to go get one? Who did they think he was? He had not only been transformed by the dungeon, but into someone these creatures thought was familiar to them, and that person seemed to have various duties that he would have to muddle his way through as best as possible.
The brightly-coloured creature watched Harmony, studying his reaction. Finally, they said, low, dangerous, "I would have expected you to be excited, my son."
Harmony was in a strange place with strange customs and expectations, but he hadn't survived as many dungeons as he had without knowing when a person was safe and when they were not.
"Oh, I'm very excited. Father," he added awkwardly, taking a wild stab at gender. "I'm just… really very tired, still. I couldn't sleep, I was so excited," he invented.
The explanation didn't seem convincing to Harmony, but the brightly coloured creature (his father?) seemed to be mollified by it, at least.
"Remember all that I have taught you," the father-creature said. "Remember the message we wish to share with the world."
"Of course," Harmony said, hoping that he wasn't going to be required to recite whatever it was this person was talking about.
Luckily, he was eager to recount whatever it was, it seemed, and so Harmony only had to listen to a confusing speech about the many sources of evil in the world and the good that would come once those evils were eradicated. Normally Harmony would have agreed that fighting evil as a good thing, but something about the way the father-creature said it made him want to support whatever the direct opposite was.
Harmony did his best to nod along and make encouraging sounds at the right moments, but he soon found that didn't seem to be necessary as the father-creature was entirely taken up by the sound of his own voice, the long speech punctuated with wide gestures from his left forelimb. At last, the black-and-white creature from before was summoned to show him to a new destination, and Harmony was all too happy to follow.
There was a series of new hallways, and then suddenly a door opened to reveal, at last, the outside world.
Harmony stepped out into the fresh air, a breath of wind ruffling the green fuzz on his head, and he heaved a grateful sigh. It wasn't the same as sunlight hitting his leaves, but it was a relief to be out of that stuffy dwelling at last. He took stock of his surroundings: the structure he had been in did indeed seem to be a dwelling-place, and it was even larger than he suspected, stretching to either side of the exit.
It was highly regular with straight lines, like when rock types raised slabs of stone to make dens, though with huge windows without shutters. At least, what he thought were windows—they seemed to show the dark interior of the dwelling, but they were crossed with a lattice of lines and the sunlight lanced white and blue reflections off apparently empty space.
Before him was a wide, light-colored stone path that snaked through a broad lawn, upon which there was nothing but a short growth of grass. Trees and bushes were only to be seen quite far in the distance down the path and to either side.
"We wish you well on your journey, young master," said the black-and-white creature. Responding to the look of confusion on his face, the creature added, "Do you recall the way to the laboratory?"
"Sorry, I forgot," Harmony said desperately. "Would you mind showing me the way?"
The black-and-white creature smiled sadly. "Of course, young master, although I suspect your father will be disappointed. Remember, on your journey, you are expected to be able to travel without a minder."
Harmony began to suspect that due to his shorter stature and the way that the other creatures were treating him, he was considered a child, and the thought rather rankled. He was really getting tired of this transformation. "Not to worry," he said lightly. "I can navigate quite well on my own, as long as I have a map."
"Very good, young master," the creature replied. "I suspect they will furnish you with same at the laboratory. For now I will walk with you there if you still need a guide."
They set out along the path and passed out through a set of gates, and shortly they were in environs that Harmony found much more familiar, including a well-trod path through the forest. He began to feel almost cheerful with the smell of the trees around him and little glimpses of the sky and sunlight filtering down through the leaves.
They passed by various forks in the road marked by signs and arrowhead indicators that were covered in white scratchings he couldn't read. Finally they arrived at another straight-line dwelling, though not as large as the one he'd awoken in. In front of it was a gaggle of creatures with various colors of plumage, and, he was relieved to see, some actual people.
Among the creatures, who were talking and laughing with each other, were a number of snivy, oshawott, and tepig.
Excited, he ran up to them, gabbling and dropping to his absurd knees to be more at eye level.
"Hello! I was wondering if you could point me toward the Explorers' Guild, I was separated from my team and—uh…"
He trailed off, seeing the blank looks on the other people's faces.
"What are you talking about?" one of the tepig asked.
An oshawott peeled off and waved her paws at one of the two-legged creatures, who bent down to pick her up in their arms. They saw Harmony and frowned.
"What are you doing? These are our starters," they said.
Harmony waved a paw, placating, and backed off. He didn't understand any of this.
Obviously the people were pretty young. Maybe the creatures were fostering them, and he'd gone and approached their young unbidden. That would explain the hostility. He should have been able to judge age better, but in this shape, perhaps his senses were dull or scrambled.
"Come along, young master," the black-and-white creature said, coming up behind him. "You can play and make friends once you have your own pokémon."
Harmony nodded. When he'd awoken, the black-and-white creature had been a stranger to him, but it was funny how one would cling to something slightly more familiar in a sea of confusion. Gods of sea and sky, he needed to break this transformation. He could only 'play along' for so long.
Inside the new dwelling was yet another white rock room, it too with colourful panels and furniture. He didn't have time to study it as he was whisked in front of a brown-furred creature in white.
"Welcome! My name is Professor Juniper," they said. "Before we get started, please get set up with my assistant for your Trainer ID."
Harmony obediently faced yet another creature who was facing some kind of glowing panel, their paws clacking as they stared at it.
"Name?" the assistant said.
Harmony took a deep breath. "My name is Natural Harmony, a tropius. Listen, I—"
"Natural Harmonia Gropius," the assistant said, clacking. "That's a bit of a mouthful. Do you go by a nickname? Maybe 'Nat'? 'N-H'? 'N'?"
A buzzing sound, and he was handed a card and shooed away.
"I'm sure you've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Juniper said as Harmony rejoined them. "How are you feeling?"
Juniper laughed warmly. "I can believe it. This is a big day. Your very own pokémon adventure is about to unfold!"
What was a pokémon?
"Please, pick your starter pokémon."
She threw down things—red?—that Harmony only saw for a moment, but in a burst of light, suddenly there were people in front of him. A snivy, an oshawott, and a tepig looked up at him, and bizarrely, they looked hopeful. Yearning was written over every line of their faces.
"Go ahead and choose!"
His stomach was roiling, and he could taste the berry juice from earlier at the back of his throat. "Uh, I already have a partner," he managed to squeak out. What was a pokémon? These people? These people were pokémon?
"Do you? You can have as many pokémon as you like, although you can only carry six at a time. I'm sure your current pokémon would love to meet a new one!"
Carry? Have pokémon? Was she talking about eggs? Instantly whatever the situation was took on a sinister and disgusting turn.
"I'm—I'm not ready," Harmony stammered. And these people—these were children!
Instantly the red things were out and the people were gone again. The white-clad creature put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"It's all right. You don't have to pick now. I know choosing a starter is a lot of responsibility and excitement, and it can be overwhelming. You're strong to say you aren't ready. Come on."
The creature led him outside again, and he followed, nauseous. Now a number of the people—children—he'd seen were battling, each with a creature behind them, with some watching on the sidelines. The creatures seemed to alternately cheer them on or suggest moves to use. Finally, one snivy fell after a strong tackle from a tepig, and raced back to its creature.
It wasn't unknown for parents to offer battling wisdom to a child, but this kind of participation was bizarre. All of a sudden, the red things were in the creatures' hands, and the two children disappeared.
"What was that?" Harmony blurted out. "Where do those people keep going?"
The tall white-clad creature smiled gently at him. "Pokémon are kept in devices like this," they said, holding out a red-and-white sphere with a black line at its equator. "Pokéballs contain pokémon and keep them safe."
He picked up the orb in total confusion. "How—how do they fit?"
Another smile. "They're taken up as energy into the ball, and they sleep there until they're called again."
"They—can't they come out? When they want?"
"Oh, no—that would be very untidy—imagine if an onix let itself out in a building or a car or an airplane! Good trainers let their pokémon out daily," they added quickly, seeing distress spread over his features. "It's a big responsibility. That's why you should only catch as many as you can care for."
They trapped people in little prisons, and carried them around.
Harmony was starting to remember.
A long, long time ago, the sages said, a terrible creature had lived upon the earth and enslaved people. They had no powers, like people did; they were weak, and could be hurt easily, and took days and days to recover. But they were clever, incredibly clever, and they made many ingenious and terrible inventions. At last, one of those inventions had been used to destroy themselves.
He began to shake. In the yard, a swipe from one child had drawn blood on the other, and he had run back to his creature. Instead of taking the oshawott up in their arms, as a parent should have done, they were yelling for him to fight on.
"You… you force them to fight each other… to death…" he said faintly.
"No! No!" the white-clad creature said with growing concern. "Pokémon are healed at pokémon centers after battles. You would be a very bad, a very cruel trainer, if you forced them to fight after fainting."
"Who stops them? Who watches? That one wants to stop fighting, and they won't let him." He pointed at the oshawott and the creature.
The white-robed creature frowned. "He'll learn, they'll both learn. The boy will learn the limits of his pokémon. It's something every trainer has to learn."
"What if someone died? What if a…"—he spat the word—"pokémon died?"
"That's illegal. That trainer would be arrested."
"But not until someone died?"
The white-clad creature gave a nervous laugh. "This is a lot of questions! I think this has been a bit too much for you today. Why don't we call your parents?"
He rose to his weird creature feet. "I think you should stop this, and let them out!" he shouted. "You should let them all out! Why are you doing this? Where did you get these people to keep in balls? Where are their parents? Stop this! Stop all of it!" Tears were blurring his vision. He sank to his knees, covering his strange, flat face with his hands, and began to weep.
The white-robed creature stayed beside him, rubbing his shoulders. After some time he heard a familiar voice.
"Come now, young master."
The black-and-white creature helped him back to his dwelling, although he did not return by that main exit, but by one hidden behind the building in the forest land behind it. They brought him back to the room he had awoken in, provided a new set of clothing, and left and returned with another meal before finally leaving Harmony to his own thoughts.
Chief among them, ugly and crawling, was the thought that he was a long, long way away from the lands that he knew, and that his transformation was not to be a short one. Not at all.
But he couldn't sit and wait for his friends to find him. There were people, children, out there even now, snatched up from their parents and tucked into prisons for the amusement of demons.
He had to act.
"Is there anything else we can get for you, young master?" the black-and-white creature asked him, when they returned again.
"I need supplies for a journey—traveling clothes, water, berries, a map, tools," he said. "And please, no more of this 'young master' business—call me N."
A/N: Someone on the "Thousand Roads" discord posted the headcanon that N was a pokémon from the PMD world. Sometimes I Get An Idea.