In the darkness of night, a lone Umbreon dashed through the shadows.
Cursing at himself for agreeing to travel alone at such an hour, the darkling fox swiftly and silently bolted beneath the cover of dense foliage, hoping it would provide enough shelter for the swarm of demon ghosts to disregard his presence. He paused to catch his breath and survey his surroundings, watching in wait for another opening in the cloud of Watchers, an opportunity to advance further towards his destination.
The small yet strong Pokémon scanned the sky with his ruby eyes, watching the tide of the ghosts with all the disdain his heart could offer. He loved the night. He loved everything about it: the peace, the silence, the rush of energy as he would pounce from the shadows upon his unknowing prey, and most of all, the beauty of the moonlight and the stars. The darkness was his element; night was the only time he felt truly alive. He remembered the day that he had evolved, the day that the night had chosen him to be a child of the shadows, and he had so willingly accepted the offer, joyously sprinting through the gloomy forests and across the glistening hills in his restless new body…
And he remembered how the Watchers had taken the night away from him.
Slowly, through the years, they had emerged into the skies, multiplying somehow, until the visage of the stars became tainted by legions of terrible, unnatural figures after only some decades had passed. The night, which had once held him in its loving embrace, now sought to purge him.
Indeed, the Umbreon knew he could still dash through the night as fast as his paws would carry him, but it had become a joyless thing, something he did only because he needed to. It was, after all, the reason he served Scythe; his talent was to blend in with the shadows, to spy upon the oblivious, and to outrun the Watchers all on his own, making him a natural asset to his team. But on every occasion he could catch but a glimpse of the stars behind the veil of abominations which claimed the darkness from him, he remembered the reason he fought, and vowed to defy the Watchers until not one of them was left to stand between the night and the creatures it rightfully belonged to.
Steeling himself against these melancholy thoughts, the Umbreon caught notice of an invisible wind which swept the Watchers high above the treetops. Judging it was good enough, he tensed his muscles and bolted from his hiding place.
Imagining he was a Rapidash, or maybe a frightened Rattata running from a swooping raptor, the red-eyed fox sped across the road, watching the dusty ground reel past him. He knew he would be safely home in the Gold Division base within only a few hours if he kept a reasonable pace, and he longed for a good day's rest after a week of digging tunnels and hunting for wilds in the caverns of the canyon.
He already had his thoughts set on his next shelter point when he scaled a steep hill and nearly ran into the most horrendous swarm of Watchers he had witnessed in his life.
In a panic, the Umbreon scrambled his limbs to a stop and beheld the spectacle. A squall numbering in the thousands spanned the landscape, cutting off the road less than half a kilometer from where he stood. Captivated by the terrifying beauty of the swarm, the fox gave a quiet yowl, as though begging Arceus to tell him that what he saw was not real. He sat on the open road for a moment, his ears hanging at his sides and his eyes opened wide, before he wrestled control back from his heart.
"Alright, then, I guess we're taking the long way tonight," the fox muttered to himself, dashing back the way he came.
There was indeed another route back home, one which Team Remorse often took when they needed to pass through a small place called Ingrain Village. Unbeknownst to the Master or many of the surrounding towns, Ingrain Village was home to a secret greenhouse in which the highly-illegal invisify seeds were cultivated. Of course, being as illegal as they were, the resistance teams made frequent use of them for covert missions… those, at least, who could afford them. When Scythe discovered the hidden farm, he was quick to make a deal with its owners, freely doing favors for the family in return for great discounts on their priceless harvests…
The Umbreon soon plotted his course around the countryside and through Ingrain Village, knowing it would take several more hours to arrive back to the base, even at his maximum speed. He knew he would probably witness the dawn. But it was too late to turn back and spend the night at the canyon, so he grit his teeth and prepared for the long run ahead of him.
To his surprise, the Watchers left him alone for the next few hours, allowing him free reign to cover many miles without stopping to hide. He wondered if some arcane energy of Giratina's was drawing them into the great cloud he nearly ran into, but he did not complain. The sooner he could make it to Ingrain Village, the safer he would feel. He knew that the residents of the village lit a sol-rock torch on some nights in the town's square; he looked forward to stopping for shelter there, and perhaps staying the night if his muscles chose to collapse along the way.
When the village came into view, the Umbreon could tell the torch was lit. His magnificent night-vision told him so, picking out the gleam of the light's rainbow even at the edge of the horizon and upon the backdrop of the stars. He doubled his efforts, happy at the prospect of a respite from the frustration of the night's journey…
But as he grew closer, the Umbreon sensed something else stemming from the village: voices.
At first, he figured it was merely a group of Pokémon holding a conversation in the light of the sol-rock flame. But it soon became clear to the shadow-fox that there were many voices at once. Too many.
His instincts flared in his heart, warning him against running head-long into this congregation of Pokémon. He knew it wasn't natural for so many Pokémon to be gathering at this time of night.
And he knew that he needed to do what an Umbreon does best: wait in the shadows, unseen and undetected, and watch.
Focusing his mind, the Umbreon calmed himself, dimming the neon light from his own body until his rings became nearly as black as his fur, and his eyes darkened like a dying lantern. When he knew he was ready, he became one with the shadows and crept closer to the village. Silent as the wind, the Umbreon fell in line with the trees and trenches along the way, ensuring that not a single glint of light from the sol-rock would fall upon his form.
Drawing his claws, the fox sidled against the first building on the edge of town and carefully crept up the wall, holding himself steady on the nooks and crevices of the stone. Once on the roof, he found where the center cross-beam was hidden and gracefully straddled himself to the peak, the platform making not a single creak in protest of his weight.
Then, he cupped his ears to his head and narrowed his eyes, watching the Pokémon down below.
From the moment he focused on the crowd, he knew it had to be the entire population of the tiny village. Perhaps about fifty Pokémon in total, all speaking over one another, stood in orderly ranks by the light of the torch. Though he could not make out any words, the Umbreon figured they spoke in protest. He sensed fear in their voices; obviously fear of the Watchers above.
Squinting, he recognized several residents of the village, especially the Servine who tended the secret garden.
"This… this isn't natural," he muttered to himself, knowing the voices of the villagers would overpower any words he might speak into the wind. "What's the occasion, Ingrain Town? Why do you hold a night festival at this time of year?"
Then, he saw a Pokémon exit a nearby house, and the crowd went silent.
The Umbreon's blood ran cold. He held his breath hard, resisting the urge to howl in surprise. He felt a small tremor upon the shingles of the roof, and he knew it was his own trembling which caused it.
The Pokémon was a Nidoking. It stood tall and mighty, robed with eloquent plates of armor across his torso and shoulders. Strapped to his back was a massive weapon, a stone-colored battle-hammer, which he carried upon his person as though it weighed of feathers.
The Nidoking's eyes gleamed blood-red in the firelight.
"No…" the Umbreon gasped. "It was you…"
The terrified fox felt a convulsion in his rear legs, the instinct to flee and never look back. It nearly caused him to lose his balance and tumble from the roof. He pressed his claws deeply into the wooden shingles and tensed, holding every muscle still.
He couldn't deny that which he watched down below: the Pokémon that would surely be his undoing, and perhaps the undoing of an entire people. The great warlord strode around the townspeople as though assigning them orders, speaking with a deep, mellifluous voice.
"It was… it was you all along," the Umbreon hissed into the wind, contempt mounting in his heart greater than any he held for the corrupted ghosts. "You're behind all this…"
It was worse than he could have feared. And with Scythe still missing, he wondered if the canyon and all of the sacred feral-shards within would be lost forever to the Master.
He knew they had to know. He needed to return to the Gold Division alive and give his report, a report of something he knew he should have never been allowed to witness.
"Well, then," the Umbreon snarled quietly, scorning the figure of his great enemy. "Wait 'till the others hear this. You may have hidden from us for this long, but Remorse will not fall so easily, poison scum. Now we will see who you are in the dark, Starborn…"
After hearing the news that his mentor had returned alive, Char wasn't sure how to feel.
Something went wrong, he told himself as he hurried upstairs with his friends. I just know something went wrong. He wasn't supposed to come back this soon. Or was he? Did he defeat Adiel? Was it really that easy? No, it couldn't be... Something had to have gone wrong!
Char almost didn't want to see. He kept imagining Scythe limping back into the base covered with cuts and bruises, or with chips in his blades, or worse: having been touched by another Watcher, turned into a crazed, demonic lunatic…
When he ascended the final flight of stairs and dashed toward the entrance lobby, he found a small congregation of eager Pokémon waiting to welcome the old hero back from the field. Shander and a few members of Team Remorse were there. Legend and several Team Flamewheel members were there. Joining them were some kids from Team Stripes, Seviper from Team X, and a few Pokémon he didn't recognize.
All of these Pokémon, about a dozen and a half in the welcoming committee, crowded around a Scyther who appeared quite cheerful, energetic, and unhurt.
Blinking in surprise, Char took his place at the back of the congregation – he didn't want to force his way through – and watched as the Scyther happily greeted the Gold Division's associates.
"Rumors of your demise were, as usual, quite exaggerated," Daemon spoke, hiding his relief behind a mask of gruff formality. "You always seem to fly off at the times of greatest inconvenience, and though at times I've strongly considered burning your wings off to make you stay put, I've learned better than to worry when you leave on your own. You have your reasons. It is a shame we cannot always know about them in a timely manner."
Scythe cast a burning glare at his partner, but it soon melted away into a chuckle. "Forgive me, Daemon. I can't always plan for these things to happen," he replied. "Please spare my wings; I think they still have a bit of use left in them."
"Scythe… we just got worried when Team Ember came back and you weren't with them," Shander said, fretting his claws together. "You didn't tell us of any plans you had, you sent us no news…"
"I know, and I would have, if I had the chance," Scythe replied, looking his best friend in the eye. "I did not have a pair of hands with which to compose a message, and I couldn't risk trusting a stranger and giving away my position. I am quite happy to have my hands back again." He broke his gaze with the Sandslash, glancing around at the crowd. "Speaking of Team Ember, are they here yet? Taka? Did you get them?"
"We're—We're here!" Ray cried, jumping into the air. "Right here! Scythe!"
The crowd parted, giving the Scyther a clear view of Char and his companions. Scythe appeared very pleased, wearing a gleaming grin as he stepped forward and closed the distance between them. Beaming with pride, he knelt to their eye level.
"It was you I was the most worried about, in the end," Scythe said with gentleness. "After we separated, I did not know what would become of you. I cannot express how overjoyed I am to see you all standing here. Ahh, and I see your Otto has finally been released from training! You must be running missions by yourself! Are you all doing well?"
"We're doing fine; how are you?!" Saura cried incredulously. "How did it go? Did your plan work?"
A different expression flashed across the Scyther's eyes, momentarily breaking his high spirit. "In truth, I do not know if it has worked," he replied, lowering his voice. "Like most plans, it was not something which could be over and done with in an instant. I have merely planted seeds. Now it is time for me to withdraw and watch in wait, to see if my seeds bear fruit. But!" He stood up, a smile gleaming upon face again, "For now, I am just happy to have avoided death yet again. Let me enjoy that, at the very least!"
Char didn't know what to say. He merely gaped at the Scyther as he smiled and laughed along with all the Pokémon.
This, truly, was the old Scythe. The one which he knew from his first days. The one which had died on that night in the hall when Alakazam had given him the news of Temporal Tower. Whatever it was, be it the pressure not to fail or the reemergence of Adron the Terrible, it was completely gone, leaving the Scyther a happy and free-spirited Pokémon.
Char couldn't help but smile at the Scyther's good fortune.
He fell back, allowing Scythe's other acquaintances to flood into his place, letting them have their opportunities to speak with the hero. After exchanging a few more glad words with them, the crowd parted and allowed a different Pokémon, one of much notability and stature, to approach him.
"Scythe, we at last meet again," an Infernape said in a deep voice, genuflecting in reverence and placing his hand on his heart.
Scythe blinked, wearing a stunned expression for a moment. Prince smiled wryly as he stood back up, though he kept his head slightly tilted downward in honor.
"Prince…" Scythe mouthed, wincing in surprise. "This is… the last place I expected to see you. What brings you so far south?"
"Did you miss me?" Prince said, motioning his hand to indicate Legend and Kabir, his teammates, standing at his side. "I and my associates have returned here, to the division where we truly belong, never to leave again. Though it might be a bit late in coming, I… once again stand by your side, old friend."
"Prince…" Scythe repeated, failing to restrain another burst of laughter. "Prince! Well met, indeed! We… we have so much to discuss… I—I only regret that I have handed over your old base to another team. Has Alakazam accommodated you well? Do you have everything you need?"
"I and my team are perfectly happy, Scythe," Prince said kindly. "We have everything Lucario never allowed us: an endless supply of resources, a short walk to the base's facilities, good company, and gorgeous, sunny weather up above the surface… In truth, all I was missing was you."
Char watched the heartfelt reunion unfold. Scythe almost looked like he wanted to cry joyous tears for once, but he dutifully held them back.
"Prince is an old friend, I assume?" Otto remarked quietly from Char's side. "I have heard of him, but never assumed he was a significant figure."
"Yeah, Prince and Scythe are old friends," Saura replied. "It's… a long story. A very long story. We'll… tell you sometime."
"Maybe we won't have to," Char mentioned. "Legend is here now. Maybe he'll tell the story sometime."
Char glanced at the Ninetales with the fiery eyes who was clearly honored to witness the momentous reunion. When Scythe's attention fell upon the golden fox, he returned a fierce, fang-filled smile and poured out eloquent words of adoration and welcome, half of which Char couldn't even understand.
Then something else caught Char's eye. At the other end of the crowd, behind where Legend had been standing, there was another Pokémon. One that he recognized.
She was clearly in high spirits, perhaps happy to see her lifelong guardian reunited with his old friend. She smiled and laughed with the rest of the party, and even exchanged a few words with Scythe.
Then, her gaze met with Char's, and her smile vanished.
It lasted just a few seconds, Char's heart pounding in dread as the Bayleef's gaze burned into him, an emotion of displeasure welling behind her eyes. Their gazes were mercifully broken when Kain, the large Luxray who lead Team Absolution, strutted between them.
"Eiiaah!" Char emitted, wincing back. "Lily's here…"
"Lily?" Saura yelped, the same look of fear overcoming his own face, his gaze darting around. "Where? Oh… oh, right! She lives here now…" The Bulbasaur's breath left him as the revelation set in.
"Lily… is an old enemy, I assume?" Otto said, tilting his head as he observed the strange reactions his teammates were giving.
"Something like that, yeah," Ray said, pointing back at the stairs. "Hey, look, there are more Pokémon coming. Heh… so many Pokémon had heard Scythe died or something, now they want to see him again. This place is getting pretty crowded. We should head back, we're probably not going to get to talk with him again."
"Yeah!" Saura and Char replied without hesitation. "We can talk to him tomorrow! Let's go!"
With that, Team Ember bolted back for the staircase, with Otto fluttering behind oddly, wondering what had suddenly gotten into his companions.
… … …
"We're going to have to talk to her eventually," Saura said from his bed as Char paced anxiously in front of his fireplaces. "We can't just… avoid her forever, now that she's in the Division with us. Though I wish we could."
"I don't understand," Otto said, sitting in his own nest-bed next to Saura's. "How do you come to be enemies with a Bayleef? You could easily defeat her in battle. You have many advantages, not just in numbers but with type affinities."
"Long, long, long story," Ray sighed, rubbing his own head and playing with some webs of static that leaped from the tips of his ears. "Short version of the long story: we used to be friends, but then we turned on her and knocked her out. This was on the Temporal Tower mission, mind you."
"You betrayed her," Otto said, wide-eyed. "You poisoned your alliance with her. This makes sense to me now."
"Not—not really!" Char cried defensively. "We didn't betray her! She betrayed us… We were just… defending against her."
"I wouldn't say that, actually," Saura said sadly. "Scythe betrayed Prince, and she sided with Prince… so yeah, we did kinda betray her, technically. Ahh… I don't know what we're gonna do."
"Do you fear that she will strike back when you are not prepared?" Otto wondered.
"N—no, not really," Char answered awkwardly.
"What threat does she pose to you, then?" Otto replied, looking even more confused. "If she poses no threat, you should have no fear."
"Aiie! It's not that easy, Otto!" Char burst out in frustration, his flaring tail whipping through the air as he turned. "It's not just about threat assessments and type advantages and –"
He stopped himself in mid-outburst, clamping his mouth shut. Otto gazed at him with a blank, perfectly baffled expression.
"Alright, the thing is, I've… never really had an enemy before," Char tried to explain. "At least, not one who used to be a friend. I just don't know how to act toward her now. Everything I think of, it feels wrong. It's like nothing I say to her is going to matter. It feels so awkward. Don't you know what awkwardness feels like, Otto?"
Otto blinked for a moment. "No, I do not," he said plainly. "I have heard the word before, but I am unable to determine what it means. Is it an important concept? Someday I might learn."
"Never mindddd," Char moaned, dropping back into his bed. Ray couldn't restrain a snicker, and Char cast him an evil glare.
As the flustered Charmander cursed quietly to himself, the flames beside him turned blue. It had gotten quite late. It reminded Char that, despite the reappearance of his old acquaintances, he still had plans for tomorrow.
"Ahh, let's get some rest," Char suggested. "We gotta go to Shale Cave tomorrow, remember… look for that Bagon."
The team tried to calm their spooked hearts and settle into rest… except for Otto, who spent a few minutes thinking about the odd enmity between his team and the Bayleef before effortlessly falling asleep.
… … …
The weary Umbreon staggered through his team's door, his journey ended at last.
In his mad sprint to return, he had spent the last of his energy from every muscle he could feel, and arrived back to the base just an hour before dawn. He stared at the ground as he tried to keep his balance on his feet, not realizing his teammate was trying to get his attention.
"What in the blazes, Raon?!" the Nidoking asked, holding the door open for him. "You were supposed to be back earlier than this! Go, get your rest!"
But the fox had no intention of sleeping just yet.
"Call… meeting…" he mumbled, walking past the doorway which led to his bed, and turning toward the war room.
Nidoroch flinched. "Call a meeting? At this hour? Raon, everyone's asleep, and we're not—"
Saying nothing, the Umbreon turned and glared at the Nidoking.
"Meeting, right," Nidoroch said, seeing the ghastly glaze upon his teammate's red eyes. "Well… just don't expect everyone to be happy about it… We haven't slept much… Though I see you're clearly worse off than we are right now, so. Right, meeting. I'll get right on it."
… … …
Within minutes, the war-room of Team Remorse was packed with grumpy and half-asleep Pokémon. Daemon stood at the head of the table with Scythe sat at his side. The Scyther appeared especially detached and inattentive, his gaze wandering across the walls of the room. Daemon knew that his leader did not often have the opportunity to sleep, and for once, he decided to take pity upon the Scyther. Clearly, his dreams still danced before his eyes.
"Raon, you called this meeting," Daemon grunted, though not with the usual edge and fervor to his voice. "I believe I speak for everyone in this room when I say that this had better be an emergency."
The Umbreon appeared forlorn, his ears drooping at his sides and his eyes downcast with despair. Reluctantly, he propped himself upon the table's surface and took a deep breath.
"It's… the Starborn," Raon confessed. "He's after us…"
There was a murmur of surprise about the room.
"Ahy, I wouldn't have believed it," Marrow growled. "Haven't seen him in action for ages. Never would've guessed…"
"Are we sure it's him?!" Craw screeched, slamming his claws upon the table. "Do we have proof?! We have suspected him for months, but we can't afford a blind assumption."
"Well, tell us what you saw," Daemon commanded. "From the beginning."
The weary fox took a deep breath, trying with all his might to remain awake. The table on which he planted his paws kept turning into the rooftop in his mind, the rooftop over which he had glimpsed at the terrible enemy.
"Last night," Raon explained, "I was returning from the canyon. As you know, I was alone. The taskforces were running short of food, and I stayed behind to hunt in the dungeons for wilds. Ah, I was lucky; the Watchers gave me enough space to flee without needing to fight. But when I reached the junction, there was a massive cloud of Watchers…, so I decided to go the long way around, through Ingrain Village…"
Staring at the grains in the table, the Umbreon clenched his teeth together and softly growled.
"…and he was there," Raon barked. "It was him. He was speaking to the villagers at Ingrain. He was commanding them."
The room erupted in surprise.
"Hard to believe!" Marrow retorted. "He would never let himself be seen! Even by night… The Starborn would never let himself be seen."
"He didn't see me," Raon sighed. "He didn't know I was there. You don't think I know how to stay unseen, Jake? He probably thought the cover of the Watchers was enough. No, but I knew those eyes the moment I saw them. No other Nidoking has those red eyes…"
"What, but this means… the invisible seeds!" the Breloom cried. "Cepheus must know about them now! If he was in the town, there's no way he doesn't know!"
"He'd have known about them longer than that, I'd take it!" the Nidoking grumbled. "Could it be that is why the Servine were always so kind to us? Could it be that he and his family were controlled by the Starborn? Were they using the seed farm to keep an eye on our travels to and from the canyon?! We must cut off our ties with the Servine immediately."
"No, we shouldn't," Shander noted. "That will just let the Starborn know that we are onto his plan. We must continue to purchase seeds from him as normal. Perhaps in the process we can begin to feed him lies about our tactics."
The room fell silent at Daemon's roar.
"Is that all?" The hound asked, turning his attention again to the Umbreon.
Raon growled once more, lifting his gaze to his teammates. "That's all of it, from the beginning," he sighed. "It's Cepheus. He's the one we're up against at the canyon. Not Adiel."
There was a ghastly look upon Daemon's face. "It is true, then," he spoke. "We were wrong. All of us were wrong. Even you, Scythe."
"Yes, I can see this," Scythe grunted, staring at the floor deep in his thoughts. "The question now is… what must change? What can we do about this?"
"For starters, we will need more than just Absolution's help," Daemon decided. "We have been duped, and it's far too late to correct our mistakes on our own. We will need more help. Perhaps Team Membrane would accept an offer, if we were to persuade them… or perhaps… Mercenaries from Nincadia. Shander, find a list of all the idle teams, and the high-ranking mercenaries who are in town at the moment, and… find everything you can. And we will weigh our options. Who else can we ask? Team Dread, perhaps? Perhaps…"
"Team Flamewheel," Scythe suddenly blurted.
There was a sudden quiet in the room as soon as the Scyther spoke up. He was still staring at the floor, contemplating things. Either that, or he was still half asleep.
"Prince? Really?" Raptor, the Gabite, gasped. "You think he'll be willing to put his team on the line so soon after settling here?"
"He seemed willing enough when I met with him last night," Scythe replied, his eyes now closed. "I doubt he will turn down an opportunity to work with us again."
"It is an option worth exploring, yes," Daemon decided, looking pleased. "Good, Scythe. When you're good and awake, talk to Prince and explain our situation to him."
The dark hound paced around the floor, his fire churning with unease. So many changes in plans had to be made, now that the true enemy had revealed itself. An enemy which he might not have the strength to defeat in the end.
"This raises many issues," Daemon said loudly, pacing around the table. "I suppose the first one we should resolve is that of Ember. Intelligence has trusted us with their safety; since their return, Alakazam continues to reiterate to me, almost on a daily basis, that they are our highest priority. It raises my suspicions about what you learned in the northern lands…"
"Classified," Scythe said simply. "I will tell you only when I am allowed to."
"I have figured," Daemon replied coldly. "But the fact remains, with such a notorious enemy loose in the wild so close to here, I regret to say, we cannot allow Ember to function as a self-contained team until further notice. Though I was proud to see them beginning to break our ties with us, they cannot carry on missions by themselves at the moment. Scythe… you have always been the one to accompany them. What are your thoughts?"
"Hmm, I think it's someone else's turn," Scythe said wearily, slouched in his chair with his eyes closed tightly. "Anyone volunteer to take my place, and run missions with Char?"
Team Remorse was quick to hush themselves. Daemon peered around the table, wondering who would be the new guide and mentor for the small team. Wondering if anyone cared to speak up.
"Aye, it'll be me, then," Marrow said. "I'll take Team Ember duties. It'd be fun."
"Very well, you've got them for the week," Daemon grunted. "Sign yourself as a mentor on their mission reports, and you'll be allowed to accompany their four-member team on missions without breaking the group limits."
"I know," Marrow replied. "I've been a tagalong plenty of times before. I know how it works."
"Then go, have your fun with the kids," Daemon said. "Keep them alive, and I suppose the rest of us will need to begin thinking about how to proof the canyon against… the falling star."
In a huff, Daemon walked out the door, concluding the meeting. "As for the rest of you, we have twenty minutes until the torches turn," he called. "Get your sleep."
… … …
In the morning, Char and his team were awake bright and early, making the final preparations for the Shale Cave mission. Just as Scythe had taught them, they assembled the provisions in the peace and security of their own team hallway, avoiding the mad rush that was surely just beginning downstairs at the shop and the cafeteria.
Ray traced his paw over the Map of Jirachi one last time, committing to memory the route to the dungeon, before rolling it up and sliding it into the bag. Char sorted through some seeds and spare food from the closet, tossing a dried apricot to Otto, who swallowed it whole as though it had been a worm. After making his selections, he gathered them along with the satchel which held the frozen flame to Ray, who fitted them into the empty pouches of the bag.
"Alright, Shale Cave's not that far, and it's not a hard dungeon," Char reminded the team as they fitted into their emerald scarves. "We shouldn't even need the rescue emblems."
"Ah, let's not get too cocky," Ray said. "Let's take 'em anyway. Arceus knows what might happen."
"It should be easy, yes," Otto said as Ray tightened a zinc-band around his leg for him. "The dungeon is six floors, with no powerful Pokémon, and a relay point between floors three and four. The frozen flame should allow Char to confront the rock-Pokémon with no oppression."
*BAM! BAM! BAM!*
There was a pounding at Team Ember's door, giving everyone in the room a terrible start. Char froze in fight, bracing himself in case the intruder would break the door down.
"What…?" Saura croaked, lowering his voice. "Who could that be? This early?"
Char shook his head. Hey, Eva? he tried, sending his thoughts into the nearby chamber with the closed door. Eva, are you awake, by chance?
I am now, she replied with grumpy telepathy. What's the matter?
Who's at the door? Char asked her. Can you tell?
Char, you keep asking this. Perhaps you should invest in a peep-hole, Eva replied bitterly. Ahh, and besides, I can't tell. It's a member of Team Remorse… that's all I can garner. Just don't let them see me here, please.
Thank you… and sorry, it won't happen again, Char sent back to the Espeon. Under his breath, he repeated the revelation. "Team Remorse," he mouthed, contemplating. "It can't be Scythe… can it?"
"Team Emberrr!" an unexpected voice sang from behind the door. "Are you awake?"
"That's not Scythe," Ray said, crawling up to the door. "Hold on, I'll just answer it."
Ray slid the door open, revealing a brown Pokémon with a wicked-looking skull covering its head. It wielded a bludgeon-sided bone, which it had clearly been bashing against the door.
"Oh, so you're already awake and ready? Good going," the brown reptile said. "Honestly I wasn't expecting you to be so responsible on your own. No, no! I didn't mean it like that. Really, you're doing a good job."
"Marrow! What's up?" Ray replied oddly, as soon as he had the opportunity to get a word in.
"What's up is that… well, Remorse has had something of an emergency," Marrow said politely. "And I was wondering if you'd let me tag along on your mission today. And… for the rest of the week, if it wouldn't be too much of a bother."
Team Ember collectively froze in silence for a moment.
"I – uh," Char tried to say, baffled at the offer. "What's the matter?"
"The matter is that there's been trouble," Marrow explained. "Scythe and Daemon don't want you running your own missions right now, so they sent someone. And that someone is me. Actually, I volunteered! I was itching to do something other than just running to Red Haven every week."
Char paused, not quite knowing how to respond. While he wasn't exactly displeased at the offer, he was plainly confused.
"Hmm," Saura tried to say. "But Alakazam told us we were on our own from now on."
"Well, I'm gonna go ahead and side with Scythe on this one," Marrow said, sighing a little and leaning on his bone like a crutch. "He insists you guys still need your training, so… well, yeah. To be honest, I believe ya, I bet you're fine all by yourselves, really, I do. But Scythe and Daemon just don't want to take any risks right now..."
"Guys… maybe Scythe's right," Ray said, putting the bag back on the floor momentarily. "Maybe Scythe knows something. Maybe Adiel's gonna be after our guts now. So maybe he needs to keep an eye on us…"
"Like the Etcher Ravine mission!" Saura gasped, the terrible memories flooding back to him. "Yeah… You know, when you put it that way…"
There was another pause. Char groaned in his indignation, remembering very well what happened at the ravine.
"Alright, that's fine," Char decided, shrugging. "Marrow can come."
"At your service," Marrow said, twirling his bone at his side and slinging it over his shoulder. "Let's be off. Where're we headed today, Char?"
"Shale Cave, for a rescue mission," Char explained. "We don't even have to find the missing Pokémon, and we'll get our reward anyway as long as we look through the whole dungeon. Should be a piece of cake."
Ray looked surprisingly excited. "Oh, wow. So this means we get you for a whole week?" he beamed. "Marrow the Fearless? Thanks for offering to help us. Thank you so much… I've always wanted to run a mission with you!"
"Don't thank me yet, we haven't done anything!" Marrow laughed. "We can start by getting out of here, right? Let's hit the road. Daylight's wastin'."
And so, Char embarked from his base with a full, strong team following his lead.
Well, this is just a spectacularly fortunate turn of events, Eva said with heavy sarcasm just as Char was walking out of range of her thoughts.
Char cringed; the telepathy from Eva was intensely bitter, moreso than he had ever heard from her before. Through it, he thought he could feel the Espeon angrily gouging her claws into the stone.
I suppose this means I won't be assisting on your missions for some time, Eva growled. Not if Scythe is going to be sending his assistants with you every day. Indeed, I sure do enjoy being locked up in dark rooms for weeks upon end. Letting my mind rot in the dark with no sun, no mind-waves… Cresselia will have my most sincere regards!
Eva… We'll figure something out, Char called back to her as they marched through the Division halls. I promise. We'll think of something. If I have anything to do with it, we'll think of something.
The early autumn morning was just as pleasant as ever as the oversized team left the city limits of Iron Town. Small clouds speckled the sky, threatening to drop no more than perhaps a dribble of rain across the flatlands later in the afternoon.
"Lovely day," Marrow said, his club slung over his shoulder. "Good day for some good old-fashioned dungeon crawling. Sometimes I really miss these simple missions, y'know. Ahh, the days when missions lasted one day, the stakes were small, and the only politics I had to learn was the most polite way to bash in a feral's head. Then I joined Scythe's team. Thought, 'Hey, time to move up to bigger missions, longer dungeons, stronger teams.' Nnn-ope. Learned the hard way that when you play at Scythe's league, the game changes into something else completely. Ya really learn the difference between just running around finding spare change for your team and striking real blows against the Master. This is a war, and when you're on the front line, you push forward and gain ground. Everyone else is just support, really, running behind you."
Char trailed behind the bone-collector Pokémon, barely listening to his rambling. Though he was happy about having a strong team at his side, his mind was absorbed with worry. What would he say to Lily? What would he do about Eva? And perhaps most importantly, what was bothering Team Remorse?
"'Course, you being who you are, Char, you'll probably never end up on the front lines, really," Marrow continued, eyeing Char through the large holes in his skull helmet. "Alakazam gave us direct orders to keep you safe. So, you'll probably be stuck doing these simple dungeon missions 'till the end of your days. Pity… Or really, it's kind of a blessing, if you think of it that way."
No problem there, Char thought to himself. After Temporal Tower, I don't want to think about huge missions for a while. Simple daily missions are fine by me. At least for now.
"So uh, Marrow, what's going on with your team?!" Ray said curiously. "What's the big emergency? What's going on at the canyon? Are you going to be alright?"
"Don't think it'd be my place to tell you right now," Marrow said, peering at the eager mouse. "Classified. Sorry, Rai. But I guess I can say this much: the arena of war has changed for us, and we're tryin' to figure out how to adapt with what little time we've got left."
"…Oh," Ray replied. "Well, I'm sure you'll do fine! Especially now that Scythe's back! You'll figure it out."
"I wouldn't be all that certain," Marrow said, his voice suddenly foreboding. "But I appreciate the thoughts."
Once the morning sun had freed itself from the horizon, Iron Town was far behind. All that lay ahead was the flat, featureless wasteland known as the Iron Outskirts and the road which ran through it.
"How 'bout we pick up the pace around here, Ember?" Marrow said. "At this rate, the walk's about to take longer than the dungeon."
"Nah, honestly, this is fine," Saura said, grinning back to him. "The weather's too nice. I want to enjoy it for a little while."
"Ah, right, you were up north," Marrow said with a knowing nod. "So, are you gonna tell me what it was like? Everyone's dying to know what you found out, you know that, right?"
Saura cast a worried glance at Char. "Uh, we're not sure what we're supposed to say just yet," Char replied. "Alakazam wanted us to keep quiet about most of these things."
"Right, right…" Marrow said, pretending for a moment to understand. "Well, are you still gonna tell us? Alakazam doesn't need to know…" His voice was bursting with sarcastic enthusiasm.
Char sighed. "Why don't you ask Scythe to tell you?" he said with a hint of incredulousness. "Scythe never has problems spilling his secrets to you guys."
The Marowak glanced at the ground. "Well, Scythe's been all, uh… he hasn't talked at us much, but he's been mum about everything that happened up there, too," Marrow admitted. "He says the same thing: 'Can't tell yah because Alakazam doesn't want it. Classified, classified,' and to be frank, that's not really like him. Scythe always speaks his mind. So all I can garner is that something real, real big happened up there…"
The Marowak wore a mischievous grin. "Honestly, we were hoping that you would be easier to break, Char," he said. "Me an' the whole team are dying to know what's goin' on."
Char grinned. "Alright, I'll make you a deal," he said, reveling his in own brilliant idea. "You tell me what's going on with Team Remorse, and I'll tell you a little bit about what happened up north. Fair?"
"Hmm! Very tempting," the Marowak hummed, peering at Char with his yellow eyes. "Alright, I give. Let's start with you, then. First thing: why in the blazes is Prince back? Can you at least tell me that? Not to say that's a bad thing; we're happy to see him again, of course. It was just a crazy surprise."
"He's back because Lucario kicked him out of the Emerald Division," Ray said, answering for Char. "It was terrible. The Call went off, and it called all the Watchers into the base, and Lucario just said, 'Lily's leaving, you can leave with her or not,' and…"
"And what?" Marrow cried, stopping in his tracks. "Well, don't stop there! You were just getting to the good part!"
The Marowak turned around to find that all of Team Ember had frozen, their faces contorted into the most ridiculous expressions of awkwardness he had ever seen.
Char was the first to snap out of it. "Ah, sorry, it just reminded me of something," he admitted. "We're kinda enemies with Lily now. And since she lives in the Gold Division, it's not very good news for us."
"Enemies? With that sweet little Bayleef? How in the world…?" Marrow gawked.
"We, uh, kind of knocked her out of the dungeon," Ray admitted. "We ganged up on her and we got her expelled from the dungeon. Char even… set her on fire."
"Oooh… well that's fascinating," Marrow hummed, setting the end of his bone onto the road, and leaning onto it in fascination. "What in the world would have prompted you to do that? Wait, don't tell me… The dungeon brainwashed her and turned her evil? Confusion attack? Wait, no. That wouldn't make sense. She would have understood. Hmm… curious. Alright, alright. You don't need to tell me if you're not ready. But… any plans to talk to her about it? Any plans to apologize? She's a real rational one, if I'm recalling correctly…"
Team Ember didn't reply. Char, Saura, and Ray hung their heads in shame.
"You're real afraid, aren't you?" Marrow said in a lower voice. "Well… go on, admit it. First step to overcoming fear is to admit you're afraid."
Char sighed and nodded his head. "Alright, yeah. I admit it. I'm afraid of Lily a little bit. Happy? Alright, your turn, Marrow. Tell us what the big emergency was."
The Marowak eyed the sky, noticing only the Pidgey who hovered in lazy circles below the crowds.
"I've noticed you've gotten yourself a bird on your team now," the Marowak said, eyeing the sky. "Bet he's real helpful, isn't he?"
"Oh yeah, you bet!" Ray beamed. "Never believed we made it without him to begin with."
"'Course, You know why there's no bird on our team, right?" Marrow said wryly. "Birds are easy to spot. Your eye-in-the-sky there has got a real hard task, flying around in feral patterns and making sure it doesn't look like he's following anyone. If Scythe ever wants a bird for a job, he hires a temporary helper from Silverwing. Otherwise… you wouldn't believe the kinds of jobs that had been ruined because the enemy spotted the bird. Scythe finds it's just best not to bother."
Char gulped, realizing he had never thought of it that way. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if letting Otto fly perimeter was a good idea after all, especially on a day when Team Remorse was in panic from some new, unseen threats.
Reluctantly, he signaled the little Pidgey down from the sky.
"Do you need something?" Otto inquired, pulling out of his dive and leveling into a glide beside the team.
"Yeah," Char told him. "Stay down here for now."
"Fine," Otto replied, gliding forward and perching on the back of the large bone club which Marrow held over his shoulder. "You told me to watch for Team X; have you decided they are no longer a threat?"
"Hah, no," Char said. "I don't care about Team X. Although, I still need to talk to those guys. Remind me later, alright?"
"Noted," Otto said.
Char waited, but Marrow didn't say anything more. He figured the Marowak was avoiding his question.
"Well…?" Ray prodded. "You were going to say something too, weren't you?"
"Alright, alright, I'll tell you a bit," Marrow said reluctantly, tilting his club to give Otto better balance. "The truth of it is, a new enemy has appeared. Looks like we're going against Cepheus, an old Nidoking friend of Scythe's. And when I say 'friend,' I mean someone who was nearly his undoing on many occasions. He's a deadly one. Hard to say what the fate of the canyon will be after this."
"Cepheus…?" Ray repeated. "I feel like I've heard that name before… Well, I'm sure you'll do fine! If you can send Adiel running, you can defeat Cepheus, I'm sure!"
"Well, uh, in many ways, Cepheus is much worse than even Adiel," Marrow said. "Adiel's a commander and general of the Master's army, and he's good at what he does, sure. But Cepheus has the advantage of being the emperor of his own little part of Ambera over in the far east, and so he has a bit more skill when it comes to knowing how to lead people. Honestly, he could probably take the Master's throne and do a decent job of running the country. He doesn't just know how to lead a military; he knows how to lead a whole nation. And that's part of what makes him frightening."
"You're not really afraid of him, are you?" Ray said, trying to be encouraging. "Marrow the Fearless isn't afraid of anyone!"
"Hah, hah-hah. Nah, Rai, trust me. I'm afraid, just like everyone else," the Marowak said plainly and unashamedly. "The whole 'fearless' thing is… well, you might say that it's a mask I wear. It helps me to overcome my fears to imagine myself as a knight in ivory armor. But really… We're afraid of Cepheus like nothing else. See… the last time we butted heads with Cepheus… that was when your brother disappeared."
Ray froze. His smile vanished, and his eyes gazed vacantly at the horizon.
"Brother…?" he repeated quietly, looking dazed.
"Yeah, and the bad part is, we don't even know how it happened," Marrow continued, pausing in the middle of the road. "We were tasked with building a resistance outpost west of the Master's castle, really far west by the sea, close to Great Crystal City if you know where that is. That was our job, and we knew we were up against Cepheus, one of Scythe's old acquaintances. So we started our work, and we thought, 'Alright, let's see how our enemy operates, to get an idea of what kind of resistance we need to put up,' but… we didn't see anything. We kept out our sentries, our spies, our eyes in the sky… no one spotted any enemy movements. It was as though Cepheus didn't exist. And then, just as our task was nearly finished and the new base was nearly fortified… he showed up with ten thousand soldiers and destroyed it all right before our very eyes. Somehow, he knew our position, our vulnerabilities, the combination to every lock, the layout of our defense, the map of the base itself… No one knows why it happened. He just knew."
The Marowak sighed sadly. "And when we picked up the pieces and went home, we never saw Rautzen again," he said. "What a great Pokémon he was… just vanished into thin air. We think he fell in battle, but there's no way of knowing for sure."
"And… that's when Daemon came to get me," Ray realized, his voice heavy and sad. "That's when I joined the Gold Division…"
"I believe so, yes," Marrow replied. "But yeah, you want your answer to what's bothering us? That's your answer. We still don't know what went wrong back then. Baffles us even to this day. Adiel, at least we can figure him out sometimes… Adiel likes to make you fear. He just loves to just show bits and pieces of himself and make you squirm. He's always spying on you, and he wants you to know that, so you'll be paranoid and at every turn. That's how he works. He weakens you with fear, then he strikes. But Cepheus is a bit different. He works by… knowing exactly what you're going to do, when you're going to do it, how you're going to do it, without you ever knowing he's there. Then he just storms in and catches you at your most vulnerable moment, and… it's all over. And the scary thing is, we don't even know how he knows. He just knows. And now, if we want Basin Canyon back to get feral-shards into the economy again, we're up against him."
Ray looked at the ground, lost in his own world. Char wondered if he would begin crying. He wanted to help his teammate somehow, to give him words of encouragement, but he didn't want to broach the topic of Ray's brother. He knew it was sensitive to him. It was the second time in recent memory that something had caused pain to the Raichu; Char was becoming worried for him.
"Y'see, these are the reasons I don't like talking about my secrets!" Marrow said with a bitter laugh. "Because it just causes tears, y'know?"
"Marrow," Ray said softly, "Is there anything I can do to help? Help against this Cepheus, I mean? If he killed my brother… I want to help you fight him."
"Well, little Rai, you could do what your brother would always do for us," the Marowak said kindly. "Help us keep a smile on our faces! Help us remind Scythe that he's the best resistance team leader ever, help remind me that I'm a fearless knight, that sort of thing! You know, that was your brother's secret. That's why Scythe and the rest of us loved having him around all the time. They might be lies… but some lies become true if say them enough, y'know?"
Ray just smiled. "I know," he simply replied.
Char watched as the Raichu's smile returned, and he knew his teammate would be alright. But it gave him something else to think about: that there was a foe on the loose, perhaps worse than Adiel, who was adept at espionage. Though he knew this Cepheus character didn't have any personal vendetta against him, he wondered what it would mean for Scythe's team, and for the resistance as a whole, if Basin Canyon were to fall.
And besides, he was really starting to look forward to getting his hands on the fabled feral-shards that the canyon held. He knew his own evolution was far overdue.
Well, if this Cepheus hasn't brought down the Gold Division yet, then he obviously has his limitations, Char decided. There's got to be reasons this Cepheus guy is so smart. Team Remorse will find his weaknesses, and when they do, they'll win. Just like they always do. I shouldn't worry about it. I really shouldn't.
After the awkward talk, the team continued down the road towards the cave where they would search for the Bagon. Char thought about asking the Marowak something else, or bringing up another topic of conversation, when suddenly the bone-knight decided to diverge from the team and step off the road.
"Well, this seems like far enough," he noted to himself, standing tall and peering toward the shadow of the plateau. "Comin', guys? We've got a dungeon to find."
"We're not even close to the dungeon," Saura said in confusion, looking at his surroundings. "It's still another few miles before Augustus Park. We can't leave the road yet!"
"Well, I figure we can take a shortcut," Marrow said with a gleam in his eye. "I promised we'd have some fun today, and I think this is the perfect place. C'mon with me, if you're not scared, that is. Maybe I can teach you a thing or two."
Next thing he knew, Char was following the Marowak across the muddy wilderness of the Iron Outskirts, with not a clue in the world of where he was going.